On Set – Annabelle: Creation

Annabelle CreationAs the first spin off from The Conjuring’s cinematic Universe, Annabelle was a given. But as Drew Turney learns, the sequel is more than just a lazy horror retread.

Just prior to joining the billion-dollar directors club with Furious 7, writer/director/producer James Wan had cemented himself as a one-man horror factory. The Conjuring had earned £113m worldwide from a £16.5m budget and along with the rise of the Insidious franchise, he was putting horror back on the map.

2007’s Annabelle, which he produced but which was directed by his Conjuring and Insidious cinematographer John Leonetti, was inspired by a haunted doll in the possession of Ed and Lorraine Warren, the real life psychic investigators portrayed by Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga in The Conjuring.

It gives the whole Wan-a-verse a Marvel-style shared history feel, so the first thing to wonder about the release of Annabelle: Creation is whether Ed and Lorraine (or Josh and Renai) from Insidious might face the demonic entities those films have introduced in an Avengers-style crossover.

“As long as we have good stories to tell,” says Annabelle: Creation producer Peter Safran when SciFiNow asks about plans for a CCU (Conjuring Cinematic Universe) when we visit the LA set. “We weren’t going to do a sequel to The Conjuring unless we felt like we could do one that was a worthy successor to a much loved movie.”

And because Annabelle: Creation is a prequel, setting up how the haunted doll came to be, Safran says it lends itself to more stories that take place after the events of the original. But whereas Annabelle’s lore was added to the opening of The Conjuring specifically to spin off, the conversation changed when that film turned into such a hit.

“The debate was then; how to do it?” Safran says. “Will it dilute The Conjuring franchise if you do a spinoff, more modestly budgeted version? When we did our first test of Annabelle it was evident [it worked] for the price.”

The box office for The Conjuring made studios and production companies across the world sit up and take notice. Since the straight to video slashers of the 70s and 80s, horror has always been a good investment. But the staggering success of The Conjuring took things to a whole new level. It was repeated with Annabelle in 2014, which cost £5.3m and took almost £70m.

As audiences agreed, an Annabelle spinoff – and the sequel – was a no brainer.

Valley of the doll

The story takes place in the late 1950s in the ornate home of a doll maker and his wife, who makes the doll’s clothing. After the death of their beloved daughter Bea several years before, the elderly Mullins’ have retreated into their work, skirting madness.

But when they invite six orphan girls and their governess – a young nun – to stay with them, the madness breaks. Their most precious doll (Annabelle) becomes possessed by something. But is it the spirit of their daughter, lost between worlds, or something more sinister?

To director David Sandberg (Lights Out), finding out was a chance to do something different, not just from his breakout short film and the hit feature length version from last year (and yes, a Lights Out 2 is coming), but from the original Annabelle.

“I had seen [the original] before, but I didn’t watch it again right before doing Annabelle: Creation because I wanted to stay fresh,” he says. “This shoot’s been a lot calmer,” he laughs. “I mean, people always say I look calm, but Lights Out was like, ‘Aaaah! My first movie ever! I don’t know what I’m doing!’ Now I know a little bit more what I’m doing.”

While many horror sequels are essentially just remakes of what came before, prequels have had a mixed reputation lately too. Back when George Lucas unleashed his completed Star Wars trilogy many fans wondered if we weren’t better off not knowing. But with Rogue One tearing up the charts, prequels are a hot property again.

“When a lot of people saw the first Annabelle – certainly when they saw the first The Conjuring – they were fascinated about where Annabelle came from,” says Safran. “It kept coming up, so we thought we had a great opportunity to answer it. When James and the studio and the rest of us batted around ideas, it’s the one that really took hold and which we thought that would be most satisfying for fans.”

Keys to the kingdom

Installing David Sandberg, Safran says, was easy. Despite Lights Out being more of an in-your-face, jump-scare screamfest, Annabelle 2 has a particular tone that harks back more to the period in which the film is set and which is inspired by the incredibly detailed set of the Mullins house.

“It was very easy,” Safran says of he and co-producer Wan selecting Sandberg to direct. “I saw Lights Out very early because [Annabelle/The Conjuring studio] New Line made the movie and they were incredibly happy with it. James worked with David on Lights Out and thought he was terrific. Lights Out made it evident he’s truly steeped in crafting intelligent scare sequences.”

Of the amazing set design, Sandberg says it’s one of the things that drew him to the project. “A period movie feels so appropriate for horror and our production designer created this whole house with all these little details. It’s not just flat walls, it’s this old wall paper. It looks lived in, not like a typical set.”

Sandberg’s not kidding. When SciFiNow walks around the sound stage, it looks like a decent portion of his work has been done for him courtesy of production designer Jennifer Spence.

The entire top and bottom floors of the Mullins house have been constructed in their entirety right next to each other on the sound stage floor. Where many productions will only build half a room, the façade of a house or adjoining rooms far from each other to make best use of space and resources, both floors of the Mullins house have been built in their entirety to full scale, decorated and dressed down to the minutest detail.

The layout of the bottom floor also has to match that of the top floor exactly because of the grand curving staircase and fully working antique chairlift that transitions from one to another (and must be disconnected from one track and carried very carefully across the floor to be installed on the other.

As Spence leads SciFiNow through she explains that it was a creative decision early on to show the scope of the house on the screen – when you’re in one room, you can always see into another, or down the long hall that leads from the entry.

And in a perfect example about how movies are team efforts, Spence points out two features in particular that were her idea – an old style dumb waiter between floors that’s big enough to fit a child in and a series of ornately carved holes looking through from under the staircase where who-knows-what could be hiding. Spence suggested both after script stage, but they now feature prominently because Wan, Sandberg and Safran thought they introduced such great ideas for the story.

A catholic priest was called in to bless the making of the movie (the same thing happened on both Conjuring films). But if the performance of the James Wan horror universe is anything to go by, Annabelle: Creation certainly won’t need any supernatural help to be a bit.

The kids are all right

Talitha Bateman and Lulu Wilson play two of the orphan girls who come to stay, discover a hidden chamber in Bea’s bedroom and a dolls house replica of the Mullins home and who become targets of the entity that might or might not be the Mullins’ daughter.

SciFiNow watches a few takes of Wilson coming down the main hallway, stage lights simulating bright sunlight outside. She calls plaintively for Sister Charlotte, the girls’ carer from the convent, when Bateman rolls slowly out of a side room in her wheelchair and says in a quiet, menacing voice ‘everybody’s gone into town… it’s just you… and me.’

“We’ve gotten so used to working with kids,” Safran says of the preternaturally articulate and fearless young cast – when they sit down to talk about their experiences they hold court with a room full of cynical film reporters as confidently as any adult (‘Usually when I do horror movies I’m not that scared but the Annabelle doll is really freaky,’ Wilson says. ‘Later in that scene it’s staring right at me’).

Safran says the girls’ professionalism and talent meant there were no real challenges in working with them apart from natural production constraints like shortened hours.

As for casting, he says he and New Line have always been lucky with The Conjuring (and related) movies. “Madison Wolfe in The Conjuring 2 was amazing. She’s 10 years old, but when you sit and talk to her and she’s so articulate and obviously loves the genre. She’s been on more movie sets than a lot of producers.”