Leprechaun: How Jennifer Aniston, Halloween, and Wayne’s World Led to a Box Office Hit
Exclusive: Leprechaun writer and director Mark Jones recalls how the Lucky Charms of a young Jennifer Aniston and Willow’s Warwick Davis combined for a surprise box office hit.
This article appears in the new issue of DEN OF GEEK magazine. Get your copy here.
In 1978, John Carpenter’s Halloween ushered in the era of the slasher movie.
The film was responsible for something else, too. Over the next 15 years, any number of weird and wonderful horror movies popped up inspired by notable dates in the calendar. Friday the 13th, Mother’s Day, My Bloody Valentine, and April Fool’s Day all cashed in on the concept.
It was against this backdrop that TV writer Mark Jones came up with the most brilliantly bizarre entry of them all: Leprechaun. “Back in the 1980s, there was a lot of advertising for Lucky Charms with this little leprechaun character,” Jones tells Den of Geek magazine. “It suddenly occurred to me that no one had done a St. Patrick’s Day horror movie. Everyone knew what a leprechaun was. Plus, they were little creatures that dealt in rainbows and magic. So it seemed like a natural idea to gravitate to.”
For over a decade, Jones had written and produced for shows like The A-Team and Knight Rider, as well as Scooby-Doo. But by 1988, he was determined to direct a film. In an era when horror movies proved fertile ground for emerging talent, Leprechaun was perfect.
“Every horror movie finds an audience, and you could put it together without spending a lot of money,” he explains. “You didn’t necessarily need stars. The creature is the star. So it was a great inroad for getting into directing. Plus, I could have fun with it.”
Further research into the origins of leprechauns only served to enhance his convictions. “I discovered they could be really evil little creatures,” Jones says. He set to work on a script that would see a leprechaun, searching for his missing gold, embark on a murderous rampage around a secluded farmhouse.
Coming at a time when small creature-led horror movies like Gremlins, Critters, and Ghoulies were the order of the day, Jones’ riff on Leprechaun lore eventually attracted the attention of Trimark, a direct-to-video distribution company looking to make it in the movies.
Early drafts of Jones’ script were a world away from the fun-loving, pun-loving prankster fans would come to know and, in a strange way, love. “The original Leprechaun was more horrific with much less of a personality,” Jones says. “He was a killing machine.”
Faceless killers had been all the rage in the 1980s, with characters like Jason Voorhees scaring up a treat at the box office, but Jones had noticed a sea change in the way they were being depicted.
“People were more accepting of comedy and horror alongside one another. Child’s Play had come out and what I liked about that was that Chucky had all these funny lines,” he says. “He became a personality you kind of loved to hate.”
With others like A Nightmare on Elm Street icon Freddy Krueger increasingly playing it for laughs, Jones decided to take Leprechaun in a similar direction. “I did a draft that gave the Leprechaun more of a personality, someone who could talk and speak in rhymes,” he says. “I gave it something that the kids would find fun.”
Taking inspiration from his earlier work, he set about creating what he calls a “Scooby-Doo horror movie.” The main cast even consisted of characters who wouldn’t have looked out of place driving the Mystery Machine, with a handsome hunk and teen girl joined by a streetwise kid and his dimwitted older friend. The violence, meanwhile, was positively cartoonish. “I made the Leprechaun do things like drive a tricycle around and kill someone by jumping on them with a pogo stick.”
Much like jumping on a pogo stick, playing the part of the Leprechaun would require a careful balancing act. They needed a diminutive actor capable of going from hilarious to horrifying at the drop of a buckled hat.
“We were reading with a lot of little people, and some were good, but I just wasn’t thrilled. Our guy needed to have personality and be funny,” Jones says. “Then my casting director Lisa London suggested Warwick Davis, who had done the movie Willow.”
Jones was initially unsure whether Davis would be willing to come to the US to star in a low-budget horror movie based around a leprechaun and a missing pot of gold. But with the Star Wars actor enduring a fallow period, the opportunity to go against type and play a villain and spend time in sunny California was too good to pass up.
Crucially, Davis shared Jones’ vision for injecting more comedy into the proceedings. “Warwick and I worked together on putting in more of the humor in the film,” Jones says. “We got along great from the beginning and spent a lot of time together creating his character.”
That was crucial to keeping Leprechaun on track, with Trimark expressing some reservations about the tongue-in-cheek tone at the time. “They wanted to keep it more horrific, but I insisted it had to be more fun,” Jones says.
There was also the small matter of George Lucas to contend with. At that point, Willow 2 was still a possibility, with Lucas yet to confirm if there would be a sequel. “Warwick was under contract with George, so he had to be let out of his deal to do the picture,” Jones explains. “So we made sure to include a thank you to Lucas in the end credits.”
There were no such issues for the movie’s lead actress. Jennifer Aniston remains the elephant in the room when it comes to Leprechaun, with the Friends star’s involvement overshadowing much of the discussion around the film. Jones said that while several actresses read for the part of final girl Tory Redding, Aniston stood out straight away.
“She walked in, and there was just this energy and aura about her,” he says. “People will go, ‘oh, well, sure. It’s easy to say that because she’s Jennifer Aniston now,’ but I’m telling you, there was just something about her.”
Things could have gone differently, though. “We originally offered the part to Kristy Swanson because she was a name. She had just starred in the Buffy the Vampire Slayer movie,” Jones says. “But for whatever reason, she turned it down.”
The studio was also initially hesitant to hire Aniston because, as crazy as it sounds, they didn’t like her hair and wanted a blonde for the role of Tory. Eventually, a compromise was struck.
Jones called Aniston: “The good news is you have the part. The bad news is they want you to bleach your hair blonde.” She was initially hesitant to sign on, but Jones had a plan.
“I told her I didn’t want her to bleach her hair. The executives would be working on other movies. So she could just turn up on the first day like normal. No one was going to say anything about her hair not being blonde. They probably wouldn’t remember, and that’s what happened.”
Aniston proved a shrewd choice, not least for the fact her future star status helped maintain interest in Leprechaun. “She was a natural,” Jones says. “I was impressed because she took it seriously; it was a big deal to her, but at the same time knew what the movie was.”
Though Aniston has been famously coy on the topic of Leprechaun, Jones recalls running into Aniston a few years later when Friends was going stratospheric. “She said, ‘listen, I know you probably hear things that I disavow that I did Leprechaun or I didn’t like the movie or something,’ and I said, ‘Jennifer, stop there. If I ever have the success you have, I’m going to deny that I made Leprechaun’ and she cracked up.”
Though Aniston is on the record as admitting she was left “cringing” while rewatching the film years later, Jones remains sure some part of her is appreciative of the experience.
“She had fun working on it. She was very happy,” he says. “It’s understandable to look back and poke fun at it once you’ve had the kind of success she has had, but I don’t have any issue with whatever she says about the movie. She’s gotta have some great memories from it because it was her big break.”
Aniston certainly contributed to an enjoyable shoot, even if Jones found dealing with Trimark to be a trying experience, recalling how executives were constantly poring over the dailies and providing feedback. “This was their first picture, so they were nervous and all wanted to put their two cents in,” he says. “But you can’t make a movie by committee.”
Despite concerns about the tone of the movie, Jones plowed on and was eventually vindicated when the studio began testing the film with audiences. “The kids loved it. They really liked it,” he says. “So the decision was made to release it theatrically.”
Up until that point, Leprechaun had been destined for direct-to-video, but the response prompted Trimark to take a chance. Leprechaun hit cinemas on Jan. 7, 1993. The critics were not kind.
Matt Bourjaily of the Chicago Tribune said it “brought new meaning to the term ‘bad,'” while Michael Wilmington of the Los Angeles Times branded Leprechaun a “dingy, drab, pointless little movie.”
Jones had been expecting bad reviews but attributes the backlash to the fact Leprechaun arrived in the midst of awards season when many of the big contenders hit cinemas.
“We were up against Chaplin and other big studio pictures like Scent of A Woman,” he says. “The critics didn’t understand what we had. You couldn’t judge us in the same way you would an Al Pacino movie. This was a fun, not taking itself seriously, little horror movie for kids. They didn’t get it.”
Fortunately, someone did. In an age before “internet buzz” existed, Leprechaun benefitted from the next best thing: Saturday Night Live. In a season featuring the likes of Chris Rock, Adam Sandler, David Spade, Dana Carvey, and Mike Myers, the movie ended up the butt of several gags on the show.
One saw Melanie Hutsell, as Jan Brady from The Brady Bunch, rate Leprechaun as the best movie of 1993 (the joke being it was one of the first released.) “That aired on Saturday night and ended up enhancing our numbers on the Sunday,” Jones says. “They were much higher than anyone expected them to be. So in making fun of the movie, they kind of helped to promote it.”
Even better was when Myers and Carvey created another bit for their recurring “Wayne’s World” sketch, which saw Myers, as Wayne, terrify Carvey’s Garth by shining a torch under his chin and impersonating the Leprechaun. The bit even ended up finding its way into Wayne’s World 2, which also came out in 1993.
“People started to find the movie and realized they could have fun with it,” Jones says. “It all helped build the audience.” Made for a budget of around $1 million, Leprechaun went on to bring home the proverbial pot of gold with a box office taking of $8.5 million.
Years later, Jones saw Myers in a Hollywood restaurant and sent a bottle of wine over to his table as a thank you. “He actually came over and sat with me, and we talked for about 20 minutes. I asked him ‘Why Leprechaun?’ and he said he’d seen the movie and thought it was interesting and unique and would be great to have fun with.”
Leprechaun may have exceeded expectations at the cinema, but Jones said the “real money” was made on video rentals. “We made like a $50 profit on each VHS that went out to a video store,” he explains. “Our first order was 100,000 VHS, so that was $5 million straight away.”
That success inevitably led to a sequel. Jones was already casting his net elsewhere by then with another fairy tale creature feature, Rumpelstilskin, and was happy to settle for a share of the sequel’s profits as the creator.
“If I had written and directed the sequel, they would want me to do it their way again,” he says. “At some point, you just have to let them go with it and take the check that they send you.”
Jones did pitch an idea for a sequel. “I wanted Warwick to dress up in drag and play a female leprechaun coming back looking for her husband.”
The studio took things in a different direction, though. In all, seven sequels have followed, with Leprechaun heading everywhere from “The Hood” to outer space. Despite that, Jones isn’t ruling out another movie.
“I hear rumblings that they want to do another Leprechaun,” he says. “Warwick and I have talked on and off about it. He likes the idea of a Leprechaun in the Wild West. I think they should do a TV series where the Leprechaun travels the country looking for his gold.”
Whatever the case, 30 years later, the Leprechaun legend lives on.