"It's one of those things where you keep pinching yourself," says director David F. Sandberg, the brains behind new 'be afraid of the dark' horror movie Lights Out. Given the whirlwind couple of years the Swedish filmmaker has experienced, his reaction is completely understandable. Back in 2013, he was an aspiring director with a love of making scary flicks and a dream to hit the big time, just like plenty of others. And then he had a great idea, made a short that took off, and his phone started ringing.
Also called Lights Out, that two-and-a-half-minute effort managed to turn everyone's childhood fears of something sinister lurking in the darkness into the kind of creepy fare most horror features can't master. And one of the calls it sparked came from producer Lawrence Grey, who happened to know Saw, Insidious, The Conjuring, and Fast & Furious 7 director James Wan — and the rest, as they say is history.
Actually, the end result is an effective and unnerving movie that looks as spooky as it sounds, and sets actresses Teresa Palmer and Maria Bello against a shadowy figure that only appears when it's not so bright in a particular spot. With the film currently screening in Australian cinemas, we chatted with Sandberg about coming up with an attention-grabbing premise, fielding the calls that made his dreams come true, and working with one of the modern greats of the genre.
ON TURNING A FEAR OF THE DARK INTO A HORROR MOVIE
"It came from this thing I'm sure many people have experienced, where you turn the lights off at night and you think you sort of see something there in the shadows — and you have to turn it back on to check. And Lotta [Losten, Sandberg's wife, and the producer and star of the 2013 Lights Out short] and I had this idea: what if there actually was something there every time you turned off the lights?
"We made the short for an online horror competition. We had been trying to get money to make shorts in Sweden but had been unsuccessful, so we figured let's just make them on our own — we don't need a lot of money, I have a camera and Lotta is an actress, so we can do it by ourselves. So we just had to come up with the scariest thing we could do in our apartment with just one actor, and that seemed like the perfect idea."
ON GOING VIRAL — THEN GETTING CALLS FROM HOLLYWOOD
"It just suddenly — after we had uploaded it to YouTube, a couple of months after that — just became this viral sensation and started getting millions of views. And all of a sudden all these people in Hollywood wanted to talk to us. And it was just insane that a two-and-a-half minute short can get so much attention, you know?
"I had to make a spreadsheet with everyone I talked to and what was said last just to keep track of it all. And one of the first producers who got in touch was Lawrence Grey, and it just seemed like he knew what he was talking about — and he was very passionate about making this into a feature. So I went along with him, basically.
"He knew James Wan because they had been talking about maybe doing something together. So he sent the short to James, and he had already seen it online actually and thought it was a really cool short — but he didn't know if there was enough there for a feature. So, I wrote like a treatment of what I wanted the story and the characters to be that Lawrence sent to James, and that got him on board and to maybe see that, okay, maybe this could be a feature after all."
ON FINDING A FEATURE-LENGTH STORY FROM A 2.5-MINUTE SHORT
"There isn't a lot of story in the short really. It is just a concept — and that was very freeing when it came time to make it into a feature because it meant that all we had to do was stay true to that concept. We didn't have a story that we had to stay true to.
"Lotta and I have made movies, and we've made them really short so there hasn't been time for real stories or characters with backstories and all that. So it was like finally we could explore that aspect and really create characters that you care for — which I think is really important in a horror movie, because if you don't care about what happens to the characters, you probably won't get scared."
ON WORKING WITH JAMES WAN
"I was honoured that he wanted to come on board as a producer because he is like the modern horror master. And he has all these ideas and all this experience. He's created I don't know how many franchises now. And he has kind of a similar story in that he came from another country and made a short that was turned into a feature in Hollywood.
"He was telling me, 'Just have fun with it, because it's a crazy business.' I tried my best, but since it was my first feature I was very stressed out, because like, this is my shot, I'd better not stuff this up, this is my one shot at Hollywood. But yeah, he was great to have as a mentor."
ON HOW TO MAKE SURE 'LIGHTS OUT' MEANS LIGHTS OUT
"It was very important for me that we had true darkness, because in a lot of Hollywood movies, you just have a lot of blue light and that's supposed to represent darkness — but you still see everything. So it was really important to have pitch-black darkness where any kind of evil could hide. And that took some convincing of everyone to make that happen. And also, to play with, to just have certain light sources like Martin [played by actor Gabriel Bateman] with the candle or Teresa [Palmer] with the UV light down in the basement, and to not light it apart from those lights. And again, that was a bit of an issue.
"That was something that James Wan helped out with because, when I told sort of the camera crew that I wanted to have the scene lit by just candle light, they were like, 'No, no, you've gotta light the movie.' But then when we were shooting that scene, James Wan came by the set, and he was like, 'Hey, you know you should shoot that scene with just the candlelight.' And everyone's like, 'Yeah, great idea James, lets do that.' And I was like 'Oh, okay.'"
ON LIVING THE DREAM (STARRING ANNABELLE)
"I mean, this has all happened so fast that I still haven't really processed everything that has happened because I've only been in this country [the US] for a year and a half — and I'm already in the middle of directing my second movie [the James Wan-produced Annabelle 2, the sequel to the 2014 spin-off from The Conjuring]. I'm not really sure what's going to happen afterwards, but I'm just happy for everything that's happened so far. It's awesome. It's what I've always dreamed that I want to do.
And I mean, just doing stuff like this, these interviews, just because I made a two-and-a-half minute short — it's insane. I mean, my life goal was to direct a Hollywood feature, and I've actually achieved that, which is pretty amazing."
Lights Out is currently screening in Australian cinemas.