Director David F Sandberg talks turning threeminute short Lights Out into a feature-length frightmare...
How do you turn a three-minute short into a movie? Like this.
“it was just a year and a half ago that we got the phone call from Hollywood saying, ‘The movie is happening, get on a plane,’” recalls director David F Sandberg, “so we just had to lock the door to our apartment and fly over here. We didn’t even know where to live...” Sandberg’s trajectory from making a terrifying three-minute short called Lights Out that went viral, to completing his first feature for Warner Bros with James Wan as the
producer, has been nothing if not rapid. And no one is more surprised than him. “In two weeks I start shooting Annabelle 2,” he marvels. “People keep telling me ‘don’t get used to this’, because it doesn’t usually happen this fast and this awesomely in Hollywood!”
Rewind to 2014 and Sandberg and his wife Lotta Losten decide they want to make horror movies in their native Sweden. But the Swedish Institute won’t provide funding, so they decide they’ll do it themselves on the cheap and upload to YouTube. They make their first short, Cam Closer, and then spot a competition which suits them perfectly – Lights Out is born. A no-budget, no-dialogue one-hander, it starred Losten as a woman turning off the lights to go to bed when she sees a figure in the corridor (also played by her). When she flicks the lights back on, the figure is gone. It’s scary as hell.
“It was just supposed to be a contest submission," Sandberg explains. “We shot it in an evening after Lotta got off work and the idea was just: you turn out the lights at home and sometimes you think, ‘Is that a shadow? Is that someone standing there?’ And you have to turn the lights back on to check. But a few months after the competition the film just blew up online, got millions of views, and suddenly all these people from Hollywood started contacting us and wanting to talk features.”
making things bigger
One of the first to approach Sandberg was producer Lawrence Grey, who showed the short to Saw, Insidious and The Conjuring director James Wan. Sandberg expanded his idea into a 15-page treatment for a narrative feature, which he worked on with writer Eric Heisserer, and the feature came alive.
“The treatment is very much like the film,” Sandberg says. “The biggest difference was James’s influence. In my original idea Diana [the monster] was more of a demon. It was a little bit more of an arthouse horror in that it was about depression. When James came on board he said it shouldn’t be a demon, that it should be more of a ghost, a character the mum knew when she was younger. We still tried to retain as much as possible of this connection with depression and mental health.”
With an opener that stays very faithful to the short (including an appearance by Losten), Lights Out expands into a story of a troubled woman with an “imaginary friend” who begins to affect her children’s lives. Maria Bello stars as the mother, with Teresa Palmer her estranged daughter who has to reconnect with her family for the sake of little brother Martin (Gabriel Bateman). It’s packed with jump scares and some very effective uses of the “lights on/lights off” dynamic.
“Before I even wrote the treatment I wrote down all these sequences, like, ‘This would be cool to do, this would be cool to do,’ one of those was firing a gun and her blinking out, another was the car headlights [flashing past], I wrote down all these fun things to do and we just put it into the movie,” Sandberg explains.
It means there’s plenty of scope for a sequel if the box-office figures for the first film are healthy enough. Next up though, Sandberg begins work on Annabelle 2, the sequel to the spin-off to Wan’s The Conjuring. “This isn’t a straight-up sequel to the first one,” he says, “it’s sort of a separate thing, which felt really nice when it’s a sequel but you can still make it your own. It doesn’t follow straight after the first film. It’s a period piece. I’ve always wanted to do a period piece and it’s a bigger budget so we’re shooting it on a sound stage and we’re building all these sets which is awesome.”
Though he knows his experience is unusual, Sandberg is heartened by the volume of shorts he’s been sent since Lights Out took off. “I don’t know if it’s me not watching enough horror shorts before but it feels like a lot of people got inspired by Lights Out,” he says. “It’s never been easier to make a movie or a short for no money at all and still have it look quite professional and quite good. It’s an amazing time to be a filmmaker.”
Lights Out opens on 19 August.
All these people from Hollywood started contacting us wanting to talk features
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