Di­rec­tor David F Sand­berg talks turn­ing three­minute short Lights Out into a fea­ture-length fright­mare...

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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

The film could well be the scari­est in yonks. Martin (Gabriel Bate­man) gets a taste of ’70s Bri­tain.

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