Lights Out has been in cinemas for a few weeks now, and it's going strong even in a year with a number of strong horror films. Beyond its classic story of a haunted family, it's also the story of how one Swedish man went from making no-budget films for Vimeo to directing a Hollywood feature film and working with the likes of James Wan. We sat down with director David F Sandberg before the film's release to get his perspective.
Even for those who have seen Sandberg's original, no-budget short, his lack of professional experience is still surprising. Not only is this his first time being on a feature film, it's also his first time even being on a film set, or working with a crew other than his own wife.
David Sandberg: [Before Lights Out] I'd only made no-budget shorts back home in Sweden. My wife Lotta was both the main character and the demon, because it was just the two of us making the short for no money. For some reason it just became this huge thing.
DS: Now I pretty much live in Los Angeles, but up until a year and a half ago, I was living in Sweden. My wife and I made the low-budget short that Lights Out was based on, and it just became this viral hit and Hollywood suddenly wanted to get in touch to make a movie out of it. So last March was when we got the phone call that the movie's actually happening, be here next week, so we had to lock the door and get on a plane and fly over.
Sandberg did have a hand in making the film happen in the way it did, however. While his work grabbed the attention of a number of Hollywood producers, the biggest name attached to the project — James Wan — had to be convinced.
DS: [James Wan] had seen the short film when it was viral. But the first producer who contacted me was Lawrence Grey, he was the one who knew James Wan and went to him and said "maybe this is something we can work on together". James liked the short, but he was unsure if there was enough for a feature, so I wrote a treatment — like 15 pages of what I thought the story would be and the characters — and we showed that to James and that's what convinced him to come on board. And then he was on board throughout.
Shifting from his bare-bones film production to working on a full Hollywood set was a bit of a shock for Sandberg at first, and it took some getting used to. That extra help was instrumental in releasing his creative vision, however.
DS: It was quite a shift, quite a learning experience just because I'd never had to work with a film team before. It was just my wife Lotta and I before. I shot it and edited it and made the music for it, so this was the first time that I had to actually communicate what my vision was.
DS: When it's just Lotta and me, it's just the two of us, and there's no pressure. We can do what we want, we can just have fun with it. If we don't like it, we can just quit. It's a lot of pressure when you're on a film set with hundreds of people in your crew. But at the same time, it not only enables you to do bigger things, but you have this whole film crew that can inspire you and come with their own ideas, and make it a better thing that you couldn't have done yourself.
It was great having the bigger canvas of a feature film to play with, because when we made our shorts they were very short, like three minutes or so, and you don't have time for sort of character development or backstory or any of that. That was the fun thing, to actually come up with backstories and play with the characters.
When it came to the film, its characters and its stories, Sandberg was certainly not short on ideas. While the original short was very simple, he didn't have any trouble expanding on that idea and building a world around it. His enthusiasm for creating something with the canvas and the platform he had been given really shone through when he talked about Lights Out — particularly when it concerned the characters.
DS: The short film doesn't really have a story, it's just a couple of scenes. I felt like the story could have been anything, as long as it stayed true to the concept and the idea of the short: of this monster, or something, that disappears in light. And then it was just sort of a matter of coming up with an interesting way of integrating that into a family.
DS: I figured that, you know, a lot of horror movies have this trope of the little kid who has an imaginary friend, and then the imaginary friend turns out to be a ghost. But I always thought that it would be much scarier if it was the parent who had an invisible friend, because then as a child you're a lot more vulnerable because you're dependent on your parent, you can't just run away — and who's going to believe a kid? So we went with that idea of a mother who had a friend who was a ghost or spirit creature, and this poor child or children who have to deal with that.
For Sandberg, it was just a way of expanding on that very primal feeling of fear that was evoked in the original short. Most of the horror in Lights Out is very clever in the way that it plays on our most common, basest human fears.
DS: The original was just based on something that happens to me a lot, and I'm sure it does to others as well. It's when you turn off the lights at home at night and you think you see a shadow of something, and you turn the lights back on. It was just this idea of "what if there actually was something there when you turned the lights off", something that was going to get you.
The feature harks back to the original in many ways, some overt and some subtle. It's obvious that Sandberg still holds a great deal of fondness for the original viral hit. One of the first throwbacks to the short film comes in the very start of Lights Out, where Sandberg's wife Lotta makes a cameo.
DS: That felt very important to have her in the film, because it all started with just her and I. It was a fun thing to do for the fans of the short, to have her reprise that role. I thought it was important to have it in the trailer as well, because a lot of people have seen it — maybe not everyone remembers the title of it, but if they see Lotta playing with the light switch, they'll realise what it is.
From this simple scene, there are parts of the feature film that go way beyond what he ever had been able to do with his limited resources and budget. Asking about his favourite parts of Lights Out, Sandberg definitely showed a predilection for those scenes that he never would have been able to do before.
DS: I like a lot of the stuff once the police show up, because we had a lot of fun with like, wire gags, something which I didn't really intend to do. I didn't want to have a lot of stunts and wire gags, it was just so fun to do and that was something I never could have done on my little no-budget short films.
One of my favourite scenes is probably when they're in the basement. They're trapped, they have limited light and they know for the first time what they're dealing with. In many of the encounters before, they're not really sure what they're dealing with, but once they're locked in the basement I feel that's when a lot of the tension is at its peak.
Like many good horror directors, Sandberg is a big fan of using tension to keep audiences on edge, and saving jump scares for when they're going to be at their most effective. He shared the main thing he keeps in mind when making his movies extra scary:
DS: I try as much as possible to just keep the suspense up. As soon as you have a scare, you know a jump scare or something, the audience jumps but then they sort of laugh, and the tension is gone. What I like the most is to really keep the tension up. In the short Lights Out, there's only two scares, really. There's one at the beginning, you know, to get the audience at the edge of their seats, because we've now showed them that anything could jump out at any moment. But then there's not really another scare until the very end. So until then it's just tension, tension, tension.
Fans of James Wan's films may notice certain hints of Wan's style in Lights Out, whether it is that creeping tension, a penchant for hauntings or just the focus on the family dynamic. Sandberg says that he did in fact work with the horror director quite closely on many parts of the film.
DS: James had ideas for the script stage, like my original treatment was Diana was more of a demon, so he came in and thought that it would be better is she was a ghost, you know someone who Sophie knew when she was younger. And James Wan just was around quite a lot. I mean, he's a busy guy so he can't be around all the time, but he was very involved in it.
In fact, Wan liked Sandberg's work so much that the first-time director will be moving straight on to work on a project connected to James Wan's work — Annabelle 2.
DS: Next up is Annabelle 2, which I start directing next week, actually. Yeah, after Lights out, the studio and James were very happy with the film, so they asked me if I wanted to direct a sequel to Annabelle, and I said, of course. So, this is going to be a lot of fun, considering we have a little bit of a bigger budget. It's still low budget for Hollywood, but it's even more to play with. You know, we're building sets, as opposed to Lights Out which was all shot on location. It's going to be a lot of fun to play in that Conjuring, Annabelle world.
DS: From working on Lights Out I learned… well, everything really. You know, I had no idea how Hollywood worked before. On Lights Out I had to ask the Assistant Director "when do I say 'action'?", because I didn't even know that much. I learned so much on the set of Lights Out, Lights Out was like my film school. So Annabelle will now be a chance for me to explore. I'm sure I'll learn new things on this as well, but I feel this is less about learning and more about doing, being free to create and explore. There might be one or two ideas left over from Lights Out that didn't make it into the film that I can now have fun with here.
Beyond that, he's already thinking about a sequel. While I chatted to David before the film's release, we discussed the hypothetical chance of there being a sequel, and what it might contain. Since we spoke, a sequel has been confirmed by the studio, with Sandberg to take the helm on his own work again.
DS: There were so many fun ideas to come up with, you know, playing with the light and all, that didn't make it into the film. There's certainly more material with gags like that to fill a sequel. Also the characters were really strong, so if it does well at the box office then there would certainly be room for a sequel. It could definitely follow the same family as well. I think they're such good characters that you sort of care about, so yeah I think that would be the way to go.
With a debut film that's better than many recent horror films by experienced directors, it'll be interesting to see what Sandberg does in the future. Annabelle 2 will be the follow up to a film that was very poorly received, but Sandberg has a chance to do something great with it, as a new voice in the industry.
And what does he think of it all himself? "This is all still new to me," he admits, laughing. "You know, I've never done press or anything before. I'm sort of just going along with it. Let's see where it takes us."