Hollywood is always looking for new ideas meaning that everything is considered. Computer games have had film adaptations too numerous to mention and even phone apps have had their moment with the recent Angry Birds movie but its short films that have been a recent source of inspiration. However for every ‘Jackass’ there’s unfortunately been a ’Natural Born Pranksters’ abomination.
‘Lights Out’ is an exception. A brilliantly scary short horror film based around everyone’s fear of the dark attracted a huge amount of attention including the horror director James Wan. The short film, made for no money by film maker David F Sandberg and starring his wife, scared everyone witless with its shadowy figure that can only be seen in the dark. With Hollywood calling and James Wan producing the short film has been expanded into a feature length scary movie with a trailer that’s got everyone talking and has land him the director’s job on, ‘Annabelle 2’
We spoke to director David F Sandberg about his feature film debut, movie mistakes and releasing his own behind the scenes footage online……
SCREAM : You started off making short films but it’s a big leap from that to making a major Hollywood studio financed film? How did that happen?
David F Sandberg: It sort of happened when the short went viral. I’ve always wanted to make movies and my wife’s been an actress and wanted to do that and we wanted to make things together but we couldn’t get money from the Swedish film Institute to make genre movies so we figured that as I have a camera and you’re an actress lets make something by ourselves with our own money so we made the first one which was fun so let’s keep doing that and then we saw this online British contest to make a 3 minute horror film so we were like, ‘Hey, that’s what we’re doing now!’ so we made ‘Lights Out’ – shot it in an evening and uploaded it. We made top six but after that when we thought it was all over we suddenly found it spreading online and got millions of views and these people in Hollywood started calling, you know managers and agents and producers and studios and it got insane. I had no idea you could get this sort of potential from a two and half minute short.
SCREAM: How were you earning a living before it all took off? Was that always the intention to become a director?
DS: I was basically working as a freelance animator and filmmaker so I was doing little animated commercials or documentaries or little movies that weren’t horror. We got a little bit of money to make a short film that was about bullying but yeah it was hard making a living as a freelance short filmmaker. That’s what I’d been doing for like ten years.
SCREAM: So how quickly did it take from being approached by agents to ‘LIGHTS OUT’ going into production?
DS: It felt like it went very quickly because pretty early on I got in touch with producer Lawrence Grey who wanted to make a feature out of this and I was all for that of course. I wrote a 15 page treatment and then Lawrence who had been wanting to do something with James Wan sent the treatment to him which got him on board and then because James Wan has this connection with New Line and Warner Brothers it all just sort of went really quickly. Lawrence put me in touch with Eric Heisserer who wrote the script based on my treatment and then there was a little period of waiting before we found out that the movies actually happening, you know, get on a plane and get over here. It was really fast and smooth and people over here have been saying that don’t get used to it because movies don’t usually happen like that you know.
SCREAM: Now Eric wrote the remake of Nightmare on Elm Street as well as the follow up to John Carpenters’ The Thing neither of which were great films….
DS: Well here’s the thing. Here’s why you don’t want to be a writer in Hollywood. Firsts of all I hadn’t seen the Elm Street remake but there’s not much of his script in that movie. Being a writer in Hollywood, well you don’t want to be there really, because directors and everyone come in and change everything. A lot of times they bring in other writers who change everything as well so….. the thing is you still want your name to be on it to get paid and to get residuals on it. You want your name to be on these films although they’ll be nothing to do with what you wrote but then people associate your name with a shitty movie so….I mean I know Eric is not very pleased with how those movies turned out. He’s stayed very close to my treatment, the structures there and there’s even one well…. when I wrote the treatment I needed a first scene between Rebecca and Brett you know between the two horror sequences at the beginning so I did this sock gag and I figured the whole thing would just be a place holder that he would take out but he kept very true to it. Other parts he changed and I Iiked them but since this is Hollywood James had thoughts and the studio had thoughts. It changes. To be honest my original treatment was a little more arthouse horror. It was clearly an allegory for depression and mental illness and during the course it turned into a more fun popcorn movie but some of those elements still survived. I don’t think it turned into a worse movie it’s just more of a fun movie now. I see it more as popcorn horror.
SCREAM: You say about the arthouse and the opening scene references Kubrick’s, ‘Killers Kiss’ with the mannequins in the warehouse. Is that deliberate?
DS: I have seen that film but it was a really long time ago. I think I was google image searching for dummy warehouse stuff like that and I found images from his films and I thought, ‘Oh, he did that!’ So I though I’ll steal from him.
SCREAM: How hands on was James Wan?
DS: Well there was a scene where I wanted to light it with just candlelight as Martin walks around with a candle but I was told, ‘No, you have to light it with the camera team. You just can’t have that!’ So, ‘Oh alright’ and then when we were shooting that scene James Wan was on set and he said, ‘You know you should just shoot that with candle light’ and everyone was like,’Yeah lets do that, great idea James’. It was the first time for me just working with a film crew and it was all new to me and this crew had worked on big Hollywood blockbusters and at first it felt like they were doing me a favour because I’m this new guy with no experience of it. There was a little bit of friction at times but it got better when I think they realised that maybe this guy knows a little bit.
SCREAM: Were you allowed to choose your crew?
DS: Well a lot of these people came from films that James had done. They asked me, you know, ‘Do you have a DP that you usually work with?’ and it was like ‘No, I shot everything myself’. I had no clue so Mark Spicer who did Furious 7 was recommended by everyone.
SCREAM: So for your first film what have you found most difficult?
DS: Difficult? I don’t know. There was some of that friction in the beginning when we were filming the neo light gag and she appears and disappears and the crew didn’t really understand what I wanted you know. ‘Well, we have to put the camera here and she comes in and stop the camera and she goes out and then we move the camera over here and we do the same thing.’ And they didn’t really get why you had to do those steps and I don’t know if I’m bad at explaining but ‘No, just put the camera here, turn it on’ and I really had to just do this you know but after that it got a lot better. The film had more stunts in it than I anticipated. We had this great stunt coordinator Mark Norby who …….. it was fun to have people on wires being pulled and thrown so alright let’s do that! He had all these suggestions. It was a lot of fun to have all these opportunities that you can’t do when you’re shooting a 3minute movie at home. That was James advice to me is, ‘Just have fun with it’ because it’s such a weird business you know.
SCREAM: You’ve shot a lot of behind the scenes footage which gives away a few secrets and I’m wondering what the studio think about you doing that?
DS: They say, ‘Keep doing what you’re doing’ because they don’t want people to think that the studio came to you and said. ‘Stop it!’ and it suddenly goes quiet on line but there’s so much more of that stuff that I want to put out there but you’ll all have to wait until the movie is out because there’s so many spoilers.
SCREAM: There’s one bit of footage you’ve put out about a large roll of bubble wrap still being in the back of shot. Is there a danger that audiences may start watching out for that rather than enjoying the film?
DS: Well after I put that video out they offered and said, ‘You know there is still some time and we could take that out for you if you want?’ but we left it in because it’s a fun story you know. There were bigger things that bothered me. That was just one thing that represents what it’s like to make these movies and seeing these scenes and thinking, ‘Oh if only I could have done that differently’.
SCREAM: What are the issues that you have with the film?
DS: Well for example the first scene with Rebecca and Brett, that was the very first scene shot and the first movie scene I’ve ever directed and first time the actors had met really and that scene is not great, it could have been a lot better, all of it. The performances aren’t really there yet it’s one of those things that bothered me and then of course there’s just clear mistakes like when they’re walking up to the house for the first time when she’s picked him up from school there’s a shot from inside the house and in that shot Martin doesn’t wear a back pack. So he wears his back pack and we cut to that angle and we cut back and he doesn’t, stuff like that. There are certain performance things like I should have worked more on, you know…
SCREAM: You’re very hard on yourself.
DS: Well…(laughs) yeah I’m my own worst critic.
SCREAM: Have you found restrictions in making a studio financed film that you’d never have with a self financed short?
DS: No, not really. The only time when I felt a little bit of that was when we did some additional photography some pick-ups and they didn’t want to go over a certain amount of money because this a Tier One movie they call it here which means that everyone gets a certain rate so if you then go over to Tier 2 then everyone’s salaries go up and you have to retrospectively pay everyone more money. So when we were doing the pick-ups the studio executives were there and it was very much a feeling of them looking at their watch and, ‘Do you really need that set up? Do you really need that scene?’ And it’s like, ‘Yes we have to get it, you know’. Strangely enough $5million is not a lot of money for a studio so they can sort of afford to take chances I think because that’s something I found out as well because when we were shooting they had also just shot this other $5m film that didn’t turn out good so they felt it wasn’t worth the money to release it so they just put it in their vault. So I thought, ‘Oh shit, can that happen? I better make Lights Out good or no one will ever see it.’ When they go to market it will cost much more money. For Lights Out the marketing budget is probably five times the cost of making it. I instagramed about how we couldn’t have rain because we couldn’t afford it but when we came to promote it we got to fly on a private jet to Las Vegas!
SCREAM: Excluding Saw, James Wan’s films are very much about scares rather than gore and Lights Out is similar in that respect. Is that what it’s all about for you?
DS: Absolutely. Blood I don’t think is scary. I’m not against gore if it’s appropriate and all that but I loved ‘Green Room’ and that was pretty gory in places. I love that approach and I want to have that approach myself. You have all these action movies which are bloodless when violence is really terrible and horrifying but I don’t aim to have gore in the movie. There may be a bit in ‘Annabelle 2’.
SCREAM: The end of Lights Out is an absolute and definite end. There’s no hint of setting up a sequel.
DS: Well we actually shot a thing after the end so the movie went on for a little bit more but when we had our first test screening people hated that. They loved the movie but they hated the second ending. When we got the forms back some had written across them, ‘Get rid of the second ending!!!!!!!!’ with a load of exclamation marks. People hated it that much. So we just cut that end off did another test screening and the scores went up 30%. If we can I’ll get it up on YouTube eventually but yeah she sort of came back for one final thing. It was interesting though to see the audiences response change that much just by taking off the ending. It showed how you can overstay your welcome. Those final minutes just soured the whole experience.
SCREAM: There’s a lot of anticipation from people who have seen the trailer.
DS: I hope so. It feels like not enough people know about the movie. They have all this tracking stuff and the people who know about it really want to see it so I hope they really push the marketing campaign.
SCREAM: So have you got a sequel in mind?
DS: Sure. There’s a lot of these ideas. There’s so much more fun to be had with the concept of it all but I think the characters are all there to support another movie.
SCREAM: What’s been your favourite horror film?
DS: I love Jaws. I love al lot of the sci-fi horror, you know The Thing and Alien, Aliens, Terminator and recently I loved Green Room and The Invitation, you know, the cult in the Hollywood Hills that was good. There’s good indy stuff being made like It Follows, The Babadook which is more art house horror whereas Lights Out is more popcorn horror and I think there less of a stigma for a fun horror to make a sequel to it.
SCREAM: Thanks David.
DS: Thanks Simon. Good talking to you.
Light’s Out is released across US theatres today. The UK release is August 19th 2016.
Words: Simon Hooper