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'Lights Out': The Horror Short That Could

Talking to director David F. Sandberg about the horror film reaffirming why you're still afraid of the dark.

Summertime means longer hours of daylight, a good thing, considering the new horror movie Lights Out is set to be released this July. Playing on one of humanity’s most innate fears, the dark, the movie tells the story of a woman (Teresa Palmer) haunted by a supernatural dark-loving entity that dates back to her childhood.

Just check out the trailer below. 

Based on a short film made for a UK-based film challenge by Swedish director David F. Sandberg and his wife Lotta Losten, the two were more than surprised that their 162-second movie—that didn’t win best film—went viral, generating the attention of millions, including Hollywood and famed horror producer James Wan.  

The Creators Project sat down with the first-time feature director to get some terrifying details on his new film, Lights Out, and found out what it was like to have Hollywood come knocking.

The Creators Project: Hi David! You’re living every filmmaker’s dream—make a short go viral and sign up with Hollywood. Was that the plan all along?  

David Sandberg: When we made the short, we had no intention of ever turning it into a feature. A couple of months after the contest, it suddenly blew up online. Before, the film had maybe a 1,000 views, and then suddenly we were sitting in front of the computer refreshing the page to see the moment when it got to over a million. It didn't stop there.

Amazing. What happened next?

I started getting emails from people in Hollywood—agents, managers, producers, and studios. I had to create a spreadsheet to keep track of everyone I'd talked to and what was said last! It was insane how a mere two-and-a-half-minute short could generate that much attention.

So then you went from making a film in your home with Lotta, to creating a full-length feature in sunny L.A. The first thing that comes to mind is: bigger budget.

Yeah, going from no budget to $5 million seemed like we could do anything we wanted. The truth is though, that in Hollywood, $5 million is nothing. In some ways, there are limitations that you don't have with a no-budget production.

Like what?

Well, for example, we were shooting a school exterior here in L.A. and weren't allowed to show the name of the school. I told the line producer that I could digitally erase or replace the sign on the school using my laptop in five minutes, but no, ‘That's a visual effects shot that has to go through the VFX house and we don't have the budget for that.’ The production designer had to create an actual sign and place it on top of the real sign instead.

Ha! That must have been strange, especially since you come from an animation background.

The advantage of animation is the level of control you have—you can do pretty much everything. The downside is that you have to do everything! You have to draw or create every little thing you see. But even for live action, I'll make storyboards and animatics to convey my vision. That's been the big transition for me. When it's just me and Lotta making a short, or I'm animating something, I'll have an idea and just go and do it. With a big film crew, you have to somehow communicate exactly what you want so that they can go do it.

Lights Out - Who's There Film Challenge (2013) from David F. Sandberg on Vimeo.

The short version of Lights Out made for the 2013 Bloody Cuts Who’s There Film Challenge. A film by David F. Sandberg with Lotta Losten.

So let’s talk a bit more about Lights Out. Horror films are a great outlet for creative expression. What was it like turning the short into a feature?

When adapting it into a feature, the fact that the short didn’t have much of a story was beneficial because as long as we kept the concept, the story could be anything. I really liked fleshing out the characters in a way that a three-minute short doesn't have time for. I wrote these backstories for them and there are details in the film that I'm not sure if people will consciously pick up on, but subconsciously, I think it makes the characters feel real.

And you had to follow scary movie rules more closely.

Yes. We actually stick closer to the rules in the feature than in the short. In the last shot of the short, the creature is in light and turns of the lamp herself. Since the short was just a fun little thing we didn't care about breaking the rule about her not existing in light but for the feature I felt that was very important to adhere to. It made the film a bitch to light, though!

And you got to work with one of the horror greats, James Wan. How was that?

It was great. He certainly knows the genre and that came in handy. There's this scene in the film where Martin, played by Gabriel Bateman, walks through a dark house with a candle. I wanted to light him with just the candle but was told that, "No, we can’t do that, we have to light the scene!" On the day that we were shooting that scene, James came by the set and said, "You know, you should shoot that scene with just candle light." Everyone reacted like, "Yes! Good idea James, let's do that!"

Are you surprised at how easy this all seemed to be?

I've been told many times here in Hollywood [to] not get used to a movie coming together this quickly and smoothly because it just doesn't happen this way. But now is certainly the best time to be a filmmaker because the barriers are so low. These days, you can make a movie on your phone and upload them online, enabling people anywhere in the world to see them. Thanks to that, I think we'll see some great filmmakers emerge that otherwise might never have been discovered. That's the advice I keep giving—keep making shorts and put them up online. Make enough of them, and you're bound to make something that resonates with people and who knows what that will lead to.

And what’s next for you David?

Next up I'm directing Annabelle 2. It was such a great experience working with New Line and James that we figured, let's make another one! So we start shooting that this summer.

lights out.jpg

Set to be released in July, Lights Out is David F. Sandberg’s first horrifying feature. Image courtesy of: New Line Cinema. Atomic Monster. Grey Matter Productions. Warner Bros. Pictures.

Lights Out hits US theaters on July 22nd. Think you’re scared of the dark? Well, you will be.

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