Interview: 'Lights Out' Director David F. Sandberg On Subverting Expectations And Not Overstaying Your Welcome

Director David F. Sandberg makes his feature directorial debut with the James Wan-produced horror movie Lights Out. Sandberg's journey towards making his first film began in 2013 with a short film that cost nothing. The director and his wife, Lotta Losten, made the short together, and Sandberg and Losten submitted it to the Bloody Cuts Horror Challenge, where it was well received.

But it wasn't until a few months later that the short really gained its popularity. Once it hit online, the short was viewed over 20 million times. Then Hollywood came running and offered Sanberg the opportunity to turn the short into a feature, which is now in theaters and stars Teresa PalmerMaria Bello, and Alexander DiPersia.

Below, read our Lights Out interview with David F. Sandberg.

When you and your wife made the short film, did you both have a backstory in mind for [the monster] Diana? 

Nothing. It was only supposed to be that little short film that we had fun with. When all this happened, it went huge online, and then Hollywood started calling, that was the first time when we started thinking, "Okay, what can a feature film of this be?" The good thing about the short is it doesn't have much story that we had to stay true to. It just mostly a concept or scene or two. So, as long as it stays true to that concept, the movie could be anything really.

How did you first notice the popularity of the short film? 

It all happened overnight, really. We made the short for the contest, and I won Best Director when it made the top 6 finalists. We figured that was it for that short, and let's keep making other shorts. Then, a few months after that, I was on Reddit and saw someone had linked to our short. I was like, "Oh awesome." So I went to the short, and I saw that it had, suddenly, 8,000 views. I was like, "Oh, that's amazing." Then all of a sudden it had 70,000 views. Then it kept going and going.

Lotta and I were sitting there, refreshing the page, to see it go over a million, and it just kept going. We didn't really know if that meant anything, or if that was going to lead to anything. Then, a couple of days later, I started getting all these emails from Hollywood. From producers, and studios, and agents, and managers. I had to make this spreadsheet with everyone I've talked to, and what was said last just to keep track. I had no idea that just a two-and-a-half minute short could get all that attention.

How much did the short film cost?

Nothing. Lotta and I had been trying to get money from the Swedish Film Institute to make shorts, because that's how you finance shorts and features in Sweden, really. It's with the grant money from the Swedish Film Institute. They've never been really interested in horror, or at least not our horror projects. We figured, let's just make our own movies with no money. I have a camera, Lotta's an actress, we can come up with something together. We made a short before Lights Out called Cam Closer, about a phone that sees the future. It was like, "Yeah. This was fun. Let's keep doing it." We saw Bloody Cuts guys from the UK had this online competition. It's like, "Yeah. That's what we're doing now. So, let's do another one."

You mentioned earlier that since the short doesn't have a story, you could take the story anywhere. What were some early ideas that were scrapped? What made you and [screenwriter] Eric Heisserer want to tell this story?

What happened was, we came into contact with producer Lawrence Grey, who really wanted to develop this, and I just felt very comfortable with him and his ideas. At first, we talked to a writer here in LA, but his idea was very big. Like, it had multiple Dianas and a lot of people, and it just felt like it was bigger than what I wanted to do. I wanted to do something more intimate. It also felt like if someone's going to trust me to direct a movie, they're not going to give me a huge budget, so let's do something more manageable.

I started thinking of this mental illness angle pretty early on because it felt like that was a darkness within people, or something like that. It felt appropriate. It started with this idea of how, in a lot of horror movies, you have this trope of the little kid who has an imaginary friend who turns out to be a ghost, but I always thought it would be much scarier if it was the parents who had the imaginary friend. As a child, you're so vulnerable and dependent on your parent, so I just felt that would be scarier. That's how it all started.

How much did you and Eric discuss the rules of the film, in regards to what Diana is or isn't capable of?

Early on I felt it was important that we have these rules that we stick to. When we made the short, we just had fun with it, so she turns up in the light and we didn't really care. It felt like to really have this movie work we need to have these rules and stick to them, which made lighting the movie very difficult. You have someone you can't light, and I didn't want to cheat and have rim lights or stuff like that. I wanted her to be a true silhouette.

I had to do a lot of storyboards and we had just to plan out every shot. How do we keep her silhouette? It was fun just coming up with all of these ideas. What you could do with light and dark. Before we even had a complete story, I wrote down a list of just things that I wanted to do. I wanted to have car headlights and someone falling down from that. I wanted to have gunfire. I wanted to have candle lights, or not just ... Not even all of the ideas made it into the film because there was so much to be had with the concept.

[Spoiler Alert]

Speaking of the car headlights scene, it's nice to see a character making all the right decisions in a horror movie for a change.

I really liked this idea of having this character who does all the right things, because everyone ... I've seen the film with an audience a few times now, and everyone thinks that Brad is going to die. When he goes back into the house, everyone is like, "Oh, now he's going to get it," because he's the boyfriend character and, of course, he's going to die in a horror movie. It was just fun to subvert the expectations. That's what the whole character was about, though. My thinking was that Rebecca, she doesn't want attachment in her life. So, she's gone with this rocker dude who she thinks will be someone who won't want attachment or commitment. He actually turns out to be this guy who's very ... He drives a Volvo because it's, like the safest car. He's actually the one who wants a commitment and a relationship. His whole character is about defying expectations.

It was just fun to subvert the expectations. That's what the whole character was about. My thinking was that Rebecca doesn't want attachment in her life. So, she's gone with this rocker dude who she thinks will be someone who won't want attachment or commitment. He actually turns out to be this guy who drives a Volvo because it's the safest car. He's actually the one who wants a commitment and a relationship. His whole character is about defying expectations.

[Spoiler Over]

Lights Out

When Diana is in Rebecca's apartment, the sound and visuals created by the neon light are very effective. How did that idea come about?

The neon lights was James' idea. The idea I had was that there would be cars pass by outside, and the headlights would sweep across the room, and that's how she was revealed and not revealed. It was James who was like, "You know, you could have a neon light and you'll get that sort of on and off effect. It will look sort of like one of those '80s movies where someone lives right by neon lights." I really like that scene just because it takes its time to build up, having that scratching noise at first and just playing with the surround sound as well, to have it be behind you. Yeah, it just turned out well.

How involved was James Wan during pre-production and the shoot?

Somewhat often. He's a busy guy. He was working on Conjuring 2 and all of his other stuff, but he was involved. Especially in the beginning, in the script stage. In my original treatment, Diana was more of a demon, a demonic character. It was James' idea to have her be someone who actually had been a person and someone who had a previous relationship with Sophie, just to make it more emotional. He was very involved. It's the first film that he's produced through his new production company [Atomic Monster]. He's had his name on other films as a producer, but I think this is the first one he's really produced.

At one point in the movie, you get a good look at Diana. What made you choose that moment to reveal her? 

I wanted to keep her silhouette for as much as possible. You still have to have that little bit of a reveal so people can know what she actually looks like. It was really important that it's the silhouette for 95% of the film. James asked me about her being naked. He was like, "Are you sure she shouldn't be wearing something?" First of all, what's scarier, being chased by someone with clothes on, or someone completely naked? Also, since she's a silhouette for so much of the film, it was really important that you could read her body positions and to have those long fingers because that's how we fear, for most of the time.

Lights Out is a horror movie that doesn't end with a sequel flag. Was there ever a discussion about having one?

The funny thing is, we did have a little extra thing at the end. When we showed it to a test audience, they hated that. I still have the forms they filled out at home. There were people that wrote on the forms, "Get rid of the second ending." What we cut that ending, we had another test screening and the scores went up 30%. It shows you how important endings are, and how you can overstay your welcome very easily.

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Lights Out is now in theaters.