From Short Film To Feature Film:
There’s this woman…waiting in the shadows.
From torches and candles to LEDs. Street lamps, headlights, neon, flares. Since the origin of our existence, humans have sought ways to escape the encroaching shadows and the frightful things they conceal and in the terrifying Lights Out, fear is real!
Making his feature film debut with Lights Out, David S. Sandberg has written and directed a slate of short films with deliciously disturbing titles like Closet Space and Attic Panic, and earned a throng of internet devotees who expect him to scare the wits out of them. Lights Out is based on Sandberg’s recent horror short of the same name, and it was both the quality and the impact of that insomnia-inducing gem that brought the young Swedish filmmaker to the attention of Hollywood.
“Maybe it will be like ‘Jaws,’ but instead of being afraid to go into the water, people will be more afraid to turn off the lights.”
“I remember watching it and thinking, ‘this is fantastic, this is really cool, the kind of stuff that I used to do when I was an aspiring filmmaker myself,’” Wan says.
“We’re all terrified of the dark,” offers producer James Wan (The Conjuring), master of the horror and thriller genres.
“As kids, we were convinced something was hiding in the closet or under the bed, and that stays with us. It’s universal. This movie really plays on that simple concept, and that’s the brilliance and the fun of it.”
But beyond fear and foreboding, what if there truly was something malignant that lived in the dark?
Something whose very existence depended upon that opaque cover and drew strength from our terror?
Our only defense would be some comforting source of light; our lives would hang on the reliability of a switch, the current in those overheads, the batteries in that flashlight.
Now you see it. Click. Now you don’t.
Now you see it. Click. Now you don’t.
Now it’s right in front of you. Reaching out with charred fingers, breathing on your face…
“People have been afraid of the dark probably since the dawn of time,” says director David F. Sandberg.
“It’s something even I feel in my bones. So, rather than deny that impulse, we’re saying, ‘You were right. You were right to be afraid, because there is something there.’ We took that fear and created a monster out of it.”
And this monster has a name. Diana.
When Rebecca (Teresa Palmer – Triple 9, Warm Bodies) left home, she thought she left her childhood fears behind. Growing up, she was never really sure of what was and wasn’t real when the lights went out…and now her little brother, Martin (Gabriel Bateman – Annabelle), is experiencing the same unexplained and terrifying events that had once tested her sanity and threatened her safety. A frightening entity with a mysterious attachment to their mother, Sophie (Maria Bello – Prisoners), has re-emerged. But this time, as Rebecca gets closer to unlocking the truth, there is no denying that all their lives are in danger…once the lights go out. It marks the feature film directorial debut of David F. Sandberg, from a screenplay by Eric Heisserer (Final Destination 5), based on Sandberg’s own short film of the same name.
Producer Lawrence Grey recounts: “It was only about a year ago that David made the short in his apartment in Sweden and uploaded it to social media, where it started getting a lot of buzz. It was incredibly powerful and frightening. I see a lot of films, but this one really stood out. It has north of 100 million views now, so I wasn’t the only one who felt that way.
“I contacted David and we started talking about making a movie and who would be the best partners for it,” Grey continues. “My top choices were Eric Heisserer, a phenomenal writer, who became our screenwriter and a producer, and James Wan, who’s just a force of nature, full of creative energy. They were both very excited about the idea, so it was a dream team from the start.”
Heisserer, who counts Final Destination 5 and the Nightmare on Elm Street reboot among his credentials, calls Sandberg’s prototype effort “a remarkable piece of cinema that affected my lizard brain, just got down to my primal fears in a visceral way, as it did for so many viewers around the world. I think it’s a holdover from our ancestors long ago, that anything moving in the dark is predatory. Expanding this idea into a full-length film, the core of it was Diana and what she represents.”
Their intent was not to remake the short, but to draw from it an original demon with its own sinister logic and agenda. Heisserer explains, “We created a whole new mythology with this character. David crafted some signature scares and there were ideas I built on to explore light and dark in new and inventive ways. The important thing was making sure the concept of Diana played out effectively.”
Equally important was capturing what made Sandberg’s model so jump-out-of-your-skin scary, born of the director’s passion and insight, as well as those unexpected glints of humor that horror fans love. “It’s essential to find a director who understands how to construct fright scenes and how to build tension and suspense, and it was clear to us from his work that David has the instinct for it,” says Wan, who delights in encouraging new talent. “Speaking as a producer, and as someone who has a bit of experience in the genre, you want to be there to provide the right tools but, really, we wanted to give David the freedom to make the movie he wanted to make. It’s his movie and his unique vision, and he did a terrific job.”
“It was great having James’s expertise,” Sandberg responds. “He had a lot of valuable input on the process. Plus, he has so many ideas and such enthusiasm; it was so cool having him on board.”
Drilling further into the story together, Sandberg, Wan, Heisserer and Grey imagined the impetus of an entity that manifests only in the dark, and the ways in which it seeks to destroy anyone who stands in the way of what it wants. Thus fully fleshed out, “Lights Out” takes on additional depth and levels of darkness, and offers characters who are not merely victims but, rather, well-drawn individuals audiences can relate to, empathize with and root for.
As the action begins, the central character Rebecca, played by Teresa Palmer, is living alone in a downtown apartment. At a young age, and following the abrupt departure of her father, Rebecca essentially fled home because of an increasingly difficult and volatile relationship with her mother, Sophie, and the two women have remained estranged. It’s not until Rebecca’s 10-year-old half-brother Martin begins to suffer sleepless nights and menacing experiences of his own, and needs her help, that Rebecca returns to the house where she never felt entirely welcome.
Sophie hasn’t changed. If anything, she’s gotten worse. Played by Maria Bello, the family matriarch and former psychiatric patient still struggles with the crushing depression that once confined her to institutional care. Now a virtual recluse in the half-light of her rooms, she remains the focal point of the violent, oppressive force Rebecca attempted to escape years ago. Even stranger, she appears to be in communication with an old friend she calls Diana, who can sometimes be heard moving around the house, but who is never seen beyond a glimpse in the shadows.
“I’m a huge horror fan, so I was excited to be a part of this,” says Palmer. “It’s petrifying. Diana is what your nightmares are made of. She truly is the scariest thing you can imagine. I think we equate fear with a dark energy and she’s as dark as you can possibly get, from the way she looks to the way she interacts with the characters in the film. She’s just a total nightmare.”
But as much as there is dysfunction and pain here, there is also love – which, in its way, amplifies the peril for all of them. “Outside the scares,” adds Palmer, “it’s a great dramatic story about a family that’s been derailed by this entity.”
Says Grey, “If you strip away the horror and just look at the characters, there’s the idea of having a family member who is coping with a kind of affliction and how that bifurcates a family, how it drives people who love each other away from one another. Whatever initially drove Rebecca out were her mother’s issues. Now she sees there may have been more going on than what she thought; something supernatural, purely evil and beyond her control. When Rebecca commits to protecting Martin, she again faces the terror that plagued her as a child.”
“Who or what Diana is, is largely up to the audience to decide,” Bello suggests. “She’s so shadowy and elusive you don’t know what she’s going to do. I think audiences will be jumping in their seats, because I certainly was when I read the script. You never know what it’s going to look like or where it’s going to be. It grabs you when you least expect it.”
“There will definitely be some surprises,” Sandberg promises.
For them, so much of the work on “Lights Out” was fun, a labor of love for true genre fans, and they hope moviegoers will feel the same. Harking back to its inspiration, Heisserer remarks, “I can’t imagine what it’s going to be like for audiences. If you held your breath like I did for the two and a half minutes of the short, be prepared to bring a paper bag to breathe in because this is going to be another 90 minutes of it.”
Says Grey, “There are so many unique and interesting scares in this movie. I think what audiences can look forward to is an original, exciting thrill ride. Some of the crew told me they were looking over their shoulders and going home to have nightmares, which, in our case, is a good thing.”
Like his colleagues who first discovered the “Lights Out” idea as a wildly popular vignette on social media, James Wan recognized its potential to reach a wider audience on a much larger scale. But he credits David Sandberg’s vision and the powerful concept at its core with what makes it so special. “What David has done with this film is exactly what I love: being able to make the kinds of movies I enjoyed as a kid – fun, cool, horror movies that are terrifying but completely entertaining at the same time, and leave you wanting more.”
And perhaps also leaving you with an insight into human nature. Says Sandberg, “I think the film has the potential to scare people because fear of the dark is really fear of the unknown, and in that sense it’s something we all share. You don’t know what’s hiding in there or whether it might come after you. So many of us have had that moment of turning off the light at home and thinking, ‘is that someone standing there in the corner?’ Then we turn the light back on and see, okay, it’s a coat hanging up, or whatever. Having watched ‘Lights Out’ with audiences in early screenings I’m so happy to see how much they get into it, how they jump, and also sometimes they laugh.”
With an air of mischief, he adds, “Maybe it will be like ‘Jaws,’ but instead of being afraid to go into the water, people will be more afraid to turn off the lights.”