Barely two years ago, 35-year-old Swede David F. Sandberg was a debt-ridden wannabe filmmaker who had never held a steady job, let alone made a feature. He had been rejected by the Swedish Film Institute even for a relatively modest shorts investment. He and his wife, Lotta Losten, got by in part on her salary as an employee.
But a short film the couple made in their apartment in Sweden — about a woman who sees a scary supernatural creature only when the lights are out — changed their fortunes. The piece was made for a contest run by the horror website Bloody Disgusting. Less than three minutes long, with no dialogue or budget (Losten played both the woman and the apparition), “Lights Out” unexpectedly went viral via Reddit — nearly a year after they made it.
As the online legend of “Lights Out” began to grow, Hollywood agents and producers took notice, culminating in New Line/Warner Bros. making a feature deal. When the resultant movie premiered last June at the Los Angeles Film Festival ahead of its July 22 theatrical release, “Lights Out” concluded one of the most improbable of modern filmmaking journeys.
“I had a long-term plan to make these little shorts,” Sandberg said, “and maybe we could prove to the Swedish Film Institute that we knew we what we’re doing, and get money for a longer short, and then eventually money for a Swedish feature.”
He paused. “It’s been interesting to skip all those steps.”
“Lights Out” (the full-length feature) centers on twentysomething Rebecca (Teresa Palmer) and her pre-adolescent brother Martin (Gabriel Bateman), whose mother, Sophie (Maria Bello), suffers from a disassociative mental illness that has her talking to a friend no one else sees. When Rebecca and Martin start spotting an apparition in the dark, they wonder if they too are suffering from a disorder. They set out to discover the truth.
Sandberg had come up with the idea on a whim, as he thought about those innocuous bedroom silhouettes that look more ominous in the midnight dark. He was soon playing with the effects (simple, involving a split screen) and turning the lights on and off.
“It’s something everyone experiences,” Sandberg said. “I was almost surprised no one had explored it before.”
He was truly taken aback, though, when months later, in spring 2014, the short went everywhere. “Someone had linked to it on Reddit. I saw it had 8,000 views, and I thought, ‘That’s awesome.’ And then it had 70,000 views, and I thought, ‘That’s awesome too.’ And then it went to a million and it became a crazy circus,” he said of the movie, whose minimalist concept and undercurrent of jittery dread helped it hop borders. “I had to make a spreadsheet of all the [industry] people I talked to and what we said the last time we spoke.”
One of the people who got in touch was Lawrence Grey, a producer known for variety of genre and other fare from newer creators. (“Hidden,” “Last Vegas”). Grey saw in “Lights Out” the potential for a much larger story. He soon brought on veteran horror screenwriter Eric Heisserer (2010’s “A Nightmare on Elm Street”) and James Wan (“Saw,” “The Conjuring” franchise), the latter spitballing a series of ideas with Sandberg.
With high-return genre investments such as “Annabelle” paying off in recent summers, New Line soon greenlighted the movie, fast-tracking it so that it was shooting in a manner of months, keeping Sandberg aboard.
“I was a little shocked they would let me direct, because everything I had ever done on movies was in my apartment by myself,” Sandberg said. “I think they thought I was more experienced than I was.”
Grey said he realized the flier everyone was taking. “The first movie set David was ever on was the set of his own Warner Bros. film. So he is very green,” the producer laughed. “But I think no matter how many movies you’ve made, it comes down to taste, and you could tell right away David had it.”
Slated for release across the Philippines on July 21, 2016, “Lights Out” is distributed by Warner Bros. Pictures, a Warner Bros. Entertainment Company.