Back in 2013, Swedish filmmaker David F Sandberg uploaded the short, low-budget horror film he’d made with his wife, actress Lotta Losten, to the web.
More than 10 million views later, Lights Out has become a bona fide viral hit – and Sandberg has now directed a major feature-length film version of the same name, produced by Saw and Insidious creator James Wan.
We spoke to David to find out what it’s like to go from micro-budget shorts to multi million dollar movies in a matter of months. Here’s what he told us.
It can be a bit of a whirlwind
Not everyone who makes a cool 3-minute horror film…
…can expect to be picked up by the big-wigs of the film industry. But this is exactly what happened in David’s case.
“Because the short went viral and got a lot of attention I got contacted by a lot of people in Hollywood. Agents, managers, producers and studios.
“I decided on a producer that felt right – and he knew James Wan which is how he came on board. It all went pretty fast and smooth which I understand is not the norm over here. People keep telling me not to get used to it.
“We had no plans for a feature. My plan was basically to keep making shorts in Sweden together with Lotta, maybe get some money from the Swedish film institute to make a longer short and if that was successful turn it into a Swedish feature. Then with that Swedish feature maybe I could get noticed in Hollywood.
“Instead it was like I stumbled into Warp Zone and jumped ahead to the final level.”
The challenge is palpable – at least at first
It’s not easy going from a small-scale enterprise to working on a major production, with huge numbers of cast and crew.
“This was the first time I was on a film set and it was as the director!” remarks David.
“One of the things I’ve had to learn was to communicate my vision. When it’s just me and Lotta I might have an idea in my head and I’ll just do it. With a film crew there are other people to do everything so you have to communicate to them what to do. For me that meant a lot of storyboards, videos and tests that I could show people.
“It was daunting, but there’s so much prep and stuff beforehand that once you step on the set you have a pretty good idea of what you’re doing.”
Having said that…
“During the shoot I would wake up in the middle of the night, still half asleep, and see the whole crew standing around the bed waiting for me. I’d be like ‘wait, what are we doing?’
“And then I’d realize I was naked. That’s when Lotta would calm me down and tell me I was only dreaming.”
You go mad with power (for a brief while)
“Whenever I wanted a Coke Zero I could just tell a PA and shortly after I would have an ice cold Coke Zero in my hand. Yes, I have a Coke problem.
“But really though, I just enjoyed the fact that we were making a real Hollywood movie, and that all of these great professionals were lending their talents to make the movie great. Everyone there had tons more experience than me. Thankfully.”
Retaining the core concept (and some continuity) is key
“The short doesn’t have much of a story so the only thing to keep was the concept really: a creature that only exists in the dark.
“For the film though I felt it was very important not to cheat which made lighting very difficult. How do you light a creature that can’t be hit by light? We had to find excuses to light the wall behind her to make her show up. Lots of very conveniently placed moonlight and stuff.”
A certain someone is also featured in both casts, albeit briefly.
“Lotta just had to be in the movie somehow too, since it was just her and I that created Lights Out.”
Working with James Wan is fun
“It was really cool to have him on board. Not just because of his experience – but because he’s James Wan!
“I’ve been telling this story about how I wanted to light a shot in Lights Out with just candlelight and people we’re telling me that was impossible, you have to actually light the shot.
“Then on the day we were shooting that James came by the set and he said ‘you know, you should shoot that with just candle light’, and everyone was suddenly like ‘Yes! Great idea, let’s do that!’.”
It can lead to other big things
It seems that David’s career in Hollywood is really taking off.
Not content with turning Lights Out into a full-length movie, he’s now also been handed the directorial reigns to Annabelle 2.
“I’m not sure if I can say much at all at this point. I think it’s one of those sequels that is going to be better that the original though.
“It’s very different from the first one. It’s not a sequel to what happened in that film.”
Uploading a 3-minute movie can change your life
If you dream of making movies for a living, David urges you to share your own short work online – as it’s increasingly the best way for an unknown to get discovered.
“People here in Hollywood keep an eye out for popular videos online. I would recommend it no matter what it is you want to be, director, actor, writer. Just make stuff and put it online. And keep making things because the first things you do will most likely be crap. I talk from experience.
“I feel so incredibly lucky to have had this happen. In Sweden I was never able to get money for horror projects. In fact one of the production centers didn’t want to give me some money for a short, because they felt I was too inexperienced.
“Meanwhile, Hollywood sees two-and-a-half minutes and lets me direct a five million dollar movie. Throughout this production that’s something that struck me: all of this happened just because Lotta and I shot a short one evening. It’s absolutely crazy.”
Lights Out is set to hit cinemas on July 22 this year.