Based on a chilling three-minute short film that became a viral sensation, Lights Out opened to strong reviews and an impressive $21.6 million – more than four times its reported production budget, and the second-largest opening this year for a horror film. Following closely on the heels of The Conjuring 2, it’s another success story for New Line Cinema, and should instantly mark director David F. Sandberg as one of the genre’s biggest rising stars.
While covering San Diego Comic-Con on Thursday, I had the good fortune to sit down with Lights Out producer Lawrence Grey and discuss bringing Sandberg’s original viral short to cinema screens across the globe. Check out our conversation below.
I was lucky enough to see Lights Out just before we left for Comic-Con. The thing I find most interesting about it is that it takes something that almost everyone is universally afraid of, and then uses that as a jumping off point to scare the hell out of the audience.
Lawrence Grey: You’re right. The universality of that experience is there in the original short film, and that’s one of the first things that gripped me. We all have that moment where we’re turning off the lights and going to sleep, or putting the key in the front door when we come home late at night, and then we see a shadow and our mind starts playing into the worst idea of what that shadow could be.
The film has this super high-concept idea, but it’s also something that’s been explored in so many different ways, so we really had to challenge ourselves. How are we going to do this in a way that really subverts your expectations? I think we really pushed ourselves to be inventive with all of those scares.
I felt like there was a lot of humanity in these characters. There are these great moments of levity that give you a moment to breathe, but they’re also moments that we can relate to, because the characters behave the way real people would behave in those situations. What sort of challenges did you encounter with fleshing out this world and creating characters the audience can connect with?
Lawrence Grey: It was really just a very organic process. Teresa Palmer was our first choice to play the lead in this film, and when we met with Teresa, [we learned] she herself has a mother who suffers from mental illness, and she brought an incredible amount of veracity to the experience. That really informed the script, and it kind of pushed us to look in the direction of Maria Bello, someone who has her own experiences with it. So bringing them together and bringing that level of truth really elevated the film a lot.
When we started this thing, we had a first-time director making short films in his apartment in Sweden. We didn’t have a branded IP, it wasn’t a sequel to anything. The only reason anyone was interested in this film was because the idea is great, it’s original, and it’s innovative. It’s an experience you’ve never had before, and we really wanted to subvert those expectations. So the character of Brett, for example: every time we see that character in a movie, he’s sort of the guy who’s just cloyingly stupid, making bad decisions, putting people in jeopardy and probably isn’t going to live to see the end credits.
And we loved this idea of a character who seems like that guy, who seems like a hipster but really has this kind of “soul of an accountant” underneath. He loves this girl, and he’s probably the right thing for her. He’s reliable and stable, and he drives a Volvo, surprisingly – also, Volvo is Swedish and our director is Swedish. But watching him earn her love and prove to us that he’s worthy of her love, watching this guy outsmart the monster at certain times in unexpected ways, that all plays into the idea of doing something different.
The original short film is less than three minutes long, so you’re taking a very limited amount of source material and expanding it to feature length. Was there ever a moment where you thought it might not be enough?
Lawrence Grey: From the beginning, I just thought the short film was a showcase for David Sandberg’s talent. You could see that he a very interesting way of scaring audiences, doing it in a way you hadn’t really seen before. So when I reached out to David, it was just about wanting to meet this guy who scared me, but David already had ideas about the story.
So that first meeting with me and David was really just about me trying to find out if this guy was a storyteller. Is this guy someone who got lucky or did something kind of gimmicky, but wouldn’t have two hours of material? But as we spent a couple of weeks together, we started getting really excited about this, and we really had a soup to nuts take on the story, so that gave me a lot of confidence in David.
In this day and age, it seems like nearly everything in Hollywood is being thought of as a franchise. Is Lights Out something that you’d like to do more with, or do you consider it as a standalone, self-contained idea?
Lawrence Grey: We see it as 70 films. [laughs] You know, the audience really decides whether things become a franchise or not. In creating this thing from whole cloth, we certainly know these characters and this universe very well. I loved working with everyone, so personally I would be thrilled to come back and explore this world and see where it could go. We have some ideas, so if we should be so lucky, I think we’d all have a blast doing it.
If a sequel were to go into production, would you want to do it with a similar budget, or would you spend money for bigger effects and bigger scares?
Lawrence Grey: Well, I’m not really a believer that every horror movie has to be made for a dollar. [laughs] There are definitely horror films that are bloated in terms of budget, and you can see that on the screen – I won’t mention names, but one of them rhymes with “Schmoltergeist.”
We don’t want to do that, we really want it to still feel authentic and real, but a few more shekels would probably be appreciated. Especially, if – spoiler alert – if we were to branch out, we’ve been kind of thinking in the direction of Aliens, and expanding the universe. So, studios beware!
Lights Out is currently playing in theaters everywhere.