In just six or so years, writer Eric Heisserer has been involved with several high-profile horror projects, including Final Destination 5, The Thing (2011), and even the ill-fated remake of A Nightmare on Elm Street (more on that later), but it’s his latest script for David Sandberg’s Lights Out that is undoubtedly his best work thus far in his career.
A thoughtful examination of fear and mental illness that still manages to have a bit of a playful streak to it as well, Lights Out is an expanded take on Sandberg’s original short film from a few years back that will undoubtedly give viewers many new reasons to be afraid of the dark. It stars Maria Bello as Sophie, a mother suffering from depression, whose “special friend” Diana can only travel within the confines of total darkness and is fixated on having Sophie all to herself. Of course, this causes problems between Bello’s character and her children Rebecca (Teresa Palmer) and Martin (Gabriel Bateman), who must find a way to stop Diana before it’s too late for their entire family.
Daily Dead recently had the opportunity to speak with Heisserer about working with Sandberg on Lights Out, his approach to dealing with the afflictions of the mind and how they can warp a character’s POV, and having fun with the light gags in the film. Heisserer also discussed the challenges that come while working within the studio system, especially on his script for A Nightmare on Elm Street (2010), and the challenges of meeting the demands of modern horror audiences.
Congratulations on the film, Eric. I enjoyed it and thought you did a great job expanding on the concept David first introduced in his short. Was that your biggest challenge coming into Lights Out, using what was so cool about that original short and figuring out a way to translate that into a fully fleshed-out story for 90 minutes?
Eric Heisserer: Well, I had it easier than most. I had all the same concerns about it, considering that the short film didn't have any of that architecture baked into it. So I had a long conversation with the director, David Sandberg, who had a clear idea of not only the basic structure for the film and the characters involved, but more than anything, he knew thematically what he wanted the monster to represent.
That was clinical depression, which is something that not only Americans, but also European families and cultures have trouble talking about. When you have something that's figuratively leaving you trapped in the dark, it's a lot easier to know how to engineer those scares from a monster who literally doesn't exist except in the dark.
Speaking about the mental illness aspect of this, I thought the way you handled the character Sophie was really delicate. In some ways, you want to be mad at her because she's basically putting her children in harm's way, but you’re also sad for her because she can't really see past that depression and it’s destroying her and those she loves.
Eric Heisserer: It is. It really is, and it was a delicate dance. I have to lay a lot of the credit at the feet of Maria Bello, who had her own experiences in knowing not only as an actor, but with her family, to draw from, on how to make the performance feel so authentic. Also, it was a matter of figuring out what narrative the depression was telling her. There's the voice in our head that tells us that we can't do something or that we're not good enough for this, that, or the other—any sort of program or recording that comes in our head nonstop can really warp our reality so that we're not aware how we're hurting others or even when or if we are.
The focus was to make sure that whenever we talked about how Maria's character Sophie saw her relationship with this evil entity of Diana versus her relationship with her family, that it was through this lens of a daughter that had hurt her and betrayed her and a son that she was trying to bring into the fold as a friend of Diana's so that he would not be a target. Those were tough things to get across, but we tried to thread that impossible needle the best we could.
You guys did a really fantastic job with that. How was it working with David? Did you guys collaborate a lot throughout the script stage or did he just let you go and do your thing as a writer?
Eric Heisserer: He laid a lot of trust in me, which was different from my experiences with other directors. There was a really solid collaborative relationship that he and I held onto from the start, and that's really what helped guide the project every step of the way. I turned in the first draft for his review that managed to by and large stay the same all the way to the production.
A part of that was that he and I, and the producers, Lawrence [Grey] and James [Wan], had all agreed that we were going to get this thing going quietly, and then when all of us were excited about the script, that’s when we’d shop it around. We wanted to be ready to take that material somewhere into a studio and set it up, so that because it had already been defined and worked through, then you didn't have too many battles in the development process with people at the studio level. You can just go right in because everyone is already on the same page.
I'm guessing from your background that's something you've experienced on prior projects.
Eric Heisserer: I have. I'm not going to throw anybody under the bus, but yes, that's been a problem. Well, I think it's more a case of it's very difficult to find a team where everyone wants to make the same movie. More often than not, you'll have people that either have their own agendas, or they have a different picture in their head. They have a different movie tone in their mind, and so they're always pushing against whatever it is that other people in the project want to make.
The way to help ensure that you're going the same way and you're all trying to make the same movie, it helps to go ahead and develop that, use the core group of creatives first, the writer and director and one or two key producers, and then you are ready to present it. You can say, ‘This is the film we want to make. We don't want to deviate from this too much,’ and you may get a studio that's either excited about that or not, and they're going to help make sure that that's the movie that ends up on your screen.
Absolutely. And in this case, you had somebody like James at the producer level. He's so passionate about this genre, and I'm guessing that helped a lot, too.
Eric Heisserer: Oh my god, so very much. James was a key player in all this, not just because of his experience in the dissertation, but because of his philosophy, his approach to horror, and how he was adamant, he was very firm about being sure that the characters in the story were endearing, that you couldn't help but like or fall in love with them. He made a huge impact on this.
What I loved about Lights Out is the fact that there are so many really fun moments that made me feel like a kid again. It’s very much a serious horror movie, but it’s still fun, too. How much fun was it for you to play up all of those gags with the lights? I especially loved the moment with the car headlights.
Eric Heisserer: One of my greatest victories in my writing career is when I get to incorporate something fun for myself into a script. For Lights Out, I already had David, who had a nice, long laundry list of ideas on how to play with lights in the story. He'd come up with these ideas of muzzle flashes from guns and a variety of other moments that played with light that were just fantastic.
My one achievement here as a screenwriter was when I presented the draft, it was my own idea for the scene with the headlights, and when he got so excited about that, I felt like if I had made David happy, then I'm going to go home happy. And it’s one of my favorite gags in the whole movie.
I’ve always wondered if it was easier to be a writer for the horror genre 20 years ago as opposed to now, because audiences are so savvy and particular these days. Is there a lot of pressure on you? Do you feel like you have to live up to certain expectations? As a screenwriter, it must be the hardest thing in the world to write a film for modern horror audiences.
Eric Heisserer: It has become more and more heated in terms of your fans and your opponents to each particular subgenre of horror, who have all gotten louder over the past few years. The last few horror or thriller movies I have seen, whether it's The Witch or It Follows or The Invitation—all of which I absolutely loved—I've seen that for as many loud proponents of those films, there are an equal number of voices claiming that it isn't that scary or isn't their type of horror.
The lesson learned from that, if anything, is that you just go out and make a movie and tell a story that scares and excites you personally, and hope that it finds an audience out there.
One of your earliest scripts was the Nightmare on Elm Street remake. I'm one of the few that actually thinks there are some interesting ideas going on in there and even defended it when it was released. I can't imagine the pressure of writing a script that would live up to the expectations of Nightmare on Elm Street fans, and also see it handed off to someone who wasn’t really passionate about it. The fans were rough on it; I remember when I actually defended aspects of the remake, I got some really hateful emails, and I'd never experienced that before.
Eric Heisserer: Yes. That was my experience, turned up 100, as one of the writers credited on that. It's interesting, especially having that be my first produced credit as a writer. I was a very green writer, and when you are working with people on the creative side that tend to just say, ‘This is what we want. We're going to give you the floor plan, so what we want you to build, you just build that for us,’ you do your best to build something they are asking of you, that's still structurally sound and makes sense to you, and that hopefully can pay off for audiences later on.
I would say that when it comes down to it, the one element of mine in my draft that managed to survive all the way into the final version of Nightmare was the concept of the micro-sleep. There was a lot more built into the draft to try and bank on it and there was a moment towards the end of the third act when Quentin ended up having to use micro-sleep in order to track Freddy down, where they're on a street and they would clash over into the nightmare world for a few moments and they would see a blood trail and it would be back to normal in reality. They had to follow that blood trail for the time they dipped into micro-sleep. They had to course correct. There were some fun ways to play up that idea, and I wished they had kept more of it in there.