Starting today, David F. Sandberg’s Lights Out arrives in theaters everywhere, and at the recent press day for the film, we had the chance to catch up with the director as well as his wife and creative partner, Lotta Losten, to hear about their amazing journey from Sweden to Hollywood. The pair chatted about their inspirations, stepping onto a film set for the first time, and how technology has made this one of the best times ever to be a filmmaker.
Written by Eric Heisserer, Lights Out stars Maria Bello, Teresa Palmer, Gabriel Bateman, and Alexander DiPersia, and it was produced by Lawrence Grey and James Wan.
Congrats on the film, guys. What kind of material did you grow up on that may have influenced your creative path or the material that you're now interested in writing or directing?
David F. Sandberg: I grew up watching lots and lots of horror movies—all kinds of stuff. But my tastes have changed over the years. When I was a kid, I used to watch a lot of Nightmare on Elm Street and a lot of Italian horror movies from the ’70s and ’80s. At that time, I liked gory horror movies and stuff like that. Now I'm more about suspense and mood, and creating something that's not really about blood, so I look for something different.
You’re both originally from Sweden, which is where you created the short film version of Lights Out. So when James Wan came calling, how did you even react to something like that?
David F. Sandberg: It was such a surreal experience. What happened was we made this short for no money back home in Sweden.
Lotta Losten: Just the two of us.
David F. Sandberg: Yeah, we made this for a contest. A few months after that, we figured that was it, because I won a director’s award but not the contest overall. But then, a few months after that, the short just blew up online. It started getting millions of views, and we were like–
Lotta Losten: What does it all mean? [Laughs] Is it just numbers, or does this mean something more promising?
David F. Sandberg: So then, all these people from Hollywood wanted to talk to us. I was getting contacted by agents and managers and producers and studios. I had to make a spreadsheet of everyone I had talked to, just to keep track of it all. I had to get an IMDb Pro account just to see who they were [laughs]. And one of the first producers that got in touch was Lawrence Grey, who was someone I really connected with, and it seemed like he knew what he was doing. He was really interested in making this into a feature. He had talk to James Wan about maybe making something together, and he figured maybe this could be it.
James had seen the short online and really liked it, but he didn't know if there was enough there for a movie, so I wrote a treatment of what I wanted the story and characters to be that Lawrence gave to James. He really felt that this could be a movie.
Lawrence flew us out here for a couple of weeks to meet with James, and James got New Line involved because they have their relationship. It just came together really great and smoothly. People keep saying, “Don't get used to that,” [laughs] because that's not usually how it works.
Lotta Losten: It was like every week we were being told that we would know more next week, and we just waited and waited. I had a job. I had to tell them that I might be going to Hollywood in a while, but I don't know when. Is that okay? [Laughs.] I need time off. They had been part of this entire story. But when Hollywood called and said, "It's happening, come on Friday," I had to quit my job. They couldn't give me any time off, but they said, "If you come back in a few months, you will get a new job. We will make it for you." We realized quickly that we would not be going back in a few months. [Laughs.]
David F. Sandberg: It just happened so fast. We just locked the door at home and got on a plane. For the first week, the studio paid for a hotel here, and then we had to find places on Airbnb where we could stay.
Lotta Losten: We couldn't get a big lease because we don't have a credit score here, and we didn't know when we'd be going home, so it was month to month to month. In January, we finally got a real apartment.
David F. Sandberg: We just went along with this adventure to see what would happen. When we first got here, we were invited to a Furious 7 party that they were having for James to celebrate its success, so we were invited to that. We had just gotten here, so we didn't have any money. We had to borrow everything we could from our parents just to be able to afford to stay here. We were invited to this mansion in Beverly Hills with these celebrities and we felt like such impostors because we were these broke Swedes who had just gotten into this Hollywood party.
So we were just standing in a corner speaking Swedish to each other, trying to look like we knew what we were doing, but just kept saying to each other, “This is so weird.”
Considering the fact that all of this came about because of a short film that was posted online, can you discuss how modern technology can open doors for creativity and for aspiring filmmakers?
David F. Sandberg: It's the best time ever to be a filmmaker, because you have all these tools available. You can record audio on so many easily available devices, and you can shoot video with your phone these days, too. There's no one really stopping you from creating these things. You can put them up online where everyone can see it. You also have all these communities of people sharing their knowledge of how you use software or how you can build your own dolly. You have film school and film exhibition online.
It's weird, because you never know what that thing is that will resonate with people, so I think the only thing you can do is follow your passion, and do what you like, not what you think others will like. We had no idea that our little two and a half minute short would lead to all of this. That was just one short of many we were going to make.
How intimidating was it the first time you stepped onto the film set for Lights Out?
David F. Sandberg: Very. I had never even been on a film set before, and now here I was for the first time on a film set, and I was the director. There was just so much I didn't know. We were flown halfway across the world, and there I was about to lead my film team. We were really going to make a movie, and I think I was still in disbelief even then. I had to ask the first AD [assistant director], "When do I actually say ‘action’?" because I didn't know [laughs]. This was film school for me, just to learn how everything works, and I learned a lot.
Lotta Losten: Everything still feels like an adventure for us. This is our first junket today, so we have no idea how any of this works. Everything that has happened from that first day to over a year and a half later now all feels very new to us. We just follow along with everyone else and we’ll just see what happens. Maybe in the future we will know what all of this meant or was leading to [laughs].
In case you missed them, check out Heather’s Los Angeles Film Festival review of Lights Out and her interviews with producer Lawrence Grey and screenwriter Eric Heisserer: