David Sandberg burst onto the scene with the critically acclaimed short film Lights Out starring his wife, Lotta Losten. The short was so effective it left viewers with the desire to sleep with the lights on. The short was a viral hit and has spawned a feature film directed by first-time helmer Sandberg and produced by Lawrence Grey and James Wan. Warner Bros Pictures will launch Lights Out in theaters on July 22, 2016, putting the horror film up against big budget summer releases.
Lights Out was one of the upcoming releases Warner Bros spotlighted during its 2016 CinemaCon presentation in Las Vegas and following the studio’s screening of the film’s trailer – which was met by enthusiastic applause – I had the opportunity to interview producer Lawrence Grey to find out more about the horror film starring Teresa Palmer and Maria Bello.
The Plot: When Rebecca (Palmer) left home, she thought she left her childhood fears behind. Growing up, she was never really sure of what was and wasn’t real when the lights went out…and now her little brother, Martin (Gabriel Bateman), is experiencing the same unexplained and terrifying events that had once tested her sanity and threatened her safety. A frightening entity with a mysterious attachment to their mother, Sophie (Bello), has reemerged. But this time, as Rebecca gets closer to unlocking the truth, there is no denying that all their lives are in danger… once the lights go out.
Lawrence Grey Lights Out Interview:
The trailer is ridiculously scary.
Lawrence Grey: “What’s awesome about this movie is that true horror fans are going to love this movie, but it’s also going to play to people that would never go see a horror film because one of the things you can tell from the tone a little bit is just how fun and playful and what a roller coaster ride it is. It’s super scary in a way that has a lot of integrity. There’s no cheap scares. Everything is very earned but there’s also this really great, real family drama in the center of it and the movie is just so much fun.”
Why did you believe David Sandberg could direct a feature film based on his short film?
Lawrence Grey: “I saw the short before it blew up to the 150 million views. It was really early and it had just kind of debuted on Reddit and was starting to get some traction. The brand of my company is very commercial movies done in an interesting, artistic way. That was exactly how that short hit me. It’s this big genius universal idea. We all know it. We’re all afraid of the dark. We all know that feeling of, ‘I saw that thing out of the corner of my eye. Is that a tree? Is that my laundry? Or is it something more sinister than that?’ There was real craft to how he did it.
The truth is I didn’t know from just the short. I reached out to him. I started talking to him. I could see that there was a real vision and a deep intelligence in that guy. Then really, the step is, we said, ‘Let’s just try to create something.’ We started putting our thoughts together for an outline. It started to really come to life in an amazing way. It started to feel like it was about someone I really knew. David felt the same thing. It was really close to our lives. We were also able to create this iconic horror monster, which is something that we haven’t seen since movies in the ’70s and ’80s. That was a really fun challenge to jump into.”
You decided to keep the monster from being seen right away, so how do you keep the audience involved when they don’t see what’s really going on? Obviously there are some moviegoers who really like to see the monster right away and others who don’t want it fed to them so quickly. How did you know when was the perfect time to show what the monster actually looks like?
Lawrence Grey: “That’s a great question. I think what you do is, what we did in the film anyway, was we decided to tease a little bit of the monster out in the opening of the film to give the audience a little bit of a taste of it to build some anticipation. Then we just had these great roles for these actors and you could feel the effect that the monster had had on them so you were almost experiencing it through that lens so it was in your consciousness as you’re watching the movie. Then, once you can feel their fear, it’s already more horrifying than this expectation. Then when she comes in, we brought the shark out later in the story and it was very effective.”
Your production company has done a psychological thriller but not a straight-out horror film. Why did you decide to delve into the genre with Lights Out?
Lawrence Grey: “My things has always been supporting great film making. It doesn’t matter about the genre. I, as an executive, I worked on 28 Days Later and 28 Weeks Later, Drag Me To Hell, The Hills Have Eyes. Every one of those films was really a bet on Sam Raimi, on Danny Boyle. I felt very similarly with David, that he was someone who had that big world view, had this talent, but needed the support to be able to help him make a great movie. But as I was saying earlier, the idea, the brand of the company is big commercial movies done in the most artistic way and that’s exactly what we look for across genres. For example, we’re doing a spy movie. From 50,000 feet it’s like a Kingsman kind of film, but it’s about the true origin story of MI6. It’s the most interesting, historical, artistic version about the birth of the modern spy.”
Has that ever been done?
Lawrence Grey: “It’s never been done.
I didn’t think so. Why has it taken so long to do that story?
Lawrence Grey: “I think part of it is that around the time that we were building this, MI6 declassified a bunch of documents so we were able to get some of the true historical data that wasn’t available before. Lights Out is very much in keeping with that sort of brand.”
How big was the budget on Lights Out, if you don’t mind saying a ballpark figure?
Lawrence Grey: “It was around $5 million. To put that in context, Lights Out is the only original, non-branded, non-sequel movie of the entire film slate of the summer. Of every single studio. This is a $5 million movie going up against Star Trek and Ice Age on that date, but all the behemoths of the summer.”
How does that feel as a producer to have your film released among the summer’s big tentpoles?
Lawrence Grey: “It’s kind of staggering. It’s really a testament to how good the film is. This movie would not be where it was if it wasn’t all in execution. We have nothing else other than that the movie is great.”
You’ve got a terrific cast led by Teresa Palmer and Maria Bello. Can you talk about having them o board?
Lawrence Grey: “Sure. This is one of those projects where we got our first choice for everything. When I first saw the short, my idea for a writer was this guy Eric Heisserer. I was on the phone with David and he’s like, ‘You’re not going to believe this. I live in Sweden. I don’t know anybody, but I read the Hollywood scripts and that guy’s my favorite writer. Could we really get him?’ Then I went to Eric and Eric’s like, ‘You don’t even need to pitch it to me. I’ve already sent the short to all of my friends. I’m in.’
Then it was the same thing with James [Wan] who gets hit on every day to do this kind of thing. It was the same thing with Teresa and Maria. James was the first one that brought up, ‘What do you think of Teresa Palmer for this?’ They’re both Australian. I was like, ‘God, you think we could get her?’ He’s like, ‘Who knows? She’s never done something like this.’ It was important for us to have actors that you normally see in dramatic films and they’re virgin to the genre. Teresa fell in love, Maria fell in love. This was just as a producer, you just feel blessed.”
It really gives the film some weight. Even if you didn’t know the short or anything else about it, you’d see those two names and be intrigued.
Lawrence Grey: “There’s a scene early on in the film where Teresa and Maria have a fight. The movie’s terrific until that point. At that moment, there’s this incredible, real, dramatic scene that feels like it could be in an Oscar Film. Then all of a sudden the audience just settles in and they’re like, ‘Oh, we’re in for that kind of movie.’ One of the incredible things was we had our preview and there were 26 people in the focus group. They said, ‘How many people thought the movie was excellent?’ Every hand went up. The guy says, ‘What was it? It’s so scary, right?’ They were like, ‘Yeah, but that isn’t the main thing. It’s the performances. It’s the characters.’ They like took a double take and they were like, ‘There probably isn’t a horror film made in 30 years where a test audience would say that.’ We knew something was right about all that.”
How closely did you work with James Wan?
Lawrence Grey: “James is amazing because he thinks about the big picture stuff very early. He got us into design of the monster very early because he knows how hard that is to get right. He was already thinking about mythology in a really deep way early on. It’s also one of those movies where if you don’t lock arms and all get together and work as a team, you’re never going to win with something like this. He’s really good because he was a young filmmaker not so long ago. He’s really good at saying, ‘Here’s what I would do. Here’s some things to think about, but I know this isn’t my film I’m directing. This is your film and, David, you should do it in your own way.'”
With a $5 million budget, was it all practical effects?
Lawrence Grey: “This was one of the big decisions early on. We’re all lovers of authentic horror films. You’re seeing a lot today of things done with a lot of CG. It just feels false to us. Even though it was a much riskier, more herculean task to do it, we all decided to keep the movie completely practical from a monster standpoint. Remember, our director, his background is visual effects, and he’s saying this.
We took real pain-staking effort to get that right, to do it authentic. It takes more time, but we ended up casting this amazing woman who is a professional dancer, contortionist, moves and has a physical appearance like no one you’ve seen, so that already made it seem surreal. Then we created a suit for her with Matthew Mungle, who doesn’t mostly do horror films. He mostly does dramatic films like Mrs. Doubtfire; he created that suit. He made it feel incredibly real. Then we decided to use a lot of tricks of light and dark and to stay in the real world.”
Did it scare you when you saw the actress in the suit on the set?
Lawrence Grey: “It’s so scary every time I would see her on set. It took a couple weeks till you start to feel, ‘Okay, I know that’s not real.'”
And this is going to launch a franchise?
Lawrence Grey: “The audience decides that. We hope we’ve made a really good film and we hope that the audience responds to it. It really is a film for them. We’ve just got our fingers crossed.”
There’s more story to be told, isn’t there?
Lawrence Grey: “Oh yeah. The film, we went very deep into these characters in the mythology so we know them in a pretty profound way, honestly. I think all of us, if we were afforded the opportunity, we could probably tell quite a few stories about them.”