Producer Lawrence Grey loves horror movies. But he still shivers, remembering a 2 1/2 minute video that starts on a rainy Scandinavian night. A ordinary woman is getting ready for bed in her small apartment. She switches off the hall light and, in the darkness at the other end of the hall, she sees a shadow. A silhouette. Something almost human. But not quite.
"She turns the lights back on, silhouette's gone," Grey recalls. "Turns lights off again, silhouette reappears."
A nifty visual that gets really creepy, really quickly. It plays on those moments of not quite trusting one's perceptions, of glimpsing something in the dark or from the corner of the eye and not being certain if it's real.
David Sandberg directed that short movie, Lights Out. At the time he was a haphazardly employed freelance filmmaker in Gothenburg, Sweden. "It cost zero dollars," he happily confided from his current perch at the Warner Brothers set in Burbank, Calif. Working with Grey, he adapted Lights Out into a $5 million horror feature now poised to be one of this summer's sleeper hits. And in a bit of Hollywood Cinderella-ism, Sandberg directed the feature as well.
That's rare in Hollywood, especially for a filmmaker who's entirely self-taught. Sandberg learned about filmmaking partly from YouTube tutorials. His wife, Lotta Losten, helped support him by working at a group home for adults with mental illness. The couple amused themselves by making short horror movies at home. She starred, he shot.
"And we used IKEA lights and like, I built a dolly myself, and we shot [Lights Out] in an evening after Lotta got off work," Sandberg recalls.
They entered Lights Out in a contest sponsored by the horror site Bloody Disgusting. It did not win. But the video found fans among Hollywood agents, producers and managers. Sandberg's phone began to ring.
"I had to make, like, a spreadsheet with everyone I'd talked to and what was said last just to keep track of it all," Sandberg says. He chose producer Lawrence Grey, who connected the newbie director with one of the most powerful figures in Hollywood: James Wan. Wan's cheapie 2004 horror movie Saw spawned a six-part franchise that's earned nearly $500 million. Now Wan's synonymous with such low-budget, highly lucrative horror series as Insidious and The Conjuring.
Wan co-produced Lights Out — especially helpful, given that Sandberg had no idea how to direct an actual movie. He didn't know when to say "action," let alone how to work with a crew. To trust a filmmaker so lacking in fundamentals might sound imprudent, but Grey said he trusted Sandberg's vision. He added that, when it comes to low budget horror, financiers can afford to take risks.
"They know they can take the movie to video with the players involved and make a small profit," he said, outlining a worse-case scenario.
Grey admitted to another challenge when it came to adapting a full-fledged feature from a 2 1/2 minute short: "There is no story."
The upside, he said, was getting to build a narrative from scratch, and use the opportunity to subvert horror tropes and clichés. Partly for budgetary reasons, Lights Out turned into an intimate family drama, where a mother, not a child, is haunted by an imaginary friend.
"How do you make that believable?" Grey wondered rhetorically. The answer was by creating a believable history of addiction and mental illness, layering realistic sadness and stress on the family's relationships. Of course, Lights Out is an escapist thriller, but the emotional poignancy and heart resonated with an audience that screamed and shook through an early screening a few weeks ago at VidCon in Anaheim, Calif.
"It was fantastic," said audience member Angela Garner as the credits rolled. "I haven't seen a scary movie like that in a while and it was perfect. I'd been looking for something like that. It had the perfect amount of jump scares in the right moments. It was awesome."
Critics who, at the time of this writing, have given Lights Outs strongly positive reviews on Rotten Tomatoes, say there's a good chance Lights Out will also goose the late summer box office.
MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Heading to the movies is another way many Americans try to cope with the summer heat. And one of this summer's sleeper hits could be a new horror film that started out as a two-and-a-half-minute online video. A Hollywood producer saw the short on YouTube and then hired its creator to turn it into a major motion picture called "Lights Out." It opened Friday, and NPR's Neda Ulaby gives us the improbable backstory.
NEDA ULABY, BYLINE: Producer Lawrence Grey loves horror movies, but he still shivers when he remembers running across a video that starts on a rainy Scandinavian night.
A middle-aged woman is getting ready for bed in her small apartment. She switches off the hall light, and, in the darkness, at the other end of the hall, she sees a figure, a silhouette.
LAWRENCE GREY: Of something - doesn't know what it is. She turns the lights back on - silhouette's gone. Turns the lights off again - silhouette reappears.
ULABY: We've all shared those moments of not quite trusting our perceptions, says Grey, of glimpsing something and not being sure if it's real. The woman keeps flipping the light, testing, and then the figure is suddenly very close. This short movie only gets scarier.
That explains why director David Sandberg's now sitting on the Warner Brothers lot on a break from directing his next studio film.
DAVID SANDBERG: I had no idea that a two-and-a-half-minute short could lead to all of this.
ULABY: Sandberg's working now on another horror movie with a far bigger budget than for that short, "Lights Out."
SANDBERG: It cost zero dollars.
ULABY: Two years ago, Sandberg was struggling. He was a freelance filmmaker in Gothenburg where his wife, Lotta Losten, helped support him by working in a group home for adults who are mentally ill. The couple amused themselves by making short horror movies at home. She starred. He shot.
SANDBERG: And we used IKEA lights, and, like, I had built a dolly myself. And we shot it in an evening after Lotta got off work.
ULABY: They entered "Lights Out" in an online contest, which it did not win, but the video found fans among Hollywood agents, producers and managers, who all began to call.
SANDBERG: I had to make, like, a spreadsheet with everyone I'd talked to and what was said last just to keep track of it all.
ULABY: David Sandberg picked Lawrence Grey to help develop his movie, partly because Grey was open to letting him direct it, as a $5 million feature.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "LIGHTS OUT")
GABRIEL BATEMAN: (As Martin) Every time I turn off the lights, there’s this woman waiting in the shadows.
TERESA PALMER: (As Rebecca) I see her, too.
ULABY: Producer Lawrence Grey connected the newbie director with one of the most powerful people in Hollywood, James Wan. His cheapie horror movie "Saw" from 2004 became a six-part franchise that's earned nearly half a billion dollars. Wan agreed to co-produce "Lights Out," helpful given that Sandberg had no idea how to direct actual movies. He had to ask questions like...
SANDBERG: When are you supposed to say action? Because there's so much going on so, like, I didn't know.
ULABY: To trust a filmmaker so lacking in fundamentals might sound imprudent, but producer Lawrence Grey said this Swedish newcomer brought vision. And to be honest, he said, when it comes to low-budget horror, financiers can afford to take risks.
GREY: If we totally S the bed, they know that they can put the movie to video with the players involved and make a small profit.
ULABY: As with movies such as "Paranormal Activity 4" or "Insidious Chapter 3." But Grey admits to the challenge of adapting a full-fledged film out of a two-and-a-half-minute long video.
GREY: There is no story.
ULABY: That meant, said Grey, they got to invent a story from scratch and subvert horror tropes and cliches. So it's not a child with a creepy imaginary friend. It's a mother.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "LIGHTS OUT")
MARIA BELLO: (As Sophie) A long time ago, I had a friend named Diana.
GREY: How do you do that? How do you make that believable?
ULABY: By making a family story scarier, said producer Lawrence Grey, with addiction and mental illness. "Lights Out" has thrilled horror fans during early screenings at festivals and conventions, including VidCon in Anaheim, Calif. There, audience member Angela Garner said "Lights Out" delivered.
ANGELA GARNER: It was fantastic. Like, I haven't seen a scary movie like that in a while. And it was perfect. Like, I've been looking for something like that (laughter) - had like the perfect amount of jump scares in the right moments. It was awesome.
ULABY: Professional critics say there's a good chance "Lights Out" will also goose the late-summer box office. Neda Ulaby, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.