‘Lights Out’ Director David F. Sandberg On Creating The Perfect Scare

NME chats to the director of this summer's huge horror smash 'Lights Out'.

Lights Out, David F. Sandberg’s 2013 short about an evil entity that can only stalk you in the darkness, clocked in at under three minutes long. Yet it proved so popular online that the Swedish film-maker was whisked to Hollywood to turn it into a feature-length movie that grossed nearly $150 million (£120 million) this summer. Ahead of it arriving on DVD, Blu-Ray and home download, NME chats to Sandberg about Lights Out‘s success, his next film Annabelle 2, and the future of the horror movie genre.

Why do you think your original short film really captured people’s imaginations?
“I think it’s the fear of the dark that’s so universal. I’m sure a lot of people have experienced that same thing it’s based on: when you turn off the lights at night, you think you see something there in the shadows. So then you have to turn the lights back on again just to check.”

What was the most challenging aspect of turning your short into a feature-length film?
“I mean, everything was pretty hard to be honest. I’d only ever worked on such a small scale in Sweden with really small amounts of money. I’d never even been on a film set before, but all of a sudden I came to this new country and I was just supposed to be in charge of a movie production. And I hardly even knew what all the different people on set did. I had to ask the first assistant director when to say ‘action!’ because I didn’t know the procedures of a film set. I’d always done everything by myself – all the technical aspects of film-making – so I’d never had to explain to people what I wanted to do. And what I realised is that’s pretty much all directing is: telling people what you want.”

What makes a great scare? What are the vital ingredients?
“Mood, obviously, but also having characters you care about – characters you don’t want to see die. It’s also about using suspense and not just having jump-scares that come out of nowhere.”

Is there such a thing as too much suspense – can you over-egg it?
“No, I don’t think so! I loved that movie Don’t Breathe because it was pretty much suspense the whole time. To me, you can’t have too much of it.”

When you’re in the editing suite, how you decide what gets cut to maximise suspense and make the film as scary as possible?
“I try to cut out as much as possible, pretty much. The editor was cutting Lights Out while we were shooting so as soon as we wrapped, I could see a first rough cut. And I hated it, I thought it was terrible! So it was a matter of cutting out all these things that I hated and just tweaking, tweaking, tweaking. Which is why, you know, Lights Out is only about 82 minutes long.”

That’s pretty short, even for this genre.

Warning: This answer contains spoilers. If you’d prefer to avoid them, skip to the next question.


“Well, the reason it’s so short is because we cut out the film’s original ending after our first test screening. Seeing the film in front of an audience was great at first because they were laughing when they were supposed to laugh and they were scared when they were supposed to be scared. But then, when we got the test score back, it was actually not very good. When we read the cards people had filled out, they said they hated the ending we had. A few people actually wrote across the cards, ‘Get rid of the second ending!’ Originally the movie kept going for about nine minutes longer than it does now. And you know, Diana came back once more and people hated that. They thought that made it so that Sophie’s sacrifice had been in vain. So we just cut off the ending to where it ends now, did another test screening and the scores were fantastic. It really showed the importance of having a satisfying ending and not overstaying your welcome because it can drag the whole movie down.”

You’ve just finished shooting Annabelle 2. How does it differ from the first film?
“The only thing they have in common really is the doll. It has more differences than it has common things, really. I hope it surprises people. I hope they’ll think, ‘Hey, here’s a sequel that’s actually better than the original.’ Maybe it’s a little bit more towards The Conjuring than Annabelle. It’s almost done – we’ve already had test screenings and stuff, there’s just a couple of things I want to pick up and tweak with some additional photography.”

Lights Out was made for a pretty small budget and did really well at the box office. Do you feel as though horror movies are still undervalued in Hollywood?
“Yes, and I think that’s a shame actually. Because they can make a lot of money on a low budget, it’s almost assumed that we don’t have to spend a lot of money on it, which makes horror suffer in a lot of ways. It’s sort of looked down upon as that cheap thing they gotta do just to make money, when I think there’s potential for a lot more from horror.”

How do we we go about improving horror’s reputation?
“I guess spend more time on stories. I think a lot of independent horror is doing great, interesting stories – look at The Witch and It Follows. There have been moments in history where horror has been less looked down upon – think about The Exorcist, that film was up for a bunch of Academy Awards. But I don’t really know what it takes; maybe it takes more established directors trying their hand at it.”

Finally, it’s Halloween tonight, so what are your perfect Halloween movies?
“You mean, except for Halloween? I mean, I like horror movies with monsters or aliens in them like The Thing or The Descent. I hope to make something like that at some point in my career. And one of my older favourites is Village Of The Damned, that’s a great movie. I actually didn’t see Halloween when I was younger, I was quite old the first time I saw it, but I think it still works. Maybe it’s not the scariest movie ever made but it still has that great horror feeling.”

Lights Out comes toDVD, Blu-Ray and home Digital Download from December 12. Pre-order here