Exclusive Interview: David F. Sandberg on Short Films, Annabelle: Creation and Shazam!
I was shocked by how much I loved Lights Out when I saw it back in 2016. The film came out of nowhere and after seeing it, I wanted to research its origins. I learned that the idea was based on a short film that was written and directed by David F. Sandberg and starred his wife Lotta Losten. The couple made the film for an online short film festival back in 2013 and it went viral. With how many videos go viral nowadays, I was shocked that a big studio like Warner Brothers watched the short film and decided to turn it into a feature length film. Luckily, it all worked out because the end result was one of the most inventive horror films of the last several years.
Before Lights Out became a huge hit, David F. Sandberg had already signed to direct the prequel to Annabelle. After being somewhat disappointed with the standalone Annabelle film, I was hoping that Sandberg would be able to go two for two and turn this prequel into a horror film worth seeing. I was lucky enough to attend the Annabelle: Creation World Premiere at The Theatre at Ace Hotel back in June as part of the LA Film Festival. If you are interested in reading my thoughts on the film itself, please check out my review here: THE HAUNTED HOUSE THRILL RIDE THAT ‘CONJURING’ FANS HAVE BEEN YEARNING FOR.
After being blown away by David F. Sandberg once again, I reached out to my friends at Warner Brothers about the film’s press day. I was lucky enough to interview several members of the cast including Lulu Wilson, Talitha Bateman, Anthony LaPaglia, and Miranda Otto as well as Sandberg to discuss his incredible dream career thus far.
Scott Menzel: Your career started when you were making short films with your wife and uploading them to the internet. A few years later, you are flown from Sweden to Los Angeles to meet with James Wan and are offered to direct a feature length version of your short film.
David Sandberg: Yeah.
Scott Menzel: You surprise everyone with Lights Out and knock it out of the park. Then you do this film, which has gotten rave reviews since it’s premiere at the LA Film Festival. And now, just a few weeks ago, it was officially announced that you will be directing Shazam. So what has this been like for you? It’s honestly gotta be a dream come true.
David Sandberg: It definitely is, that is very true. The thing was, when this all started happening with Lights Out, my wife looked at me … We were sort of like, “Okay let’s not get too wrapped up in this, we’ll play along, but we’ll know that this can go away at any moment.” It’s been such a ride since then, nonstop with things going on, so it’s now that we’re like, “Okay, maybe this is real, maybe this is a thing.” But yeah, we just didn’t dare to hope that it would be real, but it seems pretty real, which is amazing.
Scott Menzel: You premiered Lights Out at LA Film Festival, then you premiered this Annabelle: Creation at LA Film Festival. What was the difference between the two besides the size of venue obviously.
David Sandberg: The sense of relief was the biggest with Lights Out, just because it was like, “Okay, this is my first movie, this better work, or I have to go back to Sweden.” Which is still a nice place but, you know. So it was just a huge sense of relief that, “Okay the audience is responding, this seems to have actually worked.” With Annabelle it’s the same relief, but not on that level, it didn’t feel like so much was riding on that movie. But yeah, I was just very appreciative that the audiences respond to it, because I’m my worst critic, so putting this together, it’s like, “Oh, this is not gonna work, people are gonna hate this, and they’re gonna hate me, and it’s all gonna be over.” And then I’m pleasantly surprised.
Scott Menzel: I’ve called you one of the most inventive people in horror.
David Sandberg: Well, thank you.
Scott Menzel: You create a certain level of atmosphere in all your films, and there’s a unique quality about the scares. I feel like it’s so easy just to throw jump scares into horror movies. But you build this tension and you build this atmosphere. What is that process like? How do you go about creating those elements in your films?
David Sandberg: I try to as much as possible, because it’s that building of tension that’s so important, because as you say, you can make people jump, it’s just a loud noise when they least expect it. The hard part is building up to it, when they know that something’s gonna come, and then still try to surprise them. A lot of those scenes are hard because you are always trying to think of little ways of tricking people, for example when Bee’s at the window, you have the reflection of the normal Bee in the window so people will feel safe and think “Oh, okay, it’s probably not gonna be a monster, because we see the reflection of her.” Trying to stay one step ahead, but it’s hard.
Scott Menzel: Did you come up with the stairwell scene or was that in the script? The one with the wheelchair?
David Sandberg: It was in the script. Yeah, that chair and everything, yeah.
Scott Menzel: How many days did it take to shoot that scene?
David Sandberg: I don’t know, a day maybe?
Scott Menzel: Oh okay, it was one of the most standout scenes for me because it was so unique, and it was thrilling, and just really intense. Because you knew where it was going, but at the same time it just had everyone on the edge of their seat.
David Sandberg: Yeah, it was a lot of fun because you have that inevitability once the chair starts going up, and it’s like, “Oh, she can’t get away.” But yeah, it was a lot of fun. That chairlift, we bought that from a company in Europe that actually makes real stair lifts. And it was gonna be delivered like the day before we started shooting, so everyone was really worried, and then the company was starting to get cold feet because they were like, “Well we don’t want to put our product in a horror movie where things go bad.” But we convinced them that, listen, no one’s gonna know it’s your product because we’re gonna modify it and make it look totally different. So yeah, hopefully no one can tell what company made that.
Scott Menzel: What was the process like rebuilding that house?
David Sandberg: That was the dream, that was all shot on location, and I finally got to do the real Hollywood experience. Because I visited the set of Conjuring 2 when James was shooting that, and they’d built this whole house on a sound stage at Warner Brothers and they had made this big hole in the wall, and I asked, “What’s that about?” “Well James wanted the camera further back, so we took out the wall.” And I was like, “Oh, I want that, I want to be able to do that.” But it was also kind of weird to have this house built, because I’m used to showing up to a place and then figuring out, “Okay, what kind of scary stuff can we do here.” So, it was kind of weird to design the house however I wanted, but it was sort of the wrong way around for me, but I had to think, “Well let’s do it like this, and I can do that,” but a lot of it was figured out once it was built and you could walk around in it. So it was just figuring out building the house in such a way that there was potential for scares, lots of nooks and cranny’s and hallways.
Scott Menzel: I thought the house was great. I love the fact that they actually built the house for the film because I feel like it really adds something to the movie. I don’t think everyone realizes that by actually recreating something, it makes a big difference compared to having a set. I noticed a couple nods to Lights Out in this movie in terms of lighting.
David Sandberg: And some to my short films as well.
Scott Menzel: Right. So, how did you manage to squeeze those in, did you plan for each one of those to be in there?
David Sandberg: Well that scene in the barn, with the scarecrow, when the lights are unscrewing, that was sort of a later addition. Because originally in that scene we had Carrow run into evil Mrs. Mullins, but that scene, I wasn’t really happy with it. It wasn’t bad, we tested the movie with that scene and no one complained about it, but I was like, “I think I can do better than that,” so I wanted another shot at it. And then, people who have seen my short film Attic Panic have told me like, “You should make a movie out of that.” But there’s no story there, so I don’t think that would be possible. So instead I just took those elements with the twisting light bulbs and put it in this one instead. Which was cool because when I did the short I had to CGI the light bulb bulbs turning and it didn’t really work out that great. But on this one we had our physical effects team and prop guys who could actually make remote controlled light bulbs that would screw out and fall down. So that was really cool.
Scott Menzel: That’s awesome. What do you think makes kids so scary in horror movies? I feel like that’s become the formula of Hollywood in the last ten years, throw a kid in a horror movie and it automatically becomes somewhat creepy. They always tend to work for me because I think there’s just something creepy about kids in general.
David Sandberg: Yeah, I don’t know, maybe it’s that thing of we expect an innocence about kids, or something, so when they turn bad it’s extra creepy. I’m not really sure. I don’t plan on ever having kids, so they kind of already scare me, a little bit. They’re great to work with though, these girls were awesome.
Scott Menzel: Yeah, I was gonna ask you about Lu Lu. She seems like a fricking child prodigy.
David Sandberg: Yeah, she’s been in a few horror movies now which was cool because Ouija hadn’t come out when we were shooting this, so I hadn’t seen it. I had seen Deliver Us from Evil but I didn’t remember her in it. So to me she came out of nowhere when I auditioned her. And she was just perfect for the part. Not only is she a great actress but she has that very innocent look in her face.
Scott Menzel: Yeah, she amazed me. She was telling me she was writing scripts already. She actually wrote a script for Stranger Things, she just told me about it.
David Sandberg: Oh yeah? Like a spec script for Stranger Things?
Scott Menzel:Yeah, she was like, “Oh I wrote a script for Stranger Things Season 2.” I was like, “Really? How old are you?”
David Sandberg: Yeah, I know, she’s really cool.
Scott Menzel: She’s just amazing. So, the first Annabelle made a lot of money, but the reaction to it was pretty hit or miss. This one is now coming out and everyone seems to be loving it so far. Was there any pressure on you knowing that the first movie was kind of a disappointment to a lot of people?
David Sandberg: No, kind of the other way around. There’s this script floating around in Hollywood for a sequel to the Shining. And that’s something I could never do, because the Shining is such an iconic film. How do you build on that? This felt a little bit more like, “Okay, I can actually do something here that I think people could appreciate and not be like ‘he ruined the first Annabelle.'” So I felt pretty comfortable. I just hope now that the people who were put off by the first Annabelle still go see this and that they weren’t so put off by that film that they’ve sworn off Annabelle forever.
Scott Menzel: My last question because you’re leaving this genre and moving on to Shazam. Are you nervous about that or are you excited? It’s a totally different type of film for you it seems.
David Sandberg: I’m excited. But I still intend to return to horror, because that’s…
Scott Menzel: Your baby.
David Sandberg: Yeah, but I’m excited about it because when in Sweden for many years, I was kind of making a living doing animated comedy stuff. And this will be quite a fun movie, and it’ll have a lighter tone than the other DC movies that have been made so far. So it’s not that foreign to me, I’ve done lighter stuff as well, and I’m just excited to try my hand at that.
Scott Menzel: I’m excited to see you too. Alright, thank you so much.
David Sandberg: Thank you so much.
Scott Menzel: It was so nice to see and talk to you again. I look forward to talking to you again when Shazam is released.
David Sandberg: Same here. Have a great one.
Annabelle: Creation opens nationwide on Friday, August 11, 2017.