Shortly after Swedish director David Sandberg arrived in Los Angeles last year, he found himself in an awkward spot.
Sandberg and his wife, the emerging actress Lotta Losten, had been invited to a party at a mansion in Beverly Hills. The fete celebrated a box-office milestone for "Furious 7," whose director, James Wan, was producing Sandberg's horror movie "Lights Out."
But Sandberg, so broke he had to borrow money to afford the Airbnb he was renting, shrank away from the glitz.
"Lotta and I just stood in the corner talking to each other in Swedish," Sandberg recalled. "We were trying very hard to look like we belonged, but what we were really saying to each other in Swedish was 'we don't belong.' "
That image — of a penniless outsider thrown into the deep end of the Hollywood glamour pool — encapsulates Sandberg's strange story.
Barely two years ago, the 35-year-old was a debt-ridden wannabe filmmaker who had never held a steady job, let alone made a feature. He had been rejected by the Swedish Film Institute even for a relatively modest shorts investment. Losten and he got by in part on her salary as a worker at a group home.
But a short the couple made in their Gothenburg apartment — about a woman who sees a scary supernatural creature only when the lights are out — changed their fortunes. The piece was made for a contest run by the horror website Bloody Disgusting. Less than three minutes long, with no dialogue or budget (Losten played both the woman and the apparition), "Lights Out" unexpectedly went viral via Reddit — nearly a year after they made it.
Shorts have long spawned features, from Sam Raimi's "Evil Dead"-yielding "Within the Woods" to Damien Chazelle's "Whiplash." But Sandberg's is a curiously modern story, one that highlights both the ease of DIY work and the technology that can help popularize it.
As the online legend of "Lights Out" began to grow, Hollywood agents and producers took notice, culminating in New Line/Warner Bros. making a feature deal. When the resultant movie premieres Wednesday at the Los Angeles Film Festival ahead of its July 22 theatrical release, "Lights Out" will conclude one of the most improbable of modern filmmaking journeys.
"I had a long-term plan to make these little shorts," Sandberg said, "and maybe we could prove to the Swedish Film Institute that we knew we what we're doing, and get money for a longer short, and then eventually money for a Swedish feature."
He paused. "It's been interesting to skip all those steps."
"Lights Out" (the feature) centers on twentysomething Rebecca (Teresa Palmer) and her pre-adolescent brother Martin (Gabriel Bateman), whose mother, Sophie (Maria Bello), suffers from a disassociative mental illness that has her talking to a friend no one else sees. When Rebecca and Martin start spotting an apparition in the dark, they wonder if they too are suffering from a disorder. They set out to discover the truth.
The story is at once steeped in, and flirts with, horror convention. (It is the parent instead of the child, for instance, who here has the ghostly imaginary friend.) For all its tension and jump-scares — this is summer-horror counter-programmer to the bone — "Lights Out" contains hints of larger themes, particularly relating to mental illness. (Losten has a small part.)
Plenty of visual fun is also had with the only-in-the-dark conceit, with set pieces involving candles, black lights and in one high-payoff moment, a car's headlights.
Sandberg had come up with the idea on a whim, as he thought about those innocuous bedroom silhouettes that look more ominous in the midnight dark. He was soon playing with the effects (simple, involving a split screen) and turning the lights on and off. (You can watch the original short here.)
"It's something everyone experiences," Sandberg said. "I was almost surprised no one had explored it before."
He was truly taken aback, though, when months later, in spring 2014, the short went everywhere. "Someone had linked to it on Reddit. I saw it had 8,000 views, and I thought, 'That's awesome.' And then it had 70,000 views, and I thought, 'That's awesome too.' And then it went to a million and it became a crazy circus," he said of the movie, whose minimalist concept and undercurrent of jittery dread helped it hop borders. "I had to make a spreadsheet of all the [industry] people I talked to and what we said the last time we spoke."
One of the people who got in touch was Lawrence Grey, a producer known for variety of genre and other fare from newer creators. ("Hidden," "Last Vegas"). Grey saw in "Lights Out" the potential for a much larger story. He soon brought on veteran horror screenwriter Eric Heisserer (2010's "A Nightmare on Elm Street") and Wan ("Saw," "The Conjuring" franchise), the latter spitballing a series of ideas with Sandberg. Eventually, they all settled on a story that used the simple conceit to tell the tale of a fractured family, mental illness and a supernatural being from the past.
With high-return genre investments such as "Annabelle" and "The Purge" paying off in recent summers, New Line soon greenlighted the movie, fast-tracking it so that it was shooting in a manner of months, keeping Sandberg aboard.
"I was a little shocked they would let me direct, because everything I had ever done on movies was in my apartment by myself," Sandberg said. "I think they thought I was more experienced than I was. They would ask me questions like, 'Do you have a DP you like to work with?' And I would say 'Uh…'" (Sandberg added that he had to adjust to the
note-taking process, even from Wan, "who was such an idea machine that
I thought, 'Does he want me to incorporate everything?' ")
Grey said he realized the flier everyone was taking.
"The first movie set David was ever on was the set of his own Warner Bros. film. So he is very green," the producer laughed. "But I think no matter how many movies you've made, it comes down to taste, and you could tell right away David had it."
He said the director's demeanor ran against "the classic idea of a tyrannical ship-captain. It was just quietly unflappable to get what he needed." Wan's presence also helped, as did that of New Line, which famously gambles on novices. The $5-million budget never hurt either.
Whether "Lights Out" could become a hit remains to be seen – it will open against juggernauts "Star Trek Beyond" and "Ice Age: Collision Course." But regardless of what happens at the box office, Sandberg and Losten have come a long way. They're renting out their apartment in Sweden and have set up camp in L.A. In three weeks, he'll begin directing "Annabelle 2," which like "Lights Out" is backed by New Line/Warner Bros. and Wan's company. Sandberg's real-estate status has been upgraded too — he's now renting a regular place, in Beachwood Canyon.
The wide-eyed qualities, though, have yet to fully wear off. "I still can't believe I'm here," he said. "But every time we come home and look out the window, there's the Hollywood sign and I think, 'Well, i guess we're in Hollywood now.'"