After the few times I’ve sat down to chat with David F. Sandberg, I’ve come to the conclusion that he’s the least “Hollywood” director I’ve ever met. After doing this for a little while, you get used to a certain dialect when it comes to the movie/TV folks.
There’s the posturing, the back-patting, the praise for previous projects and co-workers. It’s an industry of connections, and no one is eager to step on any toes. And I get that. Everyone is under contract, constantly aware that any slip up to the likes of me will mean a quick front page headline and maybe losing a future job.
And even if one of your co-stars was terrible to work with, who knows if in a few years they will be directing. This is an industry where you’re not just selling this movie/show, but yourself as a professional. It’s exhausting.
And then in walks David F. Sandberg, with a scruffy beard and t-shirt I swear he got straight from my closet. He walks the press line, shakes hands, answers questions, and does it all without sounding like he’s trying to get you to buy the extra warranty package on your new dishwasher. Mind you, he’s not just going about breaking NDAs and telling everyone who’s hard to work with. You can just tell he’s honestly happy to be here, making movies.
Hell, maybe he just hasn’t had enough time to become Hollywood-ified. He’s only been in the US for two years, getting his shot at major motion pictures when the Lights Out (2013) short film went viral. Even before Lights Out proved to be a critical and commercial success, he was already slated to direct Annabelle 2 (now revealed to be Annabelle: Creation). And now, with Lights Out 2 confirmed, whispers abound that he’s on the hook for the DCEU Shazam! film.
It’s a lot of success for such a short period of time. And yet, when I sit down to do our scheduled interview at WonderCon 2017, he’s the one that asks first how I’ve been since we last talked.
Between Lights Out 2 and Annabelle: Creation, I had a lot of questions. So I figured I’d just start with asking something that I’m sure most horror fans are wondering.
Ted: All right, so you’re walking into the Annabelle franchise. Everyone loved The Conjuring, not the case with Annabelle. It made money, but pretty much everyone hated it. So was there a lot of pressure to make a good movie in that franchise?
David: [long pause] “Eh, no, it was actually kind of the opposite. And I kind of hate to say that because the first Annabelle certainly had its moments. There’s some cool stuff in there, like the elevator scene or the shot where the little girl is running at the door and becomes a big girl. But yeah, it would have been more pressure if this was The Conjuring 3. I wouldn’t have wanted to do that.
Ted: I think that a lot of horror fans are going to liken this to Mike Flanagan’s Ouija: Origin of Evil. Origin story to a critically underwhelming movie that looks to be better than the first. Very different movie from the source material. Where do you see yourself compared to these other new “hot” horror directors?
David: Man, I don’t know. I came to this country two years ago, and now my second movie is coming out. I’m still on this rollercoaster. I haven’t really even had time to reflect on it. I started working on Annabelle: Creation before Lights Out even finished. I actually had to leave early shooting Annabelle just to go to the Lights Out premiere.
Ted: So let’s talk a minute about the financial part of this. Of course you want to make money, and of course the studio wants to make more movies to make more money. How do you balance making enough money to get the next film greenlit and pleasing the fans?
David: I mean, the fans loving it is always the most important thing. If you have a fanbase, even if it’s small, you can find someone who believes in that enough to get something made. It takes an audience to sell tickets. If you can show that the audience cares, you don’t have to sacrifice your integrity for it.
Ted: But your fans are your fans because of what you did with your shorts and Lights Out. You were always doing your own thing before. Now you’re stepping into this established franchise, an IP that isn’t yours. Are your fans going to see your style shining through in this?
David: Absolutely. It’s more than just the style of it. For instance, my wife, Lotta, and I made a short called Attic Panic a few years ago. People kept telling us we should make a film out of Attic Panic, but to me there was just no story there. So instead I took elements of that and put it into this. For example, there’s a sheet scene you’ll recognize from that short in Annabelle: Creation. Also the lightbulbs unscrewing themselves. What’s awesome was getting to do that on a Hollywood scale. I mean, I couldn’t get a lightbulb to unscrew itself practically when I was doing this for nothing. But now I can do it with remote controls and stuff, and it’s just great.
Ted: Speaking of your previous works, you mentioned during the WB panel that you’re working on more stuff with your wife. Lotta has been your creative collaborator for as long as you’ve been doing this. And yet, just today, you got a question about if she’s your “good luck charm.” Does that ever get to you?
David: Yeah, it’s annoying. People ask me things like, “Does she even like being in the movies?” They don’t get that we’re making these together. But that’s just people. We’re still working on more stuff together, and I think over time people will realize we’re a team.
Ted: Nothing you can talk about right now yet?
David: Studios can be pretty strict on that, so for now just know there’s a lot on the horizon.
Ted: Can’t you give me any hints?
David: I’ll say that I’ve been incredibly lucky and happy with how things have gone. Warner Bros. have been very pleased with my work so far and with how Annabelle: Creation has turned out. So I’ll be happy to keep making films for them.
Ted: All right, fine… be cryptic. Let me just slightly shift the question. It’s clear at this point that they are trying to make The Conjuring a universe. We had Annabelle and now The Nun coming up. Now obviously you can’t talk to me about if there’s going to be an Annabelle 3, but how did that franchise building influence your filmmaking?
David: That didn’t factor in at all.
Ted: So there wasn’t a “You have to make a new monster so we can make a spin-off of that?”
David: [laughs] Uh, yeah, well, we did sorta put a monster in this that some people have said should be a spin-off. But I’m like, “Eh, no, I don’t think so.” My number one priority was just making a good movie. If you make a good enough movie, you can expand the franchise. That’s what The Conjuring did.
Ted: So how has the respect for you changed on set since Lights Out? I know that you previously said that you’d suggest something and get pushback, but as soon as James Wan came on set, everyone would be on board.
David: No, I’m not getting that pushback anymore. And it was never really pushback from the studio, but from some of the crew. I get it… they came from all of these big movies, and here’s this guy that doesn’t know how it all works. But then if James came in and said it, they trusted he knew what he was doing. After Lights Out people respect that I know what I’m doing.
Ted: Speaking of knowing what you’re doing, you have a really unique visual style. So many horror movies suffer from stale camera work. Set up a static frame, open a medicine cabinet, close the medicine cabinet, spooky ghost in the mirror. Everyone sees it coming now. But one of the things I saw in the clip today is you managed to keep the visuals active. So what influenced that?
David: Well, the cinematography in Annabelle: Creation was inspired by the 1963 film The Haunting. That film had just incredible cinemascope photography. These older movies had such intricate long shots with these beautiful camera movements. That’s what I enjoyed the most about making this movie. These long crane shots. I’m falling in love with the technocrane. It’s so nice to have money in my films now. I don’t have a technocrane at home.
Ted: I want to ask you a more general question about the industry. I know you’re just one guy who has only been here two years, but what do you think about the direction horror is taking right now? How has it changed?
David: I really like where it’s at right now. It’s a lot more about suspense, not the torture porn craze. I mean, this all goes in cycles, but I’m certainly glad it eased up on found footage. I grew up with wisecracking villains like Freddy Krueger and Chucky, which I do miss. Horror has gotten a bit more serious and mature. And as a result you have really serious horror movies like The Witch. With these awesome movies coming out like Don’t Breathe and The Green Room, it’s a very exciting time to be in horror.
Ted: All right, last question. What can you tell me about Lights Out 2?
David: Two things. First, we’re going a totally different direction with it. This is not going to just be the same movie over again. I’m not interested in making that. Second, there’s a controversy I have to address regarding Lights Out. Some people took the ending as being pro-suicide. I want to be very clear when I say that I in no way was promoting a pro-suicide message. I want to make clear in the sequel that suicide doesn’t fix anything. That’s all I can say about it.
With that, our time was up. We chatted a bit about his favorite movies while I packed up and nerded out about the new IT trailer. David F. Sandberg is one of those guys I just feel weird every time I have to write his full name. After only ten minutes talking to him, he’s just David. He’s a real horror fan and a guy who got the shot at living his dream. More importantly, he’s a solid horror director who loves the genre.
Needless to say, you’ll see me in the theater when Annabelle: Creation opens on August 11th. I hope to see you there, too. It’s worth it to support a director that really cares about what he does. So check out the above trailer again, and tell me below if you’re also looking forward to it.