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Horror Business: PUPPET MASTER: THE LITTLEST REICH Co-Director, Sonny Laguna

Sonny Laguna is a Sweden-based director who began his career with a number of super low budget films (costing between $5 and $10K) with his co-director Tommy Wiklund. He eventually got on the radar of S. Craig Zahler as he was writing Puppet Master: The Littlest Reich. Zahler and the team at FANGORIA were so impressed with Sonny & Tommy’s resourcefulness as low budget filmmakers, that they handed them directorial duties on Puppet Master.  

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We spoke to Sonny about his career history, first few films, Puppetmaster, and his advice for aspiring horror filmmakers. Before we dive in, here are Sonny Laguna’s key takeaways for aspiring horror directors.  

  • Embrace your limitations. Sonny’s first few films were extremely low budget ($5-$10K) and had a stripped down and gritty, low-fi look to them which worked in their favor because it gave them a signature style and energy. While it’s important to maximize production value, it’s also important not to constantly fight your film’s budget. 
  • We’ve all seen low budget movies that pretend to be high budget movies and the result is a movie that’s disjointed and pathetic looking. It’s better to polish what you have in front of you than to work in vain to maximize a production value you don’t have. The low-fi look works particularly well for horror because it feels more realistic. The best example of this effect is in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre
  • Write a short story every week. This is a piece of advice that Sonny gives frequently to directors and screenwriters who want to sharpen their ability to tell stories. Bad scripts are often caused by a lack of storytelling ability, writing a story every week is a way to get bad story ideas out of your system while sharpening your storytelling skill. So start writing.
  • Start small. A lot of filmmakers have big elaborate scripts and complicated storylines which can be damn near impossible to make, especially when it’s their first movie. While it’s important to dream big, oversized and overly-complicated projects can inhibit creativity because they overwhelm the director. In the beginning, the most important part is getting a project wrapped and under your belt. Sonny recommends making films with what you have immediate access to. Robert Rodriguez & Kevin Smith did exactly this with their first films. Start small and gradually work your way upwards to bigger projects.
  • Find a complementary collaborator. Sonny and Tommy both have similar sensibilities but different skill sets and different areas of focus. Sonny typically works with the actors while Tommy focuses on the technical aspects of directing. This is the key to their successful partnership; having a similar sensibility but different areas of focus. This enables you maximize the efficiency of your collaboration while preventing conflicts. 

Dread Central: Great to finally meet you Sonny! So you and Tommy started with really low-budget movies and then S. Craig Zahler saw them and put you in touch with FAGORIA and now we have Puppetmaster: the Littlest Reich! Could you talk about how those first few films came about; how you were able to fund them and how you were able to get them out?

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Sonny Laguna: Absolutely. Me, Tommy, and another guy, David, were a trio of filmmakers from a very small town outside of Stockholm. It’s that classic tale of starting to make short films on VHS at the age of 15 … and then all the digital tools became available, and everything became cheaper and cheaper, year after year. And by the time we were 24, we thought, “We need to do a feature film.” And we had given it some early attempts, but all those attempts really sucked. They were horrible.  And they never went anywhere. There was a lot of trial and error, but by around 2008, we said, “Okay, what can we do on basically no budget?”

We came up with this idea that ended up being Madness, our first real feature film. And we said, “Okay, Tommy and David can play the villains. And another one of our childhood friends can play the parts for free.” And we basically just scraped together $10,000 to shoot it.  And we didn’t have much else to do in our spare time, so we could just bomb away night after night, weekend after weekend. In less than a year, we completed the film. And I think what makes us a little bit special is that we’re very lucky to have a three-part team, where we are all very different. 

Me, I am the digital effects guy. Early on, I loved to make 3D effects and composition in After Effects, and just reading online tutorials. But Tom and David were more props-focused, and wanted to do things on camera. And we started to think, “Okay, how can we put these together?”  We were really bad storytellers, but we were very good at putting movies together, scene by scene.

DC: Right.

SL: And Madness sold to three countries, the U.S., France and Germany.

DC: Oh, wow.

SL: It sold pretty quickly, through our French connection. We found him online. We got it sold to the U.S. and got our money back and then some. From that point on, we became really hungry and thought maybe this can actually work out full time.

DC: Where did your sales agent distribute the movie?

SL: We brought the movie to Cannes.

DC: That’s awesome.

SL: The buyers at Cannes probably thought that they were buying a film from a real studio, but it was just three losers in a basement. Then we just continued to bring them out, Blood Runs Cold being our second film, which we did with a $5,000 budget. We never even attempted to get financial backing elsewhere. We just thought, we can do this on our own.

DC: And that got you hungry to make more films and sell more films?

SL: Yeah. Exactly.

DC: So, you made your first feature film for $5,000 and were able to sell it. The movies don’t look low-budget at all. What are the keys to making a low-budget movie look way more expensive than it really is?

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SL: Today, you can obviously never compete with a film shot on these expensive Red cameras, or multi-million-dollar projects where they use great tools for lighting, all that stuff. You have to come up with your own style. Just look at all the tools available to you. You can do so much in post these days. There’s a classic notion of, “Let’s just fix it in post,” but you really can fix a lot of things in post. 

It’s also important to keep developing a keen eye for design and the overall look of a film. If you look at a YouTube video, a skateboarding video or whatever, it’s not supposed to look like film. It’s just real life. But if you look at a Hollywood production or your favorite scary movie, you think, “Why does this look so different? Why does this look almost like a dream state?” You have to pick it apart and think, “Okay, why do they use this color?” And it’s just trial and error from there.

DC: It sounds like it’s a matter of embracing the aesthetic. If you shoot a low-budget movie and it’s not the best camera, but it has a certain aesthetic, embracing that aesthetic can work to your film’s benefit.

SL: It’s finding your own style and trying to maximize that. We’ve actually tried to change up our style throughout the years, but we always come back to a certain type of editing and color grade, and that’s who we are. 

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DC: Like a signature.

SL: Exactly. And I think it’s better to polish what you have than to just try to achieve something that’s just not in you. I’m never gonna be Spielberg.

DC: I’ve seen this issue with a lot of low-budget horror, movies where the directors are fighting against their own budget so much, and trying to overly maximize production value and you just can’t take them seriously.

SL: I think there’s a lot of great color grades out there, but if all the other elements are off or if it just doesn’t come together, it will feel like you just slapped on a few filters. Like plastic.

DC: You had said that if you’re doing something low-budget, one of the most important parts is to have good actors.

SL: Yeah.

DC: So, obviously, the talent fee can eat up a budget. If you have a really, really low budget, how are you able to get really good actors involved?

SL: For our third film, Wither, we talked to a few well-known actors in Sweden, and we said, “This is what we have, this is what we can pay you. But what we do differently is we will have a great time on set, and you will be able to have a lot of say in your character.” That’s what you’re fishing with. If I go in and say, “Hey, I’m the director of this. You gotta listen to me. Blah, blah, blah,” then they’re never gonna like you. You have to become friends with them, basically, that’s always been our goal. If they don’t go home and say, “Hey, these guys were great to work with, I can really recommend them,” we have failed on our part. 

DC: That makes sense. Let’s talk about Mystery Box. As an established feature director, you’re still returning to making shorts.

SL: Yeah.

DC: It seems like a good way to stay sharp, but also a good way to test out concepts for features on a smaller scale. Are shorts something you recommend directors constantly keep doing?

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SL: Yeah. Absolutely. I once had a background guy who contacted me and asked me to read his script. It was horrible. I said to him, “Write a short story every week for a year. Just write it, because you will see the first story you write and the 52nd you write are going to be vastly different.” I think we’ve done a lot of super crappy shorts in our days.

I think we started out doing one horror short every weekend for years, when we were like fifteen years old. But they were total crap. You just shot it and it was done in the camera. You work your way up through your knowledge ladder, so to speak.

I think some young filmmakers make the mistake of being too ambitious from the start and they quickly take on this producer role, instead of being creative all the time. I really recommend just bombing away on a couple shorts, just trying out everything, because there’s so much to learn. Once you learn something in film, you always have it with you for the rest of your life, but if you don’t know what you’re doing, it’s gonna be crap every time.

DC: Very cool. You and Tommy have been collaborators for a long time. What are the keys to having a successful collaboration with another director?

SL: Fight all the time. And hate on each other. Every day. Haha, no. I’ve known Tommy since I was five years old. Tom and me are like brothers. We’ve developed a style over the years where he directs the action, or he gets the timing down and I work more with the actors.

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DC: It’s super smart that you both do completely different things while you’re on set, so you’re not necessarily overlapping. Because it sounds like that’s where conflict starts. Whereas it’s very complementary if you’re both doing different things.

SL: Exactly.

DC: Any parting advice for aspiring filmmakers?

SL: First of all, the most important thing is to have fun. And the next most important thing is to find people to share that fun with, so you don’t feel alone, and you don’t sit around in your basement. And then, like I said earlier, start small. It might feel useless at first or like you’re not getting anywhere, but like I said, shoot one short a week, no matter how bad it is, and start to develop your own style and your own ideas. It’s gonna be a lot of work. And if you think, “Oh, my God, five years is such a long time to develop those skills,” then maybe you should go to school instead, or something.

DC: Right.

SL: There are so many people out there with amazing ideas, but I think they don’t want to fail.  But if you don’t try, you’ve already failed, so you have to try.

DC: Awesome. Thank you again. Really, really great meeting you. I’m a big fan and really looking forward to seeing what you guys do next!

SL: I appreciate it!

Written by Nick Taylor

Nick Taylor is a producer and journalist specializing in horror cinema. With a background in marketing and PR, in addition to writing for Dread Central Nick hosts a horror-filmmaking podcast called The Nick Taylor Horror Show. The interview-style podcast explores the techniques, strategies, and key pieces of advice for aspiring horror filmmakers, straight from the minds of some of the latest and greatest names in horror today (Joe Dante, Mick Garris, William Lustig, Joe Bob Briggs + more).

Nick is currently producing a documentary on Steve Johnson while working on Zombie Road, a feature-length immersive zombie movie on the Oculus Rift platform that integrates film & real actors into a cinematic video game platform in virtual reality.

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