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Lights Out director David Sandberg defends the ending of his horror hit

Photo: Warner Bros.
Photo: Warner Bros.

It’s a good week to be David F. Sandberg. Lights Outthe director’s first feature, expanded from his freaky three-minute short of the same name—is the sleeper horror hit of the summer. The film, about a malevolent specter that can only attack under cover of darkness, has already made back its modest $4.9 million budget sixfold, earning mostly positive reviews in the process. And on Wednesday, New Line announced that it had already green-lit a sequel, which Sandberg will direct after he wraps up Annabelle 2, a plum gig he scored earlier this year, months before Lights Out opened.

If there’s a dark cloud hanging over all this good news, it’s the way a few critics (this one included) have responded to the movie’s symbolic treatment of depression, especially in its final scenes. (Fair warning: Major plot spoilers are imminent, both in this intro and in the interview that follows.) As I wrote in the review’s Spoiler Space, Lights Out ends with Sophie (Maria Bello) realizing that Diana, the specter tormenting her family, is directly linked to her own consciousness. So to kill the monster, she kills herself—an ending that felt, to this writer anyway, dangerously close to an endorsement of suicide as a way to free your family from the burden of your depression.

Well, Sandberg took notice of my take and—distressed that his film could be interpreted as pro-suicide—dropped into the comments of the Spoiler Space to try and explain the creative rationale of that ending. Members of the Lights Out team then proposed an official interview. A few days later, Sandberg called from the set of Annabelle 2, and I talked to him for a few minutes about Lights Out—not to hold his feet to the fire (I probably did that enough in the review), but to give him an opportunity to extrapolate on the film’s origins and intentions. We also talked about the film’s effective effects, its subversion of genre clichés, and working with The Conjuring mastermind James Wan.

Photo: Warner Bros.

The A.V. Club: Thanks for taking the time to talk today. Let’s discuss Lights Out and how it deals with the subject of depression.

David F. Sandberg: When we were starting to talk about making a feature film out of Lights Out, I figured I wanted to do something about depression, because I’ve suffered from depression for over a decade now. And I had a friend who committed suicide. To me, it’s the most terrifying thing there is. So I wrote this treatment for something that was a bit more arthouse, where it was very much an allegory for depression. [Diana] wasn’t a ghost like she is now, for example. So what happened was, you know, Hollywood. During development it turned into more of a fun popcorn-horror film. Which is not necessarily bad. And it retained that original idea of dealing with depression and mental illness and all that.

AVC: The sticking point for some, myself included, is the ending. You’ve mentioned an alternate one you shot.

DFS: Originally, we actually shot—not a different ending, but sort of an additional ending. After the whole thing went down at the house, the movie actually went on for almost 10 more minutes where we find out that this didn’t get rid of Diana, you know, and now depression has consumed Martin instead because his mom’s suicide affected him that much. She came back one more time and they dealt with her once and for all. But the interesting thing was that when we showed that to test audiences, they just hated it. They fill out these forms and there were people who wrote just across the entire form, “Get rid of the second ending.” They found that having Diana return made Sophie’s sacrifice in vain. It was really interesting because you hear about test audiences and you think, “Oh, it’s going to be all dumb ideas.” But it was surprising to find that it was actually something thoughtful.

AVC: So this wasn’t a case of you being pressured by the studio because of the way the test audiences responded so much as you saying, “Maybe they’re onto something”?

DFS: Yeah. Because they felt that Sophie was sort of sacrificing herself for her children and to save their lives, and if Diana just came back right after, then, you know, she’d done that for nothing. So what we did was, we tried just cutting off the movie where it now ends and showing it to test audiences again and people loved the movie. The scores went up like 30 percent or something, just from cutting off the last few minutes. But now it was this feeling of, “Oh, shit.” Even though people loved it, it could kind of be interpreted as… that suicide helped them, that it was the solution.

AVC: That she releases them by doing it.

DFS: Yeah. Which, it’s like, “God, I hope people don’t do this.” We added at least a little thing at the end: They’re sitting in the ambulance, and we added the lights flickering to just show that, “Okay, maybe it isn’t over yet.” To me, some people have sort of said, “Oh, it’s a happy ending; she shoots herself and everyone’s happy.” But I think it’s going to ruin them. You see it in Martin’s eyes and Rebecca’s screams. To me, this is something they’re going to have to live with for the rest of their lives. This is something big. That was my hope. I read your review and I’ve seen some other people online interpreting it that way, and it’s like, “Fuck.” Now, since it’s made a lot of money already, they want to make a sequel, so it feels like—I really want to do that, just to be able to sort of show what happens after.

AVC: Oh, you’re addressing this directly in the sequel?

DFS: That’s the plan.

AVC: Can you talk about that, or is it still too much in the embryonic stage?

DFS: It’s early days. I just want to focus on the aftermath of everything that went down. Just the technical details as well. People are like, “Well, how did they explain what happened to the police?” I figured that the likeliest thing—the police would probably assume that it was Sophie, and that will tear the family apart even more, and she’ll get blamed for all this. It’s early days. But it feels like now, especially having read some of these reactions, I have to make it right, you know? And show the intention.

Sandberg and Teresa Palmer on the set of Lights Out (Photo: Warner Bros.)

AVC: Maria Bello, who plays Sophie, wrote in her memoirs about struggling with bipolar disorder, so she’s definitely tapping into something. And there are scenes where the film is basically just a straight, tense drama about a mother’s depression. As the director, did you have to do things to lighten the mood on set, or did you just welcome those vibes?

DFS: I welcomed those vibes. It’s a very fine line in that we deal with a very heavy subject and we also have sort of lighter moments as well. It was hard to get that right. Except for the unfortunate interpretation, I think we managed to do it pretty well.

AVC: You didn’t write the screenplay, but you knew from the minute this was becoming a feature that you wanted it to be about depression?

DFS: Yeah, I wrote a 15-page treatment. Rebecca’s based on a real girl I knew. She was actually the focus of a documentary I did. She was a cutter and that’s sort of why Rebecca has these scars on her arms. I figured that all this emotional stress in her life has made her a cutter. But then, you know, development happens and things take new paths and it became sort of a ghost story instead, where Diana actually used to literally be a person and died and became a ghost. So it’s a movie that I’m sure is now more enjoyable for a lot of people even though it still has that background.

AVC: You hit on one of the challenges of using horror as a device to talk about something serious. You have to strike a balance, because no matter how grave the real subject of the film is, there’s still the imperative to deliver these genre thrills.

DFS: It just took on its own life. I didn’t intend for this movie to have a whole bunch of stunts, but once we came on a Hollywood set, it was like, “Oh, we can do this? We can do that? That’s awesome—let’s throw people across the room and have fun with it.”

AVC: Let’s talk a little bit about the effects. The simplest one—and maybe it’s not simple, I don’t know how you accomplished it—is the shot of Diana appearing and disappearing with the flip of a light switch. Did you use the same effect that you used in the short?

DFS: Yeah, it’s exactly the same. Whenever she’s in frame with another character, it’s basically just a split screen. So you shoot it with her and without her. You turn the camera on with her, you turn it off and she walks off, and then you turn it on again. It’s super simple, actually.

Photo: Warner Bros.

AVC: It’s very effective. You have a lot of fun in the film with different light sources. When the reality of this becoming a feature came up, did you immediately start tallying up the different ways you could exploit the premise?

DFS: Yeah. While coming up with the basic story, I also made a list of the different light gags I wanted to do. Like the car headlights, the phone, the gunfire, the candlelight, and then just sort of put them in where they fit. That’s also why it’s enticing to make a sequel to this, because there’s other stuff that didn’t make it into this film that there wasn’t time to do.

AVC: The boyfriend character in this film is pretty likable. Usually, you’re just sort of waiting for that character to be killed. But the version we see in Lights Out is kind of a lovable dolt. He’s very supportive.

DFS: Yeah, to me, it’s all about defying expectations. Rebecca doesn’t want commitment in her life, so she’s dating this rocker dude, who she assumes will not want a committed relationship, but he turns out to be very committed and very responsible. That’s why he drives a Volvo, you know? [Laughs.] It’s not what you assume a rocker dude drives, but it’s the safest car, and so on. I also wanted to use and sort of defy the audience’s expectations as well. You assume that the boyfriend character in the horror movie is going to die. But he does the right thing. He gets out of there and gets help. But that was a fun character to try and defy people’s expectations with.

AVC: There’s also that very tired cliché of the little kid with the imaginary friend. You flip that on its ear, where the child is reacting very sensibly to the fact that his mother is talking to an imaginary friend.

DFS: Yeah, that was one of the earliest ideas as well, because a lot of horror movies have that trope of the child with the imaginary-friend ghost. But I thought it would be so much scarier if it was the parent with the imaginary friend, because as a kid you’re more vulnerable and who’s going to believe you if you try to tell other adults?

AVC: That ties a little bit into the larger theme of coping with a depressed parent. As kids, we trust our parents to be these infallible figures, but they’re dealing with their own stuff.

DFS: That’s the most disappointing thing about life, I think. You grow up and realize, “Old people aren’t actually better than kids.” It’s the same thing, except you drive cars. You think, “I can’t wait to become an adult and everyone will be smart and everything will be great.” And then you become an adult and… nope.

James Wan and David F. Sandberg on the set of Lights Out

AVC: How hands-on is James Wan as a producer?

DFS: He’s very hands-on. He was involved in the beginning. It was actually his idea to turn Diana into a ghost, because he was like, “If we make her a ghost instead, it could be someone who Sophie knew when she was younger and had a more personal relationship with.” And then he also had ideas with some of the gags as well. You know the neon light scene? I had a version of that scene in my treatment, but instead of the neon light, it was the headlights of cars passing by that sort of swept across the room. James was like, “We could put a neon sign outside.” And that got us more of an on/off effect than headlights would have provided. He was very involved.

AVC: I spoke to Wan a few years ago after the first Insidious came out and he said that horror is a lot like comedy. It’s all about whether you get the timing right.

DFS: Yeah, and sometimes it’s almost about doing the wrong timing. In the short, we have the lights flicking on and off. I do it one more time than you expect, because I don’t want you to know when it comes.

AVC: You sort of create this rhythm and then you break that to throw audiences off.

DFS: Yeah. I think comedy and horror are similar in that way. You display a pattern and then you break that pattern.

AVC: You’re calling from the set of Annabelle 2. Can you talk at all about that project?

DFS: Yeah. I don’t know how much is known. It’s not a sort of direct sequel to the first Annabelle, it’s more of a prequel, really. To me, it was sort of enticing to play in the The Conjuring/Annabelle universe, but I don’t think I would have been interested in it if it had been a straight-up sequel to Annabelle. Now it’s sort of its own story, so I can put my own spin on it.

AVC: You were given some room to develop it in a direction that you liked?

DFS: Yeah. We have new characters, a new setting. It felt like I could make it more of my own.

AVC: It was announced in March, months before Lights Out hit theaters, that you got the gig. Is it peculiar to be in a situation where you’re waiting for the reaction to your first feature when you’re already in the process of making your second one?

DFS: Yes. The bad thing is that I have no free time at all. When I’m not shooting, I’m doing press or interviews. But the good thing is I think that I’m so into this now that I don’t have time to sort of worry or overthink the response to Lights Out. So that opening weekend, it was like, “I have Annabelle 2 to focus on, so I can’t just sit and watch the box-office numbers.”