"I want to try a whole bunch of stuff before they kick me out of Hollywood..." hmv.com talks to Annabelle: Creation director David F. Sandberg
Just four years ago, David F. Sandberg was an amateur filmmaker creating and uploading short horror films to his channels on Youtube and Vimeo, but in 2013, after entering one of his projects into a short film contest run by UK-based production company Bloody Cuts, his fortunes began to change dramatically.
His entry, a three-minute short called Lights Out, soon went viral and found its way to James Wan, the director responsible for the Saw films and other horrors such as The Conjuring. Wan met with Sandberg and was so impressed that he signed on to produce a feature-length version of Lights Out, released in 2016, with Sandberg at the helm.
Since then, the Swedish-born director's star has been in the ascendancy, with a sequel to Lights Out in the pipeline and Sandberg attached to direct DC's upcoming superhero film Shazam! In the meantime though he's been busy working on a sequel to The Conjuring spin-off Annabelle.
More an origin story than a straight-up sequel, Annabelle: Creation arrives in cinemas this week and we spoke to the director to talk about the new film, his meteoric rise so far and what we can expect from his take on the superhero genre...
So you've been on quite a journey these last few years, how have you found that experience so far?
“Well, awesome! But also it has been kind of non-stop, so it's not like I've really had time to sit back and think about it because before Lights Out was even finished I got this job. In fact when Lights Out came out in theatres I was actually shooting Annabelle: Creation. We had to wrap early on the day of the premiere so I could actually go to the premiere of the movie! So yeah, it has just been non-stop.
“This morning I was actually looking at some footage from the premiere of this movie last night, and I was sort of realising 'wow, that's actually me at the premiere of this Hollywood movie'. In some ways it still hasn't completely sunk in, you know?”
How exactly did the Annabelle: Creation gig come around? Were you asked to direct the film, or did you throw your hat in the ring?
“It was during post-production on Lights Out, we had tested it with audiences and gotten some great results. Everyone was really happy with the movie and so New Line came to me and asked if I'd be interested in directing a sequel to Annabelle. At first I was like: 'Well, where are you going to take that? Is there anything more to do with Annabelle?' So then they sent me a script and I was very pleasantly surprised to see that it was a very different story from the first one, and also a very separate story in that there's a new cast, a new location and you don't even have to have seen the first film before you see this one. You could watch Annabelle after this one and it still makes sense. I felt like this was something that I could really make my own, so I was on totally board.”
When and how did the idea of doing an origin story for Annabelle first come about?
“That was before I came on board, they already had a first draft of the script before I came on board, so I don't really know exactly how that came about, but I thought it was a cool idea and I really liked how the ending of this one kind of ties things together.”
Obviously Lights Out was based on an idea of yours, how did you find working on a film that's part of an existing franchise?
“It wasn't that different, because I didn't write the screenplay for Lights Out, so there was already a bit of adaptation happening on that one, taking someone else's words on a page. On this one, it was so different from the other movies, but it also felt more like my own movie, there wasn't a lot of people going 'you have to do this or that', the only things were that James Wan wanted certain references in there to link to the other films in the franchise, but other than that it felt very free, it didn't really feel like we were making a sequel.”
There are some great performances from what is quite a young cast for the most part - how did you go about casting for this film? Were you quite hands-on with that side of things?
“Oh yeah. We did a lot of auditions. I mean, Talitha (Bateman) is the sister of Gabriel who was in Lights Out, but she still had to come in and audition over and over again, and really prove herself. I met with all these girls and something I tried with all of them was to basically just say 'monster' and they had to act terrified, because on a horror movie you don't always have a lot of input from a director when you're supposed to act scared. So I knew that if they could do that then they were gonna work in this movie. It really paid off, doing all those auditions, because we found some great actresses.”
How long did the whole thing take to shoot? Were there any particularly tricky scenes to get right?
“We shot it in 36 days. The bus ride scene at the beginning was actually much trickier than it might seem, just because we were talking about doing it on a stage with a green screen, and I didn't really want to do that. Even though you can make a composite look 100% real, it never really feels real, like they're actually in a moving vehicle. So I wanted to shoot it for real, we had this old bus out in the middle of the desert in the California summer, the bus didn't have any air conditioning or anything, it was super hot and all this dust would come into the bus, it was noisy, you know? It just ends up taking all day, you have this little stretch of road and you get one or two takes, then you have to go back, get another one or two takes and you're doing this all day long, so that was more difficult than any of the scare sequences.”
What makes a good horror film for you?
“Well, the horror genre is so vast, there are so many little sub-genres of it, I think the movies I make are sort of popcorn horror, you know? I like those sorts of reactions you get in theatres, you get people jumping, then they laugh about jumping and you have some fun moments. That's very rewarding as a director, when you make movies like that, but I also like more cerebral, low-key horrors too, even though I haven't really made one of those yet.”
It feels like there has been a resurgence in low budget horror films in the last few years, and they often seem to punch above their weight at the box office; what do you put that down to? Is is that sense of fun that you're talking about?
“I think so. But I mean if you look at the business side of Hollywood it seems that, right now, you're either making giant superhero movies or these very tiny horror movies, just because they're the ones that make a lot of money. But with those limited budgets you have to be inventive and come up with some interesting things. If you do a superhero movie then suddenly you can do everything and it's like the whole world is at stake, but sometimes those smaller movies are the more interesting ones.”
So you've got a couple of things in the pipeline at the moment, you have Lights Out 2 coming up soon, is it next year?
“We don't really have a release date for that yet, nothing's set, so we'll see.”
What stage are you at with that right now?
“We're writing it still, getting the script in good shape. We want to make sure that we don't just go down the typical horror sequel route of just making the first movie one more time with a few minor tweaks, we want to make something different that's actually worth seeing.”
You're also attached to direct Shazam! – we know it's early days with that one, but what kind of thing can we expect? Is this a fun superhero movie, or a more dark and gothic type of thing?
“It's definitely a more fun sort of movie I think, it's definitely not gritty, the subject matter and the character don't really lend themselves to gritty. But I'm learning now how everyone pays so much attention to these superhero movies, whenever I say something online or in an interview, people really analyse it, it can get weird really fast!
“Like, I've been saying that 'yeah, this is gonna be a fun movie', which to me doesn't really say anything except that you're gonna have a good time watching it, but then there's people online going 'oh, is this going be be some kind of dumb comedy or something?' People start to get upset about it and I'm just like: 'All I said was that it was gonna be a fun movie!' It's super weird having to be careful about what you say.”
So what's next for you after that, do you think? Do you want to do more horror stuff, or are you looking to broaden your horizons a little bit?
“Yeah I definitely want to return to horror, but I want to try different things as well. Sci-fi has always been something that I've really loved, and sci-fi horror in particular. So we'll see what happens, but yeah I want to try a whole bunch of stuff before they kick me out of Hollywood!”
Annabelle: Creation is in UK cinemas from Friday August 11th and will be available to pre-order in our online store the same day.