Grey Helps Take ‘Lights Out’ From Film Short to Fan Favorite
Already a huge hit in the theaters, Lights Out realizes one of our most basic fears: Our fear of the dark. When I saw it at the LA Film Festival, it was an audience favorite and I loved it! This awesome movie stars Maria Bello, Teresa Palmer, Gabriel Bateman and Alexander DiPersia. Lights Out is written by Eric Heisserer and directed by newcomer David Sandberg, who did the original short film that started it all. Getting to talk to the producer Lawrence Grey at this year’s San Diego Comic Con was a dream come true, and I’m thrilled to give you his insights and thoughts: describing the process of taking a super short indie project and making it into a big screen hit.
Los Angeles Zombie Girl: Thank you Lawrence for bringing us such a great new movie! I loved the short the first time I saw it and I personally couldn’t stop sharing it with anyone I could think of. What was your first reaction when you saw the short?
Lawrence Grey: “I remember seeing it for the first time, and it knocked my socks off. I was sharing it as fast as everyone else. I think it’s even now the most watched short of its kind, with over 200 million views.”
ZG: Lawrence, can you tell me a little bit about yourself?
LG: “I spent most of my career as a studio executive. At Fox Searchlight, Universal and Mandate Pictures. I started my own production company, Grey Matter, two years ago. In fact, Lights Out was the first thing I saw the first week we opened our offices. I remember watching the short in my brand new office before there were curtains, the worst way to watch anything scary, on a bright sunny LA morning. The short still blew my mind and freaked me out. I woke up in the morning the next day with images of that creature in my head and reached out to David. I just fell in love with his visions and what he wanted to do, so this became the first Grey Matter film in production. Prior to that I made Last Vegas, as executive producer, Hope Springs with Meryl Streep and Tommy Lee Jones as co-producer, and worked on some horror films as an executive producer: 28 Weeks Later, The Hills Have Eyes and Drag Me to Hell.”
“Just prior to Lights Out, what put our production company on the map was that I set out to start my own company to work with original ideas and emerging talent like David Sandberg. I started developing some scripts in our originally windowless basement office and they became back to back to back, the biggest three in a row script sales of the year. I started seeing how gratifying it was working with up and coming talent and that we could really add to those projects creatively. So finding David; what an amazing experience it has been not just with the script, but having the movie turn out this great right out of the gate for our first film.”
ZG: Are you going to continue to look for new talent and emerging artists like David?
LG: “Absolutely. Somebody asked me a question the other day, about where do you see yourself in 20 years or 30 years, and I said, in exactly the same place. Always, at the end of the day, a producer’s job is still to find a new voice and do something original — sitting in a room with complicated, talented people and trying to tell stories. I love it. We are working now with Steven Soderbergh, and a lot of really big accomplished film makers, all kinds of great people.
But there is nothing more gratifying than finding someone who can’t pay their bills and see them go on to becoming this new voice… introducing someone new to Hollywood and making it fresh.
So many of the movies we see now I think suffer from sameness, technically, narratively and performance wise. So something we really set out to do with Lights Out was, since no one is going to go out and see an unbranded original, we needed to give them a reason to. The fact is we are, of the entire summer movie business, the only unbranded, first time director film.”
“I remember when we went to Cinema Con and we were there surrounded by Batman vs Superman and Suicide Squad and Tarzan and all these other huge movies. I said to David, ‘The only reason we are here is because this movie is good.’ Because if it wasn’t, if it was just good enough, no one would want to get behind something like this. It’s really a testament to the fans for identifying the short, for believing in it, and for the response they’ve had to the film.”
ZG: Tell me about the process of bringing David Sandburg together with Eric Heisserer and James Wan. Was David totally blown away?
LG: “Yes! David talked to me when we first set out, after we spent a few weeks creating a blueprint or outline for the movie. It was really original and bold; David said ‘How is anyone going to let us do this?’ And I said, ‘There is only one way in Hollywood — you have to bring an armor tank battalion into a knife fight. And he said, ‘That sounds good but, but does that really mean anything? How do we do that?’ So I said, ‘Well let’s start by getting you the single biggest writer and single biggest director/Godfather producer. If we can do that, then that’s going to be the home run.’
So Eric [Heisserer] was our first victim. We went to him, and Eric didn’t even let me finish my pitch. He said, ‘I’ve sent that short to all my friends. It’s awesome. I’m in!’ So Eric came in and really helped us improve the pitch, and that gave me enough swagger to go to James [Wan]. I called up James. We had just been talking about something else and I said, ‘James, remember how we met 15 years ago when you came into my office with a short film called Saw? I think I found the next James Wan.’ So James said, ‘I’ve heard that a couple of times over the years, and I’ve never really believed in anyone enough to want to invest years of my life overseeing them.’ I said, ‘Watch this.’ He watched the short and he was like huh, this is really, really good. ‘Is this guy as good as the short?’ And I said, ‘So much better.'”
“As soon as James spent some time with David, he said ‘Yes, this is “The Wan”!’ There are a lot of first timers, but James Wan is a first timer on this movie too in kind of an amazing way. And seeing him use all the tools of his trade in producing was just extraordinary.”
ZG: There as so many different types of light sources used in Lights Out. I would have been disappointed if the lighting design wasn’t the coolest lighting in the world. Whose vision was it? More David, or a collaboration of you all?
LG: “I think it’s really baked into the concept. I remember I worked on a project years ago in the rock and roll area, and all anyone wanted to talk about was, who’s the band. You get a bunch of music geeks together, and music becomes a thing. You get a bunch of horror geeks together, and all we’re talking about is all the different, interesting and unique ways to subvert expectations and use this concept to scare the hell out of people. I think in some ways it became an overabundance of ideas; me, David, James, Eric and just all of us relishing in these different things. It really came down to paring the ideas down to the very best ones, that are the most organic to the choices that these characters can make. We were worried at one point early on; will this get old in the movie? It was the exact opposite. As long as they have integrity and they aren’t fake and there isn’t a single cheap scare in the movie, they’re earned. I think they got bigger and bigger and better, and end in that fabulous climax.”
ZG: Did you have any idea that the headlight scene was going to be so funny? When I saw it, the audience cheered.
LG: “So… To prove that this isn’t Monday morning quarterbacking, at the movie premiere the line producer came up to me and said, ‘I remember Lawrence, when you kept the crew here till 4:30 in the morning getting that scene right because you said it is absolutely essential to the movie.’ I really did know that that was an amazing moment, because that character so deserved it. You meet him and, using your vocabulary of horror films, you project that this guy is not going to survive very long. He’s going to make bad decisions, he’s going to put everyone in jeopardy, and he’s not worthy of our main character. So to watch the journey of this guy earning her love, subverting our expectations, to be smarter with our horror villain than we expect him to be… I think is just so gratifying.”
ZG: Was it scary going with a new director? I would imagine David had some culture shock coming to Hollywood.
LG: “It definitely was for David. He was dealing with a very different methodology of making movies. He was so used to doing everything absolutely himself — with 100% control. The Lights Out short was made in his apartment, with his wife. He’s doing the sound design, he’s holding the camera, he’s talking to his wife in Swedish in a very intimate way. Now all of a sudden he’s got a writer he doesn’t know writing his script, a cinematographer setting up all the shots, and the sound guys way on the other end of the set, where everyone has to actually stop so you can talk to him. So I think David was, for a really long time, struggling with the lack of control and being a manager instead of someone who can actually just do it himself.
I tried to be as much of his Kimosabe, in that zone, as I could, and try to read him and his needs. Sometimes I would just say, ‘Everyone, we are going to stop for a minute. David, let’s go spend some time with the sound guy.’ (Even though that would be a little unusual.) But he really grew. Then, when we got to post production and he got all those elements back, he had them all 100% under his control. Then I think he got his sea legs back again.”
ZG: We didn’t really see the ghost towards the end of the movie. Is there going to be a Lights Out 2?
LG: “You know; the audience decides that. But, this group of people really loved working together. And we do know the characters in this movie’s world incredibly well. There definitely could be more stories to tell. We’ll see, we certainly would have a lot of fun doing it.”
ZG: If you could just pick one part of this experience to be your favorite: What was the best aspect of working on this film?
LG: “First off, a producer’s job description is: taking the word no, daily for an answer. I would say it was just an extraordinary experience, to be on the first movie ever, where everybody said yes. I went after the biggest writer, the biggest director, our top choice for actors, the below the line crew… and it was just one of those blessed projects from beginning to end.”
“To watch David, going from never doing this before to having a movie that is universally loved by critics and audiences, well, we’re so proud of the movie and it’s been a once in a lifetime experience.”
Lights Out is in movie theaters everywhere. Enjoy it, and try to stay out of the dark.