The internet is a wondrous thing. Sometimes it feels like an infinite void for endless words, pictures and ideas to be thrown into, never to be heard or seen again. Other times it can shine a light on genuine innovation. The classic rags-to-riches trope has now morphed into a tale of cyberspace to real life. And the story of David F. Sandberg's career trajectory is one such tale.
I remember two years ago when a friend sent me a link to Sandberg's short film Lights Out, telling me it was the scariest thing he'd seen online in a long time. I was dubious. I watch a lot of internet videos and I've seen a lot of horror. I watched. I screamed. I immediately watched it again. And then I shared it, of course. You can watch below, as well.
I wasn't the only one who watched Lights Out, winner of the Who's There Film Challenge in 2013. Horror auteur James Wan also saw the short and decided Sandberg was worth taking a gamble on. Fast forward a few years and Lights Out is now a feature film at Warner Bros. Taking the same basic premise — our fear of the dark and the shadows that lurk within it — the story was expanded with fully formed characters and an intricate backstory explaining the shadowy figure.
After seeing the feature film, I got the chance to speak with Alexander DiPersia, who plays Bret, the boyfriend to Rebecca (Teresa Palmer), a girl caring for her younger brother in the wake of her mother's emotional descent and the precipitous appearance of a shadowy nighttime figure. DiPersia and I discussed the effect of the film on suddenly wanting to invest in flashlights for every room in your home, what really scares us, and why the must-watch Lights Out translates so well from internet short to major motion picture.
Naturally, the logical conversation starter upon meeting DiPersia was to inquire about what scared him as a child. Considering many of my early fears had been reawakened while watching Lights Out, it seemed only fair. And he and I were very much on the same page:
"I was the kid that, when they were home alone, would hide knives and forks around the house in case of an attacker. I was afraid of the dark in the sense of, like, can I make it to my bed from the time I switch my lights off? Once the light went off at bedtime, what was going to be there?"
A fear anyone can likely relate to and that never fully goes away. Even DiPersia admits he's thankful for his iPhone flashlight, seeing as his childhood fear now manifests while traveling to promote the film:
"[Now] it's [being] in a hotel room somewhere you don't know and your coat's hanging on the hanger in the corner."
Who among us hasn't been haunted by shadows when our eyes play tricks on us? The film uses this sensation to fuel its tension. While our heart rates can't help but elevate at the sight of something lurking in the dark, our brains are quick to reassure us our fears are unfounded.
Interestingly, DiPersia read the script before seeing the short film. While the short displayed director Sandberg's abilities, the script was what hooked DiPersia.
"They took the concepts of the short film, which was so great, and they wrote this family oriented story around it with scares in between, and it came out wonderful."
Going into the film and knowing little about DiPersia's role, I wasn't surprised to see him playing the boyfriend. Admittedly I groaned, thinking that here would be yet another doubting macho man, reluctant to believe his "crazy" girlfriend and her claims of seeing a ghost in the shadows. But I couldn't have been more wrong. DiPersia's Bret is the softer side of the couple, and his support for Rebecca feels outright feminist compared to the usual stereotype. On playing an original role within a horror film, DiPersia says:
"It's nice to be able to play an earnest part like that. What it comes down to is he's a guy who really likes a girl and is trying to make things work with her, despite the ghost aspect, and I think that's what makes it so, I wouldn't say it's believable, but it felt believable that you've got a guy that wants to be with a girl despite what's going on with her and her problems with her family."
Starting out in the world of feature films with so strong a role and in such a compelling movie is certainly a great sign for DiPersia's career longevity.
"It was my first time being a lead in a studio movie and it's [Sandberg's] first time directing anything like that, so to be able to do it together was an awesome experience. ... It was fun, and he's a master of this mini-genre. He makes these amazing short films online with his wife and it grew into this thing.
"Teresa [Palmer] and I had these moments of doubting around [the film's] humorous moments, because there are these humorous moments! We didn't know how they were going to play. So we really did end up putting our trust in David and it worked out. He'd never directed anything over three minutes, which is just wild. And not on an iPhone."
I too had great appreciation for those humorous moments. Any good horror film will allow for a break in tension, and Sandberg's film does it especially effectively. As DiPersia states:
"You get these little breaks, these little bits of levity to catch your breath, and then you get the shit scared out of you 60 seconds later."
But Sandberg certainly didn't forget his roots, including a few Easter Eggs scattered throughout the film for fans of the original short. DiPersia touched on the interesting nature of Sandberg's career path from internet to movie studio:
"I think it's amazing. I think it shows how our world is just that much smaller through the internet. That someone can make something for the internet and then it becomes a Warner Bros. film, it's absolutely wild. ... It's great for young filmmakers everywhere. It shows some hopefulness."
As talented as Sandberg is — when watching Lights Out, you won't believe it's his first feature — DiPersia and I couldn't help but touch on producer James Wan, with his attachment to the film giving DiPersia a certain sense of ease:
"A lot of horror can get a little bit campy, and with James's stuff you don't get that. You get great actors and actresses, just great casts. Nothing against the genre, but it can be cheesy. ... Obviously it wasn't a movie directed by James, but he's got his hands on it and he gave input."
We both marveled at Wan's intuition and cinematic eye, and his unwavering journey to make his first film Saw. After discussing the journey of one internet sensation, I pitched the idea of a Pokémon Go horror film, with the mobile game currently sweeping the world.
"It could be scary, it could definitely be scary. I don't think I'm quite millennial enough to know exactly what's going on, but I've seen enough on the internet to know that Nintendo is now worth $19 billion."
Indulging my silly horror film ideas, DiPersia then told me about his current project, Good Girls Revolt, a TV series about the publishing industry set in the 1960s, in which he plays a Vietnam War veteran. Describing the series as "a far cry from Lights Out," DiPersia is nonetheless excited to be a part of the innovative original series produced by Amazon. And as our conversation comes to a close, I couldn't resist teasing him a bit , dishing advice on facing his first Comic-Con ("I'll be the one dressed like Chewbacca," he jokes) and inquiring as to what scares him now as an adult.
"I mean, literally the same things. At least, beyond terrorism and everything on the news."
Fair point. With a real world that's so scary, sometimes a film like Lights Out, as spooky as it is, is a welcome diversion. Fans at Comic-Con will get to enjoy that diversion this week during a screening of Lights Out on the 20th, while the rest of the world can get their scream on this Friday, the 22nd of July. Those with a sincere fear of the dark, consider yourself forewarned.