Lights Out Writer Eric Heisserer on Expanding a Short Film: Fantasia Fest

We talk with Lights Out's Eric Heisserer about writing the new horror film and working with Neil Gaiman on Sandman.

Screenwriter Eric Heisserer has established himself in the horror field, mainly with remakes like A Nightmare on Elm Street and the prequel to The Thing, as well as Final Destination 5, which at least for now seems like the final chapter of that franchise. He also directed the late Paul Walker in the Hurricane Katrina drama Hours a few years back.

With Lights Out, he’s expanding upon an original idea introduced in David Sandberg’s 2014 viral short film, telling the story of how a murderous shadowy figure comes to haunt an already troubled family. It stars Teresa Palmer as Rebecca the eldest daughter of Sophie (Maria Bello), a woman suffering from depression and having visions of her childhood friend Diana that’s making life at home difficult for Rebecca’s younger brother Martin (Gabriel Bateman).  

As a writer and co-producer of the film, Heisserer took Sandberg’s original idea and fleshed it out into a full feature explaining where Diana came from and allowing Sandberg to take his initial idea into even scarier places.

In recent months, Heisserer has also delved into writing comics with his original mini-series Shaper and a cyberpunk take on Lone Wolf and Cub for Dark Horse, which makes him a good candidate to try to adapt Neil Gaiman’s Sandman to the screen, which is something he’s working on developing with Gaiman right now. He also has another project, a sci-fi film called Arrival, starring Amy Adams and directed by Denis Villeneuve, out in November. So, these are busy times for the writer/producer.

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Den of Geek got on the phone with Heisserer a few weeks back for the following interview:

Den of Geek: Lights Out started as a short by director David Sandberg, so can you talk about how you got involved with turning it into a feature?

Eric Heisserer: Sure. I saw it when it went viral a couple years ago now, along with 30 million other people, but I didn’t think much else beyond that until I got a call from a producer by the name of Lawrence Grey that he had secured the rights to it and wanted to talk to me about adapting it as a feature. I had great admiration for that short film, and I was a little reluctant to get involved, because I’ve seen a whole bunch of short films get snatched up by someone in Hollywood, eager to turn it into a feature and 99% of the time it collapses under its own weight. There’s really nothing to keep it going or sustain it for at least 90 minutes. I said, “I’ll meet with you guys, but I don’t know if this has what it takes to make it into a feature. After talking with David and Lawrence, I realized that David not only had in his head a great super-structure for a feature story, but he anchored the monster Diana—the thing in the shadows—to a thematic core that is a huge advantage when you’re writing, because anytime you start to get lost or start to get into the weeds, you can just go back to that theme and make sure that is tied to whatever your drama or your scares are and then it kind of rights the course for you. In this case, it was clinical depression, mental illness, and how often families and communities keep that in the dark. What better way to represent that then the monster that only exists in the dark?

What was the original short? Was that a scene from the feature and it’s expanded or just the idea?

In the short, it’s just someone in their own apartment–actually the director’s wife played the woman–who just turned off the light in the hall and sees a silhouette at the end of the wall. It goes back and forth. Every time she turns the light on, it’s gone and she turns it off and it’s there again, and those scares escalate as she goes into her bedroom and tries to hide. You have basically the concept of how this creature, how this evil exists, and how it moves, but that’s all we had from the short film. You just had the premise of the type of scare, and you need to figure out everything else. You need to figure out characters and story and all of that. So it wasn’t like Whiplash, where there was a narrative and there was a sense of who the characters were going in.

And David came along with the package where he was going to direct the feature?

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Yes, that was the plan.

How did that work out? Often directors will do a short with plans to expand on it, but it’s different for the rights to be bought and then having the original director still involved.

Sure, especially since this is his first time directing an American feature. We had to ship him over from Sweden to make it work, so there were some cards stacked against him on that, but Lawrence and I were fully on board in supporting him. We knew that he was our guy and then James Wan came on board, and that just really locked it in for everybody. If I wrote this script on spec first and we had that completed and ready to go, we could step forward to a studio with all those people attached to say, “This is the movie that we wanted to make” and that’s what we did.

What was the timeframe of when you got involved and came on board after Lawrence got the rights to the short?

I came on board probably toward the end of October 2014 and delivered a first draft in January 2015 and our first day of photography was towards the end of June that same year, the fastest to production that I’ve ever been involved in. Everything else has taken at least two years ago to get off the ground, and this one was just very quick and energetic. I think part of that was the very clear eye of David in terms of what he wanted to make, and then it was the job of us as writers and producers to just keep focus on that same point. You know a movie is healthy when everyone involved is trying to make the same version of the movie. Typically, the problems that come up from preproduction and development on a film is when there are multiple ideas that are odds with each other about what the movie should be. Here, we had a very parallel sense of where we were going.

Is this the first feature you’re producing as well or the first you’re officially producing?

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Yes, this is the first one I’m officially a producer on. I was also an executive producer on a sci-fi movie that’s coming out.

What was involved with that role? Often as a writer, you’re not even on set when they’re making the movie. You finish the script, turn it in and it goes off and becomes its own thing. In this case, you can be more involved, so were you on set the whole time?

Yes, yes. If I wasn’t off in my home office writing pages for the following day. It wasn’t that we were by the seat of our pants, it was just a case of when we got involved in locations and I was there to help contribute and find the best way to slightly adjust things to match whatever they had. I think it worked out better. Being a writer/producer allows a kind of narrative continuity and a better structural integrity to a story, because I was aware of the intent behind each of the scenes and I could be there to help David corral whether it was actor or anybody else, from set designer to props, to make sure that we were all going in the same direction. There were plenty of times when I would step forward on set and offer alternate dialogue if there was some dialogue that didn’t quite work now that we’ve heard it out of the mouths of our actors, I could step in and say, “Alright, I fired the writer. Producer needs this and we should do something else.”

I’ve known James Wan for some time, and having him as a producer gives the movie a lot more credibility among horror fans, and for good reason. What was his involvement since he was probably working on a couple of his own movies while you were developing this?

He was really important here, because he had more experience than any of us in directing horror, and he had a strong philosophy that he had learned in crafting the scares and drama. The two things that we all agreed on, that James beat the drum on quite often, was that you have to make sure that your tension and your scares build—there’s a crescendo—it’s all part of the series. James doesn’t do little one off “boo” moments that are just by themselves, very rarely. More often than not, he’s an architect of a series of increasingly unnerving moments that can culminate in a big scare or a handful of scares. That was a good methodology to keep in the back of our minds as we worked through it. Beyond that, James is very assertive about making sure the audience cares about the characters, that we take a moment and have enough elbow room in the script and the story so that the characters can become endearing to us.

I’ve only seen the trailer so far, but it’s played very well for the audiences I watched it with. Have you done a lot of test screenings for the movie as things go along in the process of developing it?

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We’ve certainly screened it before a number of audiences over the past four or five months, and it’s been very well received, which makes us feel we’ve found a good sweet spot for the viewers and potential fans. I don’t think a lot of it’s changed; we’ve had some small evolutionary steps from lessons learned from those early screenings, but by and large, David has delivered a really good, scary movie that appeals to our primal fears of the dark.

I know that the Nightmare on Elm Street was your first produced screenplay but that you had been writing from before that like so many other screenwriters, so what was the transition from writing spec script to getting hired to write Nightmare on Elm Street?

That was a matter of just fortuitous timing. There’s a lot of luck involved in me getting a swing at Elm Street. I had written on spec a horror screenplay based on a website story that I had written called The Dionaea House and that got me a general meeting with a junior executive at New Line, and the day before I was supposed to go into that meeting, I got a call saying that I was now meeting the senior executive at New Line along with a couple other people and it was in a conference room rather than the junior exec’s office. I gotta tell you, my first thought was “I’m in trouble,” because I had said something on social media that was bad about New Line and now I’m getting the blame for it.

Social media’s going to bite everyone in the butts someday—I know that from experience.

No, this was a case of them getting a writing team for Elm Street to replace Wesley Strick, because those writers were under contract somewhere else and couldn’t get out of so they were in dire need of someone, and the timing of this meeting just happened to line up with that. I really have to owe it to luck, and the fact that you never say “no” to just a general meeting.

I was at South by Southwest when your movie Hours debuted there. It’s a real tragedy about Paul Walker being cut down in his prime as he was, but it was an impressive directing debut. Are you gearing to do more directing even though you’re so busy as a writer?

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I’m always looking for my next directing gig, but I’m going to be fairly picky about that, because it takes you away from other projects for a year at least. Sometimes more, depending on the size of the project. I just have to find the project that I want to be monogamous for that long.

The movie you’re doing with Denis Villeneuve, which I guess is called Arrival now, was that a spec script you came up with or how did that come about?

That’s based on a short story by Ted Chiang that I’d been trying to get made for years and years and I really wanted to look after that one in particular. I tried to sell that as a pitch first, but no one bought it, so I approached Ted to request the time to write it on spec and developed that with Dan Cohen and Dan Levine over at 21 Laps, and that really is what got Denis Villeneuve and Amy Adams and everybody else on board. I was just doing it on spec.

Sounds like an intriguing premise, and there’s a lot of exciting science fiction this Fall including Passengers which is another long-time project that’s finally happening.

Yeah, and small world—I’m co-writing Van Helsing for Universal with Jon Spaihts who wrote Passengers.

You two must have a lot of interesting stories to share, so have you worked with him before?

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This is our first time, but we talk about passion projects a lot together.

Van Helsing is interesting because the name has been around since Bram Stoker wrote Dracula. But there was already a movie called Van Helsing, and that still remains very much in people’s minds even though I’m guessing your movie is going to be very different. Do you have to just ignore those previous versions and do something new?

Right, there’s really no relation between that movie and ours. We’re building something brand new and we’re really excited about it. I can’t really talk about that much now, but hopefully in a few months we can have another conversation.

Are you still involved with developing a movie based on Neil Gaiman’s Sandman?

It’s still early days with Sandman, but I’ve been in touch with Neil Gaiman to find the best way to tackle this one. He’s been involved with that for nearly twenty years in terms of the development of that, so he has a long mental history of all the pitfalls and all the little success stories about what has and hasn’t worked in adapting that title, so I’m trying to find a balance and find a way through that to work.

It’s interesting because it started out as a DC Universe title and the first 8 issues are really integrated into that universe before it became its own thing, so I always wondered how they’d navigate that for a movie.

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I think he found a way for closure in a sense with Overture, the new title that came out earlier this year.

Did you go back and read the entire run to prepare? I guess you must be into comics at least a little having written some stuff for Dark Horse.

Yeah, I’ve done comics for Dark Horse and now I’m working on a brand new title for Valiant, which should be out next year.

Was that comics connection something that went hand in hand with your work as a screenwriter?

I’ve always been an advocate as a writer to try your hand at writing for as many medias as possible, because you end up developing new muscles that way and learn stuff in one media that you can carry over to the next. And so in an attempt to improve my writing in general overall, I’ve been taking a swing at comics. I’ve already been a comic fan since I was a kid, so this seemed like a natural progression. It’s a very visual media, but the difference being that as a writer, you’re kind of a writer/director since you have to figure out the general shape of panels and where the camera is (so to speak).

It seems easier these days to get ideas turned into comics than it is to get movies made based on them, but trying to decide which way to go with an idea is definitely a challenge, I’m sure.

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It is. I mean, it’s a tough call. As a comic book, you have fewer doorways you have to go through. So many other people get involved on the filmmaking side of things.  Either way, there’s a whole series of miracles that need to happen in order to make that a reality, but with writing comics, you get an artist, you get an editor and you can just go, but you have far more reduced viewership at that point.

Lights Out opens in North America on Friday, July 22. You can read our review here.