Director of horror flick Annabelle: Creation could not afford rent when he arrived in LA

Swedish director David Sandberg on the set of his horror feature, Annabelle: Creation.
Swedish director David Sandberg on the set of his horror feature, Annabelle: Creation. PHOTO: WARNER BROS

Horror film-maker David Sandberg says he had to borrow money to buy food when he and his wife first arrived in Los Angeles

In the space of two years, David Sandberg has gone from barely making ends meet and shooting short amateur films in his apartment to having a thriving career as a Hollywood director.

As the 36-year-old Swedish filmmaker unveils his second movie, Annabelle: Creation - the origin story of the possessed Annabelle doll from Annabelle (2014) and The Conjuring horror films (2013 and 2016) - he reflects on the 180degree turn his life has taken.

In a candid chat with The Straits Times in Los Angeles recently, the up-and-coming film-maker, who will direct Dwayne Johnson in the 2019 superhero flick Shazam!, says with a laugh: "Now I can afford to pay rent, so I don't have to worry as much as I had in the past."

The reason for this reversal of fortune is his first film, last year's horror hit Lights Out.

It was adapted from a threeminute short that Sandberg, then a penniless amateur film-maker living in Sweden, made for a contest on the horror fansite Bloody Disgusting in 2013 and then posted online.

With almost no budget to speak of, he wrote, directed and shot the story about a woman terrorised by an apparition she sees only when the lights are off.

He cast his wife, Swedish actress Lotta Losten, in both roles, and used their small flat in Gothenburg as the set.

A year after he made the short, it unexpectedly became a viral sensation that eventually caught the eye of Hollywood, which invited him to turn it into a feature film under the watchful eye of producer James Wan, director of The Conjuring movies, Saw (2004) and Furious 7 (2015).

Lights Out went on to become a sleeper hit and one of the most profitable films of last year, grossing US$148 million (S$201 million) globally on a US$4.9-million budget.

But even as his career was taking off, Sandberg was still broke. When he and Losten, 35, first came to Los Angeles in 2015, they had to borrow money for food and accommodation and felt terribly out of place at swanky Hollywood events.

"When we got here, the movie wasn't technically greenlit and you don't start to get paid until it's greenlit. So when we came over, we had to borrow money from everyone, including one of the producers, just to be able to afford food.

"So yeah, that's been a big change," says Sandberg, who now lives in Los Angeles with Losten.

Had he stayed in his native Sweden, he would never have had a chance to make horror films, he adds.

"There's not that much horror made in Sweden. I don't think that's because of a lack of people wanting to create horror - it's more about how movies are made there using government grants through, like, the Swedish Film Institute.

"So they want to make sure that the movies are sort of more important movies. A lot of times, people look down on horror, unfortunately. But I think horror can be just as important and say just as much as dramas," says Sandberg, whose application to the Swedish Film Institute for a small grant to make a short film was once rejected.

He believes his horror films are nonetheless influenced by a distinctly Scandinavian sensibility.

"It's a bit dark, maybe not always in a horror way, but in a psychological way. If you look at Ingmar Bergman's movies and a lot of the music coming out of Scandinavia, it's very heavy metal or some sort of dark, angry music.

"Maybe it has to do with the fact that for a large part of the year, we're in darkness and it can get depressing."

Low-budget horror films have been enjoying something of a renaissance in Hollywood in recent years. Titles such as The Gift (2015), It Follows (2014), The Purge series (2013 to 2016) and the Paranormal Activity franchise (2007 to 2015) have recouped their budgets many times over.

In this climate, Sandberg thinks his background may stand him in good stead.

He says: "I come from that do-ityourself background, where you have to know a lot of things and you have to oftentimes come up with creative solutions to problems. And movie-making is really just problem-solving."

•Annabelle: Creation opens in Singapore tomorrow.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 09, 2017, with the headline ''Now I can afford to pay rent''. Print Edition | Subscribe