SDCC 2016: Talking ‘Lights Out’ with producer Lawrence Grey

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Over the weekend, Lights Out was released in theaters and became a surprise horror hit with audiences. The film follows Rebecca (Teresa Palmer), her little brother Martin (Gabriel Bateman), and their mother Sophie (Maria Bello), who are all experiencing unexplained and terrifying events that jeopardize their safety and sanity. A mysterious creature named Diana has attached itself to Sophie, and will torment anyone that tries to jeopardize their “friendship.” At San Diego Comic-Con this year, I was lucky enough to interview one of the producers of the film, Lawrence Grey.

Nerd Reactor: What attracted you to this project in particular because there are many horror shorts out there but what about David Sandberg’s short appealed to you?

Lawrence Grey: You know, initially, it was just the impact it had on me. I do watch most of the short films in this subgenre, but I watched David’s in my office on a bright L.A. Sunday morning. The curtains weren’t even closed, it’s the worst possible environment to watch anything scary and it totally freaked me out. I was also like wow there’s this kind of a deceptively genius idea at the center of it – its simplicity and the universality of that experience. So I was just at that moment sort of intrigued to meet the guy; who’s the person that did this great thing.

I reached out to David after going to sleep that night and having visions of that creature in my head – which still really freaks me out to this day. I started talking to him and you could see he’s really a guy that knows how to scare people and has a lot of fun doing it. But he also had a really strong idea, a way into the movie and who the characters are and what the story would be. We spent a few weeks developing it and through that process created an amazing blueprint for the movie. After I was done with that, I knew this was a guy who’s a real storyteller and had a real vision as a filmmaker.

NR: What kind of ideas did David bring to the table?

LG: So [David] had this idea early on which presented a challenge but overcoming that challenge was part of what makes the movie so great. He wanted to have an adult with an imaginary friend which you’ve never seen before and you’ve never seen it before for a reason. How’s that actually credible when it’s an adult? [Adults] should have a greater amount of credibility and other people around them should buy into them. So this kind of led us to the idea of mental illness and what if we actually use mental illness as a metaphor throughout the entire film.

Me, David, and our writer Eric [Heisserer] got really, really excited about this idea because it really felt like it was representing some fears of our times and tapping into something in our culture. When James Wan came into the picture, James really zeroed in on that as an opportunity to create this iconic, franchisable horror villain. David’s from Sweden so he comes from a very feministic culture, so the idea was for David to be able to do that with a female character. There have been a lot of these classic throwback villains in the 70s and 80s movies, yet you haven’t really seen it done at that level today and you’ve certainly never seen it done with a woman. So we started to really dig into that and that led us to the decision to make it very, very real. So we didn’t use any visual effects, and all of that stuff is in camera. We think it makes it so much more exciting than anything you’ve seen before.

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NR: Let’s talk about [Alicia Vela-Bailey] who plays Diana in the film. You once told me that you had reflective tape added to her contact lenses. Can you talk about the crazy things that she did for the film?

LG: So this poor girl was such a glutton for punishment and is absolutely such an extraordinary woman. First of all, we had somebody else cast because we were going to have a slightly more, sort of phantom-like appearance of Diana. She would kind of exist in and live in the dark. But when we met Alicia, this woman who’s a dancer, a contortionist, and the proportions of her body: She’s 5’9”, 115 pounds, and she can move her fingers in really irregular ways. She all of a sudden started to bring stuff to this that we started going, “Wait… Let’s write this into the script, and bring this into the character’s back story.”

That was an enormous quotient of it, just Alicia’s physicality and movement then we ended up going to Matthew Mungle. Instead of, let’s say, going to the prosthetics people who do “The Walking Dead,” we decided to go to the guy who won an Academy Award for Mrs. Doubtfire. Some of it is really, really real and [we had Alicia in] this incredibly heavy, hot prosthetic suit sitting there sweating in the light every single day.

To add to what you said, once we had this dark vision with this unbelievably scary hair and silhouette, David’s last flourish was to have a little glint in her eye, a little evil demonic effect that she would have coming from her world to ours. Again, almost any other director would’ve done this with visual effects, but we decided to do it in camera. Poor Alicia got to wear reflective tape over her contact lenses in order to get that special reflection from the camera but we think it’s worth it.

NR: Lights Out, in general, feels vastly different from any of the other horror films out there. Did you feel like you had to differentiate yourself from the other movies and try to change up the genre?

LG: Very much so. You know we don’t have any branded IP, and we’re not a sequel or prequel. So the only reason people go see anything new is because it’s innovative, it’s original, and it’s distinct. We really felt like there’s so much laziness in the genre, people just knowing that people will, let’s say, go see a possession movie so we’ll do a right-on-the-screws possession movie. They’ll add a couple of flourishes and will get away with it if we’re lucky.

We didn’t want to do that. We wanted to subvert all of the horror tropes that we could in the pure scare entertainment factor, so there’s no cheap scares in this movie. They’re all earned, they all come out of character and out of story and they’re way more terrifying than the ones you see in other films. The tone was also such an important thing. To be able to have this very real, grounded character drama within the movie and those things have to be completely real and completely credible and then to have this huge popcorn concept on top of the whole movie. This entity that can’t exist in the light and you’re vulnerable in the dark. All the ways you can play with light and dark and silhouette and shadow is just such a delicious, fun idea. We have a group of creative people that do this for a living and have a couple years on their hands, there’s nothing more fun coming up with all the different ways you could do that. Once we got way, way, way out into the woods on that stuff, we dialed it all back to the things that felt like the very best ones.

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NR: James Wan comes in with tons of experience in the horror genre, so what kind of contributions did James bring to the production?

LG: The main thing is when you have a big director like James is that he’s already thinking about the making of the movie even in the earliest possible stages. We didn’t have a script yet and James already pressed us into character design for Diana. Essentially that’s going to be reflective of her character and that pushes you into mythology and that pushes you into the back story and that pushes you into behavior and motivation. It was such a big thing.

It really helped us come up with a scenario and characters that were so strong. Also, his influence onset since we had the ability to have the best cinematography, gaffing, like everyone in the movie are these incredible above-the-line crew that we thought we would never get but James’s name help bring these people in. There a lot of people that we used from James’ films. Our [director of photography], for example, just shot Fast 7 right before he decided to do this $5 million movie. Our camera operator is Steven Soderbergh’s camera operator, so we have this $100-million-dollar crew on this little movie. Everyone’s just loving it so much and wanted to do something great.

NR: Now this is going into spoiler territory, but when Sophie commits suicide in the movie Diana disappears. Does this mean that she isn’t real and a figment of Sophie’s imagination or is she really real?

LG: That’s a great question because we really wanted the experience of watching a movie to have a lot of questions in your mind. A lot of horror movies tend to spoonfeed you that stuff, but we really wanted to have it be a mystery in the audience’s mind to make it more gripping.

Yes, Diana is real. She’s not a figment of Sophie’s imagination. She reminds me a little bit of Samara in the way she was touched by the supernatural but we don’t fully explain [her origins] yet in this movie. But she has the ability to get inside people’s heads and growing up would prey on people around her who were weak and vulnerable. So when she’s in Mulberry mental institution and meets Sophie, Sophie’s suffering from depression and she’s somebody that Diana really latches onto. As Diana dies in this world, she ends up being attached to Sophie from beyond the grave. Sophie is her connection to this world.

NR: With that is there any plans for a potential sequel down the pipeline? As you said, Diana is a franchisable villain.

LG: We love the process of working together and we think we’ve created a very deep, rich universe. We certainly have ideas, whether how we’ll use them and when exactly, we’ll see. We could certainly make a few more stories about this group of people and this situation, and I think have a lot of fun and scare a lot of people.

Lights Out is now playing in theaters.

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Mark Pacis
Mark Pacis 1150 posts

Self-proclaimed "Human IMDb" and comic book geek. Biggest Iron Man fan you'll probably ever meet.