Lights Out: Horror with Heart
Eric Heisserer on turning a short into a feature, remaking The Thing and Nightmare on Elm Street, and adapting The Sandman.
Lights Out screenwriter Eric Heisserer is no stranger to horror, with the 2010 reboot of Nightmare on Elm Street as his first produced screenplay. He went on to write 2011’s The Thing prequel and Final Destination 5 before writing his directorial debut with the Hurricane Katrina drama Hours.
Now Heisserer returns to the horror genre with Lights Out, produced by James Wan (The Conjuring 2, Insidious) and directed by David F. Sanberg, who also directed the popular 2013 short that serves as the inspiration for the film.
However, while both the film and the short capitalize on the human fear of the dark and what may lurk within, the film expands the concept to center on a family whose matriarch (Maria Bello) may have an unhealthy attachment to Diana, the innocently-named creature hiding in the dark.
Lights Out enjoyed a huge debut last on its opening weekend, even against competition from the Star Trek franchise, earning four times its budget in a single weekend. Prior to the opening, Creative Screenwriting spoke to Heisserer about Lights Out, The Black List, The Thing and the comic book adaptations he has in the works, including The Sandman for New Line and Valiant Comics’ Bloodshot.
(Warning: this interview contains minor Lights Out spoilers.)
The movie did a great job of capitalizing on people’s fear of the dark and wondering if someone is “in there.” Did your wife ever find you turning lights on and off and you just explaining it was “research?“
[Laughs.] A few times, yeah. Actually, it was more of the fact that I would leave the lights on. If I ever saw that they were off I would turn them back on.
What drew you to this project?
The other producer Lawrence Gray said that he’d gotten the rights to the short film and that he’d spoken to the director David Sanberg. He had a lot of really smart things to say about how he saw a feature film version of it and I got very excited because it wasn’t just the conceptual scare that is the gimmick in the short film, there was a lot more to it.
I said that I’d love to do something like this, but my reps saw it as a step back. I’d been doing some larger budget projects and I’d stayed away from horror after working on a science fiction project – like the one I worked on with Denis Villenueve that’s coming out this September [The Arrival] – but I couldn’t shake it. I really wanted to work on this.
So I returned to Lawrence and said, “Why don’t I join this as a producer and write the script on spec? Then once we get it to a place where we’re all mutually happy, we take it to a studio and tell them that this is the movie we want to make.”
And once James Wan stepped on we felt like we had our dream team.
What’s the first step in taking a short and turning it into a feature length movie?
The first step was to get the treatment or outline down that gave us the skeletal structure for a feature film and let us know where the scary is, and also where the real heart is.
Something that David and I agreed on was that we wanted to be able to root for all these characters. We weren’t in the business of making the kind of movie where you’re essentially rooting for the monster and all the characters are either disposable or just jerks [laughs]. We wanted the audience to cheer when one of our characters managed to escape or survive an encounter with evil, versus having them cheer when a character dies!
So we started with the idea that we’d make something with some heart and then figure out where we wanted to put in our scares. David and I sat down and ran through a whole laundry list of scares that either tied-in with the dark or the thematic core of the movie, Diana. She represents mental illness and clinical depression, and how keeping that in the dark or keeping that as unspoken within a family can fracture a family dynamic and can even cause harm.
So with that in mind, we went down a list. He did a lot of the heavy lifting because heck, he’s going to direct and it’s my job to get him the script which he’ll be excited about shooting. But there are a handful of my ideas that managed to make it into the film and I’m especially proud of those.
Those are the core ingredients that we started with: a laundry list of scares, the heart (because we wanted to have the positive characters that we wanted to root for) and a theme of depression.
Did you have to do much research on depression or did David supply you with what you needed?
It was half and half. I mean, he had his specific notions and then I did my research. I could also pull from my own personal family experience – I have some extended family that have had to deal with mental illness of one sort or another – and all that gets used. All of it is kindling for the fire.
Was David the one who came up with the background story for Diana? Or did you work on that together?
He came with more of the metaphor of what he wanted her to be. We started with her as just a demon of sorts, an entity that latches on to someone that is already vulnerable or depressed and just exacerbates the situation and makes it worse and worse. And that helped us out early on, but we realized that it was too thin in terms of the mythology or backstory to carry us through the whole film.
James Wan was the one who came in and rightly pointed out that Diana could be a very iconic character which, knock on wood, could be around for a long while. To get more out of her, we wanted to lay the foundation for a rich and mysterious backstory that we could touch on in the first movie. But, in any subsequent iteration, there would be room to grow and answer more questions.
That’s when we started to build her as a possibly real character that came out of an asylum.
As also producer, was rewriting different for you?
It went hand in hand. Once we were in production I joked that I fired the writer and now it’s just a matter of producing the best film possible. Having both hats allowed me to be side by side with David. I would say that something might have read well on the page but now that we’re hearing it out of the actor’s mouth, it’s a little bit clunky or it doesn’t fit the style of the behavior that I’ve started to see in this person or this cast member, so why don’t we change it up, toss this out and come up with some alternates?
He’d send me in there and we would have a small discussion with Teresa [Palmer] or Alex [DiPersia] or Maria or even Gabriel [Bateman] and that’s how it worked.
That’s how it should work, I think.
I both wrote and directed the last movie I worked on, and having been in the director’s chair, I had a lot of set experience. I also knew the kind of decisions that would be assaulting David on a daily basis and my responsibility there was to try and mitigate some of that and be a sort of offensive linebacker for him and handle some of those decisions.
There were plenty of times where I found myself writing copy for props or for computer monitors or TV screens, or I would end up writing additional dialogue for someone who was going to be a background player so it wouldn’t fall on his shoulders.
You’ve been asked to adapt or re-create previously released material, such as The Thing and Nightmare On Elm Street. What is the first thing you do in that situation?
When approaching a project that’s based on material, first you see what everyone involved in the project thinks the movie should be. You want to make sure you’re building the same movie together. You may have a different reaction to a property than someone else.
For instance, I loved John Carpenter’s The Thing, because I saw it as a mutt. It was a little bit sci-fi, a little bit creature-feature, and a little bit horror. There’s paranoia, it’s an ensemble drama… it crossed a lot of great genres and I loved it for that.
So I talked with the director Matthijs van Heijningen Jr and said that I want to make another mutt! I want to make another mixed-breed movie that dabbles in a lot of things but still has a lot of paranoia thriller at the heart of it where trust is the main currency.
He and I were both on the same page and wanted to make the same movie. And when I know that what I’m making is going to someone who will interpret it the same way as me, that makes me excited about writing!
What do you do when you’re working with someone who’s not on the same page?
Well, at that point, if I’ve not taken the job yet, I thank them for their time and walk away. And if I’m already far down the field and I’ve turned in a draft and realize that we’re at an impasse, that’s typically the moment where I get fired. [Laughs.]
I loved the way the Norwegian Camp in The Thing synced up to the way it was found in Carpenter’s film. Did you look at those elements, and work backwards from there or did you try to work those elements in later?
All that was done way in advance. Matthijs and I watched and re-watched Carpenter’s film something like thirty, forty times with a stopwatch to find any bits of information from the Norwegian camp to cull, to make sure that we were re-creating it honestly in our prequel.
It was writing by autopsy, so to speak. I had all this forensic evidence that I knew I had to turn into a full-fledged camp.
As a self-professed fan of John Carpenter’s The Thing and the original Nightmare on Elm Street, was it easier or more difficult to work on those scripts?
Both at the same time.
It’s easier in that it has been in my system, it’s been absorbed as part of my DNA as a film lover, these properties and these characters and worlds, so I can easily see how to occupy the space in Antarctica or Elm Street or wherever you want to go.
I think it gets difficult to find a narrative that works in harmony with the franchise but doesn’t seem to be a direct photocopy. And doing the dance where you’re building something similar or parallel to the rest of the franchise but has enough of its own unique features that it feels fresh and new is an ongoing battle.
And you will win some and you will lose some with the other creative people involved.
You talked about something similar on Twitter, where you discussed the problem of talking yourself out of a good idea before you ever deliver a draft. Is that an issue when you’re writing such well-known properties? How do you balance have that voice in your head?
It’s incredibly hard. My life hack to get around that is that if there’s a trusted creative person on the project with me, be it a producer or a director, at the very start of a project I will talk to her or him and say, “Listen, I will talk myself out of a bunch of stuff, I will reject a whole bunch of ideas and I can easily spin myself out into paralysis to something kind of watered down, so your job, every time you meet me, every time we sit down in a development session on the script, you tell me to list out all of my rejected ideas.” And that’s what will keep me honest.
And if there’s a good idea that I dismissed because I was too worried it was like this or that or not enough like this or that or whatever the case is, then that’s how we can prevent me from burying those.
That seems like a great way to get around the fact that notes often times don’t come with, “This really works!”
[Laughs.] Yes, I never hear that!
You’re doing a lot of comic book adaptations with The Sandman and Bloodshot and Harbinger. Is there anything you can say about how those projects are progressing?
I’m very excited about Harbinger. That script is now in to the studio. Valiant’s Dinesh Shamdasani and I are both incredibly proud of that one.
I did my work on Bloodshot after Jeff Wadlow who first came on and did the heavy-lifting on that, so I just added a few extra touches to that to try and get the ball rolling. That’ll probably be the first film out if director and cast all line up in the next few months.
But Harbinger was tough because you have to work your ass off to make a comic book team movie that doesn’t feel like Marvel or DC and finding a new sandbox to play in took me… well, I won’t say how many drafts but it was a lot. [Laughs.]
It’s in early days on Sandman.
First thing was sitting down with Neil Gaiman, who is the historian for all the development of Sandman over the, gosh, twenty years or so now, and walking through the process with him and finding out as much information as possible. All the ideas of what works and what doesn’t as evidenced by the various scripts he’s read over the past decade or two.
So now I’m taking that information and processing it and turning it into what will likely be the strangest screenplay I’ve ever written. [Laughs]
Speaking of comics, you’re writing Lone Wolf and Cub 2100 for Dark Horse right now. How did you get involved in that?
I got along well with the editors and creative team over at Dark Horse after they published my own little space opera mini-series Shaper, and Randy Stradley came back to me and said. “What do you think of Lone Wolf and Cub? We want to do another version of 2100 – the sci-fi take – and so I pitched my heart out to him on something and he gave me the thumbs up and off I went.
Which one is your preference: writing comic books or movies? Which one is more difficult?
I would say writing comics is more difficult because you really have to be both writer and director. Sometime when you’re writing a screenplay you can put in stuff that’s just for the reader.
For instance, I was reading a comedy script the other day and it’s set on a college campus and one of the descriptive lines was: “It’s obvious this college is everyone’s second choice.” And it made me laugh, but I realized that’s completely unknowable. Like, how do you shoot that? But you can’t do that in a comic book otherwise you get a call from the artist like, “What the hell is this?!”
So it’s more work to figure out “where is the camera? What do we see? How much do I want to describe that? Part of that is the relationship you have with your artist and how much you give to them versus how much you try to do establish things ahead of time. And different writers work differently.
Alan Moore is really, really meticulous and gives very detailed descriptions in which the artist is basically signing on to come in with a hardhat and build exactly what Alan wrote there. Whereas, other strong writers are a bit more poetic or metaphorical or they built their bones and stick with the dialogue and let the artist fill in what the visuals look like.
I’m somewhere in between.
The Black List has been huge for your career. What’s your experience been like with the Black List.
I think it’s one the greatest things to come around for writers, whether they’re developing or they’re struggling to rejuvenate their career. It focuses on writing and reminds everybody where the strongest ingredient in any movie starts. I don’t have any bad things to say about it!
What would be your advice to writers trying to submit to it?
There’s the peer review and semi-pro review part of the site where you can get evaluated and get some good exposure which I think is done really well.
I’ve been a mentor in a couple screenwriting labs where good scripts out of that have gone on to get more attention, but the big thing is to try and get a script out there that’s very well written and once it gets enough groundswell behind it you can end up on the Black List. This is the list of everyone’s favorite unproduced scripts and if you land on that, it can change your life.
I was a huge fan of Sicario. What was the experience like working with director Denis Villeneuve on Arrival, formerly Story of Your Life?
Probably one of the best experiences with a director I’ve ever had. Denis is incredibly collaborative and inspiring. He’s a real positive energy. You spend time next to Denis and at the end of the day you feel like you have even more energy than when you started. I don’t know how he does that. It’s just his persona.
And I found that he and I could both understand emotionally everything that was going on in the scenes. But then I saw how he translated that into cinematic experiences and I was blown away.
I saw a relatively early cut of the movie and I was just giddy. It’s really something I’m proud of and it’s been a passion project of mine for seven years now so I’m glad it has a happy ending like this.
Featured Image: Gabriel Bateman as Martin in Lights Out. Photo by Courtesy of Warner Bros. Picture – © 2016 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc. All Rights Reserved.
Read Heisserer’s Tweets on Adapting Films.