Exclusive Interview: Screenwriter Eric Heisserer on building the terror of ‘LIGHTS OUT’

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LIGHTS-OUT-dCourtney Howard // Film Critic

Screenwriter Eric Heisserer has made it his business to scare the bejeezus out of you. From 2010’s NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET, to FINAL DESTINATION 5 (my favorite of the franchise), to HOURS (a film without a “boogeyman” that still tells of a particular horror), his talent has helped further your fears.

His latest, a frightening feature-length adaptation of David F. Sandberg’s short LIGHTS OUT, aims to do the same. Filled with indelible and nightmare-inducing imagery, the terrifying tale of a daughter (Teresa Palmer) attempting to free her mother (Maria Bello) and half-brother (Gabriel Bateman) from the clutches of an evil spirit out of her past is woven in a clever, suspenseful manner.

Fresh Fiction had the opportunity to sit down with Heisserer to discuss his building upon the original short and working under producer James Wan (THE CONJURING 2).

Screenwriter Eric Heisserer attends the premiere of New Line Cinema's LIGHTS OUT at the TCL Chinese Theatre on July 19, 2016 in Hollywood, California. Photo courtesy of Alberto E. Rodriguez/Getty Images North America.

Screenwriter Eric Heisserer attends the premiere of New Line Cinema’s LIGHTS OUT at the TCL Chinese Theatre on July 19, 2016 in Hollywood, California. Photo courtesy of Alberto E. Rodriguez/Getty Images North America.

This obviously isn’t the first horror film you’ve written. What do you like about scaring audiences – specifically me?

I like giving audiences the opportunity to go in and get really scared during the movie and come out saying, ‘No matter what is going on in my life, or in the headlines, at least I don’t have it as bad as the characters in that movie.’

What was the first thing that struck you as to how to build out Sandberg and Losten’s short?

The first thing that made me really relax, as a storyteller, was David and I started talking about how thematically ‘Diana’ represents mental illness, or clinical depression. If I have a scene I can latch onto like that, it makes everything easier. I don’t get lost in the weeds on the scares because I know what I’m going to be attaching it to.

I love this idea that you can still be haunted by Diana even during the day – like the monster is always there. It reminded me a little of how Laurie sees Michael Myers outside her window during the day. Was there a faint inspiration?

There was. I watched a lot of HALLOWEEN around the time I was launching into the draft. So many of those moments where there’s a shot of Michael Myers – like a wide angle – hanging out behind the hedge row and how unnerving that was reminded me at something Carpenter was so good at outside of building scares was building dread. I appreciate that in horror. There doesn’t have to be a scare. It’s just things are wrong; People are broken. Engines don’t start right away. Whatever it is. Things are faulty.

James Wan is very busy these days. How integral was his voice during production?

He was very helpful early on. He was definitely part of the fellowship of the table, helping to guide us, making sure we were building the characters and the scares in a way that made them more sustainable. It was James that was adamant that we cared about everybody involved. If you can empathize with these characters, you’re going to be more scared when they are in danger. And he’s absolutely right – that’s what David and I were doing anyway. We just wanted very likeable people that you just wanted to hug at some point in time.

The other thing we had from James early on in the planning stages was his ability to craft a horror sequence. The difference between James and other contemporary filmmakers in horror is the way he’s able to string two or three or four different scares in a sort of daisy-chain escalation that keeps you on your toes. That helps you with a number of times where he gives you a sense of there could be a scare but he doesn’t deliver on that – he just makes you uncomfortable.

As the writer, is there a difference between rated R scares and PG-13 ones?

I talked about that briefly with David briefly before launching into the script and I let him know that I don’t really have any rating in mind. I’m just looking to craft whatever seems the scariest to me. With this movie, it wound up being something that wasn’t rated R because the more we left to the imagination of the audience, the more disturbing it seemed to be. You don’t need gore to deliver on the kind of unsettling monster that Diana is.

Can you tell me a little about working within the parameters of genre tropes? You disguise them effortlessly here.

I’m not too happy to do a trope, at times. There’s an argument that you’re going to get from producers and studio types and sometimes a filmmaker, I didn’t get this from David, but there’s always a dissenting voice where it’s like, ‘Is it cliché or is it sure-fire?’ It’s hard to articulate why you want to avoid a trope when obviously it makes the storytelling so much more economical to lean into a trope now and then. Those were minor negotiations throughout the forming of this film.

There could’ve been an option where we visited a mental hospital and Rebecca tried to figure out who Diana was and what she was doing there. Now you’re in a creepy hospital set and you’re expecting to get scared. But it felt too much like what audiences would expect. The next step really is to have her research that leans into what it reveals about that without having to make it a full on set piece.

Teresa Palmer and Alexander DiPersia in LIGHTS OUT. Courtesy of Warner Brothers/ / New Line.

Teresa Palmer and Alexander DiPersia in LIGHTS OUT. Courtesy of Warner Brothers/ New Line.

Let’s talk about the relationship between Rebecca and her boyfriend Bret – it’s subversive. She’s not the stereotypically clingy one and he’s not the stereotypical rocker flake. I mean, he drives a Volvo! I thought that was so refreshing.

A lot of that was inspired right from real people. Back when I was a teenager, I was in a metal band and our bassist drove a Volvo station wagon. He got it from his parents. It’s possible this is just a secondhand car that he got on the cheap, or even for free, and he rolls with it [laughs]. It may not be the best example of his character  – or it may really be that, honestly. People who drive Volvos tend to be more caretaker types and that’s definitely who Bret is.

Yeah! That’s how I saw him. Maybe I was reading too much into what kind of car he was driving. I just thought, “How nice! He’s thinking of a family for the future! He’s got this nice, safe SUV!’

He’s got some plans. He’s the one thinking five years ahead. I can tell you Rebecca wasn’t that. And he has someone who’s gone through some really terrifying childhood trauma the way that Rebecca has. All my research, and even anecdotally, my personal experience with friends who have had to deal with that, all of them come out of it with trust issues – commitment issues. It made sense for me to have her play that part that normally you’d see the guy have those issues. It made her more interesting to me.

I feel like this film lives and breathes in the silences. Was there ever any pressure from the studio to have more expository dialogue or more jump scares?

It was a give and take on some of those. By enlarge, they left us to our own devices. The nice thing about New Line, they were very empowering. Like, ‘Here you go. This is your sandbox. Go and play in it and build something for us.’ Now and then, you’d get some notes and you’d have to figure out what the note is behind that and see if the answer is more exposition or if the answer is just to find a good take where one of the actors had an expression on their face that tells you everything you need to know.

I would imagine the house you got as your location played a big part in things.

Just the fact that I wrote it so that there was a basement there and we’re in LA. Everybody was like, ‘Why are you doing this, Eric? This is going to be impossible to find.’ [laughs] But we did find one and it wound up being very good for us. David had a bunch of great ideas for how to use it. Plenty of space to move the camera around. It didn’t have you stuck in a corner the whole time.

When you write these characters, you have a certain idea of them. Were you at all surprised what depth the actors brought to these characters that only previously existed in your head?

That’s the blessing of great actors. You hope to be surprised – and indeed I was. I was super excited to have Teresa, Maria and Gabriel. The biggest surprise was Alex and how he just turned Bret into this loveable hero – this sidekick who steals all the scenes. Teresa and Maria – first of all it’s great to see how much they look like mother and daughter when they are in the same room. And then whether they drew from some of their own personal experiences, or they’re just phenomenal actors, they fell into those roles so thoroughly that, also as a producer on set, there were plenty of times I’d say, ‘Okay my writing is only getting you 50% there. I think there’s more to do here. I’d like to explore this. Let’s just improv and see what happens. You continue the scene beyond what we’re here for.’ That elicited some great emotional response.

This is such a good cast. Like you were saying before, if you don’t want to hug them, then what are you in here for?!

[laughs] Exactly.

The whole time I was like, I wanna hug Martin. I wanna hug Rebecca. I wanna embrace Sophie. I wanna push Diana away, of course.

No matter how many times I see it, probably half a dozen times now, every time Sophie passes that note to Rebecca my heart breaks.

I loved the ending – it’s ballsy. Do you ever feel like you may have written yourself into a corner like if we’re to come back for a sequel?

I think we all agreed we were to tell a story that worked all on its own. For us to consider the possibility of a sequel, that’s not on us. That’s on the audience. If the film does well then yes, I may have done myself no really good service at all by ending the film the way I did. But that just means we have to think that much harder and smarter about it if we’re to come back and revisit these characters.

What films/ filmmakers inspire you?

Karyn Kusama is amazing. I’m obsessed with THE INVITATION. I think she’s a remarkable filmmaker. I can’t wait to see what her next thing is. I’m also paying attention to a lot television directors who are doing a lot of the work of feature filmmakers on a smaller budget and shorter amount of days. The work Michelle MacLaren did on BREAKING BAD was phenomenal. In terms of horror feature filmmakers, I know this is a very polarizing film, you either loved it or hated, but I was one of the ones who loved Jennifer Kent’s THE BABADOOK.

What’s next for you? I see you have a Denis Villeneuve film and VAN HELSING on the docket, but I’m not sure where you are on that.

We’re in early days on VAN HELSING but I’m very excited about the movie with Denis, ARRIVAL, which comes out in November.

For VAN HELSING, is that a different dynamic for you, working within a group versus you on your own?

It is. It’s mostly like a TV writer’s room where we all gather together like a cabal of brains and try to figure out the best way to approach writing in a shared cinematic universe. A lot of people are trying to make that happen right now. I know there’s one for Hasbro as well. What I like about it is that I’m not alone on it. I’m working with Jon Spaihts on VAN HELSING. To have someone to bounce ideas off of and to really collaborate with, I’m writing those pages first and foremost to impress Jon. It’s more entertaining like that.

LIGHTS OUT opens on July 22. You can read our review here.

Feature Photo: Teresa Palmer and Gabriel Bateman in LIGHTS OUT. Courtesy of Warner Brothers/ New Line.

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Courtney Howard

Courtney Howard is a LAFCA, OFCS and AWFJ member, as well as a Rotten Tomatometer-approved film critic. Her work has been published on Variety, She Knows and Awards Circuit.