Screenwriter Eric Heisserer on Lights Out, The Rules of Horror and Collaborating with James Wan
Eric Heisserer bristles at the label of horror movie screenwriter. It’s understandable. While his produced credits include a Final Destination sequel and the remakes of The Thing and A Nightmare on Elm Street, Heisserer points out that he has authored 56 feature film scripts and only eight of them have been in the horror genre. That connotation may change later this year when Heisserer’s screenplay for the sci-fi film Arrival hits screens from Prisoners and Sicario director Denis Villeneuve.
But for now Heisserer and I are talking about Lights Out, a new horror offering based on director David F. Sandberg’s creepy three-minute short (click here to watch). In the feature version a family (depression-addled mom Maria Bello and her children Teresa Palmer and Gabriel Bateman) contends with a ghost-like creature only visible in the dark. It’s a concept that lends itself to a series of wonderful light gags as neon signs, black lights, and even car headlights are used to escape the monster.
With Lights Out in theaters nationwide, Heisserer chatted with Filmmaker about the difference between horror and dread, how The Blair Witch Project inadvertently funded his first script sale, and how a rejection letter sent him on the path to screenwriting.
Filmmaker: I talk to a lot of cinematographers for this column and it’s fairly common for them to grow up around cameras or making backyard movies. Were you writing stories growing up?
Heisserer: I wrote a lot of short fiction before I wrote my first screenplay. My first pro writing credit was for an R. Talsorian tabletop game called Cyberpunk. Then I wrote a number of other things for [that same company]. At one point I got a rejection letter that said, “What you submitted is too linear for a game. It’s more a movie. So we’re not going to publish it.” And I took that as a dare and said, “Fine, then it’s a movie.” I picked up Final Draft and I think I bought a William Goldman script from Barnes & Noble and off I went. And the first script I wrote was a terrible mess, but I learned a lot and I got addicted.
Filmmaker: Did you finish the script?
Heisserer: Yeah, I did. I got the whole thing done and it was like climbing Everest to get to the end. It took me like four months to write it and it was 118 pages and I thought, “Oh God, it’s like I just passed a gallstone.” It was horrible. Then the next script took me a quarter of the time to burn through it.
Filmmaker: What was that first script about?
Heisserer: It was called Compass and it was about a guy who finds an ad in the back of a comic book where he can send off to get a special compass that would point him toward his soul mate. It shows up and he goes off on a crazy journey. It was a little bit of a Twilight Zone-esque kind of story.
Filmmaker: When was the last time you dusted it off and revisited it?
Heisserer: I haven’t opened that file in a long, long time — more than 10 years. I don’t know if I’ll ever come back to it. Some things are just training wheels. But I have been known to go back and sleuth through old scripts and pilfer the good bits and then bring them over to new material and dress them up. But I don’t think I’ve ever gone back to old material and completely rebuilt an old broken script of mine.
Filmmaker: How many scripts did it take before you felt like you knew what you were doing?
Heisserer: It was about script number four before I felt like I was starting to understand the three act structure and character arcs and how visual storytelling on the page is a huge deal. I think it was script number 10 that I eventually sold to Artisan Entertainment in 2000. That was my first real deal.
Filmmaker: That’s close to the era when Artisan put out Blair Witch.
Heisserer: Oh, they absolutely bought my script from money that they’d gotten from Blair Witch. They probably just went to the bank [to deposit Blair Witch profits], turned around and then wrote me a check. (laughs)
Filmmaker: What was that script about?
Heisserer: That was an urban fable along the lines of this game Neverwhere. It was full of strange, mystical comic book-esque characters. It was a lot of fun. And of course it never got made. (laughs)
Filmmaker: It’s always crazy to me when I hear the ratio of scripts that are written to ones that are actually made, even for successful screenwriters.
Heisserer: That’s one of the prices you pay for being a screenwriter. You just have to accept that basically just about none of your script will see the public eye and only a small percentage will get out there into the hands of people who will make it into something.
Filmmaker: Let’s talk about Lights Out and how you got involved in the project. As I understand it, you had a meeting with producer Lawrence Grey and he had the rights to David F. Sandberg’s short film. But you were initially skeptical of whether this little three-minute short could be stretched out. Then you talked to Sandberg and he had already figured out characters and themes for a feature.
Heisserer: David knew who he wanted the characters to be and he knew the central family and emotional conflict that he wanted at the heart of the movie, the dynamics between Rebecca (Palmer) and Sophie (Bello) and Martin (Bateman) and Rebecca’s boyfriend Bret. And David had a thematic concept for the villain of Diana. He knew that he wanted to explore the metaphor of clinical depression and how it’s something that families tend to keep in the dark and how that can play out literally. I liked all of that and was drawn to it and felt like there were enough core ingredients to write a full feature.
And I was excited to know that at the end of the process I could hand it over to a director who, if he liked it, would be on board to go and shoot the thing. And knowing that you have a filmmaker to turn your script into is a great motivating feeling rather than doing something in a vacuum.
Filmmaker: What are your personal work habits like? Do you start with an outline? Do you hang up a bunch of index cards with characters and plot points?
Heisserer: When I’m developing a project, I do like to have the bones of an outline. That would be something that I would do on the computer. But I do have cork wall in my office and I’ll split that cork wall into two. One half will be all structural in terms of what are the choices that these characters are making that drive the movie every step of the way and what is the basic spinal column that I’m attaching everything to. And the other half is all kinds of flotsam and jetsam — random bits of dialogue or maybe a photo I see in a magazine that makes me think “that’s a really cool object or weapon or that’s great wardrobe for a character.” So the cork wall will be half very neatly organized — Act 1, Act 2, Act 3 — and then the other half is [the opposite]. It’s like [the Batman villain] Two-Face.
Filmmaker: I understand for horror projects that you like to do an early draft where you leave out all the scare elements and write it almost as if it’s a character drama.
Heisserer: I’m not against having the characters talk about the horror elements, but they talk about it in the same way they’d talk about an emotional problem. I leave all the scares and set pieces out of it and just focus entirely on the character relationships and how they change and evolve and grow. If I get that plumbing in first, it’s easier for me to go back in and find the points where I feel the scares will be the most justified or the most dangerous to the characters’ sanity. It’s a way for me to do a first analysis of the script before I try to make it scary. Not only do I then go in and add in all the scares, but I also add in the dread, which is a little bit different. James Wan is very good at dread. He does these great lingering shots on objects or darkened corners or he’ll frame a shot so that there’s a window in it and you keep expecting someone to show up at the window but nothing ever does.
Filmmaker: When you’re first starting on a script for something like Lights Out, which hadn’t been sold yet, how do you determine the scope? The movie ultimately only has two main locations and five main characters. Did you have to cut down your early versions once that scope become limited by the realities of physical production?
Heisserer: Yeah, there was a whole section in the earlier draft of the characters trying to research who Diana is and discovering that it’s possible that she was a patient at a mental institute and Rebecca and Bret decided they were going to go to that mental institute and investigate. They go there only to discover that the institution had been shut down for 10 years and is now an apartment complex. There were some fun moments, there were also some interesting scare moments and dread moments in there as well, but budget prevented us from going to that location, so we had to figure out how to condense and edit out.
Filmmaker: You’re also onboard Lights Out as a producer. I’m surprised more screenwriters don’t try to get into that role. You guys get blamed for a lot of sins in a movie that frequently aren’t even your ideas. Is producing a way to protect your script?
Heisserer: It’s funny that you say that, because I did say “You know what guys, I’m tired of getting blamed for stuff and not even being on set. If I’m going to end up under the bus, I at least want to get to have some fun during production.” (laughs) No, it wasn’t really that, but it came out of the worry that if we were to just go and take it as a pitch to find a studio to pay for me writing the script, then it doesn’t start from that purely creative place. David and I and the other producers — at that point it was Lawrence and James Wan — had such a clear idea of what we wanted the movie to be and to take that into the studio just puts a process in motion and brings a number of other people to the table. That can make murky the waters of what you want to make, especially when someone else is paying your bills. So I said, “Why don’t I write this for free on spec and then when we all think that the script is in a good place we’ll go out as a team and find a studio to give us the money.” And everyone was on board for that, with the condition that I would be a producer as well.
Filmmaker: Tell me about establishing the rules for Diana’s powers. My preference for horror is always clearly defined rules because for me it creates more tension, more of the dread you were talking about.
Heisserer: I think it ends up being an on-going negotiation no matter what monster you’re making. You can make a set of rules that seem crystal clear and water tight and then you [start shooting] and it could be day two of production when a gaffer or an extra could walk up and say, “if that’s the case, then why doesn’t blah blah blah” and everyone goes, “Awwww shit!” (laughs) David and I both had some thoughts about making Diana someone who behaved a little bit differently than a ghost. It worked in more of a sci-fi adjacent world than a supernatural one and that was a lot of fun because we were crafting a brand new mythology. We weren’t making a demon. We weren’t making a ghost. We were making something new and different. So you don’t have any established rules to lean on. When you make a vampire character, you instantly have a whole bunch of rules that audiences are very familiar with and you never have to explain them. With Diana, we had to be careful to roll out her mythology and explain her origins and her capabilities and, eventually, how she is vulnerable.
Filmmaker: Did your early drafts always start with a bang, opening with Diana terrorizing a character at a textile factory?
Heisserer: We always wanted to start with a bang like that. It was important to just about everybody at the table that we established early on [for the audience] what kind of movie they’re at. I think at first it wasn’t a textile factory. It was a clothing store front that had a bunch of mannequins in different outfits. Then that evolved into what we have now largely due to location scouting. Location scouting ends up both limiting and opening up your options.
Filmmaker: That opening is important in this film because it establishes how dangerous Diana is. Most of the film is just the three family members and the boyfriend Bret so it certainly isn’t a “body count” horror movie.
Heisserer: The interesting thing with horror movies right now is that so many of them aren’t based on kill count. I look at The Conjuring and The Conjuring 2 and I don’t know if anybody dies in those. So we didn’t really think about, “Let’s make sure we kill at least ‘x’ number of people.” (laughs) The decisions that we made along the way were organic to the characters and certainly with someone like Bret, who feels at first like a disposable boyfriend character, we wanted to buck that trope and do something with him.
Filmmaker: I had a lot of fun with the way you toyed with those tropes. There’s a moment when Palmer’s commitment-phobic character gives Bret a dresser drawer of his own at her apartment just before he’s set to sleep alone on the couch at the haunted house. And I thought, “So long Bret.” But then, nope, he’s still kicking in the morning.
Heisserer: (laughs) Exactly. It was a lot fun to write him and twist around the expectations.
Filmmaker: Another aspect that breaks from convention is that you reveal very early in the film that there’s a relationship between Diana and the mother played by Bello. Even the trailer gives that relationship away. Frequently supernatural horror films are also mysteries in which the audience discovers the cause of the ghost’s origins much later.
Heisserer: We wanted to do that early on simply because that relationship is one of the most interesting elements of the movie. If we had delayed that reveal, I think we wouldn’t have given ourselves all the real estate we needed to explore what that meant and how it played out with the rest of the family. And also it tells you right away that it’s not a traditional ghost story.
Filmmaker: As someone who’s interested in cinematography, the best part of the film for me is all the great lighting gags used to ward off Diana. It had to be fun to dream those up. When you were writing would you be out in the world and see something like a motion-controlled light and think, “jackpot?”
Heisserer: So many of those were pre-baked by David. He had a whole list of them that he knew he wanted to use. I had that list next to my computer and when I got to a place where I needed one I’d look and say, “Hmmm, what could I use here?” There were really only two of them that were ideas of mine that came organically out of the screenwriting process and the first one is those motion detector lights [at the textile factory]. Those always creep me out, like if I’m ever in a restroom and those lights shut off. Then I came up with the headlight idea and that made David very happy. To make the director happy is a huge win in my book.
Matt Mulcahey writes about film on his blog Deep Fried Movies.