David F. Sandberg is on a roll. After the success of 2016 supernatural horror hit Lights Out, he was tapped to direct the next installment (slash second prequel) in the very popular The Conjuring series, Annabelle: Creation.
In theaters starting tonight and opening wide on Friday, the film tells the origin of the titular possessed doll, a story that we initially heard being told to demonologists Ed and Lorraine Warren (played by Vera Farmiga and Patrick Wilson) in The Conjuring.
After treating fans to an early peek of the film earlier this year during the Warner Bros. panel at WonderCon in Anaheim, CBR chatted with Sandberg — who is on board to director DC’s Shazam! for Warner Bros., but was unable to comment on that film in this interview — about Annabelle: Creation, bringing back atmospheric horror to the people, and what he’d like to do in the future.
CBR: What is it like stepping into a pretty established franchise and basically setting the origin story, which is a pretty important thing?
It was a lot of fun. I didn’t really…Now that you say that the origin story is important, I’m glad I didn’t think that way when I took the job because that might’ve freaked me out. [Laughs] Instead, it was just a lot of fun to step into this universe that James Wan set up so brilliantly. Because I’ve been saying that Conjuring has a very old-school horror feel, and this was my chance to sort of make my version of an old-school, classic horror, with sort of more classic filmmaking techniques. And do a period movie, which was exciting.
You say “more classic techniques” –so what, versus Lights Out, what did you do? What are some of the main differences?
Well, we have a lot of sort of long takes and sort of interesting transitions between scenes. Just trying to make it feel more classic. But also in the music, for example. The Shining was a big inspiration, because I love the score for The Shining. So when we cut the movie, we used stuff from The Shining as sort of temp music and then had Benjamin Wallfisch, who did the music, use that as an inspiration. We made sure that no sound would sound digital. So we used a real orchestra and very analog sounds and didn’t distort them, that they sometimes do in horror movies, just to make it feel more classic.
So does that mean also more classic Foley work versus finding animal noises and manipulating them digitally?
The Foley work was pretty similar to how it usually is. But I think what I try to have them do is do less, many times, because I think movies have a tendency to push too many sounds and too much music in there, and it just turns into noise. Sometimes you kind of have to rein the sound guys back. It’s like, “Let’s just have it be quiet here. That’s creepier.”
You have written a large portion of the stuff that you’ve done before.
How different is it to get a script and process that?
It’s fun because it’s a challenge in that, if I write something for myself, there are certain things I might not do, because I’m like, “Oh, that’s going to be too hard, so I’m not going to do that.” But once someone else writes it, they’re just writing what they think is cool. Then it’s like, “Oh, OK, so how can I do this? How can I make this real?” You have to interpret what someone else writes and it’s a fun process.
Tel us a little bit about the story and how you found the right actors.
So the story is about this couple who’ve had a tragedy in their past and they take in these orphan girls to let them stay in their big farmhouse. But then, of course, there’s mystery there. There’s a room they’re not allowed inside, and they soon find this creepy doll, and it all goes bad.
Now, for the actors, we had extensive auditions for the girls. Our lead, Talitha, is actually the sister of Gabriel Bateman, who is in Lights Out. But we didn’t just give it to her because she was the sister. She had to actually come in and audition a few times, and really prove that she could do it, and she was amazing. I think people will be blown away by her performance.
Then we have Lulu Wilson. She’s, like, 10 or 11 years old and she’s already a horror veteran, you know? She’s been in Ouija: Origin of Evil and Deliver Us From Evil. She just loves being in horror movies.
We got super lucky in that we got Anthony LaPaglia and Miranda Otto, who I’m just huge fans of. It’s such a cool feeling, that I’m a director working with these awesome actors, you know?
It seems like atmospheric horror is kind of making a bit more of a resurgence, versus being in that torture porn arc for a while. So how do you tailor the atmosphere? How do you know when it’s right? Have more music, less music?
It is a bit of experimentation. I think I try to scale it back as much as possible. Many times, to not lead the audience too much with music. You know, like telegraphing, “Okay, here’s the scary thing.” It’s a process of just playing around both on set and in post because some things, you find out in post, didn’t actually work so you have to cut them out.
For something like this seems like practical effects are key. Is there a drawback to depending on that, or do you think it’s a better way of building this atmosphere on set?
I just think you can feel if things are too digital, too created. Even if they look great, there’s still that feeling of “I don’t believe that.” So we try to do as much practically as possible. Some things we weren’t allowed to do because of child safety laws and stuff like that. [Laughs] So, all right, we have to do that CG. But, yeah, as much as possible.
Even just, at the beginning of the movie, they ride on this old bus out in the middle of the desert landscape. We did that for real. We didn’t want to shoot on a green screen stage or anything like that. It was pretty miserable because it was hot and dusty and just took forever, but I think it’s worth it because you feel that it’s real.
You already had the horror movies and atmospheric thriller kind of things under your belt. Is this something that is definitely your wheelhouse, or do you want to explore other avenues after this?
I want to explore other avenues as well. But I love horror and I don’t think I’ll ever leave it behind. But I am curious about exploring other things as well, just to see what I can do. I love sci-fi and I love doing action-y sequences as well in movies, so… yeah, I want to see what else I can do.
What are your biggest filmmaking influences?
Filmmaking in general? I like James Cameron, Stanley Kubrick, those kinds of guys, and horror. You have John Carpenter, stuff like that, and, in recent times, [The Conjuring director] James Wan. He knows his horror.
Directed by David F. Sandberg, Annabelle: Creation is in theaters starting tonight.
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