After the successful release of his first studio feature, 2016’s Lights Out, director David F. Sandberg was flooded with offers. He chose Annabelle: Creation, which explores the origin of the cursed Annabelle doll. A prequel to 2014’s Annabelle, and the fourth film in The Conjuring franchise, Annabelle: Creation centers on a doll-maker and his wife who welcome a nun and several girls from a shuttered orphanage to stay with the couple at their California farmhouse. Annabelle quickly takes an interest in one of the girls. In May, I had the chance to talk to Sandberg, who seems poised to become one of the most influential genre filmmakers of his generation.
DG: What attracted you to this project?
DS: Hello! Several things. First of all, Gary Dauberman’s script, since it was its own separate story from the first film, and I loved the setting, time period, and characters. Then there were aspects of the production as well, like being able to shoot on a soundstage (on the Warner Bros. lot no less). Not only does it feel like the type of movie making I’ve always envisioned, it gives you a lot of freedom to be able to move walls and do all kinds of cool camera moves.
DG: David, what type of visual strategy did you and your cinematographer bring to the filming, and how would you describe the look and tone of the film?
DS: I wanted it to feel old school. To have pretty long takes and a more classical cinematic language. And of course it being a horror movie, I wanted to sure that we weren’t afraid to go really dark when needed. That was one thing that director of photography Maxime Alexandre assured me of—he’s not afraid to go dark. I’ve been a fan of his work since the first movie he shot, Haute Tension, so it was a thrill to get to work with him.
DG: David, how does Annabelle’s spirit attack in this film, and how would you describe the doll’s appearance, its look, in the film?
DS: Well, since we can’t see Annabelle herself move, you have to get creative with her attacks. In this film, the evil that possesses Annabelle takes many forms. It often uses what the characters fear to scare them. The actual doll’s look in the film has been slightly changed since James Wan always felt that she looked a little too over the top scary. Not many kids would want an Annabelle doll in their room. So she has slightly more friendly features, but she can still look menacing when she needs to. I also wanted the possessed version of the doll to have very realistic human eyes for that extra creepy feeling when she looks at you.
DG: How would you describe the relationships that exist in the film between the doll-maker and his wife, the nun and the girls, and Annabelle, how they intersect throughout the film?
DS: The doll-maker, Samuel, and his wife, Esther, are very mysterious. She never leaves her room, and we don’t quite know if he’s a good guy or a bad guy. The orphaned girls in the care of Sister Charlotte are just happy to have a home together, although they find the house and Samuel creepy. There’s a room that Samuel says they can’t enter, but of course that’s what one of the girls, Janice, does one night.
DG: David, how would you describe the “creation” of Annabelle, Annabelle’s true origin in the film?
DS: The creation isn’t that special really. It’s the first thing you see in the film, and in fact we hint to the fact that she’s one of many Annabelle dolls. It’s more about what happens later on, after she gets possessed and is unleashed.
DG: David, what’s your favorite scene or sequence in the film?
DS: Probably when Janice first encounters the Annabelle doll. I like that sequence because it’s more about being creepy than having jump scares. There’s also a fun sequence with a stair lift that is fun.
DG: David, as Annabelle took place in 1967, what time period does this film take place in, and how does the time period relate to the characters, the story, and the stylistic approach that you brought to this film?
DS: I believe the first one took place in 1970 actually. With this one, we don’t say what the year is, but all of the props and clothes are based in 1957. That was one of the things that I liked about the film: to get to make a period movie. No cell phones to ruin your horror movie. It being set in that time also gave me an excuse to try and go for a more classical filmmaking approach. To shoot it like an older movie. It’s still shot digitally, but we added 16mm film grain to the film to add to the old movie feel.
DG: What do you think sets this film apart from Annabelle and the Conjuring films, and what do you think audiences will find most compelling and frightening about this film?
DS: It feels like a bigger film than Annabelle. It has a bigger scope. It’s probably more like The Conjuring than Annabelle, but it’s still very much its own film. This story isn’t based on any real case like The Conjuring, so we could go pretty crazy with what happens to the poor characters.
DG: David, besides the unique perspective of directing a film that’s a prequel to a prequel, what was the biggest challenge you faced during the filming?
DS: Working with kids. Not because of them themselves—they were absolutely fantastic. Super dedicated and terrific actors. But the limited hours you get is a pain. With adults, you keep going until you get what you need. But with kids, there’s zero overtime. When the time is up, it’s up. There were some things we had to cut short, or that I didn’t get the time I needed on. But their performances made it worth it.
DG: David, is there one memory of the filming that stands out in your mind when you look back at this entire experience?
DS: The super uncomfortable time on the bus. I didn’t want to shoot the bus scenes on a green screen stage, since I never find scenes like that totally convincing. Instead, we shot it on a real old bus out in the desert. It was hot, loud, very dusty and miserable going back and forth for every take, but it certainly doesn’t look like a green screen shoot. All those bumps in the road are real.
Annabelle: Creation arrives in theaters on August 11.