Two years ago, David Sandberg had to sell his couch and TV to afford food and rent. Now, he’s getting ready to head to Cannes, where on May 21 his 30-minute short film Kung Fury will screen in the film festival’s Directors’ Fortnight section. A week later, on May 28, the film will premiere on platforms like YouTube and Reddit. Meanwhile, a feature version of Kung Fury is in the works with Hollywood producers David Katzenberg and Seth Grahame-Smith–not to mention a Kung Fury clothing line, graphic novel series and merchandise. Oh, and David Hasselhoff recently made a Kung Fury music video that has been viewed over 8 million times.
Sandberg, who’s 29 and lives in Stockholm, Sweden, admits that it’s all “very surreal.”
Sandberg’s story is the classic aspiring-filmmaker-to-“It”-filmmaker fairy tale, updated for the digital age. He wasn’t discovered in film school or on a commercial shoot, but on Kickstarter, where, in late 2013 he posted a trailer for Kung Fury. The teaser was an over-the-top homage to ’80s action movies with an absurd premise: a bandana-wearing hero (played by Sandberg) travels back in time to kill Hitler. Along the way, he battles ripped Norse Gods, kitschy dinosaurs and robocops.
Unlike other Kickstarter success stories like Zach Braff and YouTube star Freddie Wong, Sandberg was a complete unknown when he posted the Kung Fury trailer–his pseudonym was Laser Unicorns. But his playfully ironic style (he prefers the word “cheesy”) struck a chord, and within 24 hours he’d raised $200,000. A month later, that number jumped to over $600,000.
To date, the Kung Fury trailer has been viewed nearly 10 million times.
It’s no secret that the Internet and social apps have become discovery vehicles for up-and-coming artists, whether via YouTube or Vimeo or Vine. But with such a plethora of digital platforms and a dizzying amount of content, the question becomes: how does talent stand out from the crowd and make an impression?
According to Simon Faber, the WME agent who signed Sandberg after he watched his trailer, the director’s brilliance was making such an elaborate–and original–teaser that basically served as an advertisement for the film. The trailer showcased not only Sandberg’s talent, but proved that there were enough story elements and characters in Kung Fury for a film.
“When you watch the trailer, you see a movie in it. It’s that legit,” says Faber. “It was smart. Rather than doing a scene or a character, he said, ‘If I were to do a full movie, this is what it would feel like.’”
Sandberg’s logline didn’t hurt.
“The idea is insane,” says Faber. “A cop from the ’80s who goes back in time to kill Hitler. You could see Quentin Tarantino doing it–like Inglorious Basterds. Or Robert Rodriguez.”
As for how Sandberg got himself on the map and noticed by Hollywood, it all began when he decided to give up his day job and put everything into his dream: directing a film. At the time, he was shooting commercials and music videos, figuring that was the best way to become a feature director. But, he says, “That wasn’t happening.”
“So I just quit doing commercials and music videos,” he says. “I said, ‘I’m going to do my own project.’ I had this idea for an ’80s cop-inspired film called Kung Fury. So I set out to do that. It was very ambitious. I didn’t have any money, so it was very tough at first. I worked on it for about two years before I started the Kickstarter campaign.
“My plan was to shoot the entire thing and then do all the visual effects myself. I have a background in visual effects. But it turned out that it was way too much work and took too long and I was completely broke. I had to sell my couch and my TV to be able to afford rent and food. I was, like, at the tipping point. I told myself I needed to do something about this.”
To raise money, Sandberg decided to turn to Kickstarter. The idea was to use the footage he’d used trying to make his movie for a trailer.
“I had a lot of material, so I was like, okay, I’m going to put together a trailer, release it, and get people pumped. So we worked on the trailer for five to six months. It was just me and another guy at my office. The Kickstarter goal was $200,000, which I thought was ambitious, but it also seemed realistic in terms of what I needed to make the movie.
“I asked everybody who’d helped me to post the trailer on their Facebook pages. Nothing happened for the first five hours and I was really bummed. But then the guy who plays Thor in the trailer (Andreas Cahling)–he’s like a legendary bodybuilder who has a big following on Facebook–one of his followers saw the trailer and posted it on Reddit. After that, the whole Internet exploded.
“Within 24 hours of launching, we reached our goal. People started calling. I freaked out. Hollywood was calling. Agents. Managers. It was crazy. I basically didn’t sleep for a week because of the adrenaline rush. The campaign was for 30 days. By the end, we raised $630,000.”
Aside from money, he now had an American agent and manager, Philip Westgren.
Over the summer of 2014, Sandberg shot his short. He hired a Stockholm-based company, Fido, to do the film’s visual effects. As for casting, that was largely taken care of by Kickstarter.
“There were so many pledges. You could buy a T-shirt for $20, there were different levels. One of the pledges was that you could become an extra in Kung Fury. The most expensive pledge was that you could get an actual role in the movie. So we had like 40 people from all over the world come to Umea, where I was living–it’s a very small town in the northern part of Sweden, about as far north as you can go. They stayed in my grandma’s garage. They were extras. Then there was a guy from Texas, Steven Chew, who pledged $10,000 to have a role in the movie. He played Kung Fury’s partner. He was alright (as an actor). The script is very cheesy in its dialogue, it doesn’t require good actors.
“Some of the people stayed for a day, some for two weeks, some are still there. One guy stayed for three months. He stayed at my mom’s place. They loved it. It was very friendly, like a big family.”
WIth Kung Fury shot and ready for release, Sandberg wanted to inject new energy into the project and raise awareness. He decided to make a music video to promote the film. Who better to star in it than ’80s TV star David Hasselhoff?
“We asked David’s agent if David could take a look at the trailer, and he loved it. He was on board right away,” Sandberg says.
Hasselhoff flew to Sweden and worked with Sandberg and his team to make the video for True Survivor (a track by Mitch Murder, Sweden’s version of Jan Hammer) in which Hasselhoff invokes all of his Knight Rider awesomeness. The video features smoke machines, a leather glove, and a white Lamborghini.
With another viral video under his belt, now Sandberg is just waiting until Cannes–and taking care of the rest of his Kickstarter supporters.
“We have a bunch of backers and we need to send them posters and T-shirts and stuff like that,” he says. “There are around 18,000.”
When asked if Hasselhoff stars in the final film, Sandberg laughs.