'A Quiet Place' Writers On Building Tension, How This Could Have Been A 'Cloverfield' Film, And More [Interview]

Harrowing, suspenseful, and emotional, Paramount's A Quiet Place is a terrific piece of horror storytelling that pulls you in from its opening frames and doesn't loosen its grip for the entire runtime. You probably know the premise by now: a family tries to stay alive in a world overrun by creatures who hunt using sound, which means one stray noise or careless mistake could spell the family's untimely demise.

John Krasinski stars opposite his real-life wife Emily Blunt, and he also co-wrote the script and directed the film. While Krasinski is the public face of the movie, this project is the brainchild of writers Scott Beck and Bryan Woods, who came up with this concept ten years ago and have been trying to bring it to life ever since. Earlier this week, I spoke with them about the movie's unique premise, their writing process, crafting tension, world building, the possibility of this being a Cloverfield movie, and the unexpected reason they couldn't be on the film's set.

A Quiet Place Beck and Woods

One of the telltale signs that something scary is about to happen in a horror movie is things suddenly get very quiet. You guys decided to essentially take that moment and write an entire movie set within it. How did you come up with this premise?

Bryan: Scott and I have always talked about, for many years now, that sound is one of the greatest tools in a filmmaker's toolbox to generate suspense and horror. So we kept thinking, if you could make sound itself the monster in a movie – if you could make sound the equivalent of the shark in Jaws – that would be something really, really special. So it was that idea, which we hoped would be terrifying. And it was this general idea of – Scott and I were watching a lot of silent movies in college and even to this day. Some of our favorite filmmakers are Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton obviously, the French filmmaker Jacques Tati. We love silent film so much, and we were like, 'It'd be so cool to make a silent film in a modern day genre context.' We're like, 'We've never seen that before. That would be bizarre and interesting.' So A Quiet Place was born from those two disparate paths.

What kinds of things did you watch for inspiration?

Scott: I would say watching the classics like Alien and Jaws, going back to Alfred Hitchcock's filmography. Specifically The Man Who Knew Too Much – there's a great sequence in terms of Jimmy Stewart trying to get away from a pursuer and we just hear these footsteps coming after him through this echo-y palace. That entire final sequence which plays to a symphony, and you know at the end of the symphony, they're going to make an assassination attempt, and what's incredible about that is how it's not silent in a typical sense. It's still playing with music in terms of sound design, but you're watching, visually, all these characters throughout this tension-filled suspense moment. So movies like that were really the ones we came back to. Because we knew at the end of the day, even writing a script, everything had to play visually on the page as much as it would need to on the screen.

You guys have known each other since the sixth grade, so I imagine you've built a pretty streamlined process over the years. How did you physically write A Quiet Place? Are you both in the same room, or are you e-mailing drafts back and forth?

Bryan: Yeah, we've been working together since we were kids, so we have it down to a science. We brainstorm together in the room. We like to be in the same room together and kick ideas around, and sometimes pull out a marker board if we're getting bored with ourselves and we want to draw pictures on the wall (laughs). When we get into writing, it's a lot of healthy competition between the two of us where maybe Scott will take a scene that we've talked about and he'll do a pass, he'll write it up and kick it over to me. I'll do another pass, do my best to elevate it, make it more exciting. I'll kick it back to Scott, and he'll say, 'Yeah, that was decent, but what if he did this?' So it's that competitive oneupmanship where we're trying to push each other to be as good as we possibly can be.

Scott: Bryan and I love movies that play to big audiences. That's what we grew up on. Our writing process is very much that. As Bryan is describing, our process is predicated on, I'll take a stab at something and then Bryan becomes the audience for that and he is the litmus test for whether that's scary or not. It's always about trying to distill everything down to the best shape possible, and certainly with A Quiet Place, there's a lot of opportunity to play with that and challenge yourself to get the best shape.

One of the things I think the film does really well is build tension in a way that feels organic. Every encounter with these creatures feels truly dangerous. Tell me about how you incorporated that growing tension into the story.

Scott: I think that's in the writing process, trying to figure out your peaks and valleys. You know you can't hold the audience in suspense for 90 minutes with set piece after set piece. You have to find your moments of silence where you can start building that suspense. From a standpoint of just enjoying the film so it's not just a gimmick, you have to root that in characters. Some of the best horror movies always are the best because you're feeling emotion, you're feeling for the characters – what they want, and where they want to go. That always distilled down to this family at the core of it. That they had to have some fundamental issue. Early on in the process, we realized they need to have an issue with communication. So the story isn't just literally that they can't talk, it's metaphorically, they're unable to communicate with each other because they've suffered a loss in the family.

This is also a film where rules are very important. Can you talk about how you decided to dole out information to the audience about the world the characters find themselves in?

Bryan: It's funny, in many ways it was a practical decision. One of the first challenges when writing the script was we realized, 'How are we going to communicate backstory, character development, plot – how do we do that when characters can't speak to each other?' So little by little, we realized if we can put a newspaper headline over here and have this awkward interaction at the dinner table over here, we could slowly start to paint in the world that these characters are living in. Because you cannot make a sound, there's this latent suspense that I think allows us to get away with kind of a more leisurely and maybe I would even say painterly unfolding of the story because danger is around every corner. If these characters make one noise, they're screwed. We feel like a 'slow burn' is not quite an apt description, but kind of slowly almost poetically doling out the backdrop for this world.

Did you ever think about taking this to Bad Robot with the possibility of it being a Cloverfield movie?

Scott: I know! That was one of those things that, I guess it crossed our mind and we had spoken to our representatives about that possibility. It was weird timing, though, because when we were writing the script, 10 Cloverfield Lane was at Paramount. We were actually talking to an executive there about this film, and it felt from pitch form that there might be crossover, but when we finally took the final script in to Paramount, they saw it as a totally different movie. What was really incredible about the process that we feel very grateful for is the studio embraced this weird movie with no dialogue with open arms. They never thought about branding it as a Cloverfield film, I think in part because conceptually it was able to stand on its own.

Bryan: And our biggest fear was – we love Bad Robot, we love the people over there, and obviously J.J. [Abrams] is certainly a hero to us – but one of our biggest fears was this getting swept up into some kind of franchise or repurposed for something like that. The reason I say 'biggest fear' – we love the Cloverfield movies. They're excellent. It's just that as filmgoers, we crave new and original ideas. And we feel like so much of what's out there is IP. It's comic books, it's remakes, it's sequels. We show up to all of them, we enjoy those movies too, but our dream was always to drop something different into the marketplace, so we feel grateful that Paramount embraced the movie as its own thing.

A Quiet Place John Krasinski

What was your initial gut reaction when you heard John Krasinski was going to be involved?

Scott: (laughs) It's certainly a strange pivot, right? Coming off of directing Brief Interviews with Hideous Men and The Hollars, those are straight character dramas. So not having him having worked in the genre was certainly kind of a 180. But I think what was really interesting was that he brought to it his own perspective of being a parent. During the writing process, for instance, I was not a dad yet. But I was certainly thinking about having kids, and that very much inspired the process. But once you have a child – which, I just had a child three months ago – I can see that it changes your worldview entirely. John I know had just had his second child, and when he wanted to come on board as a director, he was coming on board as a father as well. That was a really important slant injected into the film.

Bryan: And as a performer, there was nobody better for this role. We've been a fan of John's work for a long time. He's been cast in a lot of our favorites, like Away We Go from Sam Mendes. Even his small role in Cameron Crowe's Aloha, we loved him in that.

Scott: Which has no dialogue! (laughs)

Oh yeah, that's right!

Bryan: So as far as playing the lead character in the story, we were like, 'That is perfect. That is so on point.' Same with Emily. We couldn't ask for a better actress for the role of Evelyn. I remember when we first brought this project in to our producers, they were like, 'Who were you guys thinking for these roles? Who would you cast?' I'm sure we said both John and Emily. I know we were like, 'Emily would be a great archetype for this role. She's unreachable, [unattainable], but somebody like her would be so great for this role,' and it's an honor that she's in it.

They're both so good in this movie. When Krasinski came on board, did he work with you guys on the script, or was it more of a 'passing the baton' situation?

Bryan: He did a little bit of a pass on his own. We actually had to go off and direct another movie that we wrote called Haunt that happened at the exact same time as A Quiet Place. So it pulled us out of commission a little bit.

Scott: Yeah, so it was handing off the reins to John to breathe life into the film and put it into production.

This is the first script you've written that you haven't directed. What was that experience like – ceding control to another person?

Bryan: (laughs) Terrifying. It's like handing over your baby. We knew John was super passionate and had a lot of great ideas. Really protected our vision of the script.

Scott: Even before John came on board to direct it, we had done an additional rewrite with Paramount. Going into the studio and hearing where their heads were in terms of handling this film, we felt really comforted. Sometimes you go into that first studio meeting, and on a movie like this, you expect them to be like, 'Oh, we need to add all this dialogue, all this exposition about what happened to the world. We need to see other families and not just focus on this one.' But what was really incredible about their partnership is they saw the movie for what it was when we first sent the script into them. It was not about changing the shape or form of that. When the reins got handed over to John as a director, it wasn't about reshaping it in any massive way. We understand that it's a really rare circumstance when you have a film go from the initial idea ten years ago to the script form several years ago to the final film and be unscathed, but somehow we're there. And the film is premiering [in New York] tonight, and I could not ask for a better situation to see this film play out in.

Because you had to shoot your other film, did you have a chance to be on the set for this one?

Bryan: Unfortunately no, because they were literally shooting simultaneously. We tried to force it. We were like, 'We can just peel away...'

Scott: But our crew members were going to mutiny if we left. It was like five days before our start date when we were going to start shooting, and I know our DP was like, 'Are you guys really going to go visit the set of A Quiet Place? We've got storyboards to do down here!' So we felt a little too guilty. Unfortunately we had to watch from afar, but we knew it was going to be in great hands.

In addition to being a scary horror film and an emotional family drama, this movie is also about parents trying to protect their children from the dangers of the outside world. What sorts of conversations did you guys have about seeding themes into this script underneath the harrowing horror elements?

Scott: Again, at the time, I wasn't a dad. Bryan doesn't have kids. It was very much theoretically talking about what that fear would be. I think as Bryan and I have gotten a little older, you see the world from a different perspective and you realize you're not just selfishly living for yourself. You're living for your boyfriend, your girlfriend, your spouse, your friends. You're trying to be a little more selfless. So at the core of these characters, we always knew that had to be the driving force. These parents had to feel that vulnerability that now that they have children, they have to somehow keep them safe. But now obviously the concept of the film is you're in a world where that's nearly impossible. It just felt like the right marriage of concept and theme to inject there to be the worst situation possible.

A Quiet Place bulbs

Speaking of the "worst situation possible," pretty early on in this movie it's revealed that Emily's character is pregnant. And the audience is thinking, "Oh my God, in this world, that's one of the worst things you can think of." Were you guys sitting around consciously trying to throw these characters into the worst situations you could think of?

Bryan: That's exactly what it was. Scott and I sitting in a room and saying, 'What's the worst thing that could possibly happen?' Because there's nothing you can do to keep a baby quiet! We knew that was a ticking time bomb that was coming that would add a lot of suspense, and as writers, it was a challenge for us to figure out if we were in that situation as characters, how would we deal with it. 'Oh, well they probably have this breaker system where red lights would turn on and that's how they would communicate that we're in danger mode.' Challenging ourselves to come up with the scariest thing possible, but as a side effect, honestly more important than how scary it is, it adds this beautiful emotional character idea underneath it. The story was always about a family that suffered a tragedy and lost one of their own, and the pregnancy became a way to communicate to the audience that this is a chance for hope. An opportunity for this family to move on and keep reaching for the future and happiness.

I have one nitpick question.

Scott: Love it!

Since you've thought about every aspect of this world, you probably have an answer. How is the family getting their electricity?

Bryan: Blame John on that one. (laughs)

Scott: In the original draft, and they never really did anything with it in the final film, we had written that they have underground generators that are basically underneath the ground so they're not producing any audible sound above ground. That was the idea behind it.

Bryan: I think you can make that assumption and give the finished film the benefit of the doubt.

Scott: It's one of those things that in our script, there's a lot of detail work that doesn't make it to the screen, whether it's because of the economy of storytelling, it's boring, or just things changing inevitably when you're on set. But yeah, there were a lot of different logic things we had to answer. So if you have any other nitpicks, we'd love to hear them.

Bryan: It's totally ripe to pick apart, logic-wise, but hopefully we have as many answers as possible! (laughs)

I think that was the only one I had. I loved that the movie followed its own rules all the way to the end. It really worked for me. I think I have time for one more question. When you were writing, were there any moments or potential shots that popped into your heads fully formed where you were like, 'We have to use this,' and crafted the script specifically to achieve that moment?

Bryan: That's such a great question. We do think visually. One of the clearest visual moments that crystallized for us early on in the writing process was the Monopoly scene, with the kids playing Monopoly and then accidentally making a sound and it luring the creature. It's so funny that that ended up in the first trailer, because we always felt like that little sequence visually encapsulated the whole premise of the film.

Scott: Yeah, and I would add to that – the red lights. That was always one visual that, as soon as the pregnancy starts happening, we're like, 'Oh, this family needs to have some sort of emergency system, because they know this is coming. How are they being prepared for it?' So those red lights just feeling so dangerous in terms of the warning sign was something that made its way into the script, but seeing that in the trailer and again in the final film was just a great execution of that idea. We personally as screenwriters feel like that was executed at the highest level.

Definitely. Well, congratulations on the movie, guys. It's a really fantastic film and you both did a wonderful job. Enjoy the premiere tonight, and thanks very much for speaking with me. I appreciate your time.

Bryan and Scott: Thanks Ben!

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A Quiet Place is in theaters on April 6, 2018. You can read our review from SXSW right here.