“How Do You Communicate Backstory, Motivation and Theme Without Dialogue?” A Quiet Place Screenwriters Bryan Woods and Scott Beck at SXSW 2018
The movie: A Quiet Place, which served as the opening night film of the 25th South By Southwest Film Festival
The plot: A family struggles to survive in silence on a rural farmstead amid a flock of sonically acute creatures that attack upon hearing the slightest sound. Starring Emily Blunt and John Krasinski, who also directed.
The interviewees: Screenwriters Bryan Woods and Scott Beck, who grew up in Iowa together and have been making films as a team since junior high. I met them while working in the camera department on their most recent directorial effort Haunt, which wrapped production on Kentucky in November.
Filmmaker: As Haunt was wrapping up, Scott, you were about to have your first kid.
Beck: Yeah, I had my first kid the week after we wrapped Haunt, so the whole month of December was very on theme with A Quiet Place, trying to keep this kid alive and keep my sanity. And then we went right into the edit of Haunt, which we are currently working on, so it’s been a whirlwind last few months.
Filmmaker: And Bryan, you don’t have kids?
Filmmaker: How did two guys who didn’t have kids at the time write this movie that captures all the anxieties of parenthood so perceptively?
Beck: Back in 2013 and 2014 during the writing process, I was confronting the idea of having children. That very much injected itself into the hypothetical fear of being a parent. With A Quiet Place, we’re injecting that fear into the worst situation possible.
Filmmaker: I want to avoid giving away too many plot details about the film, but let’s see if we can’t talk around the opening scene a little bit. That scene immediately establishes the stakes and, to be honest, you might lose some people right out of the gate.
Woods: It was a really risky choice to go that dark to open the movie. We were trying to live in that sandbox of Jaws, opening with something shocking and scary. But going deeper than that, we always knew that A Quiet Place needed this metaphor; not only is the family not talking because if they make a sound they’ll die, but also they’re not talking because they’ve suffered a tragedy and they haven’t dealt with it yet.
Filmmaker: So it was around 2013 when you started work on the script?
Beck: The original concept actually goes back to when we were in college. We were watching a lot of silent films, things with Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton. Jacques Tati was an absolute favorite of ours. We were enamored with how they were such visual storytellers. They didn’t need dialogue or exposition to tell a story and that got our minds going about how we could bend that into a genre context. We shoved away that notion for a few years until around 2013 and that idea about non-verbal storytelling started connecting with this idea about a creature that operates off of sound and will kill you if you make a noise. Then came the idea of a family that lives on a farm, not unlike where we grew up in Iowa. That led to all these set pieces, like the one in the grain silo.
Filmmaker: Did you have those grain silos growing up? I was scarred as a kid by that scene in Witness where one of the bad guys gets suffocated in one.
Beck: Where we grew up was a healthy mixture of city life and farm life. We lived in the city, but you would hear about grain silos being one of the most dangerous things you can fall into. It’s basically like drowning, but in dry grain. It was terrifying to drive by them on country roads. Early in the writing process we said, “That has to be part of the setpieces.”
Filmmaker: How different was your first draft from what the film ultimately became?
Woods: The first draft was a unique experience. We were terrified that it would not be a readable screenplay. How do you communicate backstory, motivation and theme without dialogue? So we wrote a 15-page proof of concept literally just for ourselves. We felt good about that, so we started to expand it into a bigger script. It’s the weirdest script we’ve ever written, because we would do things like have an entire page be blank except for one word. For other pages we shrunk down the font size to emphasize that something was a quiet sound. It was a weird script, but it was so fun to write.
Beck: It’s a script that could’ve gone sideways any number of times during production. There could’ve been a lot of scenes with dialogue added. Tons of exposition could’ve been put in. But at the end of the day, the movie is very much our original vision on screen. All the family dynamics, all the setpieces, all the scares in the script are still there. For this to be a studio movie and to have our script come out rather unscathed, it’s been an incredible experience. We’re just super grateful.
Filmmaker: Let’s talk about two specific scenes — a conversation between Krasinski and his oldest son next to a waterfall (the sound of the cascading water masks the sound of their voices, keeping them safe from the creatures), and then a talk between Krasinki and Blunt in the bunker-like basement where they spend their nights. You have to maximize those moments because there’s so little spoken dialogue between the characters.
Beck: That scene between John and Emily was an emotional moment they needed to have and it was all about bringing out the theme of the movie a little more, in terms of what it’s like to be a parent and how do you protect your children in this world. It is also just a point where the audience needs to start hearing something. If you play the movie in utter silence and only use sound design, there’s the risk that you are hitting the same levels — you’re either at zero or you’re all the way at ten. An audience can’t sustain that.
Filmmaker: Watching the first section of the movie reminded me a little of my experience seeing A Ghost Story. It took me time to settle in because the rhythm of the storytelling is so different.
Beck: That was one of my favorite films last year. That movie sticks with you.
Filmmaker: Without being too specific, let’s talk a little bit about “the nail.” That’s such a cleverly executed set-up and payoff.
Woods: That was something that started maybe even as early as the proof of concept. It’s one of those weird things where you’re writing and it’s just like, “She walks down the steps and there’s an upturned nail.” And we didn’t know how it was going to pay off.
Filmmaker: You didn’t know where it was going at first?
Woods: No. It eventually just happened organically. Sometimes we like to plant ideas like that and then let the story tell us what happens. We just put that nail there early on and said, “That will pay off somewhere.”
Beck: Seeing that pay off in the theater [during the SXSW premiere screening was a really fun moment. When you make horror films or thrillers, you really want to hear the audience’s reaction because that’s how you know the movie is working. That’s one of the highlights we’ve had so far in our career.
Filmmaker: What is your practical day-to-day writing process? I’ve talked to screenwriters who still like to pin index cards onto corkboard so they can move elements around. Do you do anything like that? Do you typically write together?
Woods: We brainstorm together in the same room. We’ll kick ideas around. Then when we get into writing pages, we kind of divide and conquer. Our process is totally about a competition of ideas. I might write three pages and kick them over to Scott. Scott might say, “Meh, not that great” and try to improve them and send them back over. It’s a healthy competition where we try to keep one-upping each other.
We could write screenplays independent of each other and they would probably turn out fine. It wouldn’t be as much fun and I don’t think the screenplays would be as good either because we really push each other to do our best work.
Filmmaker: When you are writers who also direct, how do you make the decision to let something go? I’m sure as you were writing this, you were envisioning how you would direct it.
Beck: It was an interesting situation because when we were writing the script we were like, “This is such a weird idea. If nobody picks up on it we’re just going to go back to Iowa and direct it for $100,000.” There certainly was a moment where we were going to direct this film. But then this package came together with Michael Bay coming on board [as producer]. It was Emily Blunt, it was John Krasinski, and it was an April 2018 release date. And we were like, “We can just go ahead and write and produce this thing.” But it is scary because this is such a passion project for us and to hand it off is a terrifying notion.
Woods: And it was terrifying all the way up until [the premiere]. We were still like, “Is it going to work? Did they pull it off?” But they did such a beautiful job.
Filmmaker: You guys have known each other since you were like 11 years old, and you’ve been making movies together since then. Tell me about those first middle school movies.
Beck: We actually started before we met. When I was six years old, my sister and I would take our dad’s camcorder, write our own scripts and make terrible musicals, because my sister was into musicals and I was the younger brother. Bryan and I started doing action figure movies together when we first met. We both had cameras and we would just shoot our action figures doing stupid things.
Woods: Then it evolved in high school and we started making micro-budget feature films trying to emulate our heroes like Paul Thomas Anderson and Martin Scorsese. So we were in high school directing these 2 1/2 hour-long ensemble character pieces.
Beck: People snorting Fun Dip up their nose as cocaine.
Woods: (laughs) Crazy things that we had no life experience about. But we would make these movies and then we would premiere them at the local theater. We would hand out audience scorecards and get feedback. That was our film school.
Filmmaker: When is the last time you went back and watched one of your action figure movies?
Beck: They are mostly on VHS and my VCR is buried somewhere. Every now and then I’ll take a peek at like one minute of one of our films from high school and I’m like, “That’s terrible. I have to shut it off.”
Woods: (laughs) There are so many skeletons in our closet from that age. So many lightsaber battles. Yeah, we should bust those out more often.
Filmmaker: When you first started to cut things together, is that pre-computer editing software?
Woods: It was basically VCR-to-VCR.
Beck: Then when we were in high school Adobe Premiere was more accessible. That opened up the opportunity to start doing our micro-budget features and really opened the floodgates for us in terms of learning every single aspect of the craft. We were doing our own focus pulling, we were operating the boom, we were editing.
Filmmaker: I’m six or seven years older than you guys — so basically a generation removed — but when I was in that middle school age, it was all about the video store. You’d have a friend sleep over and stay up all night watching movies that you were probably way too young to be seeing.
Beck: Absolutely. You would know that Speed was coming out on a Tuesday and you had to go and get your hands on one of the twenty copies of Speed. But sometimes you would show up and all the copies were already gone, but you’re already at the video store so you had to leave with something. That’s where some of the best discoveries came from. I remember renting Amores Perros because the movie I was looking for was rented out and I had to get something. I fell in love with that film and I probably never would’ve watched it in a million years if it was just something to click on Netflix.
Filmmaker: For my generation, it was movies like Predator, Die Hard, Lethal Weapon and RoboCop that we’d watch over and over. Was it a different set of movies for you guys?
Woods: It was a lot of those same movies, actually. I remember seeing Terminator 2 in the theaters when I was in first grade.
Beck: I credit my uncle with introducing me to all those greats. He would show me the worst scenes in the scariest movies possible. So like in RoboCop, he would show me the moment where the guy gets dumped with acid, or in The Fly he would show me when Jeff Goldblum is in full fly mode and he breaks John Getz’s ankle. Those images were seared into my brain.
Filmmaker: What movie scared you the most as a kid? Pet Sematary is the one that really got me.
Beck: This is really embarrassing, but mine was Gremlins II.
Filmmaker: That’s the funny one.
Beck: Yes, it’s the funny one. But there’s something about the face of a gremlin that was terrifying to me.
Woods: There are a couple of movies that are coming to mind for me, but certainly one that really unnerved me was The Exorcist. So real, so creepy, but the thing about The Exorcist is that it ends on such a beautiful grace note, which a lot of horror movies don’t.
Beck: We love horror movies that can do that — that can both terrify and move you. That’s where we personally feel like the magic happens and with A Quiet Place that was always what we were after. We didn’t want to just do a gimmick film. We also wanted to tell this story of a family who has to live in this terrifying world.
Matt Mulcahey works as a DIT in the Midwest. He also writes about film on his blog Deep Fried Movies.