Screenwriters and lifelong friends Scott Beck and Bryan Woods reveal their process for writing the "silent" script of "A Quiet Place."
The journey that brought the highly acclaimed sci-fi horror film A Quiet Place to life was not an easy one. In fact, it began almost two decades ago with boyhood friends Scott Beck and Bryan Woods crafting the earliest forms of the screenplay while in college at the University of Iowa in the late 90s. Fast forward to 2018, Michael Bay decides to produce it, John Krasinksi steps up to direct it, and the film takes off to become a huge box office hit, grossing over $338 million worldwide and capturing the attention of audiences with near-silent performances from Krasinski, Emily Blunt, Millicent Simmonds, and Noah Jupe.
We got the chance to chat with Beck and Woods about how they crafted a script with such little dialogue, which aspects of their own personal life that aided them in their creative process, and why it's important for aspiring screenwriters to forge their own paths in finding opportunities.
NFS: When did you guys first get into screenwriting?
Scott Beck: That goes back quite a ways. Bryan and I, we've known each other since we were 11 years old and even at that point in our life, we were always writing short stories or plays, and things that we could do with our friends. And I think, at that point in middle school, we started realizing the craft behind screenwriting and getting our hands on as many scripts as possible. I remember one of the first scripts that I read was Empire Strikes Back. I love Star Wars, but I never really knew what a formatted script looked. We started reading more scripts and movies we loved. Like, The Sixth Sense was one of the ones that we kept going back to for pure inspiration. And that taught us a craft. We never did any formal training in writing, but it was simply seeing the form and then watching a final product that informed us.
Bryan Woods: And it was a good year to fall in love. It was 1999 and that was not only a great year for cinema but a great year to learn about screenwriting because that was back when they actually published screenplays in bookstores. I remember reading Magnolia and Fight Club, as Scott said, The Sixth Sense. It was just easy at that time to get our hands on screenplays, even though we're from Iowa and not remotely connected to the film business at all. We were able to still kind of figure that out.
"[Writing together] really distilled the best ideas possible by using each other as sounding boards for our various ideas."
NFS: Definitely. So you guys have been friends for a long time, but when did you actually start writing together?
Bryan: We met when we were in 6th grade, whatever year that was, Scott would know better than I would. What year was that?
Bryan: It was literally like, "Oh you made stock motion movies with your Star Wars toys like me. Wow! We should get together." The first project we made together was this really bad horror film called The Sleepover, which was a group of kids having a sleepover and then aliens show up and invade and it was, of course, absolutely terrible. And yet frankly we had 10 years of work after that to get our act together as a team. It was always so fun to be able to learn about it with a best friend, frankly. So, we're friends first and then collaborators second. We have been doing it ever since.
Scott: There's a point when we were probably like 20 or 21 where we realized maybe we should join forces in terms of actually writing together. At that point, we went off and, god, I don't even know, wrote probably 10 or 15 feature-length scripts that I would never produce, but it was us learning how to write together and how to elevate the material beyond anything that I could write by myself or Bryan could write by himself. It really distilled the best ideas possible by using each other as sounding boards for our various ideas.
"I think that naivete is, in a weird way, crucial because every script you write—we feel or we think or we hope that it's gonna be a big movie and it's gonna break out and it's gonna do really well. And you have to have that optimism to a certain extent just to get through it."
NFS: Right. Yeah, that's an interesting point to bring up: the fact that you guys were plugging away for so long at the basics together. Which is something that I think a lot of young screenwriters hope—that their first script is "the one that's gonna get me there."
Scott: Totally, yeah.
Bryan: It's funny. I think that naivete is, in a weird way, crucial because every script you write—we feel or we think or we hope that it's gonna be a big movie and it's gonna break out and it's gonna do really well. And you have to have that optimism to a certain extent, to just get through it. It's hard work sometimes.
NFS: How do you guys work together? Do you have separate tasks? Who does what? Or do you guys just kind of do it all together?
Scott: Yeah, it varies. Usually, our process is we come up with an idea, we sit in a room, and we toss general ideas back and forth about where the concept could go, who these characters are. When we're running out of characters, we usually draw upon people that we've met in our own life. And the fact that Bryan and I have known each other since we were 11 years old, that means we have this encyclopedia of people that we've grown up with and can base our character designs off of people in real life.
Scott: But, we figure out the skeleton and the structure of what the script could be. Then we go off independently and write solo. So, Bryan may take a pass at the first 5 pages and he passes that to me and I'll read them, revise it, and maybe write to page 10, and so on and so forth. So, we're never in the same room actually working on Final Draft, but we're able to get a fresher perspective when we toss the draft back to the other person. We try to one-up each other in a very healthy, competitive way, where we let the ego fall by the wayside and let the best idea really win.
NFS: When did you guys come up with the idea for A Quiet Place?
Bryan: It came from several places. The very, very earliest form of this idea occurred to us when we were at the University of Iowa. We weren't film students. We would take all these classes together, and we had this one verbal communication class that we really responded to. It was all about how much we all say to each other without speaking, how much we say with gestures or facial expressions. So, at the same time, we were becoming enamored with that way of thinking, we were also watching silent films—falling in love with Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton and John Van Cleave. True cinema—movies that could tell a story without leaning on the crutch of dialogue. We started thinking that it would be so cool if we could make a silent film that hardly has any dialogue in it and try to sustain that for the entire picture.
Bryan: So, just like many, many ideas in a journal we had—we kind of just kept coming back to it, we kept coming back to it, because we loved it so much. We kind of called it Our Silent Film, like, "When are we going to do Our Silent Film?" We started crafting this idea of this family that lives on a farm and something out there is keeping them quiet. The other thing that got us really got us excited about the idea of A Quiet Place was how terrific sound could really lend itself to a horror film. Like, if we could make sounds feel really scary, maybe that could be unique and special.
"I think what Bryan and I love about the spec market is that you're able to write for yourself in a bubble and, every now and then, that can really bring something different for the marketplace."
NFS: So, this was a spec script. How in the hell did you get a spec script out there? I mean, I know the statistics on it are foggy at best, but Scott Myers had 2017's total at just over 60 spec options.
Bryan: Right, right. Yeah, there's a few answers to that. I would say it was sheer passion for this project. Like this was a project that we would make hell or high water. So, if no one bought the script, we would take it back to our home state of Iowa and just make it for $50,000. We wrote it as a lower budget movie in case everyone passed on it. But, we've been working screenwriters for a while and we spent at least the last several years building relationships through our writing, making people aware of our work.
Scott: Just from a, hopefully, inspirational standpoint is I personally feel like those [statistics] are wildly inaccurate. There are many scripts that go underneath the radar that due to a couple things for writers. Maybe it never sells but it definitely gets you in the room or it gets you relationships with different executives and producers. That's something that Bryan and I were lucky to have early in our career because it helped A Quiet Place find a home really quickly. I think what Bryan and I love about the spec market is that you're able to write for yourself in a bubble and, every now and then, that can really bring something different for the marketplace.
NFS: You can really sense your guys' passion and I think at the end of the day that's what's screenwriters have. That is their biggest tool. It's their greatest fuel.
Scott: Bryan and I have done jobs that we think are interesting but—it's also a paycheck. Nothing really compares to a project like A Quiet Place, where you're doing it purely for the love of the storytelling. Every time we've done something because we're passionate about it, we always see the fruits of our labors pay off exponentially bigger than any other job that we would have taken that may not have as much passion in it.
NFS: You guys were super passionate about telling the story in a unique way, silently and without a whole lot of dialogue, and that's literally the first thing that I asked myself when I left the theater. "How did these guys manage to write such a great script with almost zero dialogue?"
Bryan: Thank you very much for that compliment. It was an exciting challenge for us. The first thing we did was write a 15-page proof of concept for ourselves, which had the major motions of the story in 15 pages just to see how that would go. How do you communicate that story? We were trying to figure out how the audience would understand what a character wants without them saying what they want. So, we put it out on the page and we realized very quickly that the script was going to look different than most scripts that you see. Dialogue is the easiest thing to read on the page because it takes up hardly any room, so we started getting nervous, like, "Oh no! This is just going to be blocks and blocks of description and it's going to be a really tough read." Seeing that roadblock allowed us to open up the form a little bit and play with it. Certain pages are completely blank with the exception of one word. On certain pages, we implemented photos into the margins. We were doing all kinds of weird, arguably gimmicky stuff, but we felt like it was in service of an unusual movie.
"Our feeling is if the audience is invested with the characters then they'll be far more scared when stuff gets scary."
NFS: Definitely. Yeah, and writing a story without a whole lot of dialogue is a big obstacle in and of itself, but what are some other obstacles, what's the biggest obstacle other than writing what's essentially a silent film when you were writing the script for A Quiet Place, and how did you overcome it
Bryan: I think one challenge is distilling the story to its simplest form because there were many directions that Bryan and I thought the story could go. That's the writing process: you're exploring every single avenue and then figuring out which is the correct one to go down. So, there are a lot of wrong turns that we took, but when we finally got it down to its core story, it was simple. I think that's some of the most beautiful writing—some of the best scripts are the ones that have such simple form to them and simple character journeys.
NFS: A Quiet Place really caught me off guard as a horror film, because you have a monster that is actually terrifying and you also have characters that you not only root for, but you truly feel for. You really actually care about them. I think that the main flaw in many horror films is that sense of intimacy, both between the characters as well as between the characters and the monster. How did you guys manage to create intimacy in your script?
Bryan: Our feeling on anything we work on is, "How do we get the audience to fall in love with the characters and feel invested?" Our feeling is if the audience is invested with the characters then they'll be far more scared when stuff gets scary.
Scott: For each of the characters we have carved out some sort of need that they have outside of the pure, basic need for survival. And so, it always came down to something that hopefully audiences would relate to or feel a tinge of what that character was going through at that time. The movies that move me make me relate to the character even if they're in the middle of some sort of supernatural, or extraordinary circumstance.
"[A Quiet Place] is pure cinema. It does what cinema does best, which is marrying visual storytelling with sound and music and performance."
NFS: Do you think that there were certain things about the horror genre that you were trying to avoid? Jump scares, for example.
Bryan: Yeah, the hope is to always earn as many scares as you can. People have different definitions of jump scares. To me, a bad jump scare is something completely unearned, like a cat jumping out of the side of the frame. That's not actually scary. I think that it's funny because we jokingly call A Quiet Place "Jump Scare the Movie." We technically have a lot of jump scares, but the world of the movie demands that people live in silence and demands that the silences are punctuated by loud noises. That's kind of what you're signing up for, so I think we get away with a lot of stuff.
NFS: So, John Krasinski did a rewrite of your script when he came on board and cut out some flashback scenes and made few other changes. What do you think his contribution brought to the story, and what was it like having to hand over your precious baby script to someone new?
Scott: When John came on board, what was really cool was that he wasn't just coming on board as a filmmaker, but as a father. When he read the initial draft, he and Emily had just had their second child. They both read it in the state of being very vulnerable and it hit a nerve in the best way possible, which is why they got so excited to come on board. So, John injected that fatherly perspective into it.
Bryan: It's weird—anytime, even when you direct your own scripts, it's always bizarre to see what you end up with. Even when you preside over every little detail, the alchemy of filmmaking, the magic of many different creatives coming together to create a piece of art, it's always different than what you imagined. In this case, I have to say, we were pretty damn grateful for how everything played out.
Scott: Yeah, I certainly think too. Whenever you partner with a major studio the fear is, "Oh, everyone's going to get their fingerprints on it and it's going to be incredibly distorted from what you originally envisioned. It's been a wild ride and something unique we never expected. We never thought it would go to Paramount, that Michael Bay would produce it, or John and Emily would star in it. It's been beyond our wildest expectations.
NFS: I mean, the film clearly struck a nerve with audiences. What nerve do you think that was? What do you guys think was different about it?
Bryan: I think one thing that may be special about the movie is just that it is pure cinema. It does what cinema does best, which is marrying visual storytelling with sound and music and performance. I don't think it'd work very well as a novel or a radio play. It was designed specifically and we tried to use everything that makes cinema special to us.
NFS: This isn't your first horror script. You've also written a few others that are also in the genre, so in your opinion, what are the unique challenges of writing horror.
Scott: I think, you know, one of the biggest challenges is finding something that is truly going to terrify an audience and hopefully be something that people haven't experienced before. A Quiet Place was very much coming up with what hopefully is a novel concept. You're trying to fill the blank page with something people haven't seen before. So, I think that is always what we come back to. Is there some sort of instinctual fear that movies haven't tapped into and if so, what is that and what's the best way of conveying that.
NFS: How did you guys finish strong with your ending?
Bryan: We don't outline heavily as writers. We kind of, we have a lot of ideas for the first act, we have a few ideas for the second act, and then the third act we have a general idea where we're heading. So with A Quiet Place, we always knew, and this is a spoiler, that the movie was going to end with the father sacrificing himself and finally telling his daughter, "I love you." That thing that she needed to hear. But, how we got there, how that was going to unfold, we let ourselves kind of be surprised. Our process is a lot of listening to what the story and characters want to do and what the story wants to become.
NFS: When people talk about great screenwriting, they usually talk about story structure, character development, dialogue, all that stuff. It's kind of about being technically good at a creative thing, you know what I mean? But what do you guys think about the emotional and psychological aspect of storytelling? Can a writer tell better stories if they have a better understanding of their own humanity and their own issues they are dealing with personally?
Scott: I think that really lends itself to more clarity in terms of getting the story across. Like, one of the things in A Quiet Place that I related to was—I wasn't a dad at the time, but my wife and I were talking about what it would be like if we had kids, and so all of a sudden I'm having a cross-section of my life with the characters, thinking of all the implications of having a kid and having to protect it in this dangerous world, how do I keep it alive?
Bryan: Yeah, and whatever we are going through as humans, it finds a way into the writing. It just does. The dialogue is affected by what I'm going through in my personal life. The set pieces, the ideas that come to your mind more easily are usually connected somehow. We try to write what we know.
NFS: Yeah, that's something I always wonder about. You know, you're writing a screenplay and how do you solve this problem that your characters are in if you've never solved that in your own life?
Bryan: Yeah, definitely.
NFS: What advice would you give aspiring screenwriters?
Bryan: First and foremost, read a lot of scripts and books. Watch a lot of movies. It just feels like the prerequisite for being a screenwriter. Study and see what else is out there and learn from those that have come before because there is so much brilliant, beautiful work out there that can be so helpful and inspiring.
Scott: I would say another piece of advice we've always adhered to is making our own opportunities. Like, instead of just talking about your script, actually buckle down and write the script. We also grew up making our own movies. We go off and direct those films even if they are for zero dollars. I feel like every time we've decided to forge our own opportunities, we find ourselves moving forward at a pace that we would otherwise not be able to match. All of these doors unlocked simply because we decided to go off and do the hard work and get these opportunities, so I really encourage people to just kind of chase their future.
Bryan: And just a third piece of advice—I would say to young writers, aspiring writers, or writers who are currently writing to not take rejection too seriously because like, 90% of our day is still rejection, even being the writers of A Quiet Place. Like, it's just part of the job and it's because there are many people who write and very few movies that get made. Whatever the reason. You realize that doing this after several years, you just kind of have to let it roll off your back because that's how it goes.