Listen Closely: Taking 'A Quiet Place' From Script to Screen
But listen quietly.
I need to state something upfront: I am not a horror movie fan. This has nothing to do with the genre or how good or bad the movies may or may not be. Instead, my lack of fandom for horror films has everything to do with my inability to forget an image once seared into my retinas. In other words, I'm afraid of horror movies. Very afraid.
I get it. Fear is the point. It's a horror movie (duh). But conquering that fear to watch a horror film is something I rarely do. So, when a horror film is so compelling that I find myself walking into a dark theatre to take my seat against all of my instincts screaming at me to get out, I recognize that the storytellers have accomplished quite a feat.
Scott Beck & Bryan Woods are two such storytellers. Last fall, we not only interviewed them about bringing the script for A Quiet Place together but I also got the opportunity to talk with them as part of our Script-to-Screen: A Quiet Place panel at the 25th annual Austin Film Festival to learn more about the conception of the story and their journey to the final film with director and fellow writer John Krasinski. Now, Austin Film Festival's On Story PBS series has released highlights from our conversation in its latest episode, which you can watch below, as well as check out my five biggest screenwriting takeaways from our conversation.
Be open to ideas coming from anywhere
Inspiration tends to strike when we least expect it. The serendipity of certain events can trigger an idea that we never saw coming, leading us to the beginning of a story. For Beck & Woods, the kernel for A Quiet Place came to them in college while they were taking two seemingly unrelated classes.
Beck explains, "When Bryan and I were in college, we were at the University of Iowa doing Communication Studies. And we did two classes, there was one, a nonverbal communication course, which was all about [how] we're communicating constantly when we're not saying a single word. And simultaneously, we were in a world cinema course where we were introduced to the films of Jacques Tati, this incredible French filmmaker who did films like Playtime and Mon Oncle, which were essentially silent films to a certain degree, but in the post sound world where all of the gags where communicated by physical movements, through sound design. And we started thinking, 'Why aren't there more silent films in that same regard these days?' We started thinking, 'What would a modern-day silent film look like?' Slowly but surely, that's how A Quiet Place started coming together."
Be bold on the page
Yes, screenplays follow a specific format. Every screenwriting book will tell you that, and anyone can pick up a script and quickly figure out the screenplay format. But that format is not necessarily the best way to tell a story. Inspired by scripts for 2001: A Space Odyssey, Walter Hill and David Giler's script for Alien, and Dan Gilroy's script for Nightcrawler, Beck & Woods rewrote the rules of the screenplay format to tell their virtually silent story in a very visual way.
Beck described the screenplay formatting process during our conversation: "For us, it was very much about having conversations [asking], 'How do we have a roadmap for essentially what is a dialogue-free movie that's still going to convey a very visual adventure but also a sonic adventure, and figure out early in the process where the huge peaks and valleys are for the soundscape?'" The result was a lean, 67-page spec script (you can download the final version of the script here) with images of a Monopoly board becoming a key visual aid and headlines from newspapers overlapping with each other as the makeshift sound insulation in the barn. Some pages literally only have one word ("...SNAP.") or a single phrase in the center of the page ("THE WORST IMAGINABLE THING HAS HAPPENED"). The tension on the page is palpable, and as a reader, you cannot stop turning the pages.
Be flexible with story beats
As screenwriters, when we discover an amazing moment for our story, we may be reluctant to change it in any way. We work so hard to uncover these gems that we can convince ourselves that they might not shine as brightly if they are cut down or placed in a new setting in our script. Instead, writers always need to be flexible to find the best way to tell the story.
For A Quiet Place, Beck & Woods always knew that the childbirth was going to be one of the biggest moments of the film. Woods noted, "[The childbirth] was something that ebbed and flowed throughout our entire writing process, all the way from the initial outlines and proof of concept. We were always asking ourselves, 'How long can you sustain a story without dialogue? How invested will people be and can you hook them long enough to push the pregnancy later? Is the pregnancy the inciting incident or the fulcrum of the story?'"
Woods continued to explain that they felt they needed to put the childbirth early in the spec script to grab the reader's attention. When John Krasinski came aboard, he was able to see the big picture with fresh eyes and understood that the audience would care enough about this family and their situation to wait for the childbirth. Instead of the inciting incident, the childbirth has a much bigger impact because everything has been leading up to this moment, yet the moment comes at the worst possible time for the characters. That's drama.
"The whole process of being on a film set is just problem solving."
Be collaborative with creative partners
When a writer has spent years working on a project, opening up the creative process to a directing partner can be a challenge. Prior to that, only the writer has really seen the movie in her mind's eye. Filmmaking, however, is all about collaboration, and getting a script to the screen requires writers to shape their stories to meet with a director's vision of the film.
For Beck & Woods, their spec script for A Quiet Place landed in John Krasinski's hands just after the birth of his second child with actress Emily Blunt. The timing couldn't have been better. As Woods said, "I think [John] brought his own personal experience as a father. I'm still not a father, Scott is a father now, but at the time of writing was a prospective father, somebody thinking about the idea of having kids, but John lived that. So what he brought as a writer, filmmaker and performer is just making it personal. For us, we feel that elevated the material." Beck & Woods were open to making changes with Krasinski's perspective as a father, a writer and a director in service of telling the best story and making the best movie possible.
Be creative on set in the face of challenges
Getting a green light to make a film is a huge accomplishment. Making the film is something entirely different. Just like screenwriters throw obstacles at their characters throughout a story, production creates impediments for filmmakers on a daily basis (if not hourly, or even minute-to-minute). Writers have to be flexible to come up with creative solutions to problems that arise on set.
For example, the screenplay for A Quiet Place called for a major set piece inside a corn silo with the kids struggling to escape from the monster while simultaneously drowning in the corn. Reacting to the noise inside the silo, the monster attacks and rips a hole in the wall, causing the kids to spill out with the corn. That, however, is not what we see in the final film.
Woods elaborated, "As far as the monster hitting the [wall of] the silo and [the kids] spilling out, that was actually a production limitation. That was something that we had every intention of shooting, but it was just too expensive and I think logistically too difficult." Beck continued, "This was one of those cases where it's like, 'Oh, let's just rip a giant hole in the silo and that'll be end scene.' It's just one of those things where you have a finite amount of days that you have to shoot and the whole process of being on a film set is just problem solving and figuring out situations like this where you're running out of time or running out of resources."
Be sure to check out the entire On Story episode of our AFF Script-to-Screen: A Quiet Place conversation for an in-depth look at how a simple idea of what a modern day silent film would look like became an instant horror classic.