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Exclusive: Breaking down a key sequence with the filmmakers of A Quiet Place

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Jul 10, 2018, 9:45 PM EDT

At the halfway point of 2018, not many in the industry would have predicted that one of the biggest box-office successes of the year would be the practically dialogue-free horror film A Quiet Place. Only the third theatrical film ever helmed by actor John Krasinski, the story (which he co-wrote) works so well as an intimate thriller because of its grounded performances, the relatable personal story at its core, and the filmmaker’s singular dedication to telling a story primarily through visuals and sound design instead of dialogue.  

With only a modest budget of $17 million, A Quiet Place has now earned $331 million globally, which means a lot of theatergoers were happy to go along for the experimental ride. Now available for digital download, Blu-ray, and 4K Ultra HD, SYFY WIRE talked to several key members of A Quiet Place's production team to dissect one of the most harrowing sequences of the entire film and get a sense of how the various departments brought Krasinski’s vision to life.

**Spoiler Warning: There are spoilers for A Quiet Place below**

Taking place in the last third of the film, Krasinski sets up a sequence that finds the Abbott family members in isolated scenarios putting them each in mortal jeopardy. With alien creatures combing the landscape tuned to attack anything that makes loud noises, the Abbotts each find themselves vulnerable. Evelyn Abbott (Emily Blunt) has just given birth and is sleeping in the barn’s cellar safe room. It's been soundproofed and outfitted with a baby bassinet that can drown out the infant’s cries. Meanwhile, the older children, Regan (Millicent Simmonds) and Marcus (Noah Jupe), are stranded in the night on top of their farm’s corn silo. Lee (Krasinski) is venturing out to find his older kids. What follows is a terrifying sequence that crosscuts between Evelyn’s cellar locale and the older kids in the corn silo.

Producer Andrew Form, director of photography Charlotte Bruus Christensen, supervising sound editors Erik Aadahl and Ethan Van der Ryn, and special effects supervisor Mark Hawker walk us through the prep and execution of the two moments of peril that Krasinski cuts between. 

Prepping the Sequences

Filmed at separate times at the same rural New York state farm location, each sequence took about four days to shoot. However, each took weeks of prep for essentially mere minutes of screen time. For the cellar sequence, Hawker had to rig a set that also worked as a water tank as the flood waters rise. And the silo sequence required an actual mock silo to be built for safety reasons. 

Andrew Form (Producer): Everything you see in this movie was in the screenplay, so it was all there on the page. Of course, when you bring it to life, everything changes. [Laughs] But this is a key sequence in the movie because everyone is separated at this point. The children are alone. Lee is trying to find his kids, and Evelyn is in the basement with the baby. No one really knows what's happening anywhere. You have all that extra tension built in, and there's no way for any of them to communicate. 

Charlotte Bruus Christensen (DP): It was incredible that these scenes were written that way. It’s the build-up to when the creature is face to face with Evelyn, and when that [silo] door falls because that's what the creature hears. We knew we had to cut between them and build this tension. And just when the creature's so close, it hears that [door] and then it runs away. We knew those two scenes are gonna have to intercut because it's the climax of finding the creature and this door falling. For me, it was more about having that little bit of movement in both scenes where you would feel the slow build, and that the lighting was making it clear where you were.

And the idea is so clear. The two kids are drowning in corn and [Evelyn] is facing a creature in water. We have two strong elements that you can play with, so it was very satisfying to have different scenes that bring the contrast and that rhythm, caught between these two spaces, where we have to create the really intense moment in both. 

Ethan Van der Ryn (Supervising sound editor): For me, the most important part of both those scenes is actually how you deal with the transitions between the two locations. Because that becomes very important, setting up the right amount of contrast in terms of level, in terms of frequency, in terms of all these different elements that we're balancing, so that when we cut from location to location, we're able to get the energy we want to get out of the cut. Because, obviously, there is a lot of energy that comes from that juxtaposition, so just finding what that balance should be, I think, was really one of the big, big challenges.

Andrew Form (Producer): We were only able to build two sets on the entire film: the interior of the corn silo because you have to. We're putting the kids into that silo, so that was a set. And we built the [basement] safe room. You really have to build a water set when you're moving water around like that, with the filtration system and everything. 

When you're at the barn, which is a real location, those stairs that go down obviously do not lead to that set. They run down and then there's nothing there, and then you cut to the stage where we have built the set, which is a mile or two away. Everything was very, very close. We shot in one little area, which was amazing because the whole movie takes place on that farm, so you were able to jump around if there was a weather issue or anything. 

We also knew a very important part of that [cellar] scene was the waterfall, and making sure we could get Emily behind the water to be the barrier between her and the creature. [Production designer] Jeff Beecroft designed that whole thing, and [special effects supervisor] Mark Hawker had to come in and figure out how he was going to get the water to a certain level that she is going to wade through. That was a beast of a scene to shoot in the water. Even on stage. When you're dealing with water, it always changes everything, so it was just nice that it could all be so close.

Mark Hawker (Special effects supervisor): The primary concern was the practicality of shooting in the water. Normally, on a bigger-budgeted movie, we would just build the set inside a tank. But with our space limitations, as we were shooting in an indoor horse arena, we decided to incorporate the walls of our tank into the actual set. It reduced the volume of water, it reduced the crew being in the water, because now you have these walls around the set that are three feet high. That allows also for the grips to remove parts of the walls above our three-foot wall, so the crew can come in and shoot all these different scenes without actually being in the water like what normally happens, where you have to be in the water when they're shooting.

I'd never really done it that way before, with the set walls actually being the walls that contain the water. We had to hide where all our pipes came in and did the returns, and all the filtering. The way it came out was all recirculating, and in the movie it looks like a flooded basement. When people see it, a lot of people don't even realize that was a set that was built to hold water to do this sequence, which is great, to fool everybody.

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Evelyn wakes up in the flooded basement. 

Evelyn Wakes in the Cellar During a Flood

Andrew Form (Producer): Opening the sequence, the idea is that the basement is flooding and there is a creature down there with Evelyn, and is the baby going to make a noise? Basically, we do what we did in the beginning of the movie – which really nobody saw coming in, that a four-year-old boy could die six minutes into a film – which is show the audience that no one is safe. Now you'll always know in the back of your mind, if that happened, anything can happen. This is that kind of movie. 

Charlotte Bruus Christensen (DP): John's idea was always that once [the Abbotts] come down, there are candle lights on and she falls asleep. And when she wakes up, it's pitch black. His vision was that she wakes up in darkness and she can hear the water. But we started working around what darkness really is, because as the DP you always ask, "What do you mean when you say dark? Does it mean that it's black?" Because if it's dark, you don't see anything and it’s only sound. And that could be interesting with this [film], where you just hear things, because the sounds of the creatures are so incredible. But it was important that we see her expressions and her seeing the creature. So it ended up with John wanting it to be "film darkness." 

We decided there was a couple of candles on and then that red light, which is the warning [color] of the movie. The creature had come down while she was asleep, so it made sense that we got this red reflection in the water. The darkness was really important, and it is a really dark scene. It's very low-lit, and in some shots there's really only the red that kicks through. Since we were shooting on film, it’s a pretty brave thing, because when you shoot a lot of red, sometimes the camera can have a hard time focusing on it. And that's why we were working with the candle light to give a white edge, and to cheat your eye a little bit so you'll have a reference to the red that is a little bit cooler.

Erik Aadah (Supervising sound editor): This was a point in the movie where the stakes just keep getting bigger. For us, this is about how do we use sound to make this as terrifying as possible? And also, how do we use sound to reinforce the logic of the film, which is, if you make a sound that is too loud, you are dead? Being quiet is necessary to survival. Fortunately, the basement being flooded is making this water trickle sound, which is just loud enough for her to be able to move around being in close proximity to a creature, with her baby floating as well, and be able to survive.

With sound design, we're really walking this tightrope, where any breath that she makes, any little movement through the water that she makes, has to be just below the threshold of sound of the environmental water sounds. If they're not, the creature's got her. 

Charlotte Bruus Christensen (DP): John never really connected with the storyboards. He was like, "I wanna keep developing in my head, and I wanna keep responding to what's happening." But I remember very clearly John said, "When she puts her feet in, we need to see that from some clear angle where there's a tension of going in that water." So we knew that was one of the wide shots. And it had to be a really dark space, with that red light rimming the creature. You don't see it perfectly until it comes really close at the very end, when they're face to face.

Erik Aadah (Supervising sound editor): And I might say that this family lucked out with that baby. [Laughs] It could have been really bad. But the family had forethought. They're survivors, and had forethought to build this crib that can be closed, and with an oxygen tank and a little baby mask to be able to breathe with. But of course, the best-laid plans... you know the saying.

Ethan Van der Ryn (Supervising sound editor): John was also fairly specific about the sounds he wanted the baby to be making, in terms of building the suspense.

Andrew Form (Producer): And that is a real baby. Now there are times that, of course, Emily is carrying a doll. But then there were times where you see the baby literally moving around, and that is a real baby, yes.

Erik Aadah (Supervising sound editor): As for the creatures, they are essentially blind, so they use sound to understand their environment. The clicking sounds are its use of echolocation, in order to see with their ears. So that clicking is its searching mode. 

Andrew Form (Producer): With the creature submerging moment, I remember watching the monitor, and when I saw the guy in the black suit who was there for the creature, when he goes underwater and you can actually see the water moving, I remember saying to myself, "Oh wow, when we put the [VFX] creature in… wow!" When you can see the ripples in the water, that was what I really had hoped for. When she's walking across to the baby and you see all the things floating next to her, making a little bit of noise and just all the debris that's on top of the water. I thought they did an amazing job with production design. 

Erik Aadah (Supervising sound editor): I think maybe my favorite moment is where, in the shadows, in the flooded basement, you see the creature just submerge underwater, and you no longer see it. And we just have this little, deep purr, and a little water slosh, and then just silence, and the not knowing, both visually and sonically, where that creature is, it's the not knowing that makes it so darn scary.

Ethan Van der Ryn (Supervising sound editor): I'll second that. Just the idea of not knowing ties into what, for us, was so much a thread through the movie sonically, which was the idea of exploring the negative space. How much negative space can we create, and what does that do for the suspense of the movie? As well as the intimacy that we feel, and the connection with the characters. So just the whole idea of exploring the quiet, exploring the negative space, and what that does for the suspense and the drama of the movie.

Charlotte Bruus Christensen (DP):  We see when she picks up the baby and she backs off, we are tracking to one side and there's a pillar, so it goes black for a second and you just feel like, "Oh my God!" It's such a simple thing, but it has a huge effect that you lose her for a second and then it's light on the other side. It was a very organic process to get that scene. And then we just tried things, and timed things together with the lovely camera operator, David Emmerichs.

Mark Hawker (Special effects supervisor): All in all, it was about 10,000 gallons of water. We had storage tanks outside we heated and filtered, and then we had tons of water pumped for the water cascading down for that whole sequence where she's hiding underneath the stairway with the water separating her from the creature.

Erik Aadah (Supervising sound editor): Emily is right there behind the water, holding her breath and hoping that water trickle is loud enough to mask that breathing. I absolutely love that moment. It's so simple, but so tense. It's beautifully choreographed by John. 

Charlotte Bruus Christensen (DP): It's actually really minimalistic. It's very simple, but I think it also adds to the tension, and I think that was most of what we spoke about, more than being specific with the shot, was the feeling and the tension that we wanted. It's about the pacing and the atmosphere.

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Evelyn under the waterfall protecting the baby.

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Millicent Simmonds and Noah Jupe in the silo sequence.

The Silo Sequence

Charlotte Bruus Christensen (DP): Both of these scenes are very dark. When you're in a silo in the middle of the night, that was dark. And that's also why it took us away from being too dark in the basement, because then we're caught between black-to-black. So, in the basement, I do red. I think, camera-wise, what would you do with light once you see all the red? So we have that bluish moonlight with the kids in the silo, and the contrast of the colors were padding really well between the scenes, the warmth and the very cold.

Erik Aadah (Supervising sound editor): With the kids in the silo, they've just made this giant sound which has attracted the creatures. So for them, it's almost more about just survival than trying to be quiet, at this point. 

Andrew Form (Producer): As for the silo, this was a big conversation in preproduction, of how are we going to put the kids in the corn, and how is Millie going to be able to sell to the audience that she is going to drown in the corn? How do you achieve that? We had lots of talk about it.

Mark Hawker (Special effects supervisor): Being on top of the silo, and the door popping open and falling through, I wasn't too concerned about that, as it was relatively easy for us to have it trip with timing. But the thing that was very tricky was, and I called it quick corn, for when the kids are sinking into the corn. I've done quicksand rigs before and was able to use really lightweight materials – basically it's a latex membrane with a hole in it – and then you put the lightweight material on there, and the person goes down, and it's like a void, or an empty space, that they go in underneath it. But we had to use real corn just because of the closeness of everything, but corn is really heavy. 

The silo itself was 20 feet in diameter, and it had three feet deep of corn, so working on top of it was very difficult to move around. You sink into it. But the whole rig itself had to be up about 12 feet because we needed the room for the kids when they would go down in the corn, to have the space to go down into it. When we first started the project, we threw together one of our quicksand rigs to see what it does. But as soon as the guys start putting corn on the latex, instantly we knew we would need almost 12 inches of corn on top of this latex, and there's no way it was going to hold it. So we built a wood platform, had a hole in it, put the latex on there, because it acts as a seal, so you don't lose all the corn. We did a test with that and showed it to John and he liked it.

But something that I never planned on was when Regan goes down, and Marcus sticks his hand down and finds her hand and pulls her out. I didn't really plan on that, but John was like, “Do you think that would work?” I said, "Let's give it a try." After doing the first test of them sinking when we didn't have the actual kids, John said, “They're like 12 feet apart and they need to be able to touch each other. Can you make the rig so that they can trudge their way through the corn to get to each other so they can almost touch?” And that was a big wrench in the works, how are we gonna do that? 

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So, I have this hole in this plywood, but now I need to make this hole mobile, so there were layers of plastic that were used because it was slick, but these holes had to be able to move around underneath the corn, so it required two people underneath with each actor. We spent probably six weeks on the rig playing around and testing. And the actors did the whole stunt, everything themselves, after testing it.

Andrew Form (Producer): They build the set and we get there and we're filming. The moment where Millicent goes under, I was sitting at the monitor and I literally jumped up and was like, "Is she okay?" I know it was a set and we built the whole thing, but she went under so seamlessly and just disappeared that I went over and was like, "Oh my God! She is walking on that thing?" It was done so well that I was thrown. But once you get through that, you're like, "Let's keep filming, this is amazing. I cannot believe what you guys built here. She is fully drowning in this corn!"

Mark Hawker (Special effects supervisor): The kids just adapted to it really quick. They had a really good time with it. In fact, in between shots and stuff, everybody that was in the silo would be throwing little bits of corn at each other while they're reviewing the footage. The kids just had a good time with it, and actually they pushed it and went further than I thought they would. I thought they would have to be stunts doing some of this, but like I said, they thought it was a game in a way. They had a good time with it.

Erik Aadah (Supervising sound editor): There was only one sound from the set that we actually used in that scene, and that was the sound of the kids breathing. Everything else was completely reconstructed in post-production, in sound design. We completely re-recorded the metal door slamming into the corn, the sound of them scrambling onto the door, the sound of the corn sliding as they're being sucked underneath. All of that was 100% re-created afterward, just so that we could have absolute precision with every single frame of sound there.

This is also a scene with this concept of electromagnetic interference between the creatures and Regan’s cochlear implant. This is where we take that to the next step, and we have the first realization that this earpiece can be used as a repellent, in a way. For us as sound designers, it's fun to think of sound as a weapon. It's the danger, but it's also maybe the solution for this family.

Charlotte Bruus Christensen (DP):  Because Regan has that realization in that moment, we knew that it had to go silent after this. And so for the pull-back coming out [of the scene], you just wanted that silence and air just to be alive. It’s all about, “Oh, my god, that was so close.” 

A Quiet Place Silo 3

Future Stories in the A Quiet Place World?

With all of their technical and artistic labors, gratefully appreciated by the masses, producer Andrew Form says they all want to reunite to tell more unique stories in this world... if the right story comes along. 

"The good news is there's no rush. I've been in situations where they've asked for a sequel and they give you a date and they say you have to hit this date with your movie, go figure it out," said Form. "We're not doing that on this one. We are going to take our time and we're going to figure out what we think the next version, or story, or incarnation of A Quiet Place is. The first movie is so special to us that we really want to take our time and figure out where to go."