April 2018 The New York Times
In the horror film “A Quiet Place,” a family is afraid of themselves going bump in the night. The post-apocalyptic tale is propelled by one central menace: creatures with enhanced hearing that attack when they detect noise. Living isolated in the woods, a couple and their children have crafted a very hushed existence to keep the threat at bay: they walk barefoot, communicate via sign language, and play Monopoly with cotton game pieces.
When characters have to keep mum to stay alive, sound design can go to some innovative places. Anxious moments are created from the slightest creaks of a floor, footsteps on sand or even a heartbeat. Being inventive with sound, and frequently with the absence of it, was the idea that propelled the director, John Krasinski, who also stars in the movie with his wife, Emily Blunt.
“We live in a world now where you see all these movies, like Marvel movies, and there’s so much sound going on, so many explosions,” Mr. Krasinski said during an interview in New York. “I love those movies, but there’s something about all that noise that assaults you, in a way. We thought, what if you pulled it all back? Would that make it feel just as disconcerting and just as uncomfortable and tense?”
John Krasinski, left, and Noah Jupe in “A Quiet Place,” in which voices or other sounds attract the attention of deadly creatures.
To help make quiet frightening, Mr. Krasinski worked with the sound editors Ethan Van Der Ryn and Erik Aadahl, who have experience with the loud (“Godzilla”) and the louder (“Transformers”), but were interested in taking things down more than a few notches. They worked to create what they called “sound envelopes,” putting audiences in a character’s shoes to hear what they hear and how they might hear it. The most intriguing one was for the young Regan, who is deaf and played by the deaf actress Millicent Simmonds. Regan wears a cochlear implant that gives her minimal hearing; she has more of a physical sense of presence than an auditory one. For that, the editors wanted to mimic the feeling of being in an anechoic chamber, a room that absorbs sound to the point where all you can hear are the heightened noises of your own body. Regan’s envelope is rendered with a kind of low, muffled feel punctuated by the gentle pulse of her heart. But when she takes the hearing aid out, we experience a moment of complete screen silence, an idea that Mr. Krasinski debated with his colleagues. “We thought, is this too much?” he said. “Will people find this more of an audible experiment and not a movie?” But he remembered a conversation he had with a marketing executive on a different film who thought the biggest misconception about audiences was that they were stupid. “I decided to take a big leap. I thought, if I’m worried that people aren’t going to get it, then I’m probably doing something right.”
To be sure, “A Quiet Place” is not a massive collection of avant-garde soundscapes. It has elements horror fans will know well, like jump-scare sounds and the occasional jolt from Marco Beltrami’s score. But the film does get a little different. For instance, when the creatures come around, they communicate through clicking sounds. “Because the creatures are blind, we were inspired by the idea of using echolocation like bats do,” Mr. Van Der Ryn said by phone. “So they have these vocal sonar signatures that they can send out into space and hear the reflections of the space around them.” The sound of feedback, like the kind at a concert when a microphone gets too close to the amplifier, is woven into the narrative. Its unpleasantness is something sound editors usually try to avoid, so it became a particular challenge to include.
So was there actually quiet on the set? The film’s frequent hushed moments did ultimately dictate how things were handled during the shoot, although not at first. Before production, Mr. Krasinski hadn’t let many people read the screenplay, for which he shares credit with Bryan Woods and Scott Beck. The crew heard that it was a silent movie and assumed that either a score would be placed over most everything, or all the sound would be added in postproduction. “So they were legitimately the loudest crew I’d ever heard for four or five days,” Mr. Krasinski said. “But then we learned together how quiet it needed to be,” he added. “Like, no, you literally can’t move because we need the room tone, we need the breeze through the trees, we need the corn, we need the barn. It wasn’t like, yeah, I’ll put in ‘barn’ later. And instead of the crew being gruff about not being able to live a normal life on set, they really embraced it. They thought, "we’re making something special here.”