John Krasinski interview: A Quiet Place, The Office, suspense

The writer, director and star of A Quiet Place talks about his first horror movie - and how creating scares is a bit like comedy...

Leave the popcorn in the lobby. Keep those Skittles in their packet. As its name suggests, A Quiet Place is all about the absence of sound; in this movie, the slightest noise equals death.

Written, directed and co-starring John Krasinski, A Quiet Place is in with an early shout for horror film of the year: it’s a lean, consistently scary film where a lone family struggles to survive in an America overrun by monsters with super-sensitive hearing.

As actor, Krasinski stars as Lee, father of two young kids and husband of Evelyn (Krasinski’s real-life wife, Emily Blunt); together, they face the seemingly impossible task of carrying on a normal life in a remote farmhouse, as large, immensely fast and strong creatures lurk in the fields outside, listening.

As a filmmaker, Krasinski brilliantly mines small details for maximum impact: a kid dropping a small toy takes on horrific, potentially deadly significance. Some iffy carpentry on a staircase becomes as tense as any car chase or gun battle. We’ll leave you to discover all this for yourselves, but for now, it’s safe to say that A Quiet Place isn’t for the faint of heart.

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So how did John Krasinski, a director and actor best known to some for his role as Jim Halpert in the US version of The Office, wind up making such a scary movie? He’s said himself that he wasn’t a horror fan before writers Bryan Woods and Scott Back came to him with the concept. To find out more, we met Krasinski for a lively chat about the secret of suspense, the parallels between horror and comedy, and why rattling a box of popcorn might get you into trouble at your local cinema…

I looked at some other interviews as research for this, and one thing you’ve said once or twice is, “I’m not a horror guy.”

Yeah.

I wonder if you think, in retrospect, whether that turned out to be a good thing. Because then you’re bringing something from outside the genre.

It’s so funny you say that. There’s two things. One, I had a personal experience that I think I’ve benefited from not being so well-versed in horror. Now, I am. But when I was watching all these horror movies to prepare for directing this, instead of going in and trying to steal techniques and things, I was so ignorant to all the techniques that I basically just used myself as a barometer and said, “What scares me? What impacted me? What little things work on me?” So it was more about this personal litmus test, where I thought, “This really scared me so that’ll work in this part of the script that I rewrote.”

So that was my personal experience. But then a friend of mine at South By South-West said, “Wow, I never expected that you would do a horror movie.” And I said, “Yeah, I can’t even watch horror movies.” And he said, really quickly, “Oh, that’s why you directed such a good one.”

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I said, “What do you mean?” He said, “If you shot for making a scary movie, you would have failed because you’re not versed in it. But the fact that you didn’t know scary movies, and tried to make a family movie that happened to be scary, that’s why it was so impactful to me. The reason I love the movie so much is because I cried at the end. I was more scared because I didn’t want anything to happen to the family.”

I think that’s a huge compliment to me. Weirdly, it’s one of the reasons why I did the movie. I’m sure you read this when you were getting prepared, but it’s true: Greg Daniels, who created The Office – the American Office – he said, “It’s not your job to deliver these lines funny. You’re job is to deliver these lines truthfully. And if people laugh, that’s up to them.”

What an amazing thing for anybody to say, but certainly a comedy director and writer. And if you can do it in comedy, you realise that it translates to everything. It takes a lot of onus off you in a big way, because I think I was really scared to direct a horror movie, not knowing horror. And so I literally remember thinking, “Just direct what you know.” So I directed a movie about a family, and then the scares started to come.

Once they started to come, I realised I could manipulate them here and here, and place them here and here. It was really fun. But the decision to direct came after thinking of Greg’s advice. 

Do you think, subconsciously, that you thought there’s a line between horror and comedy? Actually a lot of similarities.

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I think you’re absolutely right. I’ve always thought there was a much more similar… because when I was doing The Office, people were asking me, “Do you like doing comedy or drama more?” I said it’s actually the same thing; making people cry and making people laugh [is the same]. In my opinion, the reason that your version of The Office and our version of The Office was [successful] was because people saw themselves in it. I think if you can connect to something universal, it will make you laugh harder. Especially the David Brent or Michael Scott characters; you can laugh at that guy because he probably is your boss, and if you laugh at him at work, you’re gonna get fired!

I think here, if you’re in a theatre, you can laugh about things that really scare you, or get really scared by things that scare you, because when you’re at home, you don’t want to think about them. You know? It’s that thing about being in a communal space where everybody’s feeling the same thing. I don’t know. I think you’re totally right. There is absolutely a connection.

People probably ask you a lot about preparing for this film, but I wonder whether, when you finish making it, it’s quite hard to shrug back off again; the whole concept, of being quiet, if you make a sound you’re dead, is such an oppressive one. It must seep into you a little bit, doesn’t it?

Yeah it does. Weirdly enough, it had a positive effect one me, because there was a day where we were shooting in the woods, as you’ve seen, and if you asked me to name 10 sounds in the woods I’d name two. And that made me really sad, because I spent a lot of my childhood outdoors and all those sorts of things, but certainly as you get older, in this new reality that we have with phones and all that stuff, we don’t take the time. So there was a little bit of this more heady, existential thing of, “This is such a beautiful idea, shutting everything down and being able to experience the world around you.”

I now take my daughter out and lay on the grass all the time. One of the coolest things is, after this movie she’s like, “Dad, can we go lay on the grass again.” I go, “That’s awesome.”

But it’s funny. Having Emily [Blunt] do the movie with me was amazing for many reasons, but what helped a great deal was that she’s so able to pull herself out of her performance as quickly as she can get into it. That’s a very rare thing. I think that, you don’t even have to be a method actor – it’s like you said, this thing can feel weighty. Especially what she went through! That was pretty intense. But she would immediately snap out of it.

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Our drives home would be the most fun: she’d say, “Can you believe this is actually happening?” We would say, “Isn’t it crazy we’re doing a movie together?” “Isn’t it crazy that you’re directing a horror movie?” It’s all stuff we were able to be very cognizant of, very present with.

I think the thing to shrug off is how special this movie is, you know what I mean? How hard it will be to have another experience like this. And I’m totally okay with it being an experience unlike any other, because it should be. Very sweetly, a lot of people are recognising in the reviews and in the audiences, that this is very new. It hasn’t been done before. For Emily and I, there’s a real resolution to the idea that it won’t happen again. This is very special. Unique. 

Yeah. But what this film does do that crosses over all genres is that it picks out specific details. I think that’s what great filmmaking does: it picks out specific things for your attention, and puts other things out of focus.

I so appreciate you saying that. To me, that’s my favourite thing. I remember we did this movie Promised Land – me and Matt Damon wrote this movie. And we went into the head of marketing at Focus, his name is Jack, he’s amazing guy. And we were going through how to plan Promised Land, and the one thing I asked Jack after the meeting was, “Can you tell me the biggest misconception about audiences?” And he said, “The biggest misconception about audiences is that they’re stupid.” That people want to work, they’re very smart, they want a challenge. This is before Game Of Thrones and all these things… the fact that my niece and nephew know 1,300 characters on Game Of Thrones – it’s a big deal.

Luckily, that people bit of advice also went into this movie. My favourite movies, my favourite filmmakers, really put the onus on the audience, and allowed you to see things in small doses, and hope that you put it all together. Because it is a big puzzle. I think the hard part of directing is, when you do introduce something cool, you have to finish it, because if you don’t, then they’re all “Agh, I’m mad that you didn’t tell you more.”

If it’s not a set-up and delivery, that just becomes frustrating. So that was my whole thing. To me, it was a giant puzzle. It was so much fun to do. Certainly, in my rewrite, that was one of the benefits of reworking the script, because I was rewriting it to direct. So I would actually make notes in the margins – “This is happening, this is happening later”. Weirdly, the edit of the movie is almost exactly what I rewrote, because it becomes almost like a puzzle box and you can’t really undo it.

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With the two other movies and episodes of The Office [I made], you could move things around. In this one, you really couldn’t. 

In the process of that writing, how did you go about laying out those set-pieces? Because something like as simple as a nail, in my head, is a set-piece in this film.

Absolutely.

Did you plot those, and arrange those quite precisely, like dominoes almost?

Absolutely. And it’s a fine line between making the audience uncomfortable or squeamish and frustrating them. That nail scene, or the culmination of the nail scene, if that had happened five or seven minutes later, people wouldn’t have responded nearly as well as they have been, because it’s about timing. I remember Chris MacQuarrie was one of the only people to read my original draft, and he said, “That nail thing, it’s like a Hitchcockian classic. And I absolutely hated you, because for 20 minutes of reading your script, I was like, ‘If he doesn’t [pay this off] soon, if he doesn’t do this soon, if he doesn’t do this soon…'” Then by the time it happens, he said, “I was so thrilled to be that anxious.”

But if I’d kept going it would’ve been just frustrating.

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One of the things I often ask filmmakers is, “What is the secret of suspense,” because everyone seems to have their own philosophy, almost. To me, it sounds like yours is kind of like setting up and paying off a joke.

It’s so funny. You’re truly the first person who’s pointed that out. Because I didn’t even realise it. But you’re right. I think, for me… I’ve now changed my whole theory on life, so thank you! [Laughs] The relationship between comedy and drama isn’t as similar as between comedy and scaring, because I do believe scaring is timing. It is all timing.

In fact, we did a pass of the movie, once it was done and we felt really good about it, we did a pass of the movie where we were adding and taking away two frames, four frames, one frame on those scares. And it is crazy how much it changes. I mean, you’d have a room of six people testing, and you’d show the scene and they’d go, “Hmm, I didn’t feel anything.” Then you’d take out two frames and they’d go, “Wooahhh!” You know? It’s unbelievable. It really is like you said: it’s the set-up and pay-off of a joke. 

Yeah, yeah. With those test audiences, did you have any nervousness about how quiet the film is? Because you only need one person to rustle some popcorn to spoil a moment…

Totally! Yeah. We only did one test, which was really scary, because this was such a small, short process. I don’t know if you knew, but we wrapped [shooting] on November 1st, and we’ll be coming out April 6th. So we had five months – and that’s five months where they hadn’t done one sketch of a creature. I mean, we’d talked about it, but we didn’t do one sketch of a creature, we didn’t do any of the sound work. Nothing had been done. So five months with that sound-heavy, that VFX-heavy [post-production] was the most terrifying thing ever.

So we did a test audience. We could only do one, because we couldn’t keep showing the audience the film without the sound and VFX in there. So we did one audience test – and that was what I was most scared of, was having anyone going through the film without seeing any version of a creature or any version of our sound decisions. And the audience still liked it.

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But what I found from that screening was exactly what you’re talking about: were we frustrating with the sound, or was it really intriguing? There was a guy at the end, a member of the test audience… they hold you back and they say, “Did you like it? Is there anything you didn’t like?” And the last thing they ask is, “Is there anything else we should know?”

This guy says, “What you need to know is, I snuck a bag of Skittles into the screening. And for 90 minutes under my chair, I was like this…” [mimes holding a packet of Skittles, ready to open them], “…and I never ripped the bag!” [Laughs]

I thought, Oh, he enjoyed that. He didn’t say, “Yeah, what you need to know is that I had Skittles and I couldn’t eat them and I hate you for it.” He was like, “It was amazing!”

So the other thing that people have been telling me is they know the faces of all the people who were eating too loud. So after the premiere on Tuesday, at the party afterwards, the people I was talking were saying, “Ah! There’s the guy. He ate popcorn the entire time!” And I thought, “Oh no! They’re gonna start a riot!” [Laughs]

But that’s also really fascinating to me, that people know and have started to identify the sound-makers. It’s like a weird Willy Wonka group or something – the Sound Makers. I think it’s great. 

It amazes me that you managed to get this done for the budget you had. I think it was $17m-ish, something like that? Do you think that’s increasingly the case with filmmakers? Having to be creative with the budget, doing more with less?

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It’s a slippery slope, because if I’m honest, the entire process – because it was so short, because we were under such stress – I thought, “Ah man, we could use more money, we could certainly use more time.” That’s always the case, though. I mean, I heard it from my friends who’ve directed $150m movies.

I’m killing my next experience by saying this, so thank you… but there is definitely more benefit than trauma with this tight budget and tight schedule. It is that indie vibe of people just bringing A-game every single second of every single day. Whereas with the bigger budgets, I’ve witnessed it, and I’ve possibly been a participant of it, where if you just sit back on your heels even just a little bit more, then things take longer.

You might still get the same product, but that leaning in, and having every single person crashing at the end of the day, when you’re in it, you think it’s an absolute prison sentence. And then when you get out of it, you go, “I think that’s why the movie’s so good.”

Again, when you print that, I’ll never be able to make anything over $20m again!

John Krasinski, thank you very much.

A Quiet Place is out in UK cinemas now.