Did 'A Quiet Place' Take Enough Risks?
[This story contains spoilers for A Quiet Place]
The following is a conversation about A Quiet Place, the financially and critically successful horror film about a near-future dystopia where a nuclear family (father, daughter, son and pregnant mother) must remain as silent as possible — or else be found and murdered by giant blind monsters. The film's success was unexpected given a number of factors, including the unlikely pairing of star/co-writer/director John Krasinski (The Office, Away We Go) and Michael Bay's Platinum Dunes production studio (Friday the 13th, The Purge). But one of the surest reasons for the film's success is its central gimmick: a modern horror film with next-to-no dialogue. The Hollywood Reporter's own Simon Abrams talked with sound designer/musician/filmmaker Graham Reznick —who didn't work on A Quiet Place but is also known as the co-writer of the popular Until Dawn video game — to talk about what exactly Krasinki and his collaborators did, and how successful/innovative they were in doing it.
Simon Abrams, World-Class Harry Caul Impersonator: I'm pretty thrilled that we're having this conversation, Graham, mostly because I've been a big fan of your work as a sound designer on indie horror films like Automatons and The Roost, two Glass Eye Pix-produced movies that both gave me one of my favorite post-film reactions: Who's responsible for ____? I have to know more! Even more thrilling: I wanted to know more about sound design, a field of work that I knew — and probably still know — next to nothing about. Your work made me pay closer attention to what both of those films were doing on a completely different level than what I was used to. I started thinking about horror movies in terms of sound and how their sense of atmosphere was developed through the layering of noises on a soundtrack. Basic stuff for you, but something that I know I — and probably some of our readers — often take for granted since we often think of movies as a primarily visual medium.
I'm also a big fan of I Can See You, an amazing little head-trip horror film for which you not only did the sound design, but also wrote and directed.
But that completely unsolicited, spontaneous plug is neither here nor there (PayPal works, Graham, just sayin'). What matters most is: while A Quiet Place is being rightfully celebrated for its novelty as a mostly dialogue-free film, that leaves a lot of questions unanswered about how the film uses silence, sound effects and music. So I figured I'd find somebody smarter than me to talk about the film's general effectiveness and its specific use of sound.
For starters, I'm really curious how you would describe the texture of the sounds in this film. As somebody who uses and records sounds for films, I imagine you have to think of sounds in a scene in terms of how they react with and complicate each other. For this flimsy reason, I imagined the film's soundtrack as a landscape painting. Bear with me while I do my best Bob Ross impression.
So, because this film doesn't have much dialogue, it also doesn't appear to have a lot going on in its immediate foreground, nothing more than the sounds created by characters' physical movements. If a main character is getting work done, the incidental sounds they made happened in the painting's foreground. More often than not, it seemed like this part of the painting was occupied by light, but noticeable detail work, especially the characters' heavy breathing. Our human heroes' panting is probably most noticeable during the scare scene that's set in a corn silo. The kids' ragged breathing — boosted by the silo's natural echo effect — makes this set piece feel like the most sophisticated one in the film (just from a sound design perspective). Mostly because the sound of their ragged breathing was like little slashes on a strictly metaphorical canvas: I was drawn in because these little sharp breaths glanced across my ear/eye with their relatively heightened intensity.
In the background, we have the background noises that, in this context, serve as the painting's baseline (imagine a happy tree-line or a happy lake at the end of a happy road). Our attention is constantly being directed here because there's so little going on in the foreground. So we anticipate the sounds that we hear in the distance. I imagine that's easier said than done since the sounds of water, birds, or wind have to basically move, so to speak, towards viewers rather than away, just to simulate the feeling that we on-screen events are surrounding us without even being virtually near us.
Finally, the film's score is our skyline. This part of the film drives me nuts because, as we'll soon discuss, A Quiet Place's score often overwhelms the action onscreen. Imagine using a quasi-naturalistic painting style for two-thirds of your painting, but then chucking aside all that detail work and slapping together an incongruous, and paradoxically literal-minded photo collage of the night sky's various elements: moon, clouds, maybe a little comet, etc. It's almost as if director John Krasinski doesn't trust his sound designer's work to speak for itself.
Ok, we pause to breathe. Tell me what you're hearing when you're looking — and listening — at A Quiet Place.
Graham Reznick, Dedicated Blow Out Re-Reenactor: Thanks for having me, Simon. I’m always happy to talk about sound and wax poetic about its use in film! (And I’ve been sending you money on Venmo for weeks now — if you’re not receiving it, who is?)
Two stray thoughts before I jump into it (these may have been mentioned elsewhere, but I’ve avoided reviews):
— They did the Jim and Pam shared earbuds thing!???!! IS THIS ALL TAKING PLACE ON SCHRUTE FARMS?
— Fasted childbirth ever. Though maybe when it’s your fourth kid they just pop on out.
I want to say, right off the bat, how happy it makes me to see projects created with sound in mind before post-production. A Quiet Place really did a bang up job planning out sequence after sequence to feature the use of sound. You’d be surprised at how often the use of creative sound becomes an afterthought, with filmmakers trying to create something through audio design that the script, footage, and edit just doesn’t support. I’ve been fortunate to work with directors (like Larry Fessenden and Ti West) who give a lot of thought to sound in the early stages, and carefully consider what audio can bring to the narrative, and shoot, with those goals in mind.
As a filmmaker who has a lot of audio experience, but also experience in writing, photography, editing, etc., I try not to look at any individual part of the cinematic palette as the “most important." They all balance each other to create something bigger than the sum of their parts (“cinematic gestalt,” to use a $10 phrase). So even though film is considered a visual medium, what is literally on screen is still only a piece of the larger puzzle. I would say visuals are around 25 percent, with sound being another 25 percent. And then I’d include, at the very least, both objective narrative and viewer participation as well. “Objective narrative” being the raw, objective plot points: “Mom does laundry. Laundry bag gets caught on nail. Mom doesn’t see nail sticking up.” And “viewer participation” being what’s going on in the viewer’s mind when they watch the film: “Mom can’t use the washing machines anymore, that sucks. Aren’t those bags too heavy for a pregnant woma-oh SHIT she’s gonna drop the bag…! Okay phew, she’s good… but… uh oh… she didn’t see that nail sticking up right in the footprint! Well THAT’S gonna suck later…!” So they’re flipsides of the same coin, but are kind of two different things. Great films, to me, play with the audience's expectations for all four of those elements and manage to transcend the entire medium. They create something greater than the sum of their parts.
So that brings me back to your very apt metaphor of a landscape painting! I like to think of sound this way in general — the way sound can be layered and designed is very similar to the way you’d layer and mix paint on a canvas. That can be true in a very technical sense: “soft” sounds vs. “hard” sounds can be like visually soft lines vs. hard ones. The textures of this film, as you asked about, are very varied and at times very satisfying (shout out to the fantastic foley editing and recording!). This painting metaphor can be true in a more abstract way like you’ve laid it out here. In response to your idea that dialogue is often in the foreground, and in this film we’re looking more closely at the background, I’d argue that the foreground here is still very similar to a more traditionally functioning horror film (one that doesn’t rely on lack of dialogue and heightened audience awareness of sound). In similar “escape the monster in the house by learning the horror rules” thrillers, the foreground element isn’t necessarily the dialogue itself, but what the dialogue represents: a manipulation of those two hidden elements of a film’s gestalt: narrative and audience participation. It’s the classic Hitchcockian playbook: show a bomb under the table and it’s all anyone will be thinking about through ten minutes of dinner conversation before the bomb goes off. You mentioned the audience’s attention being directed since there is no foreground — I think it’s specifically the “directing of the audience” that is the foreground!
This film goes pretty bonkers foregrounding “bombs under the table,” whether it’s the batteries on the counter, the nail in the floor, the impending childbirth, etc. The foreground of this film is the audience’s anxiety — tension. The visuals, audio, objective narrative and audience participation in A Quiet Place all work towards painting that particular picture, where in most filmmaking, it’s primarily the dialogue that tells you the objective narrative and manipulates your participation. That’s less true in horror, which usually takes the Hitchcockian approach and tends to actively manipulate all four pieces of the puzzle. This is why I think that despite A Quiet Place's technical achievements, it’s not momentously pushing the boundaries of cinematic narrative. Which isn’t to say it’s not pushing any boundaries — it definitely is. Just getting audiences to quiet down, lean in, and pay close attention is a huge achievement. I do, however, wish it went further at times, which I think is a good place for us to segue into use of music…
But before I toss it back over to you, here’s a “sound design missed opportunity” thought: when they did the Jim & Pam shared earbuds thing, the sound designer in me thinks it was a missed opportunity that they didn’t only play the music on one side of the theater, mirroring the fact that Dad only had one earbud in. But then my director hat pops on and asks — would the audience find that technical gimmickry distracting? It’s not what that moment is about. That said — yes, I debate with myself a lot, late into the night —as an audience member, I was conditioned at this point to lean in and pay close attention to anything involving ears and sound, like the hearing aid stuff. So the fact that the earbud music went so quickly from diagetic music (music in the world of the film) to non-diagetic music —music acting more like score — in this case, a full mix of the Neil Young track instead of tinny earbud audio — really threw me. But that’s just me.
Abrams: I'm dying to talk with you about the use of orchestral music in this film, partly because I think it's ironic that the score is so heavy-handed while also being, by its medium-specific nature, relatively abstract. Or, it would be an abstract expression of emotions if you listened to it outside of the context of the film. But within the context of the film...well, we'll get to that.
For now: it's eerie how in sync we are when it comes to the film's conventional use of sound. I assume we disagree on its over-all effective-ness though since your cup seems to be half full while mine has some stuff missing. Like you, I wondered whether or not it matters if the film's sound design — or even the core emotional relationship between its characters — is conventional or not. The film's big set pieces are often effective, and they do all rely implicitly on the film's central gimmick. Also, the fact that the movie's post-human world must be dialogue-free allows Jim and his wife (Emily Blunt, who gives the film's best performance) to each get out a good, full-bodied scream, thereby reducing their characters' core concerns to an elemental level. He, father, scream because can't provide for family good enough. She, mother, want to create only good, but sometimes bring pain. You get all of that in two screams: from him, just before he throws himself to some monsters, and from her, right before she gives birth. Two screams to express parental rage is a far more elegant thematic delivery system than a lot of talk-talk-talk about the same basic issues.
But what do you feel matters most here: the effect, the expression, or the idea? Many critics argue that style/form cannot be separated from function, so if the idea seems basic, it's because the expression is, too, since you are left feeling unaffected. And the film's main theme does seem basic: the mundane sorrows and struggles of parents who are trying to care for their children — versions of themselves that are also separate from themselves, and therefore must be prepared to have post-parental lives of their own — are taken to the next level when monsters force humans to either be quiet, or die trying. The stakes are higher, the resources are slimmer, the emotions are higher strung!
I mean, just look at A Quiet Place's scare scenes, which are inarguably the film's highest highlights. I was mostly into these set pieces because they are choreographed fairly well, and I therefore cared about them more than any scenes where Jim and his post-apocalyptic wife sigh heavily and worry a bunch. I also think Blunt's better at pantomiming sorrow than Krasinski is, partly because she's a strong performer, but also because he just isn't a good enough actor to emote from behind such big whiskers (Maybe he should have prepped for this role by studying Oliver Reed in Castaway).
Anyway, using your analogy of percentages, that's 50 percent of the job done right there since we've already got "visuals" and "objective narrative" covered. But what's underwhelming, even in these scenes, is the other 50 percent: the "sound" is about halfway there since it's mostly silent...except for that damn insistent score (we really have to talk about this). And that music alone made me, as a viewer, not want to participate beyond a point. So, realistically, my cup is more than half-full: it's about 62.5 percent full!
But you tell me: how far did this movie get to you? Can you break it down for us? You don't even have to use a pie chart, I'm not picky.
Reznick: Well, now I really want to make a pie chart. But if I did, I wouldn’t be able to break the analogy…like THIS:
I think a film can perfectly nail the technical aspects of each of those four categories, but still only come out to 100 percent and be a really solid, good movie that everyone likes and then quietly drifts off the radar over time. But, a film that finds a way to use all four of those things to create cinematic magic can exceed the 100 percent limit, and become more than the sum of its parts! Off the top of my head I’ll give an example of this: John Carpenter's Prince of Darkness. That film's objective narrative starts off fairly simple and understandable: scientists study a vat of goo in a church that may or may not be the son of Satan. The visuals are stellar (sets! lighting! so great!). The audio is stellar (those radio broadcasts!). The viewer participation is where things get… interesting! We think we understand the world of this film, but at a certain point, details from all three other categories (plot, sound, image) begin to create a beautiful friction with each other, in our minds: the possessed scientists can reach through mirrors to pull out the word “father"? This may all be a time loop? You will not be saved by the god plutonium? This all culminates in an incredible, astounding moment in which one of the main characters throws herself through a mirror, and is seen, for one harrowing strobe-flashed moment, reaching back from an abyss far worse than death. It’s literally breathtaking, and it transcends everything the viewer thought they were in for. In that moment, Prince of Darkness becomes more than the sum of its parts. A great film. (don’t @ me)
This is all to say that I really wanted that kind of transcendence from A Quiet Place, but I don’t think it achieved it. That’s not an inherent criticism of the film, more of an observation of my own expectations: I don’t think A Quiet Place set out for that kind of transcendence. And that, to me, is a shame. Its creators had the opportunity and means to do it, but they opted for a more traditional approach. I think there’s a trend of risk-averse creativity in storytelling right now, when it comes to these kinds of moments, and the bummer is that I don’t think it would affect things like ticket sales and reviews. You can have your cake and eat it too. Bring the audience to the table with a great premise and clear storytelling, then pull the tablecloth out and blow people’s minds! We don’t talk about breathtaking moments in films as much as we used to. I want them to come back in style.
To directly address something you brought up about intent, in relation to this: the core thematic idea is about the parental struggle to keep your children safe (as a new parent: boy, did I feel this!). But the theme creaks under the weight of traditional horror movie “defeat the monster” mechanics. Sure, it plants and pays off some nice writerly moments, like Jim/Dad/Lee finally telling his daughter (Millicent Simmonds) he loved her before he died. But that theme felt underplayed compared to her “heroics” of discovering how to defeat the monster. A point could be made that this is still a remnant of Dad’s love for his daughter since he made the earpiece. But from a filmmaking standpoint, this moment seemed more focused on conventional staring-down-the-monster choreography than selling the film's deeper themes. The fact that the movie ends on a “hell YEAH!” shotgun cock moment supports that: rather than take a more thoughtful approach for a final beat. Shotgun cock! Audience cheers! Everyone goes home happy! Everyone forgets movie the next day. #frownemoji.
So… music, and the more creative sound design aspects: soundscape. This is a hard one to approach because I do think the music/soundscape is technically very well made. It serves its intended purpose in the film: to fill in the spaces and to let audience members off the hook every once in a while, and to make the action scenes intense. That said, I’m not super-enthusiastic about such a conventional usage of sound design in such an unconventionally premised film, and I feel like taking a more counterpoint approach would have made the film not only more effective and memorable, but could have potentially kicked it off the charts into transcendent territory.
I’ll (very poorly) paraphrase something Carpenter said about the use of music in his films: violent action on screen should be loud, fast, confusing, and then over before you know it — you don’t want to play music during action scenes because it lets the viewer off the hook from feeling the action. From a technical standpoint, I also agree. It’s really hard to mix kicks, punches, crashes, gunshots against loud music. But there’s a way to play with this that I like to utilize: soundscape. Music that’s not music — drones, tones, ambience, etc. You can bridge the two worlds — diagetic "in world" sound and non-diagetic score — really nicely, and keep the audience way more off-balance. This is one specific area where I wish A Quiet Place had gone farther. Very often a pleasant, soft string cue will be playing, which tells the audience “Hey, no monster nearby! It’s all good!” Suddenly, the strings will fade out. This immediately telegraphs to the audience: “UH OH, MONSTER IN THE HOUSE!” The hearing-impaired daughter had a set of muted drones that would accompany her use of the hearing aid or subjective POV of the world. I wish they’d stayed in this space more, or played it up further — especially since it literally becomes the lynchpin of the final act.
I also think the style of music was a little too familiar for me. Again, the cues are well made, nice compositions. But...they didn’t add anything to the film for me. Where attempts were made to push the boundaries in many other areas, I felt like the filmmakers just took the easy way out with strings and piano for emotional scenes and soft pulsing electronic music for action. There were opportunities to create music that matched the mood and ideas of the world. Why not create organic rhythmic beds using found instruments (sticks, banging metal, etc), as if the music itself was trying to “hide” in the landscape, like the sounds made by the characters? This is another “Graham internally debates with himself" moment, because I fear the answer to that is probably “we didn’t want to distract the audience from the main ideas.” But I think there’s a happy medium — it’s just not one that’s easily found. But it would have been worth it!
Abrams: Do people not love Prince of Darkness? In 2018? Damn, that movie's maybe Carpenter's most under-rated now that more and more people seem to be getting on-board the In the Mouth of Madness train.
I'm very sympathetic to what you said re: mostly enjoying the film while also wishing it was more unconventional. That's almost exactly where I'm at. Even the film's conventional sound design — the kind that starts with heavy breathing, continues with background noise, and then concludes logically with an orchestral score — is not a fatal misstep given how effective the film largely is, on a technical level.
But I am very glad that you brought up Carpenter, because he's exactly why I can't love A Quiet Place. Carpenter, as I'm sure you know, is a perfectionist. Oh, sure, he has practical reasons for doing much of his own synth scores, stuff about budget, production schedules, etc. But there's a lot of himself in his justifiably iconic, and consummately minimalistic scores. Everybody wants to kiss this man's ass with homages and pastiches and other French words that sound like delicious pastries because: Carpenter knows exactly what he's doing with his films' music, soundtracks, and sound design. So I'll match your Carpenter paraphrase with one of my own: a movie's music should be like carpeting, both inviting and invisible. Ambient music pioneer and all-around genius Brian Eno put a name to this type of music with the title of one of his more under-rated albums: Discreet Music.
There is, admittedly, nothing theoretically wrong with loud, brassy orchestral music, the kind of ostentatious stuff that Carpenter dismissed by calling "Max Steiner Mickey-Mousing" (as with his on-the-record criticism of Sam Peckinpah's use of slow-motion, Carpenter doesn't seem to recall saying any such thing). But everything in its place, and every form to its function. So, as you said, A Quiet Place would seem like the kind of movie that would benefit from a less-intrusive score. Even the scare scenes — the ones where evil monsters track down basement stairs, make chittering growly noises, and crash into things — have this faint, but distracting score. It's all sappy violins and syrupy piano accompaniment.
And if it were just in one or two scenes, I would have been fine with A Quiet Place. Or, more fine, really. Because I am fine with A Quiet Place. I just wish the filmmaking was, as you said, more thoughtful, and a little more ambitious.
Now, to close things out, I want to issue you a challenge: as a musician, sound designer, and director — what else would you fix here? You've spoken (eloquently) about this a little already, but go wild: what other ideas needed fixing, or how else was the execution off? Or, better yet, did you see any ideas here you wish you came up with? Is your glass half full, as I assumed? Or does what's missing bug you as much as it does me?
Reznick: A lot to unpack here, so, here are my thoughts in a conveniently numbered list!
1) I’m not sure who does or doesn’t love Prince of Darkness or In the Mouth of Madness. But it feels like they were always seen as ugly stepchildren to the broadly accepted Carpenter classics, like The Thing, or Halloween. I’m the weirdo who’d rather put on one of the former. If more people are getting hip to ‘em: heck yeah!
2) Discreet Music is an all-time favorite. I temped the trippy sex scene in I Can See You with a track from it, “Fullness of Wind.” Jeff Grace did an incredible job building off of that and making it his own. We’re definitely on the same page here. And that’s a great Carpenterism I hadn’t heard!
3) I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the use of music in narrative, even more than I normally would, for reasons I have to keep SUPER ULTRA SECRET. When to carpet, when to spike; when to pull back, when to make the audience notice the absence of score…and how these uses can subvert audience expectations. Part of what’s inspired me to think about sound design so carefully is the new Twin Peaks. David Lynch basically keeps score OUT of the first several episodes entirely, except key moments. It creeps in more and more as the series progresses, but as an audience member —especially one who remembers the original Twin Peaks — you’re acutely aware of its absence. You’re constantly experiencing the narrative on screen a little off-kilter, because scenes that you’re so well-trained by the common cinematic language to expect to be scored…are not. Being off-kilter like that means your brain is always awake. You’re not making assumptions about scenes and characters and plot points like you normally might. You actually get to experience something new. It’s beautiful. In this way — and many others — Lynch and Twin Peaks co-creator Mark Frost wield Viewer Participation — the 4th quadrant of Graham Reznick’s Totally Patented Cinematic Gestalt System TM — like, well, an Atomic Bomb. We’re not just putty in their hands: we’re subatomic matter; our narrative expectations explosively smashed apart and recreated into an entirely new world. Zap, you’re pregnant, that’s witchcraft!
Lynch, Roeg, Russell, and Anger may be my cinematic deities, forging completely new worlds with each project, but Carpenter is my Cinematic Hero. He invites everyone in, no matter how well new they are to the cinematic language, and then he gradually shows them something beyond their expectations. He offers a glimpse of those new worlds, and lets the audience make their way there. I think it’s culturally extremely important to have this, and not just the more abstract, challenging films, because audiences need a place to start, and feel invited in. This brings me to…
4) What I Would Change about A Quiet Place, a Semi Dodged Answer by Graham “person who doesn’t like to make enemies in the industry” Reznick.
…I kid. I genuinely have no real bones about the technical or creative achievements of the film. I have a personal philosophy about the way I approach critique; it works for me but it’s my own thing and I don’t expect it to work for anyone else. With any piece of work that is meant to be experienced by an audience, I can only approach my critique two ways: A) was this made to express an idea of the artists? OR: B) was this made to express a desire by the "financial backers" to make money? It’s always a mix of the two in a commercial film, because entertainment is an economy and films need to make money.
But if, as an audience member, I feel that “B, cashgrab” is dictating the creative choices more so than “A, made to express an idea,” then my critiques become harsh and judgmental. I’d rather see a noble failure than a pitch-perfect cash grab. Sometimes it’s hard to know; it can boil down to gut feeling. But if it’s definitely more “A,” then any of my critiques have to follow an important frame question: “What was the idea the storytellers were trying to express and did their choices achieve that?” This is where I suspect you’re seeing my glass as more full than empty, which is fair. “A” means it’s half full. “B” means it’s half empty. That’s where I start.
To me, A Quiet Place feels more “A” than “B.” Sure, it’s definitely trying to make money, but its creators are not going the obvious route and are taking risks. I have a ton of respect for that. There’s a lot of love and care in the crafting of the story and development of the characters. Do the filmmakers take as many risks as I’d like? No. Would I want to change things? Sure. But this is where my internal debate kicks in, and it’s because of that question: what is the idea the storytellers are trying to express, and would my suggestion help them tell their version of the story better? Or am I just trying to make my version?
My real answer to your question about what I’d change is that unless I was making my own, complete version of the film, I wouldn’t change anything at all. Because only changing details in order to Frankenstein Krasinki’s vision into my own would be…probably more “B” than “A” somehow. I have to think of the piece as a whole: the parts all have to be harmonizing together. And for that to be the case, it includes every choice, from the first day of pre-production to the last day of post. This is the same reason I truly love Lost Highway more than Mulholland Drive (DON’T @ ME).I hope this doesn’t sound like a cop-out political answer; it’s really not meant to be — it’s how I approach creativity as a filmmaker.
I think we need more risk-taking movies like A Quiet Place, and I think movies like A Quiet Place need to take more risks.
by Graeme McMillan
by Ashley Cullins