'Black Panther,' 'Quiet Place' Producers on How Real Experiences Shaped Fictional Movies
John Krasinski, Kevin Feige, 'First Man' producer Wyck Godfrey and 'Can You Ever Forgive Me?' director Marielle Heller talked at Saturday's Produced By: New York conference about how their focus on granular, technical aspects and the reality behind their stories helped them make their movies.
What goes into the filmmaking process? For the producers and directors of Black Panther, First Man, Can You Ever Forgive Me? and A Quiet Place, they brought everything from their personal experiences — whether it was the first time they talked about slavery with their mothers or fears about parenthood — to the need to depict “more female characters who are assholes” to the creation of their movies.
Out of these films, A Quiet Place — which has almost no dialogue — came to fruition in perhaps the most nontraditional way. The sound team was hard at work before the first frame of film was even shot, the script was a mere 67 pages, and John Krasinski boldly asked to not only direct and executive produce the film, but also to rewrite it.
“We loved how original this was,” Quiet Place producer Andrew Form said at the Producers Guild of America's Produced By: New York conference Saturday. “We’ve done so many remakes and sequels and prequels in the horror genre, so to get something original, that really had a story behind it, was really exciting for us.”
Krasinski said he “wasn’t in it for the genre” but rather the core of the story and “the idea of a family trying to protect their home and protect their kids.”
The lack of dialogue and focus on everyday sounds interested him, too. “One of the biggest things that we always knew was that sound would not only be a character in the movie; we knew sound would be the main character in the movie,” he said. “From the moment the family crosses the bridge and we were all being quiet and hearing crewmembers saying, ‘Wow, the forest sounds so beautiful,’ and you realize that as people, we don’t stop and listen to our surroundings.”
Krasinski said he spent a lot of time working with sound designers Ethan Van der Ryn and Erik Aadahl. And he worked closely with Millicent Simmonds, the deaf actress who plays his daughter in the film. Krasinski said casting someone with her experience was non-negotiable.
“It was actually a deal breaker for me, and not even in some grand statement,” he said. “It was actually quite obvious. Like a lot of political things, it comes down to common sense. Obviously, the most organic performance you’re going to get out of someone is someone who experiences it daily.”
More than that, he wanted someone like Simmonds to act as a guide and who he could “implicitly trust with questions like, ‘What is it like to wake up deaf every single day? What is it like to wake up deaf every single day in a family where everyone around you can hear? Do you ever feel shunned? Do you ever feel empowered? Do you ever feel nervous? Do you ever feel scared? Do you ever want to teach people more?'"
Krasinski said Simmonds not only fulfilled that role, but she was also “almost a Meryl Streep-level actor performancewise.”
“This girl was just an explosion of light and power and energy,” he noted.
Another priority for Krasinski as a director was grounding the film’s monsters in reality.
“We totally nerded out about practicality,” he said. “It all had to work out and be real. It can’t just look cool.”
Form and Krasinski were joined by Black Panther producer Kevin Feige and writer Joe Robert Cole; Can You Ever Forgive Me? producer Anne Carey and director Marielle Heller; and First Man producer Wyck Godfrey and production designer Nathan Crowley during Saturday's panel discussion.
Like Krasinski, Godfrey and Crowley, along with director Damien Chazelle, wanted First Man to feel as real as possible.
“There were little things that Damien did — which, normally in a movie, you make your sets about 140 percent or 130 percent of the actual size — but because Damien actually wanted the actors to feel the claustrophobia and the terror in those moments, in the Gemini capsule and the Apollo capsule, they built them to scale,” Godfrey said. “And most of the actors were bigger than the actual astronauts, so I think it was even tighter for them.”
Re-creating NASA’s mission to land a man on the moon doesn’t run cheap, though.
“As a producer, this may have been both the easiest and hardest movie because usually I get very emerged in the actual making in the movie,” Godfrey said. “But with a filmmaker like Damien, my job was really sitting in the office and Nathan and Damien would walk in and go, ‘We’re gonna need another million dollars.’ And I would go ‘OK,’ and call the studio. It was a lot of begging.”
Ultimately, Godfrey said Chazelle wanted the audience to understand what Neil Armstrong and the astronauts on the mission felt. But that wasn’t necessarily the case in the early stages of the filmmaking process.
“We had spent six years developing kind of a classic biopic story of Neil Armstrong in different incarnations, but when we sat down with Damien, really what he said immediately was, ‘I’m fascinated by being in that moment in that time,’” Godfrey said. “We take for granted that of course we landed on the moon, but what would it have been like when the idea of landing on the moon was insane?”
He continued, “[Chazelle] pointed to Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty, where you know the end result but it is terrifying every minute of the movie. He said, ‘I want to create that experience with these astronauts where every day they went to work, they did not know if they were going to live or die. We know which ones live and which ones die, but they didn't. What would that be like? What kind of person puts themself on top of a missile and goes, ‘OK, I hope we get there.’”
Can You Ever Forgive Me? also chronicles the life of a real person: Lee Israel, an author and literary forger. Bringing the unapologetic Israel to life was made less difficult by the fact that Carey actually knew her.
“I liked her voice and her strength and her uncompromising nature. I liked her wit,” Carey said. “I’m not really interested in likable characters or traditionally mainstream characters. I like characters you can have empathy with them, they’re compelling, they’re interesting, but likable isn’t what interests me.”
As a result, Carey certainly wasn’t interested in making Israel as a character any more personable than she actually was. “I knew that she would not have wanted in any way a version of herself that was sentimental or made any softer or warmer or fuzzier in any way than she was,” she said.
Heller agreed with Carey’s sentiment, even advocating for more characters like Israel.
“I did kind of think, in a bit of a way, that it’s nice to have a female character who’s an asshole because we only get male characters who are assholes,” she said. “We need more female characters who are assholes. We don’t get to see these women onscreen.”
In terms of representation, Black Panther has been lauded for its thoughtful portrayals of black men and women. Feige — who said he was often “the only white person in the room” during the filmmaking process — attributed this to “the majority of the people around the table” not looking like him.
Cole said from his very first meeting with Black Panther director Ryan Coogler, the two began having conversations about their shared experiences and how they wanted to navigate the film.
“He asked me at that meeting, ‘When did your mother have the slave talk with you?’" Cole said. “And it was just the beginning of those types of conversations that were ultimately very much infused in the film.”
The two also discussed never seeing themselves as onscreen heroes, having a disconnect from their heritages and “what it is to be African and African-American.”
“We would sit and have conversations about how that made us feel, how to fit that within the parameters of the story we wanted to tell, how to craft the shape of our story to be able to navigate that in a way that is fair and grounded and truthful,” Cole said.