How Deafness Is Adding Extra Scares to John Leonetti's Horror Movie 'The Silence'

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'Mad Men' actress Kiernan Shipka is a deaf girl battling monsters, says the director: "Sound — even dialogue — is the enemy."

John Leonetti knows horror. The veteran filmmaker, 61, cut his teeth as a focus puller on the original Poltergeist. As cinematographer on James Wan’s Insidious and The Conjuring, he contributed to two of the franchises that launched the current horror boom. And he scored his own bona fide horror hit with 2014’s Annabelle, which grossed $256 million worldwide.

He spoke to The Hollywood Reporter from Toronto, where he’s shooting The Silence, a high-concept chiller about a world beset by monsters in which a deaf girl (Mad Men’s Kiernan Shipka) provides the only hope of survival. Mister Smith Entertainment is handling international sales at AFM.

There are a lot of horror films out there — what sets The Silence apart?

The story, based on a book by Tim Levin, has the whole world being taken over by these prehistoric reptiles that have been locked in caves in the dark for millions of years. These creatures, called Vesps, don’t have eyes. They base everything on sound. Anything that makes a sound, they dive-bomb and swarm. They’re unstoppable. But this family, their 17-year-old daughter Ally is deaf, so they communicate with sign language. That gives them a chance to escape. It’s really a family drama with an apocalyptic situation. And the concept of silence, that sound — even dialogue — is the enemy, makes it unique.

Has sound design been the biggest challenge in making the movie?

The concept of The Silence means there’s another dimension of this film that most movies don’t have. What drives this movie is sound and silence. On this film, sound drives picture more than any movie I’ve ever worked on in my 40-year career: the sound of a leaf hitting the ground, the loudness of sirens, the sound of silence.

How difficult has it been to stage scenes with little or no dialogue?

It’s interesting, because what seemed like a challenge at first has actually turned into an opportunity. Because you can really take a character’s emotions and take them to another level just by using a sign, a facial expression or tone of voice, if it’s normal, or a whisper. Sometimes we have the actors sign with subtitles, sometimes without; sometimes there’s dialogue. Sometimes we go into Ally’s world, and things go completely silent. Moving back and forth, from silence to sound, is very powerful.

Did you get any tips from other films about deafness?

Well, Children of a Lesser God, of course, with Bill Hurt and Marlee Matlin. And there’s an amazing film called The Tribe from Ukraine, where the whole film is just signing, with no subtitles, and you understand everything that is going on.

Kiernan Shipka plays Ally. What do you think will surprise people, who know her only from Mad Men, about her performance?

I really think people haven’t seen her like this before. She learned to sign for the film, and now she’s flawless, like she’s been signing her entire life. She seems to have an almost innate sense of what it’s like being a deaf person. [Her performance] isn’t off, not even by a little bit. She’s acting alongside Stanley Tucci, and believe me, she’s more than holding her own. It’s been spellbinding watching her.