“Silent Films Don’t Lean On The Crutch Of Dialogue” Bryan Woods & Scott Beck Talk ‘A Quiet Place’
Filmmakers Scott Beck & Bryan Woods first met as sixth-graders in their hometown of Bettendorf, Iowa. Beck & Woods’ most recent film on the big screen is Paramount Pictures’ A Quiet Place, based on their original screenplay. The critically acclaimed box-office smash stars Emily Blunt alongside John Krasinski, who also directed.
The duo is in post-production on the thriller Haunt, which they wrote and directed for producer Eli Roth. They are writing The Boogeyman for 20th Century Fox and 21 Laps, based on Stephen King’s iconic short story of the same name. They spoke with Creative Screenwriting Magazine about their writing process, what drives them, and their meteoric rise to fame.
The Sound, Or Lack Of, In A Quiet Place
Typically, sound plays a major role in the horror genre. It often gives away a character’s location away to a killer or monster, but A Quiet Place takes this idea to a new level. The sound itself is a key element of the story. Likewise, the absence of dialogue removes the clutch of writing descriptive blocks on the page.
Screenwriters Bryan Woods and Scott Beck had to throw out typical formatting styles, but the film still worked. It worked for audiences at the box office and it worked critically with roaring reviews and various nominations. However, the curse of this success will be the audacious goal of “making something special again,” they said.
“Nothing has completely sorted out with the sequel [A Quiet Place 2] yet,” said Bryan Woods. “Neither of us wrote the movie with a sequel in mind, but we’re humbled and excited that audiences arehungry for one. But ultimately, it wasn’t something we were prepared for, at least not until John Krasinski came up with an idea he’s putting together.”
Making Quiet Place Magic Again
In today’s world of pre-scheduled sequels, the follow-up to the 2018 film already has a scheduled date for a 2020 release. “There was a point in writing the first film where a lot of ideas were left on the table. We never necessarily held those ideas thinking there would be a sequel to this one-off movie, but we might want to circle back on those ideas,” added Scott Beck.
“We do want to go back to that point before A Quiet Place to think about original ideas. That’s what got us into film in the first place. All of these incredible movies we saw as a kid—either Hitchcock or George Romero or Jaws or Alien—were these movies that were defined by a terrifying idea that wasn’t based on former movies.”
Woods added, “Scott and I talked a lot about the year 1999, which is a great year for movies. We were in high school making micro budget feature films. It was the year of The Matrix, The Sixth Sense, American Beauty, Magnolia, and these original ideas were the hit movies of the year. Now it’s all comic books and sequels. We enjoy those movies, but our dream was to come up with big, crazy, weird ideas.”
Rather than focus on another screenplay within their silent world, the duo wants to head back to the blank canvas for another original creation. At the heart of any movie, however, they want to consider character-driven stories rather than box office-driven sequels.
The Heart of the Story
“We always look at franchise movies to see what works and what doesn’t work. Many people talk about the Alien (Ridley Scott) franchise and how James Cameron breathed new life in it entirely (Aliens). It was a strength he had from a military driven point-of-view. You’re still bringing Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) into that world, but it’s with a new perspective.”
For a character driven story, the idea should focus on “what demands to be told.” The concentration in the first A Quiet Place was character driven in terms of a broken family dealing with tragedy amidst an apocalyptic wasteland.
“We wanted to make a modern day silent film. Post sound silent cinema, meaning they had the capabilities of using sound but chose not to for the purpose of effective storytelling, is pure. A recent example might be Gravity or Dunkirk or even the opening of There Will Be Blood. They’re not leaning on the crutch of dialogue. That’s what we wanted to do. That was the aspiration.”
On the page, this meant changing the entire format of the words to do something completely different. “We wanted to put something disruptive, cinematic, and visual on the screen. The hope was that it wouldn’t feel like just another movie, so therefore the script shouldn’t feel like every other script you’ve read.”
Disrupting the Format
During the planning and incubator phase, producers and friends were not impressed by the idea of “a horror film with no dialogue.” After hearing “that sounds really boring to read” a few times, the screenwriters decided to toss out all common screenwriting practices for something new and different.
It’s one thing to see the final product and something else entirely to make an idea engaging on the page for film executives. “As soon as we finished the script and took it to a very small pool of producers, it clicked immediately. It was really fascinating to see how terrible we are at the pitching process versus showing a fleshed out world on the page.”
For the most part, the screenplay excited people. Coming in at only 67-pages (versus a 90-minute run time), producers scratched their heads, but then realized there was little to no dialogue on purpose. “Producers read screenplays all day long. The same thing over and over. We all do, really. Sometimes something that stands out is something that people gravitate to because they’re bored. That was our hope, anyway.”
The original fear of the producers was that the script would appear packed with excessive descriptions, rather than action-oriented descriptions. Basically, the rule is lack of dialogue slows down a read, while descriptions can sometimes appear to be more icing than cake.
“We decided to appropriate an efficient style that was slim and efficient in the same way we were inspired by Walter Hill and David Giler’s version of Aliens or Dan Gilroy’s recent draft of Nightcrawler, where it leaves the eye on the page. But, it’s not superficial; it’s painting an atmosphere with as much efficiency as possible. What came across in the script versus our pitch was that it wasn’t just a horror movie. The horror movie was the vessel to the tell the story of a family.”
Students of The Horror Genre
“We’re students of all genres and all sub-genres in the genre of horror. We love all of it. With A Quiet Place, it’s somewhat of a Spielberg or M. Night Shyamalan popcorn, hooky idea, told with the art house esthetics you might find in a François Truffaut film (Close Encounters, Day for Night), meant to elevate the big idea. We also have a film called Haunt coming out later this year, that has more of a John Carpenter feel. We like to hop around, but there needs to be an emotional sub-story within.”
In the duo’s partnership, they actually started as solo creatives, but then realized they worked better as a team. “We decided to join forces because there was a strength to uniting our voices. The process of brainstorming was so much more enriched by bouncing ideas off of each other. We see a long future of that. We also have a healthy competition [to push one another]. We write in separate rooms, but we then have a conversation so we become an audience for each other. The hope is that the first draft feels more like the third, fourth, or fifth draft of the script.”
While some partnerships focus on one aspect over the other – the dialogue guy and the plot guy – Beck and Woods see their strengths and weaknesses as simply complimentary to one another. “We both are capable of working separately,” said Woods, “but it’s the collision of ideas that strengthens the work. We push each other to take it to the next level.”
As the writers continue to push the limits of screenwriting, they’ve actually developed a new title for themselves. For the Marc Munden-directed project, Sovereign, starring Mahershala Ali, they’ve actually been given the new title credit, “Rewrite by,” along with Jack Thorne and in addition to the creators, Gregory Wiedman and Geoffrey Tock.
“Our job on that is coming in and assessing what works about the drafts and what can be tightened up. We’ve certainly seen it on the other end when writers come in and destroy the idea with a rewrite. For us, I think the issue you face in Hollywood development is that you go too far down the path and miss the source material. I think our contribution was just playing therapist to what the script was, while honor those writers who worked on it prior to us.”
Viewing the screenplay through their particular vision, they make decisions on a gut level with a rewrite. Does it connect on a personal level or not? While the screenwriters can give away too many details about the upcoming project, it’s another high concept idea, steeped in character. This is perhaps proven, now that Mahershala Ali (Moonlight, The Green Book) has signed on to star in the film.
“We always try to generate big, universal ideas that connect with people globally, but can also work as a popcorn-driven movie people want to see on a Friday night. The hope is that we smuggle in ideas that are deeper and viewers can relate to the work because of the layers. We call it a seven-layer casserole where it’s sweet and savory on the surface, but as you go further, there’s more meat to it.’
“It’s a vessel to tell something we’ve encountered or something we’re grappling about while creating a fun concept people want to see. A lot of the stuff we’re working on are ideas that have struck with us since we were seven-years-old. A Quiet Place is a family story where communication has been broken down. How does that effect your own interactions with your family?”
Ideas that Stick With You Until They Are Written
Ideas with longevity are those that appear to stay with you for the long haul. Some ideas are sketched in notebooks while others remain planted in the mind. Over the course of Beck and Woods’ writing career, many ideas have been marinating for years. Many even change a great deal over time.
“A Quiet Place didn’t start from a Eureka moment. We had an idea in college about a modern day silent film. It was a vague idea. A few years later, we talked about a family on a farm with aliens outside. They had to stay quiet. A few years later, we thought about the mother having a baby. It wasn’t until we had all of those layers in addition to the metaphor of a communication barrier from losing a child that we really thought we had something. We’re very harsh on ideas.”
The ideas from a young mind are often exciting, but the longevity and analysis of these ideas is perhaps what gives them true depth. “They require a lot of finesse and thought to get to a place where we decide it’s a movie.” This decision occurred between studio jobs as they focused on their passion project behind the scenes.”
Another impressive notion from the duo is that they continue to turn down outside franchise opportunities (and likely massive paychecks) for the chance to tell more original stories. “We may be wrong, but our instinct is to say ‘No’ to those things and go back and incubate what we consider the next big idea for us. You have to be a screenwriter for the right reasons for you as a human being.”
A Screenwriter’s Purpose
The duo became friends in the first place because they had a similar obsession with film. “In many ways, writing is a way to play and be a kid in a manner that is socially acceptable. There’s something fun about that. Even as a hobby, it’s something we’ve always really enjoyed.”
Fans of the screenwriting craft, the duo always wanted to see their words on the silver screen. “It can be frustrating and take over your social life, but it’s something you choose to do everyday because you want to do it. You push past that and you find yourself in a zone where you’re letting the characters talk to each other.”
Referencing Cameron Crowe’s Vanilla Sky, the duo described the industry: “You can’t have the sweet without the sour. It knocks you down. Occasionally there are really good circumstances, but you have to find your own zen quality state in the middle to keep your head on straight.”
“To take that quote literally, there’s no question that we appreciate the success of A Quiet Place because we’ve fallen on our faces time and time again learning how to write, but they help you appreciate when something nice happens.”
“As many writers say, you’re the vessel for the characters, and those are the moments I live for where you get that supernatural feeling. We elect to do it because we love it.Many times, you finish the draft and the script will tell you what the story is about, but you can’t wrestle with it until you type ‘The End’ on the final page.”
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