We chat with the cinematographer about visually representing the unique scares of A Quiet Place.
Horror films always rely on craft. There is an art to them, for sure, but there is also a science in achieving peak screams from your audience. Some problems can be solved with cheap arithmetic. The jump scare accentuated with a sharp violin string will send any viewer shrieking towards the ceiling. Other terrors require a little algebra, maybe some calculus or dreaded trigonometry.
To solve the terror of A Quiet Place, director John Krasinski needed a tactician up for a challenge. Simplistic additions of 1 + 2 = Jump Scare would be required, but a whole heap of geometry would come into play as well. Maybe even a few fractions. While this was not his first rodeo by any means, Krasinski needed a visual stylist he could trust in taking on his first bout of alien horror, and cinematographer Charlotte Bruus Christensen came prepared with a long list of accomplished cinematic equations.
Christiansen has shot a wide array of films. Not just in terms of visuals, but genres as well. She got grim and gritty for the documentarian aesthetic of The Hunt, but when sweeping Gone with the Wind vistas were required for Far From The Maddening Crowd, Christensen adapted fluidly with ease. In one year she let her camera drip in the stupor of Emily Blunt’s alcoholic mystery The Girl on the Train only to embrace the theatricality of Denzel Washington’s Fences a few months later.
Now, we can’t shut up about A Quiet Place. Easily one of our favorite films of the year, but the sci-fi nightmares could have quickly translated into schlock in the wrong hands. The film works because its filmmakers had a clear sense of vision, and an expert handle on the craft to pull it off.
I was beyond thrilled to chat with Christensen over the phone. We discussed her excitement regarding this move into horror and the science of lenses required to make it all work. She happily describes the influences that went into pulling off the image, but also the importance of the humanity that feeds the visuals. Is she eager to return to this realm? Keep reading to find out.
Here is our conversation in full:
Visually you have a rather eclectic palette. From The Hunt to A Quiet Place, how do you approach these various styles of storytelling?
I tackle each one very differently, it’s a very good question ’cause looking back at what I’ve done, I’m a little surprised too. I’m like, oh my god how different these things are. I try to never approach something in the same way, however, my technique is the same. I stay true to how I read a script and respond to a certain story. In terms of what the story is and what the director’s position is, I try to then adapt my techniques into finding that special, whatever angle on things, the lighting, and change in terms of the product and what I do. It’s a combination of staying true to who you are and I guess the way I read scripts and words and how I understand a feeling of a scene. That is always the thing. Otherwise, you don’t know who you are and why people would hire you. You gotta be who you are and the job is to adapt and wanting to remember that.
Can you speak specifically to how your work on The Hunt differs from what you achieved in A Quiet Place?
I think that’s one of the things I really love, luckily enough, I love to adapt to different genres. On The Hunt, Thomas Vinterberg said that it needs to be real but not realistic. It needs to have a documentary feel but it has to be cinematic. He put up those, kind of, poles. That was kind of different but still gave meaning to me. So, I had to work towards this, whereas, in Far From A Maddening Crowd, he was like, “Look at Gone With The Wind. It has to be flooring. It has to be epic.” You know, and it had to be warm.
With A Quiet Place, it’s just knowing that it was, not a silent movie, but a movie with very little dialogue. One of the first things I spoke to John about was, if you want to hear sounds, bare sound, you have to have lenses really close because that creates sound design. If I put the camera really close to a foot in sand or really close to a Monopoly piece, then you would have a sound.
If it’s done on a long lens, from, you know, 20 feet away, it wouldn’t be a sound. You know, I had to kind of think of the sound assigned, and think of when they could make sounds pop. So, for this movie, A Quiet Place, my approach was really thinking sound and closeness and distance and when you want sound and when you don’t want sound. So, when you approach it from different angels, apparently things become different. In a good way, I hope.
I imagine your script notes on A Quiet Place are rather insane. Lots of little details to manage.
Yeah. Yeah. No, there was a lot of challenges and also just characters, we were working with a deaf girl. You gotta consider these things and you have very very little time and a very low budget. Like 17 million, and obviously, a lot of that had to be the effects, so, it was tight … and also for 30 days. It was busy. We wanted to do this kind of epic, but for it to still have some poetic feel to it. You know, it was ambitious. Then we had some difficult locations; inside a silo, and in the basement, there’s a lot of water. A lot of night experience, and a cornfield where there is no light source. There were a lot of challenges. Great ones.
And then ultimately it lives or dies on your ability to sell the creature work.
Yes. First of all, I have to give huge credit to ILM, the visual effects company who had done an incredible work on this movie. We had a lovely, a wonderful, and very talented experience with the effects supervisor, Scott Farrar with us. He was kind of talking to me a little bit about how you would create movement. So, we would have a guy in a tracking suit and he had a hat on so he was the right height, so I knew where to frame, and would act as whatever John Krasinski wanted the creature to do. Then we would always shoot the same shot where I would imitate those same camera movements with nobody in it so I had a clean plate. There was a lot of shots to try and get the right material for what they needed to create the monster. I think what really was interesting was determining when do you see the creature and when don’t you see the creature? And that was all in the script.
Was there a moment in the process where you felt comfortable with that particular element of the film? Or maybe you didn’t until you saw the film?
I had a feeling. I felt that we were creating a truthful world, which was one of the things that Krasinski really wanted. He wanted the family to be truthful. Because that’s why this movie really works. You believe this family. Then you believe their fear of whatever this is. Obviously, we were crossing fingers that they were going to create a great creature. We had really great drawings beforehand and we were working with such a brilliant company that we felt like we were in the best hands. I did feel that we managed to create and set the family in a real space and set up this movie. I felt that while we were shooting. Whether the whole context with the creature worked? I wasn’t sure of that until later on.
Well, I’m here to tell you that it worked.
As well as the countless fanatics who devoured this film.
Krasinski spends a lot of time in front of the camera as well. How did you two collaborate in that experience?
It is a special thing to work for a director who is also in front of a lens. I’ve done it a couple of times now with Denzel Washington in Fences, and a little bit with Ben Affleck in Live By Night. Every time it’s different. Different directors want different things. You do have the best time with the director and there’s gotta be a certain trust.
John is married to Emily Blunt and I had a really close relationship and friendship with her thanks to The Girl On The Train. I think we kind of bonded and had chemistry. I mean, I’ve never worked with John before, but you have to trust that there’s gonna be trust somehow. Because there is no rehearsal time in that sense. So, I think that because I knew Emily so well, John and I also developed a similar trust. You need to develop that trust and earn that trust as you’re working. You’re gonna have to make it work.
I also had to go ahead and do some work at certain times because he’s not around and we couldn’t wait. You know, he’ll communicate and talk, which is always very helpful. I never felt that I wasn’t sure of his vision. I felt good, kind of, going ahead with certain things and knowing that it was hopefully hitting what he wanted.
What were your inspirations for creating the palate of the movie? Did the two of you have any films in mind before shooting?
The inspiration was a lot of different things, actually. There isn’t really a movie to look at that signified what we really wanted to do, but yeah, Jaws has something. That was a big inspiration. We looked at Let the Right One In. We were inspired by that kind of genre mash. There you have a real world and then suddenly that movie turns out to be a vampire movie. A Quiet Place turns out to be an alien movie. And we looked at films like There Will Be Blood for that epic feel. When we were developing A Quiet Place we wanted to make it confidently. As with There Will Be Blood, our film needs to rest. It needs to trust in its own idea in comfort. It needs to project that we trust. So, it’s something about it being a confident movie that we didn’t feel we had to entertain and do too much and be busy with the camera, but just be.
I think we kind of looked at those amazing movies, Jaws, There Will Be Blood, just to get that feeling. You know, we gotta be in the right place and make good decisions. And those movies were great inspirations and that was a lot of what our conversations were. Not so much about this being the right shot or this is the angle, this is the lens. That wasn’t the influence. It was more about this is the feel, this is the tone. Let’s see what happens. We know we want to be close to these things because they have to have a sound. It was about developing that confidence along the way.
Do you see yourself working on films with more genre elements? More sci-fi, more horror. Do you have a taste for it now?
No, and yes. I’m not looking for a certain genre project. I’ve never done anything in the horror genre before. This is my first attempt. It kept me very much on my toes. What is it to build tension? I enjoyed figuring out what is the shock of the scene, and you don’t want to overdo it. I really enjoyed it.
At the same time, I still feel that my job is to adapt to the director. I always tend to look for human stories, and that can be a genre movie. A Quiet Place is a very human story. Whether it is horror or sci-fi or whatever. As long as there’s a story that I feel you can identify with as a human being, I’d be interested.
A Quiet Place is currently available on Digital HD and will be available on DVD and Blu-ray on July, 10.