Almost a year since its release, it’s hard to shake A Quiet Place. Director John Krasinski’s ambitious horror movie was a true original studio movie, packed with images that can disturb or move an audience. Often with very few words, Krasinski and cinematographer Charlotte Bruus Christensen — who previously shot Molly’s Game, Fences, and The Hunt — crafted some powerful images that speak volumes.
Both Krasinski and Christensen were adamant A Quiet Place was shot on 35mm, even during the nighttime scenes. By shooting on film, they got a warmth and lushness to the Upstate New York setting rarely captured on digital, which makes for a stark contrast to the film’s darker moments. Recently, Christensen told us about filming some of those sequences, including Emily Blunt’s face-to-face encounter with an alien, her scream in the bath, and an intimate dance to Neil Young’s “Harvest Moon.”
Telling a story with long stretches of silence, is that a cinematographer’s dream?
In many ways, yes, especially just coming off an Aaron Sorkin movie, which was all about the words and all about the dialogue [Laughs]. Every movie has its own challenges, and obviously, this was an exciting challenge. How does the visual language support the concept? There were a lot of discussions about that. It’s not a silent movie, but just a movie with very, very little dialogue. It’s not like music is going to take over. We were very aware not to treat it like a silent movie, but a quiet movie. A lot of the rhythm and tension comes from the sound design. It was very exciting for a cinematographer, just to figure out, how do we approach this? And again, coming out of Aaron Sorkin’s great movie, Molly’s Game [Laughs].
I actually wanted to ask you about Molly’s Game. Visually, what’s it like trying to capture the pace and rhythm of his dialogue?
That was a very different challenge. I really enjoyed working with Aaron; he’s a very funny guy and, obviously, very intelligent. He’s such a master of screenwriting, but in terms of how you use the cinematic tools of how to bring it to the next stage, he was like, “That’s what you do. Don’t involve me too much. Just make it happen.” The challenge was, his script was “this is is it, this is what we’re doing,” which in many ways is a huge help, but it’s also, you know, “Maybe we could try…” “No.” The script was the bible.
That movie was so much about the rhythm of the dialogue, so it’s not a visual movie. A Quiet Place is much more visual, and it’s about the images, the landscape, and the barn, whereas Aaron’s movie was in rooms and around poker tables. You have a silent protagonist who’s watching a lot of the time, too, observing, and with voiceover. It’s a 190-page script full of voiceover. It was a challenge. Also, that many pages in only 33 days… Just to get the rhythm Aaron had in mind was challenging, and you know, he wasn’t super interested in the visuals. It was just like, “Well, let’s think quickly through that,” and that was a challenge [Laughs]. John, from the beginning, was very aware of the look of the movie, pitching his ideas and style and all that.
So many movies hide their creatures in the dark, but right from the start, you catch a glimpse of an alien in daylight. What’s the trick to showing a creature in the light? What sort of conversations do you have with a VFX team about it?
One of the things that was really great about A Quiet Place was I became involved very early on through Emily Blunt, and we were very good friends. It was a year before we shot the movie, so I was able to follow the development of the script, and we had conversations every now and then throughout the year. The whole creature story, the alien element, it was meant to be hardly seen up until the very end. The daylight, when we first spoke about it, there was hardly any, but as we went along… Very early on, the kid is just gone [at the beginning], and you don’t really see anything. It wasn’t until we were out there [on location] we thought we’d love to have the opportunity to maybe see something, but we never want to observe it. In the beginning of the movie, it was first described as a shadow whenever we saw it, so it’s not until very late until we’re in the basement, the camera stays still and you see all of the monster. The daylight, we didn’t worry too much about what it’d look like because it was meant to be a flash or a shadow, so the opening focuses more on the family. It’s more of a portrait of how the family survives. Then there’s the little side story with the father and the daughter’s relationship.
What was it like shooting the basement sequence and the build-up to it? Was it a tight space you were shooting in?
We only had a few stage sets, and the basement was one of them because we needed to have that water tank. You know, they’re very, very subtle scenes, like when John is carrying the baby down the steps, places it in the crib, and puts the lid over it. All of the scenes until the confrontation between Emily and the alien are very subtle, quiet scenes. I mean, the water scene was obviously a huge challenge, because we needed to move the camera above the water, and there were a lot of pillars. It’s very restricting when you’re in a water tank and have actors in water and all that. That was a bit of a challenge.
Leading up to it, the whole farm is a location. The farmhouse looks the way it does in the movie, and it’s been sitting there for 30 years. It’s kind of perfect, so very little design was added, like cracking in the walls or floor; it very much looked like that. Across from the farmhouse was the barn, which was smaller and they extended [it]. That was more organic than the basement scene.
Working with Emily Blunt again, are there certain qualities she has you want to capture visually?
She is extraordinary, and I’m not saying that because she’s a friend. It’s amazing how it happens, but some actors just have that thing. She’s incredibly technical and totally understands the movement of the camera; it’s just in her bones. She just understands moviemaking, which is a huge thing. She’s extraordinary because this is a movie and a part where you feel it could easily be overdone, because it’s a very fine line of the grownups knowing the truth, and yet still trying to create some school for the kids. She does it so subtly. She’s a very, very powerful actress.
We clicked on A Girl on the Train and had a very close relationship because she was playing an alcoholic trying to remember the past. It was a very all-in-her-mind kind of story, so we had a close relationship of, how do we do these thought scenes? Is it handheld? We got very close, and I adore her.
That was obviously one big reason for me to do the movie, but John and her together, to work with them, was also exciting. It’s one of those stories where it may not all be on the page, but the script wasn’t very long. It was only 74 pages or something. It was so much about what you do in between those lines to create the world.
The shot of her in the basement with the red from the bulbs reflecting on her face, I’ve heard you say that red is a very tricky color to capture. Why is that?
Red is the hardest color to capture, and I’m not entirely sure exactly why it is, but both film negative and digital, it’s very hard to focus when you put only red in a space. It is shot, but it looks muggy, out of focus, and soft. For some reason, you don’t get the details. I did a lot of testing because we had all these red lights. It was a technical challenge for red to work on its own.
One of the things I did, in the basement with the creature and the red light comes in, it was meant to be only red, but we added some candlelight, to mix the red with a warm light. It kind of tricks the eyes to look at that part, and it seems more in focus, somehow. The red was very important. Another thing with red, when you shoot on film, obviously we worked with light meters, and a light meter can’t really read the red exposure well. It’ll say there is no light, but you’ll see there is light. It’s tricky, but it was fun. I don’t know why red and black are so hard.
The shot of Emily Blunt’s feet in the bathtub surrounded by blood, even with that little red in frame, is it still a challenge?
Yeah, I don’t know why. Blood always looks too light or too dark, depending on the lighting you do. You fiddle with it. That’s another thing where Emily just pulled it off. She came in, and obviously, John and Emily are a couple and discuss these more difficult scenes at home, and said, “I’m going to do this three times. Tell me when you’re ready. I’m not going to do this screaming a number of times.” I think what’s in the movie is take one. She just delivers. We spent a lot of time setting it up, but once she came in, we shot it in like 15 minutes. That was very intense, but to me, that shot of her in the bathtub, that’s an iconic image to me now. You know what movie that shot is from.
Definitely. And I think something that works well about the movie is that a scene of John Krasinski and Emily Blunt dancing to Neil Young is just as memorable as that image. Was that a scene where you really wanted the warmness of the picture to shine?
Yeah. There are very few moments of handheld in the movie, and most of them are with Regan, the deaf girl, because we wanted to get really close to her. She has some handheld with her story. The only other handheld moment is that one with them, and that song, that Neil Young song, is special to Emily and John, for private reasons. That was always going to be very emotional. We wanted to use handheld to make that moment more real, so it feels like more of a documentary kind of moment. That was quite special.