Lessons from A Quiet Place by Pat Higgins

Screenwriters and filmmakers Scott Beck and Bryan Woods spent a fascinating hour talking us through the genesis of the silent, terrifying world of A Quiet Place, hosted and moderated by Liz Slade.

Watching A Quiet Place for the first time with a sold-out audience was one of the most memorable cinematic experiences of my life.

The oppressive, enveloping use of silence on the soundtrack completely transformed audience behaviour in the cinema. Breath was held. Popcorn was left unmunched. Even the slightest cough was met with furious glares of disapproval, lest that cough summon the onscreen monsters directly into Basildon Cineworld or (just as awful) break the spell of the movie for even a second.

Over the course of an hour on Friday night, creators Scott Beck and Bryan Woods opened up about how the project came together.

The Birth of a Writing Partnership

Scott and Bryan namecheck the screenplay for The Sixth Sense as a particular formative influence. They shared a love of silent cinema, the work of Jacques Tati and tension-packed blockbusters like Alien and Jaws, all of which proved to be influences in the early stages of creating A Quiet Place.

“When we realised it was about communication, we felt like it was more than a gimmick.”

An Unusual-Looking Screenplay

The screenplay for A Quiet Place looks like no other screenplay I’ve seen. It incorporates images and photographs such as the Monopoly board from the story (which functions as a kind of map). It uses almost entirely blank pages to build suspense. It uses handwritten text, massive fonts and endless exclamation marks. 

In short, it does everything I’ve spent over a decade telling screenwriting students not to do.

It is, of course, absolutely brilliant. 

It creates an incredible sense of tension and, at 67 pages, a busy exec might find time to read it on their lunchbreak. The busy exec who did just that was Michael Bay (cheerfully referred to in the interview as “the loudest filmmaker in the history of cinema”). Platinum Dunes optioned the script, and Scott and Bryan were originally scheduled to direct.

Changing the Emotional Arc

Scott and Bryan discuss with good humour and honesty how it felt to give up the directorial reigns to eventual helmer John Krasinski (“Are we going to let our baby go to the Krasinski/Blunt family?”) and address some of the interesting structural changes that came with the decision.

John was eager to shift the reveal of the family tragedy (originally a third-act moment) to the opening of the movie, meaning that rather than peeling the onion of why the family were so damaged, we were instead watching their attempts to heal in full knowledge of what broke them in the first place.

This alteration completely changes the emotional sequencing of how we relate to the family. It’s a fascinating point to consider and one that all screenwriters can learn from, as changing the point at which we choose to reveal things that our characters already know (but our audience doesn’t) can radically change the way people relate to our characters. Putting the death as the opening of the movie clarifies the character arcs and makes the emotional journey cleaner.

“How Can We Make Our Characters Suffer?”

The discussion covers not only the big emotional arcs, but also the little moments of physical horror that make the film so memorable. After a clip of the infamous nail scene (which still makes me wince every single time), Scott and Bryan discuss how they crafted the payoff.

“Early in the script we see the nail on the stairs omnisciently. What’s the worst possible moment to bring it back?”

Advice for Up and Coming Screenwriters

The hour ends with a couple of terrific bits of advice for up and coming screenwriters, the last of which is not to compare your own career trajectory to the careers of others.

“It’s not about these massive achievements, it’s about showing up and doing the work.”

I’ll never forget that screening of A Quiet Place, packed full of people too scared to munch their popcorn. Too scared to breathe in case they break the spell. Like every other classic cinematic experience, it started with a blank page and an idea. 

Make sure you check out the entire hour, as it’s very much worth your time.

Pat Higgins is a screenwriter and director. He’s been called the ‘Essex Auteur’ in Empire and ‘the Tarantino of budget gore flicks for style and dialogue’ in SFX.

Pat has lectured in screenwriting and idea generation at universities and colleges for over a decade. This year’s London Screenwriters’ Festival has featured his popular session ‘Write a Movie in 30 Days’.

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