The longevity of the horror genre can largely be chalked up to the diversity of stories that can be told within it. Some horror films are just straight-up delivering scares, which is perfectly fine. But others toy with larger thematic ideas, like racism (Night of the Living Dead), grief (Hereditary), or, in the case of A Quiet Place, how far a parent will go to protect his or her children.
A Quiet Place hit theaters back in April and was instantly a smash hit, going on to gross over $340 million at the worldwide box office. But the film was also a critical darling, and the fact that we’re still talking about its merits all these months later is a testament to the talent both on and off the screen. Co-writer, director, and star John Krasinski crafted a surprisingly emotional and compelling family drama packaged with some terrific scares and a winning premise. The film is bolstered by a quartet of phenomenal performances from Krasinski, Emily Blunt, Millicent Simmonds, and Noah Jupe, and it remains one of the best films of 2018.
But with a premise in which monsters will kill you if you make a sound, A Quiet Place’s success rests largely on its visuals. To bring this story to life, Krasinski turned to cinematographer Charlotte Bruus Christensen, one of the most exciting DPs working today. The Danish cinematographer’s work ranges from The Hunt to The Girl on the Train to Molly’s Game, but A Quiet Place offered new and exciting challenges. It’s no surprise that Christensen rose to the occasion, and when I was offered the chance to speak with her about her work on the film, I jumped at the opportunity.
During our interview, Christensen talked about her first discussions with Krasinski about how the film would look, the unique way in which she first became involved with the film, looking to classics like Jaws and No Country for Old Men for inspiration in confident-looking cinematography, and the challenges involved in shooting a film that takes place over the course of 24 hours with lots of location shooting. Christensen also spoke specifically about the film’s use of light and darkness and broke down how they shot a couple of the movie’s most memorable scenes, and I also asked if she’s been contacted by Krasinski about returning to shoot the in-the-works sequel.
It was a joy to be able to dig deep into the craft of this terrific film with such a talented and insightful DP, and if you’re at all interested in how A Quiet Place came together from a filmmaking perspective, I think you’ll find this a solid read. Here’s hoping Christensen’s stellar work doesn’t go unnoticed this awards season.
Check out the full interview below. A Quiet Place is currently available on Digital HD, Blu-ray, and DVD.
This is a really special film, and I know it cam together really quickly, so I was curious how you first got involved with the movie.
CHARLOTTE BRUUS CHRISTENSEN: Well, to me it didn’t feel so quickly. Because Emily, who became a really close friend after we did The Girl on the Train together … We did that in 2013, and just got really close, and our relationship kind of developed, and we’re chatting every now and then. And so she called me I guess probably two years ago, like a year before we actually shot it. Some summer day, I remember, she called and she was like, “Hey, my husband John is thinking about doing this, I just think you two should work together,” and can I give him your number. So we hang up and it was like 20 minutes later John calls, and he’s a very energetic man. For an hour, he’s like, I’ve got this idea, there’s this creature, I don’t know yet, but it’s like, I’ve got to rewrite it, and dah-dah-dah-dah, and do you want to do it? And I was like, sure (laughs). So, it wasn’t like the regular or traditional way of going through an agent, and then you read it and then you have a Skype meeting and stuff. I just said sure, not knowing if it was ever going to happen.
And I didn’t really share it with my agents until like months later because I was like, well, it’s some friends calling, we don’t know for sure if it’ll happen. And John started writing the script, so I was actually reading scripts every time he was doing changes. It was very fortunate, actually, that we had a year where he was writing and I was reading. And obviously, other films came up, and my agents were like, “Oh there’s this film.” I was like, “Oh by the way, I promised my friend Emily to do something.” So it was kind of a personal friendship engagement that I obviously value very, very highly. So anyway, it came together and we had, like, a little budget. Like $17 million. So I think we were all feeling like, “Well let’s go to upstate New York and bring the families.” They’ve got kids the same age as we do, so we were like two families going up there, and this smallish crew. And I don’t think we ever imagined that it was going to end up as such a hit. That was very crazy.
That’s what I was going to ask you. I mean, when you’re making a film like this, not only was it this kind of huge horror hit, but it’s so emotional, and so affecting and so universal in its reach. You have this critical acclaim hailing it as one of the best films of the year. Did you guys have any inkling of that when you were making it, or was it just kind of like a fun little project you were doing together?
CHRISTENSEN: There were moments where you felt like it was special. And I think one couldn’t really place it, in a good way. I think everybody knew that we were doing something special, and it didn’t ever feel like a small, kind of insignificant project. It felt like an important film. But we were faced, obviously, with only 30 days of shooting, and not enough money, and how can we keep the creature shots down because we don’t have enough money for VFX, and having to be creative. But there were moments where everybody was like, ah … And I felt that. I operate the camera too, so I was looking through, and I remember, there were moments where I said, “I just think I saw something very special.”
I think part of it was also that, yes, it was a project that John and Emily were doing with Paramount, but we had the freedom to dig into this idea of mixed genres, you know? The horror elements, and the scary moments and all that was one part. But there was also another part that was very important to John, and also to me, which was this is about a family. There are some very truthful and poetic cinematic moments in the whole development of the family.
I remember the very early conversations, we were talking a lot about how this project is about fear. John and I spoke about, “Well, what is it, as a family, we feel?” There is this fear, you know, with terrorism, and we’ve got kids, what are we going to do when in 10 years’ time they want to go to a concert in Chicago? Where we have memories of terrible events, or of terrorism going on. And you go, “You can’t prevent your kid from going to these places, or yourself.” So this kind of fear, well what could happen? We don’t know when another attack is going to be, or where. So, that was kind of a conversation about this fear being out there, and this creature kind of representing that. And how do you get through it, you know, as a family? So there were a lot of other conversations that were about the family and the pieces that people could identify with. And then you have the horror element. I think the mix of it was really interesting, and we had the freedom to develop that, because we had the time. We had a year to talk about things. So something special developed. It also felt like we had more freedom. You know, if it’d been a massive alien movie, it probably would have been set more in stone. So I think the filmmakers’ voices come through in this project.
I think it’s that family aspect that really makes it resonate. I re-watched it again recently, and just frames of it made me want to cry. It’s such an emotional viewing experience, which I definitely was not prepared for the first time I saw it.
CHRISTENSEN: Yeah. And I think that also takes people a little bit by surprise, because it is out there as a genre movie, as a horror movie. But it’s not really. And I think that’s also what’s refreshing about the horror aspects. That it’s a thriller, but there’s a very genuine, truthful, loving story about a family and about a relationship between a father and a daughter. The daughter feels guilty because she picked up those batteries to make her brother happy. But she doesn’t know if the dad blames her. And he doesn’t, but maybe inside, somewhere, she is responsible but obviously that’s not what he wants to make her feel. So there was that whole very personal relationship going on, that was also an existing element. And her fighting and proving that she can do things even though she’s deaf. So there’s a lot of layers in the film. Which, some horror movies don’t have those layers. It’s more about the scare. Which is also great, but this one gave us the opportunity to go deep.
Well, and given the fact that it is a world in which sound is dangerous, I mean, your job is obviously vital on any film, but this film, it’s even more important. So much of the storytelling is visual. How did you kind of hit upon what you guys wanted this film to look like, and how you were going to approach it visually?
CHRISTENSEN: I mean, John’s first kind of introduction of his vision was very clear, and he always said, I think this cinematic, kind of epic feel, the poetic feel, he had those kind of overall words that were kind of covering, that gave me an idea of how to approach this. In terms of moving the camera, the moment has to be stylish, or it has to be slow. He said it’s got to be a confident movie, and I was like, oh my God, how do we do, like, a confident movie? And we looked at Jaws, and we looked at No Country for Old Men, and we looked at There Will Be Blood, which are very strong, cinematic pieces. We agreed that there is a certain confidence in those pieces, in the filmmakers’ work. And we were like, “Let’s be confident.” So I was like, oh my God, what is that? And somehow it’s simple. To me it’s like, well the camera’s got to go in the right place, and you don’t move if you don’t need to move. You move if you’re telling a story. So it became very much about simplicity. Don’t do too much. Don’t try and show off. Just be in the right place. To me, that’s confident. Also in life, like you’ve got to make sure that you’ll feel good about what you’re doing. Which is easier said than done, and to do it is obviously hard. But I think just having that at the back of my head made me offer up things and make decisions that were, you know, minimalist, somehow.
Like, the decision of red being a real color. So John would have these overall ideas. Like, you know, the red Christmas lights. And then I would start going, “Oh, we’ll do red color.” And then, this movie’s also about darkness. We’ve got to photograph black. And so, that red and the black coming together, and the candles. And then I would start kind of filling in.
I spent a long time developing this red. It’s very hard to photograph red. Sometimes it looks like it’s out of focus, and just little things like how we had these red Christmas lights, so the bulbs, I desperately wanted them to stay red. What happens, if you get too high a wattage, then it will just overexpose and become white. So they have to stay red, but if you do that, then they won’t give any light. So how do I light the red on their faces, and what is the film light that I have to put up to get that very soft red light as if coming from a Christmas light? So, to create a minimalistic look was very, very challenging and interesting.
And then at the other side, we had a cornfield to light at night, and a view from a silo. Then, again, how do you create the night look, looking for miles and miles and miles, and seeing the Christmas lights at the barn from up there? So, on the other hand there were some bigger set-ups that I had to figure out how to achieve. It was very complicated.
In that vein, I mean, there are a number of sequences that I think are really unforgettable, but one it particular is when Emily’s in the basement where the water’s flooding in, and the baby’s in the box. You have darkness, you have water, you have the red light, you have the creature. Can you talk a little about shooting that scene and putting it together?
CHRISTENSEN: Yeah, that was definitely also a challenge. So, we didn’t have a studio. We built that set in like an indoor riding arena that was around the corner from the farm. So it was like a water tank, so we could have the water in. So we were working in that water all the time, and so we were also craned, to try and be safe with the camera. But the planning of it was crucial, because we knew we needed to photograph a dark space. And when they get down there, the first time he carries her down it’s black. Not like a film light. And they just walk through, like, a little sliver of white light, to say that they’re in the room, but then other than that, it’s just darkness. And when she wakes up, he’s lit some candles in there.
So there was a very fine development of—and we discussed that carefully—the lights at each moment. Because then she falls asleep, when she wakes up, the water is there. And it’s blown out some of the candles, and we’re left with this red light from the Christmas chain, kind of lying down the stairs. So, I had to figure a way of exposing for that red light, and have light on her face, and then obviously also seeing the water. And what worked really well was to reflect the red light in the water. So you had that movement, and that light also shining back up on her face. So you had this moving red light while she’s moving towards the crib to try and get the baby. So that worked out really well.
And what I figured out was that for your eye to be able to focus on red, I needed to have a little bit of white light. Or, you know, a warm light, to focus on. So we left a couple of candle lights, which gave me a reference to just edge her a little bit with a candle light or something, so that it’s not only black and red. But you had that little bit of contrast. And it just made you see the red even better. But it was a difficult working environment, of course, with the water, and there were small lights that had to be in the perfect place all the time. But it turned out really, really well.
It turned out fantastic. One of the shots that’s now become iconic is the bathroom birth scene, with Emily in the tub. And I was curious, when you’re shooting something like that, do you know it’s going to be special? Because you literally created a piece of cinematic iconography with that sequence.