Crafting a Silent Nightmare: The Artistry Behind ‘A Quiet Place’

The Scope Weekly provides an in-depth review of John Krasinski’s latest effort, with an exclusive interview with the editor, Academy Award nominee Christopher Tellefsen.

Actor-director John Krasinski’s latest effort, A Quiet Place, is an impressive mastery of psychological horror, a large part of that besides technical finesse being the subtle, acerbic screenplay, and the meticulously precise editing.  The Scope Weekly had a chance to exclusively interview the film’s editor, Academy Award nominee Christopher Tellefsen.

John Krasinski, Emily Blunt

“He and Emily (Blunt) were just watching movies not necessarily knowing who edited them,” Tellefsen said, “and they noticed my work on Capote, Fair Game, and Moneyball” – the latter of which won him an Oscar nomination – “and decided to look me up on IMDB.  I wasn’t initially available, but then I became available.  The timing was interesting.  I don’t know how they learned I had become available, but after speaking for the second time I requested to read the script.  I thought it was really intriguing, particularly the fact it’s a movie with only two dialogue scenes in the whole thing.”

A Quiet Place is notable for showing Krasinski and Blunt’s extraordinary acting ranges in this way, usually dialogue-driven scenes replaced with banter in American Sign Language, or simply through a look or a gesture.  Indeed, due to the intricacies of the film’s supernatural antagonists, typical sound effects barely compete with its otherwise ambient, auditory designs. This is contrasted with a slightly retro, classically visceral score by veteran composer Marco Beltrami.  The experience winds up never becoming tiresome for a wide audience, nor does it stray too far from the feeling of a traditional American movie.

“Talking to John, it was clear he had a very specific take on what to ask of me as editor,” Tellefsen said.

Upon John’s request, I rewatched the film Jaws and really examined its kind of narrative storytelling, as well as visual storytelling.

“It was interesting to watch it again and feel this insidious thing creeping up on you, and how the lack of seeing what you fear makes it scarier.” Indeed, one of the most bone-chilling scenes in the film is where a young child innocently plays with a toy rocket, unaware of a subsequent, arachnid-like mass headed his way.  The film illustrates how psychological tension can be just as effective as gore, as the violence that is depicted is kept sparse, and matter-of-fact.

“There’s not a lot of death and destruction on the cutting room floor,” Tellefsen remarked, noting the film’s restraint.  “The idea was always to be very, very sparing with the creatures.”  The latter proved strenuous for the production, a mixture of motion capture technology and pure CGI.  “ILM (Industrial Light & Magic), who made the creatures, were just incredible,” Tellefsen said.  “We started shooting in September, then locked by March as there was pressure in getting it to South by Southwest.  They were so on it, and they really got it done quickly.  But then there was a big change to the creature designs in January, so everything got kind of rushed.  But they really delivered in the end.”  Indeed, the intricacies of the antagonists – from their quadrupedal charging to their elaborate ways of “hearing” prey – are one of the film’s many highlights.

Yet Tellefsen said the goal was not to get too caught up with the film’s more fantastical elements.  “The first and foremost thing is it’s a story about family,” he said.  “It was really important to follow that line, and with it the arc of each character.  That was always the through line, and always what had to be playing.”

He worked closely with Krasinski, particularly with regards to refining scenes where much had to be communicated non-verbally.  The experience, according to Tellefsen, was a positive one.  “It was a lot of collaboration,” he said.  “Like any smart director, he loves to be surprised at times.  So you just work your hardest and try to find things.” He states this in comparison to his prior, chameleonic experiences with different filmmakers.  “Everybody’s different.  Some are more protective and on top of you, constantly.  Then there are people who like to stand back and be surprised, or like to give lots and lots of notes and then see where you land. It’s very mixed,” he stated.  “Sometimes it was a situation where you were in it together, then other times we’d talk about it and I’d go do something, then come back.”

In spite of his veteran experience in the industry, Tellefsen is not wed to one, particular approach as an editor.  This has perhaps contributed to his longevity and success.  “I am very, very, very open,” he said.  “For people who have conceived something originally, I want to be able to interpret and work for their vision.  In many ways, the script is a projection of something.  What you’re looking for is to create a film that evokes what’s on the page.”  He adds, though, “often scripts are overwritten to appeal to the people they’re being pitched to.  So after assembling a rough cut, there’s a lot that just doesn’t work.  It all comes down to the footage, and to the performances, and what the director is telling you.”

One trait of his that does stick is his liking to cut according to the show, don’t tell method.  Needless to say, a film with almost no dialogue provided a perfect opportunity to exploit this, to full effect.  “If you don’t have to say it, and it can get across, then that’s where it’s going to go,” he said.  “What’s usually left unsaid is the best cut.  You’re just looking to land in these moments, and make people really feel them.  It’s a really magical combination of rhythm, performance, and visual.  All these things that play beyond what’s just in the predetermined story.”

Watching the finished version of A Quiet Place won’t be truly thrilling for Tellefsen.  The real joy is when, as he states, you’re flipping through channels on your television set, then discover one of your movies playing.  “Watching with an audience is fascinating because no reaction is the same,” he said. “You’re constantly surprised.  But it’s really surreal and strange seeing the thing you labored over premiering on HBO.”  He adds, “the formality of watching it from beginning to end is fairly typical.  The challenge there is you’re always thinking, could this be different?  But I feel with A Quiet Place, it’s just in a really good place.  And it’s telling us that, given the response.”

Indeed, the film has received overwhelming acclaim from critics and audiences alike.  Renowned horror author Stephen King tweeted that the thriller is an “extraordinary piece of work.”  He went on to add, “Terrific acting, but the main thing is SILENCE, and how it makes the camera’s eye open wide in a way few movies manage.”  The box office agrees.  After opening nationwide on April 6, the film has made a whopping 50 million dollars over just three days, combined with an additional, international gross of 21 million for a total of 71 million dollars.

Tellefsen sees this as a sign the film will endure over time, and especially appreciates it providing a distraction for young people, courtesy of its PG-13 rating.  “It’s going to be in theaters for a while,” he said.  “It’s dragging kids away from their iPhones and computers to go to the movies.  It really is something you need to experience for yourself.”

A Quiet Place is rated PG-13 by the MPAA for terror and some bloody images.           

Production Company: Platinum Dunes
Distributor: Paramount Pictures
Director: John Krasinski
Screenwriters: Bryan Woods, Scott Beck, John Krasinski
Producer: Michael Bay, Andrew Form, Brad Fuller
Director of Photography: Charlotte Bruus Christensen
Editor: Christopher Tellefsen
Venue: South by Southwest (SXSW)

Photos courtesy of Platinum Dunes

Browse other articles Alexander Marais has written covering horror films, including Unsane and Get Out.

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