John Krasinski has earned the kind of reviews an actor-turned-director dreams of for his horror film “A Quiet Place.” Some of that acclaim has turned into accolades, with various nominations at the Critics’ Choice Awards, Golden Globes and Screen Actors Guild Awards, the latter of which for his wife and onscreen co-star, Emily Blunt.
Krasinski recently spoke with Gold Derby contributing editor Matt Noble about shaping “A Quiet Place” into what it became, working with Blunt both onscreen and off, and how “The Office” helped inform his acting style. Watch the exclusive web chat above and read the complete interview transcript below.
Gold Derby: John Krasinski, when you were reading the spec script for the first time, you had a newly-born child in your family. Can you just take us to what was going through your head as you were reading that script?
John Krasinski: Yeah, absolutely. Before I read the script, the producers called and said, “Would you ever act in a genre film?” And I said, flat out, “No.” I said, “I’m too much of a scaredy cat, I’ve never been a big genre fan,” because the 12-year-old self in me was so scared by “Nightmare on Elm Street.” I just thought, I’m gonna put that part of my subconscious to bed, and they said, “You should really read it, the one-liner’s really good.” And I said, “What’s the one-liner?” And they said, “Well it’s about a family that can’t talk and you have to figure out why.” And I thought, “Damn it, that’s a good one-liner!” So for me, you said it, I was reading the script thinking there’s no way I would act in it, let alone do anything else, and instead, unlike any other moment in my career, call it stars aligning or the universe opening up or something, I was holding a 3-week-old girl while reading about a family that, “What would you do to protect your kids?” And as any young parent knows, those early days of parenthood are genuinely terrifying. You’re not only looking out for their wellbeing and that they’re happy but you’re also wondering, “Are they still alive?” You’re actually checking their breathing. As soon as I finished the script I had this vision of what I wanted for the movie. I wanted it to be the best metaphor for parenthood that I had ever experienced and I wanted it to be, as weird as it sounds when you look at the poster, I wanted it to be a love letter to my kids.
I went immediately downstairs and pitched Emily the entire movie in about an hour and a half of what I saw, what I wanted to do with it and how I wanted it to be about parenting, and she said, “No, you’re not gonna rewrite and star in it,” and I said, “I’m not?” And she said, “No, you’re gonna direct it, too.” So it was Emily who really pushed me. She said, “I’ve never seen you so lit up. I’ve never seen you so connected to something and I can see how this movie is actually something that you’ve been wanting to say for a really long time, this idea of parenting and family, especially in this moment that we’re going through right now. There’s nothing more important than discussing the ideas of who we rely on and for what reasons.” So I was off to the races almost immediately. I called the producers. It was weirdly a Skype, which we had both been told that the other person wanted to Skype and I don’t Skype very often. This is new for me. And I remember the reason why it was funny that we were on Skype is because I’m sure every producer wants to hear, “Yeah, the guy that you offered the part to will do it only if he rewrites and directs it.” So they didn’t have a mute button to swear and cuss at each other. Instead, they had to put on a brave face and I saw them glaze over, but by the end of the conversation, which was about an hour long, I had pitched them almost every single idea that’s in the movie as I saw it, and they immediately called Paramount and said, “We found our guy.”
GD: You talked about wanting it to be a love letter for your family. Where did the decision come in for Emily to be involved in the film as well?
JK: It’s funny, when I started rewriting I only wrote for her. I knew that she was the only person I could envision doing the role, not only as an actress but I was basing it on much of who Emily is as a person, her strength, her warmth, her love, her kindness. So I really wanted her to do the role, but to be very honest with you, I never asked her. I was too scared. She had just had a baby and she was doing a tiny indie movie called “Mary Poppins” (laughs). She was busy with some things and I just thought if she does this, she has to come to it on her own, so the thing I was most fearful of, not only that she would say no, which would make for very awkward dinner conversation but I was more afraid that she would say, “Yes, I’ll do it for you.” I think she is that type of person. I think she is that supportive of me and I think she knew I was taking a big swing in my career and that she could move the needle, as they say, on this movie, so I was just scared that she’d do it for the wrong reasons, so I didn’t even ask her. And then one day she was on a flight with me to L.A. I was going to Paramount to pitch the whole movie and my vision for it, and she said, “Maybe I should read the script at some point and I said, “Yeah, yeah, totally.” And as she was reading, I was watching “Ant-Man” or something, and loving it, and then she turned to me gray and looked sick and I was actually reaching for a barf bag when she said, “You can’t let anyone else do this movie.” And it was a bizarre, enigmatic response so it was almost like we were in a romantic comedy and she was proposing to me and I said, “What are you saying?” And she said, “Will you let me do this role?” And I screamed, “Yes,” so loud I’m surprised we didn’t emergency land in San Antonio or something (laughs).
GD: Did it become like a love letter from you for your family to a love letter from both of you?
JK: Absolutely. With that organic sign-on, the fact that she signed on for herself and that she said it was the best role she had seen in a while, things like that, then we were able to open the floodgates of honesty and truth, which is exactly what I said to her. I said, “We gotta treat this experience like we treat our marriage which is honesty. Go through the script, is there anything you’d change, anything you want different?” I pitched her the whole movie of how I wanted to direct it, “Anything change there,” but then we got to have, like you’re alluding to, these bigger conversations. We got to talk about how she said this was the scariest role she’s ever played, and I asked her why, and she said, “Because in all the other roles I play I have to pretend. I have to put on a fear. I have to put on a fear of life in ‘Girl on the Train’ with someone who’s a recovering addict. I have to put on all these different airs and pretend for ‘Mary Poppins’ and in this one, these are actually my genuine day-to-day fears.” Certainly not that creatures will come out of the woods and kill her kids, but about what those creatures represent and what that darkness represents and certainly what’s going on in the world today, that instability, that feeling of not being able to explain what’s happening to your kids is something that she was really scared of and I remember the line she said, which was really poignant for me was, “I’m scared of not being there the moment that they need me, in those crucial moments of childhood and/or when your kids are adults, to not be there when they are most fragile and most in danger,” and I thought, “Here we go. This is a perfect movie.”
GD: It’s very intimate film. It’s pretty much just four actors for most of it. How do you create that sense of intimacy, especially when it’s the kids? Emily is your wife but the rest are not in your family.
JK: What’s really interesting, the idea of keeping it visually feeling small, we had thought long and hard about it. There was Terrence Malick feel, there was Paul Thomas Anderson feel, there was “No Country for Old Men,” the Coen Brothers feel as far as the look of it, being able to make it feel intimate, that this family was just a small speck on a bigger map, but as far as the casting goes, the beauty of getting together with these kids who were just so genius, I had always been told, “Don’t work with kids. They’ll ruin your schedule, they never know their lines, they have to go to school. By the time their day is done you haven’t shot anything with them.” I had the exact opposite experience. I had this experience with probably two of the most professional actors I’ve ever worked with. They probably saved me time. The way we sort of got that intimate feel as a family, another thing about being an actor is you’ve been through exercises like that before. I’ve been told to go on a date with someone I’m supposed to be in love with with the movie and after one restaurant, one hit to TGI Fridays you’re supposed to be in love, and I just thought that that never felt authentic to me, so what did feel authentic was to bring their families to our family. We kept inviting their families over to events and dinners over at our house so that we could get to see how these kids were with their parents and they actually said the same thing about us, that they realized how to play our kids when they saw us with our kids. So we were getting all this very intimate knowledge of each other from each other’s families.
GD: And then when it came to being on-set with them, being on-set with Emily and everyone else from the cast and crew, what was the feel of being on-set?
JK: It was really amazing because we always knew that sound would be the main character of the movie, that it would be a very powerful piece of the movie, but I always wanted to, again, the thing you get the opportunity to have when you’re an actor is you get to see what works on all these different sets, and one of the things you get to see is leaving the door open for organic, magic moments to happen. So as much as I planned to record sound and how to go about sound, there were things that I didn’t plan for that were beautiful and, for instance, I remember shooting the scene where the family’s walking across the bridge for the first time in the sand and hearing a crew member saying, “Wow the forest sounds so amazing,” and you realize that we as a people haven’t really stopped to listen to our environments. That was really special and something I thought was really cool, and then I’ll never forget the first scene where Emily was in a scene with the kids and they were doing sign. We had always known that the sign language would be obviously vital to the movie, but you never really know how it’s gonna go, and all of a sudden, yes, of course, Emily was amazing in the scenes, but what I was really paying attention to was the unbelievable power of these kids, that with the smallest eyebrow movement that they were emoting such powerful emotions, such intimate feelings of fear and love and all this stuff about words. I remember I was tearing up on one of the first takes and I turned my producer and I said “Oh my god, man, this might actually work.” And I’ll never forget, he said, “Hey man, it’s a little late to be having the conversation of, ‘I think it might work.’”
GD: From what I understand, sign language wasn’t in the original spec script that you read. That’s something you brought to it, and something else you brought to the film that you just alluded to, from what I understand one of the first ideas that you brought to it was the idea of the walking on sand.
JK: Yeah, so in that pitch session with the producers I had told you about, it was a reimagining of the world to service the family. So what I mean by that is, what I brought to my version of it is the idea of family has to be the entire movie, so every scare has to be because you love this family, every detail has to become a detail that says something about this family not just to be cool, not just to be scary. And so the sand paths were a visual representation of the father’s love, so when you pull to a wide shot and you see all these different sand paths you actually can envision how much detailed time that would have taken him and therefore see his love right there on a little map. The idea of the painted footprints on the wood boards shows that the father loves his daughter so much that he will pretest every single board to know which ones squeak and which ones don’t, knowing that she wouldn’t be able to hear it. Little things like that were details that diving into the sandbox with these writers absolutely created. They had such a great idea, and there were elements of the movie that I loved and wanted to keep but for the most part, it was diving into the sandbox and digging down deeper and deeper and deeper, which I’m sure they would have done, too, if they had more versions of the script, but for me it was, “I wanna go as detailed as I can. Where else are the perfect details of how much the family loves each other in these visuals?”
GD: What was the biggest challenge for you in making the film?
JK: That’s a great question. It is a high-wire act for sure, the whole thing. I think in the beginning my two biggest fears were the ability to really take someone through a sound experience, certainly I was inexperienced in visual effects and sound design to that level, but like in the movie, the little girl’s weakness becomes her biggest strength, and I thought, “I should approach things the same way.” So I may not know how to sound design a movie to this level but I do know what I feel and I know it will emotionally move me, and I know that looking back on all my favorite movies, the big swings are the ones you remember most. So I remember Paul Thomas Anderson doing the first 12 or 14 minutes of “There Will Be Blood” without sound, the bold swing that was, how amazingly powerful that was, so when you get into the same sound design phase with your designers who are, I call them my sound magicians. They’re no longer designers, they’re their magic makers, and we came up with the idea of going into Millie, the daughter’s character, played by an actress who is actually deaf obviously, I wanted to for the first time show someone’s deafness on film, or at least first time I’ve seen it, so I wanted to sort of be in, we called it her envelope, and as we kept playing with it, we pushed it more and more and more, and the scariest part was turning to them pretty much right before South by Southwest and realizing that we had cut out sound entirely, we had pulled sound back, we had made people terrified to eat their popcorn or open their candies and I thought, “Are we going too far? Are people gonna reject this? Is this too much of a leap?” And I remember the guy saying, “I don’t know, but you got to do it because when else in your career will you be able to take such an artistic swing like this? There’s nothing as powerful as taking a swing like this.” And I thought, “You’re absolutely right.” So we did it. So weirdly, the thing that I was most sacred of turned into our one secret superpower and certainly my favorite compliments on the movie are, “I couldn’t open my candy.” Actually the first test screening we ever did, we watched it, it was 150 people, I was terrified, there was no creature, which doesn’t do well for the movie, and after the test audience was asked all the questions, I’ll never forget the wording of the last question was, “What else do we need to know about this movie?” And a guy raised his hand, shaking his hand, and said “What you need to know is I snuck a bag of Skittles into this movie and for 90 minutes I never open my bag of Skittles,” and I thought, “That’s the best compliment we’re going to get on this movie.”
GD: Have you ever brought snacks into “A Quiet Place”?
JK: You mean the movie, or into my secret quiet place?
GD: Take the question as you want, John.
JK: To be really fair, I was so scared at that first screening that I couldn’t eat anything, let alone popcorn and/or candy, and then from there on out, the audience was participating in what the rules of watching the movie were, which was brilliant. I knew I wanted it to be a sound experience but I never thought that it would take on the life that it did which is, people going to the theater for the first time, in my opinion, for a long time to go to the theater for a sound experience that they couldn’t have at home and I thought that was awesome.
GD: What’s your absolute favorite moment in the film?
JK: Wow, there’s so many for me and again, I’m probably the worst person to ask ‘cause I’m so personally connected to every part of it, but I gotta say the scene for me that I love for me that I remember most is doing my first scene with Millie, which is, Millie and I are on the path and as the father I tell her she can’t go down to the basement ‘cause it makes too much noise. That was an emotional experience unlike any other because not only is Millie an unbelievable actress, but Emily and I had the same feeling about her at the same time driving home one night where I said to my wife, “I don’t think she’s from this planet. I know it sounds funny but I’m not being funny. I think she’s genuinely an angel,” and Emily said, “It’s so weird that you said that, I was going to tell you the same thing. I think she’s some alternate being that we’re just going to end up feeling so lucky that we got to spend any time with her, that’s how special she is.” So for me, I never went to work one day working with a deaf actress in my head. I was just working with one of the best actresses I’ve ever worked with and a true angel, so that scene for me was the sort of culmination for that.
GD: We’re an awards website and you were in “The Office,” that won Best Comedy Series at the Emmy Awards. Do you have a favorite moment from your work on “The Office” or a favorite scene from that show?
JK: I have hundreds because I got to participate in all the fun that people watch, but I think probably my favorite episode was “Dinner Party,” when we go over to Steve Carell‘s character, Michael Scott’s, apartment. There were two times I remember laughing this hard on the show and I laughed every day, I was the most unprofessional actor because as soon as anything funny happened I would break, which I think has been pretty well-documented on the internet. The scene where Steve grabs his TV and says, “And when guests come over, you can just,” and he moves the TV only like an inch and a half, I think I laughed harder there than I ever have again in my life. That was one of the funniest things ever.
GD: Very different characters, Lee and Jim Halpert, but I think the thing that both roles require quite a lot of is reaction to things, and often in “The Office” you’re in the background having to react to things or the craziness around you and as Lee, because you can’t talk and you can’t use dialogue, there’s a lot you have to do with your face. When you do those reaction scenes, when you’re having to react to other performances and other things in the environment, what’s going on in your head?
JK: You know, to be really honest, it was something I learned on “The Office.” I remember Greg Daniels told me, “Your job is not to say these lines funny. Your job is just to say these lines believably and if people think they’re funny, that’s up to them and if people think what you say to Pam is beautiful enough to cry, then that’s up to them too, but don’t think about eliciting a reaction. Just play the truth the moment.” And, of course, that was because we were shooting a fake documentary, so the characters technically weren’t aware of their audience, but it actually formed a great deal of my acting moving forward because I’ve always since then thought that drama and comedy are actually the same, that if you play the truth of the moment and just try to play as honestly as you can to the things that you’re feeling, it takes away that fear of, “Could I have done it better for the audience? Could I have done it more angry or more sad or more happy?” It’s like, “No, no, no. You just do it truthfully and let people project their own feelings and their own things they are going through onto you. So it’s kind of how I do it. You’ve unlocked the secret of acting for me.
GD: John, could you summarize for us what you’d want the audience to take away from “A Quiet Place” and what is at the heart of the film for you without dialogue, just through your expressions and hands?
JK: Wow. No, the answer is no, I probably couldn’t, because I don’t know how you exude parenthood and love of family and sort of… I don’t know, I feel like in days that we’re going through now, which is sort of like I said, unstable and a feeling of confusion and what’s next, that power of the inability to not be able to explain to your kids what’s going on and yet make sure that they get to see another day is really important to me, that idea of very primal version of protecting your kids and what family really means. I think that as our world advances technologically in all these different ways, I hope we never forget the power of sitting around a table with the people who you’re related to, and I don’t mean necessarily blood. If you’re not close to your family it could be your friends, but this idea of relying on other people in hard times is something that I really want to celebrate in the movie.
GD: Did you ever for a second regret having Emily on the cast? I don’t know what it’s like, directing your wife.
JK: No, I regret not working with her sooner. I think that, not to sound completely trite or planned canned line, but she is without a doubt the greatest collaborator I’ve ever worked with. I’ve always known that she was the greatest actress for me. Most of the work I did directing my wife was off-screen where as soon as she signed on going through the script every single night together at home, going through every shot together, by the time we actually got on-set we have done all the collaborating. We had done all the hard work. I knew what she was going to do in the scene, she knew how I was going to shoot it, and it was an absolute blast. If I’m really honest, I don’t think the movie would be nearly as good if she wasn’t in it because she raised the game for me as a talented person, but she also raised the game for me as a man and as a person bringing a performance to life because I knew I had someone like her to guide the way and hold my hand through it. She’s so incredible and at the end of the day, there really is a secret language between two people, I think, who are married. At least with us I think there is a secret language that we can sort of communicate without talking and so I don’t know if I could have had any other partner in the movie.
GD: Well John, it’s been so lovely to chat to you about “A Quiet Place.” It was great, really great movie and all the best with all the awards, the Oscars and the Golden Globes and the Screen Actors Guild, all the things that are in the pipeline.
JK: Well, I appreciate it. Thanks for all the kind words and support.
GD: Hopefully we’ll talk again someday about some other projects.
JK: I love it! Done!