Film critic, filmmaker, and radio host Mike Sargent interviews Scott Beck and Bryan Woods, screenwriters of the thriller, A Quiet Place, about their writing process, breaking into the business, and more.
Scott Beck and Bryan Woods are two screenwriters you may not have heard of yet but surely will very soon. Scott and Bryan first met as sixth-graders in their hometown of Bettendorf, Iowa. After discovering a shared interest in cinema, the duo began making stop-motion movies together with their Star Wars action figures. This collaboration continued into high school, where they directed numerous shorts and their first feature films.
As teenagers, Beck and Woods were shortlisted as two of the top 50 directors (out of 2,000 applicants) for Ben Affleck and Matt Damon's Project Greenlight series on Bravo. While still in college, Beck and Woods' work caught the eye of MTV Films, which offered the pair a feature film development deal. The duo went on to write and direct an original scripted pilot for MTV and executive producer David Gale (Election) and were later listed as "The Top 100 Writers on the Verge" by Tracking-Board.com. In 2001, Beck and Woods formed their production company banner Bluebox Films, under which they would write, direct and produce films, commercials, and television content.
In 2015, Beck and Woods wrote and directed Nightlight, a supernatural thriller released by Lionsgate Entertainment. The film was produced by Herrick Entertainment and Oscar®-nominated producer Michael London (Sideways).
I caught up with the busy writing team in New York city at the junket for their latest film A Quiet Place for Paramount Pictures. Set for release on Friday, April 6, 2018, A Quiet Place stars (real-life husband and wife) Emily Blunt and John Krasinski, who also directed. Beck and Woods also serve as executive producers together with Michael Bay and his Platinum Dunes banner producing. The screenplay was named one of the ten best scripts of the year by The Tracking Board 2017 Hit List.
A Quiet Place is billed as a horror film but it is more akin to a Twilight Zone episode (which we discuss during the interview) the premise is that Aliens landed and wiped out much of humanity and too late we discovered that though blind, they have a heightened sense of hearing and the only way to escape detection is to be very, very quiet. Those who have survived, have learned to live and communicate virtually without making a sound as the slightest decibel outburst will result in sudden vicious death.
The main story centers around a family of four who live in silence during the aftermath of the Alien invasion. Paramount Pictures describes the film, "In the modern horror thriller A Quiet Place, a family of four must navigate their lives in silence after mysterious creatures that hunt by sound threaten their survival. If they hear you, they hunt you."
Mike Sargent: I've just seen called A Quiet Place, Bryan and Scott, my first question to both of you is; when did you first know you wanted to be storytellers?
Bryan Woods: At a very young age. I think Scott and I grew up on Spielberg movies and James Cameron movies. We started at a very young age just making movies with our action figures. It was always just fun. It was just a hobby. It wasn't anything like, "Oh, one day we'll make movies as a career," but it was just something we enjoyed doing.
Scott Beck: Yeah. I think just being able to tell stories, using your imagination is always something that any kid really loves. To think you can grow up and actually make a career out of that seemed like the furthest thing possible growing up Iowa. It was just something we blindly pursued and fell in love with.
Mike Sargent: All right, then I have a second contextual question like that. Human beings have been telling stories since as far back as we can go, every culture, everywhere. Why do you think human beings need stories? What do you think the purpose of stories are for human beings?
We knew essentially that people would be reading this script, and those are the gatekeepers. That very much was in the process of writing how to figure out how to get through that door.
Bryan Woods: Wow. That's such a great question. I mean, I think it's important. I know for myself when I read a book or hear a story, whether it's over the campfire or in a darkened theater, I just want to feel that I'm not alone. I want to see myself in other characters, and I want to relate to them and feel like, "Oh, I know what it's like to feel what they're feeling." It gives us a sense of comfort and it gives us a sense of how we fit into this crazy world, I guess.
Scott Beck: Yeah. I think to that degree, it also makes sense of life. Life is so confusing and it never makes sense, and it's not a like linear chain of events that really ever connect until you look back in retrospect. I think that's where telling stories in filmmaking is really useful, because you can take that context in retrospect and assemble some sort of narrative and make some sort of sense out of that.
Mike Sargent: My last contextual question like that is, what in, your estimation, makes a good story and a story worth telling?
Bryan Woods: First and foremost for us, a good story has to be entertaining. It has to be something that takes an audience on a ride and gives them something fun and exciting. A great story is if you can pair that with something that has substance, something that makes them feel something about their life or the lives of others. Maybe it gives them empathy for another human being. So, for A Quiet Place, I know that on the surface we wanted to make something that was very entertaining in terms of the suspense and scares, but we also wanted it to have a thematic quality and make sure that it was about this family who was struggling to communicate with each other because they suffered a tragedy.
Scott Beck: Yeah. Bryan said it beautifully.
Mike Sargent: That's why you work together, right?
Scott Beck: Yeah. (laughing)
Mike Sargent: Now a few questions specifically about this story. What I enjoyed and what I enjoy about genre, science fiction specifically, is it allows you to talk about the human condition.
Bryan Woods: Yeah.
Mike Sargent: I think comedy does that, and as Get Out has reminded us, horror can do it, too, but it doesn't often. Part of what you've done here now, technically as far as I'm concerned, is a science-fiction story.
Bryan Woods: Mm-hmm [affirmative].
Scott Beck: Yeah.
Mike Sargent: It's framed like a horror movie.
Scott Beck: Right.
Mike Sargent: You're crossing genres, and I get it. I'm a film critic, but I'm a film lover and a filmmaker. I never watch trailers anymore. I don't read anything. I just go.
Bryan Woods: Nice.
Scott Beck: I love that.
Mike Sargent: That's what I loved about this movie, because I didn't know what I was in for. I had no idea. They said horror, that's all I knew.
Bryan Woods: Oh, that's great. Awesome.
Mike Sargent: So, I really enjoyed, especially that first opening scene with what could be called the inciting act. Tell me about the world building, and tell me about the initial concept of what brought this concept on.
Scott Beck: Absolutely.
Bryan Woods: First and foremost, what you're talking about in terms of the opening and how the film kind of plays out, it's kind of like a Twilight Zone episode.
Mike Sargent: Absolutely. That's why I loved it.
The movie is just as much about what we don't say as what we do say and how important communication amongst the family that's been through a tragedy is, and how communication can really bring us together and heal us.
Scott Beck: Exactly, where you're just thrust into some sort of situation. As an audience member, you're learning piece by piece by piece, and that's the type of storytelling we love where you're not front loaded with all the exposition and everything you need to understand the story. You have to do the work to understand the story. I think going back to the original origin of the idea, it's from the silent film era. We were watching a lot of Charlie Chaplin, and Buster Keaton, and Jacques Tati, and those were movies that operated on such a visual level that you didn't need dialogue to convey any emotion, or character intent, or any of the things that modern films usually fall into.
Bryan Woods: We just keep thinking, "What if you took kind of that silent film genre?", it's not really a genre. It's like a… style almost.
Mike Sargent: Sensibility.
Bryan Woods: Sensibility. If you paired it with something that was like horror or sci-fi, something like Alien or even Jaws, we thought that might be really scary especially because sound is one of the best tools a filmmaker has to scare an audience and create suspense. So, if we could turn the actual literal idea of sound and make it like the shark in Jaws, we knew maybe that'd be something scary.
Mike Sargent: You touched upon what I was going to ask you next, which is ... after I saw this, I wanted to read the script, to see what's there, what Krasinski put in there, what did he bring to the story. What I loved was, it's clear that not only are you film junkies, but that you know story structure and you really know movies are essentially pictures and sound. That's what it is, whether it's dialogue or not. You set us up. There's a great sequence, I don't want to give it away, with the stairwell with a nail.
Bryan Woods: Yeah.
Scott Beck: Yeah.
Mike Sargent: That's all I'll say. You set that up so beautifully, because as the film starts, okay where's the suspense? The suspense just builds the more you care about the characters, the more you know any second something can happen. So, the sound design was key, because we get the point-of-view of one of the characters who can't hear. And we get various points-of-view. How much of that was in the script, and how much of that ended up being amplified?
Bryan Woods: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, it was in the script. The script is unlike any script anyone has ever read, because it was so important to us to communicate that kind of silent film experience on the page. So, we were using all kinds of weird gimmicks, I guess you could say. We had images in the screenplay. There would be pages of the script that were completely blank. It just had one word, and it was ‘ouch’ referencing that nail sequence that you're talking about. We knew that it was a special film and that there would be an air of suspense throughout, a latent suspense because you understand intuitively that if these characters make a single solitary noise, bad stuff is going to happen. So, suspense is right around every single corner and right around every single page as we were writing it.
Scott Beck: As screenwriters, it was very much approaching the writing process as directors. You had to really figure out what the visualization of this idea would be. You also had to figure out the pacing, because you couldn't constantly have silence permeate the entire film. You had to envision where there might be sound design moments. If there are sound design moments, how heightened is that? Because you can't hit a ten every time out the gate or else the audience is always going to be on their guard. So, it's very much a challenging process to figure out how the writing ebbs and flows and is able to tell the story that will exist in the final version of the film.
As filmmakers, that's the type of movie we would want to see. I think that's always the key for any filmmaker is, work on what you're passionate about because you can chase what you think is the big idea that Hollywood will respond to, but what we've discovered throughout this process is just trusting our intuition.
Mike Sargent: You've both been in the business for a minute, so you've dealt with Hollywood and you know how it works. You also knew that no matter who you're going to, that somebody's going to read it before the person you want to get to will read it.
Bryan Woods: Sure. Sure.
Scott Beck: Right.
Mike Sargent: One of the tricks you probably learned early on is that you're not just writing for whoever you want it to make it, you're writing for that reader. So, you've got to be talking to that reader.
Bryan Woods: Absolutely.
Mike Sargent: You've got to keep that pacing you're talking about, that atmosphere going. How difficult was that knowing that, like you said, it's going to be read and you have to make the experience of reading match what you want them to experience?
Bryan Woods: It was everything for us, because we had no idea. We were like, "Is this script going to bore people to tears?", because there's no dialogue. Usually in a screenplay, dialogue is the easiest to breeze through. It's smaller on the page. It's confined. You can kind of flip through the pages. We're like, "Oh, no." So, the first thing we wrote was this 15-page proof-of-concept for ourselves as writers just to see, " Is this readable?". How do you communicate character, backstory, theme without characters walking around saying, "This is how I feel," or, "This is what happened to me last week." How do you do that silently, and how do you put it on the page?
Scott Beck: I think we took a page out of ... like the script for Alien where that script is so–
Mike Sargent: –So sparse.
Scott Beck: Yeah. It's incredible!
Mike Sargent: Yes, I've read it before. How could you not?
Scott Beck: Most recently, Dan Gilroy's script for Nightcrawler, it's the same way where it's very lean. We knew essentially that people would be reading this script, and those are the gatekeepers. That very much was in the process of writing how to figure out how to get through that door, especially when you have such an odd concept for the film.
Mike Sargent: It had to be a huge challenge.
Scott Beck: Oh Yeah!
Mike Sargent: In structuring this story, there's a point where you have to either give us, to make it as you say Twilight Zonesque, give us an ending that's open-ended but still satisfying. You know you don't have a lot of characters, but you have to kill somebody.
Bryan Woods: Definitely.
Mike Sargent: So, how difficult was that to kind of come up with, put together, and come up with an ending that you felt was satisfying?
Scott Beck: Well, the ending in the film was very much the ending actually in the proof-of-concept. So, this goes back a few years when we were originally working on it. We knew there needed to be some sort of emotional catharsis though, because it's not just enough to scare the audience. You need arcs for each of the characters. You need an arc for this family. So, without giving anything away, that very much was the weight that we put on ourselves to figure out how do you resolve this story in some way that is going to be hopefully satisfying, but also inevitable from what you set up in the very first act of the film.
Mike Sargent: Just in terms of career wise. In some ways, this is a perfect Hollywood idea. It's a high concept. You pitch it to someone, they get it, "Wow, that could be this, it could be that." You can see the conversation. At the same time, it's also like, "Huh?"
Scott Beck: (Both laughing) Which was very much the reaction that we got early on in the process.
Bryan Woods: Yeah. I have to say, it was one of those ideas where we actually put it in a drawer for quite a while, because we would pitch it to producers, producers who we had worked with before that we were close with, producers whose taste we really respected. They would literally tell us, "Nah, we don't see it. Don't waste your time on that one." So, we put it in a drawer, and I actually credit Scott, because we always talk about, "What's the next idea? What's the next idea?" Scott really kept coming back to it. He was like, "I think there's something there. I don't really care what other people have said about it. I really believe in it." So, we just kept pushing on it and trying.
Scott Beck: It was one of those sticky ideas. I think it was just because, as filmmakers, that's the type of movie we would want to see. I think what's always the key for any filmmaker is, work on what you're passionate about because you can chase what you think is the big idea that Hollywood will respond to, but what we've discovered throughout this process is just trusting our intuition. Yeah, we had the plan of, "We'll just go back to Iowa and shoot this for no money whatsoever, worst case scenario." That was enough passion to drive us forward.
Bryan Woods: It's funny how those weird ideas break out. I mean, Get Out was my favorite film of last year, and I can only assume when Jordan Peele was pitching this movie to people, they were just like, "What?"
Mike Sargent: That's what he said too.
Scott Beck: Yeah, he put that in a drawer too for a while.
Mike Sargent: If we mention Get Out, one of the things about science fiction and horror, besides it being a genre, is it's one of those things where people have a tendency to kind of put it in a box immediately.
Scott Beck: Right.
Mike Sargent: So, if you're blending genres, people will go, "So what kind of movie is it?"
Bryan Woods: Right. Right.
Mike Sargent: I'm curious, to me, it's a Twilight Zone. How did you see it? Did you see it as a genre film, a family drama, an end of the world film?
Scott Beck: Well, I think it really comes back to our favorite films that are in the genre of sci-fi or horror, those are always a blend. So, it was never about one or the other. It was always, "It has to be a combination of both," because you can deliver just a horror film and maybe it will scare some people, but you'll forget about it. It's not going to have any emotional impact. Then you can do the family drama, but is that really going to get people engaged and wanting to see this movie? So, it always had to be the marriage of both. That's where we feel like the cinematic magic happens.
We knew there needed to be some sort of emotional catharsis though, because it's not just enough to scare the audience. You need arcs for each of the characters.
Mike Sargent: Well, let me ask you more of a process question.
Scott Beck: Sure.
Mike Sargent: ... because I know sometimes you can get so close to an idea that it's not until somebody comes along and goes, "Oh my God," like that's been sitting there, you didn't see it. I'm wondering, you've got somebody like Michael Bay to produce it, so he obviously saw it. Then you've got John Krasinski not only to direct it but be in it and help massage the script. So, I'm curious what he brought to it that maybe you might not have thought of.
Scott Beck: John coming on as a director, is tasked with figuring out what exactly does this look like visually, so elements, thinking through the process of, "How does this family live?", like the sand paths [sand is placed on the ground so footsteps make less sound], those were very much the elements that he was able to put into action to really ground the reality of their day-to-day existence.
Bryan Woods: Yeah, and I think like any good director, when he came on, I think he just looked at the script through the prism of his own life experience and said, "How can I make this slightly more personal to what I know?" I know that he had just had a kid at the time of reading the script, so I think he was peppering in a little bit of detail in terms of his own personal experience and how that kind of interacted with the story we had written.
Scott Beck: One thing that was really cool though to see in that process of bringing the film to life was the casting of Millicent Simmonds who ... There was always the character who is deaf, but to be able to cast somebody that has that actual life experience is going to inform the film so much more than if you cast just somebody else that is playing a deaf character. That was certainly an aspect that we loved seeing come to life, because you don't usually get to see all these different sides of life in film. So, we're really proud of that and what John has done.
Mike Sargent: I feel that as you define your art, your art defines you. What did you learn about yourselves maybe, and writing in general, from this process?
Bryan Woods: Wow.
Scott Beck: I know when we were writing this script, I was not a father at the time. Three months ago, I became a dad for the first time.
Mike Sargent: Congratulations.
Scott Beck: Thank you. So, in the process, I think I realized the weight of trying to protect your child, because back then that was just a concept. We could theorize what it's like to be a parent, but to actually become a parent, it becomes so much more. That's something that I think as the film starts to trickle out, we're starting to see people react to that, that instinctual fear of not being able to protect your child. I've certainly learned I'm a very fearful person now.
Bryan Woods: I hesitate to answer this question. This is one of the most substantive questions we've been asked, so thank you for that. Apologies in advance if this is not a good answer, but I think what I learned through writing the script and making the movie is just how important it is what we say to each other. The movie is just as much about what we don't say as what we do say and how important communication amongst the family that's been through a tragedy is, and how communication can really bring us together and heal us.
Mike Sargent: Well, I'll tell you one of the things that I liked about this movie, again, as a film lover, as a film critic, as a film maker, is there are lots of movies where there are great special effects, it's a good concept, whatever, whatever, but I sit there going, "I do not understand why this character did this." What I would call ‘emotional intent.’ I understood everybody's emotional intent.
Scott Beck: Oh, great. Cool.
Mike Sargent: That, to me, is sort of the secret sauce. That's how you care about characters, because you understand them emotionally. That, I thought, was very strong. I'm just wondering, is it that you guys, "Well, we're just that good," or was that something that you struggled with?
Scott Beck: (laughing) Right. In the process, we take more time rather than less time. We're always too precious with material. We're trying to second guess every single decision along the way including character's intent. We want to make sure that it all is tracking, that's it's all arcing to some sort of meaning, and that it's not ever betraying the story. You're right, you can easily be taken out of the movie by one small mistake in terms of the believability of a character.
Mike Sargent: How do you two work together? Who's got what strength, who's got what weakness, who is better at descriptions, who is better with the dialogue? How do you guys break up the work, and what is the ying-and-yang?
Bryan Woods: There's no division in terms of talent. One of us isn't better at dialogue, or structure or anything. We do everything 50/50, but what we get out of collaborating is challenging each other. We're very good about trying to bring out the best in each other's work. I know many times Scott will send me a scene that he's been working on, and I'll do my best to kind of elevate it. I'll send it back to him, and he'll do his best to elevate that even further. We just kind of send our work back and forth to each other and continuously challenge each other.
Bryan Woods: The other cool thing about having a partnership is that it's very easy as writers sometimes, you write a scene, you think, "This is so good." It's easy to get precious over your own work sometimes. You never feel precious when somebody else's hands are part of the collaboration. I think it's just a little bit easier for us to objectively look at our writing and go, "This scene is just really not working," or, "This ending is not as emotionally satisfying as we had hoped. Let's take another look at it and keep working it."
Scott Beck: Yeah. Hopefully the marriage of our ideas usually is better than if Bryan was just writing a script or if I was just writing a script, that we're always trying to distill to the simplest and best idea possible.
Mike Sargent: Having collaborated, I think; check your ego at the door, and like you said, just being open like, "What's the best idea?" He can give you an idea and you can go, "That's a piece of shit, but I'll give you a better idea." If you can't convince each other, then...
Bryan Woods: Totally. Honestly, that's one of the beautiful things about filmmaking in general is it's all collaborative, whether it's the directors, the actors, or the producers. Everyone's just trying to make the best movie possible. It really shouldn't be about egos, it's just best idea wins. Certainly, A Quiet Place was that experience for us.
Mike Sargent: So from this experience and seeing something that's been in a drawer for so long that you wanted to do and you were going to do yourselves if you had to, what did you learn maybe about what you guys might want to tackle next?
Bryan Woods: Oh, wow.
Scott Beck: Now, that's a great question. I mean, I think one thing that we want to maintain as much as possible as writers, and also as directors, is just originality. I think there's such a groundswell for original ideas. We're inundated all the time too with so many things that are based on other existing properties or superhero movies. For us, it's just about finding new stories to tell. So, I think that's the focus. One of the things that's been nice about A Quiet Place, at least in its early release finding an audience is that, it just confirms that people are ready for more stories like this.
Mike Sargent: And something different.
Scott Beck: Yeah.
Mike Sargent: What do you tell young aspiring filmmakers and writers?
Bryan Woods: Chase the weird, kind of crazy ideas that you love.
Mike Sargent: ‘Chase the weird.’ That should be on a t-shirt.
Bryan Woods: (Both laugh) Everyone has their own personal story. Everyone came from a specific place that makes them unique. Finding that, and latching onto that, and exploring that I think is usually a great well for writers to turn to and make something cool.
Scott Beck: Yeah. I also would add to that, just making your own opportunities. Coming from Iowa, we had no in roads to Hollywood whatsoever and we couldn't be further away. What we found is just making your own movies in your own backyard is a great way to tell stories. Then you can show those to your friends, and then get some response, and then hopefully use that information and things you've learned into the next movie and just build from there. So, always just create.
Mike Sargent: Now the fun question, Top three films.
Scott Beck: Of all time?
Mike Sargent: ... of all time, that no matter what, you'll stop and you'll look.
Bryan Woods: Oh my gosh.
Scott Beck: That is such a hard question. Okay, I'll start with the first one, After Hours. Being here in SoHo, where did they shoot that? Wasn't it around the corner?
Mike Sargent: Right.
Scott Beck: After Hours is such an incredible film in terms of just starting the movie off, and then you never let the audience breathe until the final frame of the film.
Mike Sargent: You have no idea where it's going to go.
Scott Beck: Yeah, yeah.
Bryan Woods: Exactly. That's such a fun ride. I'll add to that, this is maybe a more conventional choice, but Hitchcock's Vertigo, I love. It's beautifully made. It's personal, clearly. This is a man who knows a lot about obsession, and that whole film is about obsession. I love how it just kind of unfolds. You don't know where that thing's going.
Scott Beck: To that, I would add Hitchcock's The Birds, which I feel like is similar to A Quiet Place in that every time you're outside near a flock of birds, you have to stay silent or else they're coming after you. That film is wonderful how it just starts off as a character piece and then devolves into this terrifying suspense film. Then I would say my other film that I always go to is a complete departure from genre, but it's Alexander Payne's About Schmidt where it's about this guys who's just reflecting on his life and the meaning of that. That's one of those character things that I'm like, "What is the purpose of humanity?". So, it gets really heavy sometimes when I put that on, but I always continue watching it.
Mike Sargent: You've got two more.
Bryan Woods: Okay, I've got two more. Here's another one. This is one of my all-time favorite movies. It's one of the movies that inspired me to be a filmmaker is M. Night Shyamalan's Unbreakable. It's kind of cool to like that movie now, but at the time, I saw it four times in theaters and my friends were not having it. They were not into that movie. Again, beautifully articulated visually. All these amazing wonders, groundbreaking wonders, and amazing performances from Bruce Willis, Sam Jackson. Excellent story.
Bryan Woods: I don't know, I'll go obscure for my final one. I'll say Jacques Tati’s Playtime, which is a silent film of sorts. It's just unlike anything I've ever seen before. I would love to figure out what the modern day equivalent is to that film, but that film is just a movie you observe, you just watch. It's all about what is not happening in the story. It's all about what's happening in the corners of the frame. It's all about the audience participating and seeing things that they have never seen before or kind of the surreal magic of every day life. A beautiful film.
Mike Sargent: The last thing I'll say on A Quiet Place is what I like is similar to what you're mentioning in Unbreakable, set-up, payoff, set-up. You don't know you're being set-up, but then it pays off very, very well.
Bryan Woods: Well, thank you so much.
Scott Beck: Thanks so much.
Bryan Woods: That's very nice of you to say.