Few horror movies have gripped moviegoers this year quite like A Quiet Place, director John Krasinski’s tale of a world where making too loud a noise will lead to your death at the claws of strange creatures with super-sensitive hearing.
The movie has gained a reputation as a “silent” one, but of course it’s not; it just has a minimum of spoken dialogue (though it contains plenty of subtitled dialogue carried out via American Sign Language). The soundtrack of the film is filled with the sorts of everyday noises you might expect to hear walking around in your neighborhood or in nature, but calibrated and tweaked just so to make the experience of watching the film feel even more immersive than it normally would be.
In a movie without much spoken dialogue or loud sound effects, the quiet becomes loud and the loud becomes ear-piercing. It’s a big part of the reason the movie works as well as it does, and much of that is thanks to the work of sound designers Erik Aadahl and Ethan Van der Ryn.
That’s why I was so excited to have Aadahl and Van der Ryn on the latest episode of my podcast, I Think You’re Interesting, which I dedicated to some of the most interesting horror to have popped up in the first half of 2018. (In addition to talking with Aadahl and Van der Ryn, I discussed AMC’s terrific miniseries The Terror with its showrunners.)
The deeper we got into our conversation, the more Aadahl and Van der Ryn mentioned having “rules” for how sound would work within the film. I was interested in finding out just what those rules were, and they told me. That section of our conversation, lightly edited for length and clarity, follows.
What were some of the guidelines you set for yourself in terms of how much noise is too much noise?
One of our catchphrases for this movie, as we were developing the soundtrack, was if something was a little too loud, anyone in the room sensing that while we were working on it would go, “Dead!” [laughs] That character is dead.
That was our little thermometer internally. Obviously, this family has gone to extraordinary lengths to cleverly create this homestead where they can survive quietly, to the point of marking floorboards that they can avoid stepping on, pouring sand on the trails outside, so there aren’t twigs or leaves crunching that would attract attention. Nobody’s mentioned this before, but there’s no doors being opened or closed in this entire movie.
For us, it was about really stripping everything out and building up what we needed, which is sometimes kind of the opposite of what happens when you’re putting the sound together for a movie. Everything is covered and designed, and during the mix, you start tweaking that. Here, it was kind of the inversion of that. We tried to start with nothing and then just introduce the very specific sounds that we wanted for any moment.
What that kind of did, in a sense, was it made small sounds really big and small sounds really important. I also think what it did was it pulled the rug out from under the audience a little bit. Viewers are not used to having such a stripped-down environment, where they can hear themselves breathing in the theater, or hear themselves crunching on popcorn.
In a sense, that makes audiences an active participant in the whole conceit. They become a part of the cinematic experience. They’re holding their breath the same way the characters onscreen are, so it becomes kind of participatory in a way. And then when we do break those rules of silence and things go south, and you might hear something that’s louder than everything else has been in the film, that’s kind of shocking. Whereas that same loud sound in any other movie, where you’ve got wall-to-wall music score and a lot of sound, wouldn’t read as big or jarring.
Ethan Van der Ryn
Erik mentioned that when we did break the sonic rules that we had established and played something very loud, that was shocking.
Conversely, there’s three moments in the film where we take all of the sound out, and I think those are probably the most shocking and in many ways the most intimate moments in the movie. The three moments that we do that are all moments when we go into the sonic perspective of Regan, the deaf daughter, when she has her cochlear implant turned off. These are moments when we’re in her point of view, and it’s complete silence.
This is something that we’ve never done in our careers, where we’ve gone to complete digital zero, and some of the feedback we’ve been hearing on the movie is that these moments are what people remember.
The movie starts with a short sequence that lays out the rules of the world, almost entirely through camerawork and sound and the visual and aural elements of film, without dialogue. It’s really a bravura sequence in a lot of ways. You talked about stripping a lot of sound out, but that sequence has a lot of ambient noise. It’s the characters digging through an abandoned store in the post-apocalyptic world the film is set in. Tell me about constructing ambient noise in that setting, in that store and then when they’re on their walk home.
Before we get into the pharmacy, we establish the exterior of this abandoned town. That helps with this logic idea that’s elaborated on further in the film, where a louder sound will mask a smaller sound, and that is a trick they can use to survive. One of the only conversations in the film is held next to a waterfall, because that sound can mask their talking. Similarly in the opening of the film, we establish the exterior of the pharmacy. There’s winds and air and the presence of air, and we wanted that to be loud enough to allow the quieter sounds inside, keeping with the logic of that film, be masked.
So you could hear the little pitter-patter of feet with the youngest son of this family as he’s playing around this pharmacy. But of course, the mother is searching for some medication for her older son, who is sick. Being mature, knowing the rules, knowing this world that they’re living in, is doing her utmost to be so delicate with the little pill bottles and finding the right one. So we as sound designers have to make that so delicate, but then we add one little tick of the plastic bottle that’s just a little too loud and makes us as the audience feel the same thing that she’s feeling, which is like, [whispers] “Careful now!”
Then we just start to set up the rules. The young little son sees a toy space shuttle up on the shelf that he wants to play with and knocks it off the shelf. And his older sister Regan is right there to catch it, but she can’t catch it loudly! She has to catch it quietly. So without dialogue, just with sound and camerawork, we’re setting up those rules that will unfold for the rest of the film.
Ethan Van der Ryn
Just to expand on the idea of the sonic rules, I think there’s a lot of subtle things we did that people won’t notice. For instance, in most movies, when we’re outside in nature, we would play birds and crickets and single crickets and single birds. In this movie, we do play cricket beds, but we don’t play any individual, single crickets, to reinforce the logic — any single sound that stands out from its background that’s absorbing or masking it, is going to be dead. So there’s no single crickets. There’s no single bird calls, except for, I should say, there’s a few single crow calls at the beginning of the movie, but they’re flying up in the air.
That toy space shuttle does make a noise at some point. How long did you agonize over how loud to play that? It’s when we learn something very big about the world.
Those little toys have tiny little speakers, so they emit what is a high-frequency sound, and the human ear is particularly attuned to those high frequencies. That’s how we have evolved as hearing beings. We have to hear the twig cracking of the predator sneaking up behind us — that’s in that high-frequency range. We have to hear the baby crying, so that we can help nurture and comfort the baby. We have this high-frequency sensitivity.
So that sound of that space shuttle, being high frequency, cuts like a knife through anything. And obviously, the creatures that this family is trying to avoid can hear that as well, in the same way.
One other thing that we really wanted to experiment with that sound was when that toy is activated, it has kind of a happy sound to it, which I think is a fun juxtaposition against the horror of that sound. Having simultaneously this fun little, [sings] “Doodle-doo, doodle-doo!” juxtaposed with this terrible situation — that counterpoint is always really interesting.
For more with Aadahl and Van der Ryn — and a whole, separate interview with Soo Hugh and David Kajganich, the showrunners of AMC’s wonderful horror miniseries The Terror — check out the full episode.
To hear more interviews with fascinating people from the world of arts and culture — from powerful showrunners to web series creators to documentary filmmakers — check out the I Think You’re Interesting archives.