A Quiet Place & Breaking Screenplay Conventions

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A Quiet Place & Breaking Screenplay Conventions

2018’s A Quiet Place has silently dominated the box office-- in a summer crowded with big budget blockbuster releases in well-established franchises, this $17 million horror thriller has domestically out-grossed Ready Player One and racked up over $332 million dollars at the box office worldwide.

2018’s A Quiet Place has silently dominated the box office-- in a summer crowded with big budget blockbuster releases in well-established franchises, this $17 million horror thriller has domestically out-grossed Ready Player One and racked up over $332 million dollars at the box office worldwide. Some of this success can certainly be ascribed to the film’s high-concept logline: in this horror movie, screaming is what gets you killed. Curiously, however, many of the elements that attracted Paramount to Scott Beck and Bryan Woods’ spec script never made it to the screen-- not only was A Quiet Place significantly rewritten, with entire characters being removed, added, and combined, but some of the screenplay’s stand-out features were un-filmable to begin with.

It’s true-- Beck and Woods break countless screenwriting “rules” in their first draft of A Quiet Place, ignoring long-standing maxims about both formatting and content. But by strategically selecting how and when to deviate from these guidelines, A Quiet Place ultimately stands out as a thoroughly entertaining read, capable of raising your heart rate with just a printed page.

The first draft of A Quiet Place is not always formatted in 12 pt. Courier. Characters introductions are always typed in capital letters, but so are nearly half the sentences across the screenplay’s brisk 79 pages. A turbine isn’t just described as large, Beck and Woods include an illustrated diagram comparing the height of the Statue of Liberty and a skyscraper to the average turbine’s height. And a father and daughter don’t just get closer in the reader’s mind when they rush toward one another, the word “closer” travels from opposite ends of the page until it’s reunited in the center. The use of formatting gimmicks like these are tricky, because they can easily backfire.

Critically, Beck and Woods aren’t relying on bolded text to prop up empty content. When a copy of A Quiet Place is run through Scriptonomics completely stripped of its formatting, the
once-heavily-stylized action scenes still shine through as the most significant scene ranges.

Thus, we might be able to say that the stylized formatting Beck and Woods employ is an extension of their ability to show rather than an attempt to tell. To that end, an analysis of significant scene ranges is important, as it reveals to the writer whether any stylized formatting they might choose to employ matches the significance of the scene they attach it to.

In Significant Scene Range #1, April is nearly buried alive after she falls into the silo. This scene occurs at roughly the same point that Will falls into the silo in the completed film. Besides the obvious change in imperiled characters, the scene in Beck and Woods’ first draft is free of a climactic showdown. For all intents and purposes, this is the last large action set piece in the movie. April is trapped at the silo with the monster, John (Lee in the film) rushes to save her and Will (Marcus in the film) follows John.

In Significant Scene Range #2, the baby is born and begins to cry as the family races to implement its plans to mask the infant’s sounds from the monster. This scene plays out very similarly to the sequence in the film; however, it is worth underscoring just how clever the use of the baby is in Beck and Woods’ script. The baby is a character that unwittingly poses a threat to the heroes and aids the villain by nature of its very existence, yet the heroes feel compelled to protect.

Significant Scene Ranges #3 and #4 both help set up the climax in Significant Scene Range #1, John prepares timers to distract the monsters as he goes to rescue April. Those timers go off too quickly, triggering the crisis that culminates in Significant Scene Range #1. These scenes do not occur in the finished film, partly because the role of the silo is transplanted from the climax of the film (in the screenplay), to setting up/ building tension toward the climax of the film (the role that this significant scene range plays).

Curiously, there is a notable absence from these scenes, an absence which the completed film aims to rectify. Normally when analyzing significant scenes, the events that are highlighted directly tie into the theme of work/ the hero’s (internal) journey. In the case of A Quiet Place, all the events that Scriptonomics identifies are related to plot/ the sequencing of actions, not story/ the internal journey the character undertakes.

Despite jamming its brisk 79 pages full of bolded text and diagrams, the screenplay for A Quiet Place does spend a significant length of time developing its characters. John, whose inability to emotionally articulate estranges him from his two daughters, is given the most character work. His daughters perceive him as overly cold when angry and can never tell when he has forgiven them. So why are these scenes not considered significant? A look at the “Character Appearances in Scenes” diagram may help unlock the answer.

By visualizing each scene in which a given character appears, this graph can help writers to avoid losing track of characters. A quick glance shows that in the case of A Quiet Place, one named character’s appearance rate stands out as anomalous: Iris. While John and Mia have a dead son in the finished film, he appears only in the opening sequence before being killed by the monster. Iris, meanwhile, appears in several flashbacks peppered across the screenplay and dies in a car accident completely unrelated to the monster. There are some attempts to cohesively tie Iris and John’s turbulent father-daughter relationship into the creature feature unfolding in real time-- Iris suggests that the family buy a high-frequency-emitting sonic device to scare off crows that are eating the family’s crops and this machine is later used to mortally wound the sound-sensitive monster. Having never gotten the chance to say goodbye to Iris before she is killed, John screams “I love you” to draw the monster away from his children, sacrificing himself. These flashbacks are inserted into the story in a way that the information clearly reveals the events that are about to unfold, undercutting any dramatic tension. Furthermore, Iris’s flashback-based appearances mark the only significant respite from the monster’s present-day attack on the family. The result is that the flashbacks become a jarring tonal shift between action and family drama. Looking at the finished film, the most significant departures from Beck and Woods’ spec script were made to address these issues-- Iris is substituted with a baby boy who’s killed onscreen and there are no flashbacks.

These structural changes have quite a few positive impacts on the story. While Iris dies in a car crash, John and Mia’s son is killed by the monster. The audience is immediately aware of how dangerous and ruthless this creature is. Compare this to the spec script, the creature doesn’t kill anyone until the last ten pages, only the family dog is sacrificed offscreen to demonstrate the danger posed.

To further replace the flashbacks, additional monster-diverting devices like the sound-muffling waterfall are introduced for both pacing and emotional storytelling. These changes are more clearly plot-motivated than the flashbacks and better spread out character development. While John and Mia’s living son has no dialogue in the spec script, the changes grant him a character of his own. His presence in the spec script is so utilitarian that he doesn’t even make the list of significant characters. In the film, his trip to the waterfall with his dad both teaches us about the boy’s character and helps teach his father to become more emotionally open.

A Quiet Place is also worth studying from a fiscally-minded perspective-- not only was it extremely financially successful for Paramount, but it was a spec script that sold.

What may be more interesting in the case of Beck and Woods’ spec script, however, is where it would not sell. In a June 2018 interview with Variety, horror mega-producer Jason Blum revealed that despite his love for the finished film, he would have turned the screenplay for A Quiet Place down. While Blum particularly focuses on A Quiet Place’s effects as a negating factor - “The effects in that movie were spectacular. Effects in horror movies are almost impossible to do well and that’s why you rarely see them in our movies,” it’s also important to note Blumhouse’s low budgets. Blumhouse almost never produces a film for more than $15 million.

With a $17 million budget, A Quiet Place isn’t too far out of Blumhouse’s range. And it may initially seem to be relatively modest in scale-- the film primarily centers around a family’ home, like so many Blumhouse horror films. But A Quiet Place doesn’t just feature an internal setting, it features a farm as well as numerous CGI monsters. While most low budget horror films have a far greater number of interior scenes than exterior scenes, A Quiet Place bucks this trend with 54.8% of the film taking place outdoors.

In the case of this film, a few establishing shots of a farm followed by a heavy number of interior scenes would not suffice. The family spends time in the cornfields, crossing between various structures on the farm. Furthermore, several locations only appear a few times, rather than continuously being recycled for peak economic efficiency. The location of the turbine, in particular, is one with a limited amount of screenplay and a number of logistical challenges.

The fact that a screenplay like A Quiet Place could be turned down may be sobering. But for a spec writer, it may also present an important lesson. Narrowing down story elements with an eye toward economic success may be something to consider when writing your first couple of screenplays. While established writers can get away with targeting large productions with their spec scripts, many writers don’t have that luxury. With its innovative and exciting formatting, Scott Beck and Bryan Woods’ spec script for A Quiet Place is a fun and exciting read. By recognizing the potential pitfalls introduced by its use of flashbacks, it was transformed into a carefully constructed and thoughtful piece. A piece that in turn resonated widely, cementing the film’s place as a quiet, monster hit.

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