Alex Moreland chats with A Quiet Place sound designers Erik Aadahl and Ethan Van der Ryn…
So, first of all: how did you guys initially get involved with A Quiet Place?
Ethan: So, we worked with the producers of A Quiet Place on many projects and they started talking to us about this incredible script that they had just gotten and were planning on turning into a movie, and that sound was gonna be a big player in the movie. They got us the script and we read it and we became incredibly excited about the prospects inherent in the story. So, then we met with John Krasinski and started brainstorming ideas with him – a few months later we got the first cut of the film, and started going to work on it.
Do you think it’s fair to describe the sound design for A Quiet Place as being one of the bigger challenges of your career?
Erik: Absolutely, it’s one of the biggest sound challenges I think we’ve ever encountered. And I think John Krasinski knew that going in, which was why he met with us so early. Upon reading the script we realized that sound would be critical to the execution of this experience. Sound literally is a matter of survival for this family, so any sound they make can be the end of it all, because of course they’re dealing with creatures who are so hypersensitive to sound. The family has had to adapt in so many different ways to survive, in terms of pouring sand on the trails to not make twigs crunch, in terms of painting floorboards so they know which boards are safe to step on and won’t make too big a sound, and also having adapted with sign language to communicate, all so they can survive.
For us, the sound was so critical to really put the audience into the shoes of the characters going through this incredible experience.
Ethan: Yeah, I mean just to expand on the idea of really putting the audience in the shoes of the characters, I think that’s one of the really nice byproducts of how sound is such a narrative driver for the film – because we’re really able to strip away so much sound and make big parts of the movie so incredibly quiet, I think the audience really gets sort of sucked into the action and into the drama and really become active participants in the story. It becomes a very participatory and engaging experience because of that.
The film has this deaf character, the daughter, and one of the key things you do is move in and out of her ‘sonic perspective’, as it were, to emphasise and de-emphasise certain sounds. Can you tell us a little bit about how you went about that, and the effect it had?
Erik: That was something that we realised right upon reading the script and seeing that one of the principal characters in the film, the daughter Regan (Millicent Simmons) is deaf: that telling what her perspective is, what her point of view is, would be critical. John Krasinski gave it that term “sonic envelope”, so in the beginning, in the very first scene of the film we establish her sonic envelope; the camera pushes in to her cochlear implant and with the sound, we switch into her point of view. So we take in all of the atmospheric sounds, and we play this low rumbling presence, which is a sound that John Krasinski had described as what Millicent’s mom had explained was what [Millicent] hears when her cochlear implant is turned on, it’s almost like the sound of her own body presence.
Then of course we have another sonic envelope for her, which is when her cochlear implant is turned off. And to me, those are the most terrifying parts of the film, because it’s just like the rug is pulled out from under you. We have zero sound, and it is absolute digital silence. And that’s something that we’ve never done before in a film, and it’s kind of shocking.
Ethan: Yeah, in a way it’s interesting because what it allows us to do is turn the horror trope of a jump scare on its head a little bit, and by actually having these moments where we take all sound out of the movie, in some ways those are some of the most intimate but also the most shocking and memorable moments in the film.
When you were putting together the sound design, did you work linearly through the movie, or was it a case of building around the big moments?
Erik: Yeah, the first important thing with creating the sounds for the film was just establishing the rules. So we had to take some time to both allow the audience to adjust to this very different experience that is kind of unique, but then also set up what sounds were safe sounds, and of course to do that we play with perspective – you know, you won’t hear a sound at all for a footstep on a wide shot, but then when you move in very close, you’ll hear it. We established those sonic rules as to what are safe sounds, and then we start to establish what are dangerous sounds very very quickly in the beginning of the film – those rules are established when things go south.
Ethan: In terms of establishing the rules, there’s a lot of very subtle things that we do with the sound that I think most audiences aren’t gonna notice. It becomes more subliminal in terms of establishing the rules, the sonic rules of the movie. In this movie there’s no doors that open or close, and in the environment, we have cricket beds but no single crickets, with the idea being that any sound that stands out from the background that’s masking it would be dead or killed by these monsters. If they haven’t been killed, then they would have learned obviously how much sound is too much sound to make to be safe. So that’s an example of just some of the subtle work that goes into sort of creating the sonic environment that helps reinforce the logic of the story.
Erik: Yeah, and then those rules are kind of translated into the more obvious things like, for example, the family can only feel comfortable having a conversation if they’re next to a waterfall, which is a bigger sound that then masks the smaller sound of talking. So, there are all of these survival tricks they’ve had to learn and adapt to, and any living creature in this universe that hasn’t adapted to those rules is no longer with us.
Is there anything you think you’d like other filmmakers to take from A Quiet Place, in terms of how they utilise sound in their movies?
Ethan: Well absolutely. I think that the biggest takeaway is that sometimes it can be more powerful and more engaging to play less sound, and have the sound be more focused, than to play a lot of music, a lot of sound effects, a lot of dialogue. Sometimes doing the opposite can actually create a more engaging and powerful experience.
With a lot of blockbusters, there’s been this kind of race to the edge of the cliff sonically with ‘how much louder can everyone get?’ and going bigger and bigger and louder. What happens is there’s kind of this numbing effect to that much volume and I think audiences kind of start to tune out from it – so using negative space in A Quiet Place actually made people tune in. I’ll be excited to see how other filmmakers kind of see that and say “hey, you can have a blockbuster that does something totally different with sound”.
Are there any other recent movies that you think have had particularly impressive sound design, standing out to you because of it?
Erik: Last year one of my favourite movies was Baby Driver, where the sound design was so integrated with the scenes, the music, and the rhythms; Edgar Wright actually shot using sound and rhythms on set, so there’s this beautiful syncopation with sound design. Recently I saw a film called Hereditary which was a very different experience from A Quiet Place but also had some very interesting sound design.
Ethan: Yeah, I mean just thinking about one of the films Erik just mentioned, Baby Driver, one of the similarities it has with A Quiet Place was these were both films where the sound really becomes a character, in that the writers really thought about using sound as a tool, as a narrative device when writing the script. I think that’s sort of something that filmmakers could take away: the idea of really maximizing the potential of sound as a storytelling device. Because I think in general it’s sometimes treated as an afterthought and not really utilized to its full potential.
Erik: Yeah, it’s part of the DNA of the film in the case of A Quiet Place – on the very script level, sound was a character.
Is there anything you can tell us about any projects you’re working on at the moment? How do they compare to A Quiet Place, in terms of the challenges they present?
Ethan: Yeah, well there’s some very exciting projects that we cannot yet talk about because they’re not out yet, some of them aren’t out for a few years. But one thing I think we can talk about is very exciting project coming out, at Christmas, it’s called Bumblebee, and it’s a really incredible new fresh take on the Transformer. And so obviously we’re sound designing the main character, Bumblebee for that film. So again, it’s fun to do a film where sound is a character.
Finally, then: what would you most like audiences to take away from your work on A Quiet Place, and your work in general?
Ethan: Well, I think one of the big things that we would like people to take away is that it’s interesting when we talk to people about the work that we do. So many people in the world just assume that all of the sound that you hear when you go to a movie somehow just all happens when they’re shooting the movie, when in fact the opposite is true.
Many times when we start working on movies, we basically build the whole world moment-by-moment, sound by sound from the ground up, so it’s kind of a real tapestry that we weave together to create this experience that can be visceral and engaging. It’s something that’s painstakingly created from scratch as opposed to just somehow happening on its own.
Erik: We use two senses to experience a film, we use our sight and we use our hearing. For us, sound is half of the experience. I think Walter Murch, the famed picture editor and sound designer, put it really beautifully when he said that sound comes in through the back door – visuals come in through the front door, sound comes in through the back door, meaning that sound works really powerfully on a subliminal level, where an audience won’t necessarily be conscious of how they’re being manipulated. In a sense, as a sound designer, you can kind of become an emotional puppet master. A movie like A Quiet Place was really just a thrill to be involved with because we really could use sound to its full potential.
Erik Aadahl and Ethan Van der Ryn, thank you very much!
A Quiet Place is available on digital now and on DVD and Blu-ray from August 13th.