by Angela Bourassa (@angelabourassa1)
I am not a horror person. A Quiet Place was actually the first horror movie I went to see in theaters because, while it looked terrifying, I was willing to risk the potential nightmares to see such a high concept film that John Krasinski repeatedly referred to as “a love letter to my children.”
Then I got the chance to see Scott Beck and Bryan Woods, the writers of A Quiet Place, give a talk at last year’s Austin Film Festival, and my appreciation for these extremely talented and down-to-earth writers only grew. (To get a sense of just how nice they are, follow Beck and Woods on Twitter – inspiration and support for days.)
So when the opportunity arose to watch Haunt, the new writing/directing effort from Beck and Woods, I was all about it. Until I saw the trailer.
Holy crap, guys – this movie looks SO SCARY.
My husband and I were all set to watch the film, but I’m glad we watched that trailer first, because we would’ve both had nightmares for years and years.
Hopefully you are all braver souls than I, because Haunt looks to be a strong addition to the horror cannon with performances from Katie Stevens, Will Brittain, and Lauryn Alisa McClain.
I spoke with Scott Beck and Bryan Woods last week – even admitting that I was too scared to watch the film, which they were gracious enough to forgive – about the experience of having these two films greenlit at roughly the same time and the process of bringing Haunt and A Quiet Place to the big screen.
Angela Bourassa: You said in your director’s statement, “If A Quiet Place was our ode to ‘prestige’ horror and an attempt to elevate tired genre conventions, then Haunt was our counterpoint – a feeling that horror doesn’t need to be ‘elevated’ to be wonderful.” Would you mind expanding on that a little bit?
Scott Beck: Yeah, you know, our love of horror is incredibly expansive, so the movies that I watched as a child and I know Bryan watched as well were creature features. It was Gremlins, it was Alien, it was The Fly – it was movies that really leaned into the pure horror aspect. And then, with the year 1999, our love of horror expanded with movies like The Sixth Sense, which is this beautiful character piece with a high-concept ghost story. And we discovered slowly as things went on with our career that we had a love of both sides of that spectrum.
When writing A Quiet Place, we knew we were gunning for more of that Shyamalan-esque high-concept horror style, but we also had this itch that we wanted to scratch of just going back to the basics like John Carpenter’s Halloween or Tobe Hooper’s The Funhouse and just do something that felt like a pure roller coaster ride, and so that was the germ of the idea that sparked Haunt.
Bryan Woods: There’s so much pressure right now to elevate horror, as people say, where you see the success of Get Out and Us and The Witch and It Follows and all of these beautiful, amazing horror movies that are tonally and thematically elevated – which is awesome. But we’re also like, Friday the 13th is also fun! And there are other flavors of horror that are so much fun. So for us, writing A Quiet Place and Haunt simultaneously, we were kind of able to show two different sides of our souls.
Scott Beck: Right. And the last thing I would add to that is just, as screenwriters, you always put whatever you want on the page in the hope that it’s going to move the audience, and then as directors, you have to take that one step further and assess: myself as an audience member, how am I going to react to this? How far can we push the suspense? And when we were designing Haunt and especially A Quiet Place, we were really assessing: what is it going to be like on that Friday night when you’re sitting in the theater with a communal audience? And where are you hopefully going to take their breath away? That sentiment in the horror genre is with us every step of the way in both projects – trying to make the scariest, most suspenseful ride possible.
Angela Bourassa: Sure. So which one was more fun to write? …Was Haunt more fun?
Scott & Bryan: [Laughter]
Bryan Woods: Um, they were both fun. Haunt was – ah, man – Haunt was fun because we were really tapping into our childhood. Scott and I have known each other since we were eleven, and we grew up in the Midwest where one of the things that you do every Halloween is you go out haunted housing. You go out in the middle of nowhere – and these haunted houses are run by people who, like, it’s their hobby to scare people. So writing this was tapping into that childhood mix of fear and fun, and it was just so awesome.
Scott Beck: And beyond that, having Eli Roth come on board in the script process was an incredibly fun part of that process, because he’s an encyclopedia of the genre. Just sitting with him and hearing all the different references, all the different movies that he looks to for inspiration and passing those on to us – in addition to lending his brain to this script – that’s something that makes us geek out as horror fans and really made the script writing process of this a fun one.
Angela Bourassa: It seems like kind of a big risk to write a horror movie set in a haunted house, because while that’s obviously a very well-established horror sub-genre, it’s also… a very well-established horror sub-genre, you know? So I’m wondering, as you were breaking the story for this script, how did you go about finding a fresh angle or something that would make the script stand out and make people pay attention?
Bryan Woods: Well, we always start from a thematic place. We knew we wanted to do a Halloween movie and we knew we wanted to set it in the world of haunted houses, which was personal to us, so we started talking about: what is Halloween? And for us, Halloween is a season that’s all about dress up – it’s all about putting on a mask and pretending to be someone else. And so we started taking that theme and filtering it through not just the heroes of the story but also the villains, and that was really fun.
The heroes have kind of a thematic conquest. Our lead character, Harper, she’s putting on a front. She’s in this abusive relationship, and her whole story is about how she needs to stop pretending everything’s ok. She needs to take off the mask and become who she really is. But our villains have a literal, non-elevated version of taking off a mask, which is: what is the monster that they’re hiding behind?
Scott Beck: I think to us, it was really fun on the page and certainly while directing figuring out: what is that moment where you reveal that mask and how does that change the story and change the game and change the stakes at that point?
Angela Bourassa: Right. Speaking of the script particularly, I read your original screenplay for A Quiet Place, and it obviously… it stands out. It’s 67 pages, it’s full of pictures and hand writing and different fonts… So I’m curious, your script for Haunt – does it have any of those same characteristics or its own particular quirks, or is it more of a standardly formatted script?
Bryan Woods: Well, first and foremost, thanks for tracking down that script and taking a look at it.
Angela Bourassa: Of course!
Bryan Woods: It was such a beautiful piece of art on the page – we love screenwriting so much, and have immersed ourselves in this artform, but most people don’t get to see what’s on the page and only see the final movie, so that’s cool that you checked that out.
Those rule-breaking techniques that we used in that script, we are very sensitive about how we activate those, and we only want to break those out for the right things. So, A Quiet Place was a sort of very upside down, unique, silent film experience, and so a lot of the aggressive brushstrokes that we put on that script were specific to that script. But with Haunt, we did some less aggressive but still kind of zany and fun things.
Like, there’s a part of Haunt where the characters break off into this maze and the two parties part ways, so we did some unique formatting things with the slug lines and the structure and right-side aligned the group that was going to the right side of the maze and left-side aligned the group that was going left – things like that which make the read fun and make the pages turn but also crystalize a vision for the reader. The hope is that you feel like you’re watching a movie as you’re reading it.
Angela Bourassa: That’s great. Sorry to keep going back to A Quiet Place, but it’s just so fun to compare the two since they came out so close together.
Scott Beck: No worries.
Angela Bourassa: So, with A Quiet Place, you handed your baby over to John Krasinski, and he directed it and shared a writing credit. With Haunt, you’re directing your own script. How did those two experiences compare? What were the benefits and drawbacks in both cases?
Scott Beck: A Quiet Place, when we were writing that script we had such a visual stronghold on what that project should be, so it wasn’t just like writing something that would be activated from a pure cinema level, but it’s also utilizing sound design, because we think that sound design is one of the most important things alongside [the visuals].
We were very honored, obviously, to have John and Emily come on board, and beyond that the sound team that worked on A Quiet Place – we were absolutely floored by their work. And when you’re handing off a script, handing it off to people that share that vision is the best situation possible, because you don’t always get that. Sometimes you have partners that don’t really share that vision and what comes out at the end of the day is not what was in your head. So that whole experience with A Quiet Place, it was really beautiful that we were able to hand it off to people who were able to execute it to the degree that we were always hoping that movie could be executed.
When directing our own piece, you obviously are able to at least have the illusion of more control…
Angela Bourassa: [Laughter]
Scott Beck: …because filmmaking is such an alchemy where you have incredible collaborators that it becomes something greater than what you could ever expect. And going back to the sound design, we were able to use Skywalker Sound which is, in our opinion, the best sound facility in the world, and we even had some of the sound design team that worked on A Quiet Place come over and work on Haunt, and having those geniuses at work and sitting back as directors and getting to work with them – you get to exorcise every little bit of scare through sound effects and through sound mixing. It’s just one of the most fun parts of the directorial process that we really embraced this time out.
Angela Bourassa: Looking ahead, do you plan to stick within the horror genre or do you have other types of stories you want to tell?
Scott Beck: It’s both. I mean, our love of cinema spans from John Carpenter all the way to Francois Truffaut and Jacques Tati, so some of the stuff that we’re working on right now has a foot in both. There’s a horror piece that we can’t announce just yet that we’re working on. We’re adapting Stephen King’s The Boogeyman for 20th Century Fox, so that’s definitely got a footprint in the horror genre, but also a footprint in the family drama genre, very much like A Quiet Place. And we’re doing work on a script with Mahershala Ali that is a bigger sci-fi canvas film, so that’s our stepping outside of just the horror genre.
But I think we just love movies that communicate to an audience on a Friday night or a Saturday night in a communal space that hearkens back to when Brian and I were kids and just loved going to the cinema and having a visceral reaction to the screen.
Angela Bourassa: Right. So, last question: if you could go back in time to when these two movies films got the greenlight, is there anything you learned along the way that you wish you would have been able to tell yourself back then?
Bryan Woods: …Wow. That’s a deep question.
Angela Bourassa: [Laughter]
Bryan Woods: And a great question.
Scott Beck: Yeah.
Bryan Woods: You’re gonna stump us…
Scott Beck: If I had to muster up something off the fly, it would be – this is kind of an extension, but – it would be, “Write what is in your backyard.” And I think that is what we discovered in writing A Quiet Place and Haunt – we never had the expectation that one of those movies would get made, let alone two. That’s kind of the life of a screenwriter – you never know what’s going to pass the finish line. For us, we just really leaned heavily into writing something that could be achievable on a smaller budget. A Quiet Place was written to be shot for like $50,000, worst case scenario, if we couldn’t find a studio to partner with. We just looked at the resources that we had at hand and activated those. I don’t know if that’s something we would tell ourselves to do otherwise, but it’s something that – looking to the future – we always keep in the back of our mind.
HAUNT will be in theaters, On Demand and Digital on Friday, September 13, 2019.
Angela Bourassa is the founder of LA Screenwriter and the co-founder of Write/LA, a screenwriting competition created by writers, for writers. A mom, UCLA grad, and alternating repeat binger of The Office and Parks and Recreation, Angela posts articles through @LA_Screenwriter and unique daily writing prompts through @Write_LA.