Brow Beat

A Quiet Place’s Sound Designers on the Power of Silence and Re-Creating the Intensity at Home

Emily Blunt and Millicent Simmonds in A Quiet Place.
Emily Blunt and Millicent Simmonds in A Quiet Place.
Jonny Cournoyer/Paramount Pictures.

Part of the magic of watching A Quiet Place in the theater is the way the film’s silences transform even the most innocent crunch of popcorn into a jump scare befitting a horror movie. On Tuesday, however, Paramount will release A Quiet Place on Blu-Ray and DVD, letting audiences experience the film from the comfort of their own living rooms. That might be tricky if those living rooms aren’t soundproof, because to fully appreciate A Quiet Place, you need to watch it in, well, a quiet place.

Fortunately, the film’s supervising sound editors, Ethan Van der Ryn and Erik Aadahl, have some advice to help viewers get the theater experience at home. Slate spoke to the duo about the power of silence and how they hope A Quiet Place will change the way filmmakers think about sound.

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Marissa Martinelli: You’ve both worked on major blockbusters in the past. How was your approach to working on A Quiet Place different from working on, for instance, one of the Transformers movies?

Erik Aadahl: Typically, on a blockbuster movie, we’ll build up an audio track that has everything, every sound, and then we’ll have options in the mixing stage to choose which details we want to bring out. In a funny way, we approached this film in the inverse. Instead of covering everything and then paring back, we did the opposite, which was to start with silence and then only really introduce the sounds that we absolutely needed.

That perfectly matched our philosophy for the film, which was Silence is survival. Any noise that a character makes is potentially deadly. We put ourselves in the characters’ shoes, as sound designers, and built the track in as sparse a way as we could.

Ethan Van der Ryn: One thing that was a little bit different with this film is that how we handled the music became crucial. When we first started working with the movie, there was basically music throughout. We quickly realized that in order to create the experience we wanted, we had to start stripping away all of the sound, but especially the [temporary] score that had been laid through all these moments. That was something we needed to sell to the filmmakers as being critical to the whole experience.

Aadahl: Those moments where we go into Regan’s point-of-view—that’s the deaf daughter played by Millicent Simmonds, who is deaf in real life—would be impossible if we kept the music going. Without it, though, we could create this very intimate sonic perspective which we needed to establish that in the very first scene of the film. Originally, as Ethan mentioned, there was temp score, which would have obliterated that entire concept. Finding the silence was really critical to building up the sound and the perspectives of the movie.

Regan’s perspective in particular is defined more by the silence than by sound. But it also sounds different depending on whether or not her cochlear implant is turned on. How did you achieve that effect?

Aadahl: We wanted to be faithful to what the experience is like, to hear the world through a cochlear implant. We did some research, but I think maybe the most useful help came from Millicent Simmonds herself. Our director, John Krasinski—who, by the way, is totally obsessed with sound, which was a treat for us—relayed to us her experience, which is almost like a low rumble, like the internal sound of your body being picked up by the implant. It’s a very muted sound that in the film can contrast with the sounds of the environment. That was the philosophical approach.

To me, the scariest moments of the film are when she turns her cochlear implant off and we go to complete digital silence. Ethan and I have never been able to do that in any film before. There’s something startling about that kind of absolute silence, because most people aren’t used to it; it’s just something that you never experience in the world. In a movie, it’s an amazing opportunity to experience that, and to me, juxtaposed with the situations Regan is in in the film, it’s just terrifying.

Van der Ryn: One of the interesting things that does as well is, when we’re in her sonic point of view, when her cochlear implant is turned on, I think most people would interpret that as almost being silent, even though it’s just very subtle sounds, that sort of whooshing of her blood. But then, when we take it from there down to complete silence when her implant is turned off, I think it forces people to reset their hearing and realize, Oh, I thought that was silent, but this is actually what silence is.

Some of the interesting feedback we got from people was saying that they were hearing the world around them in a different way once they came out of the movie theater onto the street. People are being forced to open their ears and listen in a way that they’re not used to. That’s rewarding feedback, and it’s directly related to all these different levels of sound and contrast between different layers of sound.

Speaking of hearing the world in a different way, one thing I realized after leaving the theater is that I couldn’t remember any birds chirping in the background of the movie. Is that deliberate?

Aadahl: Absolutely. There are crows, when they’re in the air, in the beginning of the film, and they can make sounds because they’re safely off the ground. All life that is living in this world has had to adapt to this new situation. Any single bird chirping would be dead. Birds that have survived would have learned the rules.

Van der Ryn: There are no single crickets either. There are no single animals that stand out from the background because they would be killed, and they’d have learned that they would be killed.

How, in the process of mixing, did you measure how loud a particular noise could be without attracting monsters? Was there a benchmark?

Aadahl: It was kind of a gut-level thing. We had this catchphrase while we were designing the sound and mixing it. If a sound, like a footstep or a person touching something, felt too loud, our catchphrase was Dead! They’re dead! In fact, one of our producers, Andrew Form, took special delight in calling out Nope, that’s too loud, they’re dead! We tried to apply a logic to it that we stuck to because without that logic, the film won’t work the way it does.

Van der Ryn: It really has to be a gut-level thing, on a case by case basis, because every instance will be different from every other. In the scene by the waterfall, the son and father are able to have a conversation and even yell because the waterfall masks the sounds of their voices. That’s just a concept that supports the logic of the film: that every sound exists in the context of its setting and the sounds that are happening around it.

Aadahl: That’s similar to the birth scene, with the fireworks being a louder sound to draw away the attention of the creatures.

Obviously, watching a movie in the theater is very different from watching it at home, especially when it comes to sound. How do you think your work will translate?

Van der Ryn: That’s something that we were a little worried about when we were working on the movie. When you have a movie theater, it’s almost like a temple for sound. It’s ideally completely insulated so you can really enjoy all the grades of quiet all the way to complete silence. The challenge with watching movies at home is there might be any number of sonic intruders, you might say, from the kitchen dishwasher to the washing machine.

Do you have any tips to create a more theater-like experience?

Van der Ryn: We really hope people who enjoy the DVD or Blu-Ray at home close the door to the kitchen and turn off anything that’s making noise to fully appreciate the experience, because the film really requires a silent environment. Lacking that, headphones are great too.

I listened to it with headphones myself and it was just as scary as watching in the theater. I realized I was holding my breath.

Aadahl: This really is a case where we feel sound is 50 percent of the experience. We’d encourage people watching it at home to do everything they can to create a quiet environment.

Will the movie’s heavy use of silence will change your approach to sound on future projects at all?

Van der Ryn: What we hope is that it’ll change how the filmmakers we work with think about sound in terms of being able to simplify moments, strip down moments, and get more focused, which is something I feel like we’ve been trying to do for a long time. Sometimes it feels like a little bit of an uphill battle in terms of getting things quiet and focused. It just happens that in this film, the sonic storytelling was such a part of the DNA of the script that it became critical to follow that to its endpoint, the idea of how much focus we can create in terms of what we’re hearing. The success and critical acclaim of this movie will hopefully support that case for us when we’re making it with filmmakers in terms of letting us make this moment more intimate, more quiet, and more engaging.

Aadahl: In general, I think filmmakers have a lot of insecurity that leads to creating wall-to-wall sound and wall-to-wall music, and what happens with big films is there’s kind of this race to the edge of the cliff: How much bigger can we get? More is more. And I think if A Quiet Place can inspire anything in the filmmaking world, it should be that you can have a successful blockbuster that’s powerful and emotionally gratifying that isn’t more is more, that really explores the negative space as well. For us, it was just thrilling to be a part of that.