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“I was astounded at how really useful ‘thematic thinking’ turned out to be.”
Stephen King
On Writing, page 207

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A Quiet Place

While I have found many quotes from talented writers and directors talking about their disdain for the topic of theme, I will say I have found more from equality talked writers and directors who embrace theme in their work, and in the work of others.

When Oscar-winning Francis Marion wrote the following words in her 1937 book keep in mind that talking pictures were not even a decade old. And feature films had only been made for about two decades.

“Throughout most of the Depression, Americans went assiduously, devotedly, almost compulsively, to the movies.”
Carlos Stevens

I don’t know how many other filmmakers in the 1930s agreed with her, but there were some fine films made during that time. In fact, many consider 1939 as the single best year in the Golden Age of Hollywood. Some would say the best year for films ever.

Gone with the Wind
The Wizard of Oz
Mr. Smith Goes to Washington
Wuthering Heights
Stage Coach
Of Mice and Men
Ninotchka
Dark Victory
Goodbye Mr. Chips
Gunga Din
Young Mr. Lincoln
Beau Geste
Union Pacific
Golden Boy
Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs

This was at the tale end of The Great Depression when millions of Americans went to movies weekly. World War II and television were a few years away from changing movie going habits forever.

Marion embraced theme and spent seven pages covering the topic from her point of view. Here’s another excerpt from her book:

Examine any good plot and you will find a theme imbedded in it; it is the theme that gives the plot objective and purpose. A plot that does not prove anything is diffused and uninteresting. It ‘doesn’t get anywhere.’ As a matter of fact, a plot is merely the more or less mechanical invention that gives opportunity to the characters to portray a theme; and the theme keeps the story from being just a series of episodes concerning the same characters. 

The theme rarely is mentioned in the story; it is never rubbed in. The audience may not put it in words at all, but will recognize the theme and the fact that the story keeps in line with it. Suppose that you have taken for your theme the slogan, ‘It pays to advertise.’ These words may never be mentioned in the story, but the story itself will demonstrate the truth of that statement.

. . . The theme which Sinclair Lewis definitely proved, and which certainly gave purpose to his Main Street, might be stated simply as, ‘the ugliness of life in middlewestern town.’ The theme of Sorrel and Son by Warwick Deeping might be, ‘No sacrifice is to great for a father to make for a beloved son’; of The Four Horseman of by Ibanez, as ‘Want, disease, famine, and death forever follow war’; and that The Miracle Man*, ‘Spiritual regeneration is possible even in the worst of men.’”
Screenwriter Frances Marion
How to Write and Sell Film Stories  (1937)
pages 106-107

*Since Marion does not give the author for The Miracle Man I am not sure if she is referencing the movie versions—there were two; The Miracle Man (1919) starring Lon Chaney,  The Miracle Man (1932)—or the 1914 Broadway play version , or the original source material—The Miracle Man novel by Canadian Frank L. Packard.

P.S. You could paraphrase Marion’s quote about Sorrel and Son to be “No sacrifice is to great for a father to make for his beloved family” and I think that theme that transcending A Quiet Place (2018) beyond just a monster movie. And a big reason for its box office success. And the father’s sacrifice in that movie, according to screenwriters Scott Beck and Bryan Woods, was an idea that they hit on early.

Scott W. Smith

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Below is an excerpt from a Go Into The Story interview that screenwriters Bryan Woods & Scott Beck did with Scott Myers. This exchange is from part 6 of the interview.

Bryan Woods: With A Quiet Place, we weren’t comfortable writing the script until we knew that the theme was going to be about communication. We liked how that paralleled the idea of a world and a story that’s scary because the characters can’t talk and they can’t make noise.

We didn’t feel good about the story until we were like, “OK, we are comfortable with this theme.” One of the interesting things about theme is that you can start off with one thing in your head, and then the ultimate movie teaches you what it’s really about.

While I think that theme of communication that we started with is very much prevalent in the finished film, I think another theme emerged, which is the theme of, what would you do to protect your children and how hard is it to protect your children?

I think that theme is maybe an obvious one that we didn’t intellectualize but comes through very boldly in the finished film. I think that’s the best way to do it. I think you should be thinking about making sure your story has layers and that it can resonate on a deeper level.

At the same time, you’ve got to let it teach you what it wants to be and not be so constricted that you’re forcing it into a certain box.

Scott Beck: I will say like any time that we’ve gone off and written things where we haven’t really honed in on any theme whatsoever, that’s where you start getting into the weeds and you start losing your sight. It’s always important to hone in on some certain ideas that can at least be the starting point.

Related posts:

Writing from Theme 
More Thoughts on Theme
Michael Arndt on Theme
Diablo Cody on Theme
Scott Frank on Theme
Sidney Lumet on Theme

Scott W. Smith

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The photo that’s been at the top of this blog all these years is a quintessential farm shot I took one morning outside of Decorah, Iowa where I was shooting a short film.  The anchor in the shot is the barn and silo in the left part of the photo.

That’s classic Iowa. And I hadn’t thought about that photo in years until today when I read this quote about the silo used in A Quiet Place. 

“Where we grew up [in Iowa] was a healthy mixture of city life and farm life. We lived in the city, but you would hear about grain silos being one of the most dangerous things you can fall into. It’s basically like drowning, but in dry grain. It was terrifying to drive by them on country roads. Early in the writing process we said, ‘That has to be part of the setpieces.’”
Screenwriter Scott Beck (A Quiet Place)
Filmmaker Magazine interview with Matt Mulcahey 

Here’s a clip where the young actors Millicent Simmonds and Noah Jope discuss shooting that scene inside a silo surrounded by corn.

Here’s what part of that scene looked like on the page of the original screenplay.

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That silo scene reminds me a little of the Mt. Rushmore scene in Hitchcock’s North By Northwest. 

P.S. You want to know an odd connection between North By Northwest and A Quiet Place. Cary Grant, who starred in North By Northwest, died in Davenport, Iowa.  Where did A Quiet Place screenwriters  (Beck and Bryan Woods) grow up and begin making movies? Davenport/Bettendorf, Iowa. (Part of what’s known as the Quad Cities.) Check out my 2010 post Cary Grant and T. Bone…”somewhere in Iowa.” I don’t just make this stuff up. Check out Cary Grant’s IMDB page and see where he died. Then look up Bryan Woods IMDB page and see where he was born.

It’s a small, small world.

Scott W. Smith

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Yesterday I finished listening to The Wright Brothers by David McCullough on Audible and I couldn’t help make the connection between the two brothers from Dayton, Ohio who pulled off the first powered and controlled flights of an airplane and filmmakers Scott Beck and Bryan Woods who wrote the original drafts A Quiet Place screenplays.

On one level not Hollywood hit movie can compete with the efforts of performing a feat that had never been done before—and that many thought never could be done. But the portrayal of the Wright brothers by McCullough is one of two hard-working Midwestern men who ran a bicycle shop in Dayton, Ohio and worked diligently on designing and testing the first powered and controlled aircraft until they found wild success in their 30s.

Scott and Bryan made films for 20 years without breakout success until A Quiet Place when the film received critical and financial success in April. (To date it’s made over $300 million worldwide and two month’s after its release it’s still playing in 1,000 theater in the U.S.)

They haven’t started building a wing at the Smithsonian for Scott and Bryan quite yet, but I’m sure they’re hometown heroes back in Davenport, Iowa where the two met in sixth grade and began making their first films.

McCullough wrote that the Wright brothers remained unchanged by the international fame they received for their rock star status (long before there were rock stars). In the spirit of the Midwest, they rolled up their sleeves and kept working and making longer and longer flights.

And that appears essentially what Scott and Bryan are doing. They are already in post-production on Haunt they the co-wrote and co-directed. And to show just how level-headed they appear to be, read these words they wrote just days before A Quiet Place hit theaters:

“But very soon, as the Hollywood fairydust settles, we will go back into the silence of writing the next project, an idea we’re dying to make that may be perceived as too weird, too silly, or too adventurous.  Perhaps we’ll have to return to Iowa to make the movie for a fraction of the catering budget on ‘A Quiet Place.’ But for now, we’ll appreciate our moment with Michael Bay, and encourage everyone to follow their strange cinematic ideas, never knowing just where they might lead.”
Scott Beck and Bryan Woods
IndieWire, April 2, 2018
‘A Quiet Place: How Two Indie Filmmakers Accidently Wrote a Studio Film for Emily Blunt and John Krasinski

P.S. When I started writing this blog in Cedar Falls, Iowa I had this famous picture of the Wright brothers on my office wall.

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Related posts:

Art is Work—Milton Glaser 
Screenwriter’s Work Ethic
What could be made on a farm in Iowa for $50K? (That would be a movie people want to see.)—‘A Quiet Place’

Scott W. Smith

 

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“The perfect movie doesn’t have any dialogue. So you should always be striving to make a silent movie.”
David Mamet
On Film Directing 

“It’s good not to follow the herd. Go the other way.”
Filmmaker Robert Rodriguez
From the post Are You an Anomaly?

Over the weekend I went to see A Quiet Place in theaters for the third time. I’ve only seen a few films three times in theaters in my life. They include this eclectic mix:

Tender Mercies
Jean de Florette
Hoop Dreams
Grand Canyon
Good Will Hunting
Seabiscuit

The Artist 
Ida

The only connection I can make to that list and A Quiet Place is there is a strand of contemplativeness in all of them. (That and Ida is a Polish film and A Quiet Place director/actor/co-writer John Krasinski has Polish roots.)

But since the other screenwriters of A Quiet Place (Scott Beck and Bryan Woods) have Iowa roots I thought it would be fun to go back over the past decade of posts here at Screenwriting from Iowa…and Other Unlikely Places and find some things that resonate between this blog and A Quiet Place.

(I realized after writing this post that it essentially curates a greatest hits shortlist of sorts from posts over the years gleaned from various sources— books, DVD commentaries, interviews, etc.— where writers and filmmakers talked about some of the most common visual storytelling principles.)

CONFLICT
Conflict-Conflict-Conflict
The Key is Conflict
Protagonist = Struggle 
The Key Thing I Learned in Film School (Tip #1)
Don’t Bore the Audience!
What is Drama?—According to Alfred Hitchcock

CONCEPT
Concept-Concept-Concept

“The conceit behind A Quiet Place is simple: if you make a sound, you die.”
Bryan Woods and Scott Beck
IndieWire

STAKES
What’s at Stake (Tip #9)
“Goals.Stakes. Urgency.” (Tip #60)
To Live or Die?

EXPOSITION
Screenwriting and Exposition (Tip #10)
Exposition is BORING Unless…
10 Exposition Examples
Cody on Exposition 
Show Don’t Tell (Tip #46)
Show Don’t Tell (Part 2)
(One of the many great things about A Quiet Place is lack of exposition.)

THEME
Writing from Theme (Tip #20)
More Thoughts on Theme
Obligatory Scene= Story’s Theme
John Carpenter on Theme
Diablo Cody on Theme 
Theme=What Your Movie is Really About
Theme= Story’s Heart & Soul 

EMOTION
Emotion-Emotion-Emotion
Emotion Transportation Biz (Tip #68)
No Emotion? Your Screenplay Sucks
40 Days of Emotion
Emotionally Silent Dialogue 

HORROR (MONSTER IN THE HOUSE)/SUSPENCE
Horror: A Universal Language
Fear of the Unknown
The Creature from…
Jordan Peele’s ‘Favorite Scares’ List
Nick Kazan’s ‘Chainsaw’ Inspiration
Shooting a Feature Film in a Coffin
Storytelling is Just Suspense & Every Movie’s a Thriller 
Stephen Susco Q&A at Full Sail —Think primal. Fear and personal loss are the foundations of many fine films.

CHARACTER
Writing Good Bad Guys (Tip #85)
Character Flaws 101

STRUCTURE
Starting Your Screenplay
The Central or Dramatic Question
Pity, Fear, Catharsis
Screenwriting the Pixar Way
Insanely Great Endings
Earn Your Ending

HARD WORK
The Secret to Being a Successful Screenwriter (Seriously)/John Logan
Screenwriter’s Work Ethic
Writing Quote #66 (Frank Darabont)
10 Quotes on Paying Your Dues
Bob DeRosa’s Shortcuts
Beatles, Cody, King & 10,000 Hours
Honing Your Craft
The 99% Rule
The 12th Script was the Deal Breaker for Eric Heisserer (Sort of)
How to Become a Successful Screenwriter (Michael Arndt)

“For me, it was a matter of years of trying to develop my writing in the same way that some people spend years learning to play the violin.”
Writer/director Frank Darabont (The Shawshank Redemption)

SILENT MOVIES
Mr. Silent Films
Writing ‘The Artist’ (Part 1)
Writing ‘The Artist’ (Part 2) 
‘A Quiet Place’–It all started with Charlie Chaplin… and Jacques Tati
Storytelling Without Dialogue (Tip #82)
The Four Functions of Dialogue 

IOWA
Sneaky Long Screenwriting 
Sam Shepard on a Farm in Iowa
Lena Dunham, Sundance & Iowa 
Postcard #55 (Iowa Writers’ Workshop Library)
Iowa Kutcher on Jobs/Work
A ‘Giant’ Iowa Connection
Iowa’s Oscar Winning Native
James T. Kirk, Iowa & the Future
The Day the Music Died in Iowa
A Surprise in the Top 10 U.S. Bookstore List
Sundance, Sugar, and the Strange Land of Iowa
Sleeping with the Enemy
David Lynch in Iowa 

“I’m telling you Iowa is incredible. We should all move to Iowa and start the revolution.”
Hannah (Lena Dunham) in Girls, Season 4 episode 2

UNIVERSITY OF IOWA
The Juno—Iowa Connection
Straight Outta Iowa
John Irving, Iowa & Writing
Writing Quote #61 (Cheever/Stegner)
Hawkeye Gene Wilder (1933-2016)
Everybody’s got a story—Ethan Canin
Diablo Cody Day
Writer David Morrell
John Gardner on Original Style
(Yawn)…Another Pulitzer Prize
Writing ‘Rebel Without a Cause’
Screenwriting Quote of the Day #95 (Nicholas Meyer)
On The Road Screenwriting 
Tennessee Williams’ Start 

SCOTT BECK & BRYAN WOODS
A 20 Year Journey to ‘A Quiet Place’
A Quiet Place…in Iowa

What could be made on a farm in Iowa for $50k? (That would be a movie people want to see)—‘A Quiet Place’

‘Let’s screw all the rules of screenwriting’—Scott Beck
Writing the Opening Scene of ‘A Quiet Place’
The Best Film School
Why You Shouldn’t Move to L.A. 
Why You Should Move to L.A.
They Will Find You

A QUIET PLACE
‘A Quiet Place’: A Western/Family Film—with Critters
‘A Quiet Place’ Mother’s Day Special
‘A Quiet Place’—A Love Story
John Krasinski—Notes on a Scene from ‘A Quiet Place’

VISUAL STORYTELLING
George Miller Masterclass in Visual Storytelling
Visual Conflict 

STARTING SMALL
Start Small…But Start Somewhere
Aaron Sorkin in Jasper, Alabama
Aiming for Small Scale Success First 
Go Big or Go…Small
Starting Small
Telling Smaller Stories
Writing ‘Buried’
The Rise of Regional Cinema

This isn’t even an exhaustive list, but all that I had time to track down today.

P.S. While the dvd/Blu-ray of A Quiet Place comes out July 10, 2018 this really is a movie that ideally you’ll first see in theaters with an audience.

Scott W. Smith

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A Quiet Place has now been out in theaters for a whole month and still came in #3 at the box office this weekend. You could also say it entered full culture iconic status over the weekend when Saturday Night Live spoofed it with their A Kanye Place skit.

And also over the weekend, Scott Myers at Go Into the Story concluded a six-part interview with A Quiet Place screenwriters Scott Beck and Bryan Woods. Here’s an excerpt that touches on the great opening of that movie without really spoiling it for those of you who haven’t seen it yet.

Very early on, the idea that attracted us was opening with a completely idyllic farmscape and what appears to be the perfect family living out the perfect life. Little by little, as this family starts to move about their farmhouse, we start to realize that there are weird things going on.

They’re putting padding on the walls. They’re wearing shoe covers on their feet. They don’t seem to be speaking very much. Everything is really quiet. It all builds up to that Monopoly scene where there’s a noise and we realize, ‘Oh, there’s creatures out there. If they make a noise, then they’re in danger.’

That’s how it started. Then it started to evolve more into this Jaws opening, where we set the stakes up immediately. We would pay full credit to John [Krasinski] for going this dark this early, but we love it.
Screenwriter Bryan Woods
Scott Myers/Go Into The Story  interview with Bryan Woods & Scott Beck

P.S. Congrats to Scott Myers for his excellent blog being named recently to the 20th Annual Writer’s Digest 101 Best Websites for Writers list. This month his blog celebrated its 10th anniversary and I’ve been a fan of his site since way back in 2008.

Scott W. Smith

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“John Krasinski is not the name you’d think of like ‘Can’t wait to see a horror movie by that guy.’ And the reason why is I wouldn’t think that either. Until I read this script originally by these amazing writers Beck & Woods (Scott Beck & Bryan Woods), and they had this incredible idea of a family that had to live quietly or else they would die. And to me, this whole movie is about family. It’s not a horror movie—I mean it is a horror movie, but to me the theme of family and what would you really do for your kids is the reason why I did the movie.”
Director, writer, actor John Krasinski (A Quiet Place)

Scott W. Smith

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