John Krasinski knew he had a potential hit on his hands when he attended a test screening for “A Quiet Place.” A horror movie about a family battling largely unseen creatures who attack at the slightest noise, the film transpires with no verbal dialogue: The characters communicate with American Sign Language, or through meaningful glances and gestures. This wasn’t Krasinski’s first effort as a director; still, he and his wife, Emily Blunt — who play the parents in “A Quiet Place” — weren’t sure audiences would accept a genre picture that harked back to cinema’s silent roots more than its special effects-driven present.
But at that test screening, toward the end of the feedback session, an executive asked the audience if there was anything the creative or marketing teams “needed to know” about the movie. “And this guy raised his hand, and he was shaking,” Krasinski recalled earlier this week. “And he goes, ‘What you need to know about this movie is that I snuck in a bag of Skittles and for 90 minutes I held it up like this” — Krasinski held up two hands with pursed fingers — “and never passed rip.”
Millions of people were similarly rapt by “A Quiet Place,” which became one of the first bona fide phenoms of 2018, a $17 million passion project that went on to earn more than $340 million, making it not just a hit with audiences but an unexpected commercial bonanza. In an era when studios are putting their chips on remakes and sequels, madly mining their archives for intellectual property they can exploit, this bold exercise in pure cinema proves that an original movie, with no “presold” audience or built-in franchising potential, can still lure filmgoers into theaters.
And now, Krasinski, 39, is hoping that “A Quiet Place” can prove another concept, namely that a genre film can still be awards-worthy. He came to Washington on Wednesday to accept the Smithsonian magazine’s 2018 American Ingenuity Award for visual arts. The stop is part of a strategy to overcome an obstacle faced by movies released early in the year. With the awards race unofficially beginning at film festivals in August and September, studios habitually hold their prestige pictures for the end of the year, capitalizing on the free publicity of red carpets and best-of lists, and swamping filmgoers with a fire hose full of great films after nine months of drought.
The reminder tour just might be working: On Tuesday, the American Film Institute announced that “A Quiet Place” was among its 10 finest films of 2018; on Thursday, the film was nominated for a Golden Globe for best musical score. It’s already showing up on several movie critics’ best-of lists. Each mention helps put “A Quiet Place” top of mind with Academy Awards voters who will be sending in their nominations in January.
Obviously, an Oscar nomination, much less a win, won’t help “A Quiet Place” at the box office. But Krasinski is invested if only to prove that the artistic sophistication, technical excellence and emotional intimacy we usually associate with “awards movies” can apply to a horror or action film just as much as a literary chamber piece or highly polished studio drama. A few weeks ago, he said, he was misquoted as saying he “hated” the idea of a new Oscar for best popular film. “I don’t hate it,” he insisted. “It just seems like a slippery slope for me. Then what’s it going to be, the best movie with a woman cast?”
As far as “A Quiet Place” is concerned, he added, awards consideration would mean that his film could be considered great regardless of genre, “that movies can actually supersede all versions of compartmentalizing. . . . It was the same with ‘Get Out,’ and also ‘Bridesmaids.’ . . . You can’t tell people, ‘Well, this is a good movie except with an asterisk that it’s also this.’”
The gatekeeping, he observed, is fundamentally about what counts as canon. “Why did we change what a good movie is?” he asks. “A good movie is a good movie. An achievement’s an achievement. . . . To me, storytelling can come from anywhere. It doesn’t have to be a really small movie about someone committing suicide. It can be a really big, huge movie. I was extremely moved by ‘Black Panther.’ There was something there that was much bigger than anything one movie was supposed to be able to do.”
Oscar or not, Krasinski said that “A Quiet Place” changed his life, not only because he got to work with Blunt, but because it fulfilled a sense of deeply personal mission that he didn’t know he had when he went into the project. Originally approached to act in the film, he agreed only if he could rewrite it; when he shared his ideas with Blunt — who was holding their 3-week-old daughter at the time — she told him he had to direct. The resulting film wound up expressing all the anxieties he had been trying to process as a husband and a father grappling with issues of fear, vulnerability, powerlessness and the fierce determination to protect the ones you love.
And, weirdly, his breakout stint playing Everydude Jim Halpert on the sitcom “The Office” had more to do with his approach to “A Quiet Place” than many might think. One of the first pieces of advice he got from the show’s producer, Greg Daniels, was not to be funny. “You don’t know you’re funny,” Daniels said to him about Jim. “So if you just deliver your lines and people think you’re funny, that’s up to them. If people think what you say to Pam makes them cry, that’s up to them, too.”
He said that when he prepared to direct the movie, “if I’d said, ‘I’m gonna make the best scary movie you’ve ever seen,’ I not only wouldn’t have been able to do it, but I would have made a horrible movie.” Instead, he thought, “If your take on this is family, then commit to that and that wholly. It was exactly what Greg was saying about my character on ‘The Office’: Don’t write scary. Write what you know. Write what people believe.”
Krasinski insists it’s that emotional core — rather than the jump scares or the explosive climactic showdown — that explains why audiences responded to “A Quiet Place” so strongly. And it’s why Blunt, who was just nominated for a Golden Globe for her performance in “Mary Poppins Returns,” has insisted that time and space be made available for her to talk about “A Quiet Place” while she’s on the hustings for the Disney musical. “To this day, it’s her favorite movie she’s ever done,” Krasinski said.
As for the awards themselves, he’s philosophical. “No one’s going to tell you that if you don’t win an Oscar you’ve lost something,” he said. “But you can certainly gain something in the conversation of what movies are.”