Anyone who hears (no pun intended) what “A Quiet Place” is about, probably assumes it’s centered heavily around the sound of the film, or the lack thereof. To be sure, sound design is paramount in the film, but you can’t forget about the visuals. In telling a story with nearly no dialogue, the look of the project is essential to its success. That’s where cinematographer Charlotte Bruus Christensen comes into play. Her decisions and collaboration with John Krasinski, as much as anything else, is part of why this has become way more than just another horror outing. It’s a legitimate Academy Award player.
A few weeks ago, we were able to arrange a phone conversation with Christensen, one of the best cinematographers in the business. Between this, “Fences,” and “Molly’s Game,” she’s proven that she can do it all. A female DP, she’s, unfortunately, part of a select club. At the same time, her outstanding work is helping to bring some attention to the dearth of women shooters. In fact, during the interview, she was sitting next to Rachel Morrison, the first woman ever to be nominated for Best Cinematography at the Oscars. Look for that guest appearance below, and be sure to seek out “A Quiet Place” if you haven’t already. Krasinski co-writes, directs, and stars with real-life spouse Emily Blunt. It’s a must see and available now on Blu-Ray and DVD!
Joey Magidson/Awards Circuit: First of all, congratulations on the film.
Charlotte Bruus Christensen: Thank you so much.
JM: My pleasure. It’s very nice to see something get the attention and recognition and really praise that this genre of film doesn’t really get, unfortunately.
JM: What fascinates me, especially for this, is first of all how you came to be a part of it? What interested you about the project, and sort of the challenge of when you sign on to create the visuals for a film that’s going to have no sound. So in one way, sound is paramount to the film, but it also means visuals are also more important because of the lack of surrounding elements. So it’s interesting to me. How did you tackle that?
CBC: No dialogue, yeah. Well my way in was really Emily (Blunt). I did “The Girl on the Train” and we really connected on that movie, so we stayed in touch and established a relationship. So like a year after, she called one day and she was like, oh, by the way my husband is doing this project and I really think you should chat. I never really actually met him, you know? We passed each other a couple times, John (Krasinski) and I. So she was kind of setting up this meeting and so we met and he was very very passionate. This is like a year before we shot it. So it kind of came by through her and then, it was actually a year of bouncing back and forth on ideas and John was writing. So, not that we were in pre production the entire time, obviously, but it was amazing that I actually had an opportunity to follow what his positions were with the script and the changes that he made and the notes that were coming in. I had an opportunity to learn about his vision through that process. So, yeah, it wasn’t like a traditional agent calls in with some project and you have a kind of meeting. It was through Emily, which was really lovely.
JM: For sure.
CBC: There was two questions in one. What was the other one?
JM: What makes “A Quiet Place” different? How do you approach this project? For example, you had done “Molly’s Game” previously, which is a very dialogue driven film.
CBC: Oh they could not be two more different. “Molly’s Game” was 200 pages of non-stop dialogue and like 76 which was not, which was kind of interesting. I mean, the approach to this one was, it was really a great beginning because I was aware of the position that John had made throughout the script. The script worked and also knowing what he was looking for. So we had these conversations very early on where he was describing that his overall feel for the movie was, you know, he wanted that edgy kind of classy kind of…and he wanted to make this challenge. He wanted a family poetic drama and the other side which was the more practical kind of old-fashioned horror movie. So we early on discussed how we were going to combine the two, and so, I mean for me it always starts with that conversation. And the more I can figure out what the director’s vision is, the more I can start just digging into what would the elements be. So on this one, I soon realized it was something about placing the camera and the lenses. I’m going to be close to…put the lens really close to somebody who is trying to be quiet, there’s always going to be a bump or breathing or sweeping or moving forward or whatever it is, whereas that same size shot that you have on a long lens from the back, it would make a cut in the sound. So this one was different and very different from “Molly’s Game,” lets put it that way, just because I had to consider the sound and whatnot, when it’s important we can hear something and when it’s interesting that it would be really silent, because if I place the camera in a certain way, it really would be silent. So it did develop the visual style, it did develop through considering when and where the sound design would tell the story. So that was really interesting. And then it definitely taught me something I want to bring along.
JM: Yeah. Watching the work you shoot, it’s interesting because sometimes you’ll look at a cinematographer’s work and you’ll start to know, oh, that’s a Roger Deakins film, for example…
CBC: You can’t do that with me, though!
JM: I think there’s something interesting in that the films are so dissimilar and they represent different challenges. I mean, this is, we spoke about it already, the absence of sound makes the visuals have to tie into sound in a different way. When you work with Aaron Sorkin you have to sort of match the pace of the dialogue. It becomes its own language and character. You worked on an adaptation of a stage play where you and obviously Denzel Washington had to figure out how you’re going to open up something that’s inherently closed, like those different challenges. Is that an intentional choice?
CBC: I have been very lucky I feel like, in just how different these projects have been. “Fences” was a theatrical piece. I mean, Denzel wanted it to be theatrical. So that was the overall challenge of that, and then Aaron Sorkin, obviously, it’s the words. How do you fit in all these words? And for that matter, we have a protagonist who’s basically watching a poker game throughout the entire movie. Most of the movie she’s looking, and how do you, and you don’t really want to focus on the game, so and that was a challenge.
With this one, when the dialogue wasn’t there, there was a lot of description. And so translating the descriptions to an atmospheric world that you believe in I think was, there were a lot of things that kind of work on paper, like the sand trails. Once we put down the sand trails we were like, oh my god this looks…are people going to believe that? And we they cut those sand trails a week before we came, and there was leaves all over there, and we were like, oh my god, that’s going to make a sound. What are we going to do? Everybody go down and remove the leaves. You know, there are so many things and I think that’s what happens in high concept movies because you’ve got to serve that idea. And so part of this project and the visuals was like, we’ve got to stay true to that idea. It is a high concept and I have helped communicate that. The last thing that I know was very very important to the director, to John was, was that he wanted to be truthful. He wanted to create a believable relationship between the family and between him and the daughter. So there was another layer in that, which felt like a different movie sometimes when shooting it.
JM: For sure. I think people sometimes have an odd misconception about cinematography. Either that the director does everything visually or that you’re just holding a camera. What actually goes into it and how different is it from one DP to another?
CBC: It’s really funny. You know what? I’m sitting here with the lovely Rachel Morrison right now and we’re debating just that. We’re two DP’s just sitting by a table right now debating just that. It’s just interesting you’re pointing that out. (Laughs)
JM: Sometimes people just don’t know. They discount it. If someone were to not have any clue what you do, how would you explain it? What would be your sales pitch of what a cinematographer actually does?
CBC: What a cinematographer actually does? Um, it’s just a thing you can’t say in one line, can you?
CBC: I would say that our job is to…you’ve got to translate the words into emotion because you can’t just say…it’s not just placing the camera, it’s not just placing the light. You need an overall…communicating, virtually communicating those words. I think the script to me is a very important element. I always try to, I always read the script, the scenes, and I am very kind of loyal to the work, like if an idea is written down, I’m like, sure, I’m all up for changing it, but why are we changing it? So I think the thing of, that’s what I see my job is. I am here to translate that script, translate those words, and to create emotion with moving images. It’s an atmospheric chore. You have to create an atmosphere. Like, a feel. You know?
JM: It’s funny that you mention that you’re sitting next to Rachel because the next thing I wanted to ask about has to do with you two, specifically. Why do you think it is there are so few women cinematographers in the industry?
CBC: I’m going to pass it on to Rachel. (Talking to Rachel Morrison) Why are there so few female cinematographers, Rachel? (Laughs) Ha. It makes no sense, she said.
CBC: It makes no sense. I don’t know. There is a combination of making family life, children…and I’m not saying with a man you know, we teach you to leave his family sometimes to make a movie, that that’s not a selfish position. That is equally as tough a decision, but I have another thing as a mother it’s…you can’t do that. So there’s just certain things that you, in my vision, and I, everybody’s different but personally, I can’t do that and I know that, well that’s just out of my reach then. And so, but I think even to get to where you can make the movies that are, you know on the big screen and have the budget and you created a family life, it’s a really tough break. And I think it does separate some really really talented, extraordinarily talented women from doing what they could do if they are not in a position where they have another partner that can do that or they can travel or if you have a child that needs special care somewhere. But then again, that’s a thing for the dads. It’s hard to say, but there’s definitely, I think there’s partly a family issue involved.
JM: Well luckily that’s slowly starting to change. Rachel has done a lot by getting an Academy Award nomination. You, her, there’s a handful of other women who are doing some of the best work out there right now.
JM: So I think even just by happenstance people are going to watch these films. People who are in college, people who are becoming cinephiles in their teens. You become fascinated by the other aspects of the film. You’re going to want to know who edited the film? Who did the score? Who shot the film? And they’re going to see names they don’t usually see and that’s going to spark an interest, and I think also spark a lot of young women to want to do this. I can pick up a camera and do this too.
CBC: Yes! It is not impossible. Yeah. Definitely, definitely that is the message.
JM: Yes. And that’s the goal.
CBC: The goal!
JM: Yes. This is an amazingly efficient looking film for something that had to be so complicated to shoot.
CBC: Thank you.
JM: It’s so efficient looking. It looks effortless, which you know it can be. Like, anything high concept and inexpensive…
CBC: Oh no. Oh no, there are complications. Shooting in update New York. You’re in New York right now, so you know. It’s just dealing with the weather and the 30 days and trying to achieve…there’s a lot of night scenes. You know, one third of the movie is night with two kids in a corn field in the middle of the night with no lights. There’s always challenges with that, but I think one of the things John and I really spoke about, like how do you make a confident looking movie? Cause it’s gonna look like, not the need to look like “Jaws” or “There Will be Blood,” but the confidence they project, how do we do that? And trying to make the 30 days of, make it look like, like you said, look so easy. It wasn’t, but it was a great challenge.
JM: Well, you guys pulled it off. And before I let you go I’m just curious, is there a type of film that you haven’t shot yet that intrigues you?
CBC: Um. I don’t know about that. No. I don’t look for projects in that way because even with this…horror movies is not really my genre at all. But what was intriguing was the people doing it and it gets me, even on script basis, you could feel that it had something extraordinary in it. So, I think more than genre is definitely the story is there that dares to do more and look for more. That’s what I’m looking for.
JM: Perfect, then I’m sure this will certainly not hurt in that way.
CBC: Yeah, hopefully.
JM: Congratulations again. It must be nice to be on the trail for something like this, and I’m sure it will not be the last time someone speaks highly of the work, because it is. It’s one of the best-looking films of the year.
CMC: Aww. Thank you so much!