John Krasinski is kind of dazed.
The night before, his new horror-thriller, “A Quiet Place,” which he directed and also stars in with his real-life wife, Emily Blunt, debuted at a sold-out Paramount Theatre as the opening-night film at South by Southwest.
The opening-night part is key — traditionally, SXSW opens its film festival with something fun aimed at a wide audience. The theater was absolutely jammed with extremely enthusiastic movie fans who were not yet exhausted by the week that would follow.
They were there to see a splashy genre film directed by and starring the man many of them had grown up with as Jim Halpert from “The Office.” Very few crowds are as excited as an opening-night crowd at SXSW — it is as if they feel it is their job to be enthusiastic about what is in front of them. If you are said filmmaker, it can feel pretty, pretty good.
“You are catching me in the glow of a what-the-hell-just-happened moment,” Krasinski says. He’s sitting on a couch at the Four Seasons and almost vibrating with excitement. “When (SXSW Film Festival director) Janet (Pierson) told me we got in and were opening night, I went nuts. And, man, was that the coolest room to be in ever. It really does have a very tangible vibe.”
“A Quiet Place” checks a lot of boxes for Krasinski. It’s a horror film (which is not something he has done before), it has a lot of CGI (ditto) and co-stars Blunt, with whom he has never acted on screen, let alone directed.
“I was just about to start ‘Jack Ryan’ and a producer called,” he says, “and asked if I would ever be in a genre film.” (We’re gonna assume he means “horror” or “sci-fi” here because, brother, I hate to break it to you, but “Jack Ryan” is a genre picture.)
Krasinski says he doesn’t watch them (“I’m too much of a scaredy cat”), but he loved the concept of a family that must stay as silent as possible to avoid, well, very, very bad things.
“(My wife) had just had our second daughter weeks before, so I was wide-open emotionally,” Krasinski says. “That level of terror in being a new parent helped me connect immediately with that aspect of the story.
“I said to Emily, ‘I think I might do this movie, and they said I could re-write it,’ and she said, ‘No, no, no, hearing you talk about your idea, you have to direct this.’”
“John received (the project), and not with me in it or anything,” Blunt says in a separate interview. “He pitched me the idea and it was such a brilliant concept, and I said, ‘You direct that film. It’s exactly what you’ve been looking for, something high-concept, intense and so far removed from what people expect of you.’” (Think some variation on Jim Halpert.)
“I loathe scary films,” Blunt says. “The only frightening films I like are ‘Jaws’ and ‘Alien,’ and there are some homages to those movies in ‘A Quiet Place.’ The best thing about those movies is the core relationships between the people in them, and that is what I gravitated toward with this movie. More than anything else, it’s about parents in the nightmare of not being able to protect their kids and trying their best with them.”
Blunt says part of the reason she and Krasinski had never been in a movie together is that they would get offered romantic comedies. That didn’t work for them for two reasons. “One, the joy of seeing two people meet on-screen is lessened when the audience knows they are married, and two, we didn’t want to broadcast to the world if we did or did not have on-screen chemistry.” (Fair.)
“So John took it on as a rewrite and then to direct it,” Blunt adds. “Once I read his rewrite — well, I had previously suggested a friend of mine to be in the film, and I read it and said to him (voice goes to whisper), ‘You can’t cast her, you have to give it to me,’ and we were excited by the idea of working together.”
“I thought, ‘Well, this is a big step up,’” Krasinski says. The films he previously directed — “Brief Interviews With Hideous Men” and “The Hollars” — were smaller pictures without special effects. And not only was it going to have special effects, it was going to have that most special of effects: children, namely Noah Jupe (George Clooney’s “Suburbicon”) and Millicent Simmonds (“Wonderstruck”), who is deaf.
“I remember hearing from different people that directing kids, it only slows things down,” Krasinski says. “So I emailed George Clooney about Noah.
“And he wrote, ‘I will be honest with you. He is not only one of the best child actors I have ever seen and I have worked with them ALL (see also: playing Doug Ross on “ER”) but one the best actors I‘ve ever worked with, period. And P.S. whatever you’ve scheduled for your day, take an hour off because he will save you time. He nails it every time.’ George was not kidding. Noah is as professional as anyone I have ever worked with.”
As for Simmonds, “Millie is from another place,” Krasinski gushes. “She understood exactly what this movie was, what this character was and why being deaf was going to be crucial to the story. She wasn’t intimidated by anything at all. It was like watching a kid turn into Wonder Woman.”
Blunt is similarly effusive. “I just finished up work on ‘Mary Poppins Returns,’ and the kids I worked with there were great but very young and required a bit of wrangling for focus. Millie and Noah were racehorses. They were so professional and had had experience, and that is like finding gold.”
But enough about the amazing kiddos. What’s it like directing your wife and being directed by your husband?
Short answer: completely terrifying before it starts.
“We were very nervous to enter into it,” Blunt says, “and we were sort of taken aback at how creatively on the same page we were. We didn’t know how the processes were going to align themselves.”
”(‘Mary Poppins Returns’ director) Rob Marshall said, ‘You’ll see how good she is on the first day,’” Krasinski says. “And I’m like, ‘I know my wife is a terrific actress, dude,’ and Rob said, ‘No, you don’t, but you will.’”
The first shooting day was one of the most important scenes in the film and, without spoiling too much, involved Blunt letting out an absolutely blood-curdling, brain-destroying scream.
“The moment of her doing that scream,” Krasinski says, “I literally saw my wife be so far beyond what I thought she was capable of, that I was just stunned. She turned to me and said, ‘Do you have any notes?’ And after I recovered, I said, ‘No, because you hit everything I need.’ From then on, it was the best collaboration of my life. It was the most fun. It’s pretty great when you are able to say to your partner in life, even on scenes she wasn’t in, ‘I think I need this one particular shot,’ and she says, ‘Nah, you don’t, because X, Y and Z.’ It is the most fun.”