“If you told me a year ago that dude from “The Office” was going to do a horror movie, I’d say, ‘Why? That’s crazy.’ ”
So says John Krasinski, best known for playing Jim Halpert on that wildly popular NBC mockumentary. But take it from the man himself: “A Quiet Place,” which the Newton native directed and rewrote (from a script by Bryan Woods and Scott Beck), is no laughing matter.
In the nerve-shredding creature feature, out Friday, humanity has been hunted to the brink of extinction by hordes of skittering, sharp-toothed monsters with exceptional hearing. Survival means silence, it’s become clear in the year or so since their arrival, and those unlucky few left alive are well-aware that stepping on a creaky floorboard could constitute a death sentence. The film focuses on one family: a husband (Krasinski), wife (Emily Blunt), and two children (Noah Jupe and Millicent Simmonds), one of whom is deaf, who’ve suffered in this strange new world but nonetheless managed to carve out a deceptively peaceful life for themselves on a (very) quiet patch of farmland. Peaceful, that is, until the wife becomes pregnant with another child, creating something of a biological time-bomb in a world ill-suited to wailing newborns.
“The truth is, I don’t think anybody would have expected me to make this movie,” admits Krasinski, 38, whose previous directorial efforts — 2009’s “Brief Interviews With Hideous Men” and 2016’s “The Hollars” — were both comedic, monster-free drama. He stops short of admitting it, but that may have been part of the draw; on the acting side, Krasinski has been busily reinventing himself of late, segueing from wry everyman to ripped action hero, capable of carrying projects like the Benghazi biopic “13 Hours” and Amazon’s “Jack Ryan” series.
Similarly, “A Quiet Place” gave Krasinski (who spoke by phone from a New York press junket) a chance to build up new muscles. It’s a tense genre workout, filled with near-escapes, terrifying creatures, and ingenious sound design. When the film premiered to rave reviews in Austin, Texas, last month, where it opened the South by Southwest Film Festival, some said it cemented Krasinski’s status as a director to watch.
It also confirmed his preoccupation with parenthood, which the writer-director cops to, happily. Blunt, to whom Krasinski has been married since 2010, gave birth to the couple’s second daughter last year. And the baby’s arrival, though joyous, stirred in him the same feelings of unease that trouble every father — feelings that the film’s script captured beautifully.
“I was the perfect candidate for this first draft by Beck and Woods, because they were talking about a family that was going through feelings of terror and worry over keeping people safe,” explains Krasinski. “There I was, holding a 3-week-old baby, wondering if I could keep her safe, if I could keep her alive, if I was a good-enough dad. I was a wide-open nerve.”
He credits Blunt with convincing him to get behind the camera, coming back to producers who’d first approached him about playing the lead role with a unique and fully fleshed-out vision for the material.
“She said, ‘I’ve never seen you get so excited about an idea, and you have such a good take on what it could be,’ ” Krasinski recalls. “ ‘You need to direct it.’”
The producers bought in, and he got to work, rewriting elements of the original script and channeling influences as diverse as “Alien,” “No Country for Old Men,” and “In the Bedroom.” In one of many personal touches, he molded the character of the wife in Blunt’s image; privately, he agonized over whether to ask her to play the part.
“In my head, I thought, if I ask her to do it and she says ‘No,’ that would make for some really awkward dinner conversation,” says Krasinski, chuckling. “Then the other side of it is, if she said, ‘Yes, I’ll do it for you,’ that would be even worse.”
In the end, he never asked; but when Blunt read the script while sitting next to him on a plane, Krasinski recalls her turning to him with an expression he mistook for nausea.
“She said, ‘I can’t let anyone else do this role,’ ” he says. “It was almost like she was proposing to me. . . . I said, ‘Are you saying what I think you’re saying?’ And she said, ‘Yes.’ It was like we were getting married creatively.”
Working together on set, the couple approached the project like their marriage: by maintaining constant, open lines of communication. “We were always there for each other in every single way,” he says. “I know it sounds adorable, but it’s true. I’ll never have a better collaborator, and I know that.”
To complete their on-screen family, Krasinski says he knew it was critical to cast two young actors with strong personalities as well as serious acting chops. The daughter is deaf — it’s implied the family’s method of communication, American Sign Language, is one reason they’ve survived so long — as is Simmonds, the American actress who plays her.
“I truly believe she’s not even from this Earth,” Krasinski says of the actress, who also appeared in “Wonderstruck.” “There’s something angelic about her.”
In looking to cast the son, Krasinski recalls coming across Jupe’s resume and sending it to his pal George Clooney, who’d worked with Jupe on “Suburbicon.” Clooney replied that Jupe is “one of the greatest kids you’ll ever meet.”
“The movie’s about hope,” Jupe says by phone, recounting his decision to take on the role. “And it’s about conquering your fear and becoming brave. Because without fear, you can’t have bravery.”
With “A Quiet Place,” Krasinski says his parental fears have been channeled into something that he now considers a personal victory. Reflecting on the film’s rollout, and its South by Southwest premiere, he admits the reception has been overwhelming.
“I’m still sort of in the haze of understanding what the hell’s happening,” he says. “It’s almost like that primal high school thing of knowing that, what you think is cool, other people think is cool, too. . . . I remember Rob Marshall actually saying that Nora Ephron told him something that he’ll never forget, which is that she said, ‘Wouldn’t it be great if we could see our movies, as directors?’ ”
Krasinski found the idea intriguing at the time, but didn’t understand it until a few weeks ago in Austin, watching audiences jump, scream, and cheer throughout his little genre meditation on the paranoias of parenthood, Blunt sitting beside him.
“The greatest gift that audience gave me was the opportunity to really see my movie, because for the first time, I felt the energy in the room,” he recalls. “I’ll never forget it. I don’t think I’m going to have an experience that good again in my career.”Isaac Feldberg can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.