ENTERTAINMENT
01/04/2018 14:00 SAST | Updated 05/04/2018 01:50 SAST

John Krasinski Just Wants To Be Honest

The director, co-writer and star of new thriller “A Quiet Place” on underperforming movies, reluctant horror fandom – and being known as Jim from “The Office”.

Illustration: Gabriela Landazuri/HuffPost Photos: Getty Images
Illustration: Gabriela Landazuri/HuffPost Photos: Getty Images

John Krasinski has a confession, or eight. That’s the number of times he said “if I’m being really honest” or “to be honest” or “honestly” or some other harbinger of sincerity during our half-hour conversation last week.

In each instance, this tic threatened to produce a profound revelation, and sometimes it did. It’s an interviewer’s dream: Yes, please, do tell me your secrets. Show me that toothy grin, the one that won hearts on “The Office” and in “It’s Complicated,” while divulging that which would otherwise remain undisclosed. 

Among the topics John Krasinski talked about honestly: Paramount Pictures working to turn his latest movie, a gripping thriller about a family that remains silent to evade monsters roaming an unpopulated post-apocalyptic countryside, into a giant hit. “A Quiet Place” premiered to glowing reviews at South by Southwest in March, and on April 6 it opens in theaters across the United States, marking Krasinski’s fourth directorial effort (and his first collaboration with wife and co-star Emily Blunt, who asked if he’d cast her after reading the rewrite Krasinski did on Scott Beck and Bryan Woods’ original script).

The other two films Krasinski has helmed ― the David Foster Wallace adaptation “Brief Interviews with Hideous Men” (2009) and the Sundance dramedy “The Hollars” (2016) ― didn’t triumph at the box office, and the 38-year-old multi-hyphenate was honest about that, too. But “A Quiet Place” is handily his best work yet, meaning Krasinski might, at last, be thought of as a bona fide director come opening weekend. We discussed that evolution, his permanent notability as Dunder Mifflin prankster Jim Halpert, how fatherhood has (and hasn’t) influenced him creatively, and the horror movies that inspired this project.

Horror is having a moment right now. Did the “It” and “Get Out” phenomena intervene in this movie’s expectations at all?

We were shooting when “It” came out, so we were already into the movie, which is nice because, to be honest, I don’t know if I would have been strong enough to not let that influence me on the set. Also, I’m glad the studio didn’t see what “It” did and come and say, “OK, so we need a balloon.” 

I wasn’t a big horror guy, but for the last year, leading up to directing this, I watched as much as I could. And the first thing I realized was how freaking ignorant I was to stay away from movies because I thought I’d be scared. It was a decision I made a long time ago, when I was a kid. And now here I am watching all these movies for, yes, research, but realizing “Get Out,” “The Witch,” “The Babadook,” “Let the Right One In” — all these movies are some of the best movies you’re going to see. The best directing, the best stories, the best cinematography. And all of them have a more underlying theme; there’s something much deeper there.

Not to say that a movie that just scares the hell out of you isn’t great, too. But I think there was probably a moment — again, being new to the horror party, I won’t speak on everyone’s behalf — where horror fans were frustrated because they were seen as B-movies. I would imagine, now that these movies are getting attention on a much bigger scale, it’s probably very reassuring. I’m late to the party, but I want to stay for a long time. This is really fun.

Paramount Pictures
John Krasinski directs Emily Blunt and Noah Jupe on the set of "A Quiet Place."

Your four directorial endeavors, including “The Office,” are worlds apart in style and tone. How different of a director are you now than when you first started?

Oh my god, a million percent different. The truth of the matter is: I forget who said it — someone much smarter than me — but Someone said, “When you think you get directing, it’s time to retire because that’s ridiculous. You’re always learning.” So I always knew I was learning. I always knew I could get better. But this movie was like jumping into the deep end of the deep end of the deep end. This is as different as you can get from anything I’ve done, certainly “The Hollars” and “Brief Interviews.” This is a much bigger budget, a much bigger idea, there’s visual effects, there’s designing a creature. It wasn’t one new thing — it was a whole slew of new things, and the only way I could get through it is because I connected so powerfully to the core of the script, which is the family.

And if that family thing wasn’t there, I certainly wasn’t your guy to direct this movie, because I couldn’t do just the scares or just the no-sound thing. It all had to come from the same place. So once I understood that, this could be an amazing allegory for parenthood, which is exactly what I saw it as. My [script rewrite] just drilled down on that; it drilled down on more details to fill out the world in order to bring it back to the family. Everything came back to the family. And then I realized, oh my god, that’s why it’s playing so scary for the audience, because they care about this family. 

Did you look at creature movies? I guess you could consider “The Babadook” a creature movie, but this aligns more with “Alien” and “Signs.”

Yeah, I watched everything. As far as the structure of the movie, I watched exactly those movies. To me, there’s a throwback element to this that I wanted to capture. As much as I love all these modern horrors, there was something about “Jaws” and “Alien” and “Rosemary’s Baby” — Hitchcock-y stuff — that I really wanted to tap into. I wanted this to feel slightly nostalgic. I wanted it to feel like an anytime, anyplace type of movie.

But as far as the creatures, if I’m really honest with you, I wanted to do my homework. I looked into every single creature design out there, from “Jeepers Creepers” to “Pumpkinhead” to “Resident Evil.” It was so fascinating, because immediately you realize there’s nothing I can take from all of these, but I love the idea of what people responded to and why they responded to them. Of course, “Jeepers Creepers” — I didn’t have an eyeball or a face or a mouth like [the villain in that movie], but I could see elements of him that are super scary. It was just really fun. 

It’s interesting to hear you apply a throwback sensibility to “A Quiet Place.” You said the same thing about “The Hollars,” that it invoked older family dramas like “Terms of Endearment.” 

That’s true. Maybe I’m just trapped in a time capsule.

Sony Pictures Classics

Well, it yields at least one obvious question: Are you dissatisfied with studio movies right now, or the moviemaking machine in general?

That’s an interesting question. I enjoy so many movies. I went to “Black Panther” last weekend and loved it. I’m a great audience member, because I always want to love the movies that I go to see. So I love the Marvel stuff, I love the “Star Wars” stuff. But I do think there’s a bigger budget, a bigger spectacle that’s happening there.

The things I’ve always connected to the most had an intimacy, had a heart connection, a soul connection, a head connection that was more than just a great experience and a great ride. It was more about seeing things in moments that changed me completely, forever — and I mean that. It wasn’t just horror movies that I drew on for this. I remember watching “In the Bedroom” for this. And that Tom Wilkinson moment where he touches his pillow where his son’s head used to be. I’ll never forget how hard I cried in that moment. I’m tearing up now. And so the power of movies for me is about what you can connect to.

Entertainment’s awesome, and it’s super exciting. When Emily and I went to “Black Panther,” we put our kids down. They were sick for, like, three weeks, and we were just like, “Let’s get a huge movie on board.” And then last week we tried to see “Phantom Thread.” We were in the moment for that, and it was sold out at the Alamo Drafthouse.

That’s nice to know, considering the movie came out in December.

I know, right? That’s kinda cool. Paul Thomas Anderson should know that.

So yeah, I think there is something about those classic movies, probably because they didn’t have the budgets and they didn’t have the technology to go huge. Even the original “Star Wars,” or “Jaws” — that was the first big blockbuster, and it feels like it has some indie flavor to it.

NBC via Getty Images
John Krasinski and Rainn Wilson in a 2008 episode of "The Office."

Compared to blockbusters today, “Jaws” is glacial. It’s really slow — not that much happens, but it’s thrilling.

It’s true. And yet it’s some of the most perfect storytelling I’ve seen. It’s so efficient and tightly done. It’s great.

You showed a cut of “The Hollars” to Rian Johnson for feedback. Did you show this movie to any filmmakers or anyone else of note?

The truth of the matter is, I was dying to. We didn’t have the schedule. I don’t know if this is bad to say — if the studio is like, “No, we were always prepared!” — but we wrapped on Nov. 1. We’ll come out on April 6. So that is five months almost to the day. That’s an insanely tight post-production process for any movie, but when you have visual effects and are super sound-heavy, it’s a tight schedule. If I’m honest, we were literally picture-cutting and sound-editing 18 or 24 hours before [the South by Southwest premiere in March].

So it was as fresh as you could possibly get. And not to say that I was happy about that. That was the most terrifying moment of my career, because you do want to have your friends see it before you show it to 1,200 people. That was intense. And yet there was part of me that was like, “You know what? Screw it. We’ve been working so hard. Maybe this is what needs to happen.” And I did understand that maybe the most respectful thing to do with the genre crowd is to let them see it first — don’t filter it; let them know what you really feel about the movie. And that was awesome.

Neither “Brief Interviews” nor “The Hollars” ended up being a big box-office draw. “Brief Interviews” made less than $100,000, and “The Hollars” less than $2 million. Did that trouble you? How did you debrief and gear up to make another movie anyway?

It’s tough. It’s not the most fun, that’s for sure. But I think there’s also an understanding of the product you’re putting out. I think you know when you’re opening small — “Brief Interviews” got to less than 100 screens; “The Hollars” reached 400 or 500 screens ― it’s not going to make that much money. I’ve always been a realist. Not to say that it’s not painful or hard or whatever, but it didn’t bum me. Because I was a realist, I knew what was happening. The studios both were very honest with me. [“Hollars” distributor Sony Pictures Classics] especially was so honest and open. They loved the movie and told me what was going to happen, and I think they were really betting more on the after-life of the movie, which has been good, which is cool.

This movie, in particular, is the same thing: It’s a low-enough budget where I just wanted the studio to make their money back. I don’t think anyone saw the reaction from South by Southwest coming. I don’t think anyone saw the reviews coming. I’ll be honest with you. There are boats that I am on, and there are boats that I’m not on, and I can tell that the studio is trying to make this as big a hit as it can. And I so hope they do, but at some point that becomes a business decision. It’s not why I made the movie, and yet if it goes on to that, fantastic.

I did this movie “Away We Go.”

Such an underappreciated movie.

Thank you so much! I love it, too. But if I’m really honest — I don’t know if I’ve talked about this before — I remember very vividly, because Emily said, “It’s really weird how you deal with bad news. How do you deal with that?” I remember when I didn’t get Captain America, I was like, “All right, let’s go to dinner,” and she was like, “Do you want to sit here and cry?” I was like, “No, it’s fine.” Even with “The Hollars,” she was like, “Are you OK that it didn’t do well?” I said, “Yeah, it’s just life — you’ve got to take it as it comes.”

But the only reason why I had that perspective, to be honest, is because my brain broke on “Away We Go.” I was early in my career, and just about a week before it came out, I remember there was this swell of enthusiasm. All of a sudden, I started getting calls from my agents and people all around saying, “Holy shit, you’re going to be in an Oscar-nominated film. This is as good as it gets.” And I was young enough to go, “Oh my god, here we go!”

I went with the wave, and that wave crashed real hard on the shore. I remember in my head something almost physically snapped, and I was like, “Probably shouldn’t do that again. As a survival thing, don’t let yourself fly that high. If it happens, awesome. If it doesn’t, don’t be crushed. Try to stay in the middle as best you can.” And it’s work, but that moment changed my life. I believed in that movie. It wasn’t just like, “Hey, man, you’re in a terrible movie that’s gonna do great.” No, I felt so personal to that movie — Maya Rudolph and I’s relationship, Sam Mendes did such a great job, it was such a special movie. So when that one had its neck broken, I was really bummed. I just promised I wouldn’t let it hit me like that anymore.

Paramount Pictures
Noah Jupe, Millicent Simmonds and John Krasinski in "A Quiet Place."

Let’s talk about “Brief Interviews” for a minute. That’s an 80-minute movie largely made up of men monologuing their feelings about women. A couple of the men sympathize with rapists. As it stands, do you think you could make that movie today, given how much we’ve reconsidered gender power dynamics?  

No, I don’t think the movie could be made today, but not just for that reason. The other thing is, movies now have become a lot more of a business. It’s harder to get any movie made. I’m sure “Black Panther” took a little longer to get through. Years ago, people just let it fly a little more, or something. It felt like movies were getting made more often.

But to your point about the movement that’s happening right now, there’s two sides of that, one of which is, I think the book and the movie ― but certainly the book ― did a really good job of identifying those guys as flawed.

It is in the title.

Right, yeah! Exactly. But I think there may be part of that movie that’s like, maybe this is the best time to be watching it. That book changed my life, and I’ll tell you why. I was at Brown University. I totally started acting just to make friends and just to be in a group of people. I was doing mostly sketch comedy, I was making people laugh, and it was really fun. I was having a great time. And then Chris Hayes from MSNBC, who was a director at the time, said, “I’m going to direct this adaptation of a book. We’re just going to read the book out loud onstage.” I was like, “All right, cool.” He asked me to do it, and I thought, honestly, that I was part of the cool kids, because he was asking really cool actors to do it, and I hadn’t been part of the cool-kids acting group.

I went in and I did it, and I remember it was 99 seats or 100 seats, and we turned away like 200 people that night. I was not expecting that. I thought it was going to be 10 people in the audience. People showed up. There were people who stood up and left, there were people who were crying. We only did it one or two nights, and the next day, walking through campus, I remember, truly within 10 minutes, one teacher came to me and said, “That’s the best thing I’ve ever seen a student theater do,” and then another teacher came up and said, “You know, you’ve gotta be careful what you do, because that was very offensive.”

Not that I’m Andy Kaufman or anything, but there was something about that dramatically different response where, to be honest, what it did for me was define what responsibility you have as an actor or storyteller. It’s not just to entertain. You can say big things. So, for me, I thought that book started a conversation that was very interesting, very necessary.

Back then, it was that idea of being honest, whether you’re male or female, and identifying yourself as something. And if you identified yourself as something, maybe you could defend it. Of course, those guys can’t defend it.

I remember it was one of the first things I showed Emily when we started dating. I was like, “I just directed this thing; I’m about to turn it in.” She was like, “I don’t know about this, dude. This is really intense stuff.” It was just one of those things. I directed it because it really changed my life in showing me what was possible.

It’s tricky. You have a bunch of men discussing women, but it’s ultimately meant to be framed from the perspective of this female graduate student, who is doing feminist research. You could call it “What Men Want.” Or “What Men Shouldn’t Want.”

What I was interested in, as someone who was brought up to own up to something you did wrong, was that there was something about those men that was highly defensive. It was so not me. And the ones who are really interesting to me are the guys who, halfway through their monologue, realized they were sounding really bad, so instead of saying, “Sorry, that’s probably not what I want,” they lash out at her. They started directing all their anger to her, and that seemed like such a horrible, flawed decision, and yet how pathetic those guys were that that’s the tact they took.

Moving on, you and Aaron Sorkin were once developing a miniseries about the Chateau Marmont, which sounds delicious. Whatever happened with that?

Wow, you’re doing a deep dive. I love it. It was one of those things where HBO put it in development for a long time. HBO is amazing, but they also sometimes lock things into development.

They’re famous for that.

Not to mention Aaron went on to do a lot of stuff. He was really busy, and I think at some point it took so long that [Chateau Marmont owner André Balazs] just took the rights back.

But I gotta say, very secretly, I have a deal with Paramount TV right now, and we just got the rights to the new Chateau book that the author of Paul Newman’s biography is writing. We’re waiting for that book to come out, I think in September.

Are you working with Sorkin again?

No, it’s going to be all on our own now. I’m so excited that you know about that because to me, there’s kind of no cooler thing. I don’t ever want to see somebody play a famous person — it’s all about the upstairs/downstairs. I want it to be like “Gosford Park.”

Exactly. That’s the perfect reference point. And very different from the movies you’ve directed. After “The Hollars” and “A Quiet Place,” and having two kids of your own, I’d have assumed you’re pretty fixated on stories about the family structure.

In one respect, it’s all I’m thinking about ― raising two little human beings that you hope are not only self-sufficient but also courageous in whatever they decide to do. This movie hit me three weeks after having our second daughter. That was big, because I was already wide open. To me, it’s not necessarily all I think about, but I’m very aware of the huge pool of talent of directors. I’d probably rather watch them do most movies that come my way, so in order for me to step up and do it, it’s got to be personal.

That said, you nailed the fact that, other than “Brief Interviews,” the movies I’ve done really are about family. When I did “The Hollars,” we had just had our first daughter, now that I think about it. So basically every time I have a kid, I’m going to do a movie [Laughs]. That’s what we’re getting at. Or every time I do a movie, we have to have a kid; otherwise the narrative doesn’t track. But it probably is where my mind is occupied sometimes.

But I’d be willing to do a political thriller, or something like that. It’s just got to be the right one. Like you said about genre — and this isn’t a fully fleshed-out hypothesis, so I might be wrong — there are things that have their moments, and there are things that, no matter how good they are, this isn’t the time to do it. And that’s really sad for me. My favorite movie of all time is “The Verdict.” I don’t think “The Verdict” gets made today. Dare I say, I don’t think “Argo” gets made today. So it is weird to see how quickly the business is deteriorating at that level of movies, because those are the movies I really like. I think they’re all going to come back, right? It’s got to be cyclical. But it’s one of those things where I could write a movie like “Sideways” and then people are like, “We’re not making that.” It’s more about what’s going to be a waste of time at this moment.

George Napolitano via Getty Images
John Krasinski and Maya Rudolph attend a 2009 screening of "Away We Go."

You mention “Sideways,” an Alexander Payne movie. No matter the landscape today, Alexander Payne can essentially make anything he wants. Having made a name for yourself outside of the directing world, do you see yourself inching toward that same privilege? Surely being “Jim from ‘The Office’” wasn’t a detractor in the marketing potential for “The Hollars.”

Right, and yet I don’t know if being Jim Halpert was necessarily helpful in this movie, because I don’t think they were like, “Oh, Jim Halpert, horror movie, let’s go.” But yeah, there’s definitely a level of success, or I should say a level of recognizability, from the studios where, yes, the fact that they know me and we’ve been in rooms together helps. But I also think it’s a hindrance because they label you — which is fine with me. I’m totally cool if, at the end of my career, the thing I’m most known for is Jim from “The Office.” Can’t get better than that.

To your point of whether I would be given the keys to make anything that’s in my head right now, my wife said something interesting just yesterday: “I wonder, if they gave you $250 million to make a movie, would it be the same level of passion? Would you be as connected to it? You’re someone who works so well under the gun, and maybe having the freedoms would be a very different experience.” And I think she’s right. For me, getting to do this again, period, would be awesome, but it’s also one of those things where I also think what you do next is really important. Not that you need to strategize, but I just do what I connect to because of “The Office.” With all due respect, financially that show put me in a place where I could wait and just do “The Hollars.” Some people can’t do that. I really appreciate the opportunity that show gave me in every single way.

That said, I gotta say there’s something really cool, in my opinion, with what Jordan Peele did. He developed stuff that he really cares about, that’s outside the box of what people thought would be next, like directing “Get Out 2” or the next Marvel movie. He said, “No, I’m going to go do these cool things I’ve wanted to do for a while.” That’s awesome. I just want to find something that I connect to like that.

Before we wrap up, since “A Quiet Place” is technically a monster movie, how many creature designs did you consider?

[“Lost” and “Cloverfield” writer Drew Goddard] told me after he’d read the script, “The one advice I’ll give you is start creating that guy now.” He goes, “You’re lucky if it’s the third or fourth one. It’ll most likely be the 12th.” I think it was our eighth, maybe. But the crazy thing is, we had a monster designed the entire shoot, and I changed it in post, in the middle of the edit.

Wow, so the actors were responding to a monster they thought looked entirely different?

Yep.

How different are the two?

They’re pretty different, but their properties and why they are the way they are are the exact same. The way they look is different. So, acting-wise, it didn’t change much because it was all about sound. I remember somebody telling me, “When you do a lot of visual-effects movies, you can see your creatures in the shot.” And truly six weeks into the edit, I was like, “This guy’s not going to look as good as the other guy.” I went back and we redesigned it. [The first one] felt more like a fantasy creature.

This interview has been edited for clarity and condensed for length.