“The joy of a creative partnership like ours is that we can write two films at once,” says writer-director team Bryan Woods and Scott Beck, who rose to prominence in 2018 with A Quiet Place, on which they share a writing credit with star and director John Krasinski, and now unleashes hell with Haunt, which they wrote at the same time.
On its face, their latest film Haunt is a simple affair about a handful of teens who head out in search of fun on Halloween, arrive at an extreme haunted house that promises to feed on their darkest fears. The night turns deadly as they discover that some monsters are real.
With recent high shockers like Hereditary, The Witch, The Babadook and Get Out, Haunt is proof of why movies like it exist and must continue to exist: for the primal cathartic release of a bloody carnival ride.
Beck & Bryan Woods first met as sixth-graders in their hometown of Bettendorf, Iowa. After discovering a shared interest in cinema, the duo began collaborating on stop-motion movies with their Star Wars action figures. This collaboration continued into high school, where they directed numerous shorts and their first feature films.
As teenagers, Beck & Woods were shortlisted as two of the top 50 directors (out of 2,000 applicants) for Ben Affleck & Matt Damon’s Project Greenlight series on Bravo. While still in college, Beck & Woods’ work caught the eye of MTV Films, which offered the pair a feature film development deal. The duo went on to write and direct an original scripted pilot for MTV and executive producer David Gale (Election) and were later listed as “The Top 100 Writers on the Verge” by Tracking-Board.com.
In 2015, Beck & Woods wrote and directed Nightlight, a supernatural thriller released by Lionsgate Entertainment.
They wrote Haunt at the same time as A Quiet Place, not expecting both of them would be made. But in the wake of A Quiet Place, they find themselves able to command a pitch meeting in ways they couldn’t in years past.
In 2016, those scripts were each a love letter to the horror genre.
“If A Quiet Place was our ode to “prestige” horror and an attempt to elevate tired genre conventions, then Haunt was our counterpoint – a feeling that horror doesn’t need to be “elevated” to be wonderful,” says Woods and Beck.
“It was a return to the classic slasher staples, perfected by our heroes like John Carpenter and Tobe Hooper; films that strap you into a terrifying roller coaster and plague your nightmares long after the credits roll.”
Their approach to Haunt was informed by two infatuations; their love of simple, streamlined B-movies and their shared experience of growing up together in Iowa, frequenting the local haunts as teenagers.
“Our hometown haunts were not commercially-funded glossy institutions like Universal Horror Nights, but more like abandoned factories of fear. They would scare the community with paired down aesthetics, stripped back to the core of rust, brick, and darkness, using minimalism to feed your imagination. Those early experiences informed our global approach to filmmaking, teaching us the importance of “what you don’t see is scarier”.
It’s a lesson that stitched itself into the fabric of both A Quiet Place and Haunt, two scripts that were written without a guarantee they would ever have a life on screen.
But much to their surprise and good fortune, both films were greenlit simultaneously.
“One of our key Haunt collaborators was Eli Roth,” says Woods and Beck.
“We grew up as fans of Eli’s filmography and treated his DVD commentaries as a film school of sorts.
When they got word that Eli loved the script and wanted to come on board as a producer, they were excited but also aware of that adage: “Never meet your heroes”.
“Much to our relief, Eli was not only a fantastic human and cinephile – he lent tremendous advice throughout the entire process, starting with the script. For a filmmaker who is known for dismemberment and gore, we were surprised to find Eli’s focus always came back to the characters first. We loved this instinct, as it echoed our own: create characters that the audience loves, so when the body count rises, the emotional stakes run higher.”
Says Woods:”‘On the one hand, we were writing A Quiet Place, which we kind of always perceived as this Spielbergian studio horror film, what you would consider “elevated” horror, and then on the other hand, we’re scoffing at ourselves and going, “Don’t be snobs, you don’t have to elevate horror.” There’s something amazing and beautiful about a low-budget throwback slasher, which is what Haunt was. We were really chasing John Carpenter and Toby Hooper and all those films that we love. So we felt like we were sharing our love for two different sides of horror because we love them both.”
“What’s kind of funny in the process when Brian and I were writing is we tried to be optimists when going into the script and we know how hard it is to get a movie made,” says Beck.
“When writing both A Quiet Place and Haunt, we had no expectation that the movie would actually get made. There were little things here and there, and if you’ve seen Haunt, there are two carry-overs of specific moments, one including a nail, that we wrote into both scripts, again from maybe a pessimistic point of view that movies don’t get made, so we want to have a nail gag in at least one. But they both happened to get greenlight at the same time, and we found ourselves in a situation where we’re ripping ourselves off, but for the best reason possible because we got both movies made.”
“We said to ourselves that if Quentin Tarantino can end every single movie in a Mexican standoff, we can have two nail scenes in two movies,” says Woods. “But we love that there’s a conversation between the two movies and we love that there are two different sides of the same coin in a weird way.”
“Elevated horror is a topic of great interest for me. It’s a nonsense term. But, when John Krasinski was promoting A Quiet Place, he used that term very earnestly and straight-facedly, and you guys, it sounds like you think it’s a bogus phrase. What do you feel about “elevated horror” being the buzz phrase for this genre?”
“We throw the term “elevated horror” around in major quotes. We don’t deny the fact that the horror genre being used in an interesting way isn’t unique to our time,” says Beck. “You can point to Night of the Living Dead and Invasion of the Body Snatchers, and look at those as simply great B movies. But there’s something incredible under the surface of both, whether dealing with racism, or politics, or the fear of communism seeping into the United States back in the 1950s and 1960s. We feel that in the undercurrent today, obviously pointing to Jordan Peele with both Get Out and Us, movies that are really hitting social discourse underneath the veil of genre.”
“What’s really cool, as movie fans, is that we’re getting these amazing movies, what would be considered “elevated,” like Get Out, like The Witch, like It Follows. But that’s not the only game in town! We felt like there was a hole missing in the genre work that we’re seeing right now that we hope Haunt fills from some people,” says Woods.
The Witch is an interesting example because within the first 10 minutes, something very shocking happens; they don’t wait until the end of the movie to pull that stuff out. But it sounds like the purpose of Haunt is to remind folks that there’s another side to horror, and it’s a more traditional side or at least the side people think of when they think of horror. Maybe that is also why people reach for the term “elevated horror” in the first place?
What brought Woods and Beck to the idea of Haunt, was looking at family members, friends that have suffered trauma.
“Sometimes it’s not in a sweeping, dramatic way that you would see on film.” says Beck. “Day to day, you see people having to wake up and deal with poisonous, toxic relationships, or something that may have happened 10 years in their past that’s still affecting them in very subtle ways. To a certain degree, that was the entry point so we could hopefully speak to something real and tangible.”
“I think horror is, if nothing else, about trauma, whether that’s psychological trauma or physical trauma,” says Woods. “It’s about what scares us, and what damages us, and what we need to heal from. Horror at its best should be cathartic. You want to go to a scary movie and you want to walk out of the theater feeling like you conquered something for yourself personally.”
” I think about one of the most impressionable horror movies that I remember seeing as a kid, David Cronenberg’s The Fly; it deals with trauma in a different way,” says Beck. “It’s a tragedy in terms of a love story, and somebody is trying to break cutting-edge science, but they end up destroying themselves and a potential relationship in the process. The end of that film still gets me to this day, how heart-wrenching it really is.”
“We hope that horror can be a cathartic experience with Haunt,” says Woods.
“We hope that it can be experiential, and you can feel like you’re taking that journey with the characters, and seeing it not just be, I guess for lack of a better term, pure torture porn for 90 minutes. That’s not something that was ever interesting to us. What was really cool was our producer, Eli Roth, who’s certainly known for his gore and shocking violence, it was wonderful working with him. All of our conversations were about character, making sure that we had time with them and we loved them and related to them, but it was also about the villains and making sure that we understood their motivations. We’re playing it a little bit close to the chest, both in A Quiet Place and in Haunt. We don’t like to get into backstory and reveal all the secrets of why, in A Quiet Place for example, the aliens are here, where they came from. We love putting that on the periphery and letting the audience be a part of the conversation.”
“And we’re certainly playing that same card in Haunt. Eli really encouraged us to dig into their motivations and their backstories, not to put it onscreen, but just so that we all felt comfortable and felt like we knew what we were doing so that it would add a layer of kind of immediacy that wouldn’t have been there otherwise.”
“I have to say, we spent, as artists, the last 20 years trying to pull our heads out of our asses” says Woods.
“It’s hilarious to think that if we went to ourselves in high school and said, “Would you ever make a slasher film that takes place on Halloween?”, we’d be like, “No!” It’s weird. We were immersed in The Criterion Collection and we were devouring the French New Wave and Zhang Yimou and Hou Hsiao-hsien, and all these amazing art house filmmakers. Those were our first heroes. It’s ironic that over time we’ve actually come to appreciate some of the other films and other filmmakers that you might not think of, but also at the same time, all of our heroes started in this world. When you think about Peter Bogdanovich, for example, one of his first films was Targets, and Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola, James Cameron, all these filmmakers cut their teeth on really fun genre movies. We’re proud to attempt to participate or to attempt to follow in their footsteps.”
How do they feel about A Quiet Place’s success in this ecosystem, and what do they want for Haunt’s success going forward?
“A Quiet Place put us in a position that we’re incredibly grateful for; when we were writing that years ago, and we would pitch the idea to an executive, they would get this glazed-over look. So we feel validated to a certain extent that there is an appetite for what we consider as original filmmaking amidst the landscape that’s sequels or remakes or, you know, based on existing IP.” says Beck “For us, in the wake of Haunt and even beyond, and extending to some of the stuff we’re working on, we’re trying to capitalize on that momentum. Instead of focusing on sequels per se, it’s about investing back into the ecosystem of original ideas in a massive marketplace.”
Fox snatched up Beck & Woods’ horror pitch The Boogeyman, based on Stephen King’s iconic short story of the same name. They are currently writing the screenplay for themselves to direct and will also serve as Executive Producers on the film. The short story, first published in 1973 and later released in King’s 1978 collection Night Shift, followed a man who’s recently lost all his children to a creature lurking in the closet.
Beck & Woods are also writing the sci-fi drama Sovereign for Oscar-winning actor Mahershala Ali, based on the original draft of the script by Greg Weidman and Geoff Tock.
“We look at it like this: John’s (Krasinski) been building a career for the past 15 years, right? And he’s a celebrity in addition to being a writer and director, and he’s been cultivating a following for years and years and years. So we felt like he should have the spotlight, because he’s been doing this for so long. The film coming out, we were so grateful for the success, and John did such a terrific job, that it’s hard for us to be like, “Oh, we didn’t get enough attention,” you know what I mean? We felt well covered, but let us now take the next 10 years and do our best to put our work out there. If we steal the spotlight, then that’s terrific. But we’ll just be pounding away in our own humble way.”