Day One’s Michael Sarnoski Wanted to Avoid Franchises 5

Every year, a number of films come out of the woodwork to challenge for industry awards and year-end recognition, and in 2021, Michael Sarnoski’s Pig was perhaps the ultimate example of this trajectory. The Neon-released pic about Nicolas Cage’s reclusive truffle forager subverted the past decade’s uptick of revenge films, ending in an empathetic gesture and emotional appeal rather than a bang. The aching drama reminded this town that Cage is still a force to be reckoned with, making Sarnoski, in turn, a filmmaker to watch and meet with over bottled water.

One person who certainly kept tabs on the situation was A Quiet Place franchise co-mastermind John Krasinski. He eventually invited the Wisconsin native to bring his Pig sensibility to A Quiet Place: Day One — a prequel depicting how the alien invasion initially played out in New York City.

“I was actively avoiding big studio movies just because it’s become a little bit of a trope where an indie director moves to some big studio movie, blah, blah, blah. But [John Krasinski] came to me and said, ‘What would happen if you brought some of that Pig touch to the Quiet Place universe?’” Sarnoski tells The Hollywood Reporter. “It just felt like something I couldn’t say no to. And a lot of that came from Krasinski being willing to say, ‘Hey, this is a Michael Sarnoski film. Make it how you want to make it. We want a different vision in this universe so that all of these movies don’t start feeling the same.’ So I just couldn’t shake it.”

Sarnoski supplanted another acclaimed filmmaker in Jeff Nichols, who exited the project due to creative differences with Krasinski. In any event, the Pig writer-director is grateful to both Nichols and Krasinki for creating a painless transition.

“Jeff Nichols actually reached out and did a very sweet hand-off of things. He’s an amazing director. So [Nichols and Krasinski] had been working on a script, but it was very much like, ‘Hey, start over. Do what you want to do.’ And I needed that. I didn’t want to have to adjust stuff that already existed,” Sarnoski recalls. “So I really started from a blank page on day one, and it was really generous of [Krasinski] to not try and do some, ‘Well, use this scene, but not …’ It was just, ‘Hey, how do you want to approach this?’ And, in coming up with Sam’s character, it needed to be that way.”

The character of Sam — played beautifully by Oscar winner Lupita Nyong’o — is a terminally ill poet in hospice care, and during a group outing to a marionette show in Lower Manhattan, Sam and her fittingly named cat, Frodo, encounter the arrival of the franchise’s sound-hunting extraterrestrials (Death Angels) by way of a meteor shower. Sam and Frodo survive the introductory assault, but they soon leave their hospice group behind for a more personal journey. That’s when they cross paths with Joseph Quinn’s Eric, a young British law student who simply doesn’t want to be alone at the end of the world. 

Eric, in time, learns about Sam’s dying wish, and similar to what Amir (Alex Wolff) did for Rob (Cage) in Pig, he helps her and Frodo revisit their old stomping grounds for the sake of a nostalgic meal. The unexpected relationship of Sam and Eric is meant to parallel Rob and Amir in Pig, but the presence of the scene-stealing cat was not intended to hark back to Pig’s beloved truffle pig. Before being stolen, the title character was Rob’s one-and-only companion after the death of his wife, the abandonment of his restaurant and his self-imposed exile to the Oregon wilderness. 

“​​I loved working with that pig. It was a beautiful experience, but I was very much like, ‘I’m going to take a break from animals for a while,’” Sarnoski says. “There was just something about the image of a sick woman walking with her cat through a desolate, destroyed New York City. It just evolved naturally out of her character, and then I reluctantly had to be like, ‘Well, darn. I guess I am going to have a cat in every scene of this movie.’ But it wasn’t like, ‘Oh, [Krasinski] wants the Pig touch. That means I’ll find a little animal friend.’”

With strong reviews and a franchise record-breaking opening weekend of $53 million, Sarnoski is thrilled that his brand of intimate storytelling has been so well received at this scale, especially when the film’s late review embargo caused some unnecessary concern among watchful film journalists and fans. 

“I saw a lot of people online, theorizing, ‘Oh no, they’re withholding reviews because of this and that,’” Sarnoski says. “And I was like, ‘No, they’re actually doing it because they wanted to drop the reviews the day after the premiere.’ We just happened to have a really late premiere because it was tethered to the Tribeca Festival.”

Below, during a recent conversation with THR, Sarnoski also discusses why he kept franchise connections and fan service to a minimum, before insisting that he’ll reunite with Cage someday. 

Well, Pig was my favorite film of 2021, and you likely had a number of interesting meetings following its release. What made A Quiet Place: Day One the right next move?

Eventually, there’s always going to be this leap-of-faith moment, but I did take a lot of meetings after Pig came out. I met with studios and a bunch of production companies, but I wanted to be cautious about what I was going to dive into. I was actively avoiding big studio movies just because it’s become a little bit of a trope where an indie director moves to some big studio movie, blah, blah, blah. But this Quiet Place opportunity came by, and it just felt like something I couldn’t say no to. John Krasinski loved Pig, and so he came to me and said, “What would happen if you brought some of that Pig touch to the Quiet Place universe?” 

So I really thought hard about what my angle on it would be, and I came to this character of Sam, who’s in a pretty specific part of her life. She’s a hospice patient who’s dying when the world ends, and she goes on this journey. There was just something about that and the opportunity to do a really intimate story with the scope and scale of an exciting disaster movie. And a lot of that came from Krasinski being willing to say, “Hey, this is a Michael Sarnoski film. Make it how you want to make it. We want a different vision in this universe so that all of these movies don’t start feeling the same.” And I just thought, “When else am I going to get to do a big franchise movie where I’ll have the freedom to explore a character that a movie like this wouldn’t normally dive into — and with the support of the previous filmmaker?” So I just couldn’t shake it. 

Alex Wolff, Lupita Nyong’o, producer John Krasinski & director Michael Sarnoski on the set of A Quiet Place: Day One

Paramount Pictures

It’s no secret that Jeff Nichols was on this movie before you, so did you pick up where he and John left off? Or were you given a clean slate for the most part? 

Yeah, I was given a clean slate. Jeff Nichols actually reached out and did a very sweet hand-off of things. He’s incredible. I just saw The Bikeriders, and I thought it was wonderful. He’s an amazing director. So they had been working on a script, but it was very much like, “Hey, start over. Do what you want to do.” And I needed that. I didn’t want to have to adjust stuff that already existed. So I really started from a blank page on day one, and it was really generous of [Krasinski] to not try and do some, “Well, use this scene, but not …” It was just, “Hey, how do you want to approach this?” And, in coming up with Sam’s character, it needed to be that way. She has a very specific story she’s going through, and if we were trying to inject that into some previously existing thing, that would’ve been really weird and confusing. So I really just started fresh with a new character and what this world would look like through her eyes. 

In the trailer, the “service cat” line felt tongue in cheek, but it very much wasn’t, as Sam is a hospice patient like you said. So what was the overall rationale behind centering the story on a terminally ill woman?

When John came to me, he said, “We want to do a day one-New York City movie.” So I thought a lot about what I had already seen in movies like this, and there are a lot of tropes that you could do: fighting the creatures or escaping the city or rescuing this person or that. And just in an attempt to avoid all of those tropes, I was like, “What if my main character wasn’t even really trying to survive at the end of the day?” Survival is usually the fundamental thing that any disaster or horror movie boils down to: “Something is trying to kill me and I don’t want to die.” So knee-capping myself in that way and taking away all of that stuff seemed like an exciting opportunity to be like, “Well, if I can make a fulfilling story that I believe in and that keeps me moved and moving forward without using any of that stuff and being limited in a certain way, that would be exciting to me.” And Sam’s journey and what this was going to mean to her excited me, all while stripping out some of those classic things and focusing on something unexpected.

Lupita Nyong’o as “Sam” in A Quiet Place: Day One

Paramount Pictures

The marketing kept her condition very hush-hush. For a summer movie, I suppose I can understand the idea of not wanting to lead with something sad, no matter how relatable cancer is.

I don’t have a ton of say in the marketing side of things, but I have a feeling that they’re going to open that side of it up now. Step one was showing people, “Hey, here’s an exciting disaster movie with great performances.” So you feature these incredible actors in it, and then once you get in there, you understand who these characters are. The marketing avoided a lot of the character stuff so that you could discover it authentically as you’re watching the movie. And thankfully, the movie still satisfies the excitement and scope that people want from a movie like this, but the emotion is the bonus. That is what it’s really about: “We’ll give you the stuff that we know you came here for, but let’s also give you something unexpected.” So withholding that might prime people for that, but I don’t know the minds of marketing. They do what they do.

As the storyteller who made us fall in love with a truffle pig in just ten minutes of screen time, was Frodo the cat your way of Pig-ifying the movie as John Krasinski requested?

​​I loved working with that pig. It was a beautiful experience, but I was very much like, “I’m going to take a break from animals for a while. No more animals in my next movie.” But then Frodo just evolved out of Sam’s character. The idea was that she had a cat from her life when she lived in the city, and it was the one thing that she carried with her and connected her to that [past]. And that connection then plays out in her relationship with Eric. There was just something about the image of a sick woman walking with her cat through a desolate, destroyed New York City. It just evolved naturally out of her character, and then I reluctantly had to be like, “Well, darn. I guess I am going to have a cat in every scene of this movie.” But it wasn’t like, “Oh, he wants the Pig touch. That means I’ll find a little animal friend.” It somehow just evolved out of Sam’s character.

Joseph Quinn as “Eric” and Lupita Nyong’o as “Sam” in A Quiet Place: Day One

Paramount Pictures

There is a similar relationship at the center of both movies, as Eric (Joseph Quinn) and Pig’s Amir (Alex Wolff) both bring Sam (Nyong’o) and Rob (Nicolas Cage) back to life by revisiting their past lives. Does that through-line apply to John’s request at all? 

That is definitely a thematic connection between the two. They’re also the kind of stories that I find interesting. I like stories about unlikely connections and how allowing yourself to empathize with other people and see the world through their eyes can really heal and strengthen both parties. Even in our own lives, we enjoy finding an unlikely friendship with someone who opens us up as a person. So it’s just a form of human connection that I enjoy exploring. It’s the spice of life and what I love in narratives. So a lot of my movies will probably be about unlikely people coming to learn about each other and how that plays out in various different ways. So that’s definitely a part of the Pig touch, but it’s also just something I love.

And Sam’s slice of pizza, much like Rob’s famous meal, is about the memories that are associated with it.

Yeah, we all have very strong emotional connections to food. Pizza just makes so much sense with New York City, but I also just love food in film. When you watch someone eating on screen, there’s something basic and believable about that. It’s like you’re no longer watching an actor; you’re just watching someone eat a slice of pizza, and there’s something that really connects you to that moment. It’s similar to when you watch a real animal do something. Even if it’s trained to do that thing, it’s not faking it. You’re just watching an animal doing that thing, and there’s something fundamental that I love about that sort of stuff. But, yeah, on a larger thematic level, food carries a lot of weight, and as a chubby person, it’s been a big part of my life.

Pig was a tight 90, as is A Quiet Place: Day One minus credits. Can one surmise that you’re not enamored with this current era of lengthy films? 

I love a good lengthy film, but I don’t think length for the sake of it is necessary. I like making movies at the right scale, at the right length and for the right amount of money. Doing what the story demands is what’s important. So, maybe just because it seems too difficult, I don’t think I have a three-hour movie in my future anytime soon, but I’m not against them. Oppenheimer was my favorite movie of last year, so I have no problem with that. I just tend to lean towards shorter stuff, but it’s all about what the story demands. Also, I like exploring offbeat, unexpected, emotional stories, and if you overstay your welcome there, it can get iffy. You need a lot of story to make a three-hour movie, and I sometimes like to strip story down to its bare bones and lean into character. So a shorter length allows you to do that more easily.

I love the way the Quiet Place franchise lights fuses that are bound to go off. In the first movie, John established the nail in the staircase and the impending arrival of Evelyn Abbott’s (Emily Blunt) new baby. In your film, you set up Sam’s transdermal patch, as well as Frodo, as these inevitable complications. Did you and John discuss those types of elements explicitly?

Not really. It’s a classic setup-payoff screenwriting thing, and for a movie like this, establishing rules draws people in. If you do this, this will happen. And you gradually expand that: “Oh, they’re using helicopters to deliver information, but when the helicopters go by, a herd of creatures is always going to be chasing the helicopters. That makes sense based on the rules we’ve established around the creatures and noise.” So you set these stakes in the ground and then build off of those. It’s what’s fun about these movies. So it’s partially just basic screenwriting, and then the other exciting part of it is the exploration of the world.

Lupita Nyong’o as “Sam” and Djimon Hounsou as “Henri” in A Quiet Place: Day One

Courtesy of Paramount Pictures

Besides Djimon Hounsou’s character Henri, I appreciate that you didn’t go out of your way to connect your film to the previous two films. Were there permutations of Day One where you had more Easter eggs or fan service, such as placing the first movie’s fateful spaceship toy in the bodega?

Not really. It’s partially because that stuff just doesn’t interest me that much. I wanted to make a movie that could be seen as a standalone movie. It works well within the franchise, but you can also watch this without having seen any of the other movies and it would still be just as resonant. So I wasn’t super interested in [fan service]. 

There were always conversations like, “Oh, could we do this to use that later?” So things like that came up, but unless there was a really good reason for it, I didn’t really want to get into that much stuff. If you’re just setting up a character for the sake of using them in another movie, that’s always going to feel a little empty, and so we tended to be very focused on making this a self-contained, meaningful story.

People have also gotten really savvy these days to those empty setups. It’s like, “Really, do I have to watch this so that I can watch the next thing and the next thing? Can’t I just enjoy a movie for what it is?” So it would’ve been easy to go down that path with a prequel and just have a lot of things that only take on meaning through the larger franchise lens, but we actively avoided that because people are getting a little tired of that.

The water fountain was a subtle way to call back to the first film’s waterfall without overdoing it.

Yeah!

Your movie reaffirms that the key and the way forward for this franchise is to continue telling personal character stories within this alien invasion and occupation. It’s not about the aforementioned tropes of assembling all the franchise heroes to fight aliens or taking the fight to the alien planet. 

Absolutely. That’s what appealed to me about it. The first movie is a really nuanced family drama about guilt and forgiveness. It really examined these characters in an interesting way, and the “you make a sound, you die” world allows you to do these subtle, unspoken character dramas. So that is the heart and soul of the Quiet Place movies. On paper, everyone’s like, “Big scary monsters that hunt by sound,” yes, but it’s really the feeling that you get out of that breathless suspense that then allows for breathless emotionality. So one of my goals was to honor that, but find a completely different character story to do it through. Day One is not a story about family and survival; it’s a story about strangers coming together at the end of the world and finding their meaning in each other. So, yeah, I think that’s core to the franchise.

For my money, you elicited Nic Cage’s finest performance to date, so I really hope you guys team up again.

Oh, we absolutely will. I definitely want to work with Nic again. I worked with Alex Wolff in A Quiet Place, and that was a wonderful team-up again, but I didn’t write the character of Rueben for him. I wrote a character that I felt was fleshed out and alive on the page, and then I realized Alex would be perfect for it. So it would be the same with Nic. I would have to fall in love with a character in its own right, and then it would have to be, “Wow, Nic would actually be really interesting for this.” He’s such a potent performer that you want to choose the perfect role for him. So I want to do that at some point, but I also don’t want to force it, because, even in the back of my mind, there’s always going to be some inauthenticity to that. So, at some point, I’m sure I will write a character and be like, “Darn, that’s Nic.”

Nicolas Cage as “Rob” and the title character in Pig

Courtesy of Neon

Because of Pig, Neon is about to release another great Nic Cage movie in Longlegs. Do you and Neon ever trade ideas for another collaboration?

We definitely keep in touch. I love Neon. The kind of movies they make are incredible, and they’re very much in line with the kind of movies that I like to make. So I’m sure at some point I’ll work with them again. I’m always thinking about what makes the most sense. I’m never going to write a movie for a specific actor. I like to find a project, let it organically grow into what it wants to be, and then find the people that feel like the right match for it. That’s how I want to move forward. So I’m less, “Hey, Neon, let’s make a movie together.” It would be more like, “Hey, Neon. I have this movie idea that I’ve been working on and you seem like a really good partner for it.” So I’m sure there will be movies that make sense for them because they make the kind of movies I like to make.

Returning to Alex, he does some heartbreaking work in A Quiet Place: Day One. I know you didn’t write the role with him in mind, but after two well-received movies, are you going to feel obligated to include him in all your movies as a matter of superstition? Lots of directors have their own good-luck charms. 

It’s becoming that way, for sure. I love working with him, and he’s an incredible actor. At this point, there is a superstitious part of me that feels like, “I have to put him in everything now.” But I also don’t want to let that superstition get to the point where I’m just writing watered-down things for the sake of putting him in it. I want to find the perfect roles for him — roles that can really challenge him. If you watch Pig and then A Quiet Place, those two characters are very different and it would almost be hard to recognize him. So I want to make sure I’m doing justice to his range and intensity as a performer. So, yeah, part of me wants to have him in every single movie I do because I adore him and he is like a brother and he’s an incredibly talented actor, but then I also don’t want to force that and risk getting into stale territory. But I will definitely work with him again, and I’d like to have him on every project I do.

The Pig scene where Rob (Cage) cracks open Chef Finway is usually the one people mention first, but one of the most emotional scenes that I’ve ever watched is when the audience and Adam Arkin’s character realize that Rob has prepared his and his now-comatose wife’s favorite meal. What’s the oral history of that scene? 

There were a lot of things that went into that scene. I approached Pig as if it were a film noir or a Western that, instead of ending with a shootout, it ended with three guys sitting around a table and quietly eating a meal. I liked the idea of starting in a place where you expect it to go somewhere else, but we instead end with that dinner being our shootout. It wouldn’t feel disappointing; it would feel like the right ending for the movie. And some of it evolved naturally in the writing process. It just felt like that’s where it wanted to go.

The way I approach writing is I’ll often write a vomit pass of a script, and then some of the character things and thematic things start poking their heads out and becoming known. And then I start shaping that and honing that and finding the connections that the story wants to make. So I don’t specifically remember, but in figuring out Amir’s backstory and his relationship with his family, this story of his mom and dad came out. And then it just made sense to tie Rob into that. 

So it’s all just listening very carefully to what the story wants to be and what these characters want to say and letting it guide itself a little bit. I don’t approach writing as having an outline and forcing everything into that. I like to feel out what the movie wants to be and what it’s telling me it wants to be, and so a lot of that stuff came organically.

Nicolas Cage as “Rob” and Alex Wolff as “Amir” in Pig

Courtesy of NEON

Did you ever figure out how Rob and Amir first met? 

There’s a lot of crime around truffles, and, especially around Portland, there’s a lot of meth. So meth heads will go out at night and rake truffles, and that’s why they get a lot of terrible truffles. It’s a way to make money, and it’s something that you can do if you can’t sleep and you can frantically do it after sneaking onto someone’s land. But I assumed Amir was probably working with some more unsavory types and getting not-the-best truffles until he started hearing whispers of this guy who was out there and had the best truffles. So it was probably the lore of this truffle mountain man that led him to track him down and become his big contact, eventually.

Before you got Pig made, I have to imagine there were naysayers who questioned whether there was drama in and around the world of fine dining.

(Laughs.) Yeah.

So I’m sure it was a hard sell to some degree, but with the success of your film and a show like The Bear, does part of you feel validated that you were on the right track all along? I know The Bear is not your show, but do you feel a sense of “I told you so” at all? 

(Laughs.) In making anything that’s a little left of center and challenging, you just find the few yeses you can. We took Pig out to a dozen production companies, and all but one said, “There’s no action at the end. Why doesn’t he kill someone?” But then there’s that one person who says, “We get it. We believe in you. Let’s make this,” and that’s all you need. You have to find those people who say, “We want to support this idea,” not, “We want to change this idea.” So, yes, there were plenty of people that wanted to turn Pig into something else, but you just say, “Nice to meet you. Maybe we’ll work on something else another time.” And then you find the people that do support the idea. 

But, yeah, after Pig, there has definitely been a culinary resurgence with The Menu and The Bear, but there’s always been a fascination with that sort of stuff. So I don’t think Pig can take credit for any of that, but it has been interesting and fun to watch that stuff appear. I love The Menu, and I love The Bear. There’s something very connective and fundamental about food that’s fun to watch, and the pandemic probably played a little bit of a role in that. We all got reconnected with a little bit of that world, and people were making their own sourdough bread and things like that. There was this appreciation for the quieter things in life, and that was something that I played with a lot in A Quiet Place. While the world’s falling apart around you, you find these little things to focus on and feel human and connected to.

I recently spoke to Jodie Comer, and we talked a little bit about your next movie, The Death of Robin Hood, co-starring her and Hugh Jackman. (The A24 film chronicles an older, more regretful and badly wounded Robin Hood who then has a chance at salvation upon meeting Comer’s mysterious character.) Is the aim to fall in between the scale of Pig and A Quiet Place

Yeah, it definitely is. In doing Pig and A Quiet Place, I saw what a really small movie and what a really big movie were like. It’s not that this is the level I always want to be working at, but Robin exists perfectly right in between those. It has some of that scope and scale of A Quiet Place and some of that offbeat strangeness of Pig. So the level that it exists at makes a lot of sense for this project, but for future projects, I might go bigger and I might go smaller. But Robin definitely lives in that world in my mind, and having done movies on either side of that has made me feel confident to tackle that midpoint and use what I learned on both sides.

Director Michael Sarnoski and Lupita Nyong’o as “Sam” in A Quiet Place: Day One

Paramount Pictures

Well, congratulations on the critical and commercial reception of A Quiet Place: Day One. Admittedly, when I saw that the review embargo was set for the morning of Thursday night previews, I began to worry, but I’m glad that there was nothing to worry about in the end.

I know, I’m happy, too. I saw a lot of people online, theorizing, “Oh no, they’re withholding reviews because of this and that.” And I was like, “No, they’re actually doing it because they wanted to drop the reviews the day after the premiere.” We just happened to have a really late premiere because it was tethered to the Tribeca Festival. So we would’ve done a much earlier premiere and had the reviews drop much earlier, but they just happened to come out the day before it officially came out [on Friday, June 28]. So I understand the suspicion and the theorizing about that, because studios do that, sometimes. But, in this case, it was how they planned to do it all along, and it is definitely a relief that people are responding to it and responding to it for the right reasons. It was a risk, and it was a risk for Paramount to do it, but I’m really happy that we pulled it off and that people are liking it.

***
A Quiet Place: Day One is now playing in movie theaters.

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