When first-time feature filmmaker Beth de Araújo started writing her debut, the heart-pounding thriller “Soft & Quiet,” she didn’t just go for provocative storytelling. She wanted to film it using techniques that echoed the feelings of confinement and claustrophobia baked into her story. The result: a real-time drama that never lets up, not in its plot, and not in the ambitious way that plot is told. Oh, and she shot it four times in a row, back to back, night after night.
The film, which debuted at SXSW in March with the backing of Blumhouse Productions, is built to be unsettling, but that doesn’t mean it’s inaccessible. Per a synopsis written by de Araújo, the film “follows a single afternoon in the life of an elementary school teacher as she organizes a mixer of like-minded women. When the group heads home, the teacher encounters a woman from her past, leading to a volatile chain of events.”
Put more bluntly, it’s a film about a group of white supremacist women who eventually attack a pair of POC sisters.
Starring frequent de Araújo collaborator (and close friend) Stefanie Estes, along with an incredible cast that includes names both new and rising (Cissy Ly, Melissa Paulo, Olivia Luccardi, Eleanore Pienta, Dana Millican, and more), the film was inspired by various feelings of confinement. During the early days of the pandemic, de Araújo, Estes, and other friends shared a small lockdown pod, which inevitably led the creative duo to start itching to make something COVID-friendly. But what was possible?
“I started writing something that maybe we could shoot at my house, something about Stefanie in an abusive marriage, but then I was having a hard time finding my connection to it,” the filmmaker recalled in a recent interview with IndieWire. “I said to her, ‘It’s just really hard sometimes to actually write from a white woman’s perspective because we move through the earth in very different ways and our bodies are treated very differently.'”
Then, that viral video of Central Park dog walker Amy Cooper surfaced. Seeing the white woman screaming at Black birder Christian Cooper for simply asking her to leash her dog, then calling the cops and telling them she was being threatened by the “African American man” and to come arrest him immediately struck something deep inside de Araújo, whose mother is Chinese-American and father is Brazilian (the San Francisco native holds dual citizenship in the States and Brazil). She suddenly had a new idea.
Courtesy of Momentum Pictures
“I texted Stefanie, ‘Could you play a female white supremacist?’ We chatted a little bit about the character and what would happen at that point, and she was courageous enough to say, ‘Yes, let’s do it,'” the filmmaker said. “Then we went off from there, and I pulled inspiration from everyone that Amy Cooper has reminded me of that I’ve crossed paths with in my life.” (One of them was her own second-grade teacher, which is why her production label is called “Second Grade Teacher.”)
With Estes cast and the character of Emily zeroed in on, de Araújo was ready to build out the rest of the script, from other characters to how she wanted to shoot it. “[I knew] it was not going to be a light film, I knew I wanted it to feel as suffocating as and as intense as a true, real hate crime,” she said. “I wanted it to unfold with that frenetic [energy], and I knew before I started writing then that it had to be in one take.”
She traveled to the small Northern California town she wanted to shoot in, a place she spent some of her childhood (she is not naming it for privacy reasons), and started mapping out what was logistically possible. “I knew if I could get all these locations, then I could do it in the way that I wanted,” de Araújo said. “I cleared the locations first, and then I drove back to L.A., and I just started writing as fast as I could. I wrote it for those specific locations and for the design of it, because I wanted it to feel incredibly claustrophobic and inescapable.”
De Araújo’s plan? To shoot the film all the way through, in real-time and with minimal cuts, over the course of four subsequent evenings. They started shooting every evening at 6:34 p.m., compressing each shoot by about 30 seconds to factor in the timing of the sun. (Yes, she thought of everything.) For her actors, it was a simple pitch: “We’re going to just film a moving play for a week as if you’re going Monday through Thursday on your run of your play,” she said.
They rehearsed for four days beforehand, but de Araújo encouraged her cast to rest on shooting days before getting to work. “On the shooting days, I just said, ‘Sleep in, rest, and then we’ll have our safety meeting, showtime, and lunch,'” she recalled. “I’d tell everyone to go to the bathroom before we start because no one’s going to have a pee break for about two hours, and then we go.”
The final film is not one single take, though de Araújo said the majority of it comes from the fourth and final day of shooting, when everyone was fully immersed and prepped for the run. The first day was basically “a warmup.” There is a “tiny section” of the second day in the final cut (a day de Araújo admitted was “a disaster, so we barely used it”). There’s a “bit of day three” in a pivotal, cabin-set sequence that takes place in the film’s second half, mostly because that day “felt the most vile” to de Araújo (when audiences see it, they will know it, that’s for sure).
De Araújo knows that “Soft & Quiet” is not an easy sit, a fun watch, but that’s exactly how she designed it, marrying her themes and her technique to make something genuinely unsettling but with real purpose. When it comes to movies, TV, and other forms of entertainment, de Araújo is just like everyone else.
“I think that it’s so great to go and turn your mind off and enjoy something that’s super pleasant and just brings you a little laugh,” she said. “But then I also believe that there should be just as much space for films that push you and make you uncomfortable and make you sit in different themes and have a discussion about it.”
Watch the first trailer for “Soft & Quiet,” available exclusively on IndieWire, below. Momentum Pictures will release the film in theaters and on VOD on Friday, November 4.