The writer/director talks about his latest film, The Last Airbender and the critical perception of his work, and more.
A little more than nine years ago, a little-known filmmaker shocked the world with a movie about a young boy who could see dead people. The Sixth Sense grossed $293 million dollars at the domestic box office, was nominated for a Best Picture Oscar and made the world know the name M. Night Shyamalan. Nine years and six films later, Shyamalan continues to bring his unique brand of the thriller to cineplexes, his latest offering being The Happening, which arrives on DVD and Blu-ray on October 7. I was given the unique opportunity, along with two other journalists, to be in on a mini-conference call with the filmmaker and we talked for a good 40 minutes about his new film, his style, the critical reception of his films and much more. Here's what this Philly filmmaker had to say.
Is it harder or easier to create tension in a film when you have an intangible event like this happening? I think you did such a great job of it, but it's difficult because there's no solid, real enemy or violent force in the film.
M. Night Shyamalan: You know what's funny? Unless I hear someone say something just like what you said, if I hear a studio person or someone I'm working with say something like that, I'm completely unaware of that issue. For me, if I can't see it, I love it. Whenever I had to show something, whether it's in Signs, it's always a sad moment for me, that I have to show it. I always have to ask somebody, to some extent, 'Is it dangerous? Is this a dangerous room to be in, because I'm really excited.' It's a certain creative autism or something that really makes me focus on the thing that is getting me really excited and unaware of all the pitfalls of it. As you say that, I can understand, intellectually, how it would be. Wind might not necessarily be scary to somebody, but if I told you that there's a gas in the wind and it's coming and you have to shut the doors and close the windows and make sure no air gets in, I can see a million variations of how that could be scary. I love taking something innocuous, and then by the end of the movie, making you nervous about it and viewing it with ominous or portentious qualities.
Your aesthetic seems to be to find the littlest things to create suspense out of. Where does that aesthetic come from?
M. Night Shyamalan: I feel a little bit like a dinosaur, in this day and age of filmmaking. Kurosawa, Kubrick and Hitchcock, those three guys, their quiet tension that they did with the frame, as opposed to stimuli scares or suspense, I'm not naturally the stimuli suspense guy. I don't think in terms of, when I think of an alien invasion, I think about hearing about it and seeing a couple of lights on a TV, as opposed to all these amazing filmmakers like Spielberg and Jackson and obviously Lucas and James Cameron. They would all do the spectacular version of it, but my mind never goes there. If you came in my house, my house is kind of all clean and natural wood, old wood floors. It's all very light and there's not a lot of business there. I can't really think if there's a lot of business so there's a very minimalistic aesthetic that I came from. Seeing things that are realted to in those amazing filmmakers, Kurosawa, Kubrick and Hitchcock. I constantly go that way. I remember when they'd asked me to do Troy, way way back. I loved the screenplay, by the way, and I was like, 'Wow. I can do an action-epic and you won't hardly see anything.' You'll have Achilles kind of go behind a wall and Achilles will be fighting a soldier and you'll hear the rest of it. You might see something through the window and really rely on the fact that, back in those days, if you had a gash on your arm, more than a couple of inches, you know you would going to be dead. Now, you won't be dead quite yet, but infection will set in and it's over. My mind immediately went there. Then I saw Wolfgang's version of it, which is great, I thought, 'Oh my God. I saw a completely different movie in my head, from the same screenplay.
M. Night Shyamalan's Troy sounds awesome.
M. Night Shyamalan: (Laughs) I'm doing one of those right now and it's a fascinating thing to do something that has so many elements and continues to distill it down. Of course, the enire machine will fight you along the way as you distill it because it's full of the habits of excitement, excitement, excitement. So, for me, with The Happening being so incredibly quiet, it reminds me of Picnic at Hanging Rock. I don't know if you guys are familiar with that one, but the atmosphere itself is what's threatening.
They're still fighting you even though you've proven success with this aesthetic?
M. Night Shyamalan: It's not so much like fighting. Fighting is probably the wrong word but how do you convey spectacular, without actually showing it? That kind of thing, but I think there's a great balance that's happening in regard to the movie I'm working on now. What's happening is I'm doing very orchestrated stuff that would take, instead of maybe doing it in five shots, I'm doing it in one orchestrated shot and the CGI and the spectacular stuff is on the edge of the frame here, and insinuated here and then you catch one full blow for a moment and then it pans over and it's all in one moment. It's articulating what the character is feeling and the language fits so well into suspense movies and thrillers that I've been doing and applying it over into this world.
The original script for this was entitled The Green Effect. What kind of stuff carried over from that original script into this film?
M. Night Shyamalan:The Green Effect was more overt from the very beginning, that it was an environmental crisis, right from the outset. That was what was happening. In that draft, it was a much larger scale and it was happening all over the world instantaneously, so it was very apocalyptic. That one, as most of my instincts do, starts out very dark. I forget it all, I have it all scribbled down in some notebook, but I calculated the population of how much I wanted left on the planet when this was all done, and kind of start over and have another chance at repopulating in a correct way. It was something like .00006 percent, or something. So I had calculated that and I had how many people that would leave in each country before the environment stopped and said, 'OK, now we're back at equilibrium.'
Were you kind of surprised that the studios weren't reacting to that as much as they did?
M. Night Shyamalan: If you think about it in a flat way, I made an end-of-the-world movie, first of all, I'm making an end-of-the-world movie and the enemies, the bad guys are human beings, first of all. So, right there is the reverse of everything that you normally do, because normally you'd have the hero character, the star, saving the day. There will be no saving the day in this movie, so that was one thing that was an issues. The second thing that was an issue was I did the reverse structure of an end-of-the-world movie. A normal end-of-the-world movie would be like, Will Smith at home with his wife and then the first alien ship comes and then there's fighting on a grand scale at the end of the movie, that kind of thing. With this, it started on a grand scale where you see it in New York and, also in the first draft, you see it in the capitols of the world, on a grand scale. Then it ends up with just two people in a house, just trying to survive, when they feel this is the last moment of their lives. So, it kind of went the way back into an intimate movie, starting at an epic scale. To some extent, that's still there. We start in Central Park in New York and Philadelphia and construction sites and lots of people, then it gets smaller and smaller so that it's just these two people in the backyard of Mrs. Jones' house. That has the reverse structure as well, which is all opposite to, I guess, convention. I hope I never get the, 'Wow. We love this. This is really easy. It's a slam dunk,' because that probably means I copied something (Laughs).
It seems that every interview you do, someone gets you talking about the Unbreakable sequel.
M. Night Shyamalan: (Laughs)
My version of that question is now that you know so many people want it and so many people think fondly of that film, why don't you just get to work on Unbreakable 2?
M. Night Shyamalan: I know, dude. You know, I'm a strange creature. When Unbreakable came out, I was so excited. I was like, 'Nobody's really done comic books like this, reality-based comic books. I know people don't make comic book movies, and they haven't for a long time,' this was back then, 'but I really think that this is a metaphor for things that people can go crazy over.' When the reaction was mixed, I was pettily hurt and almost childishly feeling... because the reaction was more like disappointment. I took so many incredible risks and I felt really hurt and I couldn't bring myself to write. It's literally like a relationship I have with the audience. A literal one, like I get hurt and I fall in love and all those things. I want to make them happy, but I want to be myself. There's all kinds of relationship issues. Over the years, as it just grew and grew and grew and people were like, 'You know, I really liked that. That's actually my favorite movie. I watch that all the time.' I'll be on the street and some kid will run across traffic with it in his backpack. He's carrying it in his backpack and he'll be running and be like, 'I can't believe it's you! Will you sign my Unbreakable DVD?' Now, I want to write it. I want to do it. I'm thinking, 'Is this an organic thing, to sit down and write?' I can never do something because I think it will be successful. In fact, that kind of not motivates me. It needs to be a risk. I play basketball a lot and people always say is that when I make the teams, I always lean them towards the other team so that there's a high probability that I'll lose. For some reason, that's the way I'm built. And, most of the time I do lose at basketball, by the way. I enjoy that dynamic. A little bit about Unbreakable, it's so bizarre. I want to write it, but I want to write it for the right reasons. I want a story to pop into my head that is organic and expressive of who I am. These are all kinds of journals of where I am emotionally, so it's kind of hard. I'm trying to go back to the journal that existed in 1999 for me, but I know me, and as soon as I give up on it, is when the idea will come to me (Laughs). I need to go to therapy, I guess, in order to answer this.
How has this relationship with the audience changed over the years? You took some licks a couple of years ago. Have you gotten thicker skin because of it?
M. Night Shyamalan: You know, I haven't, and that's a good thing, because you want to be as open and vulnerable as you were the first time you went on a date, you know? The first time you got crushed by a girl, if you can live your life like that, and I tell my kids this, and I know it sounds like the opposite, that life teaches you to do the opposite. I tell my girls that... I wrote a line in the new screenplay, but I took it out because it didn't fit, but it was, 'Vulnerability is the essence of strength.' So, if you can continually make yourself feel as vulnerable as that first date, I just think you have more to offer. You're more open, and all that stuff. I was in Europe a couple of weeks ago and everybody was running up to me - it was weird, maybe they just played it or something - but everybody was running up to me about Lady In the Water. A lot of people didn't get to see it in the theaters and I guess they're seeing it on DVD or whatever. Seeing that, with Unbreakable, it's starting to occur again, that's very sweet. I'm OK because these movies are like a long relationship. We can have a complex day here and there. It doesn't necessarily have to be, 'Oh, we went skydiving and it was amazing. What are we going to do tomorrow?' Sometimes it can be a complicated day and the relationship is richer for it. Maybe I'm just being all too positive, but it's just been a great ride, all of this has been a great ride.
You shot this film completely in sequence. Have you done that before and is that easier or harder to pull off, in what kinds of ways?
M. Night Shyamalan: Well, I have done it a bunch of times. It's good for the actors. You get a consistency for the actors in terms of where they are and they're not guessing as much. The crew and the cast, especially in a movie like The Happening, you feel like you're going through the movie. You start out literally in the city of Philadelphia and all these big locations. There's thousands of people watching us and then slowly, as you shoot, there's only a hundred people watching you shoot as you're out in a diner or out in the middle of nowhere, then there's nobody watching you when you're out in the country and you're in this country farmhouse. It's just a blast and you're isolated and, in the breaks, there's nothing out there. You really feel that movement of what it would be like to leave civilization. In my particular case, this is an interesting thing, the negative, however, which is something that always plagues me, in general, with my storytelling, is that it doesn't allow for happy mistakes. That is my problem in general. I think through everything so much, that I have closed up everything. You're seeing exactly what I was intending to do. I don't get the, like the story of Forrest Gump, where that actor just started reciting all the shrimp things? Those things won't happen on my set, and I'm sad about it. I'm trying to figure out a way where I can do what I do and try to bring more of that, because, in the end, it's like theater play. We're talking intimately about each line and what's going on. I'm up for anybody throwing great ideas at me, and they often do, it's just that it gets, when we start making the movie, it gets more and more on rails. Part of the shooting it in order, part of me sometimes goes, 'Let's shoot completely out of order,' just to create rough edges.
Is there anything you can tell us about The Last Airbender?
M. Night Shyamalan: It is gonna be really cool (Laughs). I'm at the stage where we have pre-vized the last act of the movie. Because my normal approach to filmmaking is almost like making an animated movie, you take out every shot and analyze everything, it kind of lays out really nicely for a big CGI movie. That is such a helpful thing in the process with all the pre-viz. I feel like I'm making the movie right now. I'm editing it and stuff because doing the pre-viz, if you were here, I could show you the last 30 minutes of The Last Airbender in animatic form. It's an amazing and emotional experience, just to watch that. This is so exciting. It's such a different kind of movie that I'm used to making, but yet, we were all kind of born out of Star Wars, and somewhere in there is a desire to return to fantasy, on that level.
Is it still on track for 2010 then?
M. Night Shyamalan: Still on track for 2010, baby. July 2nd or 3rd or whatever it is.
Do you feel like the experience in The Happening stripped everyone of the normal social veneer of how everyone acts and reduces them to primal elements? Especially the old lady in the house, who's already disconnected. I think you see a connection between her and the way people start acting when everything starts going down.
M. Night Shyamalan: Yeah. It was a fascinating thing thinking about what would somebody do to fight the human race? You could literally fight us, or you can take away what is essential about species that keeps them procreating and keeps them going is the survival instinct. Doing the opposite of something is so scary, even for me. Like Blair Witch, the last moment of Blair Witch, where the guy was staring at the wall, is so profoundly scary to me, and that's my thing. You just saw a guy staring at a wall and the camera dropped. It's so opposite of human behavior that it's almost revolting. It's disturbing and thinking of what the opposite of everything we would do is scary, a very scary thing.
I think when you leave people to their own devices, and they don't have any rules or regulations, that's the scariest.
M. Night Shyamalan: True, true. The Mrs. Jones character was so fun to write. This isolationist woman who's given up on people and goes outside at the absolute climax of this environmental event, is such an exciting character. My agent keeps asking me to write the Mrs. Jones movie itself(Laughs). We'd show how she came and, I guess, scare away wayward travelers as they come to her house (Laughs).
Considering the aesthetic we talked about, The Happening is one of the first that you've actually shown some of the violence. How did that decision come about?
M. Night Shyamalan: It's interesting. It was very organic. It wasn't so intellectual. The process to do it, to make the decision after I was aware it was happening was very intellectual, but how it got to that altar was totally unconscious. I wrote it and the screenplay I wrote was just an impossibility to shoot as a PG-13 movie, as my other movies have been. To some extent, the movies that I've been inspired by in my life, like The Exorcist, The Godfather and others, there's a visceralness to them that I hadn't really let myself go there, except on occasion like in the stabbing scene in The Village and a few moments in The Sixth Sense or the fingers being cut off in Signs. Each one, each kid, has to have its own personality. You can't dress it in the clothes of any of the other ones. The two sides of me, for whatever reason, are this really naive Santa-Clause-is-real side and the 'Oh my God. I know how to throw that lady off the roof of the building and make it really disgusting,' that side as well. I don't know why they both live in the same head, but they're there.
I've noticed in all of your movies, the relationship between the male and female leads are always estranged, like Mark Wahlberg and Zooey Deschanel here. Where does that sort of mentality come from?
M. Night Shyamalan: It's funny. If my wife is on the line now, she'd be like, 'Yeah. Where does that come from?' That's what she would say for sure, because, when she reads my screenplays, she always goes, "Why is the wife always dead, or there's some problem?' And I'm always like, 'Because I cherish you. This is what the movie's about. It's about a guy or someone learning to cherish their relationship.' So, I spin my way out of it, but yeah. I do think a little bit of it is talking about people who are lost, that forget. I was thinking about this yesterday that all of my movies are about family, every single one of them and coming to honor that and cherish that and using different circumstances to talk about how we got lost and how we can find ourselves and remember that, at the end of the day, there are things that make us alive, these relationships. They're very difficult, at times, and we can lose our way and other things will distract us. I wrote this line in Lady In the Water, when there was a family who passed away and he was trying to let go of his energy and he was talking to and trying to revive Bryce's character. He talks to these kids and I think the line was something like, 'I miss your faces. They reminded me of God.' That idea that is really the only thing that gives me evidence that there is a God. That's my religion.
We know you have Airbender next, but are there any scripts you have on the horizon that you can tell us any little bits about?
M. Night Shyamalan: Well, there are scripts. I can't tell you anything about them (Laughs). There are three that I'm struggling with in my head right now. They're very different tonalities, so I'm trying to decide what to do. It's hard to guess where you're going to be. It's like going on a date for two years. It's like, 'Do you really want to go skydiving for two years? Do you really want to go rock-climbing for two years?' So you have to think about it really carefully and I have no idea how I'm going to feel, post-Airbender, as I'm about to start the next one, but I do have a couple of ideas.
I love the little sly bits of humor you throw in there. Do you actually think that hot dogs get a bad rep?
M. Night Shyamalan: (Laughs) I'm an all-American boy. I'm a big cheeseburger and hot dog guy and all of that stuff. I'm not allowed to take my kids there, my wife's a vegetarian and all healty and all that stuff. I actually went to visit an orphanage in India recently and she said, 'Where are you going with them?' I said, 'I'm taking them out," and she said, 'Where?' I said, 'We're going to McDonald's.' She said, 'What? What did you say?' 'I said I'm taking them to McDonald's.' I have a great affinity for all that stuff. I do think that they get a bad rep, man. Come on. Just have one once in awhile. It's not gonna be that bad (Laughs).
The Happening arrives on DVD and Blu-ray on October 7.