It's quite rare in this day in age for a movie directed by a well-known filmmaker to slip completely under the radar throughout principal photography. We first heard about M. Night Shyamalan's The Visit (then known as Sundowning) in March 2014, just as principal photography was wrapping up in the filmmaker's hometown of Philadelphia. Then in November, Universal Pictures acquired the project, with Jason Blum coming aboard to produce with M. Night Shyamalan, and less than a year later The Visit hits theaters this weekend.
The director has taken a lot of heat for a string of big-budget projects that didn't perform so well in theaters, but, for those skeptical about a new M. Night Shyamalan film, The Visit will be a welcome surprise, with the filmmaker going back to his horror/thriller roots with a story that doesn't have all the bells and whistles of last few projects. The plot centers on a single mother (Kathryn Hahn) who had a falling-out with her parents years ago. As a result, her children Becca (Olivia DeJonge) and Tyler (Ed Oxenbould) had never met their grandparents before. After her parents reached out to their daughter on the Internet, she decides to send her children to meet their grandparents for a week-long visit.
Becca, an aspiring documentary filmmaker, and Tyler, an aspiring rapper, begin to notice strange things about Nana (Deanna Dunagan) and Pop Pop (Peter McRobbie) as their visit starts to spiral out of control. The screening I attended was populated by a mixture of journalists and fans alike, and there were several moments where many audience members were so scared, we could hear loud, collective gasps permeate the theater. In short, M. Night Shyamalan is back, delivering a unique story that has just as many laughs (Ed Oxenbould's raps are quite hilarious) as there are thrills. I recently had the chance to speak with both M. Night Shyamalan and Jason Blum over the phone, and here's what they had to say.
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Can you talk about what happened that brought both of you together? Did either of you seek the other out, or did it just happen organically?
M. Night Shyamalan: This person I worked with said he met this guy named Jason Blum. I go, 'Who's Jason Blum?' This was years ago, and he said he does all of these smaller movies and I think you should meet him, he's really smart.
Jason Blum: I was trying to meet Night in any way that I could, and one of the ways was wining and dining one of his partners/employees (Laughs). I actually went to Philadelphia and I pitched our low-budget model to him, and he politely took it in. We had a few conversations like that, and then last summer, I got a call, and it was Night, and he said, 'I did it.' I said, 'What do you mean?' He said, 'I made a low-budget movie.' I said, 'You're kidding!' He said he had a rough cut he wanted to show me, and that's how we got involved, a little over a year ago. I was thrilled. It was the best version of the conversations that we had, and the way Night did it was just totally outside the system and off the grid, in this very protected way, where there were no outside influences, which is the best way to make a movie. That's how we came together, and we worked a bunch on it, working to get the movie as good as it can be and then, obviously, get the movie out into the world. So that's how it happened.
M. Night Shyamalan: I had seen Paranormal Activity, way before. It was really sent to me as a director's sample, for me to produce, and I remember seeing the movie and going, 'This is incredible. I should take this and produce this.' And then Jason ends up bringing it into the world, and keeps doing it over and over and over again. Basically, Jason sees and acts on inspiration, and becomes this, I think, a portal to original filmmakers. I really like Insidious and Sinister and the first Paranormal Activity. Then, of course, with Whiplash, which was my favorite movie of last year, Jason has a great sense of taste, so I'm very lucky.
Was this an idea you had for awhile, and then after meeting him, decided you should just make this story? Or was this a fairly new idea you concocted?
M. Night Shyamalan: Yeah, I had the idea for a long time, but it seemed kind of crazy, at the time, to make a small little movie, about kids and old people. It just seemed irrational. It's like against every commercial instinct that you could possibly have.
Jason Blum: Break all the rules.
M. Night Shyamalan: It's like this weird, bizarro kind of film with this weird tone, but I loved the idea so much, I said I'd make it one day. Meanwhile, Jason started to create the real vein, the real conduit, of movies that could be out of the system that can reach a large audience, and work hand-in-hand with the studios in a really healthy and positive way, bringing original movies to life. So, then I basically just stole his idea, went and shot the movie, and when I thought it was decent enough, I was like, 'OK, Jason, come take a look and this and see if I'm crazy.' That was about 13, 14 months ago, and it's just been a wonderful partnership.
I read that you had a couple of different cuts of the movie, one that was focused on comedy, another on horror and the final cut which was a mix of the two. I thought both the humor and the horror were quite wonderful, so I was wondering if there was anything that you miss from each of those distinct cuts, that you wish could have found a place in the final cut?
M. Night Shyamalan: You know, there was one other cut, an arthouse cut. The very first cut was the arthouse cut, and that one was really esoteric and there was this scene... (to Jason) I don't know if you've ever seen this, because it got cut pretty early, but it's neither the comedy nor the horror. It was this bizarre speech that Pop Pop (Peter McRobbie) gives in the car, about his feeling about life. It's so weird, and it gets more and more weird and the kids are like, 'What is this?' That was kind of the arthouse part of the movie, this twisted philosophy, and I'm always sad that's not in there, but it went away for the right reasons. You have to honor one genre above all, and that one genre we honored above all, interestingly enough, was the psychological thriller. That is what the movie is, and whatever comedy could stick to it, whatever heart could stick to it, that's what ended up being the appropriate balance, that was holding everything together.
How long did it take you to find the kids (Ed Oxenbould and Olivia DeJonge)?
M. Night Shyamalan: Oh, you know what, I did look all around the world for these kids, and we got really lucky with these two kids. They're both from Australia. When you're casting, the difference between the absolute right person and the absolute wrong person is so minute. You can barely tell the difference. You're feeling the potential for both of them, and they do something in their audition that you extrapolate from and you think that's a skill set, but really, it's just an individual choice, but you can barely tell the difference. You have to really, really listen. I do a couple of rounds with kids, and I've found if I do a couple of rounds, I can either expose their weaknesses or confirm their assets. I did that, and these two started to rise to the top, and we got super lucky. I could not imagine the movie without either of them.
Was Ed's character Tyler this freestyle rapper in your earlier version of the script, or was that something he brought to the role? I thought those scenes were hilarious.
M. Night Shyamalan: No, all of that was in the script. I am the frustrated rapper that wrote those raps. It was basically me writing jokes in rap form (Laughs). I remember those days, writing the raps, it was really fun. I'd just be giggling.
Jason, can you talk about what had to be done in those 13 months to get it to the cut that fans will see in theaters?
Jason Blum: Well, we saw the cut and we had a lot of ideas, some of which are dumb, some of which aren't. We had a lot of conversations about that. We actually screened the movie for audiences, and we'd watch the movie together with them, and talk about what's working, and we actually did some additional photography. The great thing about the mockumentary style is you can do additional photography relatively inexpensively. We would try ideas and tweak it. What's funny, what Night is saying about casting an actor, is the same with the whole movie. You can be so close, and you can do a tiny thing, and the movie gets ever so slightly better, but the whole experience can be very, very different. There's a lot of finessing. Then we had to find distribution for it, so we partnered with Universal on the movie, where my company is based. And then we've been working on the marketing of the movie for the past six or so months, in conjunction with them.
Is there anything that you both want to develop together? A project you'd both start from scratch?
Jason Blum: We hope so. We hope so. We're in discussions (Laughs).
M. Night Shyamalan: Yeah, I really hope so. I think it's kind of a perfect pairing. I just understand Jason and where he comes from. I didn't know Jason five years ago, but he's super positive and it makes me have fun as a filmmaker and make me very inspired to try.
What would you like to say to anyone who's on the fence about The Visit, about why they should give it a shot in theaters this weekend?
M. Night Shyamalan: I want to hear what Jason says, but I do think that, if you don't like horror movies, this is the one movie to try. There are plenty of scares and all that stuff but there is a wonderful fun factor to it.
Jason Blum: I think the movie is more of a thriller than a horror movie. It's a scary, psychological thriller, but the one thing that's unusual about it, for a genre movie, is there's a huge amount of fun in this 95 minutes you'll spend in the movie theater. There are laughs and fun in between the edgier moments, and that's kind of unusual.
That's my time. Thank you so much, guys.
M. Night Shyamalan: Thanks so much.
Jason Blum: Thank you.
Shortly after this interview was conducted, we reported that M. Night Shyamalan and Jason Blum are reuniting on a new, untitled project, with Joaquin Phoenix set to star. The actor had previously starred in M. Night Shyamalan's Signs and The Village, although no story details were revealed about that project. If The Visit is a hit when it hits theaters this weekend, don't be surprised if Universal Pictures acquires this new untitled project for distribution. Do you plan on checking out The Visit in theaters this weekend? Let us know what you think below.