Four years ago, I interviewed M. Night Shyamalan for After Earth and it was kind of a bummer. Shyamalan won’t directly admit his feelings about that now, but here was director who became famous for his original storytelling – often enthralling; sometimes frustrating – relegated to directing what was ostensibly a Will Smith passion project for his son, Jaden Smith. Two years after the release of After Earth, Will Smith would call it the most painful failure of his career.
The good news for Shyamalan is that very few people even realized he directed After Earth. But after two box office disappointments in a row that would be considered “off brand” (the other is 2010’s The Last Airbender), Shyamalan went back to the drawing board of sorts and essentially rebooted his career with original stories. (If you look back at Shyamalan’s filmography, only Lady in the Water was financially unsuccessful. Even The Happening made money.)
In 2015, made on a reported $5 million budget, Shyamalan wrote and directed The Visit – about two teenagers visiting their grandparents – which wound up being a movie that produced his best reviews since 2002’s Signs and grossed just under 20 times its budget worldwide. (For years I’ve heard admirers of Shyamalan suggest he should make a small film in an effort to get his groove back. Well, that happened – and it worked.)
This month brings Split, a film that has already garnered positive reviews from genre festivals and that is another “smaller” film – this time starring James McAvoy as a person with 23 separate and distinct personalities. After one of his more nefarious personalities kidnaps three young women, his other personalities debate what to do with them. Adding anything more at this point would venture into the spoiler category, but suffice it to say, people will be talking about the ending once it’s released.
This time, Shyamalan is noticeably more upbeat while we speak. He sounds like a director who knows he has his control back – and knows what it’s like to lose a lot of that control. This is a Shyamalan who sounds like a filmmaker who’s excited to be making movies again.
With these last two films, which have been made on a smaller budget, have you had more freedom? You’ve certainly seemed happier.
You know what, it’s always in your own head, you know? And whatever you feel is the reality. And I feel more freedom with smaller budgets. And I don’t know if it’s just in my own head. I feel the freedom to be “weird” and have it be “odd” and explore things like this odd humor-tension thing that I’m really interested in right now. And I don’t know if I would have followed that if it was a bigger thing.
I remember when I had an early, early cut of The Visit, I showed it to some people in the industry and they’re like, “This is so weird! I don’t know whether to laugh or to scream. I don’t know if this is going to work.” Obviously if you ask somebody – because it costs so much money to make a big budget movie – “What do you think, do you think this is going to work?,” they’re going to say no most of the time, right? Because it hasn’t been done. You know, sometimes you’ve just got to follow your voice. And I feel the freedom that I’m not being irresponsible by following it so specifically. And I think audiences want to see the more specific versions of me and I feel more freedom to do that. So, I do feel happier.
Last time we spoke, you were promoting After Earth, which was not a specific vision of yours in that it wasn’t yours…
Yeah, that was really interesting.