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.
You seemed a little bummed out that day and you don’t now.
Well, look, I’m the luckiest dude. Seriously, I haven’t stopped making movies since I was 21 years old. I’ve virtually made every single thing I’ve written.
But what was strange was not many people realized you were involved in that, which is rare for you.
I don’t know. It’s probably as much in my own head as reality, but when you have a feeling like, “Do whatever you want,” then you feel that freedom of, “I’m feeling really weird now, I’m going to make the protagonist mean. I’m going to make the villain kind. I’m going to do weird things” – wherever your tastes go. For me, it’s dovetailed overall into a feeling about the movie industry right now.
What do you mean?
There are only certain reasons to go to the movies now – to get out and go because of TV and all the other forms you can watch. There are reasons to get up and leave your house and pay that money and park your car and commit to watch with a bunch of strangers in a society and a time when you can do almost everything, literally, watching a phone in your room. And one of the reasons to leave is to go see the greatest, biggest CGI extravaganzas that are out there…
And people do go and do that.
And that’s one reason. But I believe going and seeing something you can’t see somewhere else – a tone, a story, a storytelling style – that you can’t go to the watercolor the next morning and say, “I didn’t see it but I don’t think I’d like it.” You can’t! Because you’ve never seen anything like it! Something so original it causes an urgency to go out and go see it. I’ve kind of fallen into that. – that’s why you should come see these movies. It’s a group experience. And it’s storytelling that’s so specific you can’t dismiss it. You can’t just say, “Oh, I know what that is.”
There was always talk of what an M. Night indie movie would look like and now you’re kind of doing that. How much was that on your mind when you were doing The Last Airbender and After Earth? Was there a specific decision?
It’s probably a confluence of many factors, maybe some external and a lot internal. But just wanting a challenge and to see things new with new eyes. I guess it’s also a fantasy, like if I was a professional basketball player, which I fantasize I am often.
Do you play for the 76ers? Because that sounds awful right now.
[Laughs.] They’re going to be great! They’re going to be great!
We’re right there! We are about to explode. But if I was a professional basketball player, I’d like to believe I’d have a clause in my contract that would say I could go play street ball – where there would be no referees and you’re going to get elbowed and you have to be alive and present. To remember what it’s like to play it like a game. And it feels like that for me. Like, making it dangerous. Making smaller movies and, you know, if you don’t’ do it well they don’t get released and nobody sees it and you don’t get paid anything. It’s almost like you open your own restaurant and you’re scrubbing the floors yourself. And even if you feel that way in general when you’re directing, “I’m giving 100 percent,” you really aren’t. You aren’t.
As opposed to if a big movie isn’t done well, which then everyone writes about why it failed.
The metrics are so different, right? And justifiably so. The little money we have, I put it in the things I find are important. I don’t have a trailer. So if I want 10 minutes rest, I go onto the empty set and sit on the ground. Unfortunately, I keep coming up with stories with empty rooms with nothing in them. Next time I need to write a story that takes place at the Four Seasons.
So if you write a horror movie that takes place at a Four Seasons, I know the reasons why.
Does technology give you freedom? That you don’t have to shoot on film, like you did with The Sixth Sense?
I guess so. I mean, I would shoot on film if I still had laboratories and the variety of film stocks to choose from. I would do it even though it costs a bit more to do it. You could make it happen if you wanted to, but when I was trying to figure out how we would get the film developed, it was an ordeal. Sending it to this city and that city; ship it this way and that way. I also see this as an opportunity to work with new people. When you’re not spending as much you can’t work with the top cinematographers that you always worked with, so you work with new people and it’s exciting. I’ll give you an example, Mike Gioulakis, I saw It Follows and I loved it, so I’m like, “Who shot that?”
That’s a great movie.
So I had drinks with him in L.A. and he’s like, “We really like Unbreakable a lot.” I said, “Hm, maybe you’ll like this new movie.”
What’s your relationship with critics? You’ve dismissed reviews in the past when reviews weren’t good, but now people seem to like you’re last two films. Does that feel good?
I’ll tell you what: I am happy these last movies have been received so well. I’m really grateful and thankful for each positive moment that happens at each festival we’ve gone to. It’s wonderful. But that’s not where you want my energy. That’s not where you want my identity to be. That’s not within my control so that’s not where my energy is going to go. I’m totally appreciative of it in the moment – and certainly more so for my colleagues and the crewmembers and the cast who certainly deserves those accolades. But 99 percent of my energy should be in, “Who is this character and how do I tell this story?”
Right now, I’m outlining another movie and it’s driving me crazy I can’t figure out this one thing. There’s something bothering me in this act and I’m trying to figure it out, and that’s where my energy should go. If I put my energy into the things I can control, usually they work out. They may not work out on every film, but in aggregate they’re going to work out.
Then is there any movie you wish you had back? To change something that’s bothered you?
Well, it’s so hard to say that. For me, since I write most of them and most of them are original movies, they represent a very specific time period. It’s almost like a journal. So it’s hard to say I’d be different or do something different. If I went back and did them all, they’d all be different now because I’m a different person, so I wouldn’t be thinking that way at all. And that’s the joy in seeing it and hopefully, the more specific it is, the more it represents just that time period. Split represents right now, this exact second. It drives me crazy when someone does a new cut of a classic and then releases it. I’m like, oh my God, I’m going to kill someone. I can’t take it. These are masterpieces from history that some of these people go back and change and I’m like, oh my god.
I just watched the pre-Special Edition Star Wars. It’s amazing.
Oh my God, I love that!
I hadn’t seen the original Death Star battle in so long. It’s unbelievable what they did and it stinks people can’t see it.
I know, dude. That’s a fantastic example, that original version. What ends up happening when you watch it, you become acclimated to that language to the time it was made and a magic happens. So, yes, it’s an interesting question, but I don’t think there would be something like that. But sometimes I do wish it was released in a different way. I wish that it was sold this way and told that it was this and not that.
What movie comes to mind?
I don’t want to mention them, but when there have been misunderstandings, they’ve been underlined by misrepresenting the movies. Does that make sense?
Moviegoers don’t like to be tricked.
Exactly. So with Split and The Visit, we are selling exactly what they are. The trailers are tones of the movie – that’s what it is. And that’s the way it should be.
You can contact Mike Ryan directly on Twitter.