M. Night Shyamalan: Seeing Signs

Photo by Kendall Whitehouse
Photo by Kendall Whitehouse

Filmmaker M. Night Shyamalan fell in love with movies early in life and began shooting scenes with his Super-8 film camera as a young teen. Born Manoj Nelliyattu Shyamalan in Pondicherry, India, he was raised in the U.S. near Philadelphia. His first feature film, Praying with Anger (1992), was completed while he was a student at the Tisch School of the Arts at New York University. Following this, Shyamalan wrote and directed Wide Awake (1998) and co-wrote the screenplay for Stuart Little (1999).

Shyamalan’s breakout film, supernatural thriller The Sixth Sense (1999), garnered six Academy Award nominations, including Best Picture and Best Director, and earned more than $650 million in worldwide box office receipts.

After producing The Sixth Sense and his three subsequent films — Unbreakable (2000), Signs (2002) and The Village (2004) — in conjunction with The Walt Disney Company, Shyamalan and Disney parted ways over disagreements about the screenplay for his next film, an event documented in Michael Bamberger’s book, The Man Who Heard Voices: Or, How M. Night Shyamalan Risked His Career on a Fairy Tale. Shyamalan ultimately produced that film, Lady in the Water (2006), in conjunction with Warner Brothers and went on to write and direct The Happening (2008) for 20th Century Fox, and his most recent film, The Last Airbender (2010), for Paramount.

While serving as writer, director and producer on most of his major works, with Devil (2010), Shyamalan launched “The Night Chronicles,” a planned series of films based on his ideas, but executed by other writers and directors.

Shyamalan is currently in pre-production on One Thousand A.E., a film based on an idea by co-producer and actor Will Smith that Shyamalan will direct.

While Shyamalan’s films have covered different genres — including thriller (The Sixth Sense, The Village, The Happening), science fiction (Signs), comic book heroics (Unbreakable) and fantasy (Lady in the Water, The Last Airbender), they all show a fascination with the miraculous and a sense that the world holds a larger meaning hidden beneath the surface of everyday appearances. In Signs, Graham Hess, played by Mel Gibson, asks his brother, “What kind of person are you? Are you the kind that sees signs, sees miracles? Or do you believe that people just get lucky? Or, look at the question this way: Is it possible that there are no coincidences?” As Shyamalan told Knowledge@Wharton, he’s squarely in the camp that sees signs, that sees miracles.

Shyamalan recently spoke at Wharton as part of the school’s Leadership Lecture series, sponsored by Givology and the M. Night Shyamalan Foundation, where he spoke about both filmmaking and his philanthropic work. (See “Writer/Director M. Shyamalan on the Catch 22 of Branding and the Power of Point of View.”) Following his talk, Shyamalan sat down with Knowledge@Wharton to discuss trends in the movie industry, his creative process and his future plans.

An edited version of that conversation follows.

Knowledge@Wharton: Do you recall the moment when you knew you wanted to be a filmmaker?

M. Night Shyamalan: Yes, Raiders of the Lost Ark.

Even before that, from 10 or 11 years old, I [made my own movies] as a hobby, just for kicks. But then at 12, I saw Raiders.

The way I saw Raiders was fantastic. My friend dragged me. I didn’t want to see a movie about archaeology — I didn’t even know what that was at the time. It was sold out, and we had to sit separately, which pissed me off, because I was so shy back then. I sat alone. There was an old couple next to me, and they were so sweet. They saw I was a really tiny Indian kid and they got me popcorn and stuff.

Then the lights go [down], the mountain comes [on screen] and then it starts. And I have the greatest movie experience of my life. My jaw was hanging open at the end.

Whatever magic Spielberg has, it hit me 100%. And I was like, “I need to do this for a living.”

Then at 14, I was at the airport dropping off my grandmother to go to India. I went into the bookstore and picked up Spike Lee’s book, Gotta Have It, documenting his [early filmmaking experiences]. If I hadn’t picked up that book, I don’t know if I would have been a filmmaker. It’s always these little things that turn you and aim you.

[Lee] was from the East Coast and had no family in the business. He just found the way to make movies. And somehow, it demystified it for me. Perhaps that was his intention. And I was like, “I’m going to go do this for real.” At 14, that was it. There was no way of talking me out of anything.

Knowledge@Wharton: We’re seeing the consumption of films change. In the old days, everybody went to the theater and saw movies on the big screen. Now people watch movies at home from a Blu-ray disc or on an iPad. What do you think about this trend, and does it affect how you approach your projects?

Shyamalan: I am an artist whose art form is making cinema for a group of people to watch together. That’s what I do for a living. The exploitation of that is unending — but that isn’t [what] I do it for. That’s not the artist that I am. Someone who makes TV shows is a different kind of artist. The experience of being in a room with 500 people [is different] — you literally share points of view when you watch together.

I once wrote an article about the Nuremburg trial and how these were the worst Nazis in the Nazi organization. These people were animals. And their faces [were like] ice, except for the moment they showed a movie in the trial. When the lights went down and they showed the footage of the bodies being pushed into the pits, their expressions changed and they became emotional.

They were watching [the events on the screen] through the eyes of everyone in the theater. They were having a joint experience. They were all connected, and they saw the horror, saw [that their victims] were human beings. And they changed.

That’s what I do for a living. All exploitations of that are fine and great, but that’s not the tail that leads the dog. And I think, ultimately, as I said in my speech today, that there is a flight to quality right now, because there are so many outlets [for content]. The only thing that has always worked and will continue to work is quality.

“I’m starting to believe that the future for me, what I want to do … is to be the Coen brothers and make small movies where I can take great artistic risks.”

Knowledge@Wharton: Is there a tension between getting the funding necessary to get films made and the artistic work that you want to do?

Shyamalan: Well, right now, I’m starting to believe that the future for me, what I want to do — and I know it sounds very hypocritical now, [since I’m] making this giant movie with Will Smith — is to be the Coen brothers and make small movies where I can take great artistic risks and do stuff that I know 30% of the audience is not going to dig, because I’m making it for the appropriate budget. I believe the future will be in marketing those movies through social networking avenues, as opposed to just TV — 95% of the way we sell movies is TV commercials. It will be more of an underground movement.

The world has shifted. It used to be word of mouth only; there was no PA — prints and advertising — budgets. You just put the movie out. Jaws just played all year long, based on [people saying], “You’ve got to see Jaws, dude. Let’s go see it!”

It’s almost coming back to that now. [For example,] let’s say I made The Sixth Sense for $20-some million, or even less — let’s say I didn’t use Bruce Willis and made [it with an even smaller budget]. And I put it in five theaters and I didn’t advertise. You’re telling me, in this day and age, that it wouldn’t have caused a ruckus — the first 500 would tell the next 500, and [all of a] sudden it’s sold out every show for the next week. And then they’re putting it in 25 theaters, and those people [tell more people] and so it goes. Because there are so many outlets now [where] we can talk to hundreds of thousands of people any time we want.

So I think it’s going to shift. There [are films] that cost $200 million that they have to jam us with because they’re not relying on their quality. But then there are these other types [of films]. I’ve been having a lot of conversations about it changing.

Knowledge@Wharton: But the trend in your work seems to be the opposite. The Last Airbender was a fairly expensive film. And One Thousand AE is going to be a big budget film.

Shyamalan: It’s a big movie. I’m a complete hypocrite right now [laughs]. I’m telling you what I want. [Laughs.] Don’t do as I do, do as I say: Make small movies.

Knowledge@Wharton: To some extent, is what you’re doing with the series “The Night Chronicles” more in line with your future plans? Devil was made for around $10 million.

Shyamalan: Yes, that’s actually the better model. I believe that’s the correct model to make smaller movies — and really, honestly, it is my intention [laughs].

It’s just you get caught up in it. The big movies take longer, so they take me out of the cycle longer to implement these other things.

But the trend is there. Even though all you see are Iron Mans and Pirates of the Caribbeans, there’s that whole middle section that’s growing [with more modest films] like The Fighter, The Help and The Blind Side, and all those movies that are making incredible amounts of profit for their studios but they’re very modest in their budgets.

Knowledge@Wharton: On most of your films you’ve been the writer, director and producer. Is this because you want to control every aspect of the film?

Shyamalan: Yes. [Laughs.]

Knowledge@Wharton: Yet with “The Night Chronicles,” you seem to be going down a somewhat different path. Devil was based on your story idea, but the screenplay and the direction were done by others.

Shyamalan: Right. Yes.

Knowledge@Wharton: Are you loosening up a bit?

Shyamalan: My favorite movie of all time is The Godfather. [Director Francis Ford] Coppola, for me, is an utter genius. Coupling him with [writer] Mario Puzo created that incredible, incredible thing. There’s great validity in partnerships.

As a film director you’re, by nature, a control freak. It just is that way. But again, my intention — whether it’s fictional or not — is a retreat back to making small, personal visions.

Knowledge@Wharton: You famously walked away from your Disney deal over the production of Lady in the Water. Can you explain why? What’s the importance of having the studio that provides the funding share your vision for the film?

Shyamalan: You want to believe that person selling it will sell it better if they believe in the product. That’s naive, but it’s actually what I feel. But that isn’t the reality. The reality is the selling departments look at criteria, and they exploit that regardless of what they feel about the overall thing. If you give them these four beats in a movie that they can exploit, they’re happy as a clam. They’re going to open the movie and make a lot of money. If I made them a beautiful movie that they personally connected to on a deep, resonant level, but I didn’t give them the four points, we’re going to have a problem.

It was a fascinating moment, because I think the Disney organization was shifting into a different direction. And I was shifting in a different direction. I was trying to be really audacious. I kept taking more and more risks.

I think it was inevitable. Maybe it wouldn’t happen on that movie, maybe it would happen on the next movie. Unless I stayed in more of a niche — like, let’s say, if I were an action director and stayed in the action genre, and didn’t try to do a drama or a mixed genre [film].

I think when I get in trouble is when I do mixed genre movies, because they’re difficult to sell. Lady in the Water was the highest audience rated movie that I’ve ever done, but [it was] impossible to sell, because there’s no genre. Is it for kids? Is it for adults? Is it scary? Is it funny? What is it? And part of me was in the mode of, “I don’t want to think crass. I don’t want to think how to sell it.”

[Making that film] was for me, as an artist, the favorite moment in my life. I ended up making it for a wonderful man named Alan Horn at Warner Brothers. I think he related to the emotion of the piece.

But I’m friends with all those people who were working with me at that time, and all the tension that existed when the breakup happened is gone. I’m friends with all of them now. They’re at different places themselves. And it’s nice to know that the friendships still continue.

Knowledge@Wharton: What determines the success of a film for you?

Shyamalan: If I can I look myself in the eye and say I was artistically truthful.

Knowledge@Wharton: You also seem to want to have an impact on a large audience.

Shyamalan: Yes, [but] it’s not a calculated thing. I know that sounds hard to swallow. My favorite thing to eat is a cheeseburger. My favorite athlete is Michael Jordan. My favorite TV show is “Seinfeld.” I’m not tacking towards popularity — these are my tastes. When I’m doing something very personal, it just happens to also be appetizing to a large group of people.

For example, with [Black Swan director] Darren Aronofsky, whom I love, what’s personal to him [speaks to] a much more narrow group of people who will deal with that kind of darkness and angst.

I genuinely think everybody is great. I really am a positive guy. You don’t have to tell me to make it feel good. I do feel good, so I tend to write stories like that. And so it ends up having a large impact. And that’s just a nice side thing.

There are moments when I’m not like that. [While making] Unbreakable, I was darker, and I ended the movie darker. Sometimes I feel that way. With a [film with a] dark ending like The Happening, it was going to be difficult to hit certain [revenue] figures. But there’s always a voice that seems at least momentarily accessible to people.

But it isn’t ever the box office numbers or anything like that. I definitely want my partners to make a profit. It also helps me creatively. For example, on this sci-fi movie I’m doing, I’m using artisans who haven’t done big movies. I have that ability to do that because of the previous box office, and they trust me to make the correct decisions, to take the correct risks. I get to do interesting things with the costumes and the sets and the lighting with these interesting, amazing artists, because of the box office thing. So there’s a nice protection that happens from that, which is, hopefully, self-fulfilling.

Knowledge@Wharton: You mentioned in your talk that one of the things you’re still working on is handling criticism and not taking things personally. Some critics have been pretty rough on you at times.

Shyamalan: Yes.

Knowledge@Wharton: How does that affect you? Does that change the way you go into your next film?

Shyamalan: It really wouldn’t bother me because my aspiration, as I said, isn’t necessarily acceptance. But I always want to understand what’s going on. What are the principles behind the tension or the miscommunication? I want to totally get that. Then I can choose not to react to it, or react to it. My constant, in self-analysis, is to try to figure out: Am I complicit in this situation? How did I create this situation? What is my role in it? Do I want to continue that role? Do I want to change the course of that role?

As long as I understand it, I’m much more comfortable with it. And I feel I’m in a strangely decent place of wanting that amount of passion [people] have when they speak about the movies, and the expectations. My obligation is to figure out the bridge so that I don’t just let go of me and please them. That would be disaster.

Knowledge@Wharton: In your talk, you mentioned Alfred Hitchcock and pointed out that some of his films — like Psycho — were not critically well received at the time. And, of course, looking back on them now, we take a very different view. Do you think the same will happen with some or all of your work? Will people look back on them and take a different perspective than they took when they were playing as first-run films?

Shyamalan: I hope so. I want movies that have long shelf lives and that do better as you look at them out of their particular context.

I’ve seen [the trend] moving in a positive way in the different movies, so I’m happy about that.

Knowledge@Wharton: In Signs, the Mel Gibson characters asks his brother, “What kind of person are you? Are you the kind that sees signs, sees miracles? Or do you believe that people just get lucky?”

What kind of person are you?

Shyamalan: I just watched that last night. Definitely the miracle. I’m a miracle man. [Laughs.]

Knowledge@Wharton: You said you recently saw Signs again. Do you often re-watch your earlier films?

Shyamalan: No. I have this thing with my kids — on their birthdays, they get to watch one of my movies. When they see them for the first time, they have to be screened for them in the way that they were intended. They watch them in movie order, as I made them.

The middle child got to watch Signs. It was her birthday. She’s been really excited for a whole year, waiting to see Signs. Next year she’ll see The Village.

Knowledge@Wharton: What advice would you give to young filmmakers trying to get into the industry?

Shyamalan: Work on your authenticity, your own voice. It’s true for everything, not just movie-making. Know yourself. Hone your point of view with the people you’re around and the experiences you have. Be attentive. A rich, specific and unusual point of view is going to be very successful in any film.

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