Director M. Night Shyamalan often gets a bad rap, not because of his movies, whether you like all, some or none of them, but because people claim him to be an arrogant egomaniac. Having met and interviewed him a few times and found him to be a smart and affable guy who exudes confidence but never in a patronizing way, one can still understand how that might come off adversely in print. You have to admit that he doesn’t make movies haphazardly though, always spending a good amount of time thinking about every aspect of the story and characters and how they might be perceived by the public at large.
That’s certainly the case with his new apocalyptic thriller The Happening, based around a natural disaster that kicks off a wave of suicides, all shown in their full gruesome glory thanks to Shyamalan’s first R-rating. It stars Mark Wahlberg as science teacher Elliot Moore, who leaves Philadelphia with his wife Alma (Zooey Deschanel), a fellow teacher (John Leguizamo) and his daughter, trying to escape the impending mayhem. When they get out to the Pennsylvania countryside, they learn that the horrors have followed them there.
ShockTillYouDrop.com sat down with Night for a quick 10-minute lightning round interview, covering a lot of ground that wasn’t covered at the press conference earlier. (You can read some of his comments from that below as well.)
ShockTillYouDrop.com: There’s definitely apocalypse in the air right now. Global warming is such a prevalent danger and there are movies like “I Am Legend” and “The Mist” and “The Road.” You wrote this movie some time ago, so was that something hanging over you that you’ve wanted to get out for a long time?
M. Night Shyamalan: It’s interesting âcause yeah, when I visited Will (Smith) when he was in New York shooting, I was like “What are you making?” and he described what he was making, and I was like “Oh my God!” (laughs) “Wow, that’s weird!” And he’s like, “Why? What are you making?” and I’m like “Kind of an interesting kind of movie, similar in a way.” It makes sense to me, because it comes out of the times. We’re all worried about things and unsure about our world. You start going to these catastrophe places in our heads. In better times, you probably won’t see a lot of them; maybe there’ll be a lot more broad comedies, I don’t know. (laughs)
Shock: With all the paranoia in the air, can this movie still be seen as escapism?
Shyamalan: Yeah, maybe just kind of outletting a fear and talking about a fear in a way that’s safe and so it makes you feel better. You go, “Oh, in this scenario I’m freezing, and then you go, oh, it isn’t that bad.” (laughs)
Shock: What about the fear of terrorism? It’s mentioned in the trailer and it’s seen as the first possibility for what happens in the movie, much like the blackout five years ago. Immediately, we though it was terrorists.
Shyamalan: Everything, right? Everything goes wrong and it’s like “Oh my God, it’s them!” Yeah, it’s a paranoid world right now and in a way, that’s what it’s called, “terror-ism.” It’s supposed to invoke terror in everything we do, and we’re feeding right into it. The reverse would be the right way to be, open and vulnerable and strong and all but you don’t need to be scared of every human being on the planet.
Shock: I know “Scientific American” grilled you earlier at the press conference earlier (see below) and the bees were something out there, but did you look into all the possibilities of this movie’s scenario coming true?
Shyamalan: Definitely, yeah, we did and we got all kinds of research on similar events that happened in the water, plankton releasing toxins and things like that, which just happened again, there were some neurotoxins released in a lake in Bali or Thailand or something like that. Then there was interesting articles about things rising. One of the things that I guess was in the back of my mind was that one in six emergency room cases for the United States is asthma-related. I’m going, “What? When I was a kid, the kid who had asthma was that freak kid three schools down who had asthma.” Now, it’s like every other kid has asthma. Everybody’s like wheezing and there’s a line outside the nurse’s office for an inhaler. What’s that about? We’re becoming allergic to what? There’s peanut-free tables in every school right now. When was that (done)? We’re all becoming really sensitive to something in the air.
Shock: You talked about the R-rating thing before (again, see below), now when you actually wrote the script, did you already have that in mind to do a movie with an R-rating or was that something that was decided as you started making it?
Shyamalan: No, no, as soon as I gave them the screenplay, they were like, “We love it. We have an idea.” I said, “Okay.” They said, “We want you to make it R. We’ve never made this call. We’re never going to make it again. We read it, we get it and that’s the way we think you should do it.” And I was like, “Wow.” Then I went and reread the script that night and I was like “There’s no way to make that movie PG-13. I’d have to rewrite it.” And the script was even more hardcore than the movies was, so it was one of those (things where) the screenplay told us what movie to make, which is the best way. You don’t want to have an agenda, to start bending it and bending it. You’ll feel it.
Shock: Did they have to convince you? Oftentimes filmmakers just want to make the film and then they have to try to make it PG-13 or R after the fact.
Shyamalan: Yeah, I never want an agenda, so I didn’t want it to be like, “Oh, they have an agenda. Oh, they think it will be cool for me to make an R movie.” So I said, “I’m just going to sleep on it, okay?” so I went back and reread the script and realized they were just reacting to the screenplay. I was like, “Did I write an R movie? Damn! I wrote an NC-17 movie! How am I going to get this to be R?” It was so visceral, you know? I looked to the writing and it was like “The girl says this and then suddenly, she stabs herself!” It’s not like she can insinuate she stabs herself by the girl’s look. You got to stab the girl! Right there, we’re right on the edge of getting an R, and we’re in the first scene! We’re not two minutes into the movie! So you know, one more of those and boom, you’re in “R land” so I was just like, “There’s no way to do this PG-13.”
Shock: You’ve mentioned that some of your other movies had been close to an R, but I went back and besides “Sixth Sense” you’ve never really showed someone dying or getting killed on camera.
Shyamalan: Yes, “Sixth Sense” is the closest.
Shock: Just by the nature of itâ¦
Shyamalan: Yeah, because I did close ups of wrist-cuttings and the kid with his head shot off, and the family that’s hanging in the gymnasium.
Shock: This doesn’t really seem like it has that much more horrifying images than those.
Shyamalan: No, I can’t believeâ¦ I think we would have gotten an R today on “Sixth Sense.” I think we would have. We were right on the edge then, but I think today, they would have gone “R.”
Shock: This is a very short movie compared to your other movies, but it’s only 90 minutes and I was curious about that. I know you were going for a B-movie vibeâ¦
Shyamalan: Yeah, Don Siegel’s movie, “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” is 81 minutes, and that was my goal. “Let’s get to 85 minutes. Can we get it to 85 minutes?” I really wanted it as tight as we could, but the tightest I could get it was 90.
Shock: Did you have to cut out a lot of the exposition? I remember reading somewhere that there was more to the Mrs. Jones story that maybe we didn’t see in the final film.
Shyamalan: No, Mrs. Jones, that was everything that I shot of Mrs. Jones. There wasn’t a lot that I cut out. It was a tight screenplay. It was my shortest screenplay so it was always the intention. I told the crew and the cast, “We’re making a 90 minute movie.”
Shock: Can you talk about your relationship with horror? People don’t really think of you as a horror directorâ¦
Shyamalan: No, I’m not.
Shock: You’re not, but there are always the elements of horror in your movies. There are ghosts and the aliens in “Signs” were pretty scary and “Lady in the Water” almost had a werewolfâ¦
Shyamalan: Yeah, that’s right.
Shock: This one has the ’50s B-movie esthetic.
Shyamalan: Yeah, for sure. I think people think that when you put a little of that color in, it’s almost like some ingredient and flavor that all they taste is that flavor in the recipe, so you have to be real careful. For me, really until this movie I never really made a scary movie, like that wasn’t the intention to make a B-movie or a scary movie. All the movies are B subject matter, all fantasy subjects that you slowly get people to believe in.
Shock: Even “Unbreakable” had some scares like when he was brushing past people and seeing images of their wrongdoings, it was prettyâ¦
Shyamalan: Intense, yeah. I wouldn’t call that scary at all, but I’d call it super-intense and he goes into the house to follow this orange man and he finds the children and finds the dead mother, all that stuff, that was pretty dark.
Shock: Were those the kinds of movies you liked and wanted to incorporate that stuff into anything you did?
Shyamalan: Yeah, I always loved scary movies, dark movies. I love all kinds of movies. I think the B-movies, like we just said, I’ve definitely seen every horror movie.
Shock: Whenever your name is on a movie, there’s always expectations that go along with it, sometimes good, sometimes bad, for everybodyâcritics, moviegoers, etc. There was a French film called “Roman de Gare” where a very famous French filmmaker (over there at least) decided he was going to make it under an assumed name. Have you ever thought of doing something like that considering how secretive you’re able to keep things anyway?
Shyamalan: I understand, I just don’t think it’s physically possible. Somebody will be likeâ¦ “I delivered donuts to a movie set, and M. Night Shyamalan’s directing it!” And then it will be on the internet and BOOM, he’s directing a movie. It’ll becomeâ¦ more people will know it’s my movie because I used a pseudonym, and I was thinking, “How is this possible?” To some extent, “The Happening” is fine, because their expectations are met mostly, but the hope is.. and the next movie, “The Last Airbender”, will just shatter all that and they’ll just be, “I like his point of view.” That’s where I want to get to. I want to get to that, my goal, my endgame is that. The audience to go, “I like his point of view.”
You can read more about Night’s next film The Last Airbender over on ComingSoon.net but here’s some more non-exclusive stuff with Night from the press conference conducted earlier in the day
Shock: How closely does this film’s storyline reflect your own worldview?
Shyamalan: They’re all a little bit like therapy, all these movies, about something that’s bothering me or family things, always working them in kind of like a journalist way, but it does represent the things that are on my mind. I think everybody in our generation is starting to worry about these type of things right now. It’s an election year and everything, it’s thinking about the future. It’s interesting with this slew of end-of-the-world movies. There’s an anxiety in the air and it mimics the 1950s anxieties that were about our future. Where are we headed? Are we going in the right direction? Is it too late to change course? I never thought I was all that serious a person, but when I sit down to write I guess more adult things come out.
Shock: How freeing was it to have an R-rating on the movie?
Shyamalan: What’s interesting is that I got an R on two other movies, on “The Sixth Sense” and “The Village.” I got an R rating initially for the intensity of certain scenes and then you just pull back a sound effect. We were right on the line and I could always just pull back a sound effect and resubmit it and they’d go, “Oh, that’s much better.” All I did was take out some sound effects. It’s always the impact because what you emotionally feel is different from what I actually showed, but this one, the screenplay that I wrote, there was just no way to do it any other way. One of the movies I was thinking about was “Pan’s Labyrinth,” I was thinking about that a lot when I made the decision, because I didn’t want to make it an agenda. You want to make an organic decision about what the material wants to do. When I thought about “Pan’s Labyrinth,” which has visceral moments of violence juxtaposed with the softer things that are going on against the canvas, it gave it authority and some teeth. A PG-13 version of “Pan’s Labyrinth” for me wouldn’t have had that kind of impact. It wouldn’t have stayed with me the way that movie has stayed with me. It felt like the right balance of things. It was exciting, and it was disturbingly easy to shoot all those scenes. I had such a fun time.
Shock: Can you talk about the part some of the supporting characters play into the story?
Shyamalan: When I write the characters they’re all some aspect of me, things that I’m struggling with or thinking about. Zooey’s character is the person who is scared to be vulnerable and kind of uses humor to deflect that feeling I don’t want to risk myself. The movie’s really about the state of where we are in the world right now, of the paranoia about how we feel to strangers, to each other, to other countries, to everything, the sense that we don’t trust anybody. Mrs. Jones is kind of the ultimate version of her character. If she kept on going she would’ve closed off everything and distrusted everybody. We went that way in talking about her, and that’s the part of me that wants to protect myself. Let me protect myself like everyone else is protecting themselves, which is the exact opposite of what I tell my kids. I tell them to be completely vulnerable, take every hit they can because that will allow you to feel all those great things that are going to come – love, joy, creativity, all that stuff. It will always outweigh the amount of hits you’re going to get, although you want to protect yourself from those little hits that you get. Really the struggle of the movie was her struggle, which is my struggle, which is, is this an appropriate way to be? The struggle of whether to question it or not. John’s character for me, I’m the guy with the numbers. It always comforts me to give numbers. There’s a 34 percent (chance) we’re going to be okay. In many ways they’re similar because he sees beauty in math. When he tells that story when they’re dying in the jeep, that beautiful riddle where if you just double a penny by the end of a month you’ll have ten million dollars, it’s amazing the properties of math and he’s trying one last time to tell this girl that math is wondrous, do you want to hear one more story about it? They each see something bigger in their fields. Alma is the person kind of deciding whether the world is that way, or is it really kind of a crappy place? The first thing I wanted to do, literally it was an agenda and I know it sounds silly, but it was to pick the most likable cast I could possibly put at the center of the movie. You can get a great actor but if they come from a dark place and you put them at the center of this dark movie it would be unbearable. They don’t know it, they don’t know why they do it, but that’s their gift. They come from a place of light, all three of them. Even Betty Buckley is trying to have light, but then it just messes up for her. A whole cast of actors coming from light was right at the center, and that’s why the movie, even though it’s so dark, has a great light to it.
Shock: What about the spiritual elements inherent in this movie?
Shyamalan: The Native American culture, that’s all it’s about. My middle name, Night, is actually an American Indian name. That’s what I felt so attached to as kid in the American Indian culture, is the relationship to nature and worshipping the sky, the Earth, the rock, the bear over there. That relationship felt correct then as a kid and it feels correct now as an adult. It’s interesting how in all our religions so little is really said about how we should feel towards nature. It’s an interesting thing to get the hierarchy back in line with the way it is. We’re just one of many living creatures on the planet.
Shock: Your protagonist is a science teacher and there are other scientists in the movie. How does that figure into the story?
Shyamalan: I was reading the Einstein biography while I was writing the screenplay. I don’t know if you read that book, it’s fantastic, the new one by Isaacson. Beautiful book. One of the things – maybe you could read the book and wouldn’t see it in there but I saw it in there – was that Einstein was this guy who rejected religion and was kind of atheistic and did all these wondrous things in his 20s and got really into it, and then in the gaps in science he started seeing a hand, in his point of view, the hand of God, a divine kind of, “Is there something there?” His life struggle was finding a kind of overall formula that could define the design of things, and the belief that that was there. And then he became very religious again. The ultimate man of science became a man of faith. When I was writing Elliot it affected Elliot, because he’s just a high school science teacher. He has plenty of gaps in his knowledge of science. I said, you’re just a regular science teacher, you’re got going to be the hero who figures out something, it’s not like that. He honors those things in the gaps, and that’s why Mark felt like the right casting because obviously he’s a man of faith. The things that we don’t know, the lack of need to define it in the closest category, is something inspiring when I see it in somebody, whether it’s Einstein or Elliot’s character or in Mark. It’s almost a question of science giving evidence to something else.
Shock: Do you see part of this movie being a statement about science and technology being all you need in the world?
Shyamalan: It was interesting, because when I was writing it and then the bees thing came up, where the bees started disappearing, and I was like, “Oh, this is perfect. We can open the movie with the bees” and then I was like “What if they figure it out before the movie comes out?” then the whole point will be lost and it’ll turn out that it was a Verizon celphone tower, and I was like “ARGH! This is going to be awful!” but they still haven’t figured it out, it’s still a mystery. We’ll never figure it out. Again, it’s in the gaps of it. I almost think that the most, not cynical, but clinical minds are the ones that need it the most. They need to be proved the most, that maybe, you know, Mark instantly believes as a human being. He’s had an incredible life and has incredible experiences, but his ability to believe is right there. It’s easy, but maybe for the clinical mind that constantly needs the facts, facts, prove the facts, it actually means more to them. It’s such an important moment.
Shock: What do you find that science allows you to do that fantasy hasn’t?
Shyamalan: When I came up with the idea, I said to the research people, “Give me every piece of information. I want to know 1 to 10 whether this idea is totally possible, probable or impossible, completely.” When they came back with a stack of information about how the environment works and how plants work and how examples of anomalous things that have happened in the world. How a cotton plant can send out a signal to the other side of the field to tell them that this insect is coming and they send out poisons and they send out toxins and all these things happening in a smaller form, the exact kind of thing. It was really fun and then I talked to the University of Massachusetts and some other institutes about how the brain works, about toxins and how they affect each other. It was really fun to groundâ¦ In a way I’ve done two movies where there wasn’t any supernaturalâ¦ “The Village” and this. In the process of the research, all these cool scientific facts that came out about other cool sh*t to write about and make movies about, so it’s really a fun source to his point of finding more conversations about faith. Just looking into science, I found so many more wonderful things, so maybe that’ll be a fun way to go in the future.
Shock: Do you see this as a popcorn movie and is it possible to have a popcorn movie that’s personal and deals with faith, etc?
Shyamalan: Yeah, definitely. I do. One of the things I said to everybody, the cast and crew, I said, “We’re making a movie about important stuff, but this is a B-movie. Let’s get ourselves straight here. This is just a great B-Movie. We’re making the best B-movie we can because that’s our job. We’re making a B-movie. If the themes of the movie that sticks with you, great, but we’re not going to put that in front of the movie. We’re going to have a lot of fun. It’s a paranoia movie. We just need to pound away, that’s our job.” I was really clear about that, so in that way, it was meant to be entertainment, but all of my movies are a little bit of that. One reporter yesterday was saying, “How come you don’t just make a pure popcorn movie and then go make an art movie because it seems you want to do them.” The problem is that both are my instincts. There’s one leg in each place, which sometimes pisses off one group and sometimes pisses off the other group, so my wife said, “Just make one or the other!” I wish I could but as it ends up, I do think about all these spiritual things and I do love cheeseburgers and I do love Seinfeld and I do love Coca-Cola and I do love Michael Jordan. It’s just me! So if I took one side away, the side that really loves to read about philosophy and these kinds of things. If I just pretended that didn’t exist, it would be a lie, and if I pretended I wasn’t jumping up and down watching the Celtics last night, that would be a lie as well. It’s that balancing act. I just keep trying to be honest.
Shock: What are some of your own greatest fears?
Shyamalan: I think all fear comes fromâ¦ I change my analysis of fear. It’s come down to the factor of being alone, that it’s all based in versions of that, so if you take random things that you’re scared of. I’m scared of flying or scared of the new job you have. It’s all related to the feeling of “I’m going to have emotions and no one else will have those emotions. I’ll be alone in some manner.” If you’re on a plane and you’re scared. I’m scared of flying but if I talk to the pilot or somebody else, you don’t feel as scared. It’s the human connection and you’re not alone anymore. You have a commonality. I’ve said that art I believe is the ability to convey that we’re not alone. That’s the power of art and fear is the flip of that. It’s always been in our genetics since we were cave people that fear protects us. “Don’t go down that road, you’ll be alone. We don’t know what’s down that road. You’ll be alone.” Being alone is not good, there’s safety in this. “He’ll protect me. She’ll protect me. Together we’re safer.” The person that didn’t have that, didn’t survive, right? Now it’s kind of flipped on us and become a limiting factor and now, we’re scared to put our kids out in the backyard now because our neighbors might do something. Our neighbors are wonderful people. The assumption is wrong. It’s the same stats that it was when I was a kid running around on a bike, but yet we’re so much more scared now. BUt nothing’s changed. Nothing has changedâ¦ except for fear, and the fear builds on itself because we get more and more isolated like Mrs. Jones until your fear has been realized. You’re all alone.
Constantly, the one mantra I tell my kids is “Courage is not being scared. That’s not what courage means. Courage is being scared and doing it anyway.” It’s a very important thing because they’re always like “I’m not courageous” and you have to go, “No, no, no. Everybody feels scared, but then you don’t let that stop you and you go forward.” For me, belief is everything. All the movies are about some version of testing faith. “What faith do I believe in? Do I believe in family? Do I believe in God? Do I believe even in each other? In humanity? Do I believe that we’re a good people? Is this working? Is this working, this whole thing?” These questions and all. I come out on the positive side of that equation. You get the instinct, as I said earlier, to protect yourself like that and then you just lose your identity that way, so as long as you can, you just have to keep it wide open.