At a Television Critics Association panel for his new TV series Wayward Pines, M. Night Shyamalan said something that speaks volumes about narrative instinct. I would love to make the first act the entire movie, Shyamalan said. That’s my favorite part of the movie, and moviegoers and where we are in cinema now, it’s as little of the first act character development as you can to get to the incidents, right? TV, especially longform, serialized TV is like me getting to do a first act, develop characters and insinuate and hint at things.
We got to speak with Shyamalan one on one after the session about Wayward Pines. The show, based on the Blake Crouch books, stars Matt Dillon as Ethan Burke, an agent looking for his missing partner. When an automobile accident lands him in Wayward Pines, he goes looking for answers no matter how hard the townspeople insist he just enjoy his stay.
Shock Till You Drop: I loved what you said on the panel about loving the first act of a story. I love sequels because I want every story to continue indefinitely, so I guess I see the end as the first act. Can you relate to that?
M. Night Shyamalan: If we were talking about, if a story is about you and I being friends, were the best of friends and I eventually tell you I murdered three people, three children. Thats not the end of the story. Thats the beginning of the story. Thats the reveal. If its a really good reveal, its complicated and rich, you can tell more. So I do relate to what youre saying.
Shock: I have an issue with the happy ending. Are you suggesting nothing else interesting ever happens to those people again? I dont believe that. Theyre going to do more stuff.
Shyamalan: Thats true. Theyre just going to raise kids? Everythingll be fine? Minor issues, but the rest of their life is fine?
Shock: Is Wayward Pines a show we have to watch actively?
Shyamalan: I think this particular form, I would say because there are so many bizarre questions that are constantly being raised, that youre supposed to be provoked into going, How the fuck did that happen? How could she have not said that? How could she not remember this and how could he have gone there? To ask as many questions as possible, it does seem interesting to interact in that way.
Whereas, lets say, True Detective, you probably shouldnt be texting because its a tonal only piece. Its about this hum. There is a mystery in there but its about the tone so if youre doing this [on your phone] youre basically not paying attention to what theyre doing so masterfully in the piece. And our piece is, Im going to show you images. Tell me what they mean to you. A woman has been murdered. A birthday cake. And youre going, Huh? Huh? How do these things fit together? So its a different kind of story.
Shock: Is the hard-boiled detective a genre you loved?
Shyamalan: The genre that connected me to the pilot was the characters going, What the hells going on?
Coming from a character, that fits me tonally, fits my accent of somethings wrong here. Intuiting that somethings wrong in our interaction, that everybody got quiet. Lets pretend that all of a sudden everything got quiet in this room, and everyones looking over there past the pillar. You and I would start to get a chill, right? And everybodys faces change, but theyre absolutely, utterly silent and theyre all looking that way, doing the scene from our point of view but we cant see past this pillar, I love that. I love being with those two guys, and a show that continually puts them into trying to figure out whats happening. And then we come around the pillar to show some dude. Its scary.
Shock: Wouldnt Ethan do better to play along a little and not confront everyone with, Im onto you?
Shyamalan: Well, his tone is kind of a frustration of its not possible, in this country, the way the world is, for you to behave in this manner. Yeah, yeah, youre happy, youre asking me what I want to eat and youll make me something great. Yeah, you keep saying the apple pies great. Yes, wheres my fucking partner? Irritated, like I know were supposed to play this game, and Matt and I kept talking about at some point, theyre going, Youre going to need to play along. and youre like, No, Im not going to play along. Its like someone who goes to a cocktail party, but hates all the surface talk. Theyre just so irritated. Yeah, I dont know what the weathers like. You dont give a damn how I am so stop asking me how I am. Do you really want to know how I am? That person, that character, hes an edgy, short [tempered] guy but then he has to realize his life is in jeopardy if he doesnt go, I love the apple pie. Thank you very much. Can I have another slice?
Shock: If hes this aggressive, theyre just going to work harder to fool him. Hed have a better chance of solving the mystery if he didnt let them know he was onto them.
Shyamalan: Why theyre keeping him in the dark is a very fascinating thing. Why theyre provoking him. Theyre being intentionally strange for him to provoke him, from their point of view. I dont want to say too much, but hes had some past psychological issues. The question of his sanity is coming to the forefront.
Shock: Is this politeness with sinister subtext sort of a metaphor for our society?
Shyamalan: You know, I enjoy the allusion to our societal things that are going on when we pretend like everythings okay when its not. It does feel kind of appropriate in these days. Somebody thats overly small town polite and overly innocent when their hand is trembling, and youre going, Is everything okay? No, no, Im fine. The pie is fantastic. Do you want another slice? Its scary because you realize they may be victims.
Shock: When theyre told to inform on their neighbors, isnt that the PATRIOT Act?
Shyamalan: [Laughs] Thats true. The Village, by the way, and this have a lot of those tones of metaphor for society. I guess its also why we were all drawn to it. The actors and I talked a lot about what sociologically would happen given the premise.
Shock: I was going to ask if there are any rules to Wayward Pines, but in the second episode they show the list of rules. Are those the real rules?
Shyamalan: Those are the real rules. Those are the real rules. Youll find out why halfway through.
Shock: That shot of the Pines sign reflected in water, thats an M. Night shot, isnt it?
Shyamalan: You know, I think the Lynchian inspiration from Blake when he wrote the books, and I just watched Blue Velvet again. It has so many neon colors that are really indicative to me of the characters aberrations, moral aberrations. I dont know if Im explaining this correctly. For me, that shot and that sign has that same kind of quality, like a flickering kind of theyre hyper happy and its flickering, its about to go off but whats underneath?
Shock: I remember when you were going to adapt your Unbreakable 2 script into a Night Chronicles movie. Since that didnt happen, is there any way to adapt it now, or still do it with Bruce and Sam?
Shyamalan: Theres a lot of things I want to say to that, and I cant say almost any of them, but I will one day. Were going to sit down and youre going to remind me about this when I can talk about it.
Shock: If you cant talk about it, that means theres hope.
Shyamalan: What the struggle has been is it feels like a betrayal for me to go back to pretend I was that person that wrote that and try to get back into that mindset. My movies are really where I was at the time. My original ones that I write, not the ones Ive adapted, but my original ones, they really represent where I was.
Since they take 18 months-to-two years to do, my original thrillers, when Im done one, Im feeling something about my life or family or work or myself or connecting to the world or fear that I want to talk about. And it doesnt match 18 months ago. So thats always been an issue for me when Im thinking make a sequel to Unbreakable because it feels like a betrayal. Hey, pretend youre that age again and pretend youre that person again. Well, I dont have anything to say, but I have a lot to say about this. So if I could figure out a way to be true to right now and find a connection to those elements that are valid to where I am right now, I could do a sequel, but it wasnt Unbreakable 2. It was Unbreakable, a part that I pulled out. Thats what youre referring to.
Shock: So it wasnt the Unbreakable sequel, it was something deleted from the first movie?
Shyamalan: Yeah, that thing that Im pulling out, I love it. Thats all I say.
Shock: What is The Visit?
Shyamalan: I made a little movie, a small little idea and I went ahead and made it outside the studio system. I was incredibly lucky, to be honest with you, that my number one choice, Universal, bought it and is just as excited as I am about the movie. We actually just had our last preview screening and it was so great. Everybody was cheering. It felt so good to make something just for storytelling purposes only and just be really idiosyncratic. Hopefully, its universal enough in its storytelling that it connects with people.
You can visit Wayward Pines all summer long, starting this Thursday, May 14 on Fox.