Shock Q&A: M. Night Shyamalan on Wayward Pines

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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, we’re the best of friends and I eventually tell you I murdered three people, three children. That’s not the end of the story. That’s the beginning of the story. That’s the reveal. If it’s a really good reveal, it’s complicated and rich, you can tell more. So I do relate to what you’re saying. 

Shock: I have an issue with the “happy ending.” Are you suggesting nothing else interesting ever happens to those people again? I don’t believe that. They’re going to do more stuff.

Shyamalan: That’s true. They’re just going to raise kids? Everything’ll 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 you’re 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, let’s say, True Detective, you probably shouldn’t be texting because it’s a tonal only piece. It’s about this hum. There is a mystery in there but it’s about the tone so if you’re doing this [on your phone] you’re basically not paying attention to what they’re doing so masterfully in the piece. And our piece is, I’m going to show you images. Tell me what they mean to you. A woman has been murdered. A birthday cake. And you’re going, “Huh? Huh? How do these things fit together?” So it’s 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 hell’s going on?”

Coming from a character, that fits me tonally, fits my accent of something’s wrong here. Intuiting that something’s wrong in our interaction, that everybody got quiet. Let’s pretend that all of a sudden everything got quiet in this room, and everyone’s looking over there past the pillar. You and I would start to get a chill, right? And everybody’s faces change, but they’re absolutely, utterly silent and they’re all looking that way, doing the scene from our point of view but we can’t 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 what’s happening. And then we come around the pillar to show some dude. It’s scary.

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Shock: Wouldn’t Ethan do better to play along a little and not confront everyone with, “I’m onto you?”

Shyamalan: Well, his tone is kind of a frustration of “it’s not possible, in this country, the way the world is, for you to behave in this manner.” Yeah, yeah, you’re happy, you’re asking me what I want to eat and you’ll make me something great. Yeah, you keep saying the apple pie’s great. Yes, where’s my fucking partner? Irritated, like I know we’re supposed to play this game, and Matt and I kept talking about at some point, they’re going, “You’re going to need to play along.” and you’re like, “No, I’m not going to play along.” It’s like someone who goes to a cocktail party, but hates all the surface talk. They’re just so irritated. “Yeah, I don’t know what the weather’s like. You don’t 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, he’s an edgy, short [tempered] guy but then he has to realize his life is in jeopardy if he doesn’t go, “I love the apple pie. Thank you very much. Can I have another slice?”

Shock: If he’s this aggressive, they’re just going to work harder to fool him. He’d have a better chance of solving the mystery if he didn’t let them know he was onto them.

Shyamalan: Why they’re keeping him in the dark is a very fascinating thing. Why they’re provoking him. They’re being intentionally strange for him to provoke him, from their point of view. I don’t want to say too much, but he’s 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 everything’s okay when it’s not. It does feel kind of appropriate in these days. Somebody that’s overly small town polite and overly innocent when their hand is trembling, and you’re going, “Is everything okay?” “No, no, I’m fine. The pie is fantastic. Do you want another slice?” It’s scary because you realize they may be victims.

Shock: When they’re told to inform on their neighbors, isn’t that the PATRIOT Act?

Shyamalan: [Laughs] That’s true. The Village, by the way, and this have a lot of those tones of metaphor for society. I guess it’s also why we we’re 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. You’ll find out why halfway through.

Shock: That shot of the Pines sign reflected in water, that’s an M. Night shot, isn’t 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 don’t know if I’m explaining this correctly. For me, that shot and that sign has that same kind of quality, like a flickering kind of they’re hyper happy and it’s flickering, it’s about to go off but what’s underneath?

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Shock: I remember when you were going to adapt your Unbreakable 2 script into a Night Chronicles movie. Since that didn’t happen, is there any way to adapt it now, or still do it with Bruce and Sam?

Shyamalan: There’s a lot of things I want to say to that, and I can’t say almost any of them, but I will one day. We’re going to sit down and you’re going to remind me about this when I can talk about it.

Shock: If you can’t talk about it, that means there’s 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 I’ve 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 I’m done one, I’m 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 doesn’t match 18 months ago. So that’s always been an issue for me when I’m thinking “make a sequel to Unbreakable” because it feels like a betrayal. Hey, pretend you’re that age again and pretend you’re that person again. Well, I don’t 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 wasn’t Unbreakable 2. It was Unbreakable, a part that I pulled out. That’s what you’re referring to.

Shock: So it wasn’t the Unbreakable sequel, it was something deleted from the first movie?

Shyamalan: Yeah, that thing that I’m pulling out, I love it. That’s 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, it’s 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. 


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Weekend: Feb. 21, 2019, Feb. 24, 2019

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