This weekend M. Night Shyamalan returns to theaters with the paranoid thriller The Happening starring Mark Wahlberg, Zooey Deschanel and John Leguizamo. It is his first film since 2006’s Lady in the Water, which didn’t connect with critics or audience members. As the director of The Sixth Sense his star rose high and in 2002 it seemed he couldn’t be stopped with the smash hit Signs. Since then he has been hit hard with poor reviews for The Village as well as Lady in the Water and he has faced harsh criticism not only for his films, but he has sustained some personal attacks as well.
As a fan of Shyamalan’s work, but not necessarily a lover of all of his films, I decided to ask him the tough questions touching upon concerns of fair reviews for The Happening, the charges that he has a large ego and the occasional comment that The Happening may end up being his make-or-break film. However, I don’t forget to bring up his filmmaking ability, his inspiration for The Happening as well as discussing his upcoming film, a live-action adaptation of Nickelodeon’s “Avatar: The Last Airbender.”
Sit back and enjoy what I believe to be a quality and frank interview with one of the more imaginative directors of our time, M. Night Shyamalan…
Do you think The Happening may end up being unfairly reviewed by critics?
M. Night (MN): I hope not. I don’t think so, maybe I am too naive. The tonality was carefully chosen in terms of approaching it as kind of a high-end B-movie and hopefully it will be taken that way and let them enjoy the storytelling.
The relationship is what it is, it’s one of those that will only iron out with enough time.
That actually touches on my next question. A critic for the “New York Post” said that you “loathe critics”. Is that a fair accusation or do you have more of a love-hate relationship with critics, which is what I assume to be the case for most directors?
MN: Look, I just want a fair shot, that’s all. Let the movie do what it’s gonna do, that’s all.
A lot of the vitriol seemed to spawn from Lady in the Water and I assumed a lot of critics thought you were taking a cheap shot at them through the Bob Balaban movie critic character? Personally I didn’t think it was all that much of an unfair portrayal.
MN: [laughing] It’s funny. I mean, come on. The movie is about the act of storytelling. The main character’s story. It’s an allegory about the creative process of storytelling and how as a writer you have to be vulnerable and put yourself into the roles. Like when Giamatti’s character starts invoking his family that’s passed away, talking about his pain and then he becomes the character in that fairy tale and becomes part of that story and part of that process is killing your critics and your editors and everything in your head that says, “You’re too short. You’re too fat. You’re too ugly. You’re too dumb. You’re too stupid…” All those things that are always in your head. You can only shine when you let go of those things.
All of that stuff, in the deeper meaning of the movie, that had its place, of letting of all that. Oh, this is when that happens and this is the third act. Kind of approaching creativity like that; as some sad regurgitation of some other thing.
There is a growing presence of online film blogging and film criticism. Do you pay much attention to online rumor, speculation and conversation or is that something you tend to avoid?
MN: I don’t really read that much. Unfortunately I am not that much of a computer guy. My kids are much savvier than I am. My wife gets irritated by the fact of how computer illiterate I am. I basically use the computer as a typewriter.
With The Happening, when I saw the green band trailer, in all honesty I was like, “Hmmm, that’s it?” Then the red band trailers came out and they were far more impressive. Is this a case where the action is so intense that you couldn’t take the green band trailers any further?
MN: You know, I don’t know. I haven’t been super-involved with why they went this way or that way. They did show me the red band trailer and asked if it would be all right if we put that on the Internet and I said it was cool for me as long as it doesn’t bother people. I don’t know what the rationale was with regards to the green band trailer.
Did making an R-rated movie give you a sense of more freedom or did you simply set out to make the film you had written and it just happens to be R-rated?
MN: It really was the latter of that, it was just a matter of writing a screenplay that was an R-rated screenplay and I suppose there is a PG-13 way of shooting that, but I don’t see, based on how I wrote it, that I could do that. It was really like where it seems everything is normal and then someone does something spontaneously horrific and I don’t know how you can do that and still pull away.
Opening up against the Hulk seems like a rather formidable task.
How do you intend to gauge the success of The Happening? Or is that something that you determine on a personal level and how the film works for you regardless of public opinion and box-office numbers?
MN: Well, three things, it’s just a great date for us. You know, Friday the 13th, that movie, it’s just a great date. That just worked out well.
Second, the market expands. Our movie is great! If it turns out the Hulk is a great movie, then great, there’s lots of moviegoers that weekend. I’m not worried at all.
Three, our movie is done in a great number that we’re going to be successful.
Depending on what corners of the media you look at there are folks that are saying The Happening is a make-or-break movie for you, even though you already have Avatar lined up at Paramount already. Do you feel any pressure in those terms?
MN: Absolute, complete fiction. That’s complete fiction. You know what that is…? Leave the storytelling to the storytellers, that’s just such poor writing. It’s just ridiculous. It’s nonsense to talk like that. That’s just not at all the situation, I have been offered more movies in the last six months than I have my entire career combined. That’s just complete nonsense. There’s actually other stuff I wish I could tell you right now, but I can’t. Really, really cool stuff. It’s just drama.
You know what the problem is? There is no story to tell.
I’m just making another movie and I am going to make another movie after that and another movie after that. That’s the story.
Speaking of which, you have made films based solely on your screenplays. Do you ever intend to make a film based on someone else’s work?
MN: I’d love to. I am waiting for it to happen. Normally when I get a movie offer it is write and direct it from scratch, as if it is a book or something like that. Or, can you rewrite it and then direct it? A couple of times I got close on those fronts, but then I do the equation and it’s like, wow, I am going to end up changing more than 50% of this and it feels like I am doing kind of a spec at the end of the day. Why don’t I just write my idea? The equation gets unbalanced again, but I would love to and I hope to.
From a writing perspective can you talk about some of the inspiration for The Happening?
MN: The paranoia movies. Invasion of the Body Snatchers, the original one, just stayed with me for so long and that combined with The Birds. As a genre of paranoia those are fantastic and I would even throw Night of the Living Dead in that same category to some extent. In terms of a B-movie that had an unusual relevance as a parable or an allegory.
Can you tell me a little about Avatar?
MN: We’re doing it and I am looking at all the illustrations because we are deep into the design of the movie. Just such cool illustrations we are looking at right now from the production designer. We are well underway and we are going to start building sets in August and I am just really excited.
I wish I could put my finger on what it is like to say, “Oh, it’s gonna be like Harry Potter or Lord of the Rings,” but it’s not really like that. It’s its own thing. We have been striving to find the right balance between a fantasy world, and anchoring it in a reality you can’t quite put your finger on, but you know it’s real. It’s not like you go, “Oh, that’s Asia,” but it would be anchored in that kind of thing.
Avatar is a 100-percent live-action film right?
MN: Yes, it’s 100-percent live-action.
So, I am assuming there will probably be a lot of CG in it?
MN: Yes, there will be a lot. It’s a big movie, but to serve a purpose. I don’t know if you know the material at all, but they’re very much extensions of what people are feeling, the CGI. The bending of the elements becomes a lot about their emotions and their ability to control an anamorphous thing and I love the psychological manifestation of that. It’s like a Rorschach Test almost, that’s something I can connect with and I’ll be good at.
I’m not like the guys that are like Lucas and Spielberg, I don’t think like that. But I do think in psychological terms and when I use the CGI that way, I get it. Because then I can tell the animator if it’s coming out too slowly, or it needs to move to the right, or it needs to have a glow because she’s feeling this and this is that moment. In that I feel more confident that I can make the CGI something that when you see it, like when you see two years from now and you see the trailer for The Last Airbender you will go, “Wow,” because you instinctively know that there is depth and reality to that moment of CGI.
That actually begins to answer a question I was going to ask you about what your thoughts on CGI were. Because you haven’t tended to use a lot of it. You even went practical with some instances of the Scrunt in Lady in the Water.
MN: Yeah, my first draft of The Last Airbender had so much in it that I carved it. I totally carved it so that it would be a lot more about insinuation and on the edges of frames. It’s a cool thing to do this cool and elaborate CGI thing, but only show you a quarter of it on a corner of the frame. Because then you feel like that’s reality.
Okay, three final questions, the first one may take a little longer to answer. First off, do you have any regrets in your career so far?
MN: I’ve had enough movies now that I know that it’s really about the consistency and the integrity of the work. There will be some that have huge successes box-office wise and some lesser, but the consistency of being honest to myself as an artist, the integrity is felt by the audience. You can feel it when somebody is chasing the audience or sold out in some way when they did something they didn’t 100-percent believe in. There are movies that are hugely successful and I go, “That guy’s screwed.” Because I know they did it for the wrong reasons, and everybody can feel it. They want to articulate it, you can feel it. Then they go, “Why can’t that guy open a movie after that? I don’t know what happened, his last movie made a zillion dollars.” It’s because in the genetics you can feel that.
The reverse is also true, let’s say a smaller movie that doesn’t connect on opening day for some reason, but it was done with kind of a consistent integrity. That’s the most important thing.
Well, to that effect, I guess there is a follow-up question. How do you respond to people that say you have a large ego or you are pretentious?
MN: The only people that say that are people that haven’t worked with me and haven’t met me. If you are getting that from the guy that is carrying the lights on my movies then you can believe it. You’ll never hear it from crew, cast, friends, the studio; you’ll never hear it that way. The thing you have to approach your creativity, and your life I think, with an openness of “Are you a good listener? Can you listen? Can you hear a good idea when you hear it?” whether it is coming from a P.A. or something and that requires an openness.
If anything, what you’re sensing is the rareness of a movie that is sold on the filmmaker, and that seems uncomfortable. Whereas if that was an actor doing the same exact gesture it wouldn’t be seen as something about his ego, but more about his job.
The way I look at it is that I want a director with confidence and is sure of him/herself.
MN: You want somebody with a strong frame of mind, but you definitely have to have somebody that is listening. Your job as a director is to go, “Those four ideas are great and those six are not good.” You have to be able to listen to everybody.
Will we see an M. Night cameo in The Happening?
MN: Ahhh, you gotta see…
You know I have to assume yes if you don’t say, “No.”
MN: [laughing] Yeah, you gotta see.
Final question, Obama or McCain?
I like to hear that!
The Happening hits theaters this Friday, June 13. For more information including cast, synopsis, picture and trailers click here.