M Night Shyamalan – a new twist for the master of the surprise ending

Ever since The Sixth Sense, M Night Shyamalan has been known as ‘the scary twist ending guy’. But his new sci-fi adventure, After Earth, starring Will Smith and Jaden Smith, will change all that, says the irrepressibly cheery director


The Sixth Sense was haunted by restless spirits; extraterrestrials plagued the earth throughout Signs; mutated beasts stomp their way across the new Will Smith film, Another Earth. One would imagine that director M Night Shyamalan – that confirmed chucker of nasty surprises – would be fearless, or at least, free of common phobias. And yet the man who likes to leave his camera lurking under beds and in closets blanches slightly when I tell him I’ve arrived after an emergency landing.

“Ooh,” he shudders. “I’m very paranoid about flying. I hate it. I’m always checking the weather and the possibilities of late arrivals and, you know, if there’s any chance of crashing. Flying makes me nervous. A lot of directors I know hate flying. Wes Anderson spent two weeks on the QE2 for his last press tour so he could get out of flying. Two weeks! Lars von Trier won’t fly. Kubrick hated it.”

Why is that, I wonder?

“Ha. Because we’re all a bunch control freaks of course. We all drift into directing because we need to know everything. We need to know that this is the plan and that you’re wearing what you’re wearing and that your hair is going to look like that. And so the one moment in our lives when we have zero control is on a plane. Zero control! That freaks a director out.”

If not knowing is an issue, didn’t all the digital effects required for About Earth freak him out? A futuristic adventure featuring Will and Jaden Smith as space rangers returning to a long ago abandoned earth in the 31st century, M Night Shyamalan’s latest film is populated by CG nasties.

“That did freak me out,” he admits. “It’s very, very difficult. I don’t even think we have caught up with the process of making a CGI movie. You do a cut but you’re looking at green screen and everything is fake. There’s a stuntman pretending to be an animal. You’re not seeing the movie until two weeks before you’re done and by then you’re committed. Then suddenly you see it and think ‘hey, that does work – it’s perfect; don’t touch it!’ But until then you’re in the dark.”

Unless you’re James Cameron.

“Exactly. Then you’re not making any decisions until the CGI is ready. And that philosophy takes much, much longer to see it and do it. Most films just can’t stretch to that kind of budget.”

Urban myths and legends have it that M Night Shyamalan, the wunderkind behind 1999’s supernatural sleeper smash The Sixth Sense, was an overnight sensation. By the time Lady in the Water, the director’s unsuccessful seventh feature floated our way, mean-spirited interviewer after mean-spirited interviewer painted a portrait of a filmmaker that had gotten entirely too big for his boots. Had success ruined M Night Shyamalan? Had his career hit the skids as soon as it had begun?

The knives were soon out for the young Indian-American. Unkind cultural commentators were quick to sneer when takings for the director’s more recent offerings reputedly plummeted. His 2010 family-oriented fantasy, The Last Airbender, according to Wikipedia, was an unprecedented box office bomb at the end of a sequence of flops.

It’s a good story but none of it is accurate. The Shyamalan curve hasn’t all been downhill since Haley Joel Osment saw dead people. The Village ($257 million in 2004) may have made less money than Signs ($408 million in 2002) but 2008’s The Happening grossed a modestly profitable $163 million. The Last Airbender, far from being an outright disaster, took $316 million worldwide.

In person, too, Night – as he’s known – is adored by the people he works with. An irrepressibly cheery 42 year-old, he minds his ps and qs, laughs at the drop of a hat and simply can’t do enough for you: “I hear there’s cake around here,” he whispers excitedly. “You want me to go get you some?”

Even the “overnight sensation” part of Night’s narrative has been greatly exaggerated. The only son of two immigrant doctors – father Nelliate is a GP, mother Jayalakshmi is an obstetrician and gynecologist – the Philadelphia-raised Spielberg fanatic Manoj Shyamalan worked hard to win a scholarship to medical school, only to beg his parents to let him take a shot at the movieverse. His career plan did not initially, alas, go as he hoped.

“Arts were not promoted among any of the family members,” recalls Night. “It wasn’t part of my parents’ culture. They had a traditional Indian upbringing. I had a traditional immigrant Indian upbringing. For a family of immigrants there’s always a sense of proving yourself in America. It’s never quite their home even though they’ve been there for decades. Breaking free to do arts was bizarre. For sure. I used my academic success in school to say ‘just trust me’. The idea wasn’t met with support exactly but it wasn’t met with ‘we’ll kill you and disown you’. I had proven I was responsible.”

His debut feature – the semi-autobiographical drama Praying with Anger – premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival in 1992 and then played theatrically for one week only in Woodstock, Illinois. A sophomore effort, 1998’s Wide Awake, secured award nominations and the services of actor Julia Stiles, but managed to claw back only $282,175 of its $6 million production budget.

“In reality it was over for me,” says Night. “You never get a second chance. And then I did. It was unprecedented. And that was so hard because it failed. Those two movies took six years. And then I sold a romantic screenplay I wrote in a bidding war to Fox. And that was another small sign of life. And then finally I wrote The Sixth Sense. And everyone was like ‘Wow, this is amazing for your first movie’. And I’m thinking ‘Fuck that! Are you kidding?’ I was dying for six years. I didn’t even believe it when it was happening. I wrote Unbreakable so fast. I was sure it would all disappear.”

Have reviews of his subsequent films been unfair? Unbreakable, while we’re on the subject, was far more compelling than many critiques suggested and worked to anticipate the comic book vogue.

“What hasn’t worked in my favour over the years are expectation and context. On the expectation problem – you hear my name as an adjective – it means ‘scary with twist ending’. I’m that guy. But I hardly ever make that movie. So that’s always going to be an expectation that’s not going to be met. My movies are cross-genre movies. They are dramas with a little X or Y. But sometimes they are sold as X or Y. So the context is ‘you’re going to see this’ when most of the time they are 60 or 70 percent this. I get it. If you thought you were going to see Iron Man 3 and you sat down to what was mostly a a drama there might be a reaction. And that reaction might not be happy or positive.”

The latest inaccuracy to attach itself to the Puducherry-born auteur is that he has either quietly excused himself or been sidelined away from promotional duties for About Earth, a science-fiction vehicle for father and son team Will and Jaden Smith and Shyamalan’s 10th film as director.

That’s funny: in a twist worthy of, well, M Night Shyamalan, he appears to have turned up to meet me in London. He’s also pretty enthusiastic about moving from late summer – the traditional time for thoughtful, post-Marvel fare – to the busy tentpole season proper of early June: “Hey man, I’m with the Smiths now,” he laughs.

The plot outline came from Will and Jaden: this is the first M Night Shyamalan film that can’t trace its origins back to him. Did that make a difference?

“You’re right. It’s the first film I’ve done that wasn’t 100 per cent me. But it was enough mine that I didn’t feel any differently about it. We made it in the normal way. We shot in Philly. We edited in Philly. When Will first called me there were whole sections of the story that weren’t there. So there were enough blank spaces that I could think ‘Oh, I know how to do this story’ and get excited about it. I had plenty to say.”

Would he – without wishing to tread on certain M Night Shyamalan twist endings – regard After Earth as his first science fiction film?

“Definitely. And I super enjoyed the year we spent designing the world. It’s not science fiction that I’ve seen before, where everything looks like Bladerunner. It’s a much more organic version of the future. We spent a year, me and the production designer, on clothing, architecture, fabrics. Everything is utilitarian and has multiple uses. There are no right angles and no steel. It’s not cold but warm.”

He may not be the scary twist ending guy, but if we must turn M Night Shyamalan into an adjective “not cold” will do nicely.

yyy After Earth is on general release