M Night Shyamalan: The unbreakable spirit of ‘the twist guy’

Despite critical maulings, you can’t keep Shyamalan down, as he returns with ‘Glass’

M Night Shyamalan. “I am very sentimental and when I make family movies I get sentimental.” Photograph: Jessica Kourkounis/The New York Times

M Night Shyamalan. “I am very sentimental and when I make family movies I get sentimental.” Photograph: Jessica Kourkounis/The New York Times

 

Dear God, M Night Shyamalan can talk. Few directors have so many opinions on the ups and downs of their own careers. If he ever fancies a change in direction he could run a journal on advanced Shyamalan studies. Brain-furrowing observations such as “I am in a very David Lynchian subversive tone” could trigger entire editions of The Night Chronicles.

There almost certainly is such a thing. The fresh-faced American director, now an implausible 48, became an industry with his third feature, the Sixth Sense, in 1999. The firm has had its ups and downs, but it has never skirted bankruptcy. Unbreakable (2000) and Signs (2001) were both hits. The Lady in the Water (2006) and The Happening (2008) were catastrophes. The Visit (2015) did better. His propulsive thriller Spilt from 2016 – featuring James McAvoy as a variety of parallel personalities – once again established the brand.

Yet he seems to be financing Glass, joint sequel to Unbreakable and Split, out of his own pocket. That can’t be necessary.

“Everyone wanted to pay for the movie and they would pay three times what it cost,” he says in his machine-gun babble. “I really enjoyed the business of making The Visit and Split. I wanted that to continue. It’s different when it’s your restaurant. You check the menu. You make sure the tables are okay. If one is wobbly you take care of it. You are sanding the floor.”

He brings an admirable Mr Micawber approach to the economics.

“I feel invested. I feel able to take risks,” he says. “The movie costs x. If it makes a little more than x, then we are all good. It doesn’t have to make anything huge.”

They were trying to be professional, but it broke that for a second. The mask slipped

The economics of this thing are nonetheless complicated. The seeds were sown in his follow-up to The Sixth Sense. Unbreakable, starring Bruce Willis and Samuel L Jackson, led towards a neat wah-wah denouement that suggested comic books told hidden truths about human history. That film was made by a subsidiary of Disney. Willis’s character then turned up in the last frame of Split to announce the hitherto unsuspected news that we were in the Unbreakable universe. That film was made by Universal.

“Universal didn’t know. We shot that separately from the main unit. They see the dailies, but I didn’t put that up,” he says of the ending. So what did they think when they saw another studio’s character in the movie?

“They flipped out. It was a really exciting screening,” he says. “It’s not often that they would attend a film without knowing the ending. It was once in a lifetime. I remember walking out and they were like: ‘Are you kidding?’ They were trying to be professional, but it broke that for a second. The mask slipped.”

Mental institution

Anyway, the film was a hit and the two studios now come together to distribute Glass, in which Jackson’s criminal mastermind, Willis’s vigilante and McAvoy’s maniac rub together in a Pennsylvanian mental institution.

The unusual career continues. Shyamalan, born in India, came to the US with his family when he was just six weeks old. He was raised in Philadelphia, the son of a doctor, and shot Super 8 films as a kid, before eventually making his way to New York University.

His first no-budget feature was barely noticed. In 1998 he managed to talk Rosie O’Donnell and Julia Stiles into the respectably received comedy Wide Awake. Then The Sixth Sense happened. You won’t need to be told what that ghost story was about. Haley Joel Osment saw Bruce Willis and dead people. 

Did he really just say that the studio argued nobody would want to see films about superheroes?

“The combination of a high-quality genre movie with a star just works,” Shyamalan says. “In the thriller genre, when you have a great performance at the centre, then you usually have an outsize reaction. Look at The Silence of the Lambs or The Fugitive. You have this beautiful, unrequited romance at the centre as well: this beautiful thing of love for someone who has passed over. You’re away.”

Was he surprised at its massive commercial success?

“I didn’t think very much about it,” he shrugs. “I was already thinking about the next film. I wanted it to make some money so I could make another movie. I was writing Unbreakable and I was just worried it wouldn’t happen.”

In the course of his chatters about what came next, he nods towards a revealing show business anecdote. Unbreakable was an agreeably odd piece of work. It’s a mystery story, but it also has to do with comic books. Did he really just say that the studio argued nobody would want to see films about superheroes?

“Yeah, and a few things got betrayed there,” he says. “In years gone by that stuff was very niche. Comic-book conventions felt very niche. ‘The last thing you want to do is turn off the general public,’ they said. The feeling was you were being ridiculous.”

The twist guy

It scarcely seems possible now that Marvel so dominates the marketplace, but, to that point, the studios had – Batman and Superman aside – failed to sell comic-book adaptations to the public. He also accepts that he was already fighting against preconceptions of what a Shyamalan film looked like.

“We were coming off one of the biggest movies of all time,” he says. “There was a desire unconsciously to make an untitled sequel to that.”

Those presumptions continued to plague his career. In particular, he became know as “the twist guy”. If his film didn’t have a satisfactory reversal, then audiences tended to come away disappointed. Maybe the one in The Village was too unlikely. There wasn’t really a twist in Signs. Then again, why should there be?

When I meet the few people who have seen it on the street, the response is almost religious

“I think it took a bit for me to understand the depth of the relationship with the public – what they expect. The years have helped give me a bit of elbow room,” he says.

When the slump came, it came good and hard. Few directors have endured a critical and commercial run as grim as Lady in the Water, The Happening, The Last Airbender and After Earth. Yet he somehow kept the brand afloat. I’ve still got a T-shirt from the Lady in the Water press junket. I don’t wear it out.

“I am so proud of that one,” he says. “I thought zero about how to sell it. I was going to do more of a jazz approach to it. I don’t agree with the critical response. But the audience response was among my highest. When I meet the few people who have seen it on the street, the response is almost religious. I hear huge stories about that movie – about people who have terminal illnesses and watch that film at the end.”

You can’t argue with that. 

It’s hard to imagine M Night Shyamalan being broken by failures – even on that scale. His endlessly positive, vigorously engaged delivery suggests a revivalist preacher or a self-help guru. One can easily picture him, microphone strapped to his head, pacing inspirationally at the 2019 Positivity and Prosperity Expo (or whatever).

He knows what he does and he’s worked out ways to keep doing it.

Genre queen

“My North Star has always been Agatha Christie,” he says. “She had so much fun. She wrote stories with characters. She is, to my mind, the most-read author in the world. Shakespeare, then her? If you go to my cousin’s house in southern India, you will see Agatha Christie. There is a trust in the relationship between the audience and her. She was enjoying herself. She got to tell all these stories about relationships. She is my hero.”

I can see where he’s coming from. Shyamalan is anchored to notions of genre and convention. In discussing his films, he will explain how a little bit came from this tradition and a little bit came from that. Like Christie, he likes them to work as entertainment machines. Like Christie, he shrugs off the higher-browed criticisms.

“I am very sentimental and when I make family movies I get sentimental. That’s the dagger of death with critics. No sentiment! No sentiment!”

He’s cackling, but there’s steel to his delivery. No man will keep him down

“I have a different perspective than when I was in my 20s,” he says. I am very happy and privileged to be in this position and I feel that the expectations are much more in line with the films I am making.”

Let’s see. Shall we?

THE FIVE BEST M NIGHT SHYAMALAN PICTURES

The Sixth Sense (1999)
Everyone involved was in top form for this beautifully engineered, twisty ghost story. We remember Willis and Hayley Joel Osment, but Toni Collette has never been better.

Unbreakable (2000)
Willis returned for a film that lost some of The Sixth Sense’s purity while retaining its fuggy, autumnal atmosphere. A treatise on comic book mythology before every second film was that.

The Village (2004)
What seems to be a folk horror turns into something else in a twist that deserves plaudits for chutzpah alone.

The Visit (2015)
Shyamalan bounced back from his slump with another twisteroo that – though not impossible to guess – played fair with its audience. Makes good use of a largely unknown cast.

Split (2016)
Made for peanuts, Shyamalan’s thriller invited James McAvoy to strain every sinew as a chap fighting with many split personalities.

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