M. Night Shymalan is not a mystery. He might be shy about doling out advice in interviews, but his social media presence is very instructive for those who admire and follow him. He’s had a lot of ups and downs in his career, having broken out with 1999’s The Sixth Sense, which is still considered by many to be his best work and the best example of what he’s become famous for: the twist ending. His movies don’t always come together as well as that one, but he’s still a respectable filmmaker with a lot of good ideas and surprises up his sleeve now and again. Below are some tips he has shared over the years, directly to journalists as well as to his fans on Twitter.
Every moment on the set you have to be creatively intense. It's a chess game.
— M. Night Shyamalan (@MNightShyamalan) April 6, 2012
1. Be Yourself
“Imitation is not the way to go,” Shyamalan said in an interview for the UK’s National Union of Students from 2015. “You’re going to be unheard.” He begins his response to a request for advice talking about the importance of story and character in every film then focuses on the need to be as much yourself as you can to produce great art. Otherwise, it’ll be a hollow experience to a point where even if you’re successful, “you’re in hell.”
Around the same time, Shyamalan had this to say in an interview for Geeks of Doom:
The second you try to conform, or try to be something else, or try to aspire to be something other than who you are, your light diminishes. To go and make a small movie which never strikes me than less than, just the love cinema, just be reverent, be funny, and gross, and emotional, and arc, as I am, and let that fear balance be me, because the one thing I can say when I walk away is that The Visit is 100% me, that is such a wonderful feeling. Whatever comes from it, comes from it, because how could the result be wrong, right? Because it is me. It is really hard because even now, as I am finishing writing the next one that I hopefully will do. It’s a hard thing to not want to just be yourself. So this is just a version of just strip everything away, and just have fun.
Still, you shouldn’t put yourself too much into the movie, especially when writing characters. From a 1999 Creative Screenwriting interview:
The characters used to always sound like me. That’s the biggest mistake that young writers ‐ or new writers ‐ make. It always starts at that first level where they’re “generic me,” whether they’re old, young, everybody’s “generic me.” And with each script that I’ve done, I’ve gotten better at not doing that on the first pass. The characters fill out as the drafts come, and you find a particular line [that hooks you into that character].
If your reasons for doing what you're doing are pure, you will succeed.
— M. Night Shyamalan (@MNightShyamalan) January 24, 2012
2. Listen to Others
When you’re specific in who you are as a filmmaker, you may come across as a pretentious single-minded auteur. At least that’s the complaint about Shyamalan driving a question of ego in a 2008 ComingSoon.net interview. He claims that’s not him at all and shares this belief about directing:
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.
He continues in response to whether a director requires confidence:
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.
And this should extend to listening to the people on the page, too:
Writing & directing original films.U start with hearing the voice of a character or a struggle they're going through. And u keep listening.
— M. Night Shyamalan (@MNightShyamalan) September 24, 2016
Being ready to hear my film, is a combination of subverting my ego, and having deep empathy for the characters. Until that moment I am blind
— M. Night Shyamalan (@MNightShyamalan) May 15, 2016
The best writing is your truth masquerading as fictional characters.
— M. Night Shyamalan (@MNightShyamalan) June 10, 2012
3. Failure is Fine
Shyamalan shot to stardom with The Sixth Sense, but that was not his first movie, and it took him a while to get there. His award-winning debut feature, Praying with Anger, reportedly grossed only $7k. His next effort, the Miramax-distributed Wide Awake, made less than $300k. He stuck with the career despite those financial failures, and the investment paid off. In a 2004 Christian Science Monitor interview, he seems to recommend others fail, too:
I was lucky enough to fail multiple times in the very beginning. Fail dramatically. That’s the greatest thing that could ever happen to you, because … [failure] no longer holds any power over you. And now you can assess cleanly what you need to improve and what needs to be fixed.
Learning from your little mistakes is important, as well:
Sometimes a shot goes up and there is hundreds of things wrong. You have to study it and address every issue. And then it comes to life.
— M. Night Shyamalan (@MNightShyamalan) February 14, 2012
As we get to the last days of the principal photography, I start reflecting on all the things I should have done. Mistakes I feel I made.
— M. Night Shyamalan (@MNightShyamalan) April 29, 2012
You want to make the right decision every time, but it doesn't turn out that way. You go by your gut in extreme pressure conditions.
— M. Night Shyamalan (@MNightShyamalan) April 29, 2012
Starting 19th day of shooting #Split. So humbling to direct. It's an art of making a 1,000 decisions a day. Invariably you are wrong a lot.
— M. Night Shyamalan (@MNightShyamalan) December 2, 2015
On the 13th pass of #Split. So delicate. Still learning. For every two things right, I do one thing wrong. Still have revelations daily.
— M. Night Shyamalan (@MNightShyamalan) August 27, 2016
4. Work With Humans
No, this isn’t a slight against all the CG creatures in After Earth. It’s a tip for casting. If there’s one thing we can credit Shyamalan with even in most of his weaker efforts is a talent for getting strong performances out of actors (The Happening excluded, of course). He’s even done very well over the years with child actors, starting with Haley Joel Osment, who earned an Oscar nomination for The Sixth Sense at age 11. He told The Washington Post’s Celebritology 2.0 blog in 2010 while promoting The Last Airbender:
My secret to all casting, and specifically kids, is cast good human beings. And if as a human being they match the colors that I want in the morning, then we’re going to be fine. With kids especially, I’m not casting Daniel Day Lewis. I’m not casting a chameleon who can become a million different things. I just want them to be them. And I want them to put themselves in these circumstances but I want their humanity to come out.
This kid is just a good human being. And literally I would give him my life, I think so much of him. And his parents, who are just amazing. That’s who you want there. He’s a homeschooled kid and he’s very pure, incredibly dedicated and thoughtful and loyal. Gosh, he’s everything we’d want. We wouldn’t want a kid pretending to do that, we want a kid who is that.
"The bite of the wind and the temperature did a great thing for the actor's faces:It made them look like people, not actors." -Elia Kazan
— M. Night Shyamalan (@MNightShyamalan) August 21, 2014
5. Plot Twists Must Be Natural
If Shyamalan is known for anything anymore, it’s still primarily twist endings. Even though not all of his movies have them, we expect them from him. In fact, it’s joked that the twist of the ones without twists is that they don’t have twists. He doesn’t talk about his reputation for twists too much, but in 2015 he explained to The Weekly Review what makes a good one. Watch the video below.
That idea that it has to come organically and be a natural element of what comes out of the story and characters goes back to his earlier twist movies. In the below interview from the making-of documentary included on the Unbreakable DVD, he explains that everything must be clear on second viewing that the twist is inevitable:
Defend your characters. But often we protect ourselves, the person writing, before them, and that's when we lose.
— M. Night Shyamalan (@MNightShyamalan) February 8, 2015
6. Don’t Do It
For the twist ending of this list of tips, here’s the kicker: he actually discourages against becoming a filmmaker. In the below interview, he says he tells prospective directors and actors, “If there’s a choice involved, don’t do it… there should be no other choice in the matter. It takes an irrational passion to do it.”
What We Learned
Shyamalan is very focused on writing things from his heart and then letting his creations come to life as honestly and naturally as possible. Still, there’s a balance in going with your gut and knowing when to admit your mistakes and listen to others for input. Of course, the people you listen to, whether real or fictional, have to be as authentic and human as can be, as well. Most importantly, you should only be a filmmaker if you can’t do anything else, and then if that’s true, keep going, learning from failures, until you succeed.