M. Night Shyamalan Wants to Make Your Children Cry

By  · Published on July 13th, 2015

Buena Vista Pictures

This is a good year for M. Night Shyamalan. His first television project, Wayward Pines, is not only performing well, but keeps improving with every episode. Shyamalan’s second creative endeavor this year, The Visit, shows a whole new side of the filmmaker. The horror-comedy is nutty, darkly funny and, at times, isn’t afraid to get a little weird.

The writer-director did an introduction for Thursday’s screening at Comic Con, and seeing the way he talked about The Visit, and from interviewing him in-person, it’s clear this past year has rejuvenated him. There are some themes and ideas that connect The Visit with Shyamalan’s past work. The film is about family ‐ with a daughter trying to reconnect her grandparents and mother, by making a documentary about her and he brother’s trip. Things take a weird and horrific turn with grandma and grandpa, turning the documentary into a horror movie.

We were lucky enough to discuss this massive departure for Shyamalan with him during his time in San Diego. Here’s what he had to say:

With Wayward Pines and The Visit, you’re really shaking things up. Were you looking for that?

Yeah. The movies and creative choices I make are all creative expressions of something internal, and that’s probably true for everybody. It’s usually an extension of what’s going on in here, and it becomes so obvious and literal because they are manifested on such a big scale all around the world. It’s very clear where I am [in the work], if I’m comfortable or not. Even if I’m not comfortable, to be honest and authentic and to talk about it is the right way to proceed.

On this, I spent a lot of time on the storytelling craft, not on anything else surrounding the storytelling. I wanted to concentrate on the process and my partners, and that got me in the right headspace. Does that make sense?

Completely. It just feels like you’re having fun. There’s a scene at the end of The Visit, and pardon my language, where I thought, “He doesn’t give a fuck.”

[Laughs] I’m not thinking about anything else, yeah. Someone who had worked on my movies read the script and said, “You can’t do that. You can’t do that scene. It’s crazy, because it took me out of it and made me not to like it.” I remember when he told me that, I thought, Should I adjust it to make you feel better? No, I’ll go down on the ship with that one. That kind of clarity is what you want, where you feel at peace about it.

I think a lot of humility came with both The Visit and Wayward Pines, because I didn’t have an agenda for either. There’s no big endgame. It was just having fun. I didn’t really know anything about TV, but I just wanted to help everybody tell a story. I wanted to be there to say, “That doesn’t make sense to me. What about this? I have an idea.” It was having fun, talking about characters ‐ and it’s only about that. You hope people come and see it, but I had very modest expectations for both projects. I put my energy into the projects, not into ambition or anything like that.

Is this new chapter in your career something you want to continue to explore?

You should always be as vulnerable as possible. I do really like making smaller movies, because it allows being flexible, creative, and to do crazy, daring things. If you come into the movies now, you want to see something you’ve never seen before ‐ a singular experience. For me, to provide that for you, I need some latitude, and the latitude is created by the film not being super expensive. I could take risks, follow instincts, and, if you can be really specific, you’ll have a good time and the trip to the movie theater will be worth it. I’m not going to beat the other movies on spectacle, costs, and all that stuff. The CG porn and all that isn’t really my taste, and it’s not something I want to compete with.

What’s the biggest difference between working on one of those larger films and The Visit?

There’s many more steps, many more people, and there’s much more on the line. There’s more involved than what your instincts say the character should do. In a way, that’s the end of the conversation, but with all these other factors, it’s a practical world. You make the box, with what you can and can’t do.

It is a business, too.

It is. The relationship between art and commerce becomes much more prohibitive and harsh the bigger the movie is.

Is it a tough balance?

It’s always a tough balance, right? You could go make something so esoteric with these little movies and maybe no one would see it, but I don’t believe that’s the case. If that’s the case, then that’s case, where I guess what I loved wasn’t for everybody and it wasn’t the mainstream, and that’s totally cool.

How conscious of an audience are you when making a movie? Do you think about how certain choices ‐ whether with music or composition ‐ will affect an audience?

I don’t quite think about it like that. I think, What is the character’s emotion at this moment? Like with Merrill at the end of Signs, it’s inspiration dawning on him. [Composer] James Newton Howard and I would talk about how it’s dark ‐ that it’s something he doesn’t understand. Sometimes I would write James essays about what’s happening and the flow, to just articulate it to him it’s darkness, darkness, darkness turning into strength turning into clarity. James will get it, and because he’s a genius, he’ll start writing. It’s all an extension of a character’s experience.

For a found footage movie, the camerawork is both realistic and cinematic, which is rarely the case with this subgenre.

You have to come from the character. The camera is the character. If your character is someone that knows nothing about cinema and is picking up the camera for some manufactured reason, you’re already in trouble, because the camera is not an extension of the character, it’s an action ‐ an action that’s forced and unmotivated. In this case, she’s a filmmaker, trying to make a beautiful documentary for her family. She knows facts and rules about cinema, so she’s very stringent about it. Her brother, on the other hand, is not. The brother is from reality TV, so he wants to catch something. I don’t consider this a found footage movie; she’s making a documentary about her life.

When you watch a found footage movie, it’s not an extension of the character, it’s an implausible action that continues and continues. When it’s done well, like in Blair Witch, they set out to make a documentary. When they broke from that to express their emotions, they wouldn’t have had the camera on for all that. They’re trying to make a documentary about a witch, and that’s why they have the camera. Some have the camera on for one reason, but some have it on while someone is getting angry. It’s, like, turning the fucking camera off. The girl is trying to keep the documentary going, so that’s plausible ‐ it’s an extension of her character.

If a kid performance is off, it can sink a movie. How do you get good performances out of kids?

We only speak about character. Almost all the kids I’ve worked with have teared up, because I hold them to a standard. I won’t let them be lazy as human beings. They are getting paid for a job, and they’re job is to learn to empathize with their character ‐ that’s what you’re doing when you’re coming to the set. If you’re doing something that doesn’t have depth or has a two-dimensional quality to it, you’re not doing your job. If an actor says or does something that makes a character feel trite, I’ll say to them, “Is that how you feel about the character? Because that’s what you just told me. You told me she is someone not to like, because she is very surface and all this stuff. Is that what you mean? Are you being lazy? You either made a choice or you’re being lazy right now.” They start to tear up and say they’re being lazy. I tell them they can’t do that ‐ that they got to protect their characters.

Sometimes I’ll use the parents, and they’re often actors in some field. I did that with Ed [Oxenbould] in The Visit, but with Olivia [DeJonge], I didn’t use the mom. I was very close with them, but I didn’t. Usually the parents are super helpful. I tell them I’m going to hold their kids to a level of humanity, respect, and discipline for that craft, that’s going to get us there. If you feel like, “Oh, they’re just a kid,” then they shouldn’t be in this movie. You can teach them to be half-ass actors in another movie. On this movie, the worst thing that’s going to happen is there going to come out better human beings and better actors. I promise that.

Where the frustration is going to come from me is the lack of putting enough of yourself into it. 100% of the time the parents will say, “Knock yourself out! Make’m cry! Do what you need to do.” I’m coming at it like a teacher. I’ll never talk down to them. The kids I hire are usually extremely brilliant, normal kids. I have to be able to articulate to them. Sometimes I’ll call them on the weekends and say, “I’ve been watching the dailies. You’re too stringent, and it’s been bothering me. We’re going down the wrong direction. I’m not seeing the depth and understanding. I feel like you’re not prepping. You need to come to me and work it out.”

On The Visit, I told them not to talk to the crew, because they’d come in joking and laughing. They’re sweet people and the crew is there for them, but I told them, “When I say action, you’re not there. There’s plenty of time to talk with everybody as we check the gate and move to the next scene, but come on, you’re professionals.” They got really respectful. That creates a sense of reverence.

There’s so much passion for Unbreakable now, which wasn’t there when it came out.

No, it wasn’t.

Do you ever wonder if that movie performed better, how it would’ve impacted your career?

Absolutely. It’s funny, because I’m a very, very weak character guy. I get affected by things that I shouldn’t. I love that movie, but when people didn’t, it affected me. I was trying to be really respectful and say, “You should lighten up, dude. You’re making things too dark. You’re too somber. You’re making people work, and people don’t want that. You’re getting paid to entertain, so you’re supposed to be a fucking entertainer. Stop getting so big on yourself.” That was literally the conversation I had with myself. I lighten up a bit and made Signs, which felt great. Really, my instincts always lean dark, when I’m making my dark thrillers. Ironically, the whole world has shifted darker in the mainstream. That movie was a good lesson.

The one thing I’ve learned about my movies is that time has been kind to them. Just this morning, walking around, everyone tells me their favorite movie is Unbreakable. The number two I hear is Lady in the Water, number three is The Village, and number four is Signs and Sixth Sense, in that order, since I’ve been here. It’s risen into this kind of understanding of it, where, out of context, they get better and better.

The Visit opens in theaters September 11th.

Longtime FSR contributor Jack Giroux likes movies. He thinks they're swell.