m night shya malan
The Sixth Sense and Unbreakable filmmaker tells Jordan Farley about the things that fuel his creative flames
The twisty director gives his Heroes & Inspirations.
had a bigger impact on noughties cinema than M Night Shyamalan. His zeitgeist- inspiring brand of low- key, mystery- driven, high concept, twisttastic thrillers left an indelible mark on the filmic landscape at a time when franchise filmmaking was in its infancy and original storytelling was king. In the years since Shyamalan has moved away from writing his own stories and begun adapting others’, the latest of which, Wayward Pines, also marks Shyamalan’s first foray onto the small screen. When SFX catches up with Shyamalan amid promotional duties for Pines the sharp- suited, shaggy- haired filmmaker’s eyes light up at the opportunity to talk about the people that inspired his career: “These are all heroes of mine, there’s no way around it. Their names and what they achieved was huge…”
It made me want to pick up a camera. You know people see Jesus in a pancake? Star
Wars was my Jesus in a pancake moment, it was religion. I’ve met Mr Lucas and been able to share this with him. I remember I was in the car on the way back from the cinema and I didn’t want anyone to talk to me, I was in some religious fervour. I was so transported and taken away, so I started to play. When I was seven I was the characters and then that transformed into, “Let me take a thing and pretend it’s moving and record it.” It translated from wanting to have that feeling again to creating that feeling.
She’s Gotta Have It
There were two seminal moments or periods – the Spielberg/ Lucas era of watching movies from seven to 14. And then right around 14 I was in the airport dropping off my grandparents and back in those days they used to have little book stores right by the gate and there was Spike Lee’s book about She’s Gotta
Have It, the making of that movie. I read it and was like, “What? He wasn’t in the industry and he made a movie? You can go to school for this?” It made it real. It was a big deal. So instantaneously I was like, “I’m going to NYU, the Tisch School of the Arts.” Which is where he went. And again I know Spike now, he’s such a hero.
Him and Michael Jordan, they’re on another planet. Their level of talent – everyone else is merely mortal in comparison. He has an imagination that seems unending. It’s almost like he’s bored and he’s challenging himself. I didn’t see Jaws when it came out, I was too young, but Raiders was probably the moment where it went from an unformed fantasy to “I have to do this.” Spielberg, the name, for me is almost deified at this point. The first time I met him was at his house. It was during The Sixth Sense time and I don’t think I said anything remotely lucid to him. I had a fever and I was like, “This is the worst, I can’t believe I have a high fever and I’m meeting the guy that I got into movies for.” I had all his posters in my room. When I got nominated for the DGA award I gave a speech and Steven was in the room and it was about how I convinced my mom when I was 15 to call Steven Spielberg ’s office to pretend she was my producer, and ask him to look at one of my short movies. Steven was in the bathroom the whole time but that’s how much he meant to me, I got my mom to embarrass me.
The Twilight Zone
It has two things that are really interesting to it. Obviously the paradigm shifts, that’s the obvious connection. The more subtle connection and more meaningful to me was it had a minimalist aesthetic that I think greatly added to its impact. I vibed with that take on the supernatural and B- genre subjects – treat it with incredible minimalism and it’s hugely impactful and scary. They did it out of necessity, and maybe Rod Serling ’s instincts as well, but it’s hugely inspirational. Talking about it now I feel like going back and watching it.
Comics haven’t influenced me as much as you would think. I wasn’t the kid that had a million comic books, but the ancillary offshoots of comic books: the Batman TV series, was huge for me. Spider- Man as a comic book was a big deal. Richard Donner’s Superman was a huge movie. The idea of comics really caught me, but I’m more into
them now than I was back then.
Ag atha Christi e
Steven Spielberg was somebody that got me into film, but I’m not necessarily like Steven Spielberg in the way I make films and tell stories. Agatha Christie is really the more appropriate model, the teacher. I have her whole collection in my library; they’re all leather- bound and I’ve read a lot about her. She’d be at dinner with her family and say, “I’ve finished a new novel.” And they’d be like, “What?” She just did them. She became an international phenomenon, but really all she wanted to do was tell another story. It’s so intimate and unrelenting, that’s what I want my life to be. I wish it could be as simple as that – I just write the next one, and the next one, and the next one. And also the simplicity of what she did. She was much more disciplined as an author. She used a similar format for many books but she got to talk about characters and humanity in such a different way all within the context of what would seem a stifling format. She’s an example of how you still have an unlimited amount of opportunities to tell character stories.
If I lived in LA I would become a sycophantic, obsequious person that’s just wanting everyone to love me, and just so derivative. I think my first instincts are derivative, and they burn off real quickly and then I become the opposite. I can’t stand it if it smells like anything else. I can’t stand it. And I think that tolerance of not having it feel like anything else may not have been nurtured if I had stayed in LA. In Philadelphia it’s so not about movies, no one makes movies, it’s nothing to do with movies, it’s just regular life. Put aside the two CGI movies, I didn’t come up with those concepts anyway, but all the ones that were my ideas they’re all Philly based – they’re all connected to Pennsylvania.
I still feel shocked that we’re in this time where 90% of the movies made are based on something else that has come before. There used to be a rule of thumb that the sequel would make only two thirds of what the original made because it was seen as exploitation, it was seen for what it was. There were exceptions like The Godfather
2, but generally if you made Home Alone 2 it was going to lose money. The ’ 70s for me was the best era of filmmaking – a really unique, auteur- driven era. If you think of 1999 we had The Sixth Sense, The Matrix, Being John Malkovich, Magnolia, American Beauty, Blair Witch, and I’m sure there’s 10 others I’m not mentioning, from one year – all giant auteurdriven movies that were hugely successful for their studios. That’s unheard of now.
The reoccurrence of grounded, beautiful, resonant, tonal experiences which I had only previously attributed to movies has now repeated itself. For me, it started with The
Sopranos. I went, “Oh shit, that’s cinema.” Then it happened again for me with Mad Men and Breaking Bad and it’s happened so many times that it’s inspiring. I admire that and I want to be a part of that. It used to be we could only do that in film, but I think now you can do that on TV, so those were super- inspiring.
Wayward Pines premieres on Thursday 14 May globally on Fox.
Spike Lee preparing a quiet movie revolution. Attack Of The Giant Steven Spielberg!
Greedo: even he’s not sure who shot first in the Cantina.
Christopher Reeve gives Network Rail a helping hand. The Sopranos: when TV is cinema. Kinda.
If nothing else, in Rod Serling The Twilight Zone had one dapper host.
Agatha Christie, that famous Doctor Who character!