Shyamalan Sixth Sense
And his the director of supernatural hits — and misses — hopes to draw audiences to the edge of their seats with his new psychological thriller Split I’m more anxious now than ever. I want to risk a lot more to find unique things to say and new ways to sa
Night Shyamalan has never had a personal experience with the supernatural, but he is wary of basements. “I’m very superstitious,” the filmmaker said, speaking on telephone from Manhattan. “I don’t feel any weird mojo about the basement in my house, but there are plenty of people’s houses I don’t like going in.” “When I was a kid, one of my best friends lived in a very old house that they claimed George Washington had stayed in,” he continued. “I got the heebie-jeebies there. I never slept over, and I never liked to be by myself there. If my friend went downstairs, I went with him. Once I was left alone, and I still remember that feeling of ‘I’ve got to get the hell out of here.’”
Shyamalan makes ample use of that lingering fear in Split, which is scheduled to open in the US today (Jan 20). The horror thriller spends much of its time in a basement. James Mcavoy plays a man suffering from dissociative-identity disorder, which, in this case, means that he has 24 distinct personalities. Betty Buckley plays his therapist, and Anya Taylor-joy, Haley Lu Richardson and Jessica Sula are the teenage girls he kidnaps in the film.
The 46-year-old Shyamalan, who is the father of three teenage daughters, admitted that he’s basically working through his current worries. “When my (daughters) were younger, I made more children’s movies,” he said. “Now that they’re teenagers, I feel comfortable going back to dark thrillers. I worry about the urban nightmare playing out in my domestic life — home invasions and abductions. I am always thinking about dark things and working them out in my head.”
As he sees it, Shyamalan’s films address a continuing theme. “They are tied to the philosophy of seeing something extraordinary in the ordinary,” he said. “I talk about experiences that happen to us that make us different. Does being different make you less?
“I am very interested in what the mind can do and how much our minds and bodies are connected,” he continued. “With Split, I wondered if I could make a movie where you are watching one genre, and then at the end, you realise you are watching another genre.” If that sounds mysterious, Shyamalan would be pleased. Since coming to international attention with The Sixth Sense (1999), which grossed more than $670 million worldwide, he has made a real effort to mislead audiences. Sometimes these attempts have worked, sometimes not, but he’s never matched that early success. Unbreakable (2000) grossed $248 million worldwide, Signs (2002) took in $408 million, The Village (2004) $256 million and The Happening (2008) $173 million. The Last Airbender (2010) and After Earth (2013) were duds domestically, but at the global box office, raked in $320 million and $244 million respectively. On the other hand, Lady in the Water (2006) grossed only $73 million worldwide, and The Visit (2015) only $98 million. After dealing with studio budgets for 20 years, Shyamalan returned to his low-budget roots with Split, which he self-financed for “below $10 million”. “I like listening to my own instincts and taking responsibility for them. If the movie works, it works, and, if it doesn’t, the decisions are all mine. I am a different version of myself when the process is this way,” Shyamalan continued. “If something bothers me, I will reshoot — it’s my money. Or I will cut something out. I am taking decisions out of layers and just going one-on-one with them. I need time to get the right version of the movie and time to try different things, make mistakes and then fix them.” “It’s terrifying, of course,” he admitted. “That’s why it’s great. You are all in. You’re putting all of yourself into your movies. There’s no other way.” Universal Studios, which is distributing Split, jumped on board early. “Because we did The Visit together, they read the 24 SHADES OF TERROR: In three women are kidnapped by Kevin (Mcavoy) who suffers from dissociative-identity disorder; (inset) Shyamalan with Mcavoy
supernatural Dealings: 1 Joaquin phoenix in The Village 2 a still from shyamalan's breakthrough film The Sixth Sense script,” Shyamalan said. “They were in and wanted to buy it. But until they saw it, they probably could have said no.”
Serendipity led him to Mcavoy to play the lead. “I find it so amazing that James walked in front of me at a Comiccon event (in 2015) right after I wrote the script,” he said. “His hair was shaved the exact right length, and I said, ‘That’s how we’re doing the movie.’”
“Only James could have done the part,” Shyamalan continued. “He had just won the Best Actor award in England (for his work in the 2015 stage revival of The Ruling Class). When I met him, I saw the baseline energy he gives off. He’s a highly skilled, theatre-trained actor and is super-courageous. He brings humanity to the characters.”
He does mean “characters”. Besides Kevin, the main identity, he is imaginative fashion designer Barry, organised Patricia, controlling Dennis and inquisitive nine-year-old Hedwig. In a September review in The Guardian, following a screening at Fantastic Fest in Austin, Texas, a film critic compared Split to Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960), calling the film “a masterful blend of Hitchcock and horror” — and not only because, like Shyamalan, Hitchcock was famous for making cameo appearances in his own movies. That comparison was thrilling to Shyamalan, for whom Hitchcock is an idol. “My house is filled with vintage Hitchcock posters,” he said. “He’s the king, the teacher for all of us. His use of lenses and his movement of the camera create tension.”
Talking about his other film influences, Shyamalan harked back to his pre-teen years. “When I was a kid, I was very much drawn to genre movies,” he recalled. “My cousins and I would go to the video store and basically clean out the genre sections. I wasn’t allowed to see movies with nudity in them.”
“My parents are Indian immigrants,” he continued. “They wanted me to have a legitimate job. I was very lucky to be born when Mr Spielberg and Mr Lucas were making their movies. I was seeing the best cinema for my age group. As I got older, I discovered Akira Kurosawa, Satyajit Ray, Stanley Kubrick and all the masters. I became obsessed.”
When he was eight, Shyamalan received a Super-8 camera as a gift and began making his own movies. By the time he applied to study at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, he had made more than 45.
All of these were made in his native Philadelphia, as have been most of his subsequent movies, including Split. Has he ever considered relocating to Hollywood?
“Nah,” Shyamalan said. “I’m a Philly boy. As an author, you want to write something distinct. That is easier when your experiences are different. Not a lot of filmmakers live in Philly.” He’s turned down more movies than he’s made, with the list reportedly including three Harry Potter films and a few superhero flicks. Any regrets?
“No, no, no,” Shyamalan insisted. “They were wonderfully made. I’m the luckiest guy ever to be able to tell stories for this long. I’m writing a new movie right now, and I’m working on a few TV shows.”
The small screen is clearly an interest for him: Shyamalan recently executive-produced two seasons of Wayward Pines (2015-2016), and also directed the show’s first episode, and he’s working on a reboot of Tales from the Crypt (1989-1996). “I’m excited about the opportunities in TV,” he said.
Since The Sixth Sense came out 18 years ago, Shyamalan said, the movie-going experience has altered. “Tones have changed and movies have gotten darker,” he said. “Original movies are rare. How people make their movie-going decisions is different. The Internet wasn’t such a big force in 1999.”
Shyamalan himself has changed. “I’m probably more anxious than I used to be. I want to risk a lot more in order to find unique things to say and new ways to say it.”
Although his movies deal with scary, often horrific subjects, Shyamalan insisted that he is still the good little boy that he was growing up. “I was definitely the child that did everything right. I never broke the rules, because I was scared. I was just very quiet and did what my teachers and parents said. The way I write is different from the way I am,” Shyamalan said. “If we hung out, you would think I was boring. But when I write, I can be more interesting than I ever realised. I’m okay being different now, which is a nice feeling.”
— The New York Times Syndicate