Twists and shouts

The mad, mad, mad mad world of M Night Shya­malan

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - DONALD CLARKE -

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.”

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.”

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.

“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,

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

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.”

Thetwist­guy

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?

“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 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.

“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? ■ Glass is out now on gen­eral re­lease

PHO­TO­GRAPH: JES­SICA KOURKOUNIS/ UNIVER­SAL PIC­TURES

Writer-di­rec­tor M Night Shya­malan on the set of Glass. Above right: Samuel L Jack­son, James McAvoy and Bruce Wil­lis.

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