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Making Movies with M. Night Shyamalan


For decades, filmmaker M. Night Shyamalan has been telling original stories with movies like the Oscar-nominated hit, “The Sixth Sense” (1999), “Signs” (2002) and “Split” (2016). In today’s Hollywood system, this has turned Shyamalan into something of an iconoclast. Here he breaks down his independent approach to making his most recent thriller, “Old,” and how his deep love for moviegoing as a kid continues to drive the way he thinks about his craft.

Joe Skinner: When the coronavirus first shut down everything back in March of 2020, suddenly many of us had to stop in our tracks.

M. Night Shyamalan: Some people turned around and looked at the person they were with in their apartment building, and went, how did I get here?

Joe Skinner: Filmmaker M. Night Shyamalan was fortunate to be able to work from home during the pandemic and to think about his work differently.

M. Night Shyamalan: I think all of us went through some kind of examination. An amazing amount of loss and reflection that went on. For me personally, it was important pause.

Joe Skinner: Night just came off of a string of successful films, with “The Visit,” “Split” and “Glass,” movies that many saw as a return to form. He had really hit the ground running, but maybe a little too fast.

M. Night Shyamalan: All those amazing good habits start to erode as you start to become successful and you have no time to do those good habits. So I was aware of going, “Hey, let’s stop this up and down thing and take the pause.” Where are we? What do I feel hollow about? What do I even want to achieve at this point?

M. Night Shyamalan: There’s something beautiful about that, of just sitting and letting ideas connect and who you are starts to be more in alignment with the things you’re doing.

Joe Skinner: So he got to work on making his next film, “Old.” And it was borne of his time spent work-shopping on themes of aging and mortality, ideas especially resonant in a post-pandemic milieu.

Scene from Old:
What happened to her?
Her body has decomposed.
How quickly can that happen?
7 years.
But she just died.

Joe Skinner: I’m Joe Skinner, this is “American Masters: Creative Spark.” In each episode, we bring you the story of how one work of art came to exist, in the artist’s own words. Today’s focus: M. Night Shyamalan on the making of his newest film, “Old.” Original storytelling is a rare thing in Hollywood these days, with superhero adaptations and sequels running roughshod over the entire industry. But M. Night Shyamalan is one of a few commercial filmmakers still generating financial successes from one idea to the next. And frequently.

M. Night Shyamalan: Each and every time I’ve learned not to apply anything from one movie to the next. You have to start all over each and every time.

Joe Skinner: In 1999, Shyamalan’s breakout hit, “The Sixth Sense,” stunned audiences.

Scene from The Sixth Sense: I see dead people…

Joe Skinner: The movie took over the popular culture of the time.

Scene from South Park:
Butters, what on Earth are you doing?
I’m like the kid in that movie. I’m seeing dead people!
Dead people?
Who’s seeing dead people?
Me! I saw a ghost!

Joe Skinner: Sure the spoofs number in the thousands, but the movie also scared me half to death. And – “The Sixth Sense” was nominated for 6 Academy Awards, including Best Picture. These days, much less frequently does a single work of art tap such a nerve in our collective consciousness. But for Shyamalan, he pulled it off, and multiple times.

Scene from Signs trailer: There’s a monster outside my room, can I have a glass of water?

Joe Skinner: Yes, the name M. Night Shyamalan has become synonymous with wild twist endings. But the real claim to fame should be his insistence on original storytelling. And when you see “Written and Directed by M. Night Shyamalan” on the screen at your movie theater, there is an expectation.

M. Night Shyamalan: That relationship to the audience comes with it a promise, and ignoring that promise would be disingenuous, I think. “The Sixth Sense” was a moment of me realizing who I am and making a contract with the world at the same time. That has still allowed me to do other things within that contract so I can do humor now. I can do romance. I can push things in certain ways without breaking the contracts. It’s important to reinvent every single time, what that contract means in that, is there a way I can fulfill the contract in a different form each and every time?

Joe Skinner: Shyamalan’s newest film, “Old,” is no different. From it’s first teaser trailer, audiences were hooked by its central premise – one squarely in his wheelhouse: there is a beach where people get old, very quickly. Except this time, Shyamalan is adapting from source material.

M. Night Shyamalan:This book, which was given to me by my daughters, this graphic novel called “Sandcastle” that was given to me on Father’s Day, was strikingly cinematic.

Joe Skinner: At just over 100 pages long, “Sandcastle” is a brisk read. The 2011 French graphic novel is about a group of people vacationing at a beach. They begin to age rapidly. Decades pass within hours. And the book is cryptic and mysterious, leaving plenty of negative space for Shyamalan’s imagination to roam.

M. Night Shyamalan: I was like, “Hmm, what does that frame mean?” And I started jotting ideas down. And the book itself, the graphic novel, is very open-ended and, more spiritual, more of a tone and spiritual tone at the end, which I love, and it was discussing where I was emotionally at that moment.

Joe Skinner: Even though he was gifted the graphic novel 4 years earlier, its themes dovetailed with our collective moment of crisis in the height of the pandemic; where we have a fear of not just mortality but also of literal aging, now two years into this thing.

M. Night Shyamalan: My kids are growing up. My parents are getting older, so I’m struggling with being in the middle and seeing all of this movement and the impermanence of what I’m calling my life. The thing I’m calling my life today is not going to be the case tomorrow. And how scary that is. And that’s what this graphic novel was about and I felt like, wow, I have to do this.

Joe Skinner: So Shyamalan got to work. And to be able to put out a new movie from your own script almost every single year, you need to have a plan.

M. Night Shyamalan: From the moment I decide this is the movie – that’s a ticking clock. There is a momentum to creativity. And so by saying six weeks for the outline and four pages of the day for the first draft of the screenplay. And then the second draft is four weeks and on and on and on like timetables, this kind of discipline has helped me fight through times when I’m lost or scared or easily taken off my artistic vision by someone around me or someone achieving, whether it’s insecurity or envy or whatever it is that bounces through my head, and so the discipline says, “I don’t care, get your four pages done.”

Joe Skinner: For him, the craft of writing seems to be just as fundamental as the craft of producing. His process is a reminder that every job function in filmmaking intersects and impacts the storytelling.

M. Night Shyamalan:I make the movies as small as possible and I fund them and take the risk on myself and have a distribution entity that understands that there is a commercial value to pre-existing feelings, pre-existing characters, but there is also a place for something wholly different and specific and original and that thing that makes it pokey and not fit is the thing that makes it seen and remembered. And people are drawn to that.

Joe Skinner: For a commercial film at the scale of Shyamalan’s work, his independently-funded model is quite rare. And it gives him more control. And during the pandemic, this became a critical factor.

M. Night Shyamalan: We were the first movie to go, and that was solely because I was writing the check and we could go. How does one approach a pandemic? There was no guidebook. The unions hadn’t even come up with anything yet. And so I just researched and did what I thought was the only way that I would make the movie.

Joe Skinner: So M. Night Shyamalan gathered his cast and crew and set out to the Dominican Republic into unchartered territory: as one of the first studio films to shoot in the height of the pandemic.

M. Night Shyamalan: We’re all going to truly bubble. We can buy out a whole hotel and everyone that works at the hotel will stay with us. And everyone commits – the people at the hotel and cast and crew – to never leaving the hotel. And we go from the hotel to the beach and hotel to the beach and back again, And whatever that extra cost is, I’m willing to do it.  I bought COVID machines to test and I brought a lab right to our set, so everyone was getting tested, these are all new ideas. I was able to do it and move faster than everyone because I was paying for it. So these are the kinds of value systems that I can promote because it’s a small movie that I control.

Joe Skinner: Every aspect of production was tightly controlled ahead of time, to anticipate and mitigate risk. Right down to his reputation for tight storyboarding.

M. Night Shyamalan: Every single frame I’ve drawn, every single shot, I’ve done in advance. Because of the pandemic I spent even more time working through the movements and why we’re using zooms and angular dollies versus direct dollies.

Joe Skinner: But Shyamalan’s production pushed the limits of what was possible and even with his efforts to keep these in control, there was always another risk right around the corner.

M. Night Shyamalan: I needed to shoot this year if I was going to have this cast. We run out of money, we run out of money, that’s that, you know? But that created a certain love and appreciation for what we were doing that burns off in all of us. We were super grateful to shoot every day and be there. I knew that tomorrow may not be something that we were given ‘cause a hurricane could come and they came and sometimes the beach went away.

Joe Skinner: Their set literally disappeared during shooting. It eroded from the hurricane season, and they had to rebuild and keep going.

M. Night Shyamalan:Lots of risks. I shot on film during a pandemic. There’s two labs in the United States that actually developed film – one in New York, one in LA. If those shut down for pandemic reasons, lockdown reasons, you have undeveloped film. Could I shoot it on digital? Yes. But for me, once I see that the film is capturing something organic on that beach, it’s just capturing something innately that digital is not capturing and so when an audience member sees, let’s say a trailer for “Old,” does the lady in Idaho know the difference between digital and film? No, but does she know that she feels a certain way by seeing that image-

Scene from Old:
Wait, where are the kids?
Trent! Kara! Come here.
Hey, have you seen my children?

M. Night Shyamalan: That slightly grainy image of that woman turning and seeing her children grown for the first time?

Scene from Old: Mom? I’m right here…

M. Night Shyamalan: There’s something about that image that sticks with her.

Joe Skinner: The do-it-yourself spirit that emanates from M. Night Shyamalan is rooted in his precocious start to filmmaking. In many of his old DVD releases, you can find easter eggs – early home movies. I know my copy of “Signs” is well-worn, and contains a bonus feature: a tween-aged Shyamalan starring in his own homemade alien-invasion. A rudimentary, and miniature, animatronic alien creeps around a suburban Philadelphia living room setting. You can see the radio antenna sticking out of its head. A young M. Night Shyamalan sits nearby, unaware of what comes next.

M. Night Shyamalan: The shorts on the weekend, I don’t even know if you can qualify them as shorts, that is probably an insult to shorts. When I was a kid on weekends with the neighbors and whether it was James Bond or “Raiders,” or you name it, whatever it is, I was mimicking.

Trailer for Raiders of the Lost Ark: Raiders of the Lost Ark! A film from Steven Spielberg and George Lucas.

M. Night Shyamalan: Being the age that I was when “Star Wars” came out, seven, and when “Raiders” came out, twelve, there was a sense of being spoken to with the highest level of dramatic efficacy. What did Spielberg mean when he did that?

Scene from Raiders of the Lost Ark: Snakes… Why did it have to be snakes?

M. Night Shyamalan:The impact was verging on religion. It created a resonance that I wanted to return to and return to and I think that ignited in me this irrational desire to think about it and be affected by it and coming from an immigrant Indian family, that concept of becoming one of them, it wasn’t really on the table.

Joe Skinner: And yet, as a teenager, Night kept getting together with his friends on the weekends and shooting.

M. Night Shyamalan: I just kept doing it and doing it and doing it and was addicted to it the potential of what it could become. The gap between what I had in my head and what I actually executed was so massive that that could be so scary, but the gap was the thing I wanted to close.

Joe Skinner: He picked up a book by Spike Lee on guerrilla filmmaking, and from there, he was destined to go to New York for film school.

M. Night Shyamalan: It felt like a practical way to close the gap. And so when I made my first film it actually started to kind of come together a little bit. The thing that I have in my head versus what’s coming out. There’s a lot of talk of religion and wow, there’s, you’re interested in emotion. You’re interested in what would eventually become supernatural. There was something like a language that was beginning.

Joe Skinner: Since his 1992 feature debut, “Praying With Anger,” all the way to our present day with his film, “Old,” M. Night Shyamalan continues to circle around central themes of religion and the supernatural.

M. Night Shyamalan:Iterating is everything, and to find a way to iterate as much as possible safely is the goal in life. But I want to do it slightly differently every single time.

Scene from Old:
There’s something wrong with this beach.
What’s happening?!

M. Night Shyamalan: That I was inspired by the graphic novel “Sandcastle” for “Old” has a slight hyper tongue in cheeky quality – big, bold colors of performances all juxtaposed against each other.

Scene from Old:
You’re eleven, right Trent?
I’m six.
No, really, are you ten, eleven?
He’s not lying… He’s six.
I’m specifically six and a quarter.

M. Night Shyamalan: And then each layer that you put on top of it, this language. The cinema language of… In this case, very inspired by Australian New Wave, like, Peter Weir’s “Picnic at Hanging Rock,” and definitely Nicolas Roeg’s “Walkabout,” which, you know, for me is like… Stayed with me forever and ever, and ever.

Trailer for Walkabout: Where are we going now?

M. Night Shyamalan: His movies just kill me.

Trailer for Walkabout: But you said… We’re lost aren’t we? No, of course not…

M. Night Shyamalan: All the movies we love – they have a mastery of their own language. How I judge a director, whether it’s a broad comedy, a buddy comedy, or, you know, a very specific drama, is this control of tone.

Joe Skinner: For M. Night Shyamalan, his own sense of tone is refined and honed in the edit room where thrillers like “Old” really find their rhythm.

M. Night Shyamalan: Editing is the last rewrite, and as you realize what was indulgent, what was redundant, all of those things, when you see “Old,” it’s relentless because every single thing has been squeezed out of it. The premise of the movie in and of itself is that, that it’s, time’s moving so fast that you don’t have time to acclimate to anything that’s happening. By the time you go, “oh my God,” you turn to the left and there’s another thing that requires you to say, “oh my God,” and now you have to hold onto both things and then there’s five things and then there’s 20 things. And you’re losing your mind like they are. And that’s the feeling I wanted to have is tumbling, tumbling, tumbling… Most of my movies, I want that, that feeling, that relentlessness.

Scene from Old:
Whatever is happening to us is happening very fast.
You have wrinkles…

M. Night Shyamalan: When you come out of “Old,” I want hopefully to you to have felt what it was like to exist in a different timetable for that period of time, and then come out and remember, wow, you’re really lucky. We’re not going under that timetable. And what does that cause you to feel and reflect about either your ability to not be present, or where you’re obsessed about the past and the future. And, hopefully it stays with you, the experience of these characters.

Joe Skinner: The artistic process is an act of constantly shaping something near and dear to you, and if you do it professionally, at some point you need to let go. Each step of the way, M. Night Shyamalan has worked to anticipate and cultivate his audience’s experience with his film, and because he is a filmmaker who likens his own cinematic experience to that of a religious catharsis, that final moment of sharing his film with an audience can be hard to reconcile.

M. Night Shyamalan: When you choose to show it to someone else and they are now seeing it with completely different eyes, that’s a super scary moment, of course, for all of us. We create something, we see value in it. And then we show it to an audience and they see something else. The thing you have to hold on to is you’re both right.

Joe Skinner: In one of the most compelling moments in “Old,” two of the main characters stop battling against the ravages of time. They take pause, and engage in one of the most apt metaphors for both the tragedy, and the joy, of life and the creative process.

M. Night Shyamalan: There’s a certain point in the movie when they make a sandcastle and that’s really when this intense, relentless thriller gets shattered. Making a castle out of sand is so powerful. The impermanence of it, you spending all this love and energy, it’s just going to get washed away when the high tide comes. It’s so beautiful, and essentially it’s kind of like the secret sauce when you return to being a kid and find value in play and just do something as meaningless as making a castle in the sand, that’s about to get washed away. When you decide that that’s important, you actually unlock something.

Joe Skinner: Thank you to M. Night Shyamalan for his interview, and for inviting us into his creative process. Join us for more episodes weekly, as we continue to look into how artists make their work.



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