Wrestling the Twister: An Interview With M. Night Shyamalan
M. Night Shyamalan was born Manoj Nelliattu Shyamalan in Pondicherry, India. He grew up in an affluent area of Pennsylvania, the son of two successful doctors. He attended strict Catholic schools as a child and the mythology, if not the religion, of those school years have had a dramatic impact on his career as a director and actor.
After some cajoling through his publicist, Shyamalan agreed to meet me at his favorite restaurant in Chicago. Ozo's is a homey diner built inside an old Pentecostal church. From the outside you would expect murmured prayers, or overturned pews and pigeons, but it conceals a richly appointed and wood-paneled restaurant, complete with low-hanging table lights and musty books lining the walls. It's the appearance of a library and the atmosphere of a cigar bar.
Shyamalan is still smarting from the critical scorching and apathetic box offices that greeted his latest film, Lady in the Water. He made me sign a waiver stating that we would not directly discuss the film. His recent rift with Disney is still an open wound as well, compounded by the failure of his first film with a different studio.
He arrives half an hour late, looking like the little boy with the power of Heart from Captain Planet all grown and wrapped up in a puffy down-filled winter coat. It's almost sixty degrees outside.
"I'm very sensitive to cold," he explains as he takes a seat across from me. "I'm just tuned into the stranger things and I have to insulate myself against it."
The waiter interrupts before we have a chance to get started. Shyamalan orders pouchong tea, osmanthus green, and water at exactly 187 degrees Fahrenheit. No milk or sugar. The waiter raises an eyebrow. Shyamalan shrugs out of his coat and I can see a ring of sweat on his gray turtleneck. He starts to order samosas, but reconsiders.
"Just bring me a bowl of cottage cheese on a bed pf crisp iceberg lettuce," he drums his fingers on the table, "and three slices of fresh peach."
The waiter takes my order and disappears into the kitchen, freeing us up to begin the interview.
In 2004 you teamed up with the Sci-Fi Channel to create a guerilla marketing campaign for The Village. The result was The Buried Secret of M. Night Shyamalan. How did that come about?
Ah, yeah, Disney was really getting upset about the dailies coming out from the Village. They said it was mopey and going nowhere. They told me it was going to be a hard sell and they were putting all this pressure on me to start promoting it. At the same time, Sci-Fi is nagging me to do something with them. Have you seen the movies they show on that channel? Utterly beneath me. They suggested that just letting them come on the set and shoot like a half-hour time killer spot would be fine.
Then I had this genius idea. We could do something like Spinal Tap, only instead of making it funny we can make it scary. I made up this thing about me being frozen to death in a lake and having psychic experiences, we had a bunch of interviews with cast and crew that pointed to me being a domineering paranoid, and then it portrayed me as magical. Sci-Fi went way overboard with the thing. I think it was 160 minutes in the final broadcast cut. It was a mess. People thought it was completely real, but then some critics said it was a fake. Long story short, Sci-Fi had to issue an apology and yank it from repeats. Biggest waste of my time ever.
I think Disney's need to market The Village so aggressively ended up taking away from critical moments on the film and I hold them fully responsible for its mediocre box office. It was a great story, great cast, and when I wasn't hog-tied by suits at Disney I was a great director.
Has your separation from Disney made you feel more or less free to pursue personal projects?
Every project I undertake is very personal for me and the whole split with them was about personal projects. They have no right to demand any creative control over my movies. I make money for them, bottom line. They were idiots to interfere with the process before, and now that I'm a free agent I feel liberated. The budgets are smaller, but now I can do whatever I want.
What is it you want to do?
My next project is a secret, but it's very exciting and surprising, I promise you. I can tell you about some more speculative projects I've been thinking about. When you think of horror movies what springs to mind?
Friday the 13th.
No, no, no. Really iconic, what legends pop into your head?
Werewolves. The Wolf Man.
No, but close. I'm talking really iconic here. I'm talking Dracula. I'm talking Frankenstein. I'm talking the Mummy. I have been reading those books and watching the movies and I think I have some really amazing new directions I could take those movies. What if, say, the Mummy is really just an idea. A personification of our fears. If you stop being afraid then, poof, the mummy is gone, but then the movie will be so scary that people can't stop being afraid.
See, that's just an idea I thought up just now, that's not even the direction I was thinking about going with the script. I could remake those three better than they've ever been.
They just remade The Mummy a few years ago. It had a sequel.
That was garbage. That was taking a real horror classic and turning it into an action movie with some jumps here and there. It was more of a remake of Raiders of the Lost Ark.
Picture this. Picture Vin Diesel as Dracula. See, right there I am turning your expectations on their ear. Vin Diesel, beefy action star, but did you see him in The Pacifier? That guy can act. He can bring that raw emotion. He's Dracula and maybe the Van Helsing guy isn't a vampire hunter, but this doctor trying to cure the disease that causes vampirism.
Imagine a suburban house, and Vin Diesel as Dracula is following this trail of blood and it leads him into the bathroom. There is his wife, dead on the floor with bite marks on her throat. He looks up at the mirror and you can see there is blood on his mouth. Then who does he call? Who would you call in that situation?
No, it looks like you did it. You would call a friend. Someone you trust. A doctor. A Doctor Van Helsing. You get it? I could play Doctor Van Helsing, this tortured doctor who is hated by all of the detractors at the FDA. He is constantly criticized, but he holds the cure that will save the world from descending into vampirism.
I could call it something catchy and creepy, but misleading so that it doesn't immediately give away that it's Dracula. Like The Somnambulist or maybe M. Night Shyamalan's The Thirst Within. That way it would be a surprise when it turns out it's about vampires.
Have you ever considered branching out into genres that do not include a supernatural element?
That's a loaded question. My movies don't include a supernatural element. People say they do, but I don't think so. Can you prove ghosts don't exist? Aliens? Spirits that live in swimming pools? How do you know you're not a dead person right now? Bruce Willis didn't know. My movies are all set in a natural world - our world - that still has that element of mystery to it. We live in that world now, but we just pretend like we know everything with all of our science.
You mentioned aliens and I wondered if we could talk about your film Signs. What prompted you to take a stab at science fiction?
I stand by my previous answer, but I will tell you that I had a lot of pressure at the time to try science fiction. I'm not the sort of guy to do the next Star Wars or the next Aliens. Those are perfectly good movies, but I wanted to attempt something deeper and more universal. You know what I said about giving a Dracula movie a deceptive title? That's what I did with Signs. That was a story about a war between Heaven and Hell. The aliens were demons and the people's dead loved ones were angels. That was why I had them pray several times in the movie. It was about faith.
So the water that killed the aliens was holy water?
(He laughs). Most critics just didn't get that. My publicist tells me that you wrote a very negative review based on the water concept yourself. You guys just didn't use your heads. Water is holy in general. Many cultures revere it. Baptisms, holy water at a church, some pagan groups worship the sea or rivers. It's not a difficult concept, but some people just can't wrap their small minds around that.
I think it was the idea that aliens would invade the earth, a planet that's like 75% water, has water that falls from the sky and-
No. Bullshit. You're still being small-minded. The characters in that movie called them aliens, but it was never explicitly demonstrated what they were or why they were on earth. People are much more accepting of aliens these days, and the idea was that if demons appeared among us, they would be perceived as aliens.
Have you considered doing any comedies?
I don't think I could ever do a straight comedy, but most of my movies have a comedic element. One idea I had, sort of along the same lines as that trilogy, was doing a remake of The Munsters. The whole thing would be set inside this really dark and dreary gothic house. I would portray the Munsters much more realistically and use all natural lighting. There would be some sight-gags or whatever, but I would play it totally straight down the line. They would talk about the prejudices they suffer and the oppression of being different. You're thinking, yeah, of course, they're so ugly. They're monsters, right?
But then, at the end, they go grocery shopping and you see that the world they live in is inhabited by the most hideous creatures you can imagine. Something like grotesque walking piles of goo with worms squirming around inside. And you realize that the prejudice they suffer is because they look too much like us.
I think there was an episode of the Twilight Zone sort of like that.
No. No there wasn't. Not like that. That's my idea.
What do you consider your greatest sources of inspiration?
The world around me, definitely. It's magnificent and strange and I get most of my ideas from just watching and listening. I can get the plot for an entire movie out of a certain creak in a certain floorboard late at night. After that, I think it's my imagination. I have a very fertile imagination and I am very creative. I have a whole notebook called "gold ideas" where I jot down every plot for a movie I come up with. There must be a thousand of them in there by now, each of them a seed just waiting to be planted and nurtured into a glorious great tree.
How do you respond to your critics who say that you're arrogant or pretentious?
(He laughs). I hope you're speaking for someone else.
There is a saying in the Talmud, "Whoever saves one life, saves the world entire." What I perceive and what I think about and do with that perception is the whole world. You might think that's arrogant or pretentious, but the world only exists because we're there to experience it. That's not to say I don't value the opinion of others, because it's the same for them, I'm just saying that you have to put yourself first and pursue your own vision and your own ideas, because that's your whole world.
What does your wife think about that?
She is very supportive. (He glances pointedly at his watch).
Do you have a deepest regret in your career to date? Something you wish you could take back or undo?
Only one: my relationship with Disney. If I had never worked with them, never agreed to be their slave, I would have made such magical and elevating movies. It is hard to put your soul into something when someone else is telling you what your soul has to be. I think my latest movie is my best and most personal and if Disney, the critics, even the audiences don't get it, that's not my fault. They have to be willing to think and let art go where it has to go, not expect some neatly tied up package that conforms to Hollywood templates.
(He slaps his palm on the table.) Son of a bitch, I just want to cut out Nina Jacobson's heart. Feed it to a pack of wolves. Hollywood doesn't need me to make its monsters. Hollywood is full of them already.
The waiter arrives, belatedly, with our orders. He places the cottage cheese and teapot on the table and Shyamalan sniffs with disgust.
"What is this?" He asks the waiter.
"Cottage cheese on a bed of iceberg lettuce with three slices of peach."
Shyamalan stares the waiter in the eyes and with a deliberate motion he pushes the plate off the table. The plate shatters and the cottage cheese splatters on the floor.
"No," Shyamalan says through gritted teeth. "That's cottage cheese on a wad of wilted shit with three slices of canned motherfucking peaches."
The waiter stammers. Shyamalan storms away without even tasting his tea. I pay the tab after he's gone and apologize to the waiter. It turns out osmanthus green tea is fifty dollars a pot.