He goes by "Night," but it's hard to dispute his sunny disposition. Just a few minutes into a conversation with M. Night Shyamalan in a New York City hotel room yesterday, it was obvious to me that the director has managed to occupy such a unique niche in the Hollywood landscape because he's immediately likable. Of course, a little movie released in 1999 called The Sixth Sense didn't hurt, either.
After landing two Oscar nominations and international acclaim for his masterful ghost story, Shyamalan continued to market himself as a brand. Since then, the results have been mixed. Signs was an indisputable hit. Unbreakable has its supporters. Lady in the Water? Not so much. But that failure hasn't prevented the filmmaker from dealing with audacious material: His latest movie, The Happening, finds a married couple (Mark Wahlberg and Zooey Deschanel) thrust into a world where people inexplicably become suicidal after getting struck by an ominous, unseen toxin. Forces of evil usually remain unseen in Shyamalan's films, and The Happening is no exception to that rule. I spoke to the 37-year-old Philadelphia resident about the personal philosophies guiding his career choices, the polarized reactions to his work, and what the future will bring.
Cinematical: Every time one of your movies comes out, we hear about your uncompromising vision. You refuse to leave Philadelphia for Hollywood, and you've never worked as a director-for-hire. Why even bother with the studio system?
M. Night: I think it's more media hype thing than anything else. I've never had an issue with studios. I believe in them as true creative partners in the process. You have to find the ones that match each of your movies. You have to say, "Hey, I'm making a paranoid environmental thriller. Where would be the best home for that?" You need to match it, because you don't want to have a fight. If you're making a romantic movie, maybe Warner Bros. isn't the right home for it. Maybe Sony is the right place for it. If you're making a sci-fi movie, maybe Fox is the right home. When you walk through that, make sure you have the right partner. But once you've chosen your partner, I genuinely believe in honoring them in every way. They're my asset. I have the rights, creatively, but I have never used them. I've never said no to something the studio said. We talk through it, and work through it. A lot of times, they believe what I'm saying. That's my job: To show you my point of view. I've had the least acrimonious relationship with studios. I would almost say it's the entire reverse -- 180 degrees from the way it's been portrayed.
Cinematical: Regardless of the way it's been portrayed, don't you think it would be easier for you to go the independent route? At this point in your career, you could still get name actors, and even finance something out of your own pocket.
M. Night: Oh, so you're saying, "Why?" I guess it's because I like [the studios'] point of view for the right movies. There are some really smart filmmakers in the studios, and a lot of times, I don't deal with any of the bureaucracy. That's probably the best thing -- that there's no bureaucracy in it, in the sense of eight people trying to show you that they're worthy of their jobs. I never get that. It's usually just me, and one other person, or maybe two people. We just sit down and we talk about the movie. It's been a good relationship. Also, my instincts are partly mainstream. I'm not entirely Darren Aronofsky -- who I love. I have a side of that, and I've always had a foot in both worlds. Independent filmmakers are my heroes, and I look to them for integrity and the bar.
Cinematical: In 2002, Newsweek ran a cover story declaring you the next Steven Spielberg. That was a big boost to your popularity. Now, there are so many voices out there, mainly in the blogosphere, trying to define your work. Some people hate it and others love it. How do you sift through all that?
M. Night: I have found that if I stay really true to myself -- in terms of the stuff that's cheesy, the stuff that's flawed -- the more it's me, the better it's going to be in the long run for my career. I don't want to pretend I'm any cooler or smarter than I am. I have a naive outlook on life. That's who I am. If you met me when I was in high school, you'd see that I was the exact same kid. Everyone has that feeling where they wish a girl was this or that. If she was truly happy with who she is, she would be attractive to all of us. That's something we should be taught as kids: To be okay with ourselves.
Cinematical: Do you read the blogs?
M. Night: Not really. I don't have a need for that. Since, even in my short career, I've been able to look back and go, "What I felt about Unbreakable was correct." On the day, it was not received that way. "What I felt about Signs is correct to me." I had a certain good or bad feeling about these movies and what they represent to me. The Village, and Lady -- all that stuff. The only things that have ever hurt my movies is their expectations. There's nothing I can do about that. I'll say to somebody, "Hitchcock's films had twists, right?" They'll say, "Yeah." I only did one twist, but it's difficult to say Rebecca was my favorite movie of his. That's just eerie, well-done filmmaking.
Cinematical: To take a recent example of what people expect from your work, did you see the South Park episode (The Imaginationland Trilogy) that contained a caricature of you?
M. Night: [laughs] I heard about it. I heard it was hilarious.
Cinematical: The government hires you as a consultant and you keep talking about twists. It's interesting, because you really don't have that many twists in your films. There aren't any twists in The Happening. This all came out of The Sixth Sense.
M. Night: This is my hope: That there will be enough movies that you will have to evaluate each movie individually. One day, the commonality will be, "I just like his point of view." He doesn't mean anything specific beyond storytelling. That's the goal. It takes awhile to pound away at that. No matter what, when you hear U2, you think Joshua Tree. There's no way around it. The hope is that you do varied stuff, but a consistency of stuff. My next movie is The Last Airbender [adapted from the animated series], which is so different from anything I've done. You just have to let go from the outset. I think it's really become more about the subtleties are really hard to grasp. Let's just pick two movies -- say, Sixth Sense and Unbreakable. Okay, he always makes twist movies, but some of them are scary and some are not. Already, that's too hard to define. Then you add Signs, which doesn't have a twist, but it's scary. Now, you're totally fucked. It's just too complex. I just don't want it to be defined. It should be defined only by the accent, and it'll take time to do that.
Cinematical: Avatar: The Last Airbender is going to be three films.
M. Night: Yeah, it's a long form story.
Cinematical: And you want to direct all of them?
M. Night: Hopefully.
Cinematical: It's really geared toward kids, right?
M. Night: Yeah, it's a PG thing, but you know, Star Wars was PG. It was intended for a younger audience, and yet it affected all of us. I was a kid at the time, so it was a big slam dunk for me.
Cinematical: So you're hoping this will change the way people see your work.
M. Night: I know that the only way to solve this is with time. It's the only asset. Just like Unbreakable has found its glory over time. It takes time for all the movies to be seen individually. I just gotta keep my head down and make movies.
Cinematical: The Spielberg comparison is an interesting one. When he made Schindler's List, it was spoken about as though it signaled his "growing up" phase.
M. Night: It's tricky. The difference is that I write [the movies]. I'm more like an independent filmmaker, probably closer to Woody Allen than a mainstream filmmaker, in terms of being able to watch a theme or person and where they are.
Cinematical: Would you ever direct somebody else's screenplay?
M. Night: I might. I've almost done it a couple of times. Usually, they don't offer them to me. I would love to. I've written the first [Last Airbender] already.
Cinematical: Are you worried about the James Cameron film that also has Avatar for a title?
M. Night: Well, we're going to call our movie The Last Airbender. It's Avatar: The Last Airbender, but really, the plot's in that part of the movie: The Last Airbender. In some parts of the world, it's not even called Avatar, because the name is so loaded, religiously.
Cinematical: Can you share some details about the plot?
M. Night: Oh my god, that's a long conversation. It's a big mythology. It was definitely inspired by fantasy movies. It's a world where there are four groups of people. Four cultures. Each one of the cultures can master a certain element. One can master water, one can master air, one can master earth and one can master fire. They have people in their cultures that can manipulate those elements. There's one person born every generation with the ability to manipulate all four elements. They're the one who keeps the nation in balance. The new Avatar disappears and goes out of whack. The movie starts while this world is completely out of whack. The people who can manipulate fire have begun to overrun the other people. They've actually committed genocide to some extent. The little boy who was the next Avatar ran away. He had been frozen in ice. When he comes out of it, he realizes the world has been screwed up. He never wanted this responsibility, but the world is telling him, "You need to take this responsibility or we're all screwed." The movie's about this boy trying to learn the elements and bring balance back to the world.
The Happening arrives in theaters on Friday, June 13.