A M. Night at the Theater: Q&A w/ Shyamalan (PFF ’12)
The typical Friday night at the Prince Music Theater was all the livelier with the red carpet appearance of Philly native M. Night Shyamalan. Although Shyamalan, now 42, is no stranger to the press, he used his power to arrange for smaller media coverage of the night’s event. He came to speak on behalf of the ten year anniversary of his mega-hit alien invasion film, Signs which screened that night as part of the Philadelphia Film Festival.
M. Night addressed the media ever-so casually and spoke briefly about his newest film After Earth, starring Will and Jaden Smith which is set to hit theaters June 7th. Following the screening, M. Night took the stage to participate in a Q & A. His stage persona was full of humorous anecdotes and self-deprecation.
Shyamalan spoke about his career arch and his adjustment to instant fame following the success of The Sixth Sense. At twenty-eight years old, date nights with his long-time NYU girlfriend (now wife) became a challenge due to his loss of civic anonymity. While most directors find their prime in their late 30s, sometimes 40s, Shyamalan was a marvel in finding success at an early age. The unprecedented word of mouth for The Sixth Sense created unusually high expectations for all his films that followed.
He said when he released Unbreakable, his follow-up film to The Sixth Sense, there was mixed reaction from the fans. The film wasn’t quite the hit like Sense, and many critics were disappointed in the film’s change in style. Shyamalan cites this film as being made for “himself.” He was interested in exploring an edgier arena of filmmaking. It was due to the film’s lackluster reception that compelled him to make a film for “everyone.” This spawned the much more successful Signs.
Shyamalan was driven to return to the horror genre without losing the spiritual meaning embedded in almost all of his films. M. Night drew inspiration from Night of the Living Dead and The Birds when designing the story for Signs. He mentioned how his writing process for this film was different from his others. He only wrote on days when he was happy and feeling inspired. He couldn’t take a chance on infusing dark themes into this one like he did for Unbreakable.
A large portion of his discussion delved into his tradition of giving himself a cameo in his movies. He humbly spoke out about the time he realized he needed to reduce his screen time. It was at the world premiere of Signs (his 3rd film) when the audience roared in applause when he appeared on screen. He noted that his screen time lasted particularly longer in the film than in his previous ones (an entire scene). It was the moment he realized he had achieved celebrity status.
When asked if he ever considered exploring acting roles, Shyamalan responded with “No. I’m too lazy.” But he conceded that his love of cinema drives him to enjoy all aspects of the art form. Particularly comic acting.
He says that although his films deal with the supernatural, he “loves joking and being funny,” always inserting some of his comedic DNA into his works. He then jokes that he’d love to make a pure comedy—make a horror film and follow it up with a parody spoofing it whole-heartedly.
Shyamalan’s heavy involvement in his films goes beyond just his writing, directing, and occasional acting. He also is proud of his role as his films’ sole storyboard artist. He creates just about everything that is seen on screen. If he can’t find a location that satisfies his imagination, he hires a crew to construct the set of his dreams.
During the Q & A, Shyamalan explained that the entire house in Signs was built for the shoot and destroyed immediately afterwards. The iconic crop fields in the film were also designed by crop artists across the world. Shyamalan described his reservations with CGI (Computer generated imagery), partly stemming from his own lack of confidence in the technology.
Shyamalan’s auteur-like control doesn’t quite stop there. He tries to release his films around his birthday whenever possible. He talked about his spirituality and his experience with numerology. He distributed Sixth Sense on his birthday, August 6th, which made over $600 million and went on to receive 6 Oscar nominations. It’s connections like these, he says, which makes him believe in the interconnectedness of the soul and the universe.
Shyamalan then segued into his style of storytelling. He says that every writer becomes self-realized when they find their subject of interest and use their artwork as a medium of expressing their personality. M. Night praised the dialogue of Quentin Tarantino and the flair of Wes Anderson, yet as much as he is inspired by their work, emulating their styles would lose the authenticity of his own personalized filmmaking. Most importantly, he suggests that writing must be “honest.” He gives hope to aspiring writers, expressing that those who feel uncomfortable in certain environments should write about those experiences. The key to effective writing is portraying the honesty in ordinary scenes.
He described his movies as being supernatural and dramatic at the same time. The preternatural elements that pervade his films are used as a compelling twist for typical stories about family relationships and the pursuit of self-resolution. While Night spoke objectively about the highs and lows of his career, he deliberately excluded Lady in the Water, The Happening, and The Last Air Bender from the night’s discussion. His dry humor and charming modesty kept the Q & A from feeling like an elephant was in the room.
Since M. Night was invited by the Philadelphia Film Society as part of the annual film festival, much of the conversation centered on M. Night’s achievement as one of the original pioneers in bringing film to Philly. Despite Hollywood studio pressures, Shyamalan has lived his entire life in the Philadelphia area and has shot all his films here as well, typically shooting on location as opposed to on an artificial studio set.
M. Night closed the night by talking about his future projects. His latest film is expected to be a summer blockbuster—After Earth, telling the story of a space crew that returns to an uninhabited Earth 1,000 years into the future. Excitement grew when Shyamalan announced that he is developing a TV pilot exploring the afterlife.
He made his farewell by wishing the best for all aspiring filmmakers in Philly, and that he selfishly hopes they can develop their skills so he can hire more locals for his projects.