In Conversation: M. Night Shyamalan

by Adam Sternbergh for Vulture | January 2019

Over the course of a 20-year filmmaking career, from the breakout The Sixth Sense through critical duds like The Happening and After Earth, M. Night Shyamalan has made, in his words, “a bunch of movies that were really successful and then a bunch of movies that people didn’t like.”

Recently, he’s back to making movies people like the hit slasher-film-with-a-twist Split, about a killer with multiple personalities — the twist being that the film is revealed in its final moments to be a sequel to Shyamalan’s moody proto–superhero thriller Unbreakable. At an 8 a.m. breakfast Shyamalan is cheerful and engaging, talking about what some have called “the Shyamalanaissance” in advance of this month’s release of Glass. He shared his hard-won philosophy about dealing with failure — and success. 

You gave the commencement speech at Drexel last year. This seems like a fraught moment to be a young person starting out in life. What was your message?
I talked to the kids in a really honest way as much as I could. I wanted to say, “This is what I’ve experienced so far. We feel like Superman one day and feel like we’re the worst the next. How does that work?”

So how does that work?
The basic premise was dividing your life into two columns: the things you have control over and the things you don’t. And not getting confused about the two.

How recently do you feel like that idea crystallized for you?
It happened over the years — from a sense of feeling powerless. Oftentimes, the reason we get into a cycle of success and failure is because we get blurry about what we can control.

You’ve said there was a moment in your career following The Last Airbender and After Earth when you’d hit a wall. (After Earth, a postapocalyptic thriller starring Will and Jaden Smith, brought back a little over $60 million in the U.S. against a budget of $130 million. Will Smith called it “the most painful failure in my career.”) Nobody would make a movie with you.
What I was getting was a lot of, “Hey, what do you want to do?” And I’d say, “Well, I want to do this.” And they’d say, “Hmmm. How about this instead?” Then I’m like, “Yeah, maybe you’re right.” When that happens, I’m lost.

I was the one who allowed that to happen. I did not make the right decisions. And you’re complicit in all that when you take that much money to make a movie.

Following After Earth, you made The Visit for $5 million, which you self-financed with a loan against your house. Then you showed a rough cut to a theater full of distributors in L.A. — and they all passed. 
That version of the movie was only six weeks out from shooting. It was really insane for me to show it. But I thought, “I’m going to sell the film six weeks out so that I know I’m not going to lose money, and my career isn’t over, and I don’t have to sell my house.” Because, obviously, who wouldn’t want a thriller done by me, right? Well, everyone. Everyone didn’t want a thriller done by me, apparently.

What did you do?
I was like, “Well, there’s an editing room. Why don’t I just go in there?”

At what point did Jason Blum and Blumhouse get involved in The Visit?
I thought, “Let me go screen it for Blum because I can maybe ask him to give me one of his slots if he likes the movie.” I showed it to him, and he loved it.

Shyamalan’s 2015 entry into the found-footage genre, The Visit follows a pair of teenagers on their first visit to their grandparents, whose rules are have a great time; eat as much as you want; and don’t ever leave your room after 9:30 p.m. wound up doing very well.
It made $100 million. Then I wrote Split, and on and on.

At what point in the conception of Split did you know it was going to be a sequel?
That was always the idea. Originally Unbreakable and Split were together. David and the Horde bump into each other at the train station, and David follows him.

In the original Unbreakable? So why did you take that part out?
It’s a narrative issue. Whenever you raise the stakes, you can’t unraise them. So once you introduce girls being abducted, there’s a ticking clock that doesn’t allow for the breadth of character development that I wanted to do in Unbreakable with David, his wife, and his kid.

If Split had not been a success, was the idea that there’d just be this stand-alone nod to Unbreakable at the end and that would be it?
Yeah. That was always the idea. To make a sequel that you didn’t tell anybody was a sequel. That was the audacity of it. Take the most commercial aspect of the movie and never tell anybody about it.

The budget for Split was under $10 million, which is like the catering budget on Avengers: Infinity War.
That’s the beauty of making it smaller. The threshold for what defines success is so low. It didn’t need to be anywhere near as successful as it was for us to consider making Glass.

Now you must be facing the opposite question: Can this universe keep going beyond Glass?
It could.

But that’s not interesting to me. There’s no danger in that. Or not enough danger, let’s say that.

Split made nearly $300 million globally. If Glass lands as big or bigger, there will be pressure on you to do another sequel.
Yeah, we’re not doing that though.

I have the sequel rights to most of my movies, essentially for the reason to not do them.

I have to assume that because you owned and self-financed Split, it wound up as the most successful movie for you financially. Would that be right?
That would be right.

The Sixth Sense was budgeted at around $40 million and Signs was near $75 million.
Give me ten million more dollars, it doesn’t make Sixth Sense a better movie. In fact, I could argue it could make it a less effective movie. I would advise all filmmakers: Make the movie for the least amount of money you can possibly make the movie for.

I get the financial incentives, but what’s the creative upside of a small budget?
It allows me to do whatever I want. Cast whomever, crew whomever, shoot it however, reshoot however, don’t shoot whatever. Take huge risks. Look at Split. If I said I was going to pitch you a movie, and I come in to the studio system and said, “Here’s the movie, guys. Girls get abducted.” Already, the pitch is over. The pitch is over.

It’s been shown that no one wants to see children in jeopardy. So that’s a no right off the bat.

Then after that, I say, “It turns out to be a guy who’s abducted them and he’s dressing like a woman.” All right. We’re really done at this point. Pitch is over. They’re saying, “Please leave. Please leave.”

“But wait, I got more! Two of the girls get physically eaten.” “Wait, there’s cannibalism?” “Yes. It’s cannibalism, girls get abducted, there’s cross-dressing. Are you with me so far?”

Not only that, but then you get flashbacks — and here’s the really commercial part — to one of the girls getting raped as a child. Then at the end, we’re going to reveal that the lead girl has been so abused her whole life that the guy who abducted her connects with her. They have a connection. And he lets her go. So — should we make this movie? Zero. You’re going to get zero out of that pitch.

How did you end up making that movie at all?
Because I made it for so little. And I paid for it. I’m like, “I’m going to bet you you’re all wrong about this — because I can flip everything I just said into a larger wish-fulfillment story about how the thing you’re most scared of, once you overcome that, it releases you.” The small budget allows me to follow an instinct. Even if a million times someone would say, “That’s not going to work.” In fact, they did say that. My agent at the time was like, “Nobody is going to do this movie. No star is going to do this.”

How did James McAvoy get involved in Split? It doesn’t feel like the kind of role you just hand to anyone.
I’m going to tell this in a very biased way to illuminate what I was saying about how when you focus on what’s in your control, the universe will sort everything else out. So I write this part that basically almost no one can play. Start with the fact that there’s a physicality to it, so you have to be able to look at the actor and go, “Yeah, he can climb a wall.” So that knocks out so many actors right there. Then he needs to be able to play a child without it being silly and a woman without it being parody. There’s only a handful of guys you can even consider for this. So I went to Comic-Con for The Visit, and James McAvoy walks by—

I grabbed his arm. He was like, “Hey.” His hair was growing back from X-Men, so it was very short. He has big eyes. He was talking, and he was funny and kind of sweet. I was like, This is the guy.

Did you offer him the part right there?
No. But I sent him the script. He read it and said, “This is nutso!” He was so incredibly fearless. He was born to play this part.

What is it like putting a film in the world and not getting the reception you’d hoped for?
You need to be in a good place. Unbreakable didn’t necessarily work out exactly the way I wanted it to. But now I would go back and tell my younger self, “That column is not your concern. Keep going.” Failure is very cleansing, and success is very confusing.

For example, whatever happens with Glass, good or bad, I just want to go back to the blank piece of paper again and feel a connection to whatever the next idea is. When no one is calling you, it helps you do that.

And what’s confusing about success?
It keeps whispering to you that you have control over this other column. You’re one of the few people who has control over this column! That’s just a lie. And you may need to fail, in terms of public perception, so that you can go back and do exactly what you want to do.

When you look back at the adversity in your career, did it force you to become a different filmmaker?
What I realized is I felt great peace saying, “Bet on me.” I used to do that when I was a kid. Slowly that gets usurped by “Here’s a lot of money.” But as you take the money, you’re giving your power away.

But as a young filmmaker, if you continually say to people, “Bet on me,” people interpret that as ego or hubris. You got accused of that a lot.
What I’m interested in saying now is that everyone is superpowerful. You’re incredibly powerful. I’m incredibly powerful. The hubris thing is when you say, “I am more powerful than you.” That’s ridiculous.

If you were 29 today and you’d just made The Sixth Sense, the next thing you’d be offered is Avengers 4 or Thor 5.
It’s a tricky one. I don’t know that I would put it in binary terms of good and bad. As directors get usurped into a role in the larger system, they’re telling larger stories seen by more people. But they’re in the system.

There are certain people with such heavy accents that they don’t work easily in the system. I don’t want Quentin Tarantino making studio movies. I don’t want Wes Anderson making studio movies. I want them being them.

I’m still one of those accent people. It’s not even me if you take away the accent.

Shyamalan was criticized for airing his dirty laundry in Bamberger’s account of the making of Lady in the Water. You took a lot of flack for certain stories in the book. Do you regret participating in it?
I’m much more careful now about relationships to the media. It’s a very unusual position to be in, where you’re the author of a movie in a field where the author isn’t typically the star. That causes people to say, “Who do you think you are?” Whereas nobody is saying to Vin Diesel, “Who do you think you are?” Which I always find weird because the actor works for six weeks on the movie and the writer–director works for two years on the movie. So for people to be like, “Who do you think you are?” I’m the guy who spent two years on the movie!

Early in your career, your name famously became associated with big-twist endings. Did that become a burden for you?
I don’t see it that way. It’s a form that’s inherent to a thriller. A thriller’s a mystery, right? So as soon as you think, What’s going on?, that means there will be a moment of revealing an answer. So you might as well learn that answer along with the main characters.

This article has been edited for The complete story appeared in Vulture, Jan.2019.

January 7, 2019 | draft, Interview | this post contains affiliate links