time, dont expect a twist.
Famous for the shocker revelations
that concluded The Sixth Sense and Unbreakable,
writer-director M. Night Shyamalan is quick to confirm
that his latest, the alien-invasion thriller Signs,
wont feature what many think of as his usual
kind of wrap-up.
long as the ending is momentous and kind of surprising,
it doesnt have to be the oh, it was all
a dream kind of a thing, the 31-year-old
filmmaker explains. So in that respect, it isnt
a twist [in Signs]. But
definitely happens in the last 10 minutes of the movie.
is the tale of a widowed ex-minister (Mel Gibson)
who holes up in a Pennsylvania farm with his brother
(Joaquin Phoenix) and two children while a very real
war of the worlds rages outside. What the new film
does share with its two immediate Shyamalan-directed
predecessors is a willingness to use the paranormal
to explore shattered characters.
Sixth Sense seemed to explode out of nowhere
in 1999, grossing $293.5 million in North America
and making Shyamalan a tough-to-pronounce household
name. But the directors road to fame was longer
(and stranger) than some might think. His first two
directorial efforts the little-seen Praying
with Anger (in which he also starred) and the
Catholic-school dramedy Wide Awake (in
which Rosie ODonnell plays a nun) were
intensely personal, but generated little heat
and even less revenue. His next screenplay
Labor of Love, about a man walking across
America in honor of his dead wife sold for
a reported $750,000, then languished in development
hell. (Hes since turned down offers to direct
that script, saying today, Its not me
Ive got so many stories to
tell.) Shyamalan also did time in Hollywoods
rewrite trenches, adapting Stuart Little
and even punching up the Prinze/Lillard
teen comedy Shes All That
all while scripting Sixth Sense on spec.
opens Aug. 2. We caught Shyamalan for a few minutes
between bouts with the films final mix; heres
what he had to say about surprise endings, sci-fi
clichés, and pleasing an audience.
you worry that people have come to expect a twist
You know, I never even really thought about it. From
our screenings of the movie weve only
had one screening in Iowa and one in New Jersey, and
they both went exceptionally well a
couple of the cards said, I expected a twist,
but this was great anyway!
know, [the ending] is surprising in the
sense that people were clapping as it starts
to unravel, so it still has that deep-satisfaction
the ending delves deeply into religious issues, if
early reports are to be believed.
Yeah. Its true. The movies deeply
friend of mine noted that, on your last three films,
including this one, youve taken actors noted
mainly for their action-movie work and you
pull very strong performances out of them. What will
Mel Gibson bring to Signs?
It is funny, because these guys were first introduced
to me in their iconic forms in Die Hard
and Lethal Weapon. And its funny
that theyre now playing the straight-drama guys
in my movies.
You know, for Mel, it was the sense of that guy on
the couch in Lethal Weapon the
guy with a gun in his mouth whos going to kill
himself while looking at the photo of his wife whos
passed away. That is so much of that character
playing a fallen minister in Signs, right?
Hes retired after his wifes passed away.
And the movies about how a man with a lack of
faith deals with these massive events that are happening
around the world.
it true, as Ive read on movie-rumor Web pages,
that you initially wanted Clint Eastwood for the role?
Oh, no. No. [laughs] I never even thought
of him for the part. I guess thats an interesting
idea. I like him. Hes a good guy.
takes a sort of counterprogrammatic stance in that
you show the effects of a rural family watching the
alien invasion happening elsewhere.
you show any aliens in the movie?
Well, youll have to come see it. [laughs]
led you to tackle that restrained, rural-family-watching-from-the-outside
Thats what really drew me to making the movie,
was that kind of feeling of never leaving the house
the opposite of Independence Day,
is the un-Independence Day.
[laughs] Well, its steeped, obviously,
in Orson Welles and listening to War of the
Worlds on the radio the effect of what
you hear and the familys reaction to it, that
kind of thing. But definitely the audience gets to
get into the
the meat of it by the end of the
do you depict an alien invasion and keep it fresh,
given how many times this has been depicted in literature
Well, you know, I like that I like
that theres so much to play on. I like that
with ghosts, and comic books, and with alien invasions,
its so steeped with stereotypes that if [the
characters] hear a quirky theory about it from a neighbor
or something, its fun. Because the neighbor
can spout all the stupid stuff youve ever heard
about alien invasions, and your smart characters are
like, Well, this is ridiculous. Come on
this guys obviously lost his mind. But
now youve got all that information that
B-film information but it came through from
unreliable sources in the movie
but those guys
all turn out to be right. So you basically drop legitimate,
grounded characters into a B-movie and how
would they react?
you give the crackpot the voice of authority.
Yeah. And the main characters you know, the
Joaquins, the Mels and all these guys they
all have the knowledge we have, which is, All
these stupid alien movies this is ridiculous.
This isnt really happening. This is obviously
not a superhero, for example.
Yeah, exactly. Just keep on playing that. And I love
that the main characters arent ignorant
of all the information about ghosts and comic books
and aliens. In this movie, thats used a lot
for humorous purposes.
leads into my next question: From what Ive heard,
this movie makes two major departures from your previous
two films: First, Signs is packed with
a lot more humor than Sixth Sense and
Yeah. Its just packed, wall-to-wall. And I think
its a very special kind of humor that
we havent really seen in a lot of movies recently
which is nervous humor. Because the
movie is basically one line of suspense from the beginning
to the end, I put in a little joke thats a four
and they laugh at it like its an eight,
you know? Theyre just so dying to express
something, because theyre tense, their arms
have been clenched to this arm seat for so long. And
its a great balance of release/tension, release/tension
and its also a great way to keep you
not taking yourself too seriously until its
time to take yourself seriously.
reported deviation in Signs from your
previous two movies is that it starts out as a very
open film its less claustrophobic
in nature, at least at the beginning.
You know, its interesting you say that, because
it all ends up being in one house its
very The Birds-like. The movies
very much the 2002 cousin of Night of the Living
Dead and The Birds, you know?
it starts out open and then it becomes
tighter and tighter and tighter.
it seemed to me that, in your last two films, there
was kind of a tightness all the way through.
Yeah, it could be. Could be. You know, its just
kind of intensely getting into the characters
perspectives. This one, I take it more from the familys
perspective. You know, you really love the four members
of this nuclear family I mean, they each have
their moments. Of course, Mels the lead and
Joaquins a very close costar, but the four members
of the family are treated like one personality who
you really, really like.
Ive heard that you gave yourself a part in Signs
thats more substantial than in your other films,
other than Labor of Love, in which you
Not Labor of Love. Praying with
Praying with Anger, sorry -
My very first movie, in India, right. The no-money
But your role in Signs is pretty substantial
this time out. [Shyamalan reportedly plays a shell-shocked
man who accidentally killed his wife while fighting
Yeah. I mean, its still just a character part.
It wouldnt qualify as anywhere near a
supporting part or anything like that. Im only
on screen for five minutes but thats
a lot, you know? I guess the equivalent level of part
in the other movies would be, like, the father who
sees the videotape in Sixth Sense.
know, I get to write every day. I get to direct. The
acting thing is something I really love I just
dont get to practice as much as the other two
facets of my work, but its something that I
really enjoy doing. Its all different ways to
this particular role, I emotionally connected with
the role. Its kind of an emotional part, actually.
had a pretty interesting arc to your career in the
sense that you actually started out acting
Doing all these things, right
then you went into this phase where you were just
writing and rewriting movies. What was the teen movie
you worked on?
Oh, my God. Dont mention it! [laughs]
think it was Shes All That, wasnt
Oh, God! [laughs]
you sort of went though those trenches, and then you
came out on the other end and you have sort of the
same privileges that you had when you were a very
Yeah its kind of like when youre
totally not powerful at all and nobody cares about
your movies, you can do whatever you want. And now,
when you have a lot of weight, you know,
you can do it again.
thats something that I definitely wouldnt
want to abuse. Thats why Ive been very
careful to take the careful steps especially
with acting in the movies. I want to not hurt
the movie. I really want to bring color to
the movies color meaning that everybody
isnt white, you know what I mean?
in a movie about something thats globally
happening. Ive had other Indians in my movies,
as well, besides myself.
doing that scene made the movie so personal to me,
you know because I risk so much to do it. To
do an emotional scene in one of your movies is a big
deal, you know? I just want to take it a little bit
at a time and not overstep my bounds because,
obviously, people can get really nasty. [laughs]
almost every interview Ive read with you, people
always talk about your confidence. And that confidence
is obviously very hard-earned you made Praying
with Anger and Wide Awake and wrote
Labor of Love, which were not conventional
No, they werent.
you kept soldiering on, and you told Creative Screenwriting
about how you take responsibility
for everything youve made and learn from
Yeah. You know, theres a difference between
cockiness and confidence. Confidence is where, you
know, you practice shooting all by yourself for 15
hours straight, you practice shooting for five hours
every night and then, when the game comes,
you have confidence that youre going
to make the shot. And whether you make it or not,
your body doesnt change temperature, you dont
get anxious. You go, Ive done this.
is very different. I cant fail.
Thats not the point. Certainly Im going
to fail and succeed at the same ratio that I would
if I werent confident its
just that Im going to learn from my mistakes
and take responsibility for it if an audience didnt
like this or didnt like that.
thought that was a fascinating stance to take, because
so much of Hollywood is stereotypically about not
Yeah. You know, my goal is to be the audience
filmmaker the best filmmaker for the
audience. One day, if they took a poll, I want them
to say that their favorite filmmaker is me
and thats because I have the highest respect
for them and I listen to them, and I keep changing
and adapting to what our relationship is. If they
choose to go out on a date with me on a Friday night,
to hear that voice tell this story, I want to hear
what they think too slow, too
fast, too philosophical, too
somber, too whatever-it-is. Even if the other
people would dismiss it as, The audience is
too stupid. I dont believe that.
young Spielberg, you dont shy away from emotion
and playing to audiences. Do you resist the cynicism
that pervades many modern films?
Oh, definitely. Its so tempting, because, you
know, if a character gets bad news or whatever, if
you stay in the wide shot it has a certain effect,
and if you do the push-in, it has a certain effect,
and if you do the close-up, it has a certain effect.
If they say something, it has a certain effect. But
its dangerous. To make strangers feel emotion
is like, Holy shit! Youre getting
into very dangerous territory, you know? Theyll
laugh freely, you know, even scream freely
but to cry? Youre touching the deepest
core possible, and if you want to go there you have
to be brave and take risks and know that youre
going to dance a line thats very, very, very
grew up in Catholic schools, but your religions
Hindu. How has that juxtaposition affected your worldview?
I think it just makes me more universal in my approach
to faith or religion, you know, even to moviemaking
because Im so aware of what people believe
on either side of the globe, 10,000 miles away from
each other. Where I was born and where I live are
on exact opposite places on the globe, and that gives
me a great perspective to make movies.
you see any conflict between your Hindu roots and
the supposed rationality of American movies?
[laughs] No. Again, I think everybody
the kid pumping gas here, the guy driving the Rolls
Royce, the kid in the village in India theres
things that connect them all emotionally. And those
are the things that I want at the core of my movies.
And so the more that I can hang on to those diverse
perspectives, the more Ill find that commonality
and be able to tell stories with the right language.
know, its not a coincidence that, most of the
time, the movie that explodes here explodes in Germany
and in Japan and in France and in India, you know
what I mean? Because theres some common theme
thats igniting them that makes them excited,
sad, happy whatever it is.
said (jokingly?) in an interview once that you thought,
just prior to the release of Unbreakable,
that you might have cracked the formula for creating
That wasnt like that. The people at Premiere,
they always love to twist it.
is exactly how it happened: This guy in London
was interviewing me after Sixth Sense,
and I said, You know, I have these theories
about filmmaking that I employed, after the failures
of my first two movies, on Sixth Sense.
And I want to keep evolving
. Its just
a set of beliefs about storytelling and why things
work. And I think I have this set and I understand
the basics of that set. And I can choose to break
them to do something but I understand that
set now, and I can use it.
he said, Is it like a secret? And I said,
Well, its definitely something that connects
all these successful movies and successful moments
in movies that falls into this theorem that I have
so he loved it and wrote that and he actually
wrote a beautiful article. But obviously everybody
here kind of wrote that I had a formula.
it a formula for blockbusters? Id
say its definitely a connection with audiences.
And if Signs goes out and becomes a gigantic
movie like Sixth Sense, then everyone
will say, Yeah! Hes right! But it
isnt even about that its about
my using that formula and using those theorems, and
deciding what to use and what not to use, and how
it evolves and how you can push it. Maybe one day
when Im 75 years old Ill write it all
down in a book and sell it.
youll hang on to it until then, right?
told Premiere that Raiders of the Lost
Ark was a powerful, life-changing film experience
it strange, now, to have Spielberg using the actor
you discovered, Haley Joel Osment? Is
it strange to meet Lucas and Spielberg as peers?
Well, its amazing. Its just an amazing
thing. And when they asked me to write Raiders
4, I turned it down, but it was very cool. It
would be wrong of me to try to re-live something that
happened to me when I was 12 or 13 I want to
create that for new people. Thats my
job now. My job isnt to be like totally obsessed
and be a fan I want to be a leader.
old professors at NYU film school have said that,
even back then, you were fiercely protective of your
material. And Im wondering where that instinct
toward pride of ownership comes from.
Well, partly back then it was fear of getting ridiculed.
[laughs] Now its more a fear of getting
I can see the influence of movies that are successful
in the next crop of movies the next year. Clearly
The Others, but in like Vanilla
Sky and, like, Mulholland Drive
you know, a whole bunch where the characters
realize something at the end? You could sense that
there are people who have been influenced by the things
that Ive been doing, that people have been doing.
thats very cool, very exciting. But now its
one of those things like, if people heard that I was
writing a movie about War of the Worlds
or aliens, then there would be like 18 films in development
Actually, I think there are.
[laughs] And now they might do it but
at least Ill be the first one in the theaters
and everyone will know who was the original.