The Fall and Rise of M. Night Shyamalan
Call it a surprise twist, if you must: Early in this Monday morning in November, M. Night Shyamalan turned on his shower, and no water came out. The writer-director has come to believe that the universe is fundamentally benevolent, and as it happens, the universe — not to mention the vast success of his initial run of movies, beginning with The Sixth Sense — provided him with a 125-acre country estate west of Philadelphia, where he’s lived with his family since 2007. So he simply popped into another building on his sprawling property, terrifying a cleaning woman in the process. He grabbed a shower there, mussed his thick black hair up as usual, and managed to get his youngest daughter to school, prepping her for a French quiz on the way.
He also made it right on time, 8:45 a.m., to a bright, airy farm-to-table steakhouse for a breakfast interview in downtown Philly, not far from the neighborhood where he has his next morning appointment, scouting locations for his upcoming TV series for Apple. It’s another busy day in a pretty great life — plumbing problems, career vicissitudes and all. “I make movies at home,” says Shyamalan, 48, in his slightly nasal, perpetually enthused voice. He sets nearly all of his films in or around Philadelphia, where he grew up, attending private schools after emigrating from India as an infant with his physician parents. “I can help my daughter with her French test, and I’m looking at locations today,” he says. “I can do both. I’m so grateful to even have a morning like this. You can’t ask for more.”
There is, in fact, a great deal more. “It’s a very interesting time in my career,” he says, with some understatement. Shyamalan has a new movie, Glass, due January 18th, that will likely cement one of the most dramatic showbiz comebacks of the 21st century. Glass is a sequel to two of Shyamalan’s biggest movies: 2017’s split-personality thriller, Split, and 2000’s brooding, proto-superhero drama, Unbreakable, bringing together James McAvoy, the star of the former movie, with Bruce Willis and Samuel L. Jackson (who plays the title character, a brainy, brittle-boned bad guy) from the latter.
“It’s a very suspense-thriller-meets-comic-book movie,” says Shyamalan. “I can’t out-action Marvel, or out-CGI them.” Glass is, nevertheless, his first near-sure-thing since George W. Bush’s first term. The director is currently wearing a purple Varvatos shirt, in honor of Jackson’s character, whose foppish dress sense seems modeled after circa-1983 Prince. Shyamalan has charisma of his own, with an easy, high-pitched laugh and huge, warm brown eyes that miss nothing. (“Oh, my God, look how cute this is,” he says, noting an elderly man kissing his wife on the forehead before heading to the bathroom. “And she totally ignored him, which is even sweeter.”) Some of his regular-guy-ness and apparent humility seem possibly willed, affected, but it’s still charming.
With The Sixth Sense (or I See Dead People, as Samuel L. Jackson likes to call it), Shyamalan became the kind of director whose projects could be marketed on the strength of his name alone. It also established him, to his initial chagrin, as “the guy who makes the scary movies with a twist.” He wanted to market the follow-up, Unbreakable, as the comic-book movie it actually was, only to be told that superhero movies had only niche appeal — instead, it was pushed as another spooky thriller. “ ‘This is just a bunch of people that go to that convention,’ ” he recalls being told — by execs at Disney, of all places, still years away from buying Marvel, “ ‘and you’re going to alienate everyone in this room if you use those words.’ ”
His career slipped into a downward spiral with 2006’s Lady in the Water, an oddball, jargon-packed, dream-logic fantasy about a water nymph’s fateful visit to an apartment complex. Some of the same critics who had just crowned him the next Spielberg tore into him like a pack of the movie’s wolflike Scrunts, detecting a lurking megalomania in Shyamalan’s decision to cast himself in a large supporting role as a writer whose work was destined to change the world. That was nothing compared with the casting decision that defined his next release, 2008’s The Happening, which attempted to sell its audience on the idea of Mark Wahlberg, science teacher — a concept even more improbable than the film’s central conceit of besieged trees teaming up to send out a toxin that inspires humans to off themselves. It made some money, but it was another critical flop, later described by Wahlberg himself as a “bad movie.”
Knocked off balance, Shyamalan went on to make two full-on Hollywood movies for kids, The Last Airbender (based on a Nickelodeon cartoon) and After Earth (based on a weird idea Will Smith had one day). They were disasters. “I felt like was I starting to lose my voice a bit,” he says. “I’m not really the best person to work in the system.” He would eventually conclude that he’s at his most commercial and accessible when he’s most himself, but not before some considerable pain.
Shyamalan offered his darkest description of his mindset at that crisis point in a remarkable, widely overlooked commencement speech at Drexel University this year. First he presented the glowing version of his career, all of the fame and praise and success. Then he turned to the flip side, culminating in his feelings circa 2013: “I find myself questioning myself, and every thought that comes out of my head,” he said. “The world of my industry decides I have no worth. I am a cautionary tale. A person who got lucky for a time but revealed himself to be a sham. . . . I do not believe in myself.”
He had some success working on a cult-favorite Fox TV show, the Twin Peaks-like Wayward Pines, and found enough confidence to take out a $5 million loan against his estate to self-fund a tight little found-footage horror film, The Visit. He flew to L.A. and showed a rough cut to every Hollywood studio. They all passed. He was devastated, fearing the loss of millions of dollars and the end of his career.
Right after he came home to his wife of 25 years, Dr. Bhavna Shyamalan, and their three daughters, he assembled a puzzle with one of the kids and had a life-changing, trust-the-universe revelation. “Why did we keep looking for another piece?” he said in his speech. “We knew there was a picture. . . . It all felt suddenly so . . . intensely simple and right. I don’t need to know what the picture is of my life. I just have to trust there is a picture.” He focused on what he could control, returning to The Visit. He took a new cut to Universal, and horror maven Jason Blum signed on as a producer. The film ended up making $98 million.
On a wall in Shyamalan’s production company is a printout of the names of all the execs who said no to The Visit. Most of them, he says, have since lost their jobs. “That list meant different things to me,” he says. “It first meant the obvious, ‘I told you so.’ And then it morphed into something else and as one name after another on the list disappeared, you don’t hold on to that feeling of I told you so. . . . When you’re looking at it like you’re trying to get approval, that’s unhealthy. There’s nothing wrong with the people on that list. My job is to inspire them.”
He doubled down, self-funding his next movie, Split, as well, spending $9 million this time and yielding a much bigger hit in the process; it grossed nearly $280 million worldwide. Split is a lurid, wildly entertaining tale of a serial killer named Kevin Wendell Crumb, whose multiple personalities are brought to uncanny life by James McAvoy. After years of avoiding it, Shyamalan had brought back his signature this-wasn’t-the-movie-you-thought-it-was twist for The Visit. For Split, he went several steps further. There were two twists, which this article is about to spoil for anyone who hasn’t seen the movie. First, McAvoy’s character turns out to be far more than mentally ill: His most fearsome personality, the Beast, reveals himself to have superhuman strength, altering the very genre of the movie, from psychological thriller to supervillain origin story.
At the very end of Split, without warning, the score from Unbreakable begins to play, and Bruce Willis’ heroic character from that movie shows up onscreen for the first time in 17 years. In that moment, Split became perhaps the first stealth sequel in Hollywood history, setting the stage for Glass. Willis’ appearance was a surprise to Jackson and even to Universal execs, who were initially horrified — the character belonged to Disney, a competing studio. But Shyamalan had already struck a deal with Disney for the cameo, which led to a unique release plan for Glass: Universal is distributing it in the United States, and Disney is putting it out overseas, with both studios clearing the release date of other big projects. Not bad for a guy who was in director’s jail five years ago.
Shyamalan tripled down for Glass, again funding it himself with his earnings from the past two movies, not to mention collateral from his property. One report has the budget at $20 million. “How stupid am I?” he says, smiling. “I’m going to Vegas and keep going, ‘I won that hand. Put it all again.’ Next hand, ‘Put it all again.’ My house right now is completely encumbered by this movie. . . . I’ll be sleeping on your couch, dude, if it doesn’t go well in January.”
If Shyamalan has righted his career ship, he believes it’s because he’s sending the right energy out to the universe, focusing on the right stuff. (If, in his life and art, he has a tendency toward an idiosyncratic spirituality, you might credit the experience of growing up in a Hindu household while attending a Catholic grammar school.) “If I’m a songwriter, concentrate on the song,” he says. “Put no energy into the column of ‘How will they receive the song?’ ” On set, he adds, “I gave it my all, so the audience, when they come pay their money, they see an artist that gave everything he had, and risked everything. I was like a rookie. All in, angsting and sitting on the set as the sun is coming up. No trailer, freezing to death and wondering, ‘Am I good enough? Can I make this shot work? Will we get the day?’ All those things that bring out the best in you. If it doesn’t work out, I gave it my all.” He wishes he could go back and tell the “younger version of myself who was lying on the couch after Unbreakable opened and feeling like I had failed” (because it didn’t out-gross The Sixth Sense) that he deserved to feel the same way.
Maybe most important, Shyamalan has also come to grips with his identity as a filmmaker. In his twenties, he says, “I don’t think you could have told me that making thrillers for your whole life wasn’t a bad thing. At first it was a sense of, ‘Hey, I can make anything.’ But that’s hypocritical, because when I pick up an Agatha Christie novel in my library, I have a strong expectation. So, I get it. . . . When I became happy with the idea of making thrillers for the rest of my life, everything went right.”
Bruce Willis with M. Night Shyamalan on the set of ‘Glass.’ Photo credit: Jessica Kourkounis/Universal Pictures
Shyamalan jumps into a chauffeured SUV, and we cruise over to a block of brownstones, the setting for his still-untitled Apple series, touted as a “psychological thriller.” A crew of a couple dozen people, some in yellow safety vests, are already gathered on the sidewalk, waiting for the boss. Most of them are veterans of his movies, including a father-son pair. They’re scouting shots for the first episode, where an apparently ominous nanny comes into the lives of a couple with a newborn. Every crew member has a photocopied shot list, complete with storyboards.
In one of the first scenes, the nanny enters the house. “She has a hood on,” Shyamalan says, as if we’re sitting around a campfire. “She comes out of the rain.” He points to a sketch of a close-up of her foot crossing the doorway. “Taking the step over the threshold, almost like a vampire being led into the house for the first time.” The way he’s setting up the shot, he explains, indicates that “this is a big deal and this family will never go back from this moment.”
Shyamalan, a gray scarf tossed over his shoulder, is almost giddy as he scopes out the block, ducking into the townhouse they’ve rented out as a location to decide whether a through-the-window shot would be spookier from upstairs or downstairs. Everyone heads over a few blocks to Rittenhouse Square Park, where they’re going to be staging the aftermath of a car crash for the same episode. “Do we have gawkers?” Shyamalan asks. “Where would they be?”
All the while, he holds himself at zero remove, chatting with some tourists before teasing a female colleague about her love for romantic comedies and sharing his review of Bohemian Rhapsody. “It was really good,” he says. “I was really emotional. When his Indian dad finally accepts his gay Indian son, I was like . . .” Shyamalan, who violated his own Indian dad’s wishes by going to NYU film school instead of an Ivy, mimes exaggerated tears and laughs.
Before we say goodbye, I mention a recent conversation with Samuel L. Jackson, who told me that Shyamalan is “more collaborative” than he was 18 years ago, when he would literally tell actors when to blink. Shyamalan offers an exaggerated eye roll, and laughs. “I’m glad,” he says, “that he has that illusion.”
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