I wish the best for M. Night Shyamalan, I really do. He's no Rod Serling, but until recently all of his films evidenced a rare understanding of cinematic suspense -- his scenes were steeped in atmosphere and his approach capitalized on the idea that horrors are often a whole lot scarier when they're allowed to steadily ferment off-screen. His last three films have ranged from the asinine to the completely inexplicable (on the list of the most baffling things in the universe, 'The Happening' is a close second behind Jared Leto's music career), but even earlier efforts like 'The Village' were rife with strong moments and palpable, slow-burning tension.
This afternoon, Shyamalan subjected himself to his first con experience of any kind, taking the stage for a panel celebrating the 10th anniversary of his best film, 'Unbreakable.' Fielding questions from MTV's Josh Horowitz (and some pre-written questions from fans in attendance), Shyamalan candidly discussed his filmmaking process and his career trajectory. His answers were alternately fascinating, self-absorbed and excited, and he gave the impression of being a talented guy who's been waylaid by his own insecurities. He's also a guy who ritualistically forces his children to watch one of his films each year as they age (when they turn 10 they see 'The Sixth Sense,' when they turn 11 they see 'Unbreakable,' and so on ...). Interesting.
Shyamalan seemed comfortable on stage despite his past reluctance to engage in this type of event, and at one point he led the audience through an in-depth and riveting tour of some storyboards from 'Unbreakable's' train sequence. We've assembled his best 10 quotes from the panel, cleaned up for coherence but otherwise presented uncut and without further commentary. Some of the excerpts display a grounded self-awareness, some of the others arguably seem a bit at odds with reality, and almost all of them involve Shyamalan repeatedly using the word "tonality." So read on for some rare and relatively frank insight on one of Hollywood's most notorious filmmakers.
10. On shooting 'Unbreakable' without coverage:
"There are hunters and there are gatherers. Most filmmakers are gatherers and we gather and gather [footage] and see what we have in the editing room, but I'm a hunter. Kubrick was a hunter. You just pick [your shot] and go and don't care about anything else. If I don't get what the movie wanted, then I'm okay living with that."
9. On DVD commentaries:
"I don't do them - they feel like gynecological exams."
8. On what he would change about 'Unbreakable' if he shot it today:
"I think I was a little morose as a human being at that time, just a hair - 5 percent. If I made 'Unbreakable' today I would go a little more to the line of tonality that the movie is also about a little boy who thinks his father is Superman, and this little boy is right. I'd just focus more on the joy of the gift - just 5 percent more."
7. On recent superhero films that have resonated with him:
"I just loved the tonality of the first 'Iron Man,' that was just a slam dunk. In the press conference in the end, they caught something, and Tony Stark's compassion as a human being and his reaction to society... the same character resonates with audiences a lot. Jack Sparrow, The Joker, Tony Stark, they're all making fun of the way we conduct our lives right now cause it's not real and that resonates with people, that this is not working - the way we're doing things - and this is our voice right now. And Tony Stark was saying that this is a joke the way you think about things."
6. On his reputation for twist endings and their place in The Night Chronicles:
"I was really naive [during 'Unbreakable'] and didn't think of twist endings as burdens at all. I love giving you a perspective that's giving you a wrong impression and using your impressions against you... I like that, but I don't want to use that format every single time. But if left up to me, I'd probably use that format 6 out of 10 times. A lot of the Night Chronicles do have that format."
5. On one scary 'Unbreakable' fan:
"'Unbreakable' has unusual fans because they relate to the supernatural stuff and the grounded nature of it creates an opportunity for someone to take an extra leap. There was one day when I was writing 'Signs' and I was in an office building and the buzzer rang and I heard some kind of squabbling going on down the hall. I could tell by the tenor of the voices that something unusual was going on, and it was someone out front who thought he was ['Unbreakable protagonist] David Dunn. He was saying I made the movie for him and that he's ready to fight superheroes with me. And he brought his wife with him which was kinda weird... i didn't actually go out there, because of security and stuff."
4. On 'Unbreakable's' commercial failure and making something that other people just don't get:
"You feel clarity as a human being when you feel like you're onto something, but it's tough when everything that comes back says 'No, that's not the case...' And the contingent that likes it are the quiet ones at the time. At the time, I wasn't properly prepared to analyze 'Unbreakable's failure, and for a long time if you said the word 'unbreakable' I would get upset. I wanted to get as far away as I could, and you can see tonally how I went to a different place with 'Signs' and went to not as dark a place, more upbeat, more positive. I wasn't' nearly as aggressive with my shot-making on that movie - there was a 400 shot version of 'Signs', but I didn't go with it."
3. On his depression following 'Unbreakable's release, and the kids who were mean to him:
"To be perfectly honest, the 29 year-old version of me was just hurt by the reception to this film, and I didn't have the perspective to know better...It was confusing to me at the time. There were a certain set of expectations that were not met. I'd be in a restaurant and there'd be a group of kids who'd recognize me and start making fun of me cause of 'Unbreakable,' and i'd be like, 'Really?' I was in a record store and some guy was like 'There's M. Night Shyamalan' and the other kid was like 'Yeah, but unbreakable sucks.' Loud enough for me to hear! ...The first time we screened it for Disney they had an incredibly strong positive reaction to the movie and their jaws dropped, and the next day we screened it for a public audience in CA and the scores were low. Not tragically low, but low. I was standing on a sidewalk and the editor and an executive were saying they didn't believe the results, that they knew what this movie is. I didn't understand it at the time - i was dazed, I was trying to find answers."
2. On an 'Unbreakable' sequel:
"It took a long time before I was able to look back on 'Unbreakable' and feel pride about it. I was too young, and there was too much happening to interpret with strength. I've got one side of the artistic thing huge which is that i only want to do original films and take risks, but the other side I'm not very good at is taking the repercussions.
If i did a sequel, it would cause a reaction, because it wouldn't be this movie it would be a whole other thing in my head. My instinct is take the opportunity to have all these expectations and do something really wild. but i'm thinking about it..."
1. On his creative process and his current tonality:
"I wish i could make whatever movie comes to mind, but I can't... Audiences are changing the tonality, the sweet-spot of the audience has shifted so much from 1982 with 'E.T.' that hit the sweet-spot, and [that movie] is seen as so young and so soft now that it's way off the target, and darker filmmakers who weren't in the sweet-spot 9 years ago are dead in the sweet-spot now. I sort of swing from the dark spot to the 'E.T.' spot. I love Kubrick movies, which would be in the sweet-spot today but were way on the fringe back then. The only way the process of coming to terms with that affects me is that now I have a new movie idea and I feel at peace about it cause it's dark and edgy, so I don't have to come up with an answer to that question right now. I'll worry about it when I have another soft movie. I mean, I have my [daughters] here, I'm a soft guy. I cry at 'Extreme Home Makeover.' But I have another side too where i'll play ball and I'll definitely fight with you."