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"After Earth" is a post-apocalyptic sci-fi flick that stars Will and Jaden Smith as a father-son team who crash land on a now-abandoned Earth. It was also directed by M. Night Shyamalan.
This may come as a surprise to audiences who are accustomed to Shyamalan's brand of terror and suspense, but, as the director explains, there's more to him than just his "dark" side. Take, for instance, the family-friendly "Stuart Little," which he wrote back in 1999; the fantasy film adaptation of "The Last Airbender," in 2010; or, of course, "After Earth."
That's not to say this new film drops all of Shyamalan's usual themes -- if you look closely, you can find the same suspense and horror elements that his earlier films had. But they're not the driving force here. Instead, they're used as a backdrop for a story set in the future.
Before the film opened, Moviefone spoke with Shyamalan about how different "After Earth" is from the rest of his movies, how he reacted to bad reviews of "The Last Airbender," and whether "The Sixth Sense" would get spoiled immediately if the film was released today. He also briefly revealed what his version of "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone" would have looked like (he was originally approached to direct the movie).
Moviefone: As far as what audiences know you for, this movie is really different from your previous films.
M. Night Shyamalan: Cool. How would you describe it's different?
Well, it's sci-fi. There also isn't a horror element to it.
Yeah, that's true.
Does it feel different to you?
I have been working on it for so long, so I have no perspective on being able to say that. But for me, I don't have the same seat as you guys do when you look at my stuff. The year that I made "The Sixth Sense," I wrote "Stuart Little," and that's a pretty accurate [picture] when I think of myself: kind of funny and leaning towards family fare, and I have a dark side. That balance feels right. People don't even associate me with "Stuart Little." But, for me, I don't see "Lady in the Water" as a departure, or "Stuart Little" as a departure.
It's also different because, unlike your previous projects, this one isn't really being sold on the strength of your name. Instead, it's Will's and Jaden's names featured prominently on the poster.
There's such a specific expectation that comes with a name. It's nice to have people watch the movie and then have them talk about the storyteller; it's a healthy balance.
I am very involved with all the campaigns for my movies. I like to be involved in the marketing to say, "Hey, make sure there's enough drama in there." My theory on this campaign was -- you're going to laugh when I say this -- "Let's sell this as 'The Pursuit of Happyness: Part 2.'" I was like, We are going to have the two of them on the poster -- it's a father-son story, we have the most famous father-son duo acting, that's what [audiences] should be thinking when they walk into the theater. What's wonderful for me is that I had the opportunity to have a partner in Will. The burden of selling the tickets didn't have to be entirely on me.
So you felt less pressure on this movie?
Well, that's probably a side effect of it. Its main goal was the expectation to be correct. So "The Pursuit of Happyness: Part 2" was my goal.
That makes sense. And I think that marketing paid off. This feels like a Will/Jaden Smith film. In fact, it feels more like a Jaden Smith film.
Yeah, and even in the poster it's subtle stuff; I put Jaden just a bit ahead of Will. So you're getting that orientation that the movie is a kind of passing-of-the-torch.
This was a very different film for Will, too. He's playing a stern father figure here.
Yeah, no charm allowed! I didn't allow any charm on the movie.
Did he want to bring charm to the movie?
You know what? Two things came up when you said that. One is, my instinct is always to cast superstars and not let them do what they did to become superstars; to let them be actors. Second is to find someone else in the cast and let them be the hero role. A non-"After Earth" example would be "Signs" and letting Mel Gibson be the one who's philosophical, and then Joaquin [Phoenix] is the physical one that fights the creature. And the same thing in this case: Take away all [Jaden's and Will's] tools of charm. You know, I believe all of these guys -- Bruce [Willis] and Mel and Will -- they are all actors who also happen to be the most charismatic people in a room. So, take away that strength and let them focus on being actors and something amazing will happen.
It's interesting to hear you say that, because most big directors and studios would go the opposite route.
Absolutely. They are buying stars for a reason. Why we're drawn to the theater is because we kind of have a relationship with the stars and we want to see it again, and the studios understand that and exploit that and say "Hey, don't give them a different date. They came because they loved your other dates." So you can imagine when I was like, "Okay, I got Will and we are basically going to shatter his body in this movie." [Laughs]
Before "After Earth," you had "The Last Airbender." Critics weren't very happy with that movie...
... How does that affect you as a director going forward? Does it affect the choices you make?
You know, I understand it. I don't have any hard feelings about anything. I always try and think of everything in terms of non-agenda. I don't try and think of it as surface agenda. But I do think of it as artistic intent and artistic tonality.
I am a super soft guy. I have three girls. I am a softie. And I have always been this way to some extent. My acceptance of emotion -- it's like guys, women, teenage girls, then me. I have a high threshold for very emotional, soft stuff. It's just very much who I am. And I have to always calibrate that to know that when you're thinking of a general audience coming in, they're not necessarily at that same place [as you]. It's been that way since I was 21 years old, making movies. Sometimes I just feel like the uber open guy. Sometimes I have to do that to be in a good place, rather than always pretending to be cool -- cooler than I am. Basically, what I am saying is, I am uncool [laughs]. I try to couch it by saying that I am making a family movie now, which is supposed to be a kind of signal that I am going to be that person...
By that person, you mean the open person?
The super, childlike, open person. There won't be a drop of cynicism in the movie. So, it's interesting. I think that time has been really good to me on these movies. Once they leave context and expectation and they're just watched, they are seen more as exact stories as they're told, as opposed to I thought this, or, I think he was trying this. So I think it's been long enough that I am thinking of it as a body of work now. Like now, as we're selling this and this is opening, I already know in my mind what I am doing next. So ["After Earth"] is already in context with that.
You mentioned how you react to critics being unkind to a film like "The Last Airbender." What about when one of your actors isn't happy with the movie? For example, Mark Wahlberg didn't speak too highly of "The Happening."
From what I've read, he did not like it.
[Jokes] I will have to yell at him.
So, at some point, you just build up enough confidence that you separate yourself from the criticism?
That [criticism] is not part of the creative process. It's not even remotely apart of the process. If it was calculated like that it would be less satisfying to be an artist.
You said earlier that time has been really good to your films. Is there any one in particular?
They all follow that pattern in a happy way for me. The farther away they get from [opening] day, the more they are received for what they are.
Let's talk about "The Sixth Sense." With social media, spoilers have become a much bigger part of today's movie culture. Considering how much of a surprise that movie's ending is, do you think it would get spoiled if the film was released today?
I don't know. I'd like to think it would have a similar outcome. Certainly, the recommendations would have been faster. Within 24 hours, word-of-mouth would've traveled. "How would that have been couched?" is the question. If it would've been couched with the same reserve it had back then, which was "Just go see the movie," [then people would have seen it]; that was the main way it was recommended. As opposed to, "There's a surprise ending, you won't ever guess it," then the movie would've been dead.
Before we wrap up, I wanted to ask you about "Harry Potter." I know you were offered to direct the first film.
Yeah, I was doing "Unbreakable," so I couldn't do it at the time.
Do you have any regrets about not directing it?
There's always alternate universes to your lives. That one would've required me having to move out of the United States. That's more than a movie decision -- that's your kids, your family, your wife, everybody moving to England; you and I would not be sitting on this couch today. It would've been a real big decision. You have these colors in your mind of how you would do ["Harry Potter"], and I still have that in my mind ... I still have that version in my head, even though all eight movies have been made. It's almost not related to the series at all -- it's its own thing. Even when you brought the subject up, I was like Oh, yeah.
What was your version of "Harry Potter?
Oh, it's ... [pause]. At that time, I had all these feelings of it being dark.
"After Earth" hits theaters Friday