"I Wasn't Bluffing": M. Night Shyamalan Recalls 'Sixth Sense' Pitch and Frenzy That Followed

M. Night Shyamalan Sixth Sense - H - 1999
Twenty years after the psychological horror film became a blockbuster, the director, Haley Joel Osment and those close to the making of the project reflect on its legacy: "We went from, 'Hey, this is a fun movie' to 'People are really taking this seriously.'"

In 1997, M. Night Shyamalan left Philadelphia with his wife and baby and flew out to Los Angeles to see if any studios were interested in his spec script for a psychological horror film called The Sixth Sense. "I got a room at the Four Seasons," recalls Shyamalan. The hotel he picked "was too expensive for me. I remember feeling, like, a gulp as I paid for the room. I was like, 'Well, if it doesn’t sell, I guess I will really be pissed I spent whatever it was for this room.'"

The script revolved around a sensitive young boy, Cole (Haley Joel Osment) who claims to be able to see dead people, and the caring child psychologist, Malcolm Crowe (Bruce Willis), who tries to help him. Crowe had been shot by a former patient, Vincent (Donnie Wahlberg), who subsequently took his own life. Because Vincent had claimed to have the same ability as Cole, Malcolm was determined to make sure he didn't suffer the same fate. 

At the time, Shyamalan had just finished directing the comedy Wide Awake (which would go on to gross just $282,000 in 1998), but he was more known in Hollywood circles as a writer of screenplays like Labor of Love — which has still yet to be made — and Stuart Little, which he rewrote in 1996 before the family film grossed $300 million upon its release in December 1999.

Before Shyamalan's agents started calling around to studios to gauge interest in the Sixth Sense script, he had laid out a few stipulations. "'I have to be attached as director, and we’re going to have a $1 million minimum bid," he told them. "If they want to read it, they have to know that this is going to start at $1 million.'" He adds of his line-drawn-in-the-sand moment, "I was 25 when I wrote it. I felt sometimes when you are writing something that no one’s asked you to write, you have to decide its worth and decide how it’s going to be in a kind of very specific way." Shyamalan recalls telling his agent, "'It’s fine if no one wants to pay that money for it. If they don’t want to make it, I will shelve it.' You have to not be bluffing when you say stuff like that. I wasn’t bluffing. I’ll do other things, but I won’t make the movie."

As it turned out, Shyamalan's concerns were unwarranted. Bids started arriving almost immediately, with multiple studios in the mix. "I went over to a studio, and then there was another call [from my reps] and they said, 'Someone else just bid, you go drive over to another studio,'" he recalls. "I remember it ended with Disney hearing that another company was going to come in with a big offer. So they called immediately and said, 'We want to close it. Right now.'"

Disney's now-defunct genre label Hollywood Pictures snapped up the film in a deal worth $2.2 million to $3 million, beating out rivals including Columbia Pictures, DreamWorks and New Line Cinema, THR reported at the time. Willis was enlisted to star as Crowe soon afterward, but the part of Cole wasn't cast until August of 1998, when Osment won the part.

"There was something magical about his audition," Shyamalan says of Osment. "When I left the room, I told the casting director, 'I don't know if I want to make the movie if it’s not with that kid.'" Especially after the actor uttered the film’s iconic line, "I see dead people."

Shyamalan had been reluctant to cast Osment on the basis of his video audition because he was "this really sweet cherub, kind of beautiful, blond boy," he recalls. "I saw this part as this brooding, darker, enigmatic child. But he nailed it with the vulnerability and the need — I guess that’s the best way to describe it. He was able to convey a need as a human being in a way that was amazing to see. He did that through the entire process."

Osment remembers that the crew had the luxury of rehearsal time before filming. "We were all in Philadelphia two or three weeks before we started shooting," he says via email. "We had a lot of time to get to know each other and have extensive rehearsals. Bruce and I would get together with Night, and then Toni [Collette, who played Cole's mother] and I would meet with him. Olivia [Williams, who played Crowe's wife, Anna] and Bruce would have rehearsals. It was so important to have this foundation of rehearsals and familiarity with all of us and to reinforce all these specific relationships between the characters before any cameras had started."

Whenever possible, Shyamalan shot the film in sequence, which made the complicated emotional journey of the film much easier for Osment. “When you have actual memories of going through earlier scenes in the story, it really helps build the reality of the world over the course of the film,” Osment notes.

Because Anna's interactions with Malcolm were so integral to the later impact on the audience when they discover that, yes, Malcolm is actually dead, Williams couldn’t give anything away in her scenes with Willis. “I think he is very present to her in those scenes,” she remembers. “But my belief is that the only way to play it was to play it as a scene with him in it. The main thing was not to let my subtext show — not to play that he was dead, but to play as if he were there."

Shyamalan says now that it was Wahlberg, then still a fledgling actor known mainly for being a member of '80s boy band New Kids on the Block, who "really set a bar for us in a wonderful way of unexpectedness and standard of verisimilitude that really permeated the whole production. We went from 'Hey, this is a fun movie' to 'People are really taking this seriously.'"

Wahlberg recalls that he started method acting to the max, losing 43 pounds in five weeks to play the tortured Vincent. "I remember Night saying, 'This scene really has to kickstart the movie,'" Wahlberg says. "I tried not to think about that burden and that responsibility and just try to honor the script and stay in tune with what I needed to play this part. I thought if I was in that room standing across from Bruce Willis and Olivia Williams and haven’t suffered and really gone through some really dramatic situations before I do this scene, how am I going to bare my clothes, never mind bare my soul? So that’s just where I went."

In fact, after the first table read, Wahlberg decided he wanted to play the scene totally nude. "I pitched it to Bruce, and he was like, 'That’s amazing, let’s tell Night.' I told Night and he was like, 'OK, great.' I immediately began the process of starving myself."

He moved to New York and stayed at a friend’s apartment, "but with no money, no credit cards. I would fast for a couple of days at a time and then just eat vegetables, chew gum all day and then walk the streets. When I got to Philadelphia, I slept in the park one night and was going through this really crazy process." Yet when Wahlberg arrived for his wardrobe fitting, he was told, because they wanted the film to be a PG-13, he couldn’t go the full Monty. "They showed me some of the clothes and I really begged, 'Can I at least compromise and be in tighty-whities?'"

Wahlberg remembers being called to the set for one more take. "I walked onto the set and the crew was there and they parted like the seas. At the center of them was Bruce Willis standing on an apple box. He just made this speech, talking about the efforts I went through and the sacrifice I made for his film. I was just blown away."

Disney was right to bet on Shyamalan. The Sixth Sense was the second-highest-grossing film of 1999, earning $672.8 million worldwide. (It was topped only by Star Wars: Episode I — The Phantom Menace with $1.03 billion.) In its opening weekend, it managed to top the other surprise hit of the summer season, horror breakout The Blair Witch Project, to score the then-biggest August opening ever, $25.8 million. According to THR's Aug. 9, 1999, box office report, the film's audience was 50-50 male-female, and 73 percent were between the ages of 18-49.

"When we first read the script, it’s probably safe to say [producer Gary Barber and I] felt this was more of an adult film," producer Roger Birnbaum told THR on Aug. 20, 1999. "When we saw it completed, we had a feeling this movie might possibly play younger. When we got a PG-13 rating, we were very glad, but still we were not sure whether the movie was going to be a movie that younger audiences wanted to see."

Birnbaum added at the time, "It wasn’t [clear] until the Disney marketing team [under president Chris Pula] put together the materials. The trailer got into the marketplace and, lo and behold, we got a lot of positive reaction from all four demographic groups [younger and older males and younger and older females]. We realized that because we had a PG-13 rating we [would] be able to capitalize on their interest. If it had an R rating, I don’t think we would have been the success that we are today."

Of course, what may have truly set The Sixth Sense apart from most horror films and converted word of mouth in box office is the twist ending that even O. Henry may have not seen coming. Osment says that the enormous cultural impact of "I see dead people" took everyone by surprise. "Even when we were shooting that scene, nobody was pointing to that line or singling it out for special attention," he recalls. "I don’t even think it really gathered momentum until the film had been out for a while and the advertising started pivoting to including it on the posters and commercials and the like."

Scott Essman, a writer-producer who specializes in horror and sci-fi, notes, "People who saw it and then really liked it went back and saw it again because they couldn’t believe how fooled they were the first time they saw it. It totally takes the rug out from under you in that you’re thinking it is a story about one character and the movie is really about this other character."

The film capitalized on its summer box office success with six Oscars nominations at the 72nd Academy Awards including best film, director, screenplay, supporting actor for Osment and supporting actress for Collette.

While Willis failed to get an Oscar nomination, he shined in a dramatic role that was a departure from the action films that had made him a star. Shyamalan, who has since worked with Willis in 2000’s Unbreakable, 2017’s Split and this year’s Glass, felt he could pull off the role. "Bruce is from New Jersey. I’m from Philadelphia. It always felt like the hometown boy kind of connection. When I was a kid, I watched his movies and wanted to make something with him. For me, when you see Die Hard, obviously, there’s so many things — the physicality and stuff — but it’s the pathos of his relationship with his wife, which for me is the emotional underpinning of why that action movie transcends. I basically put him in another love story."

The Sixth Sense, Shyamalan adds, "was a wonderful opportunity for me to bring that out of him. He was so excited about doing that. He’s the guy who didn’t have the gun. When Donnie’s character shows up in the beginning, he doesn’t know what to do. He loved playing somebody who didn’t know what to do. I think that just kind of launched us into a more vulnerable, complicated version of Bruce that’s so lovely."