M. Night Shyamalan Says He Has Experienced Hollywood Highs and Lows So Many Times
The THR Titan and genre-defining filmmaker talks freeing himself from Harvey Weinstein with 'The Sixth Sense' and his sadness over the sudden retirement of Bruce Willis, who protected his early career.
M. Night Shyamalan thought his career was over. In the mid- to late-’90s, he was trapped at Miramax, and his little-seen second film, 1998’s Wide Awake, had been put through the Harvey Weinstein wringer. His dreams of being a working Hollywood director were fading day by day until his reps at UTA found a crack in his otherwise ironclad Miramax contract. The company may have owned his ability to direct, but it did not control his ability to write. So Shyamalan opted to pen the best screenplay he possibly could in order to leverage its demand and escape the clutches of Miramax. That script became The Sixth Sense, and Disney (which then owned Miramax) soon bought the rights with Shyamalan on board as director.
The early struggles of the India-born, Philadelphia-raised filmmaker taught him the lesson to always bet on himself, and that approach has led to 14 feature films, totaling $3.1 billion at the worldwide box office. Shyamalan is now on the verge of releasing his 15th film, Knock at the Cabin, for Universal, and after a career filled with showstopping movie endings, he’ll soon try his hand at wrapping up his first TV series, the Apple TV+ thriller Servant, currently in its fourth and final season.
Shyamalan, who’s a massive basketball fan and often speaks in the game’s metaphors, has also embraced the role of coach and mentor. Shyamalan’s guiding hand goes all the way back to 2004’s The Village when he cast 21-year-old Bryce Dallas Howard in her first lead role. After attending Howard’s performance in As You Like It at The Public Theater, Shyamalan invited her to lunch to offer her the Village lead without even auditioning. Howard, the daughter of filmmaker Ron Howard, has gone on to high-profile directing jobs on The Mandalorian and counts Shyamalan as being as influential on her directing style as her father. “Meeting Night was a before-and-after moment in my life,” Howard recalls. “The confidence he instilled in me was paradigm-shifting. Night didn’t just cast me and hope for the best; he instilled in me a process for what it was going to take to ‘level up’ and ‘become pro.’ He was the most extraordinary coach I could have ever hoped for.”
Howard adds: “More than anything, what I hope to emulate of Night in my own work as a director is his artistic courage. That’s his superpower.”
In 2015, Shyamalan cast a then-unknown Anya Taylor-Joy as the female lead of Split, his stealth Unbreakable spinoff, and during an emotional scene as Casey Cooke, the star received a note from Shyamalan that forever changed her outlook on acting when he urged Taylor-Joy to cry the character’s tears instead of her own. “My entire approach to acting has changed since that moment. That’s my whole philosophy, really,” Taylor-Joy admits.
While finishing three projects, Shyamalan, 52, talked to THR about facing his doctor-filled family’s take on his filmmaking prospects, writing Unbreakable to distract himself from the life-changing success of The Sixth Sense and coming to terms with the sudden retirement of his career-defining leading man, Bruce Willis.
What was your first eye-opening experience at the cinema?
It sounds so clichéd, but one was Star Wars. I was 7, but everything about me knew that I was watching something extraordinary. What others feel about religion, I felt then at that moment. So it was highly moving. And then the other was Raiders of the Lost Ark, which transported me in a way I couldn’t understand.
I went to see it at this huge, old Narberth theater, and I couldn’t sit together with my friend. So it was terrifying for me to sit alone, and a couple saw how scared I was so they bought me popcorn and a drink. It was so wholesome and sweet. So I hope that they or their kids have seen my movies just as some kind of karmic thing. And after those two movies, I began making short films at home, but not with a professional intention. It was just to try to get back to that feeling.
How did your family full of doctors receive the news that you wanted to be a storyteller?
In retrospect, it must have been very confounding for them. It seemed inevitable that an immigrant Indian family’s academically proficient son was going to be a doctor. They’re all doctors. But this love affair with cinema grew into an obsession/hobby. I went to a school in New York over the summer, and I lied about my age to get into the college program. I was 16, and I said I was 18. So I stayed with my uncle, and I took a summer course in film. So I think my family was hoping that I would get it out of my system, but I didn’t.
Ultimately, I made the decision to apply early to NYU’s film school, Tisch, and one day, while my dad was watching hockey, I told him, “Dad, I applied to the film school in New York. It’s the best film school. I got in, and I also got a scholarship. I’m going to do this.” And he just was silent. He didn’t react at all. And then I told my mom, and she was happier because she aspired to be in the arts back when she was a kid.
But I would feel the same way. They’re the first doctors on both sides of their families, and then their son decides to become, essentially, a goth rockstar. It wasn’t practical to them. So for immigrants, it was a tough one to swallow and indicative of someone being lost.
So you graduate film school, and after your first movie, 1992’s Praying With Anger, you landed at Miramax.
I started so young in trying to make movies and failing, but they were reps. I made Wide Awake for Miramax and Harvey Weinstein. I went through my own personal hell being there, but it was trial by fire. I didn’t realize it at the time, but I started my career with the biggest monster that ever was. I was in that room with him all the time while he would say crazy things, but it built me up because I’m a softie. I love to play a lot of basketball, but if I get elbowed, I become a different person. And Harvey, clearly, would elbow you, so that created a warrior mentality in this soft kid from a sweet, loving family. But when I looked at the situation at Miramax, it felt like my career was over.
How did you escape that trap?
My reps said, “Miramax owns your directing. You can’t direct anywhere else.” In those days, contracts were crazy, and Miramax had some really tough contracts. But by some freak chance, they didn’t own my writing. It was an error by their legal department, so I said, “I’ll write the best screenplay ever and try to get out of here.” So I sat down and looked at the Jaws, Alien, The Exorcist and Poltergeist posters on my wall and said, “I’ll just write one of those. I love those.” So I went into genre and suspense for the very first time, and everything just clicked. I was having so much fun. I had unlimited ideas.
The resulting The Sixth Sense became a cultural phenomenon. When did it hit you that your life would never be the same?
There isn’t a moment like that, but it’s probably still happening. I experienced Hollywood highs and lows so many times before I even got to The Sixth Sense. Stuart Little [which he co-wrote with Greg Brooker] also became [Sony’s] biggest movie of 1999. So there was a broader sense that the work was going to keep me alive, and as we were editing The Sixth Sense, I was writing Unbreakable. I wanted to get the next one going as fast as I could because I was so nervous. I was like, “At least let me make one more movie before you stop letting me make movies.” That was the mentality.
The Sixth Sense also placed sky-high expectations on you. How do you think you handled that pressure in hindsight?
It didn’t feel like that. What I remember more is struggling over Unbreakable’s David Dunn and Elijah Price and this character with split personalities [Kevin Wendell Crumb] that I couldn’t quite fit into the movie. I know it sounds crazy, but that was the predominant feeling at that time. It wasn’t the money or the fame.
Unbreakable is now considered by many to be your masterpiece, but at the time, its reception disappointed you. Why?
It was a very polarizing movie, but I got used to that as just being a part of my career. What the polarization actually is is an unexpected story compared to what the audience was expecting: “I think it’s this, but it’s really that.” And in this case, marketing probably had something to do with it a little bit. “Hey, there’s another scary movie from the same guys who did The Sixth Sense,” which isn’t the case at all. So that began a really interesting understanding of the audience’s expectations, framing and how important marketing is. Ultimately, Unbreakable was very soon given a second chance, which was wonderful. But it’s a very dry, somber movie. It’s not a yuck fest, but I was in that darker place.
What did your experience on Signs give you that you didn’t have going into it?
There’s always a balancing act for me between art and entertainment, which I equally love. So I went, “Well, maybe Unbreakable was too much art and not enough entertainment.” And in my heart, I feel that I was probably leaning 60-40 into the art world. But I take it seriously that we’re entertainers. That’s our job. This art form isn’t paints and a canvas. It’s not a book and a pen. It costs a lot of money to do this art form, and when you decide to take that money — no matter how much that is — you are making a commitment to the audience. And so Signs was me saying, “Don’t take [the money] unless you’re having fun and you’re entertaining.”
By the time The Village came out, the audience identified you for your twist endings. Did you ever come to resent that device?
Whatever framing is done by a handful of people, let’s say critics, is done through a distorted glass. It’s not actually what’s happening. If I screen The Village today and watch it with an audience that’s never seen it before, there will be a very wonderful and amazing reaction because they have no framing. There’s no lens there to say, “It was supposed to be this genre and have this many scares.” I enjoy that format of telling stories, but I’m not going to tell every story that way. I start with, “Ooh, I’ve never felt this before,” and I go from there. There was something about the formality of The Village that I love very much, and what we would do to maintain innocence.
Even the greatest careers have disappointments. What did you learn from yours?
Lady in the Water and The Happening are so much a part of me. I love being wicked and getting a rise out of you, [but] being goofy is a part of who I am, as is being earnest. So Lady in the Water was very close to who I am as a person. One thing I let go of on that movie was the idea of, “How will they sell the movie?” Now I tell this story to every filmmaker I work with. I also told it to my daughter [Ishana Night Shyamalan], who’s about to make her first movie. I’ll say, “The marketeers are the first people to tell your story. They begin the story. That’s part of the art form. So you have to start thinking about that as you’re making the movie.” And on Lady, I didn’t do that. I just made something that I loved. It was the least seen of all my movies, but to this day, when people come up to me about that movie, they speak with religion about it.
And what about your two high-priced studio films, The Last Airbender and After Earth?
All of us go through moments in our lives where we want to be accepted. We get tired of the fight and having to defend who we are. And tacitly, or sometimes overtly, they’ll say, “You are wrong for doing it this way. You’re arrogant. If you just do this, this and this, it’ll all work out for you.” And I went, “OK, maybe you’re right.” So I made a genuine effort to join the system, but I learned that the special thing that makes me happy was hard to do within that system. It was so wonderful to have that opportunity, but there are so many people who are so much better at that kind of storytelling than I am.
The Visit was a major turning point as it revitalized your career. That’s also when you started funding your own projects. Why was this change in approach one of the best decisions you ever made?
I was looking for others to make me safe. I was looking for the system to embrace me and take care of me, but that isn’t the way the world is. I went, “Is there a process that can allow me to be the most inspired for the longest time?” So I said, “Hey, I’m going to make small, contained movies, and I’m going to pay for them myself. I’m going to do anything I want, and I’m going to hire anybody I want. I’m going to spend all my time playing pickup basketball, essentially.”
There were moments where I was like, “Oh my God, I’m going to lose all my money. I’m going to be bankrupt,” but I had this instinct that comedy and horror together would work. So I fully risked everything and went for it. We got this close to it all falling apart, but it was an accumulation of small things that ended up turning the corner from it not being accepted. With success, there’s always a moment where it’s right on the edge.
You then took The Visit’s returns and used them to make the stealth Unbreakable spinoff Split. Between Disney having the rights to Unbreakable and keeping it all a secret, are you still in disbelief that you were able to pull it off?
It was so crazy. I’m so lucky. I asked Disney if I could have a little cameo from one of the characters in Unbreakable. I said, “I don’t know what’s going to happen. It’s just a little wink at the end of the movie.” So they were incredibly gracious and said yes. But I didn’t tell Universal that I’d done this. I didn’t have it in the original screenplay. So I showed them the movie in the screening room, and as the lights came on, they were like, “What!? That’s a character from another movie and another studio. It’ll never happen again.” And I said, “I know you’re not going to believe this, but it’s all good. I have permission to use it.” So it was wild and amazing that it came together.
Bruce Willis helped launch your career into the stratosphere, and last year, sadly, marked the conclusion of his hall-of-fame career when he announced he was retiring due to an aphasia diagnosis. Did it take a while to fully process?
Yeah, he obviously means the world to me. I would do anything for him and his family, and it’s been super tough for everybody involved. I had a lot of tears about it, and my father is also suffering from similar kinds of things. So having it on both fronts, it’s profound to realize how precious everything is. So I’m just grateful for what he did because he didn’t micromanage at all. He protected me from the system early, so I’m forever grateful to him.
What do you consider to be your best film?
It’s going to sound like a PR answer, but Knock at the Cabin has so much of what I love in it. It’s the way the pieces work together, and sometimes, you just have to leave it to the film gods.
Beyond Knock at the Cabin, you have three more original movie ideas, which indicates that you have no intention of slowing down anytime soon. Does Bruce’s situation factor into this prolific output at all?
It certainly does do that, but it’s probably more an immigrant mentality of, “Hey, this isn’t your country. Nothing is given to you. You’ve got to work harder than everybody else.” So that’s just part of the gig. I honestly think every movie is the last movie and everything I do is the last one. If it all ended here, Knock at the Cabin is the way I would want to end it, and that’s how I approached it. You referenced those three, but I’m not sure I’ll think of a fourth.
If the ideas keep coming, will you follow in the footsteps of Martin Scorsese and Ridley Scott and just never stop making movies?
I hope so. I don’t want things to just be OK or good. I want to really go for it, and risk and feel. When I look down and there’s no net, that’s the best way for me. So when I’m older, we’ll see if I have the resilience to really have no net. I don’t know if I’m interested in doing it with a net.
What’s your most misunderstood film?
There’s a plethora I could pick from, but probably Lady in the Water. It’s its own tone, and it’s jazz in its own way.
What’s the film that got away?
I loved the book Life of Pi, and I was going to make it. But Ang Lee made a beautiful movie from it. That was one that I wished I did. In between the first two movies. I wrote a spec screenplay called Labor of Love, and it became a giant bidding war in Hollywood. Fox then bought it, and they fired me as a director because I was a kid. I almost made it many, many times since, but at this point, I probably won’t ever make it.
Universal is collecting auteur filmmakers like yourself, Jordan Peele, Christopher Nolan and Daniels. What makes the studio appealing?
They’ve been very good at letting us do our thing, and they’re just very kind people. They have not shied away from the original movie, which has been to their great benefit. I wish the whole industry would embrace the original movie and bring it back. Once upon a time, the entire industry was geared solely toward original movies. Finding and supporting new voices that can reach large audiences used to be the major thing, and Universal has now made that a mandate.
You’ve turned Servant into a breeding ground for new filmmakers, including your middle daughter, Ishana Night Shyamalan. With Hollywood nepotism being a hot-button topic right now, are you worried at all that the dues Ishana has paid will be overlooked?
Whether it’s Dell Curry and Stephen Curry or another family in any other field, giving your child the work ethic is the most important thing, besides being a kind human being. Ishana is insanely talented, so I’m not worried about it at all. All people have to do is watch her stuff and their jaws are going to drop. She’s reminding me of myself at 23 and the muscles and the audaciousness that you have at that time. So she’s really re-inspiring me.
Lately, a number of filmmakers have made personal, semiautobiographical works. Would you ever revisit your life story and career?
There was a company that asked, “Hey, can we do a reality show about your family?” And we were like, “We’re so incredibly boring.” I mean, every dinner is like a little TED Talk. We’re always talking about art, but it isn’t very exciting. It’s just very simple.
Interview edited for length and clarity.
A version of this story first appeared in the Jan. 27 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.