MIPCOM: How M. Night Shyamalan Channeled David Lynch for 'Wayward Pines'

Matt Dillon

He and star Matt Dillon discuss challenging the classic three-act story structure and their views on film versus TV

It will be no surprise if M. Night Shyamalan’s new executive-produced Fox series Wayward Pines invites comparisons to David Lynch’s Twin Peaks. It follows Matt Dillon’s federal agent character as he seeks his missing colleagues in an idyllic small town where nothing is as it seems — and yes, there is pie.

“When I read the pilot, my head space was in a very Lynchian kind of mood with the dark sensibility and dark humor. It was exactly what I needed at the time and was interested in shepherding,” the director told The Hollywood Reporter at MIPCOM.

Before Wayward Pines, Shyamalan had been very resistant to TV projects. “Probably unnecessarily so, but I had a sense of not wanting to do it for the wrong reasons" after what had been a tumultuous time at the box office for him, he said. Blockbusters can be a creative challenge, he added. “You definitely make a Faustian bargain. The bigger budget you have, [the] less latitude."

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He continued: “The film business has a narrow window to make the types of films I want to make these days." Wayward Pines offered him that chance. The 10-part limited series is stacked with an Oscar-caliber cast including Dillon, Melissa Leo, Juliette Lewis and Terrence Howard.

“Movies and TV are slightly swapping their aesthetics. Film in general used to be about the texture and the resonance of a tone of storytelling, and I think TV now has moved strongly towards that,” Shyamalan said, crediting The Sopranos for the shift.

Both Dillon and Shyamalan said that film’s traditional three-act structure can be creatively limiting. The director is obsessed with exploring the ‘What’s going on?’ feeling and would be happy to make a film that’s all first act, he said. Executives’ notes, Shyamalan said, unfortunately curb that impulse.

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Dillon joked: “A writer friend of mine said, ‘I don’t know why we have three acts unless people need to go to the bathroom,’ and I thought that was really funny. I like when things challenge that structure.”

Added Dillon: “I feel like the creative potential in television could be the greatest potential of all. I’ve written scripts and directed and often you’ll see it — with really good films, too — that you have to sacrifice really interesting character moments to fit the film because the structure has a very finite format. You don’t have to do that on television.”

Of the blockbuster business, he said: “It feels like there’s a lot of things in the business model that are outdated." Smaller films, which take years to make, are judged as failures as success is based on first weekend receipts, but television is increasingly filling that gap, he argued.

“There’s not enough poetry in the business," said Dillon. "I don’t mean that in some pretentious way, but there’s not enough ‘let’s go for it, let’s take some chances.’ Television is changing that.”

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For Shyamalan, the process of television also erased a lot of his "preciousness" about directing. “I’m super precious, probably in a very bad way, with my thrillers; no one changes a word, every shot’s designed," he said. "That’s positive up to a point.”

The speed that a TV production requires forced him to be looser, which has also affected his next — as yet untitled — film that he shot “off the grid” in Philadelphia. “There were wonderful edges that came out that normally weren’t there in my films," said Shyamalan. "As a filmmaker, you get a lot of bad habits that break in and you don’t realize it. For me, it was a great process.”