August 2002
The Man with a Vision : An interview with M. Night Shyamalan

Interviewed by Wilson Morales

The Man with a Vision : An interview with M. Night Shyamalan

Until recently August was a month where studio dump films they felt weren't going to significant difference at the box office. All of the summer hits have made their money from the beginning of May to the end of July. What changed the month of August to a potential moneymaker for studios? "The Sixth Sense" is the answer. It came out of nowhere to gross over $250 million domestically and get Oscar nominated in several categories. The director of the film, M. Night Shyamalan, became the latest darling of Hollywood. His next film, "Unbreakable", wasn't well received as expected, but his reputation as a man with a good vision was established. Now he's back with his new film, "SIGNS", which will no doubt bring an audience to full alert. In an interview with, M. Night Shyamalan speaks about his vision for "SIGNS".

WM: The characters in 'Signs' seem more emotional than in your previous films, 'The Sixth Sense' and 'Unbreakable.' Was that intentional?

MNS: Emotion is something I struggle with because I'm an emotional guy. I'm definitely more emotional than the average Joe. It just comes out and it's necessary in doing making movies and telling stories, but it's something I know that is dangerous. It's a dangerous territory because it's an intimate thing. You're a stranger coming in and I say, like if this was a date, what do you say, "Spend two hours with me. Let's cry together."You'll laugh with me instantly. A stranger, you'll laugh with or even tell exciting stories with, or anything of that stuff, but to actually get to emotional is a very sacred place and so most filmmakers, if it's art filmmakers avoid it so they can do the long, wide shot with the guy crying in the corner of the room, so you watch it. The music comes in to tell you this and so the people who would cry and the other people are like, "Let's get back to the movie"and that kind of thing. It's a very delicate balance, the emotional thing and one that I had gone a little crazy with in "Wide Awake" which was basically emotional all the time and I had this violent reaction from the critics and the audiences. They would compare me to bad movies and I would say, "Gosh, they're not even seeing the difference between genuine emotion, like me saying something genuinely on the page and on screen or someone who did it poorly" And they're giving us the same [analysis.] That's it. There're both sappy movies and so I really pulled back from that on "The Sixth Sense" I said, "I'm not going to let myself get emotional until the car scene." At that point you're all beaten down, you're with me and you're ready to get emotional. So,"Signs" is a little bit of coming back home to emotion. This is an emotional as big movies get. It takes a lot of courage to go right to the line and stop.

WM: Your use of sound was also amazing, can you talk about that?

MNS: The sound design was crucial, something we struggled with. For me, it felt like one of the biggest sound jobs, one of the most important sound jobs that movies have asked for. I told the sound guy that because, as opposed to laser guns or something in 'Star Wars Episode II,' not that. Just like dialogue. Using it just like dialogue to tell a story. It's my special effects for 90 percent of the movie. It was very important, so we went through 100 chime sounds, until we got the one that had a combination church chime feeling because that was supposed to be a metaphor for the spirituality of something coming. Everything you can imagine-the creaks around the room, those little moans we had in there. and also the language of the creatures, which eventually, finally became about clicking, you know, like an African tribal clicking. that instantly tells you primitive intelligent, you know. And the primitive part is threatening, you know what I mean? They're doing something around you, clicking, but you have no idea [what it means.] As opposed to [a creature] that goes 'Arrrrgh!' which is like, 'Okay, obviously they want to eat us, so let's do this,' as opposed to, 'They have a game plan.'

WM: Have you ever had a real-life brush with the supernatural?

MNS: I just think it's fascinating. Maybe I had a questionable ghost thing when I was a kid, but who knows. No, not directly, but all of it fascinates me to the point of wondering. I'm skeptical with a 'please someone prove it to me' [attitude.]. I guess it was Houdini's desires to please show me but donít fool me.

WM: What about this topic most appealed to you?

MNS: Because it was a universal phenomenon. It was in India and England and all over, it felt like a really cool hook to get into the movie. I even thought of opening it in the exact same way, but a family in India waking up and coming out and then the man turns into Mel Gibson and he's on a farm in Pennsylvania and he's looking at it with his family at the crop circles in Pennsylvania

WM: Why has faith been such a strong theme in your last three films?

MNS: For some reason I just keep pounding away at this until I get it myself, which is kind of a guy waking up to his potential and who he is and the things around him. So, all three of those movies are this guy waking up. I don't know why I keep writing that guy and I could easily write another one about a guy waking up and realizing this and then the supernatural or the sci-fi elements, the ghosts, the comic-book heroes or the aliens are kind of irrelevant to me, just the backdrop for a man learning to believe again-believe in him in 'Unbreakable,' you know? Believe in love in 'The Sixth Sense,' and believe in himself as a therapist in 'The Sixth Sense,' in his job. These are things that I was dealing with at the time. Each one is a different thing and 'Signs' was basically about believing in faith.

WM: Would you do a sequel to "The Sixth Sense" or "Unbreakable"?

MNS: Definitely not "The Sixth Sense" and "Unbreakable," I would have, but I just didn't feel enough love. That's the truth. Most people won't give you a true answer. I didn't feel enough love. I was surprised at the split in the audience. I was mostly surprised at the lack of the acknowledgment of at least what we aspired to do-the classy, non-fighting goblins on the roof version.

WM: Could you be persuaded to do a sequel of that film?

MNS: I don't know. When we had the first screening of 'Signs,' the 'Unbreakable' fanatics came out in force. And I was like, 'Wow.' They came out with DVDs and posters. I guess there was little cult thing going on. That was really sweet. I don't know. I don't know. Maybe.

WM: You must be fielding a lot of offers from movie studios. Are you willing to give up control over some aspects of filmmaking to work with them?

MNS: Anything that smells like anything else bothers me. It's just a gut feeling. Even if it works, it bothers me. The moment where it's not my voice anymore just becomes depressing. I get offered all these movies that are out this summer to do and I get sad in some ways because you bring it on yourself, but then you get to hold your head up and have your daughter say, 'My dad made these movies and they were made with the most integrity of the movies of the time.'

WM: Were you asked to write 'Indiana Jones 4'?

MNS: I was asked, but it didn't work out. It didn't work out with everybody. It's a pretty tricky thing to get the four of us [Harrison Ford, Steven Spielberg and George Lucas] together at the same time on the same page. I didn't think it was the right thing to do. That was the movie, above everything that affected me, "Raiders of the Lost Ark", it would kind of like be fulfilling a childhood fantasy to say. 'I'll do that one", but it didn't work out. Frank Darabont is doing it now.

WM: Would you ever do a project you didn't write again?

MNS: Theoretically, yes. But there are only a couple of writers for me that can hit those notes that are necessary for me to make a movie and they don't do all the notes. It's possible. More possible is someone who hands me a book. That's a distinct possibility [that someone might says] "This person was inspired when they wrote this book. Do you want to make a movie of it?" Damn straight, I'll make the movie. I'll write the screenplay. That could happen, for sure. There's a couple of books that that almost happened on, but I chickened out.

WM: Why did you cast Mel Gibson as your lead in 'Signs'?

MNS: He did 'Lethal Weapon,' which was a big moment for me in my life. I was on my parents' sofa watching a video of 'Lethal Weapon' and this guy did stuff emotionally that had no business being in an action movie. I completely believed the humanity of a man who was so torn up about losing his wife, that he wasn't afraid of dying, which made him a lethal weapon and those steps were profound and made his entire career on the perfect note that he hit on that. When I wrote the movie about a guy who loses faith because his wife passed away, that was the guy and also I like taking an action guy and not letting him be the guy and then taking the dramatic guy [Joaquin Phoenix] and making him be the action guy. It was fun.