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Lady In The Water - M Night Shyamalan interview

M Night Shyamalan, director of The Lady in the Water

Interview by Rob Carnevale

M NIGHT Shyamalan talks about some of the issues surrounding his latest film, Lady In The Water, as well as his split from Disney and how he’s perceived as a writer and director (both by himself and by the industry).

Q. What were the origins of this story and how did they influence how you went about making this film?
A. The story actually came from me telling the back story that’s in the movie to my kids. Ultimately, what I was trying to duplicate was the kind of free-spiritidness that’s there when you tell it to your kids in that room. There’s no editor in there, it’s very beautiful and you don’t know whether it’s going to come together or not. There’s this kind of danger in it.

Somehow, though, you finish the story and it all comes together and there’s this elegant, child-like belief that it’s going to happen. I wanted that for the making of a movie. I think there’s a moment when I watch Wizard of Oz and Peter Pan where you sense that the author has left the rules of normal storytelling and they’re following a light that’s moving around, going places that they understand and yet children can understand. There’s a thread through it all. So, for a year and a half we kind of followed this beautiful colour and light through this very eccentric language and world and put it down without knowing what the result of it would be.

Q. Hitchcock once said that if he made Cinderella, you’d be looking for a body in the coach. Do you think that audiences came to this film with a preconception, expecting to be scared rather than charmed?
A. I’ve been struggling with what to do with all that. The Sixth Sense was the first one that everyone got to see and that happened to be scary. The next one was about comic books and it wasn’t necessarily meant to be scary. But it became seen as a mistake that Unbreakable wasn’t scary. I was like, “huh, I didn’t know that I’d been set yet in that vein.”

I definitely like suspense – I don’t even know how to think without it. But when I sit down to write, I’m naive to how people are approaching the movie. It’s difficult because I have to kind of do the opposite of what an audience does so that people can enjoy the movie. But if I get inspired by a story I’m telling my children and then try to think what the audience might think about it, I’m not sure that that’s an appropriate thing for an artist to do. It’s an appropriate thing for a businessman to do – to think whether they’re going to see the film through the filter of ‘scary thriller’ and then judge it that way and think ‘you’ve lost your mind’! But will he then say: “ Don’t write that because they will think this”? I’m currently reading 100 Years Of Solitude and it has incredibly magic surrealism in it but if the first thing he wrote was thriller-esque, it would be like “what is this”?

I understand it if people say, “hey, he’s the funny guy, or he’s the scary guy”. But I’m not sure that it’s my responsibility to bend to that. I love scary movies, by the way, and there will be others in the arsenal, but there will be a lot of ones that aren’t.

Let’s say there’s 80 different ways to look at Lady In The Water – 60 of them would get you to the place you see it in a kind of a lyrical, parable kind of way; but there’s 20 that you came at it from that you wouldn’t get it and you’d see it only as pieces that don’t work under the expectation of what you’re coming in to see it as. That nobody is going to that 80 is troubling. I don’t know how to get everyone to the 80 other than taking my name off of it, which is something I seriously thought about.
When I was thinking about Life of P I was very worried about putting my name on it because the ending is kind of a twist ending. But if you put my name on it, it wouldn’t have the balance that the novel has. So it’s something that I struggle with. I did think that Lady probably would have benefited from me taking my name off of it so that at least it was signalling “please look at it from another set of language”.

Q. Your initial performances in your films were the odd cameo. Now it’s a supporting role. Will you ever take the lead?
A. Luckily, there are world class actors that can do that. But I did one film called Playing With Anger, which was my first film in India with a really low budget, and I was the lead in that. I came out of the school of independent films and writing, directing and acting. I went to school where Spike Lee went to school and Woody Allen. That’s where I was coming out of and slowly moved into other different forms.

Signs offered the perfect balance of what I’d love to do – a meaningful small role that can contribute to the emotion of the movie. But again, it comes back to expectation. I know about “wear a clothing and then wear it all the time”. So am I the cameo guy or am I Woody Allen? I’m not interested in doing that and I wouldn’t be good at it. But sometimes I do smaller roles and sometimes I want to do a little bit more. I’m not really in The Village, for instance. But I love to have that freedom to just bounce around and do whatever part moves me, rather than opting for some calculated approach. Again, I’m not sure if that’s just naive on my part – to treat it like an independent movie, which is the way I see them, and then say I really connect to that part and want to play it. It’s such a catch 22 because if you hesitate in doing what you’re doing for a living, your art, then you’ve already been corrupted. But if you do it and nobody will allow anybody to see it because of the breaking of expectations, then you’re not doing your art a service either. So what do you do? With this one, though, the struggle of a writer is obviously something that I’m very familiar with, this feeling of not knowing and going into a closed room and feeling lost.

Q. A lot of writers have a collection of stories in waiting, that they’ve been compiling since the start of their careers. Do you have a back catalogue?
A. No [laughs]. I have a bunch of ideas that get to different stages of foetus and then get abandoned and I don’t know what to do about those. There’s nothing different between those and the ones that I do, it’s just that I’ve found a way in emotionally that stuck with me so that I can spend the right time with them. I only do one project for two years – concentrate on it, bring it in. I’m trying to think of a way of doing more than one at a time. The year that I wrote Sixth Sense, I wrote Stuart Little for Columbia and it was very freeing. But that was the last time that I wrote two things in the same year [I actually wrote something else for Miramax too]. But it was a really good year because it made me let go in a way.

So I’m kind of thinking of doing multiple ones – taking one of those ideas and doing it alongside the next one and seeing if that causes any letting go in a good way. But there’s a bunch of ideas and I’m currently trying to work out the whole dating part of it, if you know what I mean. It’s the dating thing I’m not good at – I’m like, that’s the one I’m going to marry.

Q. How did you come to make the film critic the villain? Is it sort of a wish-dream?
A. There’s something about requiring the movie to let go and requiring myself to let go with no safety net that was important for me as an artist. I don’t know how to explain it but sitting here right now I’ve never felt more free, creative and courageous. I feel like I could write anything with courage right now. Somehow, I felt that by doing these things and getting to the other side of that, by not guarding and taking the punches to see if I’m still standing, then I’ll know what’s going to happen from then on in the fight. This movie is about getting back to pure storytelling. Storytelling has always been our way of learning about each other and learning about the things we don’t know. But I feel it’s been sold and I feel that we’ve kind of lost the honour of what storytelling is to us as human beings.

As I was writing a movie about honouring storytelling, the critic became as much me as it was anybody else. I actually had to talk to a critic named Farber in the US because he was getting a lot of calls. But it’s actually based on a kid that I went to High School with named Farber. But it all comes back to this idea of not listening to the things that keep you safe, the patterns that have existed before, that leaving the path is a dangerous thing because you can get lost – you have to do that to find the innocence and the purity in storytelling. The movie is about storytelling and believing in it again, so when I realised what it was about there had to be an expert in it who was wrong. And you have to overcome that person to then get to the place where Cleveland proves that it’s a true story.

Q. The film feels a lot more optimistic than you’re previous work. Where does that kind of courage come from?
A. I always make sure that my kids understand the distinction that courage is not not being afraid, it’s being afraid and doing it anyway. I continually tell them that. I believe in the purity of something; I want to listen to everyone’s worries and concerns about it but my job is to inspire. Firstly, the studio and tell them “here’s my way in and why I believe in this”. Then it’s about trying to inspire my actors and the crew so that we can all try and inspire the audience. But my job is also to listen. Eventually, it negates itself. If the thing I’m believing in is weak, it will die based on just listening to people and hearing what they have to say. But there’s the opposite thing where I ask them what they feel about it and they say something that’s exactly what I feel, so it reinforces my belief. I guess you can liken it to taking a drug and tasting that high – I’ve tasted the high of a pure thought and there’s really almost nothing that would break that. It’s a beautiful thing.

But it’s also a sad thing sometimes – for example, when I was doing The Villlage, I put down the pen and I went, “these people are going to make an ambiguously moral choice that I agree with”. But I also went, “we’re going to be in so much shit” but I kept on writing and writing. I was scared but I can’t make a movie that I don’t believe in, even if I know that it’s going to be successful. I just have to find a truthful way in.

Q. Is there ever a certain point, such as taking this project to Warner Bros and seeing how positive they were about it, that helped you to get going again?
A. Well, there’s one thing that I want to allude to – you’re assuming that this was the first time they [Disney] said anything negative about any of my movies. That’s an incorrect assumption. But that’s all I’ll say about that. I went to Warner Bros and said this is a very unusual movie. It’s a hopeful one and traditionally hopeful ones get trashed by critics. We’re all very aware of the rules of the game but we’re breaking them for the right reasons. I was a loaded gun because Alan Horn is the father of two girls and he and I are very committed emotionally – we respond to the same things emotionally in different movies. So I knew that he felt the same way a little bit about the world. But when he read the script I was very sensitive to make sure that he wasn’t going to say “yes” for the wrong reasons. He didn’t and to this day it’s a movie that he and Warner Bros love.

Lady needed a very special home and they gave it that love. So I felt very happy to find a place that was willing to do that. I suspected as much because of The Matrix and other movies, but lineage wise it’s been the home of Hitchcock and Kubrick and all my heroes. So there was definitely a sense that maybe this was the right place.

Q. Were your children the most important critics to you? How did they feel about you sharing the story with the wider world?
A. The only time I was really, really nervous was the day I showed it to them. The last thing you want is pity from your kids, for them to look up with a weird expression and say, “it’s good”, especially when you know they’re being awkward. I’ve seen it so many times when they get a present and they do that look to somebody. We showed it to them at the sound check, when we weren’t quite done, but the sound broke in the first reel and I was out in the hallway devastated.

But I’ll tell you, they’re 10 and 6, but in their lives I’d never seen them so transported. They’ve now seen it four times. They went to the multiplex on the opening weekend and luckily the multiplex went crazy and they gave it a standing ovation. They called me up and told me all about it.

Q. Did you ever see this film as a children’s movie?
A. I always thought of it as kind of eight-years-old and up and meant to be seen as a family. But I could never figure out how to sell that. My hope is that enough people will see it and over time it will get to families. That would be my dream. When we preview screened it, we had families in there that didn’t have the benefit of a campaign; they didn’t know anything about it. The sad thing about those preview screenings is that I know it’ll never be that way for any other audience – they come with nothing other than knowing they’re seeing a movie. We had families and it was amazing to see all the kids laughing and jumping and screaming. Some kids even came out shaking because they had never seen their dad’s cry – fathers were really connecting to Paul’s performance and his role and young teenagers were connecting with Story.

Q. What was it about Paul Giamatti that made you cast him?
A. The luckiest thing that I’ve had in my career is simply that I am, as a director, allowed to cast whoever I want. That’s an incredible gift and it allows me to cast what I love the most – theatre-trained actors that are confident and who know their craft. I cast the whole movie that way and Paul and Bryce as the leads to guide them. The way I shoot is also very long takes, we stick to the screenplay very carefully and we shoot very fast like a low budget movie – but that requires a certain discipline that people would get off on as opposed to feeling suffocated by it.
For me, there was really nobody else for both Bryce and Paul’s roles.

I forgot which one I saw first – American Splendor or Sideways – but I thought “this is the guy”. I actually think Paul can do the lead of any movie; he can do anything. I think he’s one of the best actors in the world. There are a lot of people who have great craft and those people are amazing actors. But there are only a couple of people who you can put yourself in their souls and go through their emotions. It’s an internal thing, it’s not a craft thing; it’s how you are as a human being. Paul allows you inside – it’s his inability to put the wall up; he doesn’t know how to do it. Maybe over time he’ll learn but right now he lets us in through those eyes and there’s very few people who can do that. Tom Hanks is one. But Paul is a rare, rare combination of the craft and that rare ability to let you in – if he feels sad, you feel sad; it’s not that you’re watching him being sad.

Read our review of the film

Paul Giamatti interview