Feature by: Jack Foley
MEETING M Night Shyamalan for the first time presents its own
sort of twist - far from being the serious, moody film-maker that
some of his work suggests, the writer-director is actually a very
jovial man, who seldom misses the opportunity to poke fun at himself.
Indeed, for a man who has shown an unrivalled ability to tap
into peoples’ imagination with films such as The Sixth Sense,
Signs and The Village, Shyamalan (or Night, as colleagues refer
to him) even describes himself as ‘intensely boring’,
when joking about his need to scare people in some way.
Yet, there is a very simple concept behind his success and that
is tapping into the fear of the unknown.
"Fear is the unknown," he explained, at the London
press conference for The Village. "That’s the definition
of fear – what you don’t know.
"If I’ve got to go to Seattle for a meeting, I’m
afraid because I don’t know what Seattle is like; or if
I’m starting a new relationship, I’m scared because
I don’t know of she’s a psycho or not.
"It’s genetically in us – we feel scared of
things if we’re not familiar with them. That keeps you safe.
It comes from making things that are familiar to you, unfamiliar
"So if you’re in your bedroom, it’s a normal
bedroom until you realise that the phone is off the hook and there’s
glass on the floor - now the room is unknown to you. It’s
no longer a familiar place and then you find that kid naked in
the corner, and you’ve got the beginning of The Sixth Sense.
"I came home with my dad and my sister once, and the front
door was open, and that house was frickin’ terrifying. I
was like ‘let’s get the hell out of here!’ and
my dad goes in with the dog – my dog wouldn’t hurt
anyone, and my dad’s about four foot two. It was a silly
situation and I was terrified. I much prefer that to putting blood
on the walls in my films."
With this psychology in mind, it is easy to see why Shyamalan’s
films work so well. There is no gore, no psycho standing in the
shadows, and no flashy camera work. People are afraid because
their imagination runs riot. It’s about what you think might
happen, rather than what actually does.
Indeed, with both Signs and The Village, Shyamalan even proves
himself adept at delivering something more than you had initially
"I love telling stories like that... multi-layered and coming
at them from different angles. It’s much more fun if you
don’t know its true emotional motivation until the very
end," he continued. "The story the picture is about
is perhaps not clear until you’re in the car..."
The Village is a classic case in point. The marketing points
towards a group of villagers, whose uneasy alliance with the creatures
that inhabit the neighbouring woods, is about to come to an end.
It could easily appear a fright-fest, or even a creature-feature.
But the film which results, while encapsulating this premise,
also functions as a rich character study, involving the lives
of the villagers, and the relationships contained within.
Principal among them is Joaquin Phoenix, as Lucius, a headstrong
young man, whose decision to venture into the woods to find medication
for his community heralds the start of the village’s problems.
Yet, the film is equally at ease
showing Lucius’ developing relationship with Bryce Dallas
Howard’s blind villager, Ivy, and the resentment that it
subsequently creates with Adrien Brody’s village idiot.
Yet, no matter what level the film is functioning on, every scene
carries with it an impending sense of fear - a feeling, either
real or imagined, that something is about to happen.
"My particular accent that I speak in is suspense, so if
I’m writing a conversation, my mind will immediately go
to how to create a ticking clock within you, whether it’s
a romantic scene, or emotional scene, or a scary scene –
it’s about defying expectations," he explained further.
"That’s why the great delivery of a line, in a way
you did not expect, or the camera moving in a way that you do
not expect… that heartbeat is the tension of the movie.
"And that’s why I find it so hard to put humour in.
I would like to do humour more, but I find it empties that tank
of tension and I have to fill it up all over again."
There is another downside. Having earned a reputation for being
able to deliver a cunning twist, and to sustain tension on a par
with the likes of Alfred Hitchcock, Shyamalan believes that people
have come to expect and look for it, which ultimately brings the
added pressure of Box Office success.
"That’s all people are occupied with – and sometimes,
all the gentleness of the movie is overshadowed by the secrets,"
"Even when I hear you say about what a great opening weekend
the film’s had and all, what I really want you to say is
something about originality, or something like that."
Shyamalan is acutely aware of the need to make money, but maintains
that the real challenge lies in the ability to take risks - no
matter what the consequences.
"I want to be courageous and original, and original means
you don’t know what colour the movie is you just saw,"
"You just saw it and it’s all up here [in the head].
Movie-making is not like other straight art forms, like painting,
writing a novel or anything like that, because that can be digested
and interpreted and then it’s all good.
"But this is all so much about Starbuck’s coffee
– give me it, I’ll drink it, I’m gone. It takes
two years to make this sort of movie, so the money side of it...
it’s all just on money – money, money, money.
"I remember when Unbreakable came out, people were going
‘oh, it didn’t do so well’ – it’s
my job to make money for the studio and I do that.
"But now, every day, somebody comes up to me and says Unbreakable
is their favourite film. Where were you? You were just counting
out dollars that day. Even now, it’s balancing art and commerce
– the Starbuck’s and the painting of my job."
It’s a balancing act that Shyamalan appears to be handling
competently, however, given that The Village took $50 million-plus
at the US Box Office.
Yet, in another quirky twist of fate, it appears the critics
may be tiring of being duped, and some derided the movie for being
the director’s most disappointing work to date.
The last laugh, however, could well be with Shyamalan, who appears
to possess the talent to succeed in whatever he sets his mind
to creating. So watch this space…