Beware: Possible Spoilers for The Visit to follow.
M. Night Shyamalan, a director who gained two Academy Award nominations for the surprise sleeper worldwide phenomenon The Sixth Sense. But since that groundbreaking thriller, starring Australia’s own Toni Collette, there has been a variable success of follow-up thrillers, as well as a downward trajectory of epic proportions, at least until the Twin Peaks type television series Wayward Pines brought his name back into the positive spotlight again. The less you know about his new self-funded film The Visit, the better for shock value. Hitting cinemas this month, it will scare up big box office numbers or whimper away like previous efforts After Earth and The Last Airbender. It was a pleasure talking to this interesting director whom I was surprised to find out was responsible for adapting Stuart Little to the big screen.
Shane A Bassett: You have been nominated for an Oscar, what was that feeling like, do you remember where you were when you were first told?
M. Night Shyamalan: We didn’t have a lot of expectations because the movie (The Sixth Sense) had not received much critical acclaim at that time, mixed reviews, it was this kind of sleeper movie that was growing and growing, so retrospectively it was not the instant hit some may think it was. I was with family all at my house when hearing about the nomination, it was fun and exciting.
You’re not known for your comedy except for possibly Stuart Little, but there is a fair slice of comedy within The Visit around the scares, was that to change up the atmosphere of anxiety?
Very intentional, I wanted it to be a complete fun experience not torture frights of the hardcore horror, those movies are hard on me with the slow arduous darkness. I wanted to have buoyancy of both.
You have a great habit of casting Australians; Toni Collette (The Sixth Sense), Mel Gibson, (Signs) and now Ed and Olivia. What do you think Aussies bring to the table in terms of being different from other nationalities?
It is different! It’s a real thing with the Australian acting craft that I love, it’s probably more of a cultural thing, but years ago I thought ‘these guys are like the British and really nice. You guys have a big smile on your face, a genuine look in your eyes and a good life down here, I can tell. The talent comes with a structure from England, much more rigid and formal. I relate and respond to Australians on set, I don’t want every other Director to know though (laughs) in case they steal them before any future projects (laughs).
Sundowning was the original title, why the change?
In the beginning it was about the disorder some of the elderly have after dark, the chemical changes that happen to them when the moon comes out (this real condition) is a fascinating phenomenon. They become changed personalities or very violent, so that was originally what I thought the movie was about but after I put things together I knew that was not what I wanted at all, it became more a bigger idea of a kind of Grimm’s fairy tale when visiting your grandparents. The familiar ritual almost every child goes through and this one goes wrong.
The house is fantastic, a character itself, was it a purpose built set or actual location?
No sets on this movie no money for that, it’s real alright and the best thing about it was I had it so long, from pre-production it was an empty falling apart house so we did actually make it more pretty than it actually was. Sitting in the house before shooting I thought long about where I was going to put things like the table, the scenes where the grandma gets interviewed and especially where the oven would go, things like that to be perfectly positioned.
Was the reasoning of self-funding The Visit because you lost faith in the Hollywood system?
No, it was really about me, it seems obvious but if your ‘own’ money is on the line you act a lot differently than with other people’s money (laughs). You might think it doesn’t make much difference but it does putting that extra extra extra effort of love into the project. You become all in emotionally, and creatively through every little aspect.
Explain your film or what reason can you give audiences to go see The Visit after some of your more recent projects were not well received.
The Visit is my favorite group audience movie, it’s one of those great cinema experiences you don’t want to miss going to see with a bunch of friends. For people who don’t like horror movies this is definitely the movie to see, this is the one movie you’re going to get scared with your friends and laugh at the same time as it’s so buoyant and fun.
Did the writing evolve during filming or was it a set script from the beginning? Had you had that script ready to go for a while?
No I literally wrote it and shot it right away, the idea was in a notebook for a very long time.
There is some rhythmic verse and rapping in certain scenes, did you write those lyrics?
Yes indeed everything in the movie is word for word, I don’t know if I want to take credit for them but yes it was my ‘rappin’.
The grandparents seem lucid to off the wall at variable points, was that you giving the audience clues?
Yes it’s all ‘sundowning’ and a sense of deterioration going on with this couple putting on their best faces or moods so to speak when the kids visit.
Do you take notice of what critics say about your work?
No not really, its not my concern whether they like the movie or not, that is certainly not where my energy should be. My job is to concentrate on character and story development, then go tell another story.
Wayward Pines had a tremendous season one, was there ever a time where you thought ‘I’ll take a break from films and concentrate on quality television’? Will we see a Wayward Pines Season 2?
Thank you, you know, I’m a filmmaker I prefer to tell stories to people in a theatre, it’s my primary passion and day job, it’s what I do. TV is a good way to show character driven story arcs which I love and had a great time during Wayward Pines. I have trouble with TV when I think there are stories without an end, I have a problem with TV all too often because of this. The solving a crime every week kind of show is different but if it’s episodic with no end, I feel it bothers me because they obviously don’t know where they are going. You might see another Wayward Pines season (laughs) but I’m here, I should be working on it.
Was there any film in your career you could have done a sequel to or would like to revisit?
You know I don’t really like to do sequels, it’s something I’ve had opportunities to do but found it hard thinking about in the past, what gets me excited is doing something new. But, Unbreakable was certainly always intended as more than one movie, so that is always on my mind.
Other than yourself as Director, who is the most important person on a film set?
The sound guy, he or she is like the dentist on the set, by that I mean they never get the respect they deserve and very few people talk to them unless something goes wrong.
In the case of the actor Christian Bale, he went off at the DP (Director of Photography) and I support him 100%, what happened in that instance should not have ‘ever’ happened.
It’s never happened to me with an actor or crew and it wouldn’t because I would be there on the spot.
Thank you for your time, all the best and I hope The Visit gets you back on track.
Thanks Shane, you have a great interviewing persona.
The Visit opens in U.S. theaters on September 11, 2015. Check out our review of The Visit here!