in conversation

In Conversation: M. Night Shyamalan

The director on his failures, his successes, and Glass.

Photo: Martin Schoeller
Photo: Martin Schoeller

Over the course of a 20-year filmmaking career, from the breakout The Sixth Sense through critical duds like The Happening and After Earth, M. Night Shyamalan has made, in his words, “a bunch of movies that were really successful and then a bunch of movies that people didn’t like.” Recently, he’s back to making movies people like: the low-budget horror comedy The Visit, which grossed $100 million, and the hit slasher-film-with-a-twist Split, about a killer with multiple personalities — the twist being that the film is revealed in its final moments to be a sequel to Shyamalan’s moody proto–superhero thriller Unbreakable. At an 8 a.m. breakfast in his hometown of Philadelphia, in an upscale eatery adjacent to the campus of Drexel University, Shyamalan is cheerful and engaging, talking about what some have called “the Shyamalanaissance” in advance of this month’s release of Glass, a sequel to Split and Unbreakable. He shared his hard-won philosophy about dealing with failure — and success. “Thinking about the philosophy of things is definitely what I spend my days doing,” he says. “My family is OD’d on it. We’re at the point where if they hear my voice in that certain timbre of excitement about something, [they] will shut down on me.”

You gave the commencement speech at Drexel last year. This seems like a fraught moment to be a young person starting out in life. What was your message?
I talked to the kids in a really honest way as much as I could. I wanted to say, “This is what I’ve experienced so far. I know this is going to ring true to you because we feel the same things. We feel like Superman one day and feel like we’re the worst the next. How does that work?”

So how does that work?
The basic premise was dividing your life into two columns: the things you have control over and the things you don’t. And not getting confused about the two.

Can you give me an example?
Say you’re a songwriter. You write a song, and suddenly everyone loves you! It seems like you have control over the fact that everyone loves you. But you don’t.

How recently do you feel like that idea crystallized for you?
It happened over the years — from a sense of feeling powerless. Oftentimes, the reason we get into a cycle of success and failure is because we get blurry about what we can control. Oh, my company’s doing really well, that means I can control the outcome of things! That’s incorrect.

You’ve said there was a moment in your career following The Last Airbender and After Earth when you’d hit a wall and nobody would make a movie with you.
What I was getting was a lot of, “Hey, what do you want to do?” And I’d say, “Well, I want to do this.” And they’d say, “Hmmm. How about this instead?” Then I’m like, “Yeah, maybe you’re right.” When that happens, I’m lost.

So basically you were making movies that you knew could get made and not ones you wanted to make.
I had stopped doing the things that allowed me to feel at peace. I was the one who allowed that to happen. I did not make the right decisions. And you’re complicit in all that when you take that much money to make a movie.

Following After Earth, you made The Visit for $5 million, which you self-financed with a loan against your house. Then you showed a rough cut to a theater full of distributors in L.A. — and they all passed. Everyone said no.
That version of the movie was only six weeks out from shooting. It was really insane for me to show it. But I thought, “I’m going to sell the film six weeks out so that I know I’m not going to lose money, and my career isn’t over, and I don’t have to sell my house.” Because, obviously, who wouldn’t want a thriller done by me, right? Well, everyone. Everyone didn’t want a thriller done by me, apparently.

Was that one of those moments of feeling powerless?
Yes — that moment of everybody passing. And then the call I got afterward from my agents. There was one agent in particular who was in charge of that sale. That particular agent was on the phone and was pretty callous about [the film’s prospects]. When I got off the phone, the bottom … in essence, the bottom had dropped out. Because it felt like what was ahead was so dark. I was like, “Well, I don’t want to think about that, so what can I do this second? Because that’s as much as I can think about right now.”

What did you do?
I was like, “Well, there’s an editing room. Why don’t I just go in there?”

But what motivated you to keep working on it? Literally a roomful of distributors had just passed on it.
I went, “Well, I have zero options now. So let me just go work on the movie.”

Do you remember the first change you made?
It was a music thing. There’s no score in The Visit. Originally, I had this very kind of weird Lynchian music in there because I thought it was funny. I really enjoy humor, but I’m like, “You know what? Maybe I have to honor the thriller first.” Because it felt like the buyers didn’t even realize it was a thriller. So I excised those music cues. Suddenly, when I pulled that away, I went, “Oh, well, now I can make this scene more tension-filled. Okay, why don’t I cut it in a way that’s tighter?”

At what point did Jason Blum and Blumhouse get involved in The Visit?
I thought, “Let me go screen it for Blum because I can maybe ask him to give me one of his slots if he likes the movie.” I showed it to him, and he loved it.

And The Visit wound up doing very well.
It made $100 million. Then I wrote Split, and on and on.

Let’s talk about Glass and Split and Unbreakable. At what point in the conception of Split did you know it was going to be a sequel?
That was always the idea. Originally Unbreakable and Split were together. David and the Horde bump into each other at the train station, and David follows him.

In the original Unbreakable? So why did you take that part out?
It’s a narrative issue. Whenever you raise the stakes, you can’t unraise them. So once you introduce girls being abducted, there’s a ticking clock that doesn’t allow for the breadth of character development that I wanted to do in Unbreakable with David, his wife, and his kid.

If Split had not been a success, was the idea that there’d just be this stand-alone nod to Unbreakable at the end and that would be it?
Yeah. That was always the idea. To make a sequel that you didn’t tell anybody was a sequel. That was the audacity of it. Take the most commercial aspect of the movie and never tell anybody about it.

The budget for Split was under $10 million, which is like the catering budget on Avengers: Infinity War.
That’s the beauty of making it smaller. The threshold for what defines success is so low. It didn’t need to be anywhere near as successful as it was for us to consider making Glass.

Now you must be facing the opposite question: Can this universe keep going beyond Glass?
It could.

I’m not sure if you’ve heard, but cinematic universes are very popular right now.
Yeah, but that’s not interesting to me. There’s no danger in that. Or not enough danger, let’s say that.

You’re not envisioning a series of increasingly more spectacular films starring David Dunn, the Horde, and Mister Glass?
For me, my weapon isn’t matching pyrotechnics against pyrotechnics. I’m just not good at it! I just can’t — Avengers and movies like that — I mean, I don’t even know how they do these things.

But Split made nearly $300 million globally. If Glass lands as big or bigger, there will be pressure on you to do another sequel.
Yeah, we’re not doing that though.

Come on. Really?
I have the sequel rights to most of my movies, essentially for the reason to not do them.

The Last Airbender and After Earth were budgeted at around $150 million each. Just from a technical standpoint, what’s the difference between being on set as a director on a film that’s in the $5 million range to one that’s in the $150 million range?
It’s all exponential on a movie set. The more crew you have, the more expensive everything gets. And there are tiers to how much people get paid. Once you kick over into a certain budget tier, everyone gets paid more.

Is part of making smaller movies like this that the people involved don’t get paid as much up front but have participation in the profit?
The key is whoever wants to come along to take this ride and make the movie and be rewarded down the line, then welcome. Those that don’t want that, hey, you’re a cinematographer and you get paid X and you don’t want to cut it in a third to do this, I get it. You just can’t make these movies with me.

I have to assume that because you owned and self-financed Split, it wound up as the most successful movie for you financially. Would that be right?
That would be right.

Budgetwise, did you feel the same way about movies you made at the start of your career? The Sixth Sense was budgeted at around $40 million and Signs was near $75 million.
Give me ten million more dollars, it doesn’t make Sixth Sense a better movie. In fact, I could argue it could make it a less effective movie. I would advise all filmmakers: Make the movie for the least amount of money you can possibly make the movie for.

Jason Blum has a similar philosophy, which is that if you make a movie for a very small budget, it gives you a lot of freedom. And when something is a hit, like Get Out or Split, it’s huge. It’s almost like he’s hacked Hollywood.
He has hacked it. And then I took his thing, and I’m hacking it more.

I’m like, “What if you can give people Avengers for nothing?” I feel like I can deliver the same-quality movie at $20 million that they can for $200 million or $250 million by hiring the right people and having full control.

I get the financial incentives, but what’s the creative upside of a small budget?
It allows me to do whatever I want. Cast whomever, crew whomever, shoot it however, reshoot however, don’t shoot whatever. Take huge risks. Look at Split. If I said I was going to pitch you a movie, and I come in to the studio system and said, “Here’s the movie, guys. Girls get abducted.” Already, the pitch is over. The pitch is over.

Really? Why?
It’s been shown that no one wants to see children in jeopardy. So that’s a no right off the bat.

Red flag No. 1.
Then after that, I say, “It turns out to be a guy who’s abducted them and he’s dressing like a woman.” All right. We’re really done at this point. Pitch is over. They’re saying, “Please leave. Please leave.”

Red flag No. 2.
“But wait, I got more! Two of the girls get physically eaten.” “Wait, there’s cannibalism?” “Yes. It’s cannibalism, girls get abducted, there’s cross-dressing. Are you with me so far?”

So there’s no way a studio green-lights this film.
Not only that, but then you get flashbacks — and here’s the really commercial part — to one of the girls getting raped as a child. Then at the end, we’re going to reveal that the lead girl has been so abused her whole life that the guy who abducted her connects with her. They have a connection. And he lets her go. So — should we make this movie? Zero. You’re going to get zero out of that pitch.

How did you end up making that movie at all?
Because I made it for so little. And I paid for it. I’m like, “I’m going to bet you you’re all wrong about this — because I can flip everything I just said into a larger wish-fulfillment story about how the thing you’re most scared of, once you overcome that, it releases you.” The small budget allows me to follow an instinct. Even if a million times someone would say, “That’s not going to work.” In fact, they did say that. My agent at the time was like, “Nobody is going to do this movie. No star is going to do this.”

You said “agent at the time.” Do you have a different agent now?

How did James McAvoy get involved in Split? It doesn’t feel like the kind of role you just hand to anyone.
I’m going to tell this in a very biased way to illuminate what I was saying about how when you focus on what’s in your control, the universe will sort everything else out. So I write this part that basically almost no one can play. Start with the fact that there’s a physicality to it, so you have to be able to look at the actor and go, “Yeah, he can climb a wall.” So that knocks out so many actors right there. Then he needs to be able to play a child without it being silly and a woman without it being parody. There’s only a handful of guys you can even consider for this. So I went to Comic-Con for The Visit, and James McAvoy walks by—

You literally bumped into him at Comic-Con?
I grabbed his arm. He was like, “Hey.” His hair was growing back from X-Men, so it was very short. He has big eyes. He was talking, and he was funny and kind of sweet. I was like, This is the guy.

Did you offer him the part right there?
No. But I sent him the script. He read it and said, “This is nutso!” He was so incredibly fearless. He was born to play this part.

You had said not long after The Village that William Hurt was the best actor you’d ever worked with. Is that still true?
[Laughs.] That’s a tricky question. Actually, I just had this conversation with someone, about how lucky I am to have James and be able to say, “No one in the world could have played it better.” Because it’s true.

That kind of casting luck hasn’t always been the case. Mark Wahlberg got a lot of grief for his performance in The Happening, and he’s been rough on the film in retrospect, calling it “a bad movie.” Does it bother you when actors talk shit about a movie they’ve done with you?
Since that would be the only case of that happening — no. But really, no. It’s totally his call. However he wants to interpret it.

When The Happening was coming out, you said you wanted it to feel like “the best B-movie you’ll ever see.” In your mind, what characterizes a B-movie?
I think it’s a consistent kind of farce humor. You know, like The Blob. The key to The Blob is that it just never takes itself that seriously.

Do you feel like people missed that element of The Happening? The self-conscious humor?
I think I was inconsistent. That’s why they couldn’t see it.

What is it like putting a film in the world and not getting the reception you’d hoped for?
You need to be in a good place. Unbreakable didn’t necessarily work out exactly the way I wanted it to. But now I would go back and tell my younger self, “That column is not your concern. Keep going.” Failure is very cleansing, and success is very confusing.

Really? How is failure cleansing?
For example, whatever happens with Glass, good or bad, I just want to go back to the blank piece of paper again and feel a connection to whatever the next idea is. When no one is calling you, it helps you do that.

And what’s confusing about success?
It keeps whispering to you that you have control over this other column. You’re one of the few people who has control over this column! That’s just a lie. And you may need to fail, in terms of public perception, so that you can go back and do exactly what you want to do.

When you look back at the adversity in your career, did it force you to become a different filmmaker?
What I realized is I felt great peace saying, “Bet on me.” I used to do that when I was a kid. Slowly that gets usurped by “Here’s a lot of money.” But as you take the money, you’re giving your power away.

But as a young filmmaker, if you continually say to people, “Bet on me,” people interpret that as ego or hubris. You got accused of that a lot.
What I’m interested in saying now is that everyone is superpowerful. You’re incredibly powerful. I’m incredibly powerful. The hubris thing is when you say, “I am more powerful than you.” That’s ridiculous.

This year is the 20th anniversary of The Sixth Sense. A lot of people talk about 1999 as a landmark year for film. When you look at the films that came out that year, you’ve got Sixth Sense, The Matrix, Magnolia
American Beauty. Blair Witch Project. The Insider was that year.

Election, Being John Malkovich, Three Kings
Fuck, what a year.

When that was happening, were you aware of being part of a moment?
I guess we thought it was going to last forever. Original and alternative movies, that’s what film is now! How ironic. Because that year basically ended that era.

And if you were 29 today and you’d just made The Sixth Sense, the next thing you’d be offered is Avengers 4 or Thor 5.
It’s a tricky one. I don’t know that I would put it in binary terms of good and bad. As directors get usurped into a role in the larger system, they’re telling larger stories seen by more people. But they’re in the system.

Is the system a bad thing?
There are certain people with such heavy accents that they don’t work easily in the system. I don’t want Quentin Tarantino making studio movies. I don’t want Wes Anderson making studio movies. I want them being them.

Do you consider yourself in that camp?
I’m still one of those accent people. It’s not even me if you take away the accent.

In the book Michael Bamberger wrote about you, The Man Who Heard Voices, he writes, “Some people can’t take criticism. Night can’t not take criticism.” Has your relationship to criticism changed over your career?
Yeah. I tend to do it more with audiences, though. Where I show them a movie and they say, “I hate her,” I’m like, “You hate her? Wow, I didn’t mean that at all.”

That book came out right before Lady in the Water, which was not a hit, and you took a lot of flack for certain stories in the book. Do you regret participating in it?
I’m much more careful now about relationships to the media. It’s a very unusual position to be in, where you’re the author of a movie in a field where the author isn’t typically the star. That causes people to say, “Who do you think you are?” Whereas nobody is saying to Vin Diesel, “Who do you think you are?” Which I always find weird because the actor works for six weeks on the movie and the writer–director works for two years on the movie. So for people to be like, “Who do you think you are?” I’m the guy who spent two years on the movie!

Early in your career, your name famously became associated with big-twist endings. Did that become a burden for you?
I don’t see it that way. It’s not like it’s a dance move. It’s not the moonwalk. If it was, then it would be a burden — All right, when’s he gonna do the moonwalk?

How do you see it?
It’s a form that’s inherent to a thriller. A thriller’s a mystery, right? So as soon as you think, What’s going on?, that means there will be a moment of revealing an answer. So you might as well learn that answer along with the main characters.

Speaking of endings, you’ve talked about how you can choose different stories to tell yourself about your own life. What story are you telling yourself now?
I’m continually changing the ending. As human beings, we tend to take the endings of things and wash it over the whole experience — like, you have a pretty good marriage but the last three months are hell? You feel like you had a bad marriage. The ending reorients your whole experience. So I keep having a new ending every time I open a new movie. Let’s pretend Glass is a success. That’s still not the end of my story. There may be a fallow period again, and they’ll rewrite my story again. There’s a psychological term called negative capability. If you don’t have a negative capability, you shouldn’t be in the arts.

What does that mean?
To be okay with uncertainty. It’s one foot in the complete unknown.

I know you’re a big basketball fan and a big Sixers fan. How did you feel about the plan known as Trust the Process, whereby the team tanked for a few seasons to build up draft picks? Is there a lesson in the value of tearing something down, hitting rock bottom, then rising up again?
I’ve thought a lot about what NBA player I want to be most like. Whose career would I aspire to have.

Is it Michael Jordan? You talk about him a lot.
I think right this second, I’d want to be known as Tim Duncan. From season to season, you could say he’s important or he’s not that important, but you could always count on him. Just year in and year out — he’s a contender.

Annotations by Matt Stieb

*A version of this article appears in the January 7, 2019, issue of New York Magazine. Subscribe Now!

Shot on a budget of $150 million, the 2010 live-action adaptation of Avatar: The Last Airbender grossed less than $132 million in the U.S. After Earth, a postapocalyptic thriller starring Will and Jaden Smith, brought back a little over $60 million in the U.S. against a budget of $130 million. Will Smith called it “the most painful failure in my career.” Shyamalan’s 2015 entry into the found-footage genre, The Visit follows a pair of teenagers on their first visit to their grandparents, whose rules are have a great time; eat as much as you want; and don’t ever leave your room after 9:30 p.m. The first entry of Shyamalan’s post hoc “Eastrail 177” trilogy — named after a train crash that affects characters from all three films — Unbreakable stars Bruce Willis as a security guard who is able to touch people and see visions of crimes they’ve committed. Split follows a high schooler played by Anya Taylor-Joy as she tries to escape a kidnapper with dissociative identity disorder, played by James McAvoy, and is revealed in its final shot to be a sequel to Unbreakable. And Glass revives Samuel L. Jackson’s character from Unbreakable, a comic-book theorist and terrorist with brittle-bone disease. In 2016, Shyamalan was represented by WME’s Adam Venit, the agent who was accused of sexual assault by Terry Crews. Hurt plays the chief of The Village, who abandoned his life as a professor of history at the University of Pennsylvania and recruited members of a grief-counseling clinic to detach from the modern world and pretend to live in a small, secluded 19th-century village. Wahlberg plays a Philadelphia high-school teacher who tries to escape an airborne toxic event caused by trees. Wahlberg was nominated for a Razzie for his performance. In 2010, he called it “a really bad movie that I did … Fuck it. It is what it is. Fucking trees man. The plants. Fuck it. You can’t blame me for not wanting to try to play a science teacher. At least I wasn’t playing a cop or a crook.” The campy, 1958 debut of actor Steve McQueen, featuring a mysterious, growing amoeba that takes over a small Pennsylvania town. Shyamalan was criticized for airing his dirty laundry in Bamberger’s account of the making of Lady in the Water, saying he left Disney because the studio no longer “inspired” him. Critics called it a book-length puff piece. The 76ers slogan since 2013, when the team decided to tank and rebuild, rather than seek also-ran seasons in the short term. From 2010: “Look, I loved Michael Jordan, right? He was my favorite basketball player. When I used to watch him at Madison Square Garden there would be 25,000 people booing every time that he touched the ball, screaming abuse at him. And it was because the entire stadium was there to see him be spectacular. They were like, ‘I don’t want you to disappoint me or hurt me.’ I’m no Michael Jordan but maybe I get a little of that …” The retired San Antonio Spurs power forward and scion of reliability, Duncan was a 15-time all-star and five-time NBA champ who never missed the playoffs.
M. Night Shyamalan on His Failures, His Successes, and Glass