Inside the Head of an Old-Fashioned Auteur
In the five years since The Sixth Sense, writer/director M. Night Shyamalan has established a consistent record as a Hollywood hit-maker – quite an achievement for a 34-year-old living and working in rural Pennsylvania. In a rare interview, Shyamalan talked to Film & Video about his work, his influences, and his aversion to digital cinema.
F&V: What makes you tick as a filmmaker?
It feels like unburdening when I make a movie, so it’s definitely a sense of therapy, working out things that are on my mind. I love to create suspense and a mood that will hopefully linger with the audience long after they leave the theatre.
F&V: All your films are very intricately constructed.
They are, and because I also write them, I’m aware of every single element needing to be in exactly the right place. I remember when we were mixing The Village and adding music and sound effects, I knew something was wrong in this one scene. So I told them to take the whole scene apart, even though everyone insisted nothing had been changed, and it turned out that we’d added a Foley footstep before a line. And that footstep was too strong, which indicates strength, which undermined the line. It had to be more tentative, so in that sense it all has to work like clockwork for me. Basically, when you first see a film, there’s a reaction to the broad strokes, but then slowly over time all the details cause different reactions to emerge, and I heavily invest in that secondary-bloom version of the movie.
F&V: What part of the filmmaking process do you like best?
It changes. On The Village and Sixth Sense I enjoyed the writing the most. On Signs it was the editing, while on Unbreakable the actual shoot was awesome.
F&V: You’ve worked with some great DPs, including Roger Deakins on The Village. How does that process usually work?
I storyboard everything, and then they give me input and we do another set, and gradually map it all out. With Roger, I loved all his work with the Coens and I really like his naturalism and sense of style, and we have a similar aesthetic. It’s fairly minimalist and we don’t like to shoot too much footage. I probably shoot the least amount of any director out there. I hear of some who shoot a million feet on just one film. I haven’t shot that much in my whole career.
F&V: How important is audio in your films?
Huge. It’s my special effect I use to create tension, aliens, textures, everything. When I wrote Signs, I said, "This is one of the biggest sound movies of all time," not because you can count tons of sound effects, but because sound creates a presence you can’t see. There’s a scene right at the start where Mel walks into the crops, and there’s a [sound of a] crow that gets more and more exaggerated until it’s more like his feelings. It feels like a score, but there’s no score there. It’s actually accented by this very warped crow sound. And in The Village, the whole film’s actually in mono, which reflects the villagers’ minimalist aesthetic, until you go into the forest, and then it opens up into surround sound, to accent all these new, unfamiliar sounds she hears. And that change affected the entire film so dramatically.
F&V: Do you embrace all the latest technology?
It’ll probably surprise people but I’m kind of old-fashioned. I cut my first two films on film and the last four on Avid, but I’ve actually considered going back to film. I’m far more comfortable with that and I almost cut The Village that way. I prefer the pace, though it’s far slower. I’m not a tech-head at all. My wife has to set up e-mail for me.
"I’ve actually considered going back to film…I prefer the pace, though it’s far slower. I’m not a tech-head at all. My wife has to set up e-mail for me."
F&V: What do you feel about digital cinema?
I’m sad about all the changes. It scares me. I love film and I’d work on film forever if I could. In fact, if I could, I’d go back and find all those great Kodak stocks they used in the’70s and use those today, because they were more real, with more grain to them. Now they’re so fast and clear they’re slick-looking.
F&V: What about HD?
I’d never shoot HD unless I was forced to and there was absolutely no film equipment left anywhere. It’s a whole new medium I’m not comfortable with. I’m a real traditionalist who likes to keep it simple.
F&V: You always shoot near where you live, and your production company, Blinding Edge Pictures, is also based outside Philadelphia. Do you ever feel outside the loop?
Sometimes. I don’t know that many people in Hollywood. But I like the set-up I have and working with the same people and crew a lot, although it’s been moving around a bit recently. I like using different DPs and editors, and matching the right people to the right project.
F&V: How do you view Hollywood?
I used to look at the top-10 [highest-grossing] movies of all time and I could justify all 10, because they achieved something extraordinary in their genres. But now I look at that list and I feel a lot of the movies got there by marketing. But I’m excited by the trend to more individualized movies. I loved Lost in Translation, and I love the fact that Peter Jackson’s doing his own thing in his own way. His passion and individual vision made the Rings movies so successful. So there’s lots of signs of life.
F&V: What directors influenced you growing up?
Kubrick was a big one. His sense of composition was brilliant, and he could make these very disturbing frames and images, and his sense of pace was so effective. Same with Hitchcock. And I love Kurosawa. For me, they all have a similar aesthetic.
F&V: You always write and direct. Would you ever direct someone else’s script?
I don’t know. I’m very committed to the writing because it really allows you to explore everything about the characters and their situation. I’ve been offered some really good scripts, but I turned them all down for various reasons. Maybe the material wasn’t quite right, whatever. I’d actually like to do a comedy, and I love the humor that comes with suspense- that nervous laughter. I was trying to do that in Signs.
F&V: What’s next?
I’m making notes for my next script, and then after that one I plan to do Life of Pi, based on the novel by Yann Martel, and we’d have to go to India to shoot. I don’t go on many locations outside where I live, so that’d be interesting and a big change.