M. Night Shyamalan
Photo by Antoine Doyen

M. Night Shyamalan: “I’m who you want in there”

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Short Profile

Name: Manoj Shyamalan
DOB: 6 August 1970
Place of birth: Mahé, Puducherry, India
Occupation: Director, screenwriter

Mr. Shyamalan, why do you think people like to get scared at the movies?

I think it makes us feel adrenaline. It makes us feel present. It’s like that little bit of frisson that happens when we're a little bit scared, it shoots through us... All of our senses are heightened and that's a pleasing feeling — to be really alive, like it's awake and you're present. You know, right now, for example, If I got frightened for a second, I would be aware of all the textures around me and the cab that just drove by outside and that someone's talking in the next room…

And there’s a sense of security that plays into it because when you’re watching a film, it’s a safe environment. 

Exactly. I like that feeling! Plus, I think there’s some deep philosophy in most horror movies.

Some sure — but most?

Yeah! Take The Exorcist for example, you’ve got the mother's sacrifice of the child, good and evil, the sacrifice of the priest… Watching that, I remember feeling this reinforcement that good will triumph over evil. I was terrified… But it really did reinforce those things. The Omen... Jaws… That one was really profound for me. Night of the Living Dead, that just shook me up! When the guy gets shot at the end? Really, that was tragic! I was like, "Oh God, this is all a metaphor!" (Laughs) I hope my movies aren't just scary movies, I hope that philosophy exists in them as well. I think you can feel there's a benevolence underneath that someone who believes in the universe is underneath all of this dark stuff and it's leading to some kind of epiphany.

“There's a benevolence underneath, that someone who believes in the universe is underneath all of this dark stuff.”

Someone who believes in the universe?

Yeah, I’m trying to think of an example… I guess I believe a version of this: our thoughts, our clear, clear thoughts create some energy in the universe, whatever you want to call it, and they manifest. 99.9% of people put out blurry thoughts and that's what we get back: conflicted states. You know, let’s say you’re thinking, "I want to find the perfect guy." But really this is what the thought is: "I want to find a great guy but most guys are assholes." So you put that out as well, and what the universe is hearing is, "Assholes? Okay, here's another one!" (Laughs)

So you don’t believe in the supernatural?

I would say I’m very hopeful. That’s my wish, and I think that’s what my movies portray. But listen, you could dismiss everything, you know, if you and I went drinking and I told you 15 supernatural stories over the course of the night, you could dismiss every single one of them. It always is interpretive. Why — have you had a supernatural experience?

Not that I am aware of.

I think maybe it’s a cultural thing. My parents are Indian, I was raised Hindu. You know, if I went to my grandmother's house in India, there would be a chicken head nailed to the tree right outside. And I'd ask her what that was and she would answer, "To keep away the ghosts." (Laughs) It was like, "Oh, alright." You know? This was all very normal.

A look at some of Shyamalan's films.

You also went to Catholic school, right? Maybe those teachings about angels and demons also played into it.

Yeah, I went to Catholic school, ironically, for 10 years. Like you said, they had their own spirituality that they taught… So, yeah, maybe it's part of it as well. But I also grew up with some of the greatest storytellers ever. George Lucas told me Star Wars at seven, Steven Spielberg told me the story of Raiders of the Lost Arc at 12… You'd have to be dead inside not to react to these things! But then again, I'm a good audience member.

Because you are easy to please?

I'm not stoic at all! I go one to one with whatever I'm watching so if you're sitting next to me in the theater, I'm squirming and jumping and gasping, I'm like, "You're kidding me?!" If you're a filmmaker, I'm who you want in there.

I guess you're not the same way on set though.

No. When I'm making it, I'm very much trying to get the tone, I'm in the thing, I'm very focused to get to where we need to go. If the actor's not there, I'm moving them and moving them and moving them to where we want to go, kind of maniacally. I don't have a lot of fun on the set because I'm very much in it.

“I think there are extraordinary things in the ordinary, but it's hard to see them, they're buried in the genetics of it.”

Most of your films, although they deal in the paranormal, they still take place in real life. Is reality important to the effectiveness of your films?

The more grounded it is, the better. My films represent an extension of my philosophy. I do think there are extraordinary things in the ordinary, but it's hard to see them, they're buried in the genetics of it. Even with my latest film Split, for example, which deals with a very extreme version of dissociative identity disorder… This is a disorder that’s been controversial for 30 or 40 years and that points to how resistant we are to the possibilities of the human mind. I find things like that really interesting to think about, you know, if you point that out, you'd get that one percent of an audience that's wondering, "Is that possible?"

With your film The Village, the revelation of reality only comes in at the end of the movie. Do you worry that endings like that could be taken as a cop-out, like this cliché where the entire story turns out to be a dream…

Well, the analogy that you’re referring to, that is the bad version of a twist ending because it wasn’t really connected to the reality of that situation so it feels like, "Wait a second... That has nothing to do with it." It's like a killer movie where you're going to reveal the killer and he turns out to be somebody we've never met. You can't take all the genetics and then switch them like that, whereas a different reading of the same genetics is the hope. You’re withholding information in a storytelling capacity because that's what thrillers are: you withhold information, giving bits and bits at a time until you get an information dump — it could be the wrong one and then you get the real one after that… But in the end, it’s really just different forms of telling the story.