M. Night Shyamalan Is Here to Take Big Risks and Feeling More and More Like His “Maverick” Younger Self

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(Photo by Phobymo /© Universal Pictures )

M. Night Shyamalan moves on from his Eastrail 177 Trilogy, the grounded superhero saga that began with Unbreakable two decades ago and concluded with 2019’s Glass, with his latest theatrical release, Old, an original thriller that has “M. Night Shyamalan” written all over it.

For starters, there’s the high-concept conceit, drawn from the graphic novel Sandcastle: a set of vacationing families find themselves trapped on a secluded beach, mysteriously unable to leave, and soon discover they’re aging at a rapid pace. (Among the first clues? A small child notices her pants are suddenly very tight.) Then there’s the usual Shyamalan touches, beloved by so many fans, since he broke through with The Sixth Sense: a cast of incredible actors asked to play it straight in some seriously outlandish circumstances (Alex Wolff, Vicky Krieps, Gael García Bernal, among others); elegant and disorientating cinematography courtesy of frequent collaborator Mike Gioulakis; several WTF moments that will stick with you long after the credits roll; a cameo from the man himself; and maybe even a twist. (Don’t worry, though, this is a spoiler-free zone.)

And yet, despite some sense of familiarity, there are ways in which Old feels like nothing “Night,” as those who work with him know him, has ever done before – and not just because it wasn’t shot in his hometown of Philadelphia. There’s a go-for-broke spirit to the movie that’s invigorating to witness, a quality that has increasingly infused his work since his time on the low-budget and critically acclaimed The Visit rejuvenated his passion for moviemaking.

Speaking to Shyamalan a couple of week’s before Old‘s theatrical release, we found him in a reflective mood, sharing with us that he feels more like the director who made The Sixth Sense and Unbreakable, when he was in his late 20s and early 30s, than he does feel like himself at 40, when he says he was playing it safe. “When I was 20-something, those movies I was making, Unbreakable and things like that, I remember distinctly not caring about that,” Shyamalan said. “Now I’m not all the way back there, but I feel closer to that, to the young version of me that way – as Old goes out, the provocative nature of it, its dissonant nature, is something I love.”

With his latest provocation about to stir up audiences, Shyamalan spoke to us about kicking safety to the curb – while also developing actual safety protocols for one of the first films shot during the COVID-19 pandemic – plus his embrace of gothic horror elements, the fear of aging, and why his movies need to be seen on the big screen.

Joel Meares for Rotten Tomatoes: You’ve spoken in the past about limitations and how limitations can force creativity – and that was the case when it came to the budgets on The Visit and Split – and it rejuvenated your filmmaking in some ways. On this film, it seems you had so many limitations: You were shooting under COVID, you were under the pump on time, you were shooting in the jungle in the Dominican Republic. What was the biggest filmmaking challenge with Old and how did that lead to innovation and creativity for you?

M. Night Shyamalan: I had a thought when you were talking just now that the reason that limitations cause this interesting reaction is, in many ways – and it’s what the characters went through [in the movie] – you go to this thesis of, “What is most important?” It is the most important thing that bubbles up. I only have this much money, this much time: What are we trying to achieve? Well, I need to have her do this. I need to have this feeling about it. I definitely need this shot… What’s important bubbles up and really those are the things that you need and everything else you can throw out the window. It strips you almost of your nonsense, or the things that are not important, by creating limitations. And that’s what happens to the characters in Old, obviously, when they’re thinking about time speeding up so much.

For me – maybe this is the way my mind works and maybe others are like this – you get clouded by more options. There are those studies, where if you give people four things to choose from, they’re pretty clear, everybody’s kind of in agreement about which one is the best, if it’s a strawberry jam or whatever it is. But if you give them 20, everybody’s confused about what’s what, and you can’t hold that much. So, limitations actually give you a sense of place and time and being able to know what your opinion is. I think a little bit of that happens for me, so I try to limit it as much as possible. All of these things that happen made me razor-sharp.

M Night Shyamalan

(Photo by Phobymo /© Universal Pictures )

Rotten Tomatoes: You shot this during the pandemic, and quite early on. Were COVID protocols a pressure that you had trouble with or did you roll with them? What was the impact on the production? 

Shyamalan: We were so early in this – we were the first ones shooting [during the pandemic] – that I was making up the COVID protocols. It was my protocols that we were going by; I became like some kind of medical sleuth or something. Luckily, a lot of my family’s doctors, so I had some basis of how to do this. So I was just making up this protocol. And then when we were done, other productions asked us how we did this because we had zero cases on our production. But it was dogmatic. I knew some things about human nature: I’ll never stop that crew member and that crew member from hooking up, I’m never going to be able to stop that. In fact, the more I say, “Don’t hook up,” they’re going to hook up, right?

So how can I create an environment where everyone can be humans and ask them to do things that are reasonable to keep us safe? I said, “Here’s the hotel, here’s our crew. We’re all staying here. You’re allowed to go from here to the set and back. I’ll bring you the food. I’ll bring you the entertainment. Everyone is staying with us. The concierge is staying with us – everyone. Then have fun in between. Knock yourself out, but don’t leave your [bubble]. Can you do this for 10 weeks?” That was kind of the equation. Those were the protocols and it created a theater-camp quality to what we were doing that didn’t feel like work anymore. It felt special and I want to feel that way always about making movies.

Old

(Photo by © Universal Pictures)

Rotten Tomatoes: You mentioned earlier that the important stuff bubbles to the surface, and you spoke about particular shots you needed to get. This film feels in many ways like your most ambitious visually, I think, just in terms of the number of intense tracking shots and the almost Altman-esque moments where you’re picking up action and dialogue as the camera is swirling around the beach. Can you talk about the visual style of Old and your decision to really go with these extreme camera angles and approaches that are pretty disorienting?

Shyamalan: Yeah. Thank you for noticing it. I think I really wanted to push the cinematography. The way we tell the story, that language is critical to the experience of it, the disorienting quality of what they were feeling on that beach, the kind of almost nightmare, the ghoulish nightmare, that they found themselves in. [We wanted to] replicate that with the emotions that are evoked from the choices of cinema. We were very much influenced by Australian New Wave movies: Walkabout, Picnic At Hanging Rock. It’s funny you mentioned Altman, because he’s always an influence for me and Mikey [Gioulakis, cinematographer] when we make movies. Whatever [the camera] catches, it catches it seemingly, it’s catching things on the periphery and the layers of conversation and all.

As always, every shot is drawn out [first], but I got to make the movie multiple times in hand form before we shot. The pandemic didn’t allow me to shoot when I wanted to shoot, but I had already been ready. So I kept on redrawing and thinking of this shot and this shot. So it was probably, I would say, since Sixth Sense, actually, the most time I spent on the shots before we went to shoot.

Old

(Photo by Phobymo /© Universal Pictures )

Rotten Tomatoes: I know you’ve mentioned before that you don’t necessarily set out to make “horror movies” per se, but I felt Old had elements – more than some of your other films – of horror, and body horror in particular. There are a few moments, without spoiling it, that we go maybe full Cronenberg-esque. How fun was it to create shocking body horror moments, which is something that I don’t think you’ve dabbled in quite as much as you do here?

Shyamalan; No, I haven’t. It’s funny you should say that because, Cronenberg… it didn’t strike me as that as much as, I don’t know, the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark or something, or Poltergeist, where there are some Gothic elements at those moments of people melting or things like that, which I found as a child very, very evocative and my imagination, it went into another genre a little bit. I loved it tipping into Gothic horror for those moments that you’re referencing, just touching it like that and then [coming] back to kind of a grounded place.

Rotten Tomatoes: It certainly evokes a reaction in the audience! The movie deals with the ultimate fear for many people – and it’s certainly the ultimate fear for Abbey Lee’s character – aging. Is aging something that you think about consciously a lot?

Shyamalan: I’m strangely okay with aging. I don’t go to my birthdays and feel like, “Oh my God. Here we go. Okay.” It’s not like that, but I’m fascinated with the way my mind is changing or my perception of my relationships and things is changing. It’s definitely not the same as it was. I don’t take in things the same way. I tried to reference that in the movie, that not only your body’s changing, but you’re taking in information in the world differently as you age.

You were referencing Abbey’s character, and for me she kind of represented a little bit of where society is going, the body image and [idea that] you’re only valid because you’re your own brand on Instagram. I’m going to do this, I’m going to filter this, and do this and do that stuff. Imagine somebody who was kind of a king at this, who was a goddess because of what she looked like, and then now on this beach it’s going [away]: What bubbles up to her? What is important to her? What is important to her now that you know that [beauty] is going to get stripped from you and is of no value when time is moving this fast? So the character starts to think about other things.

Old

(Photo by Phobymo /© Universal Pictures )

Rotten Tomatoes: The other question I had about aging is, how do you feel you’ve changed as a director as you’ve grown older? You’re not an old man, of course, but you’re certainly older than when you made The Sixth Sense.

Shyamalan: I think I strangely feel closer to the way I was when I was late-20s and 30 now than I did when I was 40. At 40, I felt much more … I wanted to be accepted. I wanted to be safe. I felt more value in finding stability and safety than in being a maverick or being like, “Hey I’m going to do this thing because I like it.” But when I was 20-something, those movies I was making, Unbreakable and things like that, I remember distinctly not caring about that. Now I’m not all the way back there, but I feel closer to that, to the young version of me that way – as Old goes out, the provocative nature of it, its dissonant nature, is something I love.

I think probably the difference now from that Unbreakable guy is that I know that that’s what’s going to resonate. I know it, no matter what happens in 10 days, I know that that’s what’s going to echo, that thing that’s weird about it. Whereas the younger form of me, I felt almost ashamed of my instincts, that they were weird and different, and I was, “Oh no, no, I’ll do something that’s easier to swallow.” I remember me having that feeling like, “God, those are your instincts, but people don’t like that.” Whereas now I’m like, “I know that that’s the voice that they’re going to remember.” So there’s a knowledge that came from time. So I hope I can continually risk and risk and risk and risk and not want to keep myself safe, which is what I felt when I was younger.

Old

(Photo by Phobymo /© Universal Pictures )

Rotten Tomatoes: Last time we spoke, we were talking about your Apple TV+ series Servant, and you were saying that while that series is made for streaming, your movie projects are definitely intended for the big screen. And Old is coming out on the big screen – no streaming option. As we’re transitioning out of pandemic era, and everybody’s watching the box office numbers, are you stressed about that at all? Also, it seems that genre films are the ones that are punching through with box office wins, like The Conjuring, A Quiet Place Part II. I wonder if you have any ideas as to why those are the kinds of films that are drawing audiences back to theaters, when others, say, aren’t being as successful at this time.

Shyamalan: I have two answers to that. So, first, the box office is absolutely fine. In fact, it’s more buoyant and alive than ever. People want to be together. I don’t buy for a second that the theater-going experience is damaged. Not for a second, no matter what corporation tells you that, complete lie. Complete lie. It is the best way to see a movie. Everyone wants to be in the best version of it. They want to experience it together. Now, there are certain genres that appeal more for that experience and one of them is when you’re thrilled and you’re scared. You want to see the gasps and experience it together. When you’re alone and experiencing that, it feels almost bad. You want to be grabbing the person next to you or giggling because you got a scare. You want to share that experience; luckily, I’m in a genre that leans towards that group experience even more.

I have felt what you’ve seen now, post-pandemic, is that the movies that are exclusively in the movie theater are doing extremely well and doing great. So I’m very happy as we open up, the world’s opening up, to come back and tell stories in the movie theater. That’s my church. That’s what I do for a living and the rest is a different type of experience; it’s a great experience, but it’s not the commitment that I’m asking of you. You can’t talk to your sister and make a taco. You can’t do that.

One of my friends was like, “Oh, I love Servant. I saw that episode. It’s fantastic. I was on the treadmill. I loved it.” What? You watched it on the treadmill? I was like, “Ah…”

Old is in theaters from Friday July 23, 2021.

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