Few filmmakers have experienced as wide a range of praise and criticism as M. Night Shyamalan. After finding fame at age 29 with the blockbuster The Sixth Sense, followed by Unbreakable and Signs, he put out a series of misses, culminating in 2013’s widely panned Will and Jaden Smith vehicle After Earth. But in 2015, Shyamalan surprised audiences with a twist: He released The Visit, a horror movie he self-financed for $5 million that went on to gross $65 million in the U.S., sparking a professional renaissance. The next year, his $9 million horror film Split (a sequel of sorts to Unbreakable) grossed $138 million. Shyamalan, who’s now producing a psychological thriller series starring Rupert Grint for Apple TV, explains how he regained his moviemaking powers.
Fast Company: Glass is the third in a series that started 18 years ago with Unbreakable, an unconventional superhero origin story. The movie was a box-office disappointment, though it was well received by critics and gained a cult following. Knowing what you know now, what advice would you give your younger self?
M. Night Shyamalan: You want to be this trailblazing artist, but you [also] want to be accepted. They sometimes don’t go together. [I’d] say to myself, Hey, you’re on the right track. Just keep going. Your gut is right, even though maybe the marketplace hasn’t caught up to it yet.
FC: Why did you choose to revisit the story with 2016’s Split, which only reveals itself to be a sequel at the end of the film, and Glass, which brings together characters from the other two?
MS: When I did Unbreakable, the producers wouldn’t let me sell it as a comic-book movie, because they thought it was uncommercial. So it wasn’t marketed that way. They said, “Everybody comes to thrillers, so let’s make it an ambiguous thriller with your name and Bruce Willis attached.” I felt a little hurt by it. I was probably just being immature, and I put away the idea of making a trilogy, which I had been thinking about. Life went on. I did other movies, and I made some family fare and then I went back to thrillers. While I was making The Visit, I thought, Split will be really good to make that way, super-contained. The low-budget moviemaking was making me feel free.
FC: How so?
MS: I’m doing these films the way I want, because I’ve paid for them. There’s a high likelihood that [the return is] going to be positive, because [the budget is] so low. That’s comforting. For Glass, I said, I’m going to put a loan up against my house. I’m setting the tone, for the actors, that it’s going to be hard, and they might not have everything they’re used to. The process weeds out people organically, because not everyone is up for that, and spurs a kind of a work ethic from everybody.
FC: You saw success early in your career with The Sixth Sense. Newsweek proclaimed you “the Next Spielberg” on its cover when you were just 32. What was that like?
MS: I made a movie at 20, called Praying With Anger, that failed. I made another movie, Wide Awake, for Miramax and Harvey [Weinstein], and got my ass handed to me when that failed. Then I did The Sixth Sense and wrote [the screenplay for] Stuart Little in the same year. So that pocket of “wow” was narrow. I had setbacks before and after.
FC: Can you describe a time when you shared your creative vision with colleagues, and they didn’t like it?
MS: When I made The Visit, I felt like a film student again, and that was good. When I first showed the [script] to people, everyone said they didn’t think it was going to work. They were like, “You can’t be this irreverent, you can’t have a naked grandmother in this.” When I showed people the script for Split, everyone [who read it], even my agent, said, “No way.” I’ve been feeling that fun kind of “I’ll prove you wrong” sense when I come to people with an idea and they say no.
A Career’s twists and turns
FC: Do you find yourself pushing back often?
MS: It’s more about following my instinct. If I say, “I’m thinking about doing this, what do you think?” and [the other party doesn’t get it], that will actually reinforce my first thought. I’ll think, I know you can’t see it yet, but I can see it. Whereas when what [the other party says] resonates [with me], I know I need to change something. I remember when I wrote The Sixth Sense, I told my agent, “We’re going to put this on sale on Monday for a minimum bid of a million dollars, and I’m attached as director. If we don’t get a million dollars, I’m shelving it.” We didn’t have any money, so can you imagine? But I was dead serious.
FC: After Earth has an 11% rating on Rotten Tomatoes and did not meet expectations at the box office. How do you deal with professional setbacks?
MS: I’m in a good place on all of that. I don’t read a lot of that stuff. I get a general idea from people who tell me whether a movie was well reviewed or not . . . I’ve been surprised by the passion of the hatred sometimes. I tend to look for unifying theories. I had a relationship with my audience that was specific in terms of making thrillers. Then I wanted to go make other stories. I tacked toward kids’ movies mid-career and I’m sentimental, I get it. That’s not your cup of tea. I wanted to make kids’ movies at that time. Now I’m cool with making thrillers again, and there’s an expectation and reward that’s more in alignment for the audience.
FC: The “M. Night Shyamalan twist” has become a trope of sorts. Has that made you rethink anything when you’re writing a script?
MS: The pejorative part of that question is that it seems like it’s a dance move, like the moonwalk. That’s not what it is. There’s always, by the nature of making a thriller, going to be a revelation. All stories have an, “Oh my God, I can’t believe that happened” moment, but mysteries have a more defined [one].
FC: You typically write, direct, and even appear in your own movies, but you’ve also adapted other material, like 1999’s Stuart Little. Which do you prefer?
It’s more of a challenge to adapt stuff because I want to please everyone. I feel bad changing anything. My first draft of Stuart Little was a straight adaptation of that book. I didn’t want to change it because it was by E.B. White. I thought, I’m just an Indian kid here writing. Then [the producers] were like, it’s too quaint. I thought I would rewrite it and just see where my mind went. There was a line in the book: “He looks somewhat like a mouse.” That told me the tone of the movie, which was the answer to everything. I used that line, and that humor, as the North Star. I prefer to go through the torture from scratch.
FC: The Visit was a low-budget horror movie. Glass is a superhero movie. It seems like these are the only two types of bets studios are making now. Why do you think that is?
MS: [Watching] a drama can be an insular experience. It’s harder to get you out of your house because, for example, I would want to experience something like [seeing] a couple getting divorced in private. I don’t need 500 people to have that experience. But being scared or surprised or having an “aha” moment are things you don’t want to see alone.
FC: Glass stars two stalwarts from the Marvel universe—Samuel L. Jackson (Nick Fury) and James McAvoy (Professor X). Do you feel like you’re competing with Marvel and DC?
MS: Our movie kind of comments on all of that. It’s very self-aware. I want to believe that we have come to a place where originality is again going to be a marketable thing.