M Night Shyamalan on his new film
M Night Shyamalan is the modern day master of suspense. Think The Sixth Sense, Signs and The Village and you’ll instantly know what we’re talking about. The gifted Hollywood hot-shot is back with his latest film ‘Lady in the Water’, a film, he says is based on a fairytale told to his daughters.
Here he reveals all about ‘Lady in the Water’ and how Spike Lee proved to be his filmmaking inspiration
How is it to make a film out of a story you told your kids?
It is the same as it always is when I tell my girls stories, which is: you don’t know what’s going to happen. You don’t know. And that’s dangerous and wonderful. Literally, I go, ‘Should we tell a story?’ And they go, ‘Yeah.’ And I say, ‘What should I tell about?’ And they say, ‘About this glass.’ And I go, ‘Okay, so there’s this man that blows glass, and you know what blowing glass is? When you put your own air and your own lungs in it. And one day he was really sad and he blew the glass, and the glass became a different color.’ I just make that up as I’m talking about this glass, right? And we would start going for another half an hour. And I don’t know where that’s going, but it’ll end up in this amazing place. And there’s this mania that happens because I keep on talking. And the girls can tell I don’t know where I’m going, and then it suddenly goes, ‘Oh,’ and they go, ‘Uh huh.’ And we all discover it at the same moment. And that was how I wanted to make this movie. I wanted it to be a two-year version of that ‘I don’t know what’s going to happen.’ But I have an unbelievable faith that at the end of the day, it’s all going to be a part of its own language. Hiring [cinematographer] Chris Doyle, hiring the actors that I hired, making it in the way I made it, in the fashion that I made it, holding onto elements of the movie that were certain to destroy the movie, all just holding on with faith. It felt like a two-year version of that process of telling the story in my kids’ bedroom, where I don’t really know where the glass blowing is going, and I know his breath is important, that that’s going to come to me, as I’m telling the story.
Is that how you came up with the idea of Cleveland Heep trying to breathe underwater?
No. I knew he was going to be a supervisor of a building. That just felt right – somebody who does a mundane job. But then the idea that he’s hiding there was a very powerful idea, that she uncovers that he’s hiding, this idea of him walking up the stairs with the garbage was very Sisyphian, rolling a boulder up the hill kind of thing. This is his self-imposed punishment, for what he feels he was lacking. He wasn’t there for his family, and he just gave up. This is his punishment. And he’s at peace with the punishment, and so he just wants to go do his thing. That is a really interesting main character for me to write about. That’s where Cleveland came from.
Why was this sense of community that comes from living in an apartment an important element to the film?
That whole Rear Window, everyone getting together thing. Some person said that it was the reverse of Rosemary’s Baby – a group of people getting together to do good. But this idea of strangers in an apartment building was really powerful, and this idea of finding the characters, almost like an Agatha Christie mystery. Who’s the interpreter? Who is this? And you get it all wrong, and then you try again. It’s fun to learn about your neighbors. I love the idea of gathering strangers into a bathroom. It’s very endearing to have a reason to cross paths with your neighbors.
Everybody liked the dispatching of the critic. Why is the critic there?
Yes, he stopped learning. It was the character that stopped learning in the movie that wasn’t able to respect the story, the power of the story. The whole movie is about storytelling as a metaphor for life, as religion. You know what I mean? We stopped respecting that the story is unlimited and has you involved. We don’t know how it’s going to play out; and it can play out in unusual and new ways. There are things to learn about the world. All those things, which is a childlike thing, to believe in that. And we forget those things. To stop learning is, I guess, my greatest fear, that I myself will have too much experience. There is a beautiful balance to inexperience and point of view that people almost intersect, and then they lose it by putting on all this dangerous stuff. And by dangerous I mean like manic. And going back to that philosophy of storytelling to my kids, I got back to inexperience in just the right way. I don’t know how to pull this off. I don’t know how to do this in the greatest way. But I have faith that I’m coming from the right places, that this story is the right story to tell, that finding your purpose is a powerful idea, those kind of things: have faith and then it will all fold back together again.
What do you mean when you say that some of the characters in this film are ‘a link in the chain’?
It’s this idea that a person is told that their contribution is going to be important down line. It will cause a chain of events that every single person in that chain of events needs to do their thing, but you are crucial in that chain of events – a link in the chain. That’s part one. And part two is: what would you be willing to do to ensure that your message gets out there? Would you be willing to make sacrifices? I’m not all that brave a guy. If the building was burning down and you were burning in it, I’d be like, ‘Somebody help her!’ I would probably consider it, and I would try to go in, and I would be really torn because I’d be scared to death. But if I knew you were an author, and I knew you were an amazing author, and the only copy of your book was in the building, I probably wouldn’t hesitate at all, to go in, not even for a second, to jump in that building and get that book. Don’t know why I’m built like that. The preservation of an idea is far more important than anything I can imagine. You know what I mean? Something I always talk about with the younger actors when we were on the film and were just hanging out is ‘What would you be willing to do to really connect? Would you be willing to do everything you needed to do, give away ego, do other things, trash everything that you’ve achieved to make this one connection, if you could do it just one time?’ It’s a powerful idea, this idea of what you’d be willing to do, if you’re told what your link in the chain was, and what was going to happen to you. Would that be satisfying enough – to be part of that chain?
What were the risks of making this film?
I’m responsible, and I know when I’m making calculated risks here and there. This was an acrobat move. I actually felt like on that side of the hill is unlimited potential. If I can get to the other side of that hill, there’s unlimited potential. I don’t know if I can, but it’s in this point of view that I might be able to get there. Can you see that possibly happening? Walking into a movie theater and having a unique emotional journey in this day and age in the movies, the way moviemaking is now, and for two hours having a unique thing happen to you, and have it come out positive, and believe again? Having an epiphany of some kind, an emotional response, is possible. I may not get there; most probably I won’t get there. But there’s a nice feeling that there’s something on that side. That’s how I felt here, and I wanted everyone to feel that potential. My God, if we could get on that side of the mountain, it would be fantastic. I like where we are. At the end of the summer, in the summer with blockbusters all from previous materials, I like where we are.
Does this film take on issues of faith in the religious sense?
I’m not a big traditional Orthodox religious fan. That’s not my thing. Those are the good stories too. But I can’t devote myself to the form of the story. These are all just metaphors, and so it should be taken that way. Just a conversation of: Do we believe in believing anymore? Have we given that up? We’re all definitely lost now. That’s what The Village was about – when everybody was important to the process. So, I needed you, and I needed you. We all needed each other. Everything was imbued with meaning. But now, we’re freezing to death in this room of air conditioning. We don’t even know who put it on. (laughter) We don’t know what’s happening. So, it’s all lost, and we all just accept it. We accept so much ambiguity now. And there’s kind of the purity of the storytelling where Paul desperately is telling these people, believe in believing again, and only a guy who had given up, who had zero, could make that speech to them. ‘Let’s take a leap of faith. What’s it going to hurt us if we genuinely click our heels and believe here?’
Why did you choose to play the writer figure?
I was suggested by someone to play Farber, the critic, which would have been funny. But that particular character – this idea of being a writer who’s told that what you’re doing is important – it’s a dream of all writers because they all said that it’s the most torturous moment, to be a writer, the blank page, and this sucks! This sucks! And for someone to tell you that it’s going to have an impact, like Harriet Beecher Stowe, the idea of me playing Harriett Beecher Stowe, this idea of someone who writes a book that then later has implications that you never realized. Someone like Lincoln will then read it, and then have a point of view, and then change things. That you are part of an incredible chain of events is a powerful thing that I have seen happen in my own life. I tell this story in every interview; I’m going to tell it one more time: I was in JFKAirport, and I was driving with my parents. I’m 12 years old, and the flight’s delayed, so I went in the bookstore. I got a book, which is Spike Lee’s book, She’s Gotta Have It, where he talks about making his first film. And I read this thing and I go, ‘You can just make movies? You can just go out and make movies? This is crazy. I didn’t know you could do that.’ And I was like, ‘Wow, this is legitimately something I could go do.’ So, life goes on. I decided to go to film school, and I go, and I make movies. Luckily, people go to see them; I make money; I start a foundation; the foundation gets involved with this community in India where this woman stood up to these pillaging people and started to educate the women in her town; and I am now going to help those people and save lives and save those children. That means Spike Lee saving lives in that town. He was a link in a chain that he is completely unaware of, by empowering me, who then empowers other people and we keep being part of a chain of events. It’s a real thing that happens. It’s an amazing thing. If someone told Spike, ‘You know what? Yeah, you’re going to make movies and all that stuff. But actually what’s going to happen is you’re going to save about 10 children’s lives in a town in India if you just write this book.’ I mean, he wouldn’t believe it. You know what I mean? But it’s what happens. And it continues to happen, this network, a veining of positive actions.
Did you ever tell Spike that?
No. No I haven’t. I do, I talk to Spike a lot, but I didn’t tell him that. He’ll think I’m corny.
Lady in the Water is released nationwide on August 11th