5 True Twists You Didn’t See Coming from M. Night Shyamalan
The master storyteller shared some tales of his own.
Stephen Lovekin/Getty ImagesIn the 14 years between The Sixth Sense and today, M. Night Shyamalan’s career has seen a few twists. But whether cheered or jeered, the filmmaker’s projects have always maintained a rigorous visual standard, command of talented actors, and an inventive exploration of fear and family. Shyamalan’s newest sci-fi thriller—After Earth (out now)—is no exception. Here’s what we learned from Shyamalan when we sat down for a chat.
1. He’ll admit to a mistake (but not the ones you’d think)
While most of the Internet still wants an apology for The Last Airbender, Night is quick to admit mistakes from his early, early career. Night started making films when he was 12 years old, and still recalls his first big blunder:
“The first movie I made was a copycat of Friday the 13th. It was me, 12 or 13 or however old I was, hearing something and freaking out, and it was really cheesy. No character; just a horror sequence of a dude running through a forest. And I think that was an important lesson to learn. Everything is character-based. All my early movies were event-based, so that was filmmaking mistake #1.”
2. He paused his life for Will Smith
Two-and-a-half years ago, M. Night received a friendly birthday call from Will Smith. The two had never worked together, but Night just saw Will’s son Jaden star in the Karate Kid reboot, and was impressed with the kid’s range.
“I told Will I saw the movie and thought his son was fantastic, and then he was like, ‘Well! I have an idea!’ (laughs) He pitched me After Earth right there. He’s definitely a smart guy. He definitely catches you at the right moment. I was writing this thriller at the time that I pretty much set aside right away. I’ll get back to it one day. It’s still sitting on my corner table, staring at me, making me feel guilty like a neglected girlfriend, or a dying houseplant.”
3. Like most of his characters, he’s not entirely open with his dad
Night says one of the most appealing things about After Earth was the fractured father-son relationship that drives the drama. To get the best performances out of Will and Jaden, Night drew on the relationships to his own children, and his dad:
“I’m really interested in the things we don’t say to each other that we should before it’s too late. My father and I don’t talk much. We talk about sports. And it’s only if something horrific were to happen that we’d start saying what’s really important to us. Classic guys, you know…or maybe it’s just an Indian immigrant thing. After Earth is also kind of about that relationship.”
4. At the end of the day, he only cares what 3 critics have to say
Critical opinions of Night’s films trend demonstrably downward since his early career, but the filmmaker’s emotional investment in each project remains consistent. Lady In The Water is a bedtime story he told his daughters. The Last Airbender came about after his youngest turned him onto one of her favorite cartoons, Avatar. And After Earth, ultimately a coming-of-age story, is also undeniably charged with love for his three daughters:
“My daughter is a teenager. I’m nervous about her going out in the world, and I’m giving every piece of philosophy to her I possibly can. I’ve experienced fame and failure, now she’s going to face those things. When my kids first saw After Earth, they broke down emotionally—in the best way. To some extent, the movie’s an ode to them. It’s me saying, ‘OK…I trust you.’”
5. His scariest scenes come from real life
Aliens aside, nothing is as scary as the demons you don’t see. Shyamalan’s most haunting childhood memory eventually became inspiration for one of his most memorable scenes. Here’s how he tells it:
“One time my family and I came home from shopping in the station wagon, and we pulled up to the house and our front door was open. For the first minute we all just sat in the car staring at the front door. And we were like—Oh my God…let’s call the police. But this was before cell phones or anything, so we were sitting there, and we didn’t know what to do, until my dad decided, ‘I’m gonna get the dog and I’m gonna go in there.’
Now, just to give you a sense, my dad’s basically 5’7” with a potbelly. This isn’t Hulk Hogan here, this is a bald little Indian dude. So I was like, ‘Dad…most female volleyball players could KILL you, and you’re gonna take our dog (who basically just licks everyone), and you’re gonna go in there and do what? What are you gonna find in there?’ He didn’t know, but we sat in the car and watched as he went inside.
Well it turned out, as we were leaving earlier, the doormat had just flipped over and popped the door back open. So that’s all it was. But for that moment, watching my dad walk into the house, we were all freaked out. And when he came back outside he said, ‘You know…I was really scared walking into the house, because I thought there was gonna be some person sitting on the bed, waiting for me.’
When he said that line, I was forever traumatized. And that image—coming up the stairs and there’s some crazy person sitting on your bed—became the first scene of The Sixth Sense.”
After Earth opens today
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