The Visit to M. Night Shyamalan16 March 2016
KL: Let’s just start with something simple.
KL: If you weren’t in film, what would you be doing now?
MNS: I guess now my answer would be… right now my answer would be two things: one would be either I would be a novelist, write novels, which is something I still fantasise about, going away and writing a novel, or… own a bookstore. Just like a small mom and pop bookstore, you know, have a couple thousand books that if you come in I’d recommend, you know, there’s a reason I recommend every single book in there. That would be my other fantasy.
KL: You really are quite big into the whole storytelling thing.
MNS: Yeah [laughs]
KL: You know, it really comes across. Other than storytelling, the other big sort of recurring theme that you yourself mention a fair bit is spirituality. And between spirituality and storytelling being these recurring themes in your past work as well as your current work, does your own religion or personal faith play a part in this, and does it tie in with your purpose in filmmaking?
MNS: You know, it surprises me every time I sit down to write that there’s some kind of conversation about faith that’s going on in reusing the subjects of aliens and comic books or whatever it is, ghosts, whatever it is, as just kind of a foil for that conversation of, “Do we need to believe in something?”, you know, I’m definitely I’m the believer kind of guy, but I don’t have any hard stance on the specifics of like, oh I 100% believe in ghosts or anything like that, but I want to believe. I believe in believing, if that makes sense.
KL: Makes perfect sense, yeah.
MNS: And so spirituality, I’m not a big organised religion guy either, in fact I’d probably be – if we got really talking about it – I’d probably be the opposite of an organised religion guy. I’m like, that’s not… that’s us worshipping the boat rather than trying to use it to get someplace, you know, you’re focussed on the wrong thing. But, you know, it is a part of my culture. Indian culture is a very spiritual culture; my mom, my grandma, and all them, you know, my dad, everybody’s very spiritual, cause that’s part of the culture. So the generation above me, that’s just part of their life. My generation, mine and my cousins’, we’re much more Americanized, and it’s not really a part of our lives, but it was a part of our upbringing. So it’s very, very natural for Indians to believe in things you can’t see. Then you add that to the fact that my parents sent me to Catholic school for ten years, so you, yeah, had all these kind of conflicting religious, iconographic, you know, storytelling always around me.
KL: [sarcastically] Sounds fun, yeah.
BV: It really comes across, even from Praying with Anger [Shyamalan’s first film; 1992], just right from the beginning.
MNS: Did you see Praying with Anger?
BV: I did, I saw that.
MNS: You’re kidding! Wow.
BV: Yeah, I went out and saw Praying with Anger, and I mean that is sort of a really key theme in that.
MNS: Yeah, well that one was definitely overt. I mean I was 21 and that was a very overt conversation. It wasn’t metaphorical at that time, it was kind of more literal. Even the second one too [Wide Awake, 1998].
BV: So in terms of just your filmmaking style, you tend to have a very developed and very keen visual sense, whether in terms of colour, in terms of cinematography, that comes through in every film. But in terms of The Visit, shifting to handheld cinematography, and sort of channelling that amateur, “teenager with a camera” aesthetic, how was it balancing your really heightened visual sense with that kind of aesthetic?
MNS: You know, it was a really good match for me. I make a big distinction, and it might seem semantic, but I make a big distinction between found footage and documentary.
MNS: Documentary has an intention behind it, it has the ability for beauty, for aesthetics to be a primary motivational factor when you’re doing your framing, you know, so if I was doing a documentary of us three, I would frame us in a way that would be beautiful, and that would be legitimate. If it was found footage of us three in this room, it’d just be someone grabbing a camera. So I tried very hard with the movie to keep the found footage moments as small as possible, so that, you know, and I literally used to know the minute count of this, but it was probably, you know, it’s less than eighteen minutes of the movie is kind of footage-y. And everything else is composed, and has an intentionality behind it. I storyboard all my thriller shots, the original thriller shots, and I have a new one now that I’m working on, and I’m doing, I’m like halfway through. It’s really arduous to do it, and I mean it’s really arduous, but it matches really nicely with the challenge of The Visit which was that every shot had to be thought out in advance, she puts it on this, she picks it up, she brings it over here, she puts it on the shelf, those kind of… it felt very natural to me to do it. The unusual part of The Visit is I had to write that into the script. I’d never done that before. I used to [work in a way where] the writer finished his work, and then the director comes. But in this one they had to kind of coexist a little bit.
KL: You pretty much did everything, like you’re writing, you’re producing, directing, and all of that. And you tend to do a lot of that in a lot of the films that you do. Do you find it very important for you to maintain this control over it?
MNS: Yeah, you know, it’s, you know, no one wants, no one needs another person in the world pretending that they’re not themselves. Regardless if it’s an artist or a human being. The last thing we want to see is someone walking in here and they’re pretending, they’re not comfortable with themselves and they’re pretending to be someone else. And that causes a sadness on some profound level. And artists when they’re doing their very best work, they’re as specific as they can be, so it’s this gentle balance of having a very, very strong point of view, very strong vision and getting people around you that can make you get there, and help you get to an even richer version of your original point, you know. It’s very hard, you have this little point that you’re aiming at, this North Star that you’re aiming for, and you can lose it so quickly because we’re all insecure and we all have easy ways of getting bumped off the path, and so it’s really your choices of who your partners are, both your creative partners and your business partners is critical. So, like, you know, I made the movie, but I showed it to Universal before it was completely finished, and they loved the movie, and when they love the movie, they already believe in the North Star, so they’re like, “Hey, you can even get closer to the North Star by doing x,” “Have you ever thought about that?” as opposed to, “Why are you going to that North Star, don’t you wanna go over here?” That is a fundamental shift of your direction which then unhealthy partners do that for you. They don’t even realise they’re doing it. “Hey I had a great idea, I woke up and how about this,” and then you’re like, “Yeah, you’re right,” and now you’re not even on your target anymore. And it’s a very subtle thing what I’m talking about, but you can feel it profoundly in yourself when you’re around somebody, and you begin to question yourself, “Maybe that wasn’t even the right target, maybe that is the better target.” But that’s the thing that you have to avoid, you know, questioning yourself at that level, whereas you want someone to challenge you to get to the North Star that you aimed for, even faster and better than you originally even thought of, I’m going in this direction, like we can go faster by doing this.
BV: And is that sort of what you found your experience on working on The Visit was? Was it a lot freer working on this film than some of your previous films?
MNS: On The Visit? Yes. It’s true, I would say; I don’t know if the word “freer” is the right word. The process has to match you as a person. So for you guys, if you guys were making a film, your very best process may not be what I just did. It may be something else, you know, something that would… maybe you’re too shy, maybe you don’t challenge yourself, you need an aggressive producer with you to kind of say, you know, “It’s not good enough guys,” you know, “come on, come on, come on,” and then you wake up and you know that kind of thing, there’s a different version of what the best process is. This process really works well for me. I’m a pleaser in general, so I can so easily change my North Star. Now I’ve kind of distilled it down to three things my company [does]. I say, you know, we work on character, story and healthy partners. That’s it. That’s all we [do], everything else will work itself out. If those three things is where we’re putting all our energy in, it’s all gonna work out. We don’t have to think about all the rest of the million other things you could be thinking about. So like, you know, “Will the audience like The Visit?” That’s not how you think. You don’t think about it. Don’t try to win their love, you know. You go: character, story, healthy partner. And that will all work itself out.
KL: So correct me if I’m wrong but in The Visit, Becca is someone that you sort of project yourself upon to some extent. Young child, passionate filmmaker, got her first camera from her parents at some discount bin. And essentially this is you. Is this you attempting to make yourself into your films?
MNS: I mean it’s just, you know, Stephen King writes about writers a lot, a lot of his stories are, “a writer’s in a cabin”, or “a writer gets caught by a crazy woman”.
KL: He does, he really does! Exactly!
MNS: You know, it’s like, he’s writing about things– so immediately this feeling of empathy comes as a writer because you’re writing about something near and dear to you. Like these two kids are actually based on a friend of mine whose husband left her, and the kids were really kind of shattered from it, and there’s a sister and a brother. And so they’re very connected to me, their issues, but both the kids are me in many ways. Obviously when I knew she was making a movie about her visit to the grandparents, that’s when I knew how to do the movie, and I’m like, “I’m making this movie.” Like I immediately went, “Oh, I get her, you know, obviously.” But her kind of pretension about movies and her earnestness…
KL: Fair bit of pretension.
MNS: Yeah, very pretentious, you know. That’s like… her unbridled pretentiousness is coming from a desire to do something important. And it blinds her to what’s going on in the movie, you know, so that’s a beautiful flaw of hers. Whereas the boy is mischievous and wants to entertain. He’s all about entertaining, that’s all he wants to do, and he’s very contemporary. And that’s a side of me as well. And the two of them kind of meeting each other, the kind of the aspiration for beauty and the desire to entertain, you know, and make people laugh, and those kinds of things. Those two things meeting is what the movie is about.
KL: So when you were young, you made tons of films with a video camera, and when your films go to DVD or I guess Blu-Ray in this current context, you always put a scene from one of your childhood films, of the first attempt at the same kind of movie. So what’s happening, what’s gonna be included in The Visit when it goes to DVD and Blu-Ray?
MNS: You know, you just reminded me of that and I think I screwed up!
KL: You have to do this now!
MNS: I think I screwed up!
KL: You forgot to do it!
MNS: I think I forgot to do it.
KL: Oh, no way!
MNS: And I think the deadline has passed for it! Did I… did I not do it?
MNS: You know, you really messed me up, I didn’t…. when I get home now I gotta make sure. I wonder if it’s too late now.
KL: I didn’t mean to dig this up! I just…
MNS: No, I wanted to, cause I have all these old little movies, and there’s probably something that would be really appropriate, like a little piece of one of those movies, you know, and I have to… and just now you got me thinking about it, I’ll have to… literally, I’m gonna go back now, tonight, I’m gonna be like, “Oh my god, I forgot all about this!”
KL: So glad I had a profound effect on you!
BV: So you’ve got in your office, you’ve got your three favourite films’ posters, you’ve got Raiders of the Lost Ark, The Exorcist and Die Hard, which are sort of the pinnacles I guess of what you were saying about entertainment and art mixing together. Are there any particular films that you’ve enjoyed recently or have had significant influences apart from those three?
MNS: Old or new?
MNS: Well you know, actually I’ve changed offices a bunch since that time that I had those, and now the ones in my office are The Exorcist, The Godfather and Jaws are the three that are in my office.
BV: Sure. Again…
MNS: [laughs] And they’re all kind of similar time periods, they’re all, you know, kind of the perfect balance of commercialism and artistry that I wish for, that those three kind of represent. They’re all auteur-driven movies but like obviously with very big ideas at the centre. And the structures of all three of them are outstanding, you know, obviously. I have a lot, I have a Kurosawa poster up too, I have High and Low. Do you know High and Low?
MNS: You know, the one with the kidnapping of the little boy?
BV: I don’t think I’ve seen it, but .
MNS: It’s a fantastic story. So the premise is a rich man has son, and he has a big house, and there’s a chauffeur, and he has a son and they’re playing together and they’re very close. Anyway, the rich man’s son gets kidnapped, and the kidnappers say, “We’re gonna rans—we’re gonna need x amount of money to get your kid back,” and the rich man’s like, “What the hell? My god,” and then his son walks in, and he’s like, “Oh my god, it was a joke, it was a joke!”
KL: Oh wow!
MNS: And then they come to slowly realise the kidnappers took the chauffeur’s kid by mistake. And now the chauffeur is begging the rich man, “Pay the money, otherwise they’re gonna kill my kid, if they realise it’s not your kid, they’re gonna kill him. Please pay them the money, please…” and the wife’s like, “Give them the money,” and the rich man’s like, “And my whole… all my fortune I’m gonna give for this kid’s son?” It’s really powerful, right, that can see about the humanity and the chauffeur’s begging him, and, really really powerful.
KL: Kurosawa’s definitely an auteur in his own right as well.
BV: Yeah, absolutely.
MNS: Oh! God.
KL: He’s got a very distinct…
MNS: Very distinct.
BV: And you know, writing, directing…
MNS: Yeah. Incredible. I mean those are the ones that stand out over time, I mean you know, there’s certainly a lot of movies now that we are not even gonna think about a few days from now, let alone after because they don’t represent the person enough, you know, a singular thing that makes us, that we see, we see them, we can see, I see you, you know.
KL: Speaking of personal style, you’ve got a bit of a personal style to your films as well, like a lot of personal style, but one that tends to come up a fair bit is twists. That’s something that gets referred to a lot.
BV: So because you’re in Australia, we thought we’d give you a specifically Australian souvenir.
[At this point we give him a bag of Twisties]
MNS: [laughs] Sweet! Sweet! Love it. Can I eat this? I’m starving.
KL: Yeah, you can totally eat it.
MNS: [laughs] Thank you so much!
KL: No worries.
BV: Thank you very much.
MNS: [continues laughing] That’s great.
[His publicist walks into the room]
MNS: [to publicist] They gave me these!
Publicist: Twisties. [laughs]
KL: For his twists of course.
MNS: [laughs] Here, we’ll take a picture with this one.
Thank you guys, you guys are so fun!