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M. Night Shyamalan: I owe Bruce Willis my career

Director M. Night Shyamalan in an interview with TASS
M. Night Shyamalan REUTERS/Lucas Jackson
M. Night Shyamalan
© REUTERS/Lucas Jackson

Glass is releasing this week - the conclusion of director M. Night Shyamalan's trilogy, which the 48-year-old director planned almost 20 years ago. In the two previous films – Unbreakable and Split - the audience met with an evil genius with brittle bones Elijah Price (played by Samuel L. Jackson) and an invulnerable superhero who doubts his own abilities David Dunn (Bruce Willis), as well as Kevin Wendell Crumb who hosts 24 personalities in his body (James McAvoy). In Glass, all these heroes will meet to find out if they really do have superpowers, or it was all just an illusion.

In an interview with TASS Shyamalan talked about his friendship with Bruce Willis, his new film, the Oscars, and the reasons for popularity of superhero films in the movie industry.


I was just thinking about my trip to Russia this morning. I loved it. That was the first time I have ever been there.

— Everybody loves you in Russia so much!

It was nice to get to know that and the culture and I was learning about it. Russian culture is the one that I do not have the feel for, so it was nice to get to know it. We had a fun time going out and getting to know people.

— You probably know about Russian culture from books or were you not a fan of the Russian literature?

Obviously from literature!

— You can get so much inspiration from it! So may troubled characters. Yesterday when I watched Glass I was thinking about the phrase from your movie – believing in yourself is contagious. So I was wondering did you come up with it 19 years ago or was it something new.

The idea that Mr. Glass puts out as a theory, he says it to David first in Unbreakable, and then by finding David, he thinks that that is it, the world is going to know that comic books are based on reality that these extraordinary people exist. But that is not what happened. And 17-18 years go by, and it’s still quiet. David is hiding in the shadows. And Mr. Glass starts to lose faith in the hospital. Suddenly, when Kevin shows up, Mr. Glass understands that he was right. Then he realizes ‘I’m going to do everything that I need to do to get everybody to know this’.

— In your career you always saw extraordinary in ordinary things. Do you feel like anybody can be a superhero or it is still a privilege for only selected people?

I think we all have the potential to be extraordinary. In my mind, the more you embrace the unique combination of yourself, that’s when you become super powerful, whether it’s in athletics or if you are a scientist. The weird way you think and the way you are – celebrating that, following that. Going ‘Yeah, I think I have a tough time thinking this way, but that way I am really strong’ – that’s how you become great. It’s funny by the way that you said ‘finding the extraordinary in ordinary’ – that’s literally the phrase we say at our company. It’s amazing that you said that!

— It’s amazing that you made Unbreakable way before DC - Marvel movies conquered the box office. I was wondering why you think it happened, why people suddenly developed a taste for these movies? It’s probably a trend that will go away at some point. What do you think will come after this?

There is probably a deep dive analysis into why the ubiquitous nature of comic books seems to be so sticky.

Like when I went to Brazil Comic Con, they were promoting Captain Marvel, which was right after me. So I went up and did Glass and as I was leaving they were screaming for Captain Marvel. And I wondered how many people in that auditorium have actually read Captain Marvel? I wondered whether it was a small percentage but yet they were screaming on top of their lungs and they have never even seen the character. When we first saw Iron Man, hardly anybody even knew what Iron Man was. So what is that they are reacting to? It isn’t actually a connection with the character of Iron Man. That might be true for Superman, Batman, but not Iron Man. How did we get to that place? I think Robert’s tonal take on the piece and Jon Favreau’s humorous grounded version – Marvel struck gold with that tone. And they knew and they copied it and did it over and over, and then they went more tongue-in-cheeky. I think that humorous quality allowed what was perceived as a kids’ subject matter to be enjoyed by adults.  There is a nostalgia thing for males to go back and remember your childhood when you were reading comic books. It’s a male-driven soap opera.

— So this is like a comfort zone?

Yes, absolutely. It is escapism at its best. When we go to see Academy movies, we go to feel something deep and it is going to affect us. Then these movies are more like having a great time. They also skew so young that you can bring the whole family. So it is like a live action Pixar!

— What do you think will come next?

I am always saying the same thing. People show me interviews of me saying this from 5-10 years ago. I think we are on the cusp of original filmmaking taking over again. What we are missing right now, it feels like, is filmmakers that are doing original content with mass market ideas. Where is the new Matrix? In 1999 when we had this explosion of the original movies in that year, I made The Sixth Sense, which was basically a commercial horror movie. The Matrix – an original sci-fi movie. Even American Beauty and Blair Witch Project, Being John Malkovich – that year [we had] accessible movies that were original, but they were done be people that have a voice. I am waiting for that.

I saw it a little but last year, when Split was released. I was thinking that was the beginning of it. It was Split, La La Land, Get Out – I thought, here we go! Between those three movies that was almost a billion dollars, and nobody expected it. So ten more of those, and the whole year is covered. That’s where I thought we were going and I am still hopeful that that’s where we are going. We will see what happens this weekend with Glass. But I think because it smells different, a lot of people are going to come see it.

— The Oscars is just around the corner, so I was wondering what is your point of view – will superhero movies ever be considered seriously for the Oscars?

For me personally, any film that takes into account craft. By that I mean what is a cinema frame, what is it doing, what are performances specific and non-duplicatable. So no matter what it is, if it is The Exorcist, Raiders of the Lost Ark – I picked two commercial movies - non-duplicatable things. I’m happy for it, no matter what genre it is. It’s tough for the voters, they think about movies in a certain way.

— One of the messages of Glass is that everybody now has a power to change something. It’s all in our hands..?

Definitely.  I feel we don’t realize our own sense in agency, whether you are an intercity kid, who’s been taught that they are dumb or it’s a voter or it’s me or it’s you – we don’t realize. You are super powerful, you have no sense of it right now, I can tell. But you are incredibly powerful and you can change a lot of things. I believe that.

— Yesterday I watched the movie and maybe for the first time I paid attention to it.  The color scheme – there is green for Bruce Willis’ character, there is purple for Samuel’s character, and yellow James’ character. How did you come up with it?

They are all physiological. There is even a moment, where you will see family members sitting in colors of each of the characters. The purple is there because it has been traditionally connected with regal, royalty. That is traditionally how we use purple throughout human history. Elijah thinks of himself as royalty in this comic book world. And then yellow orangey color is from Buddhist monks’ robes and Hindu ceremonies where this color is also holy – the Beast is a prophet, he is an evangelist, he is there to protect the broken so I thought of him that way. The green is a life-giving color for obvious reasons, and David is the protector of life. When people believe in the comic book world the primary colors start rising in the movie and become very prominent and when they stop believing, it starts to drain back into very neutral, bland colors, light blues. So the pink room is pink because it is moving from red to white. That’s where you stop believing, they are draining belief out of you. These are all my theories, who knows if people are getting any of this.

— Well, it is your movie, so your theories make sense. How was it working with Bruce again – you made many movies together.

If you count the little scene in Split, this would be the fourth movie. If you count his one moment, where he says one line. But really, three movies – the Sixth Sense, Unbreakable and Glass. Our chemistry is so good and we believe in each other so much. He was my hero. As a kid I had a Die Hard poster up on my wall forever. And when I was writing The Sixth Sense and there was this Die Hard poster, I thought, ‘What about that guy? He could play it’. He is from New Jersey, he grew up basically 30 minutes from where I live, so we were always from the same part of the world. He a ‘guys’ guy’ too, so all that vibe works really well against formalism of how I like to shoot so it was really nice to do it again with Bruce. I owe him a lot, I owe him my career really, to be honest. No kid, who’s 24-25 years old writes a movie and has a superstar say yes and then lets them make it exactly the way that they want to make it. And I had all these crazy theories about making movies and he let me do all of it.

— You are good friends?

Absolutely.  Our families are close. I saw him more as a father, that’s the way I see him with his daughters. So I wrote him a part like that.

— So he used to be like a father and now he is more like a brother.

To me, Sam and Bruce are somewhere between a big brother and a father figure. They have that vibe for me, protector vibe when I think about the two of them. And I feel that way towards them, a little reverence, I feel that way about them.

— I am curious about your process. You are writing, directing yourself. Do you ask anybody for advice? I remember I talked to Robert Rodrigues and he said he is usually reading with James Cameron or Quentin Tarantino. Do you have this urge?

I have this urge every 3.5 seconds to call somebody and say ‘Please tell me this is good’. I try not to tell anybody anything as I am writing. I am trying to listen and hear what is wrong – this does not work, why is this not working. And that gap – have you ever heard that term with regard to an artist? The gap is the difference between your taste and what you executed. That’s the gap. Everybody is terrified of the gap. That’s your job to close it. So most people say – I want to be a writer, I want to be a filmmaker. They are too terrified of the gap to actually execute something, because then they have a fixed mentality and saying that’s it, it’s over. But the gap exists for everybody and you have to learn to close it. So what you are asking me is who helps you close the gap and I am trying to [teach] those muscles as far as I can get to close the gap between what I executed and my taste. When I get it closed, when I show it to people. And then I say ‘what do you think?’ and they’ll say ‘maybe she shouldn’t say this’ or ‘how about that’ or they might inadvertently say something they love about it that would make me go ‘I know what’s wrong’.

— You know, I heard true artists are never happy with their work.

No, because you never actually close that gap. There is always that little space.

— How do you write you cameos? Do you write them in the beginning or towards the end?

No, it is written into the script. Because it is hard to cast me. It is a wacky thing – Indian guy with curly hair, what is he doing in your movie? So you have to find a good place for it and it pulled the audience out when they see me. They go ‘Oh my God’ and then start talking to each other and the narrative gets lost for a second, so you have to find exactly where you want the wink to happen.

— I was rewatching Signs recently and I saw your cameo and it was so weird.

In Signs, I was not as well-known visually. I remember I went to a screening of Signs with the audience and they started to applaud when I got out of the car and I was like “Oh-oh, we have to be careful about it from here on out”

— As I have just discussed with a colleague of mine, Signs wasn’t big with the masses, but there were groups of people who loved this movie, it became a cult movie, and now it is suddenly a huge trend. Suddenly everybody likes it. Why do you think people suddenly realize that it is a great movie, when it was always a great movie.

You know I went to a basketball game on Friday in Philadelphia and the players, the professional athletes in their 20s were coming up and saying they just watched Unbreakable on Netflix, ‘It’s dope’. I was thinking about your question why does everybody seem to love it now when it wasn’t the case back in the day. I don’t know the answer to that. I think that maybe the idea of a comic book seems easier to digest now, back in those days no one had made a comic book movie. So all those players that came up, they have seen a lot of comic book movies now, and they have the context to see that it is an interesting new way of thinking about comic books, even though it was the first way. So I don’t know the answer to it, I am just super happy that everybody seems to be enjoying the films.

— You were just ahead of your time!

I don’t know about that.