M. Night Shyamalan: The Art of the Creepy Movie

M. Night Shyamalan and Paul Giamatti

hide captionM. Night Shyamalan with Lady in the Water star Paul Giamatti.

Warner Bros.

Director M. Night Shyamalan talks about his new movie, Lady in the Water, and answers listeners' questions about his own take on scary movies and his ability to surprise audiences.

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NEAL COHEN, host:

This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

In just a few moments, director M. Night Shyamalan joins us. But first, an update on the Middle East.

The fighting continued in Lebanon today. Israeli ground troops crossed the border for a second day in a row to engage Hezbollah guerillas and to investigate positions along the border. Israeli warplanes also launched a number of strikes on Beirut's southern suburbs, the area where Hezbollah has its headquarters. There were also attacks in the eastern part of the country in the Bekaa Valley.

United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan today, called for an immediate end to the fighting. Secretary General Annan said that a quick end would not only allow aid workers to reach those in need, but would give diplomacy some chance to work, though he also conceded that the conditions for a ceasefire did not seem optimal, at least not right now.

The State Department said earlier today, that Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice could travel to the region as early as next week. She is headed later today, to New York City to meet with Secretary General Kofi Annan and with representatives from the UN mission that was recently in both Lebanon and Israel - that brought what it said were concrete ideas to both sides.

Tomorrow on TALK OF THE NATION, it's SCIENCE FRIDAY. Ira Flatow will be here with an update on what's next for stem cell research. Plus wind power vs. the Department of Events.

Today: the new movie, Lady in the Water. After the phenomenal success of the Sixth Sense, writer/director/producer M. Night Shyamalan became - at the age of 29 - the kind of filmmaker who could draw an audience with just his name. His spooky suspense thrillers have generated more than $1.5 billion at the box office, worldwide. His latest film is called Lady in the Water.

(Soundbite of movie)

Mr. PAUL GIAMATTI: (As Cleveland Heep) Hey, I saw you. I saw you.

(Soundbite of bubbles)

Mr. GIAMATTI: Come out of that pool right now.

CONAN: Lady in the Water is based on a bedtime story the director wrote for his daughters. The movie stars Paul Giamatti and it opens nationwide tomorrow.

If you have a question about this film or M. Night Shyamalan's others, about the movie business, give us a call, 800-989-8255. That's 800-989-TALK. Email us talk@npr.org.

And M. Night Shyamalan joins us now from the studios of member station WXPN in Philadelphia. And welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.

Mr. M. NIGHT SHYAMALAN (Filmmaker, Lady in the Water): Hey. Thank you for having me.

CONAN: And I described you as a writer/director/producer. And I should add, especially for this picture, actor.

Mr. SHYAMALAN: Oh right. Yeah, I mean, you know, it's kind of from the independent roots. I'm kind of doing everything. It's kind of a feeling of always wanting to have the movie feel small, and kind of crafted, and homegrown - even though they're kind of released on thousands of screens. I still want to have that foot in the independent world, east coast independent world.

CONAN: And you cast yourself as a writer. Quite a stretch.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SHYAMALAN: Right. Yeah, the idea of playing this guy, you know, who's a struggling writer, was just very, very poignant to me and very connected. There's something, you know - you write for a reason or you direct a group of actors for an artistic reason. And this particular character, kind of the plight of him - of him not, you know, not realizing that he's writing something that has important consequences is a poignant kind of thing.

Cause we as writers, we don't have a chance for somebody to come in and tell you that, you know, what you're writing is valuable. Or you know, you just sit there in kind of an abyss of insecurity, and it's a poignant struggle. And I think everybody - every time a writer sees another writer in art, they're like, whoa, I feel so much about that guy.

CONAN: Hm. Well, let's listen to a clip of your performance from the movie.

Mr. SHYAMALAN: Okay.

(Soundbite of movie)

Mr. SHYAMALAN (As Vick Ran): I know it's a bad time to write. It's actually just my thoughts and all the cultural problems, and thoughts on leaders and stuff. I don't know who you're going to want to publish this thing.

CONAN: That was you as Vick Ran, one of the tenants in this apartment building in Philadelphia where this story takes place. Why did you decide, though - you've been in cameos, Hitchcockian cameos in all of your previous films - why'd you give yourself such a much bigger part?

Mr. SHYAMALAN: Well, actually, that's kind of the perception what you just said, and it's not actually the reality. The reality is I've done seven movies. The first one was actually in India and I was kind of the lead in that movie. And it was an independent movie made for nothing. And kind of straight, you know, the straight, independent thing where you write, direct and act. And it's always - all three of those always interest me.

And then in the second movie, Wide Awake, I wasn't in it at all. And in the third one, which was Sixth Sense, I had a little bit of a part in there, a small part. And then in Signs, I had a pretty decent supporting part there with Mel, and it was very rewarding to kind of contribute to the movie in an emotional way.

That's my preference. I don't, you know, the whole cameo thing, like you just said, is the only thing that we have as a kind of - what's the word - clothes that have been worn before. And so the assumption is oh, that's what you're doing, you're doing the Hitchcock thing.

CONAN: Right.

Mr. SHYAMALAN: But that's not what I'm doing. And I don't do the Woody Allen thing either. There's just, you know - occasionally, if the part that I'm writing really speaks to me, I'll play it, you know. In The Village, there wasn't an appropriate place for me in all those white people, so I chose to bow out of that one. But you know, case-by-case, if it speaks to me, that kind of thing.

I can't do more than a supporting part because I'm not able to do the directing and the writing with the proper focus.

CONAN: Let me ask you, though, about the character of the film. That clip we played at the beginning makes it sound like, you know, another spooky thriller - and to some degree it is - but this film is a departure, at least from the four films of yours that we've seen.

Mr. SHYAMALAN: Yes again, you know, it's tricky for me because, you know, I -you know, the things that you asked me are the general belief systems, that I've made four films that are alike. But in reality, you know, Unbreakable, you know, I'm not sure how that fits into the group of - if you wanted to say that they're all scary movies - because Unbreakable's not really a scary movie.

And for me, The Village is kind of a drama. That's kind of covered with this lie, this very dark lie that's going on. And Lady for me is, you know, in the vein of kind of like a thriller/fantasy kind of thing. Because I guess I need -the genre for me is that I'm usually doing differently, is fantasy. And Signs, it was kind of sci-fi, and then obviously Unbreakable it was, you know, comic books, and in Sixth Sense it was the horror genre.

And so each of the - again taking a B-genre and then bringing it in to kind of a more modern world is kind of, you know, I like that.

CONAN: None of those - you'll forgive me - but none of those were exactly chuckle-fests. This film is funny.

Mr. SHYAMALAN: All right. You know, I enjoyed in Signs that the comedy with Joaq, with the tin-foil helmet. You know, there was a lot of written humor in that. And Mel was quite funny running around, cursing, trying to curse, and outside the building, and so… And I remember watching it in the screening and feeling like wow, that's a really powerful tool to have alongside the scary stuff as tension, you know, tension relief.

And so in Lady, there's a lot - there's definitely a lot of humor in it with Paul, Paul Giamatti, and also…. Hopefully the idea was to kind of laugh at it until it becomes poignant.

CONAN: Here's an email question from Mike in Winston Salem. Does it bother you when critics review your films and totally miss the key points you're making?

Mr. SHYAMALAN: Yes, you know, I guess I'm just going to have to come to terms with that because we're going to get slaughtered again tomorrow, when we open. And now it's just a ritual. Every time the movie opens you just get slaughtered, and the movie goes on and everyone forgets that you, that the critics didn't like it.

I mean, I got slaughtered on Sixth Sense and nobody remembers that. And nobody remembers any of them, to be honest, actually. And that's the only kind of solace I have, is that - I'm not sure what the deal is with me and critics.

In this particular one, I openly went at them, but I don't know what the deal has been in my career. I, you know, rub them the wrong way for some reason. They're very suspicious of me. I'm not sure what that's all about, but it's hurtful, actually.

I can't say it's not hurtful, because it is hurtful. Every, you know, every opening you just get trashed, and then as the days go by the movie starts to take on its own life. And you know, after a year goes by, everyone thinks of it as an artistic achievement.

CONAN: In this film you cast Bob Balaban, the actor, as a film critic. Here's a clip of him giving some advice to Paul Giamatti.

(Soundbite of movie, The Lady in the Water)

Mr. BOB BALABAN: (As Harry Farber) There is no originality left in the world, Mr. Heep. That is a sad fact I've come to live with.

Mr. GIAMATTI: (As Cleveland Heep) Well, if there was a - a mystery. And a guy had to figure out who some people were - like he had to find a symbol guy -someone who can figure out messages - and a guild of people who are going to be important at the end, as a group - how would you figure that out?

Mr. BALABAN: (As Harry Farber) The symbol person should be simple. Look for any character who was doing something mundane, but required analysis. Someone who was skilled at puzzles.

Mr. GIAMATTI: (As Cleveland Heep) As for the guild?

Mr. BALABAN: (As Harry Farber) Look for any group of characters that are always seen together, and have seemingly irrelevant and tedious dialogue that seems to regurgitate forever. Is there anything further I can assist you with during my naptime?

Mr. GIAMATTI: (As Cleveland Heep) No, no Mr. Farber. Thank you.

CONAN: And Paul Giamatti as the film critic Harry Farber, who comes to a bad end. I think I can go that far without giving away the ending of the movie.

Mr. SHYAMALAN: Yes becomes - the movie is kind of like a little bit of like an Agatha Christie whodunit, after, you know… He has to find, you know, he has to believe in this bedtime story and come… Yeah, the movie's about storytelling and whether we give reverence back to storytelling or whether we've kind of, we've seen all the stories already. Or whether they've been, you know, whether we don't believe in stories anymore as a metaphoric thing that can teach us something about ourselves and give us, you know, the magic of storytelling back again. when were kids or even in older cultures when, you know, you learned about your past, you learned about other cultures through storytelling.

So really the movie is talking about the power of storytelling. And in the movie, Bob Balaban plays a person that is closed, and feels like he knows everything about stories, and that stories can't do the magic things that they used to do anymore. And so, Paul has to come to this realization about how to find the characters in this story, because he comes to believe that he and other people in this building may be actually characters in this real-life story.

CONAN: It's interesting. You said you expect to get slaughtered when the reviews come out in the papers tomorrow morning.

Mr. SHYAMALAN: Yes.

CONAN: We were talking to our correspondent, our Hollywood correspondent earlier today, Kim Masters, and she said that the buzz in Hollywood is that you're out of you mind, and this is going to be a bomb.

Mr. SHYAMALAN: Oh really?

CONAN: Yes.

Mr. SHYAMALAN: Oh, well, I guess that's…

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: You're there in Philadelphia where you live and work. She's in Hollywood. But, and they've been wrong before.

Mr. SHYAMALAN: Yes - No, I mean, I'm sure they say that. I mean, I'm not sure what the deal is, why they're so antagonistic to me. I mean, probably because I'm not there, and you know, I guess you're suspicious of people that you don't know. I mean, it's an unusual movie for sure, but it's - we've had audience screenings that have been the best I've ever had.

I mean, the audiences have gone through the roof on this thing, so I don't know what to tell you. I mean, you know certainly - it's been an unusual journey making movies from Philadelphia, I'll tell you that. Because there's been a great deal of disassociation between the perceived reality and the reality of what's happened.

CONAN: We're speaking with director M. Night Shyamalan. Lady in the Water, his latest, opens nationwide tomorrow, and you're listening to TALK OF THE NATION coming to you from NPR News.

And let's get some listeners on the line. Let's go to John(ph). John's calling from Brooklawn in New Jersey.

JOHN (Caller): Hello Mr. Conan.

CONAN: Hi.

JOHN: And Mr. Shyamalan. How are you doing?

Mr. SHYAMALAN: Hey, I'm good.

JOHN: I'm the gentleman who called, Mr. Conan, about I have - I dream of the future and see these visions. But anyway, my question for Mr. Shyamalan is I -your movies seem to have such a deeper meaning than just fantasy or mythology, and do you pull your ideas from biblical and ancient mythology? Do you formulate these ideas?

Mr. SHYAMALAN: I mean probably…

JOHN: And one other follow-up, before I go on to get your answer. Have you ever heard of the story the Enuma Elisha, which is the Mesopotamian book of human creation?

Mr. SHYAMALAN: No, unfortunately I haven't, but it sounds very interesting.

JOHN: I think if you do a little bit of research on it, it would make a wonderful epic.

CONAN: The stories don't tend to be short, though. But anyway, go ahead, John.

Mr. SHYAMALAN: No, you know, the - I think that the ideas are probably based in some kind of religious, you know, thing that I've heard, because I went to school, Catholic school, for ten years. And I'm Hindu by my parents, and I'm actually very, very interested in Buddhism. So I mean between all of those kind of, you know, wonderful stories, metaphoric stories to teach as lessons and, you know, those kind of archetypes probably did affect me a great deal.

JOHN: Yes, I study ancient prophesy and mythology and biblical scripture, and I'll tell you some of these stories that - your movie Signs, for instance, was excellent. Because the first time, I just thought it was about alien creatures. The second time when I watched it, I realized what it was really about.

It was about there's patterns in our life, these little signs we should pay attention to, and if we do, we can foresee events to come - small events like maybe you shouldn't go out today because you found two pennies on tails. And it may sound crazy, in essence there's a truth behind it. Sort of like Dr. Michael Barnsley who came up with the theory of fractals and patterns in nature. These same patterns I feel like in human existence.

Mr. SHYAMALAN: Yes, I mean Signs is definitely about a kind of belief in kind of a higher order, that there's a meaning behind the things that happen to us. And if we - you know, with faith, you can see that somebody is there watching out for us. And that's, you know at times it can seem very random and hopeless, you know, for all of us, but you know, actually there is someone watching out for us.

CONAN: Let's talk with Tom, Tom calling from Huxley in Iowa.

TOM (Caller): Hi. It's an honor to talk to you, Mr. Shyamalan.

Mr. SHYAMALAN: Hi.

TOM: My question for you is, you know, my experience speaking with my friends -it seems like they measure going to your movies by who can figure out the twist the fastest. And it kind of impacted how they saw The Village, you know, because they were all, you know, ten minutes in saying, they got it, they got it, and…

Mr. SHYAMALAN: Right, right.

TOM: I turn that off, and I enjoy your movies so much more with that turned off. Have you experienced that at all, or…

Mr. SHYAMALAN: Yes, I mean, you know like Lady doesn't have that. Lady's more like Signs, kind of more of a straightforward but multiple small little surprises at the end, as opposed to one big paradigm shift. And you know, I found - I guess, you know, that that chess game is a little - becomes a little suffocating for audience-goers. You know, even though they can't help themselves. There's kind of a chess game that goes on when there's a paradigm shift at the end of a movie, to try to guess it in advance.

And I guess, you know, when I'm writing, I really didn't take those things into account. Like okay, this is the fifth movie or this is the fourth movie, and what they're coming to the table. And it's the same way I wrote Sixth Sense. You know, I sit down and write it, but in reality they're not coming to table the same way they came to the table on the Sixth Sense.

TOM: Right.

Mr. SHYAMALAN: And I guess that I've become aware of. And so, you know, I guess it gets worrisome for me when I do think of an idea now, with a twist ending. About you know, the chess game that's going to go on in that, you know, if it is a dance - let's say a whole movie is a dance, that that one dance move will dominate so much that it will eradicate all, everything else that you're doing.

TOM: Very good. I'm looking forward to the film tomorrow. Thank you very much.

Mr. SHYAMALAN: Oh cool, man, take care.

CONAN: Thanks for the call, Tom. And we just have a little bit left of time left with you.

Mr. SHYAMALAN: By the way, I just wanted to get back to the whole, kind of the perception versus reality.

CONAN: Sure.

Mr. SHYAMALAN: I mean there's a sense of like, you know, like my best-reviewed movie is Signs, which people would not realize. You know what I mean? And the reason that that's the one that's the most - I believe it's because it's the most popcorn of the group. And the more that the movies try to be something more meaningful, the critics just have a animosity towards that, that kind of aspiration that it actually it could be meaningful, or art. You know, it's like hey, just stay and do your stupid movies. And it's almost like this unconscious feeling of resentment towards, who do you think you are? You actually think you can do something meaningful? And I just don't respond to that. I respond to kind of dreaming, you know, dreaming positive things for all of us - for myself, for everybody in a hopeful manner. And, you know, I, you know, the screenings of this movie have been unbelievable, unbelievable. We've, you know, it's kind of like there's a feeling that I had when saw E.T. That was a kind of a - I know it was more than just a kid an alien, you know what I mean? You could break it down and say it's only about a kid and an alien and that's why people loved it, but it was religion to me. And the people that actually have seen Lady in the Water, we showed it three audiences, just Joe-Schmo audiences, and they've been incredible, incredible, that feeling of like I saw something more than a movie.

(Soundbite of music)

CONAN: M. Night Shyamalan, who will be turning to the sports section first thing tomorrow morning. Thanks very much for being with us.

Mr. SHYAMALAN: Take care, man.

CONAN: M. Night Shyamalan, writer, director of The Sixth Sense, Unbreakable, Signs, and The Village. His latest, Lady in the Water, opens tomorrow. I'm Neal Conan, NPR News, in Washington.

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