Shyamalan Turns to Environment for Thriller Plot Film writer and director M. Night Shyamalan discusses The Happening, his upcoming spooky thriller about people trying to save themselves from a worldwide environmental catastrophe. He talks with host Ira Flatow about the intersection between real-world environmental issues and fantasy.
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Shyamalan Turns to Environment for Thriller Plot

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Shyamalan Turns to Environment for Thriller Plot


This is Talk of the Nation Science Friday. I'm Ira Flatow. A bit later, we'll talk about the global warming bill stalled in the Senate, and Honda's new fleet of hydrogen-fueled cell cars. But first, a new science fiction film is out by the writer and director of some very spooky films like "The Sixth Sense." This one is called "The Happening." And it also purportedly is very spooky and explores the idea about what happens when nature turns against humans. Now we really can't say for sure because we haven't seen the film yet. It is very hush-hush.

We can see from the trailer that we see people collapsing dead on the streets, felled perhaps by some mysterious cause. But in the movie, interestingly enough, Mark Wahlberg plays a high school science teacher scrambling to understand the cause of this major environmental crisis and escape it. And the film opens a week from today on, of course, Friday the 13. Joining me now to talk about the new film, and how it fits in with real life and environmental issues, is my guest M. Night Shyamalan who is a director, writer, and producer of "The Happening". Welcome to Science Friday.

Mr. M. NIGHT SHYAMALAN (Director, writer and producer, "The Happening"): Hey. Thanks for having me.

FLATOW: Well, I don't know if you're familiar with Science Friday, but we talk about a lot of science issues. And when we were contacted by your publicist to come on to the program we figured you, you know, they must have known that and we're very happy to have you on here because we love your work. But is there any real science - so you're delving into scientific issues and using science sleuthing at all in the film?

Mr. SHYALAMAN: Yeah. I mean, you know, what's just fun about it was, you know, I had this - an idea for this movie. And I kind of wrote it out, and then I went to kind of my research people here, and I said, look, here's the idea for the movie. Is this - is it at all possible? Could this, could this possibly happen? And they came out with all these stacks of, you know, cases and studies and scientific information. And they went, not only - you know, not only is it possible, but versions of this have happened in nature a lot. And so it was a very interesting process to kind of, you know - something that it kind of, you know, take - like what Michael Crichton does, take two things that are scientific, that's a factual that's happened, and then take a leap to a third thing that could happen.

FLATOW: So, is this film about the earth rebelling?

Mr. SHYALAMAN: Well, you know, it could be. It could be.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SHYALAMAN: Part of the fun of it is that there is a - you know, basically what happens in the movie is that there is about this couple that lives in Philadelphia and then this event happens in New York where the piers and airborne chemical toxin has been released, and people are dying at a very, very horrific fashion. And it's attributed to terrorists in its initial phases. And then it starts happening in other cities, in Boston, in Philadelphia, and all along this East Coast little - this crescent-shaped area of the East Coast. And our couple find themselves stuck in this area. And there's all kinds of theories about what to go - well, who's doing it and what's causing it. And they become less and less plausible as the event takes on the scale that is taking on. And it, you know, it's an interesting thing because I started - when I started writing it people start sending me articles because they knew what I was writing about, friends, the people that we worked with. And one of the articles was about the bees disappearing.

FLATOW: Right. The collapse.

Mr. SHYALAMAN: The kind of the opening scene of the movie with Mark talking about, in his classroom, talking about the bees disappearing in. It's very much about what we're talking about here, the idea that, you know, there are acts going on here that science is going to try to label this while the bees disappearing it's because of this, it's because of the cell phone, because it's that or it's this. And in reality, we really don't know what happened. But we know there are forces that we're not aware of. And there's something greater - a shift that's happening that we're not aware of.

FLATOW: Hmhmmm.

Mr. SHYALAMAN: And, you know, there's a bunch of those kind of references in the movie to oddities that are occurring in science.

FLATOW: In fact, we have Mark Wahlberg saying that very line in the film. Let's see if we can hear that cut.

(Soundbite of movie "The Happening")

Mr. MARK WAHLBERG: Science will come up with some reason to put in the books. But in the end, it'll be just a theory. We will fail to acknowledge that there are forces that work beyond our understanding.

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: Very spooky. Wait...

Mr. SHYALAMAN: Yeah, but, you know, it was getting a lot of - you know, there was, you know, there is this guy Lovelock who talks about...

FLATOW: Oh yeah.

Mr. SHYALAMAN: All the kind of, you know, that there are - this is a system, you know.

FLATOW: Right. The Gaia principle.

Mr. SHYALAMAN: Yeah, exactly. And then it will correct itself. And these are all theories that are bandied about in the movie. And you know, one of the things that I kind of based Mark's character on - I was reading the biography of Einstein while we're shooting, that beautiful new biography that came out on Einstein. And one of the things that really struck me about Einstein's story was how he was kind of an atheist when he was younger. And then, as he, you know, as he worked, and you know, got more and more into, you know, the way the world exists, the rules behind it that he was discovering, he started to become a believer again. And in a way, he saw in the gaps of science some hand at work something. Some divine hand and he attributed it to God, you know. And he became a believer, devout believer, in the later years. And in that same way, like Mark's character, he's just a high school science teacher but he knows there's gaps in science that we keep trying to fill. But it's in those gaps that he can see something, he can hear something that's at work.

FLATOW: Right.

Mr. SHYALAMAN: That's greater than us.

FLATOW: Well, I'm not sure I would believe, I would agree with you about Einstein and God. But he did believe in some sort of God in all of us. But you're right about the fact that a lot of people look at the world and think they are, you know, there must be some sort of other being controlling it. Is that where your movie heads, some sort of intelligent being?

Mr. SHYALAMAN: Well, you know, it's more open-ended. You know, it's very much kind of reminiscing of "The Birds."

FLATOW: Right.

Mr. SHYALAMAN: Like it was kind of the inspiration and the open-endedness of it. It's really kind of, you know, the goal was to make kind of a, you know, a B science fiction movie about a subject that, you know, you have a great ride and, you know, you jump and you're scared and you're crying and you do all those things as an audience member. And then at the end, the fumes of the movie kind of leave you thinking about something a little deeper perhaps like, you know, "Invasion of the Body Snatchers," you know, about the paranoia of communism. Or even "Night of the Living Dead," you kind of have traces of the civil rights movement. That same case, the thing that's on our mind now as you know, what - you know, when we hear about, you know, anomalous environmental things that's happening. Is this something calculated? Is this something going on here? Is there a shift that's going on? And, you know, the kind of - the idea did come to me kind of driving down the highway from Philly to New York, and kind of thinking about, you know, the road is kind of a scar on the landscape, and all the trees bending over the highway.

FLATOW: Why did you choose a science teacher?

Mr. SHYALAMAN: I'm sorry?

FLATOW: Why did you choose a science teacher, of all people, to be the one who discovers - or is a central character?

Mr. SHYALAMAN: Well, I mean, we wanted to have somebody that had enough knowledge and also a lack of knowledge that, you know, a kind of a humbleness about things that they knew, whether they didn't know, sort of felt like somebody who had just moderate knowledge. This isn't someone who's going to save the world or come up with any answer or anything like that. This has to be somebody who knows enough to believe. You know, most of my movies they're about that kind of like struggle to awake your belief - the belief system again in you. And Mark plays this character Elliot Moore who kind of his almost childlike in his belief of what he sees in science and what the implications are.

FLATOW: And so, instead of a scientist who has strong beliefs, you're having someone who's open to any kind of suggestion.

Mr. SHYALAMAN: Yeah. I mean, in a way it's like I have found a lot of people that are, you know, extremely logical, the kind of that search for sciences in a way they kind of find evidence to some extent. Or an explanation is kind of, you know, the not knowing is excruciating, and you know, there's a bunch of scientists that, you know, that I've met that have a kind of a, you know, a belief system in their eyes that - that isn't cynical, that isn't about logic. There's the joy of discovering that there are other things at work.

FLATOW: I'm reminded, you know, of scientists in various films and movies who were the investigators. Sometimes they are really sinister characters, other times in a film like yours that reminded me was the original "War of the Worlds" where, was it Gene Barry played the scientist who everybody turned to and eventually figured out what was - how the creatures were destroyed.

Mr. SHYAMALAN: Yeah, you know, in our movie Mark's character, you know, in the movie it's very much kind of a wonderful question, you know. It's ambiguous what's going on. And it kind of tweaks our guilt a little bit as you watch it. And so it's just kind of getting that tonality just right. It is in a kind of an ABC case where you need to find out this cure, and it cures everything. It isn't that. That structure is much more of a lingering kind of question in the air, and it kind of leaves you uneasy about the future.

FLATOW: So, people will come out of this discussing it amongst themselves?

Mr. SHYAMALAN: That's the hope for sure. That's hope for sure. It's kind of like, after the last scream is done, there's kind of this quiet that happens and it kind of - it sits on us in kind of - in the importance of things that, you know, they're on our minds, you know. I guess it's always about - my movies are always about something I'm worried about. Life.

FLATOW: Now, you're always known for films with a twist ending. I mean at the ending, you know, "I see dead people," certainly it was a great ending. Can we expect a twist ending at the end of this film?

Mr. SHYAMALAN: No. Actually, you can't. And you know, whenever I hear that I get confused because, you know, I've made a bunch of movies that don't have twist endings, but I guess, you know, it always happens that way, right?

FLATOW: Well, people like Hitchcock like, you know, you've talked about the Hitchcock, comparisons to Hitchcock.

Mr. SHYAMALAN: Yes, that's what I would love to say. Hitchcock is known for twists, too, right?

FLATOW: Right.

Mr. SHYAMALAN: He did one. So that's, I guess, that's my lot in life as well.

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: Well, Hitchcock let you knew - let you in on the little secret of the movie all the time.

Mr. SHYAMALAN: Yeah, he will do a kind of a reverse structure where you are ahead of the characters.

FLATOW: And we're not going to be ahead of the characters on this film.

Mr. SHYAMALAN: Well, it's kind of different. It's more of, you know, what I love about it it's like a classic old paranoia movie. That was the go-away, you know, to do one in its genetics, everything about it was like a simple perfect dive up the diving board.

FLATOW: So, it's sort of like you say a B-movie, sort of a genre.

Mr. SHYAMALAN: Yes, definitely. The best B-movie you've ever seen. That was the goal with the crew.

FLATOW: Wow, and you think people will not be disappointed with the ending? Even if it's not a resolved ending, they won't be disappointed.

Mr. SHYAMALAN: I hope so. Why do you sound so cynical? Where is it coming from?

FLATOW: I don't know. No, I'm just saying I...

Mr. SHYAMALAN: You're asking the film maker whether he thinks the ending is going to be disappointing.

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: Well, I've thought maybe I'll get a surprise. I thought I might get surprise answer out of you, you know.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SHYAMALAN: I love the ending of the movie. It kind of, you know, when it turns from entertainment to just a hair of thoughtfulness that's what I loved about the end of "Night of the Living Dead." It kind of - the tragedy of it.

FLATOW: And there's a lesson in this film.

Mr. SHYAMALAN: Well, only in the thought and the subject matter of it, but mostly it's to be entertaining.

FLATOW: Well, I wish you great luck with it and I can't wait to take a look at it.

Mr. SHYAMALAN: All right, man. Take care.

FLATOW: Thank you.

Mr. SHYAMALAN: Thank you.

FLATOW: Thanks for coming on. M. Night Shyamalan who is the director and writer and producer of "The Happening" as they say, coming to a theater near you and in what better date it's opening on Friday, the 13th. We're going to take a short break and when we'd comeback we're going to switch gears and start talking about this bill in the Senate. It's greenhouse gas bill in the Senate that sort of died in the senate today, and we'll be back next season in the season in the senate, next year in the Senate with a new president, maybe it'll have better luck. Maybe that's why it died today. We'll talk about it. Stay with us, we'll be right back.

(Soundbite of music)

FLATOW: I'm Ira Flatow, this is Talk of the Nation Science Friday from NPR News.

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