If movies were baseball, M. Night Shyamalan would be out. He put out three bombs in a row, but the director is still going. In fact, Shyamalan just pulled off a new twist—this time for his own career. We talked to Shyamalan about how he hopes to make a comeback with his micro-budget thriller, The Visit.
Shyamalan debuted The Visit at San Diego Comic-Con, which might not seem like the most hospitable place for the director to launch a new feature. Those last three films, The Happening, The Last Airbender and After Earth, were eviscerated by fans and critics alike. But the confident director is so excited by his latest film (and rightfully so, it’s really good), he thought Comic-Con would be the perfect place to unveil it to the world.
“There’s such a relationship with the audience and seeing my name on a movie,” Shyamalan tells io9. “This movie, I wanted it to be for them. [Comic-Con] is a place where its genetics are about celebrating weird, original stuff. And I feel like this is an unusual movie that was meant for audiences. There’s no more perfect place to do it.”
The Visit is relatively simple. Two kids (played by Olivia De Jonge and Ed Oxenbould) go to visit their grandparents (Deanna Dunagan and Peter McRobbie), whom they’ve never met before. Soon they realize their grandparents have some very odd and scary rituals at night, and things get very, very creepy. It works because the threat is constantly mysterious, and it’s unlike any antagonist we’ve seen in recent memory.
Shyamalan got the idea after having knee surgery for a basketball accident. “I was under a haze from the surgery, I had a couple ideas and this was one of them,” he said. “I was like ‘Oh my God, that’s kind of interesting.’” At first he thought he might produce it (like he has with numerous other movies and TV shows) but he simply couldn’t get the idea go. “I never wanted to give it up,” he said. “And that started to tell me how much I felt it was a really rich idea. A visceral idea. And then suddenly I figured out a way to shoot it. How to make it artistically meaningful to me. And as soon as that happened, when I knew how I wanted to shoot, I was like ‘This is it. Let’s go for this.’”
In classic Shyamalan fashion, not everything about The Visit is what it seems. There are reveals throughout, yet the film—shot as a faux-documentary—doesn’t hinge on a major twist. You’d assume that’s a good thing in the era of Internet spoilers, but the director believes all the recent talk about the Internet ruining movies is overblown.
“Maybe I’m naïve, I don’t believe that that’s the case,” Shyamalan said. “Those that are spoiling it and those that are listening to those spoiling it, it’s like a certain population. And those people will still come and watch the movie. And then the 95 percent of the population that have no idea that these people are all doing this to each other are going to see it virgin.”
The fact Shyamalan’s films were around before online spoiler culture became prominent is a testament to the scope of his career. In the 1990s, after making two small films, Shyamalan had three big hits in a row: The Sixth Sense, Unbreakable and Signs, two of which had legendary twist endings. Newsweek famously crowned him “The Next Spielberg,” but after that then things started to falter. The Village did okay, Lady in the Water less so, and then there were those three recent strikes. Despite the ups and downs, Shyamalan says he only has one regret.
“I regret not doing Life of Pi,” he says. “I was supposed to do that, and then I didn’t do it. And I definitely should have. In my mind. And I love Ang’s version of the movie. Just for me, that book meant a lot to me and I found the book and I was just really, really excited about it. I just chickened out I guess. I chickened out probably for all the wrong reasons.”
At present, Shyamalan is looking at The Visit as the start of something new. His subsequent film will also be small and maybe the one after that as well. But he’s not closing off all options. He did, after all, direct Unbreakable, one of the great, underrated, ahead-of-its-time superhero movies almost a decade before superhero movies took over the world.
“I love any kind of not-normal subject that I can ground,” Shyamalan said of the genre. “If I can make you kind of believe something, that’s fun for me. I love convincing you—and me, in the process of writing it and making it—maybe there’s one tenth of one percent chance that the Loch Ness Monster exists.”
He believes that grounding is “the secret sauce” of the current crop of superhero movies, giving a nod to Jon Favreau’s Iron Man and Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins as two of the best. And though he plans on sticking to the small movies for a while, he’s open to tackling any number of properties.
“I feel happy,” Shyamalan said. “I’m moving at the speed that’s exciting and all the things that aren’t about storytelling have shed away by doing it this way. But I know enough not try to guess the future. I’m doing [a small movie] next and I do have another idea for a third one.”
After that? Who knows. Maybe Shyamalan will take us on an even more unexpected adventure.
“I did a lot of comedy in The Visit and I really enjoyed that,” he said “I wanna do that as much as it’s appropriate. But I think what’s missing in the world is the definitive romance. I don’t know how to do it yet. I think that when you think of the history of cinema like Gone With the Wind or even Titanic or something, [romance] is one of the iconic things that really crosses language barriers.”
An M. Night Shyamalan romantic comedy? Now that would be a twist ending.
The Visit opens September 11.