M. Night Shyamalan is the director of the new Will Smith movie, "After Earth." This is a fact that you might not be aware of, because Shyamalan is not a major aspect of the film's marketing campaign. It's a twist from how things were for the 42-year-old director in the aftermath of 1999's "The Sixth Sense," when Shyamalan's name alone was often enough to sell his movies. Following an impressive run of critical and financial successes ("The Sixth Sense," "Unbreakable," "Signs"), the waters have cooled a bit for Shyamalan over his last few movies ("The Lady in the Water," "The Happening," "The Last Airbender").
In person, Shyamalan is about as cordial as they come. When we met on Wednesday afternoon, he was wearing an Iron Man t-shirt; it made him seem approachable and endearing. So did this: Shyamalan was tipped off that May 29 was my birthday, so no matter how contentious the below conversation seems to get at times, keep in mind that it ended with him and me eating a cupcake.
Before the interview, I was told that nothing was off limits. So, with that, we started talking.
You're looking through Life magazines.
It's so cool, man. Look how beautiful Cybil Shepard was during "The Last Picture Show," which is one of my favorite movies.
I wouldn't have guessed that.
It's all tone. Bogdanovich, his control of tone is insane.
Most people remember Shepard from "Moonlighting."
She was amazing in "Moonlighting," but, this movie ... she's more powerful than the movie and your heart is taken away with this not-so-glamorous girl.
This is my segue, but speaking of tone, "After Earth" doesn't have the typical tone that we are used to from you.
Well, I think it's a hybrid, right?
There are moments.
Moments, yeah. Quiet kind of has its place in the movie -- you know, the quiet stillness and the introspective stuff. Which I think we're talking about, that kind of tonal thing. You know, it's interesting: I think my movies are primarily dramas -- you know, 70 percent drama and 30 percent whatever the genre is -- and then normally they're sold on that genre piece. And that causes a weird reaction of, "Oh my God, I didn't know it was 70 percent this other thing." And this time it's at least 50/50.
But this one seems less your movie than what we've seen in the past since probably "Stuart Little." This has been publicized as Will Smith's movie.
I don't know if I'd say that as much. "Stuart Little" would be the one that I just kind of embraced it, but, to some extent, that was a lot me, too -- the tone that came through. I've become a version of whomever I'm working with, to some extent. Does that make sense?
Like if I'm working with Scott Rudin on "The Village," I start leaning more that way in the way I'm thinking a lot -- so, I'm more toward that person, my partner, a lot. And, on this one, it was Will.
But I feel like something like "The Sixth Sense," you can say, "This is my vision. This is my movie."
Yeah, from the beginning.
But I feel on this one Will Smith can tell you, "No, I'm looking to do it this way. Do that for me."
I think the balance of it was that he left me mostly to my devices in terms of how to portray the character's journey. So, I'd say, "Well, maybe he gets poisoned by a leech." I remember writing that sequence. And I think Will's influence specifically would be seen, say, in an action scene where I would stop at "two" and we might go "three" or "four" -- go one more beat in the action. And I definitely learned from that in terms of -- I'm a big self-analysis guy, making sure I go through therapy all of the time with myself.
What's that mean?
You know, that's what making a movie is: therapy for me.
Which movie is the most therapeutic?
Yeah, they're all like that. They all represent where I am. Does that make sense? And in this one, working on this movie -- I have two types of minimalism. I love, really love, to be minimum. Left to my own devices, I'd definitely do "The Tree of Life." That's where I would go. I'd love to do that -- ambiguous and quiet and all that stuff.
Do you consider yourself a filmmaker like Malick?
Well, he's so courageous. I don't know if I'm quite as courageous as him.
You know, there's a kind on insinuation that we were talking about with "The Last Picture Show," just a tone. There's very little plot in "The Last Picture Show." It's not based on plot. The plot comes in and out, but your driving force is tone. A lot of Malick's movies and especially "The Tree of Life" for me -- I can't tell you that I knew exactly what was going on, but emotionally I was 100 percent there. So, he was working on a subconscious level.
Let's say you made a Terrence Malick-type movie. Do you think it would have been better received, say, right after "Unbreakable" came out or now? That people would have given you more of a shot back then with something so abstract and that critics would be more unfair today?
God, I don't know. I've come to think of it more as a body of work. That's the way I've always thought about it to some extent, but it's the healthiest way to continue to think about it rather than kind of going on each one in its particular context at that moment and its particular expectations of that moment. Those can be driven by the marketing, those can be driven by the previous movie, it can be driven by other movies -- you know, that kind of thing.
Do you feel that critics have turned on you?
[Laughs] No, no. I definitely think that they're seeing it more -- I think it will be easier to see in a body of work, I think.
You had a critic character in "Lady in the Water."
I don't feel an adversarial relationship to them -- I goof around with them in "Lady in the Water."
But you see why some critics take that as a personal attack? He's brutally killed.
[Laughs] I know.
And you cast yourself as the writer with the important vision.
Well, it was all about storytelling. And all about kind of all the aspects of storytelling -- that movie's main character is named "Story" and all of that stuff. I mean, it was a tongue-in-cheek movie.
Could "The Sixth Sense" be a phenomenon today? With the Internet, could it have kept its secret for as long as it did.
I don't know. It would have been difficult, I think, today. It would have been difficult. For sure the headline on Twitter would have been like "surprise ending," right? Or "I didn't guess the ending." It immediately orients you in a different way to it. I don't think it would have been the same experience in today's market. The fact is, it was very lucky timing. It was right before the Internet became a real, real place where everyone constantly went. I remember it at the time, it wasn't even talked about when we put that movie out.
I remember I had no desire to see it at first because it looked too much like "Mercury Rising," Bruce Willis' other movie with a child actor.
"Mercury Rising"? I'm trying to remember it.
Then the word of mouth came.
Right. It would be different, one way or the other. In some ways, it could have been recommended faster. So, it could have been that or it could have been talked about in the wrong way too quickly.
Did you ever feel caught up in having to have a twist? Did you ever feel that you had to do it?
No, I never -- I don't think like that.
A lot of your movies have twists.
They do. So, in my mind, if it turned out that I did 10 movies and seven of them had twists, that's great.
You never thought, I need to stump the audience again?
No. I don't ever think of it like that. That's kind of outside-inside thinking where it's really none of them are that. None of them are a gimmick.
I don't think they're a gimmick. But I wonder if there's something internal that makes you want to one-up yourself.
Not at all. Not at all. What I'm trying to say is it's not an outside thinking thing. This is the story of a young reporter who is turning 39 and he wants the day of his birthday to be amazing.
I fear this is going to end badly for me.
I'm going to tell it from the point of view of the person that didn't know him. And then I reveal the story, reveal what your actual plan was for your birthday. An angle on the story rather than thinking of it like like I need to have a twist. It's what's the most provocative angle to tell the story? And from that, it becomes a revelation of another part of the story. So it's more of a paradigm shift in how to tell the story than it is thinking of it as a gimmick.
You've gotten away from that in your last couple of movies.
I don't think of it like that. You know, my first two movies before "The Sixth Sense" were just straight movies -- and "Signs" was a straight movie. And "Lady in the Water" was a straight movie, in that way. Although there are revelations in those movies.
You tried to make "Life of Pi." Was it hard at all to watch Ang Lee win an Oscar for Best Director for that movie?
No. You know, there are so many movies that I wish I had made. And Ang doing it is like the perfect ending to that story for me.
That's a nice thing to say, but how?
He's my hero. All of his movies, even before "The Ice Storm" -- which I think is a masterpiece -- just to have someone that I think is a master-level storyteller to take that story, which is a boy from Pondicherry [in India], where I was born ... You know, I love that movie a lot and I love that book a lot. It means a lot. It was nice to see things work out for everybody. It's happy, as opposed to if it was done by somebody that I didn't like or didn't think as highly of. I would have felt bad about the situation.
Is there a movie that you wish you could have another shot at or film a different way? A movie that audience didn't respond to as well as you had hoped.
Well, you always have a way of making it more accessible. Always. The decision is always between "accessible" and "authentic."
What's an example?
Well, let's say, for example, like a difficult decision for the main characters -- let's say at the end of "The Village" -- a difficult decision to continue the lie versus the youth becoming free. And winning the day. And realizing their opportunities of being able to come into the light of the real world and to a Times Square kind of vibe. So, that would be provocative and empowering, but I chose to make it morally ambiguous. But it was more authentic to me. My whole conversation with that movie was I'm nervous about the world.
Living out the fantasy of protecting your children and how far would you go to protect your children from everything. "Would you lie to them about everything?" kind of thing. So, that was the premise of this story. So, you know what's an authentic decision for the artist versus what's the more accessible decision. That's the struggle you make all of the time in your commerce versus art conversation.
There's been talk of an "Unbreakable" sequel for a long time.
Samuel L. Jackson seems to want to do it. I saw you two talking on Twitter.
It's a harder one for me because -- it's getting closer, by the way.
I feel like I've heard that for the past 10 years. I want that to be true.
I want it to happen, too. We've been talking about almost the same subject in every one of your questions, which is artistic integrity -- something versus an agenda. Right? And almost every single one of your questions was agenda versus intention, even though you didn't realize it, but it kind of fell into that theme as we were talking.
So, like you think I go and I write, "Oh, I'm going to write a twist ending."
I didn't know. That's why I asked.
That's an agenda versus "I want to talk about loneliness." And then it comes out, "How is the best way to talk about loneliness?" Intention versus agenda. And then I go, "Oh my God, if I make a movie about loneliness and everybody hated it, will it be able to come out and people will get it?" That's when you start going, "Oh my God," and you try to push that away. The same thing with "Unbreakable," to some extent, it's excitement to be made. "It's such a fun thing" is squashing my ability to find the thing that's connecting me with it. Does that make sense? So, I don't feel like I did it for agenda reasons. So, slowly I'm getting a story in my head that I feel like is able to tell what I'm feeling right now.
For people who like that movie, it sounds encouraging.
Yeah, it is! The story of a guy who kind of wakes up with a little gray feeling in the morning, I love that character. It's something that I feel and I want to talk more about that character.
Another is a possible sequel to "The Last Airbender." A movie that critics didn't like, but it did make a lot of money.
Yeah, I love the kind of Eastern philosophies of that. Those are costly movies to make and they take a lot of time. So, what happens is, there's a thriller I can do pretty fast, they go quickly. And I didn't expect to make another big movie -- I was going to make a thriller and then go make the sequel to "Airbender." Then I made "After Earth," which took a long time, so it kind of took that two-and-a-half to three-year period. So, I'm trying to sit down and see if I want to do a really small movie next.
Honestly, I'd love to see you do a really small movie.
I am really leaning towards doing a hyper-small movie.
Like something on the festival circuit.
Yep. And that's where my head is right now, by the way. I'm leaning towards that.
Mike Ryan is senior writer for Huffington Post Entertainment. You can contact him directly on Twitter.