Plot Twist: M. Night Shyamalan Probably Wanted To Stop Doing Plot Twists

Composer James Newton Howard talks 30 years of making music for movies.

Spoiler alert: Bruce Willis was dead the whole time.

It’s been almost 20 years, and it still feels weird to talk about the plot twist from “The Sixth Sense.” At least we waited two decades to ruin the movie for you. Meanwhile, the movie’s composer, James Newton Howard, didn’t even wait two minutes.

During a phone conversation with HuffPost, Howard recalled how one of the songs he included on the “Sixth Sense” soundtrack, which was released at the same time as the movie, was called “Malcolm Is Dead.” As you can tell, it pretty clearly stated that Bruce Willis’ character, Malcolm, was, in fact, dead.

“[Director M. Night Shyamalan] called me up kind of comically hysterical, saying, ‘James, you gave away the secret of the movie. You can’t say “Malcolm Is Dead!”’ But, of course, by the time the whole thing was out, we were laughing about it.”

Despite the soundtrack giveaway, Shyamalan’s unexpected ending helped launch his career. Malcolm’s big moment is still listed among the greatest surprises in movie history, and that, along with subsequent films, earned Shyamalan a reputation for delivering a well-executed plot twist. There’s even a “South Park” parody to prove it.

But all of that success seemed to lead up to the biggest twist of all.

Howard, a longtime collaborator who’s composed on nearly all of Shyamalan’s movies, said that he believes “The Sixth Sense” weighed on Shyamalan’s shoulders, so much so that the director became wary of his reputation for surprises.

“I think, in a way, for Night, that the success of that ‘Sixth Sense’ moment was so profound that it almost became such an expectation on the part of the audience that he was going to do that every time,” he said. “Night’s first consideration is storytelling, and he’s a great storyteller, but I think he felt the burden of that ... as some kind of identification that he was going to sort of have to bear for the rest of his entire career.”

“Often times, I think he wanted to get away from that,” he added, “and people didn’t like it. He tried to get away from it. They always wanted him to do a certain kind of thing.”

Though Shyamalan’s recent films — “Split” and “The Visit” — have been critical and commercial successes, the director also produced a string of twisty movies in the mid-2000s, including the abhorred psychological, uh, tree thriller, “The Happening,” that made critics and audiences wonder, “What’s happening?”

The movies make a little more sense now when you consider Shyamalan might have been reluctant to deliver them to audiences in the first place. (Reps for the director did not immediately return a request for comment.)

But if he did want to abandon the storytelling technique that made him famous, Shyamalan hasn’t done a very good job of that. Long after “Sixth Sense,” most of the director’s films still end in some kind of twist.

Being pigeonholed isn’t really something Howard himself has had to deal with. Over the course of his more than 30-year career, he’s amassed an eclectic archive of films, composing for “The Fugitive” and “The Dark Knight” ― even “Space Jam.”

The composer spoke with HuffPost about his past projects and condensing his musical catalog down to a multi-hour concert, which he toured across Europe late last year. There, audiences were treated to Howard’s music as well as movie clips and anecdotes from his three decades in film.

Composer James Newton Howard in Budapest on Nov. 5, 2017.
Composer James Newton Howard in Budapest on Nov. 5, 2017.
Xinhua News Agency via Getty Images

How’d you fit 30 years of music into one concert?

I was trying to balance things that I thought people would want to hear — would expect to hear — with music that I thought was perhaps worth hearing that they hadn’t heard. That was kind of what my goal was. And I guess I succeeded. They really received it so enthusiastically. I was quite moved, but it was very difficult because I have 130-some movies to pick from.

How’d you decide what stories and songs made the cut?

I could bore you for hours with all kinds of intrigue and funny things that happened.

I mean, bore away.

Collaborations are, by nature, complicated ― and whether it was on movies where I was on the verge of being fired, or I wanted to be fired and other people got fired. Just the nature of it was one of those things, there tends to be a lot of drama surrounding it. I try to stay clear of it and focused on the music, but it can get pretty extreme when you have studios making hundreds of millions of dollar investments and directors who are not in line with what the studios are feeling, but I’m really on the director’s side. I’m sort of really trying to be a mediator. It’s an adventure each time you step out on one of those things.

Speaking about possibly being fired, I know you’ve talked before about how stressful it was working on “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them.” Was that a project you were worried about being taken off of?

No, I didn’t think I was going to be taken off, because I had written 80 percent of the score, which they loved. What I wanted to avoid was having “Hedwig’s Theme” be the main theme now for “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them,” because that would make it bad, storytelling-wise. Because this story takes place 75 years before Harry’s even born, so how does “Hedwig” ― he’s not in the movie ― how does he figure?

I wanted to kick John Williams’ theme out the door. Nobody admires John Williams music more than me. I think he’s the greatest who ever did it, but one of my goals of doing that movie was to hopefully end up branding my own theme. I think there’s always going to be a little bit of “Hedwig’s Theme” in there somewhere, just as an homage to the fact that it’s in the “Harry Potter” universe, but the primary themes were definitely all new, which was very satisfying.

I’ve seen you say music is the final edit of a film. What music would you say changed a movie?

I think an interesting example is a couple years ago I did a movie called “Nightcrawler” with Dan Gilroy. In “Nightcrawler,“ Jake Gyllenhaal played a real psychopath nutcase. When I did my first pass on the movie, Dan said, “No, you’re playing it like he’s a psychopath.” I said, “Well, he is a psychopath.” He said, “Yeah, but he’s succeeding,” and he said, “I want you to do it from his point of view. I want you to pretend that this is your son and he’s achieving these things, and you’re proud of him.”

So I then turned around and wrote a score that was celebratory when he was arriving at a crash scene and moving bodies so he could get a better [photo] shot, which is a despicable thing to do. I was playing this kind of triumphant music, and it created a very strong dissonance. I think people were confused, but in the end really enjoyed that experience because it was unlike perhaps something they had seen before.

For the “Hunger Games” films, you worked on Jennifer Lawrence’s song, “The Hanging Tree,” which became huge. How did that happen?

It was [director Francis Lawrence’s] idea, I think. The lyric to that song appeared in the book, but there was never a melody. There was obviously, if you’re reading Suzanne Collins’ book, you’re reading, “Are you coming to the tree ... ” It was a nursery rhyme or something. Francis had the idea of contacting the guys in the Lumineers to write a melody, and then once he had a melody — and this is all going on unbeknownst to me — Francis said to Jennifer, “Can you sing this song?”

Francis then came to me and said, “James, can you turn this into an anthem or at least bring in harmony and give it some size and dimension ... so by the time it’s done, it reaches this big climax?” Which I did, so I wrote all the harmonies, and I did all the orchestration and kind of changed from the solo vocal to the version it became, and then the record company didn’t want to put it on the “Music Inspired By” album for some reason [...] they didn’t want Jennifer singing “The Hanging Tree.”

I said, “OK, wow, can I have it?” And they said, “Well, you better ask Jennifer,” so I contacted Jennifer through her agent, and Jennifer gave me permission to put that version on my album, my score album, with the one exception. She said, “You can have it as long as I never have to sing you that song as long as I live.” She didn’t enjoy singing. I don’t think she enjoys it even though she has a great voice. So I said, “Yeah, no problem. You certainly wont have to sing it again for me.” I took it and put it on my album and before you knew it, somebody put it on the radio, and it became this viral hit. But it was a complete accident.

What did you think when it took off?

It was fun. It was just hilarious. I felt wrong at first because it said, “‘The Hanging Tree’ by James Newton Howard.” What it should’ve said, and what it did say on the second release, was “‘The Hanging Tree’ by James Newton Howard featuring Jennifer Lawrence,” which they left out the first time. Jennifer, I don’t think, could’ve cared less, but I felt self-conscious about it, because it was obviously the two of us that made it happen.

Another movie you’ve done that has become more and more popular is “Space Jam.” What was it like looking back on it?

If you watch the old Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck cartoons, Warner Bros. cartoons, the music was extraordinary. It was very intricate, very fast and really inventive, and it was by this guy named Carl Stalling. Every time Tweety bird or the cat would tiptoe over ... it was really hard to do that virtuosic film writing. And so, when I got that movie, I thought that obviously that would have to happen. You need to speak in the vocabulary of the classic Warner Brothers cartoons, so I really had to learn. I had to take a Cliffs Notes class in Carl Stalling, and I found that a challenge. It was really, really hard writing that score. It was probably an hour and 45 minutes of very detailed, intricate music. It was hard, but it was fun.

[The film] has this kind of cult following ... my older son is 23. They grew up with that thing, too, and they all had “Space Jam” parties to get together and watch it.

One of the fun things of going on tour was these films have a life beyond their release, and people do really still enjoy them out there. In many cases, the music has really been a factor in their lives.

In terms of music that has had an impact on people’s lives, you also wrote the music for Harvey Dent in “The Dark Knight.”

I thought, for Harvey Dent, before he becomes the other character, that there was a nobility about expressing his character with brass, so I wrote a [Aaron] Copland-esque fanfare for him, and that really became his theme and of course that all changed and got very dark when he transformed into this other character. I was just portraying him as kind of a Western hero. I just thought that really worked. [Chris Nolan] liked the idea.

It was really nice, because all the orchestrations in “Batman Begins” and “The Dark Knight” are mostly kind of low, moody strings with that powerful French horn line. It was nice to kind of get up above middle C and write some music. It kind of felt like the sun had come out when we first met this character.

It’s interesting hearing that Harvey Dent was introduced like a Western hero. What are some things you would notice in your music ― unusual inspirations ― others wouldn’t?

Generally, it’s about tone. You’re trying to find ... I mean, I did the same kind of thing in a couple of Night’s movies. Think about “Unbreakable,” for instance. You had Bruce Willis, who, he’s a superhero and he doesn’t know it. When he acts in a heroic way, I presented him with a heroic theme, but in that case there was much more emotion attached to it because there was also the death of his wife, so there was a tragic side to it, and that’s my favorite kind of thing to do. I suppose that’s why I’m not as interested in doing superhero movies because I feel like they can be pretty one-dimensional, and they’re really fun. They’re great, but I tend to be more interested in complicated personalities where you can really play off of different aspects of who [the characters] are and highlight their weaknesses and their strengths.

You’re working on Disney’s “The Nutcracker.” What was it like adapting that music for a film?

My first idea is to use Tchaikovsky whenever possible. That’s No. 1. No. 2, to use Tchaikovsky in its purest form is not going to work in many cases in the movie as a storytelling device because you’re in a movie. You’re telling different stories, so in many cases Tchaikovsky has to be reorchestrated or restructured or just a small part of it, and then you add to it. The third part is just to make sure that the integrity of one of the greatest composers who ever lived is maintained to the greatest degree as possible.

It’s a very different story, because the funny thing about “The Nutcracker” is, if you watch “The Nutcracker,” there’s not a lot of story there. It’s not a story for a two-hour movie. Basically, a girl wakes up. The Nutcracker turns alive. There’s people dancing around, and then she wakes up, but there’s not a lot more to it than that. The music and the ballet are incredible works of art, but this is a different thing. This has been exploded into an adventure and a coming-of-age story and all kind of wonderful things. Tchaikovsky is ever-present, but I would say that it’s a good portion of original music that I’m trying to butt up against, in as graceful as possible way, to the other guy, Tchaikovsky.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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