The following interview was broadcast live from The Ritzy Cinema in Brixton and via satellite to The Arts Picturehouse, Cambridge, Picturehouse at FACT Liverpool and City Screen York.
Colin Kennedy (editor of Empire Magazine): Good evening, ladies and gentlemen and also a big hello to Cambridge, Liverpool and York, we shall be hearing from very soon. I’m Colin Kennedy, I’m the editor of Empire Magazine. More importantly, I’m your compere for tonight and the gentleman to my right I’m sure needs no introduction, it’s M. Night Shyamalan, the writer, producer and director of The Village. Good evening.
CK: My guess is there might be some questions about endings later, so I want to start with beginnings. Can you just tell us how the idea for The Village started to take shape?
M. Night Shyamalan: It first came from a desire to be rebellious. It’s hard to say because it’s a period piece, but there’s a punk element underneath, very subversive – I get that way after a successful movie. Unbreakable was like a punk reaction… in my own ways not to sell out or to take an easy road or anything, but be absolutely vulnerable and risk taking, as much as humanly possible in that position, don’t hide from a position… really lay yourself out there so you can’t sleep. And so that led me to saying let’s make a female lead movie. So that was the first instinct.
And then I was offered a movie to do from another studio called Wuthering Heights, the book – adapt the book and make it and I had two amazing stars attached. So really considered it, because that was a wonderful way to do this and fell in love with that time period and the love and that kind of knotted romance. And it’s a little bit scary and stuff. But I ended up passing because I really didn’t think I could express enough originality in it to feel happy after two years. But maybe I’m wrong with that decision, but it stuck with me so I kind of wrote my own love story.
CK: I saw you describe it as King Kong meets Wuthering Heights.
MNS: Yes. I had a King Kongy idea, I just saw this group of people that were doing chores and they incorporated these rituals of a creature to protect themselves from creatures in their chores and then just went back to their chores. And I was very interested in those people and that was just sitting there waiting to do something, it wasn’t a movie, just a kind of a colour.
CK: And is it also fair to say that 9/11, a tragedy that was a local tragedy for you, flight 93 crashed into the Pennsylvania woods where this movie is set. Was that very much uppermost in your thoughts?
MNS: Yes. I mean Signs we shot right after that, we were all trapped there, nobody could fly because all the planes were grounded. So that was bizarre and I think that that heightened the feelings afterwards and just the sense of not happy with the world and the violence in the world and wanting to check out a little bit. And if I could go back to a simpler time and do things… that we’ve lost our way a bit and do things in a simple manner.
CK: Although it’s for the most part a period piece, in that sense it’s probably also your most contemporary movie because it’s about the culture of fear and systems of control and that loss of innocence. Was that deliberate?
MNS: Yes. I approach it from a very positive thing even though the colours at the end of Unbreakable and the Village are wrapped with a lot of darkness and complication, I’m coming at it from a positive place of innocence as strength, which may be an antiquated idea because if you’re innocent it’s always like oh, he or she is innocent and they can’t handle, but for me it’s the ultimate form of strength. The supernatural in the movie turns out to be love so I really was going at it from those colours and trying to throw on all these violent events that cause catalysts for you to find some beauty inside yourself or find something extraordinary inside yourself. I mean all the four movies have that, it’s a violent act that causes birth to something.
CK: Much as I’d like to hog you all night, we’ve got questions from four cities to get through and we’re going to start right here in Brixton at the Ritzy. [overspeaking] Lot of hands in the air. Right at the back there.
Question: You always tend to have a twist in a lot of your movies, do you think that because audiences know really about the formulaic of plots of most Hollywood movies it’s important to always have that in a movie for you to enjoy it?
MNS: That’s just the way I think. If you saw short stories that I wrote when I was a kid or the short films I did, they always… seen as revelations of the story movements, but these kind of paradigm shifts that are in Sixth Sense, Unbreakable and the Village, but not in Signs, for me that’s a different kind of movement, plot movement. What’s interesting – I guess what I didn’t take into account entirely was that it’s almost by seeing my name in the front of the movie… I feel now if I said I’m making a movie about two women and a vacuum cleaner, they’d say it’s not two women and it’s not a vacuum cleaner. [laughter] It is a vacuum cleaner. No, that’s something else entirely. [laughter]
And we’re at that place now, where I go oh my gosh, nothing I say is taken as accurate. So that’s tricky. My tendency is naturally to come and have stories like that, if this story was about me and him and he had an agenda or something, I may not tell you the agenda until later on and in fact I might tell you the opposite agenda, or make you think the opposite, make you think it’s me that has that certain thing in their character. And it would come like that, like wrapped like that. So it’s definitely not necessary. I didn’t have it like that in Signs, for example, and there’s plenty of stories I have that don’t have that and plenty that do. So… I don’t know if I answered your question. I’m sorry. [laughter]
CK: I’m hoping we can move straight without any twists to Cambridge. Cambridge, do you have a question for Night?
Question: Good evening from Cambridge. Got a two part question. We would like to know whether you’ve used the same cinematographer on all these films and Dan would like you to talk about the shot, you frequently frame a shot in doorway. Talk about that.
MNS: Very visual question. No, I’ve actually used different cinematographers for each of them, primarily because you get kind of a colour, like if there was… Unbreakable, for me it felt very European and when I was thinking of it and in its flavour, so Eduardo Serra is such an amazing cinematographer. But then I didn’t feel on Signs that that was an appropriate approach to that because it’s really kind of a Gothic Americana piece. So I was trying to find somebody that could do warm America and scary and so Tak Fujimoto was definitely the guy to go to for that. And then Roger Deakins, I’ve basically always been interested in his stuff and because of the Coen Brothers we’ve never had a chance to… because they write and direct constantly too, so I have to get in the rotation at the right time. And so I got in the rotation at the right time and so Roger came and I wanted to get that kind of natural beauty that he brings.
Question: Exteriors is…
MNS: Yes. There’s a stylistic beauty like Emmanuelle Beskie, who makes beautiful photographs, but I tend to like B subject matters, like ghosts and aliens and monsters in the woods and things, and I didn’t want to take a too non realistic a stance on those things, I wanted to go real. There was another cinematographer that I considered, I’m blanking on him, I’ve said his name a thousand times… He did Eight Mile and he did… you guys know who I’m talking about? He did Amores Perros and all those, just an amazing young cinematographer. There it is Rodrigo, right. So he’s amazing, so he and Roger were the ones I was thinking about for the Village because I wanted it to be pretty in a very real way and the scares to be as naturalistic as we could. And then what was the second part of the question?
Question: About your framing in doorways.
MNS: Framing in doorways. I feel better when things are perfect, the doorway’s in the centre of the frame and the girl’s in the centre of the doorway, something’s going to go wrong because when everything’s perfect… [laughter]. And that’s actually why cinematographers all move to the right or the left, you place the person to the left because it’s more comforting. And I was like why do you want to make them more comforting? This is not a comfortable situation. Yes, I’m always nudging the cinematographer going put her in the centre, a little bit more, a little bit more, a little bit more. Okay, that’s good. And they roll their eyes and, again, centre frame. And it’s almost like hearing a barometer of tension and it goes eeeeeeeh, right when they’re in the centre. Because if she’s dead centre and she says I want to go through the woods, that kind of thing it’s the perfect conduit for power.
Question: Attack from both sides.
MNS: Yes. I mean if she’s talking to someone and she’s right to left or something, it’s softening, it’s gentle. You understand that they’re having a balanced conversation.
CK: Well, everything’s going perfectly so far.
MNS: You just jinxed it! [laughter]
CK: So we’re going to go north to Liverpool. Liverpool, do you have a question?
Question: Good evening, Brixton. This is Liverpool. I’m afraid we’re having a few problems with the picture at the moment but fingers crossed. In fact it was exactly at the same point you said everything’s going swimmingly. [laughter] Our picture went down, but we can still hear you fine. Our first question today is from Liam and he says your films deal with the enclosed world, when are you going to deal with something in the real world?
MNS: I’m probably not the right person to do that movie and maybe just because I’m an escapist. My wife’s always telling me, you’ve got to watch the news. [laughter]. I don’t want to watch the news. [laughter] Basically I’ve just lived in a fantasy world since nine and never really stopped. Let me think about… there was a very good real movie that was offered to me that was actually an incident with a fire and it was a very, very cool story. Somehow I’ll read it in that something not real will creep in.
What I mean by that is a faith in something, so immediately I’ll close my eyes and there’ll be a moment in a stairwell where he will – he meaning our fire-fighter – will go away from that moment and the fire sounds will go away and it will be like think clearly, what do I do, what I do? And an answer will come in some manner of something, like a door will come and open and close and something, and he’ll go that’s where I need to go. I have to pick, I only have one chance to go and one of these routes to save someone, which way should I go? And he goes that way. Some kind of movement of belief in something that’s not there would creep in and keep creeping into that. That’s just one moment, but it would creep in. I don’t know.
I’m fascinated by that kind of question which I get asked a lot from press and things like that, when are you going to do a romantic comedy and I’m confused a little by it, but I understand. Since I write them I feel more like Agatha Christie than a director. So it’s like why doesn’t Agatha Christie write a romantic comedy? It’s strange to even ask that. I don’t really have anybody telling me what to do or not to do. The Sixth Sense was me going away and stop thinking about what people, stop thinking about anything and just going what do I like about movies? How do I want to tell a story? And that style emerged which wasn’t a put-on style, but something very natural. I could do 30, 40, 50 of these kind of things if people would still be interested in seeing them. So I’m not sure. Maybe something close to the real world.
CK: How does Life of Pi fit into that?
MNS: Is that real life? Somewhat real life, I guess.
CK: Yes, possibly.
CK: But it has that twist, rather than a twist ending, that little thing that moves it just outside of reality.
MNS: Right. And so immediately my thoughts went to… as this movie opened in the States and they were not watching the movie, they were watching the movie presented by me. And I was so fascinated by how they were having a different experience than if your name was on it.
CK: No one would go!
MNS: It would be every moment would be enjoyed, rather than a chess game going on, from beginning to end. So I’m wondering how that’ll affect Pi because as soon as you say…
CK: Will you not find that liberating a little bit, that people can read the end of the book and…?
MNS: Yes, but in reality, Pi was a huge hit in the United States and a million bought it. 9 million people saw the Village last week. That audience will be gone by Friday or Saturday or Sunday and then you’ll be into an audience that thinks I wrote it, as far as their concerned. It’ll stay based on the book… and so my name being on it will say I’m not telling you the truth and now we’re in that same problem again. So I don’t know how I’m going to deal with that. It’s an interesting proposition.
CK: Our final city, York, has been very patient. So, York, do you have a question?
Question: Good evening, this is York. Our first question is more specifically about the Village, this comes from Andrew. It’s about the choice of colours. Did you choose red simply as a bold colour and also yellow seems an unusual choice for the safe colour. Could you talk a little bit about that?
MNS: The colours came from just the straight psychology of it and it’s actually the same reasons why the US government has those colours of terror and all that stuff is that there’s psychological reactions to the colours. Red creates agitation, if the room was red we would be agitated and anxious and aggressive. And yellow calms us and placates us and makes us feel safe and more open to things. Those are straight psychological reactions to colours. So it’s just kind of using that. And, of course, red is used a lot in danger and things like that, representing… when we see red it’s usually not a great thing, except with regard to Valentines and things like that.
CK: And this is a movie in which love gets you into trouble in a sense.
MNS: Yes. I always think about… it’s interesting why red is used on Valentine’s Day, is love dangerous? Is that what we’re supposed to read into that? But I have a very monochromatic style of making films and these are plot colours, like the bright neon colours in Unbreakable. And actually very subtle and I didn’t get to do it as much as I wanted, but there was a kind of lavender colour in Signs that represented the mother and you see that through the movie. But some scenes I cut out with that lavender, so it didn’t get to float through the movie the way I wanted it to, that you would see her touches through the house represented. She was wearing that colour in the car.
CK: Back here, plenty of hands this time. Right here in the front row.
Question: Hi. I was going to ask a question about cinematography, but about your writing, Stuart Little. Bit different than Signs, Unbreakable, Sixth Sense. Where did that one come from?
MNS: It’s a desire to write something for my kid. My wife was pregnant at the time or we’d just had the baby and wanted to do something just for her. And, you know, the phone wasn’t ringing off the hook, it was a very quiet time in the Shyamalan house. I had plenty of time to write Sixth Sense and Stuart Little. Plenty of time. So it was one of those, somebody had read something that I had done and said Hey… it was a dead project, completely dead. And so they were like okay, let’s get a cheap writer. So I was the right price.
Question: My main question tonight was regarding your cinematography, how hands on are you? Do you actually give your vision across to your director of photography or do you really get involved with it and keep telling him where to put the cameras and how to light it?
MNS: I think that my asset and my weakness are the same thing, which is the amount of preparation and control involved with making a movie. And so they’re very, very, very orchestrated movies, every shot is orchestrated in there, the sets are built to the shots so that you can fly the wall so that the hallway’s big enough, so that the furniture’s in a place so I can get the camera round it. It’s all an event. I’ll come in and… to the point that it can get frustrating, I think, for people on the crew and they love it as well. I’ll say you don’t even need to dress that wall, I will never see that wall. They’ll say it’s one wall of the house, how can we not dress it? If you want to save money and put it over here, put it over here. But I’m trying to get… I keep trying to hire more and more people that will just question and challenge me.
I’m not going to give up that vision. I don’t think you want to dilute from a point of view, I can’t not have a particular way of seeing things, but I want the cinematographer to come in and challenge me, which Roger did. And he actually has a very interesting way of shooting, he puts the camera on this arm all the time, even if it’s a static thing and he moves the camera until he gets it in the right position, rather than tripod or anything like that, it’s on this arm all the time. And so while he’s fooling around getting to the frame that I drew, I’ll sometimes go Hey… That happened a few times and it was very exciting. Then he and I’ll talk about it and I’ll say hey, instead of doing that, what if you came down from her to that, that kind of thing. And so we have fun with those kind of things. And they’re small changes, but still fun. If there was a way to do both, I would. Like one of the scenes that he got free rein was the big elders’ argument behind the shed where it was hand held. And he does all the camera work, Roger Deakins does it himself. I said I want you on this line to be on this person, this line… And he just glanced at me like, say another word and I’ll hit you. [laughter] And I was like you know what, just go ahead. [laughter] So I’m always whispering. There was one time he was doing a thing and I tugged his arm about when to pan and he just jerked it and reacted and he looked at me and I was like [whispers] Sorry.
CK: We’re back to Cambridge. Cambridge, do you have a second question?
Question: Hello again from Cambridge. Simon would like to know how you get such strong ensemble acting from the cast. And we’d also like to hear a bit more about Ivy, wonderful Ivy, tell us more about her.
MNS: I sometimes answer these questions just to satisfy myself, so forgive me. But I think that I sense a building onus that was going to happen on this particular movie as regarded it being the fourth movie that we were going to… I don’t know, what was going to happen, I just had a premonition that we were going to get seen through weird glasses. And I had that on me from the beginning, just of I can smell what’s ahead.
CK: Did you sense they were setting you up for -?
MNS: I mean these things, success, it doesn’t engender good feelings and when they put me on the cover of Newsweek and say Next Spielberg. I’m not going to have a lot of friends that way. Those kind of things that happen you just need to prepare yourself and so I went at it going, okay, let’s assume failure, we’re going to assume failure here. And I really would tell everybody, we’re going to assume failure so let’s do every step of the way so we can say to ourselves we did it the right way. We did it the absolute right way that you would be, if you had this opportunity you would have done it in this perfect way. And so we went and hiring Bryce was the first of that decision was let’s go balls out and hire from gut the best actress that I think in the world could play this and she happens to be one who’s never acted before in a movie.
CK: You saw her in a play.
MNS: I saw her in a play and I said that’s the kind of not protecting yourself thing that I need to do to get through this in a way that I’ll be proud. And so from her then all the rest of the casting came because then I went and just got the world’s best actors for every part. And for me the only thing I really trust is that actors say yes to my movies and that’s for me the statement that I’m at a certain level. Nothing else, not money, box office payments, nothing like that. Just that actors, world class actors, would be willing to be in my movie and do these parts just is a great, great honour.
And so one by one I asked these guys and they were all over cast for every part and what I asked them to do, all of them, every single one of them, 14 of them with large speaking parts, I asked them all to come three weeks early, not get paid extra, come three weeks early and live in a camp, no cellphones, no nothing, just completely commit themselves to this life and living together and learning the period. And of course when I brought the idea everyone said never happen, never going to happen. And every single one said yes and they all lived together for the entire movie, the entire shoot, and as you can imagine they could be staying at the Ritz or the Four Seasons or wherever.
CK: And they cooked in the evenings, took turns to cook.
MNS: Yes, they took turns to cook. They lived together, they ate together, they, as I said, learn the period. We had lecturers come about Utopian societies, about what conflicts would happen, how the men and women’s chores would break down. And every single thing. They asked questions and everything. And then we did our rehearsals at this camp and it was really the kind of thing that you would do if… like they did on Boy’s Don’t Cry or something like that. When you have nothing and all you have is your love and effort, that’s all you have to punch through. And I said why should we, in the position that we’re in, not have that kind of desire and love and risk. And so they all said yes, and it was just kind of literally we were doing things that were just for the soul.
Like there was a steam American Indian thing where they steam rocks and you all go into a tent and you feel this spirit and you hear this guy chanting. Things that were meant to make this not a job and it became that important to all of us. And so that’s how we bonded. At the run through, the first time we all sat together, I had already been working with Bryce because I knew the read through was going to be the big moment. The read through traditionally, if you guys have ever been or heard of a read through for a movie is the most mundane, boring thing you’ve ever been to and no one risks themselves. So they go [bored voice] anyway, I’m in love [laughter] I want to go into the woods, yes. And then they’ll take their drink and then they’ll look over the next person will say their lines. And that will be that because no one wants to risk themselves. So I prepared with her and I said I want you to go in there and blow it out. Because Hayley did this at the read through on Sixth Sense because he’s ten and he had no idea not to do it and it caused everyone to go insane because if this kid’s blowing it out, you’re not going to be like reading your line next to him, you’re going to start and you can’t help it. [laughter]
And so instantaneously this girl that they had never met before starts blowing it out and everybody starts responding. William Hurt, Sigourney and it’s just the table’s weeping and crying and it was like this live performance. And before we started I told them why I wrote this movie, the love and about how I feel about innocence and me being in this position and the world in general and fearing losing this innocence. No matter what they say, if someone says you’re a genius or you suck or you’re over rated, which happens literally as I walk into the supermarket I will get you’re a genius, you suck. [laughter]. Literally, so you can either go insane. You can’t believe either of them and you just quietly want to go and do your thing which is at home in your room and you write your thing and you go and make your movie and everybody’s in your business and you’ve asked for that.
So I told them, I said please let’s imagine failure so that I look back at this moment and say this was something great and you gave me something great and I gave you something great and we gave each other something. No matter what, failure’s nothing, we had this moment. And they just tore it up and we all were like crying and it was just a really amazing moment. And that was how we made this movie, each moment like that. Those guys were ready to kill for me, I was ready to kill for them. So that was a long winded answer. [laughter] How did I get them to perform like that? That was world class actors committing 100%.
CK: And now I think it’s Liverpool. Liverpool, do you have a question?
Question: Thank you very much, Brixton. We have one question here from Tom. Tom would like to know if your personal appearances in your films are a homage to Hitchcock?
MNS: They’re actually not, but I think you always get the kind of labelling of some kind because it’s… This movie obviously had restrictions and so I was going to… it’s not like I could just pop up in the Village. [laughter] Or play Noah or something, it isn’t going to work. Some deep explanation had to go on.
But this one was… in a way this one didn’t matter to me so much because I couldn’t do something that was important for me. Like it would be somebody else doing it, so just to stay involved, I didn’t want to go two years without trying, spending my time thinking about that part of the art form. But for me it was much rewarding to do Signs, the one in Signs, because there’s always some part that means a lot of me. Like in Sixth Sense, the father that finds the videotape, that was the part that I really, really loved and connected to.
And so I write in a very emotional way, I direct in … you start to get a sense of how I direct, it’s very, very emotional and connected, there’s no kind of you doing it and I’m doing it, we’re doing it together kind of thing. So it makes the movies much more personal. I really do think about these movies as if I’m making independent movies. As much as anyone does, Spike Lee, Woody Allen or any of these guys, I really think I have this opportunity to make very personal movies and so I do that and then they’re sold in a very big way. But it’s important for me. I wouldn’t do more than a supporting part because it’s very hard on the directing, it’s very, very hard on the directing. And also this is a small personal thing that’s important to me, which may not be important to anybody, but that the movies aren’t… they’re unique in their international flavour that is, in some small way, breaking down stereotypes.
Bruce Lee said one of the things that motivated him more than anything was giving the world a non-white hero. And as soon as I heard that I understood completely why he did everything did and why it wasn’t just Kung Fu movies and why he stood out. He found meaning in something that could be meaningless, which is fighting. But he found a great honour in that and for me, no matter… the world is racist, some of it, and some of it’s not or anything, it doesn’t matter. If your family’s racist the 13 year old kid still loves coming to my movies and so that’s just in the smallest way to break down that. And I’m not playing an Indian in these movies, that’s the really most important thing. I’m just playing the neighbour, that kind of thing. I remember on Sixth Sense, because I was in the Sixth Sense and this other Indian guy was in it and they were like "why are all these Indians in here?" [laughter] There’s too many Indians in this. That was their remark on the Sixth Sense.
CK: And the same in… some critics in Signs, they said what would an Indian be doing in the mid west, which seemed really to have missed the point.
MNS: Well, my uncle was from the mid west, it’s ridiculous. What are we? It’s ridiculous. [laughter] so it has a lot of meaning for me and it’s also another way to risk. Anything that I’m scared of doing and anything that puts me at risk is good because you want to take that punch straight to the face, get it over with in the middle of the fight because as soon as you take that hit and you go hey, I’m still standing, then the opponent loses all their power and you just become like Superman. And so it’s like hit me as hard as you can and I’m still standing. That’s what I’m going to do now, go write another fucking movie. So there’s that juice that comes through you and you go I’m not going anywhere. Keep pounding away. It’s good, it’s good to kind of not be safe.
CK: Now I think we’re at York. Do you have a question at York?
Question: Firstly, just on behalf of everyone we’d like to say thank you for the opportunity this evening and our second question comes from Jane and Luke which is about the directing of your own films. Does that change your approach when you’re writing them?
MNS: It’s been more and more becoming a director writing. It used to be a writer that got a chance to direct and now I think it’s a director who’s leaning over the writer’s shoulder and saying this would be visual. I’m not sure that’s healthy by the way, because you end up doing very visual things when really… the director shouldn’t even be hired yet. Go away and let the writer do his thing. Because I tend to do everything as minimal as I can, least amount of words, least amount of cuts, least amount of area colours, least amount of everything. The simplest swing that you can do to hit that home run over the fence. But the writer should just be allowed to write and have fun with that whole process. Every time I direct, when I direct it becomes less funny, more austere, more formal, it always does that. Like knowing that that person’s coming into the table the writer should be going that way to compensate, but if the director’s in the room then all that starts coming out and so it’s probably I’m going to try on this next one just let the writer have the rein.
CK: Has the writer in you ever wanted to smack the director and say where’s my gag? That was funny.
MNS: I feel so sad. The humour always gets cut out in service of the tension, which is sad because I was telling my wife this morning, I felt like there’s not enough touchstones in the movie. Touchstones are when the group laughs together, the group jumps together and so you feel tied like from a connecting of the dots, whereas if I’m being so gentle in my story telling, especially because my name is on it and you start leaving to do the chess game. And Signs had much more humour and things like that which kept you in the moments and touchstones, going from here to here and you felt more of the kind of we’re all together on this journey kind of thing. But I love quiet, so the director always fights with that guy.
CK: I think if we move quickly we can do one more circuit of the UK.
Question: Hello. I just wanted to ask you if you have final cut and if you don’t, doesn’t that bother you in terms of you’re not sure whether your film is going to come out the way you want it basically?
MNS: No, I have final cut. [laughter] Actually even when I sold Sixth Sense I had final cut and I gave it up. I had it on… This is my theory about final cut by the way, I had it when I sold Sixth Sense screenplay that’s because there was a bidding war I drew up these things as mandatory things and they s