Reel Talk is NME’s new weekly interview feature with the biggest names in film and TV.
It’s telling that M. Night Shyamalan – a director whose films are filled with hidden clues and secret messages – is almost frighteningly aware of detail. Within moments of our meeting at London’s Soho Hotel, he’s noticed the small handwriting in my notebook, and wants the lighting to be brighter so that it can be read properly. He makes sure there’s coffee and that we’re sat comfortably, enthusiastically micro-directing our set-up as best he can. Later, he says my collar reminds him of Wednesday Addams. The man misses nothing.
Surprisingly, he wasn’t always so sure of himself. Reluctant to accept his image as a master of supernatural cinema, it’s taken the creator of cult horror thrillers like The Sixth Sense, Unbreakable and The Village several decades to make peace with his career. Now, as his psychological horror show Servant hits the Internet, he’s at last become comfortable with his currency as a filmmaker.
“I’ve become very at ease with it,” he says. “But there was a side of me – which I’ve since let go of – that was fighting to make family films.”
Sure enough, a glance back over Shyamalan’s writing credits reveals that within the same year as The Sixth Sense – which celebrated its 20th anniversary this summer – he penned the lucrative film adaptation of E.B. White’s children’s novel Stuart Little, the story of a charismatic talking mouse (voiced by Michael J. Fox) who is adopted by a human family in New York.
“This was before I had a relationship with the audience, so they didn’t buck at it. I was just the kid who made The Sixth Sense” he explains. “It’s really hard to do that with the strong relationship that I have with the audience now.”
On Shyamalan’s new show Servant, a slow-burn suspense series, he serves as both co-director and executive producer, working with British creator Tony Basgallop (Eastenders, 24) to bring its haunted house concept to the small screen.
It’s the fifth show to be launched on Apple TV+ (the tech giant’s new streaming platform), and is very much in Shyamalan’s wheelhouse: a multi-layered mystery about an elusive young nanny employed to help a grieving couple by tending to a creepy replica doll that has replaced their dead son. The couple – a news presenter and an experimental chef – own a cavernous Philadelphia townhouse that serves as the setting for the show, and was custom-built especially for the occasion.
“We could’ve faked everything, but we chose not to cut corners,” says Shyamalan of the fully-functioning set. “The toilets flushed, the kitchen worked, everything was real. When you take away that artifice, it really helped the actors, especially as this is only a one-location show.”
Servant is only Shyamalan’s second proper venture into TV, the first as executive producer and pilot director of Wayward Pines, a small-town detective story in the style of Twin Peaks. Before season one had even premiered on the streaming channel, Apple green-lit a second.
The cast is small but impressive: Toby Kebbell (Black Mirror) and Lauren Ambrose (Six Feet Under) play the weird and wealthy couple Sean and Dorothy Turner, and Tiger Free – best known as Myrcella Baratheon in Game of Thrones – plays nanny Leanne. The most surprising addition to the cast? Harry Potter’s Rupert Grint, all but burning his Gryffindor robes as Dorothy’s booze-fuelled banker brother Julian.
“I’d met Rupert as a child when there were thoughts of me coming on board to direct one of the Harry Potters,” Shyamalan recalls. “He claims that he remembers, but I think he’s rewritten that. He probably just saw some Indian dude who came to the set.”
The prospect of a Shyamalan-directed Potter flick is interesting, and the fact he didn’t make it highlights the filmmaker’s absence from the franchise scene.
“I’ve tried to get into the system, but it’s just not my thing,” he says when asked why he hasn’t done a box office-breaking blockbuster. “I’ve been asked to do these bigger movies, and when they call me I go, ‘I know you really don’t want me to do this.’”
It’s not easy to walk away from the big bucks of tentpole cinema, but Shyamalan says he values a simpler form of storytelling.
“I will compete with all of those things: with the big stars and the big CGI,” he says. “I make sushi – clean things. They can use a million ingredients, but I’m doing it very cleanly, even if I’m making a gamble that the audience might not want that.”
Of course, Shyamalan has crossed over to the world of big-budget CGI, but it didn’t go well. The Last Airbender, a live action take on the Nickelodeon animated series, and After Earth, an apocalyptic father-and-son sci-fi starring Will and Jaden Smith, were both critical and commercial flops.
In the last seven years or so, he seems to have regained his footing, replacing these large scale productions with films and TV series more suited to his ambitious narratives. Things work better, he says, when he trusts his own judgement.
“With The Sixth Sense, I didn’t use the norms of the time – its ingredients were from an older generation – so it doesn’t have that dated quality,” he explains.
“I’m doing it the way Hitchcock did it, just moving the camera on a stage and using old-school storytelling. More doesn’t excite me, less does.”
The noticeably stripped-back quality of Shyamalan’s recent work comes paired with a real sense of popcorn fun that he seems to have magicked up.
“I’ve been really pushing to bring humour into my work in the last six years, from when I started making The Visit, and also seeing people like Jordan Peele [Get Out] bringing it into the mix,” he says. “Before that time, it felt like humour and horror cancelled each other out. When you were laughing the stakes went down.”
After putting his own spin on the found-footage format with The Visit, the filmmaker went somewhere totally unexpected. He created a complex mini-universe that combined the worlds of his 2000 superhero fantasy Unbreakable and Split, a psychological horror that saw James McAvoy harness no less than 24 characters in the body of Kevin, a troubled man with Dissociative Identity Disorder.
The film was released as a standalone in 2016, but shocked cinemagoers when a last-minute flourish revealed Bruce Willis’ superhero David Dunn, confirming that their stories were bridged. Crossover film Glass – which saw Samuel L. Jackson reprise the role of Elijah Price – came out earlier this year.
“That whole trilogy was one story that was just too big as I was outlining it,” Shyamalan explains. “So I broke it up and decided to make David’s origin story first. That was in 2000, and people were like, ‘A comic book movie? What?’”
That Unbreakable did indeed predate the MCU (Marvel Cinematic Universe) and DCEU (DC Extended Universe) is worth noting. “People weren’t sure whether to take it seriously, but over the years it became more and more resonant.” The risk paid off, and Unbreakable is a favourite of Shyamafans.
“That 20-year anniversary is coming up next year,” says the filmmaker fondly. “It’s really fun that with each year or so now I’m going to have an anniversary – Signs will be after that and The Village after that.”
Though the premise for most of Shyamalan’s films is vastly different – from the woodland mystery of The Village to the alien invasion horror of Signs – his ability to fill fans with dread is constant. The secret to scaring the pants off your audience? Keep the fear rooted in reality, says Shyamalan.
“It’s scarier and more resonant if the kid in The Sixth Sense is walking down a hallway that looks like the hallway that you have to walk down to get to the bathroom in the morning. It’s more frightening because it’s relatable.
“To evoke fear in somebody, you just have to create the unknown,” he adds. “It’s the evolutionary trigger that causes us to be scared, because it’s also what we use to keep us safe. So if you see a new path, you don’t go down it, right? Because there are tigers down there that will eat us.”
The giant predatory cats that Shyamalan is referring to are, of course, metaphorical (although not too far from what lies in wait for his most unfortunate protagonists). But the Hollywood director is wary that his favourite entertainment tool has been weaponised in the real world.
“You can see now, how people manipulate other groups of people by evoking fear. That’s all you have to do to control the crowd: point out people who bring out the unknown to us and boom, we’re scared.”
As someone who has worked in Hollywood for the best part of three decades, Shyamalan has seen a huge shift in the political climate, and is less than happy with the current state of his adopted country – and the man running it.
“I mean I’m in Hollywood so I know this dude, so it’s a fascinating time but it’s also a scary time for all of us,” he says. “When Trump was elected, it was like 9/11 and that day were the two days in my lifetime that I went, ‘Wow, we’re not safe. We’re not okay.’ It was so garish and scary.”
“I get it, I get what he represents, and it’s so obvious and so boring how he got there, but it’s also so scary because the conservatives are backing him, and you’re like, ‘Really? This guy?’ But they’re fighting for what they believe in. We just need to be louder.”
To hear what scares a man who handles horror on a daily basis is unsettling, but he’s not succumbing to fear. Instead, Shyamalan feels galvanised, and is hitting back through his art.
“These next three movies that I’m thinking about in my head are probably influenced by the Trump of it all and asking, ‘How did we get here? How did we lose ourselves so quickly? What is it that we’re all fighting about here at this moment of democracy?’”
Bleak though that sounds, Shyamalan hasn’t lost sight of the humanity that can be found in horror: “Take when Robert Wise made The Haunting, when Hitchcock did Psycho, when Steven Spielberg made Jaws. You take the grief among us and you put it in the genre, and it will resonate forever. For me it’s my favourite genre because as you can see, I can make you laugh, I can make you cry. The goal isn’t to scare you. It’s actually to make you feel something.”
Fans may have brought Shyamalan back to the genre for which he’s adored, but in turn, this intuitive filmmaker has realised what he loves: horror and all its magical capabilities. It might have taken him several decades to admit it – but Shyamalan is finally happy doing what he does best.
‘Servant’ is streaming now on Apple TV+