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  • Interview: Director M. Night Shyamalan

    Tue, 07 Oct 2008 12:12:23

    Interview: Director M. Night Shyamalan - The celebrated director of <i>The Sixth Sense</i> gets decidedly darker with <i>The Happening</i>, now out on DVD

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    M. Night Shyamalan is a pretty straightforward guy. "My house is really clean," laughs Night. "There are natural, old wood floors. It's all very light, and there's not a lot of busyness there. I can't really think if there's a lot of busyness. That crosses over to my films. There's a very minimalist aesthetic that came from seeing things that I related to in amazing filmmakers like Hitchcock, Kubrick, and Kurosawa. I constantly go that way." In his latest film, The Happening [due out on DVD 10/7], he completely embraced that minimalist aesthetic, but twisted it into one of the most surprising and intriguing thrillers of 2008. The Happening follows Elliot Moore (Mark Wahlberg) and his wife Alma (Zooey Deschanel) as they flee from a devastating occurrence that leaves a trail of dead with no explanations, other than a mighty (deadly) wind. It's not your average horror flick, but Night's not your average director, either. He took the time to speak with ARTISTdirect in this exclusive interview about The Happening, themes of spirituality, his writing process, and how to become a man.

    Is it harder or easier to create tension in a film when the enemy is an intangible, unseen force?

    You know what's funny? Unless I hear someone say something like what you asked—like a studio head, producer, or someone I'm working with—I'm completely unaware of that issue. [Laughs] For me, if I can't see it I love it. Whenever I have to show something, whether it's in Signs or another film, it's always a sad moment for me that I have to show it. I always have to ask somebody to some extent, "Is this dangerous? Is this a dangerous room to be in?" because I get really excited by it. Maybe it's a certain creative autism or something that just makes me focus in on the thing that's getting me really excited and I'm unaware of all the pitfalls of it. As you say that, I can understand intellectually how wind might not necessarily be scary to somebody. However, if I told you there was a gas coming in the wind, then you'd close the doors and shut the windows and make sure no air gets in. I could see a million variations on how that would be scary. I love taking something innocuous, and by the end of the movie, making the audience nervous about it and imbuing it with an ominous, portentous quality.

    It seems like you juxtapose the domestic discord between Elliot and Alma with the universal destruction going on around them. Did you see a correlation between their marital tumult and this cosmic upheaval?

    Yes! When you're writing a screenplay well, you know it because everything is about the same thing. You think you're writing about one thing over here—the hero in one corner, the villain in another, a mother-daughter relationship—but not really; it's all about the same subject. Once you really understand what you're making that starts to happen—that instance where everything's mirroring everything. Sometimes, I don't even know what that thing is. I think I know, but it's to the right, and I don't understand that yet. I'm fighting it, and I'm writing three or four scenes that are fighting that [cohesion]. I'm like, "Why is that not fitting in?" But it's because I don't totally understand the central thing that's driving the screenplay living in front of me. When you say that, I go, "Yeah, that's happened a lot in that screenplay." That's when I knew we were getting somewhere—when their domestic situation started to reflect the doubts that this "judgment" was putting on the table about man. Is man a positive thing? Is this experiment—our species—a successful endeavor? That's the thing that's on the table as a result of the environmental event that's occurring now in the film. You could say it's about pollution or this or that. But no, this is a war. This is about a species whose intellect allows them to perceive themselves as deities more important than any other living thing. Their intellect allows them to think in those complex terms. Is that a good thing? Or is it a bad thing? Inherently, can that intellect be used for good? Let's say that's the deep thing that's on the table. In a way, that's what Mark['s character, Elliot] and Alma are struggling about in their marriage, because she feels like it's naïve to think of the world as people, as a positive individual. Mark Wahlberg's character, Elliot, is thinking inherently like a kid almost. At the base of it all, we are good. There's something good, and we're a part of something bigger.

    Does that tie into the theme of faith in a higher power?

    It doesn't end with us. It almost always ends up at my belief about spirituality; it doesn't have to be overt like it was in Signs. Like in Elliot's classroom, they'll talk about it. They'll have an explanation in the science book some day about why the bees disappear, but we've got to accept that we don't know; there's something greater at work. That's practically a speech you'll hear in church. That part of Elliot is what's at stake here in their relationship. Alma feels like thinking like that as an adult is naïve because she has really passed judgment on the world and on people. At the end, Mark says, "Even you have that. You're just like that." He trusts that part of her is going to emerge. They're coming up together. For me, the moment that she acknowledges, "I don't know if I'm right or wrong. I admit I'm like you. I do feel there is good in us, and there's a greater thing at work here," is crucial. It's fun to think of what's underpinning the story. The struggle was, do you leave it at that and let the human beings decide whether or not there is goodness in humanity? I felt like the story was about the fact that we don't have control of it, and there is someone else making that judgment. There is another entity making that choice for us. We may come to the conclusion that we're good and we can work this out. We can prosper and maybe the next generation will figure this out and be better than us—like I'm going to have a kid and he's going to have kid. But, guess what? There's another jury at work here, and that jury has decided that we're not a successful organism, and the tragedy of that ensues. At the end of the day, The Happening is a tragedy.

    Do you feel like the occurrence in The Happening strips everyone of his or her normal social veneer and reduces each person to a primal self? For instance, it seems like there's a connection between the psychotic shut-in Mrs. Jones (Betty Buckley) and the way people lose their minds when everything starts happening. Would you say that's the case?

    Yeah, it was fascinating thing thinking about it. "What would somebody do to fight the human race?" You could literally fight us or you could take what's essential for the species. That essential thing keeps it procreating and going; that's the survival instinct. It's doing the opposite of something; that's what's so scary. For me, the last moment of The Blair Witch Project where the guy's staring at the wall is profoundly scary. That's my thing. You didn't see anything. The guy's staring at the wall, and then the camera drops. It's so opposite of human behavior that it's almost revolting. It's disturbing. Thinking about the opposite of everything we do is a very scary thing.

    When you leave people to their own devices without rules or regulations, real horror results.

    True. Mrs. Jones's character was so fun to write. She's this isolationist woman who’s given up on people. We go that side at the absolute climax of this environmental event. It's such an exciting character that my agent keeps asking me to write the Mrs. Jones movie [laughs]—make a whole movie about Mrs. Jones and how she came to scare wayward travelers as they arrive at her house.

    Do you feel like there's a certain amount of personal salvation that comes for your characters through their self-actualization? It seems like Elliot learns a lot about himself, and he becomes a leader.

    Every character is a little bit of me, even if it's the cynic, it's me fighting the cynic off of me and that kind of thing. In this particular case with Elliot, it's a very subtle thing, but his lack of desire to step up and be the one in charge and accept that responsibility is it. He slowly shies away from it until it gets to the point where he has to make the decisions and deal with the failures or successes of those decisions. It's a growing up process that I guess a lot of guys are afflicted with. Not just myself or Elliot, but a lot of us have that feeling that we're not comfortable leading.

    When he has the chance to finally lead, he realizes that he can.

    Exactly. It's empowering in that respect. He uses his particular point of view to get everyone out of this. The circumstances keep pointing to him and saying, "Your particular world view is going to help these people and no one else's will." Whatever limited knowledge and belief system you have as a high school science teacher that says there are things that we'll never know, that's going to get you out of this. If there's a way to get out of this, it's through embracing who you are. That's how it's going to happen.

    —Rick Florino

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    Tags: M. Night Shyamalan, Mark Wahlberg, Zooey Deschanel

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