Tuesday 25 June 2019

'It might seem crazy' - M Night Shyamalan reveals why he re-mortgaged his own house to fund 'Glass'

He was the toast of Hollywood, but then had a series of flops. Director M Night Shyamalan tells Julia Molony how he regained his edge

M Night Shyamalan and Bruce Willis on the set of 'Glass'
M Night Shyamalan and Bruce Willis on the set of 'Glass'

To fund his latest movie Glass, cult director M Night Shyamalan re-mortgaged his own house. A daring move, by any standards. And perhaps perplexing when you consider that he is a veteran filmmaker whose most recent project grossed almost $300m at the box office. And that both Universal and Disney (the two studios which, in an unprecedented move, collaborated to co-produce) were both essentially waving blank cheques in his face.

But working to a tight, limited budget, and creating an acute sense of jeopardy around the project was quite deliberate. Shyamalan has learned through experience that those are the conditions he finds optimum for creative work.

"It's probably not healthy," he admits with a wry smile. "This thing that has to be ignited only by jeopardy. This no-safety-net kind of thing. I don't know moving forward what that means... It might seem crazy. Both Disney and Universal were happy to pay for the movie. And both, they said, you could make it for a lot more than (the budget he set) and I said, no. We're not doing it that way. I am paying for it, and it's going to cost this amount of money.

"I prefer discipline," he explains. "I prefer enforcing all of us as artists at the table to have those parameters. You are constantly choosing your containment things. A painter chooses a canvas, chooses a colour palette. And that starts the creative process."

Shyamalan is long, lean and powerfully charismatic. He has the caffeinated speaking style of someone whose mind works constantly at high speed. He shot to prominence in his 20s when he wrote and directed The Sixth Sense, establishing him in the Hollywood firmament. But after his early success, his career took a nosedive in the mid-noughties when he helmed a series of flops. Recently, however, he has been enjoying a run of success so impressive it's been dubbed a "the Shyamalanaissance"

Glass, which sees James McAvoy and Bruce Willis reprise much-loved roles from previous collaborations with the director, is one of the most eagerly awaited films of 2019.

His philosophy as a filmmaker is the direct result of his experiences as a Hollywood wunderkind who, after precocious success, spent a good few years in the wilderness.

But it's also - and this is important for Shyamalan - a theory that is backed up by scientific evidence from the field of psychology.

"There are so many studies that show that with an unlimited amount of choice you don't choose well. We need limits so that we can bounce who we are off those limits. So how to keep creating those limits is the thing."

At just 48, he's already had a career spanning over 20 years. Plenty of time to reflect on the experiences of both success and failure. Shyamalan is a keen student of human psychology, anyway. It forms a running theme in his imaginative universe.

In recent films, including Glass, an eclectic mash-up which is a sequel to two of his biggest movies, Split and Unbreakable, he explores phenomena of the mind such as the placebo effect and multiple personality disorder, blending them with superhero mythology.

In conversation, he weaves psychological theories smoothly into his discourse about film, about the art of creating suspense, and about what lies at the heart of his drive to tell stories. It's perhaps not surprising then, that his wife or 25 years, Dr Bhavna Shyamalan, is a clinical psychologist. The couple met in university and now have three daughters.

"It started with me chasing her in college," he says. "She was on the psychology programme, so I had to take all her classes to be with her. So I did my film classes and then I ran to her psychology classes, and, even though I was sitting there staring at her, I'd be like, 'wait a minute, that's really interesting, what you just say?' And so that built into a love of the mind and all that stuff. And you know again, in many ways you could say Hitchcock and even Kubrick, these are all very psychological filmmakers.

"And the art of filmmaking is really a manipulation of our emotions. What is it when a lens is dropping in a wide shot… what are you feeling? You're not feeling positive. Why is the lens going down making you not feel positive? Why is that? Why do I know something bad is going to happen just from that? Everything has a meaning... it's a very psychologically motivated medium."

These days it's not fear of failure that concerns him. On the contrary, his modus operandi in recent years has been to go to great lengths to offset the pitfalls of success. To avoid complacency at all costs. Hence why he insisted on paying for Glass himself.

He detests the risk-aversion that characterises the movie industry today. "You should maintain your muscle - it's a psychological term called negative capability, your ability to be OK in a space where you are not sure what the outcome is. And all of us try to avoid that constantly. I don't want to try that relationship, I don't want to get the new job, I don't want to move… no, no, no, no. Whatever it is. We're always avoiding that." The key, he says, is "don't let being afraid shrink you back to the known elements".

That's why, in latter years, he's gone to some lengths to work exclusively with new, relatively untested talent on his films. Young people at the start of their careers.

"Their negative capability is so strong. They're 30, 28 years old. They just did one movie, two movies. They're just like 'let's go for it, let's do this, or do that. How about black and white… and you entertain it for a second. They're building my negative capability back up again."

To do that, he has to stay in touch with his vulnerability. The best compliment he's ever received, he says was when a fan told him: "My favourite artists are you and Thom Yorke. Because I feel like he and Radiohead are very spiritual for me. Almost like Indian Raga - the way they sing. He's so vulnerable. So incredibly vulnerable... He's, for me, an example of an ultimate artist. It's hard because your art makes you famous, makes expectations.

"You have a one-way relationship with everyone in the world after that, which makes you feel very isolated… there's all this weird f**ked up cycle that happens to every artist after that."

'Glass' is in cinemas on January 18

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