The timing for a gala event and career retrospective honoring M. Night Shyamalan seems odd in the wake of the disastrous opening of After Earth. And yet it happened all the same. The third in the “Close Encounters with Carrie Rickey…” series at the Kimmel Center, M. Night stopped by, wife, children and other family members in tow, for a conversation with Ms. Rickey and to answer some audience questions.
A brave man, I thought to myself on my way over to the Kimmel Center. I thought there was a good chance that Shyamalan would be walking into a blood bath. Anytime the man’s name is brought up online, there is nothing but a whirlwind of vitriol directed toward him. Combined with the city’s reputation for telling it like it is, I was curious to see how this event would play out.
However, when we arrived, the line looked mostly like Film Society types and Kimmel Center patrons. No internet/geek stereotypes that I noticed, and I began to lower my expectations for a battle of wits between Shyamalan and would-be detractors. As we waited anxiously for the program to start, Ms. Rickey introduced a “sizzle reel” of all of M. Night’s films, beginning with 1998’s Wide Awake all the way through 2010’s The Last Airbender.
Once Shyamalan greeted the audience, in a very sharp suit I might add, the main portion of the evening began. Ms. Rickey, following a Lipton-esque Inside the Actor’s Studio format, traced Shyamalan’s life from his childhood love of Star Wars and Raiders of the Lost Ark through his time at Tisch, and then his struggles to break into the film industry.
There was a particularly entertaining anecdote featuring Shyamalan on a panel with Tarantino, Rodriguez, and Baz Luhrmann at the Toronto Film Festival when they were all first-time filmmakers. The juxaposition of these directors on stage together with a 21-year-old Shyamalan is enough of a mind-melt in and of itself, but their reaction to an audience member’s exaltation of Shyamalan’s curse, violence, and sex-free film Praying with Anger is one I would have loved to see.
Perhaps that is what was so perplexing about the evening. Shyamalan’s charm and earnestness was on full display, and as much as a director can muster, his responses were very genuine. But he must be aware of the criticism around his more recent work, and there were only convert attempts at addressing the topic on both sides. He described the compartmentalization of the recurring themes in his films such as philosophy and religion, and their popularity in different countries. According to Shyamalan, Germans apparently love the philosophy angles in his films, Italy the religious. Every other country has found a part of his films to latch onto, all except the US, where Shyamalan said “the relationship is a little more…Aaaah (add franetic hand motion)!” or contentious, as of late.
Probably the most telling explanation of his work came when Ms. Rickey posed the question of how one navigates between creating films that are “small intimate character studies versus larger super-size spectacles.” Shyamalan commented “it’s the difficult part, because my tastes straddle both worlds. I end up always being put into the ‘summer movie’ category by the studio, when really none of my movies are summer movies, but they are framed that way.”
He elaborated more on this idea of “framing” by spending a brief moment reflecting on a recent trip to an art museum in Paris. Shyamalan was viewing Baroque pieces, or more specifically, Baroque-style frames around simplistic but soulful paintings. His films are often given the studio marketing and the budget of “summer films,” (i.e. the Baroque frames) but have the spirit of “fall or winter films,” (i.e. the simple paintings). After Earth was not brought up once during this exchange, but it’s hard not to consider the film in this context. As if there was any doubt, After Earth has already made its budget back overseas, so as long as the frames are paid for, why worry?
A short clip from After Earth was shown, and the conversation took a bit of an auteur turn, as Shyamalan discussed the specific choices in the given scene including lighting, and camera work. Sadly, the event spent little time on any of Shyamalan’s films after Signs. Another small indication that this night was not about addressing some of the beatings his more recent films have taken at the hands of critics and fanboys. Even the audience questions were either lovingly gentle or very general, but what can you expect when some people took planes just to see the man speak.
Shyamalan on his time at Tisch: “I was chasing my wife at NYU, so I took all the classes she was taking. Luckily for me she was a psychologist. It became pivotal for me and my writing. If she was a mathematician, man, my movies would be boring.”
On telling his dad he wouldn’t be going to medical school: “I told him during a Flyer’s game. He didn’t even look up from the TV.”
On the uselessness of a film degree: “Even when I was graduating, I was writing stuff in my cap and gown, because I knew it meant nothing. I knew that no one cares that I have a degree. This isn’t going to be the defining moment of my artistic career.”
On writing The Sixth Sense: “The first five drafts were horrific. It was basically a rip-off of Silence of the Lambs. No, it was going to be about a crime photographer who documented crime scenes, and he realizes that his son can see the victims of the serial killer. But once I knew what I wanted it to be, it morphed from there.”
On his inspiration for Unbreakable: “There was a burden put on me with the success of The Sixth Sense, and therefore a burden on the main character in the film, you know, am I doing the right thing, have I found my calling? And that’s what his story is about for me.”
On Unbreakable being ahead of the curve: “I couldn’t get a studio to release it as a comic book movie, because they were like, comic book movies are so niche, it’s all those freaks at conventions. At the time, the dark comic book movie just hadn’t happened yet.”
On his demons: “It’s a constant struggle of wanting to be independent, wanting to do my own thing, but also wanting to feel accepted by the group. Sometimes I can’t figure out which I want more. Sometimes belonging to a group is cowardly because it’s safer.”
On Wayward Pines being filmed in Canada: “If the show was called Wayward Oaks, then it would have been Pennsylvania.”