M. Night Shyamalan is not letting the rather mixed reviews for “The Last Airbender” darken his easygoing spirit or dampen his creative verve. Late last month, as “Airbender” continued to rake in dough overseas, Shyamalan sat down with MTV News to chat about his upcoming “Devil,” which follows five strangers trapped in an elevator — one of whom just might be the Prince of Darkness.
The film is the first in his planned “Night Chronicles” trilogy, a series based on his original ideas and helmed by other directors, and Shyamalan seems to relish the idea of getting out of the director’s chair and into the role of producer, a job he likened to being the goalie on a hockey team.
As part of our Fall Movie Preview, Shyamalan talked amiably about the film’s genesis, how he’s openly borrowed from other directors throughout his career and why he has such a complicated relationship with the public and the press.
MTV: This is an M. Night Shyamalan film, but it’s not an M. Night Shyamalan-directed film. What does that mean?
M. Night Shyamalan: Well, it just means I have a bunch of stories, a lot of journals I wrote, a lot of movie ideas that I really thought I was going to direct, and then I get another idea and I fill another journal. And I just decided to make a few of them and get really exciting young filmmakers to come and challenge me and show me everything and get some camaraderie going. It’s so lonely making movies, dude. You sit in a room by yourself and do it, and I’ve always kind of dreamed of having like, you know, a group of friends and we all make movies and I say, ‘Hey, what do you think about this?” And they say, “That sucks! And this is why it sucks,” and I go, “Really? Because I thought it was fantastic!” And they have that thing and have different languages of storytellers.
So, basically, we started a series of movies called “The Night Chronicles,” and “Devil” is the first one. I hired John and Drew Dowdle, who absolutely killed it in this independent movie called “The Poughkeepsie Tapes,” which is an absolutely traumatic experience to watch. We watched it in our house, we had just moved into our new house, and I felt totally violated. I didn’t want to live there anymore, and I was like, “Who did this movie?” We saw their second movie, “Quarantine,” which was so much fun, and I was like, “I gotta meet these guys, these guys would be perfect for ‘Devil.’ ”
MTV: With “The Night Chronicles,” do you imagine this all to be one creepy universe?
Shyamalan: It’s funny you should say that. As we were getting ready, we’re gearing up the second one, I was like, “Do they all live in the same world? Do they reference something that happened in an elevator down the other side of town in Philadelphia?” And we have a line in there so it could be that and maybe there’s, like, little reoccurring characters that kind of tell you this is all one world where weird stuff happens.
MTV: A creepy world that’s fun to visit but not to live in maybe.
Shyamalan: Yeah, definitely! A world where all your worst things happen.
MTV: What was the idea in the notebook that created this one?
Shyamalan: I remember when I wrote in the notebook, it’s this little black notebook … choosing a whole notebook about what the idea in the notebook [is], is a whole ritual by the way. It’s like you have to match the notebook, I’m really OCD about it, and “This is too thin, and this is not the right, the lines are too thick, are too far apart, this isn’t the spirit of this.” I’m like insane!
MTV: There’s not one uniform notebook for all the movies?
Shyamalan: Yeah. When I go traveling and all, going to journal places or paper-book is a huge thing! Like for me, I make everyone stop when we go and I go, “No, this is not it.” It’s ridiculous! It’s ridiculous. But in this little black journal that “Devil” was in, the first thing I wrote was like, “Five people trapped in an elevator, one of them is the devil. And one by one, they each get killed off until you see who the devil is.” And it kind of was like an Agatha Christie nod.
MTV: There’s almost like a “Twilight Zone”-ish vibe. Do you think you look for influences? Are you more focused on your own thing or do you think of other movies that were close to this in spirit?
Shyamalan: If it feels similar to something else that makes me feel icky, you know like, “Oh, they did that in, ‘Close Encounters’ or something,” if I’m conscious of it, it bothers me. When I watch “The Sixth Sense,” when I see the cabinet scene, it bothers me because it’s so familiar from “Poltergeist” with the chairs on the table and I’m like, “Dude, I totally ripped them off!” And so you feel really bad. Whenever I meet filmmakers that I like, I’m like, “Total apologies for ripping you off, and I’m sure I’ve done it a hundred times and you’ve been cursing me out watching [like] ‘This guy’s just stealing my stuff!’ ”
MTV: As long as you’re ripping off the best.
Shyamalan: Absolutely, exactly! The greatest. I met Robert Wise once and I was like, “Dude, I’ve stolen everything from ‘The Haunting’ that you made. It’s fantastic!”
MTV: When you’re producing this, are you on set? What’s your day-to-day role in this?
Shyamalan: My feeling about “The Night Chronicles” is it isn’t like “Oh, I’m watching over it like a policeman.” I completely see myself now as the goalie, and I hired these guys to score as many points, win the championship, and if somebody gets by them, I’ll be there to try and stop the puck. That’s how the Dowdles felt about it, and I felt really comfortable in that role of “Hey, I’m watching you do your thing, you’re amazing. I hired you because I believed in you, I want to be inspired by you, I want you to teach me about filmmaking.” And if there’s something that goes by, I would be like, “Oh, that kid’s performance is really going to be a problem, we should address it and reshoot it,” I catch it in the end and we talk about it and say, “These are the three things that are bothering me, we should work on it.”
MTV: Most of your work has been PG-13. Is that important to you? Do you think that’s better, and do you put a limit on yourself so that it builds better suspense?
Shyamalan: Absolutely, it’s exactly right. When you can’t show it, it makes you think in much more creative ways of insinuation and glimpsing something and how can we show someone getting killed in an elevator and not show it. You imply it and it happened, and if it’s really gruesome, how do you imply it? Your imagination becomes active, and what you really try to do, especially in suspense movies, which is my favorite style of filmmaking, is you have to engage the audience as a participant; it’s not a complete painting. Actually there’s a quote from Walter Murch that I love about incompleteness and why he thought black-and-white movies had such power is they’re slightly incomplete, they’re not reality-based. The audience was part of finishing the painting. They were finishing the picture they were seeing, and so it was very customized and very internal and scary to them.
MTV: How do you create, kind of set pieces? How do you amp up the suspense and action if you’re confined to that one space?
Shyamalan: I love confinement. It’s not something I find as a limitation, but more as an excitement. I get very uncomfortable with the, “You’ve got the whole world, and there’s events happening all around the world,” and I’m like, “No, it’s one house with a family,” and I enjoy that … thinking what could happen in a very, very small space. In fact, most of “The Night Chronicles,” most of those ideas are very confined, big ideas kept in a little area.
MTV: Is there a scene that you felt is really going to scare the hell out of people?
Shyamalan: Oh my gosh, they did such a good job. The best part about me watching these guys do it — because, every single decision wasn’t mine — I watch it as an audience member. When we have a preview screening, I’m one of the people screaming! You hear seven girls and me screaming in the back. I’m like, “Ahhh!”
MTV: You’re one of these guys that has this thing about them, with your mix of successes and failures. Do you feel philosophical about that, do you understand what that’s about?
Shyamalan: Yeah, it’s something that I’ve thought about a bunch because my normal environment of the people I work with, the X-amount of a people that I work with to make movies, is such a calm and friendly and non-confrontational way. I’ve gotten angry, like, four times in my life, and one was over basketball. We all hang out. I feel very close to everybody. The famous version of me doesn’t reflect — doesn’t have any bearing. I don’t even know who they’re talking about most of the time. I think that we all think of ourselves as we were in high school, and I was definitely the uncool kid in high school and definitely got made fun of when I walked in, like, “Those pants?” — that guy. I’m OK with that and I know I’m not going to be Mr. Cool and I’ll always be on the outside of things a little bit and had to become comfortable with it.
There’s good things and bad things with that, because you see things in a different way, because you don’t know how to quite fit in. I don’t know quite how to be cool. I remember I had my first movie in a festival in Toronto and all of us had our first movies. There was me, Quentin Tarantino, Robert Rodriguez, Baz Luhrmann, we were all 22, 23 years old, and they were so cool and I was making this kind of sincere movie about a kid in India, and I felt so uncool and I was cringing and they were so cool and hanging out and edgy and I’m like, “Uh, uh!” And I kind of feel that way all the time. I wish I could be naturally more cool and edgy. So I understand the dynamic because it feels kind of familiar to me. The guy who makes fun of me with his friends and then comes like, “Hey you wanna hang out?” and I’m like, “But you just made fun of me!” “All right, let’s go play Atari.”