M. Night Shyamalan has been terrorizing people for years, long before he was an Academy Award-nominated filmmaker. With his latest film “Old” hitting theaters on Friday, Shyamalan sat down with Variety to talk about his life and career, revealing that even as a teenager, he was finding creative ways to frighten people.
In this case, it was his visiting cousins, who Shyamalan would torture with surprisingly intricate pranks. At the age of 14 he says he would be “merciless, really on the verge of unkind” with his schemes, which included convincing his cousin he was possessed or that there was a serial killer on the loose. He often involved props. “I’d have two different remote controls with the TV and we’d do the Ouija board and the TV would keep turning on and he’d be crying,” Shyamalan reveals. Asked if his relatives are okay today, Shyamalan jokes, “No, they’re all in therapy now.”
That mischievous side to Shyamalan is still evident in his films today; he still loves to shock people and refers to his work as “just a professional extension of that instinct.” Due to his films, many expect Shyamalan to come off as serious or dark, a persona that the auteur is well aware of but says he’s actually “really bland” in real life.
Written, directed and produced by Shyamalan, “Old” centers on a group of people, including a vacationing family, who are sent to a secluded beach where they begin to age rapidly. Loosely based on the graphic novel “Sandcastle” by Pierre Oscar Levy and Frederik Peeters, “Old” features what have become Shyamalan trademarks, building dread both present and existential as the supernatural begins to invade the real world. It’s also primarily set in one location with a tight and talented ensemble, something Shyamalan has been leaning toward with his most recent work, including his Apple TV Plus series “Servant.”
The aging process was tricky, particularly as some characters start out so young they eventually have to be played by different actors. In that case, Shyamalan says he cast the actors who would be playing the characters from teens to adulthood and then cast their younger versions. The movie is essentially broken into three acts, and the cast and crew would shoot three different parts of the script every day. “We’d shoot the beginning in the morning, the middle of the script in the middle of the day, and the end of the script at the end of the day, every day,” Shyamalan notes. “So we would jump 30 pages, jump 30 pages and shoot it so that the sun was in the right place to create this feeling of a single day.” And because it’s set largely on the beach, they had to take into consideration tides and weather.
Shyamalan also discussed his early years, including the strong influence of Spike Lee, and the wild success of his first studio movie, “The Sixth Sense.” That film was followed by “Unbreakable,” which surprised many by revealing itself as a superhero origin story at a time when comic book movies were virtually unheard of. “If I could go back, I would underline the differences between the movies more than we did,” Shyamalan says. “You know, ‘Unbreakable’ is not scary. It’s strange. It’s a comic book movie. That’s the irony, right? The thing that we were running from the thing they stay with scared most of, is that it’s about comic books! That’s the thing that they were so worried about, that no one would come to see a movie about comics. This is Disney. Would they know this many years later that they would bank the entire thing on that same thing that they were so scared to even talk about?”
Watch the rest of the video with Shyamalan above, where he discusses the first movie that ever scared him, which film of his he’d least like to be trapped in and writing a version of “She’s All That.”