M Night Shyamalan interview: The Sixth Sense director once hailed as Spielberg’s heir on turning to TV to revive his career

Shyamalan remains something of an outsider in Hollywood, still based in Philadelphia and defiantly ploughing his own path

Sarah Hughes
Sunday 26 April 2015 19:26
New direction: M Night Shyamalan
New direction: M Night Shyamalan

M Night Shyamalan feels misunderstood. It’s been 16 years since The Sixth Sense saw him hailed as the master of the twist ending, and in that time he has gone from being declared Steven Spielberg’s heir to being derided as a clapped-out hack, relying on those once celebrated twists to keep frustrated fans returning.

It’s a charge that clearly distresses him. “I think there is a commonality to my stuff – it’s just not what they’re saying the commonality is,” he maintains. “Everyone talks about the twists but I’d say my stuff is character-driven tales, focusing on ordinary people dealing with the unknown. I like B-genres treated as A-genres and there’s often a way of talking about spirituality that isn’t religious.”

Ah, yes, the spirituality. If Shyamalan’s detractors have a particular bugbear it’s the 44-year-old’s tendency to overlay his stories with a sort of new-age mysticism, a hint that help is on hand from on high if only you listen…

Shyamalan laughs. “I think people are uncomfortable with the spirituality, sure, I get that. But I also feel that maybe you shouldn’t try to answer the question but you should at least ask it.”

We meet in a central London hotel to discuss the director’s latest move, which is a shift into television with Wayward Pines, a 10-part series that starts on Fox UK next month. Wayward Pines, which is an apparent cross between Twin Peaks and The Prisoner, is adapted from a novel by Blake Crouch. It’s shrouded in secrecy, although the first episode, which Shyamalan directed, is a pacy, involving hour that sees Matt Dillon’s FBI agent crash his car in the small town of Wayward Pines, where nothing is as it seems.

“The Twin Peaks thing is intended, but it really only exists in the pilot and a little bit in the second episode,” says Shyamalan. “The wonderful thing about David Lynch movies is that he sees the world in that slightly nightmarish way, but in our show everyone is acting like they’re in a David Lynch movie for a reason. That’s the plot.”

All of which sounds suspiciously like another twist, but this one, he assures me, will be solved early on. “We definitely learnt from everybody before us and that’s why I tell the twist in episode five,” he says. “I’ll tease you for a while, but then I’m going to tell you. I actually think it’s a better show after you know.”

He had been considering a move into TV for some time, but Wayward Pines fitted “because I tend to like trapped stories, most stories in my head become very claustrophobic” and hoped that working on it “would stretch the box and change people’s expectations”.

Talking to Shyamalan is a fascinating experience. Previous pieces have portrayed him as arrogant, and there are whole swathes of the internet dedicated to tracking his apparent fall from grace, from pieces headlined “Why everyone hates M Night Shyamalan” to articles detailing how audiences boo when seeing his name attached to films.

Yet it’s extremely hard to reconcile that image with the personable, talkative man in front of me. Born Manoj Nelliyattu Shyamalan in Pondicherry, India, he grew up in Philadelphia the son of a cardiologist and an obstetrician, who believed he would follow them into a medical career. Instead he studied film at New York University’s famous Tisch School of the Arts. Yet while success came relatively easy – he was 29 when The Sixth Sense, his third film came out – there is the sense that he remains something of an outsider in Hollywood, still based in Philadelphia and defiantly ploughing his own path.

“I’ve had a really fun year,” he says. “In addition to this I’ve also made a small movie, The Visit, that’s very daring. I don’t know how many people will see it because it’s so small and specific and you may not like it but it is 100 per cent an original movie from me. It’s unapologetic in what it is.”

The possibilities offered by television clearly enthral him. “TV in this moment offers more creative freedom,” he says. “My favourite show is The Sopranos. Movies would never have let [David Chase] do that ending. There would have been repercussions. They would have stopped promoting it a certain way and would have said ‘hmm, we tested it and it’s not doing so well, half the audience hates it’, that kind of stuff. But on TV everybody watched it. They might have hated it, but they all watched it and it was up to Chase to decide the ending. He had that freedom.”

Critics label Shyamalan deluded but in person what comes across is his enthusiasm. This isn’t some remote auteur who believes his films can save the world, but a fellow fan with an infectious enthusiasm for the movies. He’s the Indian kid who grew up an outsider in Philadelphia obsessed by the movies of Spielberg and George Lucas, and who wants audiences to come away from his movies with the same sense of wonder he once felt watching Star Wars on screen.

“I was in this kitschy store in London yesterday with all this paraphernalia – you know X-Files buttons and Reservoir Dogs T-shirts and I was thinking maybe one day somebody will walk in 20 years from now and there’ll be a little Wayward Pines T-shirt saying “Welcome to Wayward Pines”. Wouldn’t that be great?”

‘Wayward Pines’ comes to Fox UK on 14 May

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