Pondicherry-born M Night Shyamalan has established himself as a master of suspense in a ridiculously short space of time. After Haley Joel Osment saw dead people in The Sixth Sense (1998) and Bruce Willis proved Unbreakable (2000), the writer/director attracted some criticism for his 2002 aliens-have-landed sci-fi/chiller Signs. Now he's twisting again with The Village, a period thriller about fear itself. His next movie looks set to be an adaptation of the award-winning novel Life Of Pi.
What was the inspiration for The Village?
It came from being offered another movie, Wuthering Heights. I went and re-read that book [by Emily Bronté], which was an amazing experience, and fell in love with this knotted romance. In its own way Heights is a scary, gothic story, which is why I think they offered it to me. I wanted to do something original, though, and I had this King Kong-y idea of a group of people who had rituals for dealing with the creature - which they just incorporated into their chores - and the ideas just came together.
Would you consider directing someone else's script?
It's really tempting, because there's a lack of vulnerability there which I would find very wonderful. I've been offered a lot of wonderful screenplays, actually, that were just fantastic, and it is tempting to skip that eight months of torture and just go straight to the "Wow, this is how I see it..." Usually, writing is the first thing that goes when you're a writer/director and you get offered a lot of top screenplays. It's easier to let that side of you go; I'm trying to fight that instinct.
The idea is to always go for the thing that's risky. I want to be courageous and original. And original means, you don't know what 'colour' movie you just saw. Movie making is not like other artforms, like painting, or writing a novel, because that can be disgested or interpreted. This is so much about 'Starbucks coffee' - give it to me, I'll drink it, it tastes great, I'm gone. It takes two years to make each one of these, and it's always judged on money. I remember when Unbreakable came out, it was like, "Oh, it didn't do so well." All of my movies have made money, and that's important for me - it's my job to make money for the studio - but now somebody comes up to me every day and tells me Unbreakable is their favourite movie. There's a dance between art and commerce - the Starbucks of my job, which I am aware of, and the painting of my job. Sometimes I lean one way, sometimes I lean the other.
How conscious are you of needing a surprise twist in each of your movies?
The surprise for me is, I didn't have it in the last movie [Signs], and people think I did have it. That's the way stories come to me, they come to me very naturally like that. If this was a story about me and someone else, I would be withholding information about them immediately. The negative thing about the twist is that it's all people are occupied with; all the gentleness in the movie is being overshadowed by the flashy cousin in the sequined vest taking centre-stage. I approach it as a novelist, in terms of saying: "I'm writing my next murder/mystery." Agatha Christie can write 30 of them, but this is a very different artform. I love my stories being multi-layered, and coming at it from different angles, so that you don't understand the film's true emotional motivation until the very end. It isn't about a plot reveal but the true emotional expression at the end of the picture.
Each of your films has the ability to deeply unsettle an audience. Where does that come from?
I'm intensely boring, so that creates a need to be exciting in other forms! For me the ability to judge a director is from their tone. My favourite movie from last year is Lost In Translation, because of its handle on tone. She [Sofia Coppola] knew exactly what she wanted and she held on to it from beginning to end: perfect direction. The particular accent I speak in is suspense, so if two people are having a conversation, my mind will immediately go to: how do I do it in a way that creates a little ticking clock in you. Even if it's a romantic scene, or a scary scene, or an emotional scene, it's about defying expectations, even in the littlest moments. I find it difficult to put humour in, to be honest, because I find it empties that tank of tension and I have to start all over again.
What directors have influenced you?
So many. Sofia Coppola, contemporaries like Quentin [Tarantino], they totally inspire me. From people with a larger body of work, it would be [Stanley] Kubrick's formalism. Specific movies like Rosemary's Baby are also influential, even Being There - things that you wouldn't think were spot-on, they feel spot-on to me. And Peter Weir, for the humanity that he brings to everything.
You seem to have a fascination with the dark and audiences' fear of the unknown...
When you say fear of the unknown, that is the definition of fear; fear is the unknown, fear is what you do not know, and it's genetically within us so that that we feel safe. We feel scared of the woods because we're not familiar with it, and that keeps you safe. Over the course of history, the people who are not scared go into the woods and are mauled by a bear, are not going to survive. It comes from making things familiar to you unfamiliar to you. I like to do very gentle things to make you unfamiliar, rather than blood on the walls, that kind of thing.
Your movies also deal with families a lot...
You try to write stuff that is important to you. They're all about family in some shape or form. So when I think about aliens taking over the world, it's from the point of view of a family, you know? That's the take that's interesting for me, that's what provokes me - dinner table conversations and points of views of family - taking these subjects and having a personal take on it, and treating it with reference.