NEW YORK — Thanks to a string of hits, including The Sixth Sense, The Village, Signs and Unbreakable, M. Night Shyamalan has transformed himself into a brand, and has become one of the hottest directors in Hollywood. Which is ironic, because the 36-year-old writer/director, who's received six Oscar nominations, lives and works in rural Pennsylvania — about as far away as you can get from the glamour and glitz of Hollywood. Which partly explains why Shyamalan sets his stories in the countryside near where he lives with his wife and two young daughters. Here, in a rare interview conducted while he was in New York recently, Shyamalan talks about making his latest film Lady in the Water, another spooky tale that this time stars Paul Giamatti and Bryce Dallas Howard, his filmmaking process, and why in the era of digital cinema and HD he's one of the last of the "dinosaurs" still cutting on film.
POST: How important is the post process for you?
M. NIGHT SHYAMALAN: "Huge, obviously, although I try not to make the films in the editing room. It's not the place to create that vision, for me, but it's an incredible art form for honing and fine tuning, especially on a film like this, which is all about tonality. If you get the tonality right, you've got it, but if you don't, you're dead. So post is absolutely crucial and is literally the defining moment. Between all the editing and sound effects and music, you can change the film's effect 50 percent from my original intention when shooting it."
POST: How long did you spend on post for Lady?
SHYAMALAN: "Six months, a long time, but it was a big post. As usual, we did it at The Farm where I live in Pennsylvania."
POST: Lady has a lot more visual effects than your other films.
SHYAMALAN: "Yes, there are 40 or 50 shots, which is a lot for me. It's not King Kong, which had a thousand [laughs], but I'm slowly creeping up. And I'm slowly learning about effects, so I started early on this as it wasn't my normal thing. I had [artist] Crash McCreery start working with me while I was writing, and that was wonderful for me as dealing with all the effects are usually the part of the movie that I'm like, 'Oh, I don't want to do that.' It's like seeing the dentist. But it was so joyous this time that I wished I'd had more time, as I had more ideas and I really began to think in that mode."
POST: Are you a minimalist when it comes to visual effects?
SHYAMALAN: "I am, but more out of the fact that I stink at it than any other judgment. I don't know how those guys do it. This is the most I've ever done, and we did it really, really early and we worked really hard at it, and it's the best that I've done with it, but those guys like Peter [Jackson] and Steven [Spielberg] — they probably knew how to do it when they were kids. I just don't do it. I get off on the dinner table scenes. But I know it's a fantastic tool. Hopefully I'll get more comfortable with it."
POST: Tell us about ILM's contributions?
SHYAMALAN: "I needed a company that'd work closely with Spectral Motion Inc. — the practical effects company — as I wanted to do as much as I could practically, and then have it all finished with CGI. But there's not many places that are willing to do that anymore, and ILM is. So I worked very closely with Ed Hirsh, the visual effects supervisor there, and with Chris Cram, the visual effects producer who actually came and stayed at The Farm, so I could go over everything with him, and sort out any problems. They did a lot on [Discreet] Inferno and there was a ton of compositing work, and I love the final look."
POST: Do you see yourself writing a future project that uses even more visual effects?
SHYAMALAN: [Long pause] "It's a big burden to me to think about that, as I love telling stories as opposed to doing all the technical shit. So it'd be very difficult for me, as that month before shooting starts when the director is busy preparing all the CGI shots, I'm writing. If I wasn't always writing, it'd be different. There's not many writer/directors doing heavy CGI projects because it's just so much work. It's years of your life."
POST: Your Lady editor, Barbara Tulliver, also cut Signs. How does that relationship work?
SHYAMALAN: "She's a very smart woman and brings a lot of emotion and intellect to analyzing the subject, and I really respect her POV, which is key. Normally, when I'm in the editing room I'm sprinting through it all, and they need to keep up, and she has a very keen eye. This was highly unusual in that we cut the first three passes on film, on an old Steenbeck. I'd go back to film if I could."
POST: Did everyone think you were crazy?
SHYAMALAN: [Laughs] "Yes, absolutely insane, especially as we couldn't even find the equipment. No one on the East Coast has it anymore. There's this one place in LA, so we had to ship it out, along with the last six people who knew how to fix it, and then find the crew, and only Spielberg's crew still knows how to cut on film. So I had to get all those guys to come out just to do it. It was insane!"
POST: And then you had to switch to an Avid?
SHYAMALAN: "Exactly, because the reality of cutting on film is you need a year. It just moves that slowly, and I'd prefer that, but again, as I write and direct, it'd end up three years for each film. That's crazy! So we had to switch, but it was great for me and I feel that the final film retains so much of what we learned from those three passes, such as the organic dips and rises and a consistency of tone. In fact, after those three passes, we began doing Avid passes and then watching them on the Steenbeck, so it was like a hybrid edit. Then the last couple of passes were just Avid [Meridiens on Mac and a 1TB LANShare system], and it felt like a sprint. So it was almost like a big experiment."
POST: One you'd repeat on your next film?
SHYAMALAN: "I don't know. The problem is, I'm the last generation to ever cut on film. That's it. So I'm the dinosaur, and I only cut my first movie on film. The other six were done on Avid, and I trained mainly on Avid, and your brain is wired that way. So it's something I'm struggling with."
POST: How important is audio in your films?
SHYAMALAN: "Enormous! Huge! I was chatting with this very famous director — I can't say who — and he was like, 'Why are you so worried about the sound? Just let 'em do it and then you check it.' But I can't work that way. I need to check every Foley step, every single cue, because sound is a special effect I use to create tension, aliens, textures, everything. And the choice of a louder or softer step is an acting choice for me. If you make it a strong step, you change the character's attitude, so you have an unlimited number of options. So sound and audio effects are crucial in all my films. In The Village, the whole film's actually in mono, which reflects the villagers' minimalist aesthetic, until you go into the forest, and then it opens up into surround sound, to accent all these new, unfamiliar sounds. And that change affected the entire film so dramatically. On this, they worked on it at Skywalker, and then sent the files to me digitally. But we didn't do that much sound on the first three passes anyway, so by the time we got sound we were back on Avid. Music's also crucial, and it can make or break a film, especially a fantasy and supernatural one like this where you have to hit the right tone all the time."
POST: What do you think about digital cinema?
SHYAMALAN: "I'm sad about all the changes. It scares me. I love film and I'd work on film forever if I could. In fact, if I could, I'd go back and find all those great Kodak stocks they used in the '70s and use those today, because they were more real, with more grain to them. Now they're so fast and clear — they're slick-looking.
POST: What about HD?
SHYAMALAN: "I'd never shoot HD unless I was forced to and there was absolutely no film equipment left anywhere. It's a whole new medium I'm not comfortable with. I'm a real traditionalist who likes to keep it simple."
POST: What makes you tick as a filmmaker? It seems that there's a bit of therapy going on.
SHYAMALAN: "Oh definitely. Absolutely. It feels like unburdening when I make a movie, so it's definitely a sense of therapy, working out things that are on my mind. I love to create suspense and a mood that will hopefully linger with the audience long after they leave the theatre. I guess [like] any artist that is really trying to make art, I'm really trying to talk about things that are bothering me or things I believe in or things that upset me or struggles about our purpose and believing in eccentric, unusual things. I don't even know if I can articulate it. The thing that makes me tick, I think, is danger, so I really make it very dangerous for me, so I feel threatened in some way, everything is heightened, and I'm working at a kind of life and death feeling creatively."
POST: Do you feel a lot of pressure to top yourself with each new film, now that you've become a brand name?
SHYAMALAN: "Yes, it's a great thing and a bad thing. You know what I mean? Because I wonder how these movies would be seen if each and every one of them was a first movie. If this was my first movie, or if The Village was my first movie, and no one had ever seen a movie like it — this would be wonderful experiences for me to have. And only one movie got that, which was Sixth Sense.
POST: What happened to Life of Pi which you were going to do next?
SHYAMALAN: "A little bit [of the pressure] happened. I don't know if you read the book, but it has a surprise ending. So it's not a surprise as soon as you put my name on it. I felt strangled by this kind of expectation.
POST: So what's next?
SHYAMALAN: "I have two, and they're battling each other. I had one [idea] — it was like, this is definitely it, and I went to France and a second one came into my head. One is very kind of Agatha Christie, which is the one I thought I was going to make right away, and the other one is a big movie with a big movie star, so I'm trying to decide what to do."