In support of the October 7, 2008 release of The Happening on DVD, writer/director M Night Shyamalan fielded questions from a select group of journalists concerning his latest thriller. Shyamalan, who's busy in pre-production on the big screen adaptation of The Last Airbender, opened up about taking an unusual source of terror and making it the centerpiece of a feature film.
Is it harder to create tension in a film when you have an intangible event like this happening? There isn't a real solid enemy or viable force in the film.
M. Night Shyamalan: "You know it’s funny. Unless I hear someone say something, just like what you said - and often if I hear like a studio person or somebody or somebody I’m working with, a producer or something say something like that - I’m completely unaware of that issue. For me, if I can’t see it, I love it. Whenever I have to show something, whether it’s in Signs, it’s always the sad moment for me that I have to show it."
I always have to ask somebody, to some extent, 'Is this dangerous? Is this a dangerous room to be in?' because I get really excited by it. So it’s kind of like, I don’t know, a creative autism or something that just makes me focus in on the thing that is getting me really excited, and I’m unaware of all the pitfalls of it. But as you say that, I can understand intellectually how it would be that wind might not be naturally scary to somebody. But if I told you that there’s a gas in the wind and it’s coming and that you have to shut the doors and close the windows and make sure no air gets in, I can see a million variations of how that would be scary to me. I love taking something innocuous and then by the end of the movie making you nervous about it and imbuing it with ominous or portentous qualities."
You seem to find the littlest things to create suspense out of. Where does that aesthetic come from?
M. Night Shyamalan: "You know, I feel a little bit like a dinosaur in this day and age of filmmaking a bit and maybe momentarily not knowing whether my accent means anything to anybody. But where it came from, this idea of Kurosawa or even Kubrick or Hitchcock, those three guys are the kind of…You know, their quiet tension that they do with the frame, as opposed to stimuli scares or suspense, I’m not naturally the stimuli suspense guy."
I don’t think in terms of when I think of an alien invasion I think of hearing about it and then seeing a couple of lights on a TV as opposed to all these amazing filmmakers, I’m sure like Spielberg and Jackson and obviously Lucas and all these guys, James Cameron, they would all do the spectacular version of it. But my mind never goes there."
"I remember when they had asked me to do Troy, you know way, way back and as soon as I read it – I loved the screenplay by the way - and I was like, 'Wow, I could do an action epic and you won’t hardly see anything.' You know you’ll have Achilles kind of go behind a wall, like a torn down wall, and Achilles will come behind the wall fighting a soldier and you’ll hear the rest of it. And you might see something in through the window, and really rely on the fact that back in those days, if you got a gash on your arm, like more than a couple of inches, you knew you were going to be dead. You won’t be dead that day, but infection will set in. There are no stitches, it’s over, and to convey that minimalist rules to the game, my mind immediately when there. Do you know what I mean? It went there. And I saw Wolfgang’s version of it, which is great, I was like 'Oh, my god, I saw a completely, completely different movie in my head, from the same screenplay.'"
"I’m doing one of those kind of [movies] right now, so it’s a fascinating thing being able to do something that has so many elements and continue to distill it and distill it down. And, of course, the entire machine will fight you along the way as you distill it, because it is full of the habits of excitement, excitement, excitement. So for me like The Happening, having such an incredibly quiet…for me it reminds me of Picnic at Hanging Rock. I don’t know if you guys are familiar with that one. But the atmosphere itself is what is threatening."
They’re still fighting you, even though you’ve proven success with this aesthetic?
M. Night Shyamalan: "No, it’s not so much like fighting, 'Hey man, you must do…' But I’m talking about, 'Hey, how about another explosion here?' Like that. Fighting is probably the wrong the word, but more of like, 'How do you convey spectacular, without actually showing it?' You know, that kind of thing. But I think there’s a great balance that is happening, in regard to the movie that I’m working on now, because what is happening is I’m doing very orchestrated stuff that would take maybe, instead of doing it in five shots, I’m doing it in one orchestrated shot and the CGI and the spectacular stuff is on the edge of the frame here and insinuated there. And then you catch one full-blown for a moment and then it pans over, but it is all in one moment and it is articulating what the character is feeling. So taking that kind of language that fits so well into suspense movies and thrillers that I’ve been doing and applying it over into this world."