By Phil Contrino
Since breaking through with The Sixth Sense nearly 20 years ago, M. Night Shyamalan has delivered some of the most memorable theatrical experiences to moviegoers around the world. His ability to combine thrills, laughs, and deep meaning has helped him hold an important place in our culture.
With Glass, Night continues the story he started back in 2000 with Unbreakable—a film that Quentin Tarantino labeled the best superhero film of modern times—by bringing together three of his most memorable characters: the villainous Elijah Price (Samuel L. Jackson), the heroic David Dunn (Bruce Willis), and Kevin Wendell Crumb (James McAvoy), a guy with multiple-personality disorder who has been turned into a villain against his will.
NATO’s Phil Contrino spoke with Night about the importance of the theatrical experience to his life and his work.
What is your earliest moviegoing memory?
Star Wars. If there was one before Star Wars, then Star Wars erased it from my long-term memory. Star Wars was significant for my family. My parents, my older sister [and I] got in the station wagon going home, and I sat in the front seat. My sister was talking and I told her to not talk because I had had such a profound experience and I didn’t want anybody to talk and she’s like, “You are so weird,” because she’s a teenage girl. There was this real sense of feeling religion for the first time, and this experience of being taken away with a group. I remember the crowd cheering when Luke dropped that proton bomb into the Death Star and blew it up. I remember cheering when Han Solo came in, and the group excitement of it is still in my mind. I can still remember that moment.
Was there a specific moviegoing experience that helped you decide to become a filmmaker?
I think it was probably Raiders of the Lost Ark. I was 12, and I had to sit alone because it was sold out. My friend forced me to go … I didn’t even know what it was about. I was terrified. I was just a skinny little Indian kid, and the people I sat next to were kind enough to get me popcorn and a soda. I remember the [Paramount] mountain logo turned into a real mountain, and I was just transported with the balance of adventure and comedy. I saw that in a really big, wonderful theater—Narberth Theater [in Pennsylvania]—when it was very huge and historic and looked like an opera house. I can’t even imagine how many people were in there, probably 600, 700, 800, whatever it was. It was an amazing experience with everybody waiting in line and buzzing with excitement, and the joy of it all was so great. Then I went home and started pretending stuff and I grabbed my dad’s camera.
Are there any specific movies that you count as really strong influences on Unbreakable, Split, and Glass—this trilogy that you’ve created? Are the seeds of those movies in some of the movies you watched as a teenager or young adult?
As I got braver in my moviegoing and I started to watch foreign movies, independent movies—I was going through the spectrum at the multiplex but I was also going to art house theaters. I decided to be a filmmaker really young. When I was 14, going to the movies was always an educational experience as well as a visceral, fun experience. I can almost remember any movie that I’ve ever seen and where I saw it.
I remember in high school seeing Fatal Attraction. The theater was so packed that they actually had people sitting on the stairs in the middle of aisles—which is obviously illegal but they did it—and so many people from my high school were there. There was a girl that I liked and she was there, and the movie came on and the audience is just roaring and screaming at the end and applauding. It finishes and the lights come up and that girl leans over from a few seats away—and she knew I wanted to make movies—and she said “You better make movies like that,” and I was nodding and saying “I will, I will.”
Flash forward to The Sixth Sense, a movie that obviously played to massive audiences. Did you ever say to yourself, “I made it; I made good on this promise that I made to this person growing up”?
Watching my own movies is such a scary thing. In those days I could just go and sit anywhere in the theater and hear the audience. I remember watching once and there was a guy with a girl sitting next to me and he was being snarky at the beginning of the movie … commenting on this or that and just trying to be a smart aleck, and I’m sitting next to him—of course nobody knew me then—and he slowly gets quieter and quieter, and then silent. I could tell by his body language and everything that he was completely enraptured by what he was watching. I could feel the whole audience become one. Where at the beginning he was an individual, the room became one entity and he became a part of it, and by the end when it finished he said, “That was incredible” to his girlfriend and he had awe in his voice. It was really incredible to watch that happen—an individual become part of a larger entity in the experience of watching a movie, which is exactly what the movie theaters are meant to do.
When you’re getting ready to release a movie there are a lot of secrets to protect. Do you still have a traditional screening process or do you make it more selective in order to get the feedback you need when you’re still editing and finalizing a movie?
There was a period when the internet started taking off where it was very dangerous to do that, and I think we’ve passed that era to some extent because now we have all kinds of precautions. They have people with infrared goggles watching to make sure they are not recording anything on their phones, and they all sign NDAs. We know everything about them … we collect emails and take photos. We go to great precautions for the preview screenings, because I do need to screen it in a movie theater with an audience. It’s been pretty great in terms of keeping secrets and maintaining the integrity of these pieces as they’re being made.
It seems that audiences at festivals seem to have this unwritten code of respect. You showed Split at Fantastic Fest in Austin, and I didn’t hear one peep about the big reveal at the end. I think that’s pretty amazing.
That was amazing. We showed it on multiple screens at Fantastic Fest. It was four months before the movie was coming out and they could have ended it all right there, and we had no precautions on that screening. The festival goers were incredibly generous and incredibly protective. They wanted to preserve the experience they had for everyone else, and so they didn’t tell anybody. And then we did it again at the AFI festival two months later and they protected it, so really I’ve had nothing but the greatest experiences in movie theaters with the audience.
Let’s talk about the business side of the industry. You are about to open Glass, this big blockbuster, and then you’ve got a series that you are working on for Apple. Do you think it’s unfair that theatrical and streaming are now lumped together as competitors when really they’re providing completely different experiences for people?
I am a big advocate of what you just said. They are just two completely different art forms. They are not the same thing. If you take the best episode out of something on TV it won’t work in that manner when you put it in a movie theater and people have left their home and they’ve paid the money to go and sit down. That level of commitment in the movie theater is the highest level of commitment. You can’t be on your phone, you can’t talk to anybody, you’ve totally given up your evening, there is no way to turn it off and you don’t get to choose when it starts. All of that stuff you’ve committed to, and the relationship between the audience and the storytelling going on is more demanding and intimate. For me, with streaming it’s a wonderful form—it’s just not the movie theater. Creating for the movie theater is the main form of art that I do. They are just not the same.
You are someone who gets very involved in the business of your movies, especially your last few which you’ve owned outright. Do you find that having the prestige of a big theatrical release helps you downstream when you sell it to streaming platforms or when it’s available on DVD and Blu-ray?
One hundred percent. Let’s think about how many streaming titles have reached the zeitgeist. Let’s start with their movies … that’s zero. We’re at zero for zeitgeist movies from streaming, but on the television shows we can name them … there aren’t a ton—House of Cards and Stranger Things—but for every one of them there are a hundred or more that we’ve never even heard of. Getting to the zeitgeist happens exclusively at the movie theater. I feel they own that because the commitment is so deep between the audience member and the storyteller. It requires a lot, and [audiences] come wanting to see the very best entertainment in the world, and so you think of your life in terms of When Harry Met Sally or whatever, The Exorcist or Jaws, whatever the movie is that defined that time period of your life. Any of the movies that have changed us—recently, too—it becomes a part of the culture. That is the experience that we have in the movie theater.
The number one difference between the streaming experience and the theater experience is that one is essentially solitary and the other is with a group of strangers. That group of strangers is critical. Because if it’s just you, or you and your wife, you come from almost the same worldview when you’re watching it, so your relationship to the material is locked … it’s not pliable, it’s not changing. Whereas if you watch it with 400 strangers, there’s a cute girl in the corner, there’s an older guy over there, there’s somebody Hispanic over here, and they’re bringing different colors and you start to take on that perception. The most important reason that I watch movies with an audience is so I can feel differently. I need to feel it as a group, and that’s a different relationship than me watching something solitarily. I can only bring my biases to the table, but when I watch it with a group I become the group. That’s not a little thing at all. That’s how we connect. There are a million studies about connection and having group experiences and how good it is for you. That’s what we do. The more solitary our world gets with our phones and watching things by ourselves, the more lonely our world gets and the less we experience things through the eyes of others.
I’m glad you brought up the importance of a diverse audience. You look at how much the global box office has grown since Unbreakable came out in 2000, and it’s substantial. What has it been like to watch the global audience for your films expand at such an insane pace?
I love it. I’m an immigrant, so the idea of movie theater experience growing in each country is a big win for me, a big win for us as filmmakers, and a big win for the culture. Because when we experience things together we are bonded. We were all in the movie theater together when we saw that funny thing or that scary thing or that incredible thing. We were all in that midnight screening of Jurassic Park when it opened. It’s a big deal. As you can tell, the idea of being a storyteller who tells stories for the movie theater is everything to me, and I take it very seriously. When we promote the movies, I’m always saying, “If they go to the water cooler on Monday morning and say ‘I don’t like that type of movie,’ then I have failed.” I need them to not be able to say that. For me, original movies are always going to have a place in the movie theaters because of what I just said. If I can make a movie that doesn’t look like or smell like any other movie and you have to go to the movie theater to get that experience, it’s just different. When I watch my own movies in my theater when I’m making them, and then I go watch as a group, they are two different experiences.