In the spring of 1999, M. Night Shyamalan was an unknown writer-director awaiting the release of his late-summer thriller, The Sixth Sense. It was not testing well with preview audiences, and he had disaster on his mind. “I was thinking about a plane crash,” he says. “And about one person surviving and that person being untouched. And then that person realizes that he is a superhero.”
Shyamalan’s idea, of course, became Unbreakable. Starring Bruce Willis and Samuel L. Jackson, the 2000 movie was considered a disappointment in the wake of The Sixth Sense — which had made Shyamalan an oft-mispronounced household name — yet 15 years later it has attained major cult status as a dark, haunting superhero origin story told at street level. An army of Marvel movies has changed the economics of the entire film industry in the intervening years, but none achieved the narrative poetry and dazzling genre acumen as well as Unbreakable.
In recognition of its 15th anniversary and as part of our annual Comic-Con Double Issue, EW spoke to a dozen of the people responsible for bringing Unbreakable to the screen, including Shyamalan, Willis and Jackson. Here are some highlights from our eight-page Oral History, which is available on newsstands now:
- Shyamalan reveals that he was energized to work harder on the Unbreakable screenplay after reading the negative New York Times review of The Sixth Sense. “I was like, ‘They’re going to trash me.’ So I said, ‘Let’s just write the next thing and concentrate on this comic-book hero.” The Sixth Sense would ultimately gross $294 million and score six Oscar nominations, including Best Picture.
- While Shyamalan was writing the script, Bruce Willis and Samuel L. Jackson bumped into each other…in Marrakech, Morocco. “I saw this guy,” Willis remembers, “and I said, ‘Somebody over there is trying to impersonate Sam Jackson.” Jackson was thinking the same thing, and when the men finally convened, Willis quickly got Shyamalan on the phone. “You know me,” the director laughs. “As with everything: ‘Must be a sign!’”
- In speaking about the film’s themes, Shyamalan refers to “that unexplainable feeling of grayness when you wake up in the morning — that feeling of somberness when you’re not fitting in, which to some extent I was struggling with at the time.” Says Willis, “It’s a great simile for Night’s story.”
- The movie was extensively storyboarded, and Shyamalan decided to shoot with a restrained filmmaking style. Rare for its genre, the film contains dozens of shots that last a minute or longer without a cut. “You get an incredible hit of specificity doing it that way,” says Shyamalan. “We were doing one or two shots a day, that’s all.” Willis concurs, “These long takes were revelatory.”
- At the end of one particularly grueling day of filming, during which the cameraman walked off the set and had to be coerced back, Shyamalan treated the cast and crew to a one-o’clock-in-the-morning screening of Jaws at a local Philadelphia theater. The shark mayhem blockbuster was celebrating its 25th anniversary — and Shyamalan had received a print straight from the hands of Steven Spielberg. “That’s the Holy Grail of grounded, edgy entertainment,” Shyamalan says. “The balls of suspense and creativity and humanity all perfectly juggled.”
- Art director Steve Arnold describes the set that was constructed for the movie’s opening train crash sequence: “We built a whole big Amtrak train on a stage and had it on a gimbal and shot it tipping over and people falling out of their seats and screaming. All of that went on the cutting room floor.” Explains Shyamalan, “There was a real struggle with how to do the action scenes. I was adamant that the story never deteriorate into a kind of mano a mano action movie.
- Graphic illustrator Derek Thompson, who drew much of the comic art for the film, describes a much more vague and cerebral version of the movie’s ending according to a script draft he read in 1999 — in which Bruce Willis discovers Samuel L. Jackson’s true character via a black and white comic book lithograph. The only problem? Shyamalan doesn’t remember it that way. “It was never meant to be a totally internal thing,” the director says. “I always saw the ending as Sam saying, ‘Now’s the time we shake hands.’”
- Though it grossed $95 million at the box office, Unbreakable was received lukewarmly by audiences. Shyamalan was hurt by the response and shelved his plans for a trilogy. But time has been very kind. “It like when people talk about Jackie Brown,” says Jackson. “And they go, ‘Well, that’s a disappointment for Quentin.’ No, no, it’s not. It’s a great movie. It just isn’t Pulp Fiction 2. Unbreakable is an amazing movie. It just isn’t The Second Sense or whatever the f–k that movie was.”
- Plans for a sequel have lain dormant for 15 years — but you never know. “I don’t know,” says Shyamalan. “Maybe there’s an interest right now in the underlying struggles and fantasies that are being fulfilled in comic books and not being fulfilled in the real world.” Jackson gets the last word. “People talk to me about that movie all the time,” he says. “Night’s still around. Bruce is still around. I’m still around. And I’d love to break out of the asylum.”