M. Night Shyamalan's ''Unbreakable'' -- The ''Sixth Sense'' director talks about his new film

By Benjamin Svetkey
Updated December 01, 2000 at 05:00 AM EST
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M. Night Shyamalan’s ”Unbreakable”

”What is the politically correct thing to say? That I think I made a good movie and that I hope people enjoy it? Isn’t that how it goes?”

Word for word. But then this is M. Night Shyamalan speaking, Hollywood’s most happening — and apparently most confident — new wonder boy. So there’s more. ”But the truth is,” he states bluntly, ”I set out to make the movie of the year, to make the highest-grossing movie of the year, to make one of the five Oscar-nominated movies. That was my goal. That was my intention. Definitely.”

Brilliant young auteurs are supposed to ooze a little arrogance — film-school swagger is as much a part of the uniform as the black Range Rover and the backward baseball cap — but in this case there may actually be something to it. Shyamalan, after all, is the Philadelphia prodigy who wrote and directed The Sixth Sense, last year’s sleeper hit that caught all of Hollywood napping — including its own studio, Disney, which had no idea the movie would end up grossing $661 million worldwide and snag six Oscar nominations (including Best Director and Best Original Screenplay for Shyamalan, who hadn’t yet turned 30).

What he’s being politically incorrect about right now is his much-anticipated follow-up, Unbreakable, which once again teams Sixth Sense lead Bruce Willis with a precocious young costar (13-year-old Spencer Treat Clark), along with grown-ups Samuel L. Jackson and Robin Wright Penn, for a moody supernatural drama with a socko ending and some other twists that make its plot almost impossible to describe without spoiling.

About all we can safely tell you about Unbreakable is that this time Willis doesn’t turn out to be dead at the end. Instead, he plays David Dunn, a security guard with a troubled marriage, a worshipful son, and a bizarre medical condition that lets him walk away from a high-speed train derailment that kills everyone else on board. As for Jackson’s character, Elijah Price, a comic-book-art dealer with a crooked Afro, a passion for purple capes, and a medical condition that makes his body as fragile as his funky glass cane… well, we’ve probably said too much already.

”It’s a cousin of The Sixth Sense, but not identical,” is how Shyamalan describes the reported $65 million-plus film, as he plops himself into a leather sofa in his sleekly decorated production office 2,700 miles from Hollywood, in Conshohocken, Pa. (not far from where he grew up and still lives with his wife, Bhavna, a child psychologist, and two young daughters). ”They have some similarities — they’ve both got Bruce — but this one is more advanced. It’s a finer version. I’m trying to grow as a filmmaker, but I want to bring the audience along with me.”

In other words, it’s different from The Sixth Sense, but not too different — which undoubtedly suits Disney’s Touchstone just fine. If the studio wasn’t very clairvoyant about Shyamalan’s box office potential last time around, it’s making up for it now, launching Unbreakable with an ad campaign built mostly on the filmmaker’s own brand-name appeal. You’ve probably seen the billboards: From the writer-director of The Sixth Sense, is virtually all they say.

”Last time, who knew who M. Night Shyamalan was? Nobody,” says Peter Schneider, chairman of Walt Disney Studios, explaining the marketing shift. ”But this time, we have more to sell. This time, we can sell the movie on Night’s pedigree.”

Which is probably the only thing to do when you can’t tell people what the movie is about.

”I want to learn to read….” ”I want to learn to drive a car….” ”I want to learn to be nicer….”

About a dozen of these handmade posters are tacked to a wall in an elementary-school classroom in Sandy, Ore., an hour’s drive from Portland. It looks a lot like every other grade-school classroom after the bell has rung for the day — tiny desks and chairs clumped in a semicircle, stacks of Aesop’s Fables and other books stuffed into shelves, boxes of crayons spilling onto tables — except for the 45-year-old movie star sitting cross-legged on the floor.

Exactly why Willis has chosen this school as the venue for a late-night interview and photo shoot is not entirely clear — he’s already learned how to read and drive — although it probably has to do with the fact that he’s filming a crime comedy called Bandits a few miles down the road. Still, it’s an apt choice: The Everyman action hero of the ’80s — who after The Sixth Sense scored another hit alongside a pint-sized partner with Disney’s The Kid — turns out to be a natural with children.

”Oh my God, he helped me so much,” gushes Spencer Treat Clark, who is clearly an eighth grader on the go, having also appeared in Double Jeopardy, Arlington Road, and Gladiator. ”We’d do these improvisations between shots. We’d have these entire conversations in character. He taught me tons.”

”I think I know how their minds work,” Willis ventures, stretching his legs out on the floor. ”I have compassion and empathy and, I guess most of all, sympathy for child actors. For, say, an 11-year-old to be made such a fuss over and then face the lurking possibility that when he turns 14 and his voice cracks and he goes through puberty that it may all be snatched away — it can be devastating.”

As Willis knows, things can be pretty tough on a grown man, too. For a time in the ’90s, he faced the lurking possibility that his own career might be snatched away — or at least stalled at churning out double-digit Die Hard sequels. ”I did some films with less-than-A-list elements,” he concedes. ”I’m sure you know what they are.” (Striking Distance, Color of Night, Mercury Rising, for those who don’t.) Pulp Fiction gave him a bit of a bump — albeit not quite the boost it gave costar John Travolta.

But then, in 1998, Willis finally found a script that didn’t involve him dangling down an elevator shaft in a filthy undershirt. He had just finished Armageddon — the first film in a three-picture deal he had signed with Disney — and was, by his own admission, ”bored to death” with action films. ”After I did the first Die Hard, I said I’d never do another,” he recalls. ”After I did the second one, I said the same thing. After the third, same thing. Die Hard on a plane. Die Hard on a boat. Die Hard at the White House. Die Hard in a delicatessen. The whole action genre was kind of running itself into the ground.”

The script Disney had sent him involved no action whatsoever — just a lot of spooky dialogue between a psychologist and a kid who saw things nobody else did (that would be dead people). It didn’t have a huge budget: about $40 mil. And although Disney shelled out $2.5 million for Shyamalan’s screenplay — one of the biggest paychecks ever for a spec script — the then-27-year-old filmmaker didn’t have much of a track record behind the camera (a microbudgeted indie called Praying With Anger and a Rosie O’Donnell movie for Miramax called Wide Awake that the studio ended up recutting). But Willis signed on anyway. ”It was an opportunity to not have to run down the street with a gun in my hand,” he explains.

Good career move. Two years later, thanks mostly to his impressively understated performance in The Sixth Sense, Willis is finally getting more attention for his acting than his biceps (even if his personal life still draws the most headlines). Disney even plans to launch an Oscar campaign for his Unbreakable performance. More remarkable, there’s even been talk — well, more like Haley Joel Osment-esque whispers, really — that he could actually get nominated.

”I’ve never bungee-jumped or skydived, but that’s what making Unbreakable felt like to me,” he says. ”I just gave it up. I just told (Shyamalan), ‘I’ll do whatever you want.’ I put myself completely in his hands and trusted him.”

Which is easier said than done, because it turns out that Shyamalan (pronounced SHA-ma-lan, although his friends just call him Night) has some quirky ideas about how to make movies. Even before he’s finished his first draft, for instance, he’s already decided on virtually every actor in the film — whether the actors know it or not. And usually it’s not.

Sam Jackson, bleary-eyed from last night’s Unbreakable premiere party, is slouched in a chair in a swank Manhattan hotel room.

”I was in Morocco shooting Rules of Engagement,” the 51-year-old actor says, describing how he first learned that Shyamalan had written a part for him in Unbreakable. ”I was hanging out at this casino in Marrakech and I kept hearing this voice. Sounded very familiar. I looked around and saw this bald guy. And then I heard him say something — something like ‘Yippee-ki-yay, motherf—er!’ – and I was like, ‘Bruce, is that you?”’

None other. Willis was taking a break in Marrakech shortly after shooting The Sixth Sense — a script Jackson had at one point been interested in but never pursued — and told his old Die Hard With a Vengeance costar he’d just signed up for Shyamalan’s next movie. ”Bruce takes out his cell phone,” Jackson continues, ”and calls him right there in the casino. Puts me on the phone with him. Night tells me, ‘Hey, this is amazing. I’m actually writing one of your speeches right now.”’

The possibility that Jackson might not have wanted to be in his new film didn’t seem to concern Shyamalan. ”I never know if they’re going to be available,” he says, ”but I always just believe it’s going to work out.” And usually it does — Willis committed to Unbreakable before Shyamalan had tapped out his first line of dialogue — but not always as expected. At first, Shyamalan had another actor in mind to join Willis: Philip Seymour Hoffman. ”But then I changed my mind,” he says. ”I came up with a completely different character and thought of Sam Jackson right away.” Robin Wright Penn took a few detours as well: Shyamalan claims he originally wrote the role of Willis’ wife for her, but then cast Julianne Moore instead (until Moore bolted for Hannibal and Wright Penn wound up back in the picture).

It’s lucky for Hollywood’s acting community that Shyamalan keeps these mental notes — and all other details of his scripts in progress — top secret. More casting deals were made and broken inside his head during any one of The Sixth Sense‘s dozen or so revisions than at Mortons in a whole month (that movie started out as the story of a crime-scene reporter who discovers that his son can see the ghosts of a serial killer’s victims). Better for actors like Hoffman never to know. Um, until now, that is.

The idea for Unbreakable was born on a basketball court, when Shyamalan busted his knee during a pickup game. ”The pain was excruciating,” he recalls. ”It was the first time I’d ever really been hurt like that, and it made me realize I’m human. I’m vulnerable. I ended up having reconstructive surgery. It was a big event in my life. So I used it for a script.”

As he did with The Sixth Sense — and as befits the film’s graphic-novel atmospherics — Shyamalan polished Unbreakable‘s final draft with visual aids provided by a storyboard artist whose name really should be carved in stone: Brick Mason. ”He’s more into the process than most other directors,” Mason lays it on. ”We sit down and talk about each scene, what the best way to shoot it would be.”

By the time he steps behind the camera, Shyamalan already knows precisely how every shot will appear on the screen. ”He’s very specific,” notes Jackson. ”He knows where you should be standing. He knows what you should sound like, down to specific words.” Shyamalan doesn’t dispute it: ”I’m not very good at spontaneous genius creativity.”

Such obsessive planning has advantages. For instance, Shyamalan wastes no time with coverage (filming the same scene from different angles). In other ways, though, he can be wildly uneconomical: Unbreakable was filmed entirely in sequence, starting on page 1 of the script, hardly the most cost-effective method. ”I wanted the cast and crew to experience the journey of these characters together,” he says with bracing earnestness.

Even more challenging, Shyamalan shot 30 scenes in Unbreakable with one uninterrupted take. ”I wanted a certain tension,” he says. ”I didn’t want the camera to let the audience off the hook.” It certainly didn’t make it any easier for the actors. ”That’s an astounding thing to have in a film,” Willis points out. ”Most films you’ll have one or two scenes shot in one take and it’ll be a novelty. Night practically made this whole movie like that. It’s hard because if one actor blows a line, or if the cameraman makes one mistake, or the focus puller misses one second of the scene, you have to go again. And yet most people in the audience probably don’t even notice what he’s doing.”

Oh, they notice, even if they don’t notice that they notice. Shyamalan’s innovations may be subtle — or harder to spot with his larger budgets — but his stars say he’s every bit as edgy a filmmaker as those goateed hipsters at the Independent Spirit Awards. ”The difference between Shyamalan and Tarantino,” says Jackson (who first shared a marquee with Willis in Pulp Fiction), ”is that Quentin takes a series of his favorite shots from movies that he loves and puts them together to make a whole new thing. But Night is doing something new with the camera. Night is going further.”

An even bigger difference between Shyamalan and the indie-heads: Shyamalan not only wants a mass audience — he admits he wants one. For all his high-concept aesthetics and cinematic experimentation, inside beats the buttered-popcorn-clotted heart of a mainstream entertainer. This is, after all, a guy who received screenplay credit on Stuart Little (”I wanted to write a movie for my new baby,” he says), whose last movie was really just an old-fashioned ghost story told in a new-fashioned way, and whose latest is, essentially, a comic book drawn in shockingly different colors.

Jackson sums up Shyamalan’s personality in his own way: ”He likes you to think he’s a Philadelphia street guy, but he’s actually very upper-middle-class,” he teases. ”He’s one of those suburban kids that has his own basket on his garage, and when you play basketball against him he runs to the place in his driveway where he always makes the jump shot. That’s sort of what he’s like.”

The upper-middle-class part sounds about right — Shyamalan’s parents are doctors who immigrated from India in the ’60s — but the jump shot is probably an exaggeration. Not that it matters. Since The Sixth Sense, he’s been rich enough to afford a full-court driveway with the 76ers as valets. His deal with Disney for Unbreakable was one of the most lucrative ever signed by offscreen talent: $5 million for the script, another $5 million to direct. The studio offered $20 million for his next two movies, but Shyamalan turned it down. ”We’ve had a great time twice in a row,” he says carefully. ”I just didn’t want to sign a prenuptial.”

Who can blame him? Already he’s got more creative control over his films than most big studio directors even fantasize about, including the right to shoot wherever he wants (i.e., Philadelphia, where he hires a partly local crew). And he’s free to pursue writing and directing opportunities at other studios. Recently he’s done lunch with Steven Spielberg to discuss penning the next Indiana Jones movie (a lifelong ambition). ”It will involve the use of a whip” is all he’ll reveal about his screenplay. Oh, and that he’s writing it with Harrison Ford in mind.

Meanwhile, Willis and Jackson are pushing for an Unbreakable sequel — maybe two. ”It’s really built as a trilogy,” Willis believes. But Shyamalan is noncommittal; he’s busy noodling around with a couple of other original screenplay ideas. ”I can’t tell you anything about them,” he chants, mantra-like.

Of course, to some extent, his future plans will be riding on the next few weeks, as the box office numbers for Unbreakable start being crunched. Few suits at Disney expect it to overtake The Sixth Sense (which eventually became the 10th-highest-grossing film domestically), but they’re keeping their fingers crossed. ”The Sixth Sense was the sort of movie that opened at $20 million and kept building,” says Schneider. ”Unbreakable is the sort that opens huge and then plays out more quickly. But we’re expecting it to do very well.”

And if it doesn’t? How would Shyamalan deal with the unthinkable? The unspeakable? What if — and this is purely hypothetical — audiences find Unbreakable unimpressive? ”Well, then,” he answers after digesting the question for a long moment, ”I’d go back and figure out why it happened, what I got wrong. I’d just keep trying to learn. Because the moment I convince myself I can’t make a mistake, I’m guaranteed to make one.”

Maybe not so arrogant after all.

Additional reporting by Joshua Rich


  • Movie
  • PG-13
  • 117 minutes
  • M. Night Shyamalan