An Oral History of M. Night Shyamalan's 'Unbreakable'
Imagine getting tapped on the shoulder and being told, “You might be a real-life superhero.” Such was the premise dreamed up by M. Night Shyamalan in 1999, months before his breakthrough, The Sixth Sense, would make him a household name — and years before comic-book movies would storm into theaters and change the economics of the entire film industry. Marvel films have earned $8.5 billion worldwide, but none has achieved the narrative poetry and dazzling genre acumen that Unbreakable did.
Shyamalan’s superhero origin story, told at street level, scored no Oscar nominations, no blockbuster glory, but the passage of time has been very kind. More than 15 years after Unbreakable’s release, Quentin Tarantino and Patton Oswalt are among its most vocal champions, and Vulture recently named it the best superhero film of modern times. “Quiet, sad, delicate, intelligent,” the site wrote. “It’s a story told with long takes, calm dialogue, and nary a stitch of spandex.”
At the time of its inception, however, Shyamalan was just hoping the movie would save his career. “I remember writing the script, doing one of the last touches on a draft,” he says. “It was the day The Sixth Sense opened, and I read the New York Times review and it was not good at all. And 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.’ ”
Here, the director and his cast look back at Unbreakable’s beginnings and its yet-to-be-drawn conclusion.
THE NIGHT TRAIN
During postproduction on The Sixth Sense — which wasn’t scoring well with early test audiences — Shyamalan had disaster on his mind. He shared the idea for his next film with his Sixth Sense collaborators.
M. NIGHT SHYAMALAN (writer-director) I was thinking about a plane crash. And about one person surviving and that person being untouched. And then that person realizes that he is a superhero. I remember the feeling of dread and excitement in the bedroom when I thought of it. But I wanted it to be as grounded as possible. I didn’t want it to be a CGI movie in any way, so eventually the plane morphed into a train.
BARRY MENDEL (producer) He showed me the draft and my first gut reaction was, well, this is a little bit sadder than I was expecting. And my instinct was to be slightly concerned about that. But as I understood what he was going after, I became excited by the very clear metaphor. There are lots of people in the world who are not doing the thing that really turns them on. Night has found this through becoming a filmmaker and pursuing his dream. I don’t know how much his parents, who are both doctors, were thrilled by the idea of him becoming an artist.
SHYAMALAN Anytime I wrote a scene that was too comic-bookish, I yanked it out. It became much more about 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. It became about being out of sync.
BRUCE WILLIS (David Dunn) It is a great simile for Night’s story, but that’s not anything we ever discussed. He said it was a combination of a superhero story and a familial story with some comic-book mythology. I saw my part as a mild, withdrawn guy who suddenly finds out little things about himself. And we all can do that. Sometimes we’re not fully aware of what’s happening to us.
MIRACLE IN MOROCCO
Unexpectedly, The Sixth Sense opened in first place and stayed there for six weeks, grossing $294 million and earning six Oscar nominations, including two for Shyamalan. He continued toiling on the Unbreakable script, which he lugged around in a bag. Meanwhile, half a world away…
WILLIS I was in a casino in Marrakech, in Morocco, and I saw this guy and I said, “Somebody over there is trying to impersonate Sam Jackson.”
SAMUEL L. JACKSON (Elijah Price/Mr. Glass) It looked kind of like Bruce, but Bruce hadn’t started shaving his head yet and this guy had no hair. I was like, “Hmm, could it be?” Then I heard his voice and said, “It is Bruce.”
WILLIS And I said, “It is Sam.”
JACKSON And Bruce went, “Sam, there’s this guy who’s writing a script for us.” And he called M. Night on the phone and Night says to me, “This is amazing. I’m writing one of your scenes right now.”
SHYAMALAN It was some crazy coincidence. And you know me, as with everything: “Oh, must be a sign!” I asked Sam if he liked the subject of comic books.
JACKSON I’m in [the L.A. comic-book store] Golden Apple, like, twice a month. So my answer was “Yes” and “I’ll do it.”
SHYAMALAN It’s so ironic now, but at the time, comic books were a crazy subject to make a movie about. It was a ridiculous conceit, because the subject matter is so gratuitous, you know? Comics are in big neon colors, so it became dogma for us to do the completely minimalistic, reality-based-drama version of that and not ever get into tights and capes.
Disney, Shyamalan’s Sixth Sense studio, gave him a $73 million budget. He shot the film in his native Philadelphia, employing long takes and a restrained filmmaking style, carefully storyboarded to mimic comic-book panels. The film contains dozens of shots that last minutes without a cut.
WILLIS That was the first time I’d experienced a director shooting long takes like that. I think he was experimenting with the knowledge that he could edit them down or leave them if he wanted. He was shooting no coverage [unlike the standard practice of shooting the same scene from multiple angles and lens depths]. I’ve been in long sequences but mostly in action movies, and I don’t put Unbreakable in that category. These long takes were revelatory.
CHARLAYNE WOODARD (Elijah’s mother) The film’s opening shot, with me having just given birth in the department store, was done twice. The first time, we spent a long time shooting it, but Night hadn’t figured out what he wanted. But for the reshoot, it was all done in one long take and very quickly. Most of that shot is seen through a mirror. Night never did anything straight ahead.
SHYAMALAN You get an incredible hit of specificity doing it that way. You don’t get any latitude of any kind. We were doing one or two shots a day, that’s all. It would take hours — hours to set up, prep for our shot, then shoot it, and then do the next one and the next one.
SPENCER TREAT CLARK (Joseph Dunn) There’s that scene in the kitchen where I’m holding the gun up to Bruce Willis. It was a four-minute scene, all in one take, and we filmed it nine times. It was so taxing on all of us, and not just because it was an emotional scene. Eduardo Serra, who was our cinematographer, was sweating bullets.
SHYAMALAN The camera operator at one point walked off the set because I was like, “No. You have to pan here with his line here. You’re anticipating here. You have to listen to the actors.” He just stormed off, and I was like, “I’m sorry. Come back.” I felt like the world was going to come to an end if we didn’t move at this point or didn’t slow down at that point. I remember feeling like “I don’t know if I can do the entire shoot like this.”
CLARK And then that same night, Night had gotten an original print of Jaws from Spielberg. We all went to a theater in Philly and I think he started the movie at like 1 a.m.
SHYAMALAN I’d never seen Jaws in the movie theater before, so I got the print of Jaws to kind of inspire everybody. That’s the holy grail of grounded, edgy entertainment. The balls of suspense and humor and humanity all perfectly juggled.
DYLAN TICHENOR (editor) There are only a couple of cuts in the first 10 minutes of Unbreakable. The pace of the film is slow, and the build is more emotional than physical. Night wanted to make a superhero movie that wasn’t an action movie, and it was a big challenge.
STEVE ARNOLD (art director) For the opening train-crash scene, we built a whole big Amtrak train on stage and we shot it tipping over and people falling out of their seats and screaming. All of that went on the cutting-room floor. Night decided less was more.
SHYAMALAN There was a real struggle with how to do the action sequences. I was adamant that the story never deteriorate into a kind of mano a mano action movie. In the end, it needed to stay as a portrait of people considering themselves in a comic book, but without becoming a comic-book movie.
JACKSON It was strange. Night was given the luxury of shooting in sequence, I guess because of The Sixteenth Sense or whatever it was called. So I worked on the movie for 13 days, but I was in Philadelphia for three months. It was great for him. Okay for me, too. I got to play a lot of golf.
WILLIS I really like the last scene when I’m taking Robin Wright up the stairs. The movie deals with divorce in a very tucked-in sort of way, but I’m very glad that it ended with that up tempo beat. Going up the stairs — I like it.
SHYAMALAN That was an incredibly difficult shot, which I remember it took us forever to accomplish it. I think it was 11 hours.
PICTURES IN THE PICTURE
In order to populate Unbreakable’s world with never-before-seen comic books, the production hired graphic artists Derek Thompson and Brian O’Connell to mock up illustrations, including the Sentryman comic that Elijah is given as a child.
DEREK THOMPSON (graphic illustrator) My first illustration was the “Slayer Vs. Jaguaro” piece that’s featured in the early scene where Sam Jackson is talking to a buyer in his gallery. It was meant to be a finished illustration by a comic artist who was kind of a purist. Then I did the Sentryman, who was supposed to be a Captain America type of guy, kind of like what Jack Kirby would have drawn if he didn’t have anybody controlling him.
ARNOLD For the gallery scene late in the film, we got a lot of artwork from a collector in Philadelphia who had owned a bunch of classic pieces. We also pushed the idea, because it’s Unbreakable and the villain’s name is Mr. Glass, of the signage out front. It’s background was a whole wall of broken glass. I don’t think that’s in the film.
THOMPSON In the original script that I read, which was already pretty daring and risky, at the end of the film, Bruce Willis is going to Sam Jackson’s gallery and he ends up looking at this particular piece on the wall with Mr. Glass’ mother. There was meant to be a progression of cuts getting closer and closer to this piece. In the finished film you never see the artwork. But it was supposed to be of this mysterious, shadowy figure working on a robotic arm in a wheelchair. And as Bruce Willis is looking closer and closer he realizes that this entity is Mr. Glass. He’s overcome with the revelation and he’s overcome with emotion. He staggers out of the gallery and into the crowded street and he disappears into the crowd and that’s the end of the movie. It had this powerful, haunted ambiguity to it. But the idea was that this was meant to be an Act One movie. It was meant to tee up two more films.
SHYAMALAN No, it was never meant to be a totally internal thing. I don’t ever recall it that way. I think that’s all referring to the post-handshake revelation. They needed to touch, which they’d never done. So I always saw the ending as Sam saying, “Now’s the time we shake hands.” After they shake hands, Bruce has a flash and realizes that his mentor is a supervillain. Then he looks at the walls and puts it all together.
JACKSON I actually have two original drawings of me and Bruce that were done for the film. They’re great — they’re in my screening room.
Color was crucial to the film’s design, with green and -purple representing Willis’ and Jackson’s characters, respectively. In the film’s most chilling sequence, which begins in a train station, David (Willis) achieves superhero status when he confronts and vanquishes a serial murderer dubbed the Orange Suit Man.
TICHENOR Night had a concept of highlighting colors, and it was used to visually represent Bruce Willis’ power. He would get these flashes, these visions, when he brushed up against people. In the train-station scene, there was a woman who was a shoplifter and a frat guy who was a date rapist. And when we came back from his realization, the color of those people’s clothing would be highlighted to reflect his new insight into them. Then, of course, our main bad guy is wearing a big orange jumpsuit.
CLARK In the movie there’s that flash when Bruce Willis meets the Orange Suit Man in the train station, and we see a father at the base of the stairs answering the door to the creepy dude who says he wants to come in. I was 13 and I remember that rattling me so much.
CHANCE KELLY (Orange Suit Man) People always repeat that line to me, “Can I come in? I like your house.” That was the line I auditioned with. Really disturbing. This was a guy who had broken into a house, murdered the mother and father, and was planning on killing their children. That’s as dark as it gets. And I had to separate myself from it. I pictured a guy who was sitting in front of the TV eating and drinking before doing these horrible things. So I found this place that made these delicious roasted peanuts, and I would eat peanuts and drink Beck’s and watch boxing, and sure enough I put on, like, 30 pounds for the role.
SHYAMALAN There was a philosophy behind all the shots in the movie. My theory was to shoot his visions from a security-camera angle to evoke a feeling that you’re catching wrongdoing inadvertently. There’s something about that angle that we associate our terrors with.
WILLIS I had no dialogue in that sequence. It was a beautiful exercise in trying to avoid telling the audience what was happening with me. David has a phobia of water, which is his kryptonite. But it’s all very underplayed. It’s highly dramatic, but Night had a way of letting the audience figure it out.
THE SEVENTH SENSE
Unbreakable grossed $95 million but was considered a disappointment compared with The Sixth Sense. Shyamalan was hurt by the reaction and shelved his plans for a trilogy.
SHYAMALAN I remember our Philly premiere. When I came into the reception afterwards, I could feel in the room that they seemed confused about what they had seen.
JACKSON It’s like when people talk about Jackie Brown 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— that movie was.
WILLIS I was never disappointed by Unbreakable. If a film makes money, great. If it doesn’t, I don’t judge. I would watch it right now and get hooked.
MENDEL There was a little bit of an odd reaction to it, because it was sold so much off of The Sixth Sense, like, “You just made a movie about death and going through the impossible door — and you follow it up with a movie about comic books?”
JACKSON Comic-book people know what the movie’s all about. They know the feelings inside of it and what these themes are and what it means to understand yourself and all the other stuff. Yeah, there will always be other people who never get it.
TICHENOR Maybe some people were disappointed by the film’s pace. But then an equal or I think maybe greater number of people were ultimately grateful for its pace. And for its concentration on an internal struggle.
MENDEL In the most cliché producer way possible, I blame the marketing, which was “The guy who made The Sixth Sense did another movie, but we’re not going to tell you anything about it because it’ll ruin it for you.” Maybe if we had said, “This movie is about the mythology from which comic books are drawn,” and if we had been more straightforward and less coy with the audience, the reception would have ultimately been better.
SHYAMALAN I remember where I was sitting when I was on speakerphone and [the studio execs] said, “We’re not going to sell this as a comic-book movie,” because they said that was a fringe group. I was 29 or whatever, and so I was like, “Huh, okay.” And so they sold it more as an amorphous thriller.
NINA JACOBSON (Disney’s then production president) I do remember conversations about Shyamalan and the twist. “What’s the twist gonna be? What’s the twist?” But we were pre-Marvel. It is a completely different world now, and the origins-of-a-superhero story would exist in a completely different context today. Unbreakable is a moody, compelling, haunted movie, and we sold it as a drama.
SHYAMALAN I didn’t have any opinion in the marketing. That changed on Signs, the very next movie, where the conversation came up and they said, “Hey, let’s not sell it on crop circles because only 40 percent of the audience knows what crop circles are.” And I said, “We’re not doing this again.”
MENDEL Night was disappointed that the film wasn’t embraced in the way that maybe it deserved to be, and he wondered what we didn’t do right or what we could have done better. And I told him, “Absolutely nothing.” History tells you how successful you are. It stands the test of time.
In the years since its release, Unbreakable has become a cult classic, but there has been no serious discussion about making a sequel. The good news? The director and stars say it’s not completely out of the question.
SHYAMALAN People have approached me about continuing the story, but the idea of doing a traditional sequel doesn’t inspire me. It has to be organic and has to come from the right place — otherwise it’ll smell of artificiality. But it’s fascinating how much it’s stuck around. I do think about it a lot.
JACKSON People talk to me about that movie all the time. It would have cemented everything he was trying to say if he had done the trilogy.
JACOBSON I remember conversations about the ending. The hero walking away from the villain always troubled me. And to leave so much unknown was something I wondered aloud about to Night. So maybe there should be a sequel.
SHYAMALAN When I’m at Comic-Cons and all this, everybody says, “Are you going to make a sequel?” But Unbreakable isn’t even a comic-book movie. It’s a drama about the subject of comic books. But there’s something about these tropes. I don’t know, maybe there’s interest right now in the underlying struggles and fantasies that are being fulfilled in the comic books and not being fulfilled in the real world.
JACKSON Night’s still around. Bruce is still around. I’m still around. And I’d love to break out of the asylum. ■