M. Night Shyamalan on his best movies

Bruce Willis in The Sixth Sense, Bryce Dallas Howard in Lady in the Water, and Joaquin Phoenix in Signs (Everett Collection)

M. Night Shyamalan recently conceded that he has experienced the highs and lows of Hollywood “so many times” — even before his 1999 Oscar-nominated breakout The Sixth Sense hit theaters. He has ridden those waves ever since.

Contrary to popular belief, The Sixth Sense wasn’t the India-born, Pennsylvania-raised filmmaker’s first release. He wrote, directed and starred in the little-seen 1992 spiritual drama Praying With Anger (“a disaster,” he calls it now), and wrote and directed the 1998 dramedy Wide Awake (starring Denis Leary and Rosie O’Donnell, and distributed by the Weinstein brother’s Miramax Films). He also penned the hit family film Stuart Little (1998), and was a ghostwriter on the 1999 teen comedy favorite She’s All That.

But with arguably the greatest twist in film history, the Sixth Sense introduced Shyamalan as a filmmaker to be reckoned with, as the chilling story of a boy (Haley Joel Osment) who sees dead people and his caretaking psychiatrist (Bruce Willis) became an instant cultural phenomenon.

Shyamalan followed The Sixth Sense with Unbreakable (2000) and Signs (2002), taut suspense films with “aha!” climaxes that became a calling card, for better or worse. By the time his fourth major feature rolled around, the vastly underrated The Village (2004), audiences were walking into theaters like sleuths trying to puzzle out the inevitable surprise ending from the opening moments.

While initially labeled as the second coming of Hitchcock, Shyamalan’s box-office success fizzled and the golden boy became a goat. Lady in the Water (2006) and The Happening (2008) were savaged by critics and mostly ignored by audiences as were Shyamalan’s attempts at more mainstream fare like 2010’s The Last Airbender (2010) and After Earth (2013).

His self-financed 2015 found-footage film The Visit, however, revived his career, grossing almost $100 million on a budget of $5 million. A year later, his covert Unbreakable sequel Split scored his best reviews in over a decade, which he followed with Glass (2019) and Old (2021).

'Knock at the Cabin' (Universal)

‘Knock at the Cabin’ (Photo: Universal)

Shyamalan is riding high again with his hit Apple TV+ series Servant recently launching its final season and his latest film, the mysterious Knock at the Cabin prepared to take over theaters. The Signs-esque thriller stars Jonathan Groff and Ben Aldridge as a married couple whose trip to the woods with their and daughter gets interrupted by band of strangers led by Dave Bautista who claim the apocalypse is upon them.

We sat down with the 52-year-old filmmaker for our Director’s Reel interview, where he looked back at his most famous titles, expressed his gratitude to Bruce Willis for his “protection” during those early years (the famed screen vet retired recently because of his struggles with the neurological disorder aphasia), explained why Lady in the Water is watched by people on their deathbeds, and shared the gutsy decision to bet his career (and his house) on The Visit.

On the origins of The Sixth Sense (1999):

“Originally Sixth Sense was some kind of version of a serial-killer movie. It was more kind coming out of my love of Silence to the Lambs and that genre, mixed with the supernatural. In the first iterations of the screenplay, there was a crime-scene photographer whose son saw ghosts. So that was kind of how it started to come to me. But then it evolved … like halfway through, I came up with the idea of a therapist and changed everything, and concentrated on two families.

“It’s fascinating when we talk about kind of the appetite of Hollywood [has now], and how Hollywood represents a kind of a systemization of art now, which didn’t exist then. [Now] there’s kind of a group forum of what one perceives art to be, like Rotten Tomatoes and stuff, where it’s perceived that 200 people say this about the film, and then the audience is having an aggregate reaction. At least that’s what you’re seeing. The system is even making more decisions based on that. I think back in 1998, 1999, it wasn’t quite that way. We were still an original movie industry, and so the things that would move decisions to make movies were, ‘Are they impactful?’ ‘Is it something we’ve never seen before?’ Those were the metrics back then.

“So that’s why in 1999 when Sixth Sense came out, you had one of the great years ever of original storytelling, with Sixth Sense and The Matrix and Magnolia and American Beauty and The Insider [and] Blair Witch. All of these movies came out [in the same year], all of them phenomenally successful, all around the world. The industry was geared towards that, impactful originality. It was a spec screenplay market. So somebody in Idaho could write this incredible thriller and be bid on, because that was what they were looking for. So it was a very exciting time. I was built for that time. So I was very lucky to have written that screenplay at that time in the industry. … It’s really an indicator of where we were and what the world needed from their entertainment versus maybe the comfort of things that they already are familiar with in more precarious times.”

On following up The Sixth Sense with Unbreakable (2000) only 15 months later:

“At that time I was thinking, ‘This was all a scam, and they’re definitely never going to let me make another movie again.’ So I was like, as fast as I can make another movie, make another movie. Before they say, ‘Hey, this didn’t work, you stink. You can’t make movies anymore.’ So I was quickly writing as fast as I could. I was editing Sixth Sense and writing Unbreakable.

“You know, I made a film when I was 21 [Praying With Anger], and it was a disaster. It was little indie film, and nobody came to see it. … Then three years later, I made a film [Wide Awake] for Miramax with Harvey, and that was a disaster. And then another three years [passed before The Sixth Sense]. So during my early twenties, I felt like my career was over multiple times. And even though Sixth Sense happened when I was so young in retrospect, I had those moments when I was like, ‘It’s over.’ You know, you got your shot and it didn’t work. You got your shot a second time and it didn’t work. So I was definitely not in the mindset that I would be sitting here with you 25 years later with Knock at the Cabin coming out. This is just not on the table at the time. So I gotta write something as fast as possible and get it out there.”

On the importance of Bruce Willis to both The Sixth Sense and Unbreakable:

“I think when you have this kind of relationship between art and commerce that the movie industry is, you need someone to be a champion for you that has the ability to protect you as you move through the process. And for me, at 25, 26, Bruce was that person. He used his power, his clout, and just said, ‘I believe in this guy. I believe in this kid, and I believe in this movie.’ And he let me make the movie. And that protection allowed me to have a really different and unique voice. And I’m not the only one that he did that for, obviously for Quentin [Tarantino] with [Pulp Fiction] and Wes Anderson and on The Fifth Element. He’s always taken risks.

“So for all of us, I think we owe a lot of gratitude that someone who everyone wanted to come see in movie theaters actually believed in independent cinema, and in new voices. So it was a big deal. I don’t know if there would’ve been anybody else that would’ve just said, ‘Hey, I’m just going to do what you say.’ I was a kid and I was like, ‘Hey, I’m not shooting this whole scene on your face. It’s going to be behind you and there’s no coverage, and we’re going to come around.’ And he was like, ‘All right, cool.’ You know, if he believed in you, he was just in.”

On making the alien-invasion thriller Signs (2002):

“Steven Spielberg influenced me and many generations of filmmakers. I was 12 years old when E.T. came out and it deeply affected me. And of course all of those movies, Close Encounters and even Alien. There’s so many pieces that have deeply affected me. And in terms of myths, [the alien-invasion story] is one of the myths that’s grounded in a possibility of reality. So it’s a fantasy myth that you can actually believe in. It has teeth to it. So for someone like me that loves to do grounded and supernatural, it’s such a rich, rich world to speak to.”

On how expectations and marketing impacted the response to The Village (2004):

“I have such a wonderful relationship with audiences, and I’m honored to have it. It’s a very intense [one], and I take it super seriously. Today, The Village is always talked about in such gracious terms, and people come up [to me to talk about it]. A friend came with their wife to dinner and she was like, ‘I’ve seen it 30 times.’ And I was like, ‘Oh my God.’ So I dug through the basement and found a script and signed it for her and gave it to her. … People get married to the quotes from that movie. I’ve seen tattoos all over the place [with] different quotes from that movie.

“I’ve thought about this a ton, about my relationship to marketing, my relationship to the audiences, and how each of the movies affect each other, the brothers and sisters. There’s a sugar content metric, and there’s a savory content metric. So in the savory category, the balance of the taste of the piece, that one resonated for a long, long time, even until today, it keeps on resonating and resonating. That balance was right. In the sugar content metric, which maybe is, ‘Was it scary? Was it this?’ That’s a different metric where maybe they were like, ‘Hey, I wanted it to be just a straight genre piece.’ If I had to say it in the broadest of terms, I changed genres on you. And that was OK when you weren’t coming with the adrenaline on opening morning of, ‘I’m coming to see the scariest thing I’ve ever seen’ and then feeling, ‘Wow, I saw a really great drama at the end of the day.’ … Or if you came in and saw Signs as a movie about faith [and] you weren’t coming in going, ‘The number one thing is, I want to get scared out of my seat.’ It’s what your expectations are. And I guess when marketing comes, too. So we’ve been very careful in the last five or six movies to make sure that we are selling the movie that I made.”

On why he stands by critically maligned movies like Lady in the Water (2006) and The Happening (2008) — and why Lady is a “religion” to people who watch it on their deathbeds:

“Those were two very separate experiences. Lady in the Water is a jazz film. It was loved by audiences. It was one of my highest CinemaScore movies. Audiences loved it. There were standing ovations in the theaters. It’s a very quirky kind of audience-friendly movie. It’s lack of carapace, lack of shield with regard to the perception of those that frame the art for the rest of the world. … And their relationship to me and the art is very unusual, and I don’t even want to ever speak on that subject about what [critics] think about me or whatever, that’s totally up to them and I’m just going to keep making movies every single time. But you know, Lady in the Water is my least-seen film, and my most resonant film. That is the film that causes religion with everyone. … People that are on their deathbeds watch it over and over and have sent me [notes saying], ‘We keep watching Lady In the Water over and over.’ It’s religion to people. When the fans come up on that one, it’s cult-like. So it’s a very interesting audience movie. … And it was the only movie I lost money on, by the way. It was the one movie where I said, ‘I’m not going to think about how to sell it, what lines will we sell it on? What is the genre?’ It was just a floating kind of fantasy childlike movie that had creepiness to it. And it was a very challenging movie to sell at the end of the day.

The Happening was an immensely sellable movie. It made a lot of money for everybody, and was a very kind of B-movie, dark, weird, and kind of tongue in cheeky thing. … So I love it. … You have to have teeth, you know? I have no interest in being safe. None. Come at me, come at me. And my movies can take care of themselves, and they should take care of themselves. They don’t need to be defended by me at all. I had two years to make each one of them, and they’re super what they meant to be at that time. The original ones for me are so much me that I’m very happy. [Those time periods], that was me. … I had a children, babies, and telling stories [about[ where I was in the world, with regard to the Lady in the Water. So all of those are really wonderful growth periods. And if you want to stay making movies for decades, original movies for decades, you gotta be OK standing alone for a little bit, you know? And that will be a wonderful thing for the audience as they keep growing with you and change with you and either fight you or accept you. So it’s just been an honor really, this path. I just think about each movie and the characters and try to judge success not on box office, because that’s a secondary thing, but it does come if I do the first thing, which is, ‘Did I tell the character’s story properly with a unique tone?’ The tone that I’m trying to do. Don’t ever play it safe.”

On mortgaging his house to make the indie horror film The Visit (2015) after failed blockbusters The Last Airbender (2010) and After Earth (2013):

“That that came at the end of a period that was about me trying to fit into the system. It was almost like the equation that you just started talking about, ‘Hey, that must have been a tough time and all that stuff.’ And then going, ‘Well, maybe it should be easier.’ But it isn’t. You’re in front of these movies, you’re leading the field. You’re on billboards. When people drive, you’re just there, there’s no way around it. You’re a target. And I think I tried to mitigate all that by trying to join the system. And I’m just not good at it, bro. I’m not inspired by it. I’m not good at it. So that at the end of that period, I was like, ‘If I was a fast-food cook, I would go home and write stories and try to make a movie. This is what I would love to do. So let me just do that. Forget everything else that has happened. Everything. The success and all of that stuff, and just make a movie.’

“So I mortgaged the house, made a movie, didn’t ask anyone’s permission. … I put Visit in with Lady in the Water and Unbreakable. I went, ‘Comedy and horror together is going to work. That’s what I want to see. I want to see dark humor, dark black comedy humor in a horror movie.’ And I know they say it doesn’t work, it can’t work, it never has worked, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. Right? And I was like, ‘I’m still going to do it.’ And we went and did it. And [they said], ‘You can’t sell a movie with nobody between 12 and 75 [in the cast], you can’t make a movie like that.’ I’m going to do it, and we went and just made this little movie. And it was scary, ’cause if it didn’t work, honestly, I would’ve sold my house. And you guys have been writing stories of, ‘Oh, what happened when?’ And ‘Wow, what a disaster.’ But it didn’t turn out to be that case. So we barely made it. As all wonderful stories are, you have to go right to the edge. Everyone passing [on it] … no one’s seeing it, no one getting it, no one believing it. And then Universal says yes. And there we are, $100 million later. You know, that movie is so much about just following your instincts, because there was no safety. I just made one line better, one scene better, one edit better. Just kept on doing that for the whole year until we got to that movie. And then now if you look with Barbarian and Jordan Peele’s movies and everything, comedy and and horror are now just a standard … it’s just embedded in there now. … The system has now changed to embrace it. And so [it was] scary but wonderfully rewarding. And that began this era where we are now, where I fund my own movies, take full risk. And Universal has distributed all of these movies.”

On releasing Split (2016) as a secret sequel to Unbreakable, and never considering spoiling it in the marketing:

Split takes the cadence of genre and it keeps going, right? It goes from abduction movie and then it keeps on cadencing out to thriller and then eventually supernatural at the very tail. What is the definition of the supernatural? That’s the genre of the comic books. But you didn’t need to know that. You just know that it’s going to bend to supernatural at the end. So that cadence of marketing was appropriate. But back [to our conversation about 1999], Split could’ve been one of those movies released in 1999. But if you think about it in today’s vernacular, if I came in and pitched that movie, like pretend I didn’t pay for it, and I was like, ‘OK, here’s the story: Three teenage girls get abducted.’ They’d say, ‘OK, stop right there, walk out of the room.’ Or I’d say, ‘Three teenage girls get abducted with someone who has multiple personalities and the girls have to figure their way out. There’s a flashback to a rape, there’s all kinds of abuse that happens and you know, the bad guy’s not really a bad guy. And one of the girls is self-mutilating herself. What do you think? Should we do it?’ They’d be like, ‘Are you crazy?! What are you talking about?’ And yet all of those things added to this language of overcoming the adversity in your life, which became kind of like superhero-esque. … And by the way, those movies like The Visit and Split and all the movies that I do now, they don’t work until they work. Because you’re trying to balance this really unique combination of dark and light. And you need space, you need love, you need a process, you need crew and cast that give you everything and believe in you. And so what we’ve done in [Philadelphia, where we shoot these] is try to make these independent movies that are really different and edgy. And I think audiences really respond to the risk and the freshness of those stories.”

On why the apocalyptic Knock at the Cabin (2023) has the highest stakes for him since Signs:

“It’s funny you should say Signs ’cause [Cabin] has a bit of that flavor. Signs feels like a cousin to Knock at the Cabin a little bit. The very lovable family at the center of a very apocalyptic event. It’s kind of breathless. … The issues and [suspense] start the second the movie starts. And it just keeps moving and escalates. It reflects my thoughts about the world, what I’m grappling with, what we’re all grappling with. Where are we in the story of humanity? And is this experiment working? What do we feel? And if you look at it from one perspective, it’s working. And when you look at it from another perspective, this should end. … And then how does that relate to our feelings about our loved ones, and how important that is to each of us? So very deep profound things at the center of a thriller. So I love that mix of the ride and a personal story.”

Knock at the Cabin opens Friday.

Watch the trailer: