Behind the Scenes of THE VISIT:
Exploring the Work and Mind of M. Night Shyamalan
By Carl Kozlowski, Contributing Writer
It’s been over 15 years since M. Night Shyamalan became a world-famous writer-director, springing his supernatural mystery/thriller “The Sixth Sense” on the world and revealing himself to be a filmmaker who combined a deep sense of morality and meaning with an uncanny gift for surprise endings. He really succeeded at achieving that combination in two other critically acclaimed, wildly popular films, “Unbreakable” and “Signs.”
But then, he seemed to lose his touch. As his budgets grew bigger, his box-office returns grew smaller, and Shyamalan received disastrously bad reviews for his last three movies: “The Happening,” “The Last Airbender” and “After Earth.”
Rather than continuing down that path to cinematic oblivion, Shyamalan decided to go in a different direction and focused on just telling a great story again. He also decided to pay tribute to his own grandfather’s mischievous sense of humor by making his comeback movie, “The Visit,” the story of two kids trapped spending an ever-weirder weeklong visit with their grandparents, who may be crazy at best and downright malevolent at worst.
“When I’m writing, I think what is the subject of the piece? Here it’s the fear of getting old, which is like our fear of dying,” explains Shyamalan. “But, what makes it scary? I love psychology, why we do things and what does this camera angle do to a viewer. The primal thing is that we’re scared of getting old, and playing upon that is a powerful conceit.
“My grandparents are passed away now, but my grandfather apparently had no teeth. He took them out and put in a glass,” Shyamalan continues. “He liked to scare me so I used to like scaring him back when I was a teenager. Now that my parents are grandparents to my kids, I had to transfer those scary ideas away from them and onto the screen.”
Another big switch for Shyamalan in making “The Visit” was teaming up with producer Jason Blum, whose low-budget ethos has been responsible for some of the most successful and atmospheric horror movies of the past decade, in addition to a Best Picture nominee from 2014, “Whiplash.”
Shyamalan flipped the found-footage style Blum employed to hugely successful effect in the “Paranormal Activity” movies by making “The Visit” told through the perspective of a young teenage girl making a documentary of her grandparent visit for her mother.
To accomplish an effective found-footage movie and make it believable to audiences, he had to eschew the superstars he normally works with – such as Bruce Willis, Mark Wahlberg and Will Smith – and find actors unknown to American audiences. He drew from a pool of theatrical acting veterans to play the creepy grandparents, while finding his younger stars in Australia.
“The pool of world class actors who have done theater is limited, and then the two kids were from Australia,” Shyamalan explains. “You’ve got to find people you haven’t seen that much. Australian is the easiest accent to switch to from American without losing your palette.
“To make movies is an act of faith,” he continues. “I’m not looking for a 12-year-old Daniel Day Lewis, who transforms for the world. I look for a person who exists naturally. You don’t want to work expecting him or her to do something.”
Another aspect of Shyamalan’s work process that is fitting for a man who nearly always involves family issues in his movies is that the director seeks to cast children from stable families. It’s especially important in “The Visit,” since the movie’s underlying theme is about forgiveness and reconciliation even after a family fight has become decades old.
“I also require the families to be healthy positive families because they’re co-directors with me on the kids,” Shyamalan says. “Sometimes with kids I just can’t get there, and I need someone who knows their vocabulary to do it. So I call the parent in on helping. The mom might stand literally there. I’m gonna talk to you, you’re gonna talk to him.”
With “The Visit” drawing a loud mix of horrified gasps and surprised laughter from audiences at preview screenings, it appears that Shyamalan has indeed found his way back artistically. Already hard at work on his next movie, he hopes to apply the lessons learned from THE VISIT to his next movies.
“I’m always a philosophical guy,” he says. “Each movie is a new relationship. You have to start fresh, because you can’t go in thinking about the past ones. Whenever I meet someone that is comfortable with themselves – their flaws, totality of it all – they’re so amazing to know. They may not be the most beautiful or attractive, but if they’re comfortable, that’s so attractive. If you aspire to be something other than you are, it doesn’t work.
“To make a small movie never strikes me as less than. It’s not that at all,” he continues. “With the money pressure off, I can be irreverent, funny, gross, emotional, and dark as I am. Let that fear balance be me. 100 percent me. Whatever comes of it comes of it. How could it be wrong if it’s 100 percent me?”
“The Visit” opened nationwide, but MOVIEGUIDE® advises extreme caution. You can read the review here.
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