M Night Shyamalan interview: After Earth, summer movies

With his latest movie, the sci-fi thriller After Earth, out in the UK this week, we caught up with director M Night Shyamalan for a chat...

Released against a backdrop of expensive superhero movies and sequels, After Earth is a bit of an anomaly. Quiet and relatively self-contained where the rest of the summer’s films are noisy and expansive, featuring a central cast of two where others might feature more than a dozen, After Earth serves as a marked change of pace from the usual seasonal stuff.

Then again, After Earth isn’t exactly an introspective drama, either. Starring Will and Jaden Smith, it’s a sci-fi thriller about a military father and son who’ve crash landed on a post-disaster Earth. With its human population long since gone, the planet’s been taken over by savage mutant creature and poisonous fauna. With the father badly injured in the crash, it’s up to the teenage son to venture out into the jungle to find the distress beacon that will save them.

Although there are plenty of action moments, director M Night Shyamalan focuses more on the build of suspense and drama, and while there are space ships and high-tech armoured suits, Shyamalan brings the same kind of stillness and dramatic minimalism that he used in his most successful films, The Sixth Sense and Unbreakable.

Ahead of the film’s UK release, we met Mr Shyamalan to talk about the movie, what interests him most in filmmaking, and what he’s up to next.

Ad – content continues below

It struck me that for such a big film with a star name attached to it, After Earth‘s very intimate and pared back, the story’s very direct. Is that what attracted you to it?

Yeah, definitely. Hopefully, that’s how you know I’m involved in the movie, because it’s such an intimate story. I feel very comfortable with quiet storytelling and quiet moments. I feel much more comfortable with the dinner table scenes than a crowd scene with a million things going on.

My tendencies, visually, and my tastes, tend to go towards minimalism. So anytime I have the opportunity to strip everything away, I love it. In the movie, Will [Smith] goes from a very animated military hero to the end, where he’s so still. Basically, I’d give him five minutes of direction, and all he could do was act with his eyes at that point. That was my most fun time directing, when it gets really simple.

It’s a motif in your films, where you focus on faces, and contrast reactions. Is that what interests you most in filmmaking?

I think that anything that has something left incomplete is what interests me. Just a little thing incomplete. I think, when you complete too much, it loses its conversation with the audience. I like to have just a little bit open, and not said.

So even on the contrast where Jaden [Smith] is in the jungle, walking through the forests… do you know the Apu Trilogy, an Indian set of movies? They’re a famous set of films, and they’re in black and white. They have all these tiny figures in the jungle, and that leaves the thought open to how small we feel, or what he’s feeling. When a character’s that small in the frame, you have to fill in what he’s feeling.

Ad – content continues below

I like that kind of storytelling. It’s like a back-and-forth conversation. I’ll tell you A and C, but you have to fill in B, so by the time we get to D, we kind of did it together. You’re more invested. 

David Cronenberg once said that cinema, to him, is as simple as two people talking to him. Like The Fly, for example, which is something we often see in your films; is that cinema to you?

For me, there are two types of storytelling, I think. There’s the ‘at-you’ kind of storytelling, where I can watch it like entertainment, it’s just happening and I’m dazzled. Whereas the involved kind of storytelling I’m talking about here, there’s a lot more burden on the audience, because they have to actively participate – they’re being asked to get up on stage and do the dance a little bit.

So that makes you a little bit uncomfortable, because you can’t just be passive. I’m always trying to find where that balance is, because it can become too much of a burden. It can become too byzantine, and that’s not entertainment. So it’s finding the balance between the spectacle and saying, here, I need you to do some of the storytelling with me.

Do you think in too much filmmaking, especially summer films, has gone too far the other way? That it bombards you, and it’s sometimes hard to hold onto the story or the characters?

Ad – content continues below

[Laughs] If we’re generalising, for sure. That’s what a summer movie is. It’s “Come, we’re going to dazzle you with images and speed and cuts and all that stuff. Amazing visuals, sights and sounds. All of it’s going to cause you to be stimulated.

You expect something different in the summer than the fall, let’s say, right? Where movies are getting quieter and quieter. Ironically, my movies are always released in the summer! [Laughs]

Counter-programming!

Yes! And by the way, it’s true. If you look at our movie, After Earth, in the United States it goes Iron Man 3, Great Gatsby, which is obviously based on the novel, Star Trek 2, Hangover 3, Fast & Furious 6, and then us. And in a way, it is kind of counter-programming; we’re going to tell one original story, and then we can get back to the remakes and sequels. 

You’ve dabbled in comic book movies yourself with Unbreakable.

Yeah, for sure.

Ad – content continues below

Is that something you’d perhaps return to?

I actually really love it. And I enjoy the comic book genre a lot, as you can imagine. I particularly enjoy the darker takes. I do want to go back there, as you say.

What about the Night Chronicles trilogy? We had Devil a few years ago. Is that still happening?

Yeah, it is. What happened is, with [After Earth] taking so long, I couldn’t put my full attention into the second one, which we’ve written and have ready to go. So hopefully, this coming year, I’ll get that up and going. The third one, I’ve typed out the summary.

You once said, “I’m going to stop making movies if they end the cinema experience”.

Ha ha, yes!

Ad – content continues below

But you’ve also said that you’d also love to make small, personal visions.

Yes.

So how do you feel at the moment? Which way are you currently leaning?

Well, it’s great – well, I’m sure the studios wouldn’t agree with me here – but because of the reduction of the video [market], where DVDs aren’t as profitable, the cinema experience, the theatrical experience, is more and more where they’re making the money again, right? And now, because of worldwide box-office, which is so dramatic…

It used to be the US, and the small part was the foreign [box-office]. Now, it’s not that way at all. US is just one country in the whole world’s cinema-going experience. Which is fantastic for me. First of all, because the tastes of the world are now important. What you guys feel here and what they feel in Brazil and what they feel in Spain is important to the studios, which is great, because my tastes are more international, just by nature, that way.

Because the cinema experience is where they’re making their profit, [the studios] want that to be the most important. So for this moment in time, it feels like cinema is it.

Ad – content continues below

Strangers going into a room. 500 strangers coming together to watch a story, is really a healthy moment. 

So what can you tell me about what you’re directing next?

I’m doing two things. One is a TV show [called Wayward Pines]. I’m doing a pilot for Fox. It’s kind of a Twin Peak-sy show; it’s really weird, you don’t know what’s happening. It’s about a guy who wakes up in a town, and he doesn’t understand what’s going on. It’s very odd and eerie. So I’m shooting the pilot, and then I’m overseeing the writing for the show.

And then after that, I’m going to do a very small movie.

Can you tell me anymore about that?

[Apologetically] I can’t! It’s on my computer.

Ad – content continues below

Can I have a look at your computer?

[Laughs]

M Night Shyamalan, thank you very much.

After Earth is out in UK cinemas on the 7th June.