The Visit marks a series of firsts for filmmaker M. Night Shyamalan, who once ruled the horror/thriller genre with hits like The Sixth Sense, Unbreakable and Signs. It’s the first movie he’s done in collaboration with producer Jason Blum’s Blumhouse Productions horror factory; it’s his first film in the “faux doc” style (also known as “found footage” although it’s not that at all); it’s the first film from the director to play both as a thriller and a comedy; and most importantly, it’s his first movie in a while that’s actually really good, following a series of flops that has included titles like The Happening, The Last Airbender and After Earth.
“I’m always a philosophical guy,” said Shyamalan recently in Los Angeles, when asked about changing gears for this film after his string of misfires. “Each movie is a new relationship. It really is. You have to start fresh each time. I can’t go, ‘Well, the last date went really well, or didn’t go well, and I was really funny on that last date, so I’m going to tell some great jokes on this date. She is going to love me.’ That’s a terrible way to start a new relationship. Or, ‘My last girlfriend, she was always on my case. I can’t believe you just said that to me.’ That’s a terrible way.”
Despite working in a different format and with a lower budget than he’s been accustomed to (Shyamalan funded the movie himself before getting into business with Blum), Shyamalan added that The Visit does not compromise his vision in any way. “To go and make a small movie, which never strikes me as less-than, it’s just love of cinema. And it’s just irreverent and funny and gross and emotional and dark as I am. (I) can walk away and say, ‘The Visit is 100% me.’ That is such a wonderful feeling, and whatever comes from it, how can the result be wrong?”
The Visit follows two children (Olivia DeJonge and Ed Oxenbould) who journey to rural Pennsylvania to stay with the grandparents (Deanna Dunagan and Peter McRobbie) they’ve never met before due to a falling out between the grandparents and the kids’ mother (Kathryn Hahn). Not long after arriving at the farmhouse, however, the brother and sister realize that something is very strange about their Pop Pop and Nana – and that their chances of surviving their stay are increasingly slim.
The girl, Becca, is an aspiring filmmaker and is filming the visit for a documentary, which provides the basis for the “faux doc” esthetic that Shyamalan has employed here for the first time in his career. But the director admitted that he wasn’t about to completely abandon his previous, more formal visual style for the more rough-hewn camcorder effect. “I storyboard every shot of my thrillers in general,” he explained. “I draw them out and do them. The difference in this one is I had to put it in the screenplay. So it’s in the screenplay where the shots were, because (Tyler, the brother) picks up the camera. They leave it on the shelf. She is carrying it in as they enter the door. That’s in the screenplay. So as I was writing it, I was kind of storyboarding it.”
Both young actors are quite naturalistic — a tricky thing to pull off these days when so many genre outings feature some fairly annoying teens. “I can’t take too much credit for what they did,” said Shyamalan. “Making movies is an act of faith. When I write these characters, I just pray that these individuals exist in the world. I’m not looking for a young Daniel Day-Lewis who transforms from one role to the next. That’s not who I’m looking for. I’m looking for these kids to exist somewhere. That’s who they are in real life and they’re going to do a variation on that for me.”
For the grandparents, Shyamalan went for two actors with extensive stage experience. “My directing style is long takes, especially on this one,” he said. “I need actors who are versed in that style. They don’t edit themselves asking, ‘Can we do that again?’…(theater actors) know when they have magic on stage when everybody’s connected in this magic of storytelling. That’s my philosophy. I love, love stage actors.”
Both Dunagan and McRobbie effectively capture the strange effect that older adults can have on young children, something that Shyalaman said was at the center of the story for him. “The subject of the piece is our fear of getting old, which is a variation of our fear of dying,” he remarked. “My grandparents have passed away now, but my grandparents were classic Indian grandparents. My grandmother would put so much powder on her face it was like a kabuki…and my grandfather apparently had no teeth because he would take out his teeth and then put them in the glass. And then he would try to scare me with them. That’s the primal thing of it, is that we’re scared of getting old. Playing on that is a powerful conceit.”
A fear of death is ultimately the basis for perhaps all horror movies, but the difference this time is that Shyamalan has made The Visit with a lighter touch than we’ve seen from him previously – something he says has carried over to the next script he is writing. “I did a TV show this last year, Wayward Pines, and everyone’s offering me TV shows, but I want to make Sex and the City and nobody’s offering me that,” he joked (at least we think he was joking). “Me as a person, as a human being, I enjoy this balance. The Visit is the balance of who I am. I’m a mischievous kind of guy.” He added, “I’ve been enjoying making people laugh. I enjoy it and I hope to have that as a wonderful thread in the movies. I think it’s a great foil. Don’t you think?”
The Visit is out in theaters now.