Film director M. Night Shyamalan started out wanting to tell a simple, scary story with his latest effort, "The Happening" - but in the process, the movie's message sparked his own personal epiphany about paying attention to Mother Nature.
"I'm the No. 1 culprit," he admitted.
The 37-year-old, Indian-American writer-director is best-known for his 1999 film "The Sixth Sense," an Oscar-nominated ghost story with an unusual twist. The film invited comparisons with the works of the past generation's master of suspense, Alfred Hitchcock.
Such high expectations can be a curse as well as a blessing. The movies that Shyamalan wrote and directed since then — "Unbreakable," "Signs," "The Village" and "Lady in the Water" — didn't quite match the acclaim that greeted "The Sixth Sense." His latest movie has gotten mixed reviews. Nevertheless, the first weekend's box-office receipts added up to a respectable $30 million.
Shyamalan's movies often contain the stuff of science fiction: the paranormal in "The Sixth Sense," superpowers in "Unbreakable" and crop-circle-making aliens in "Signs." But "The Happening" is a different kind of science fiction, grounded in worries over what humans are doing to the environment - and what the environment could do in response.
In a wide-ranging interview, I asked Shyamalan about his environmental-themed horror movie, his attitudes toward science-laced storytelling, and even his next movie. Here's an edited transcript of the Q&A:
Cosmic Log: You’ve said that, with “The Happening,” you wanted to do a simple thriller as opposed to some of the movies you’ve done in the past, which have had more of a twist to them. On the other hand, it seems to me as if this movie is really meant to be an environmental message movie. So is it simple, or complex?
Shyamalan: Well, structurally, it’s just about characters trying to survive – and really being, for 90 minutes, in the shoes of trying to experience this bizarre event. What it would feel like to not understand it and try to maneuver through it, and just to feel the paranoia. Really, that was the goal at the end of the day: feeling paranoia about something you can’t see and is much greater than you, and just dealing with that for 90 minutes.
The unusual face of the villain is the “big idea” of the movie, but not necessarily the complexity with regard to structure.
Q: The movie did remind me of “Night of the Living Dead,” and a lot of people have talked about “The Birds.” Did you have any sense that this movie might be playing off the environmental questions, and the paranoia about where we’re going on the earth, as opposed to the paranoia about the Cold War?
A: Yeah. Ideally, a B-movie makes you enjoy the silliness of the ride, and the movie’s premise revels in the silliness of it, so there should be a lot of humor and not a lot of taking itself seriously – and then it reminds you of a feeling, about something that you were bothered by in real life. In this case … this is ludicrous, right? There’s just no way this could possibly happen. Plants and trees, they don’t communicate! Then, slowly, there’s the vague outline of a larger presence. It’s kind of scary.
We’re almost like primitive man again. If we were primitive man, and our houses got wiped out by some storm, we would be in awe of it, you know? In a way, we’re learning that awe again these days as nature does its thing. It’s a balancing act. It’s kind of like, “Oh, yeah, I remember … I’ve lost my way in terms of thinking about nature.”
Q: You started out the “ride” with a reference to Colony Collapse Disorder. Do you think people picked up on the mystery of bee disappearances? And of course you show the [purported] Einstein quote [that if bees disappeared from the earth, humanity would have “only four years of life left.”] Is that how you began putting together the movie?
A: It was in the early stages of writing the script that the first person sent me a bee article – before anybody knew about it, whatever paper it was first mentioned in. And I said, “Wow, this is exactly the tonality I’m looking for.” Something seemingly innocuous – however, it seems to have very large implications. This isn’t happening in a little corner of one town, it’s happening across the country, and even beyond the country. Is there something that’s linking the whole system together, that’s making them work as one thing?
Q: You’ve also referred to James Lovelock’s Gaia Hypothesis, I was wondering whether you could explain that in your own words how you understand that hypothesis and – without giving away the plot – how it figures in the movie.
A: Well, there’s a guy who threw out this idea in the ’60s that the earth is a system. That it is a living thing, in and of itself. And it will defend itself. If we are seen as a threat, it will take steps to address that threat, just as nature does with anything. It can adapt. To assume that nature cannot adapt is probably a bad assumption.
Q: And that’s the driving force for moving the action in the film – the idea that nature is actually a character.
A: Yeah. One of the many possibilities that’s thrown out in the movie is this theory. It’s so out there. These things we see as benevolent could not possibly be malevolent. How could they be? If you can reach that moment – that the killer doesn’t necessarily have to have knives on his hands with blood dripping down, that it could be a beautiful flower … the irony of that! It’s an idea that you have to get your head around.
I’m the No. 1 culprit of that – forgetting that there’s a greater power that’s not in the religious books. It’s right here, it’s right out my window. I’m watching it right now, as the trees sway. There’s a great, great force there.
Q: Wow, it sounds as if working on this movie has really brought on an epiphany in your own life. Has there been a change in the way you are approaching things because of the issues that you touched on in this movie?
A: It’s funny, because a couple of friends who saw the movie were like, “I went back to the supermarket and I gave them back the plastic pots that the plants came in, and I said, ‘Do you guys recycle these?’” And the people at the supermarket said, “Yeah, we do, but no one ever brings the pots back in.” And my friend said, “Well, I’m doing it now.”
I guess it’s also a feeling of like, I’ve done nothing. Feeling guilty about it all, how little I’ve done, you know? It’s coming from the feeling of my complete lack of being P.C., and going, “Oh, sh*t… I’m exactly the problem here.”
Q: One of the features of the movie is that the lead actor, Mark Wahlberg, portrays a high-school science teacher as a hero. You do bring a bit of the scientific method into this. Is that something that came organically, or was this something that you really had to think about placing into the movie?
A: Well, it’s interesting: I had thought of the science teacher in the movie as the guy of faith. I guess some people think science is the opposite of faith, right? I don’t find that in my mind. Our family knows a bunch of wonderful people who do research on cancer, and this and that. They’re people of incredible faith.
Q: Faith that the process can be ultimately understood?
A: Faith that there’s a revelation ahead of them. And I really saw that in this high-school teacher. He has no knowledge beyond the high-school science. I kept telling that to Mark: You’re not going to solve the code that’s going to change the world. That’s not what you’re doing. What you do have is you believe that in the gaps of science, there’s something there. You can see something greater. You don’t have a name for it, but you respect it.
Q: I wanted to broaden the discussion out to your other movies. Even though you’ve sometimes said, “Oh, someday I’m going to make a science-fiction film,” one could argue that some of your films – like “The Sixth Sense,” and “Unbreakable” and “Signs” – are science-fiction films. Do you have your own scientific method for devising how the plots are going to work? To create a world that may not be totally realistic, but works within its own boundaries?
A: Yeah, usually I’ll come up with an idea that’s based on some damn thing that I read. Some article, or something I was taught in high school or college, and I’ll go, “What is that? Is that based on something real?” For example, claims of paranormal activity happen around puberty. Is that something I just made up? And then I research it and find out, oh, no, that’s true. And the basis of a movie can come from that. And then, did I read a story about bones that are really, really brittle? I could touch you, and that could break your bones? Is that real, because maybe then the opposite can be real, too. Maybe that explains the guy who brawls in the bar and gets smashed a million times with a chair and never breaks a bone. The bones are just more dense. Maybe it’s simply biology. Wow, if that’s true, maybe that’s a version of a superhero.
So, now, I am so unaware of the fact that I’m dependent on these trees I’m looking at outside to produce oxygen. They’re producing the thing that’s keeping me alive. What if they chose to produce something else?
I’m playing with the science behind a question, you know? If I could have thought of “Jurassic Park,” I would have. But I’m nowhere near smart enough to think of that.
Q: No, I think you’ve come up with some pretty good brainstorms. Can you talk a little bit more about science figured in your own background?
A: Well, it’s light. All my family are doctors. I picked things up by osmosis. As a child, I probably knew phrases that other children didn’t known, like “pitocin drip” or “myocardial infarction.” Some kind of knowledge was always in the air. My parents would always talk about science at the dinner table, saying something about this patient or some other patient. So I guess for a nanosecond in early high school, I thought about going into medicine.
Q: Are you thinking about the next project yet, or are you the kind of guy who just takes one thing at a time?
A: I normally do take one thing at a time, but I’m doing a movie for Paramount next, called “The Last Airbender” – which is actually based, believe it or not, on a Nickelodeon anime series. I don’t know how to describe it. It’s martial arts, it’s mythology, it’s Shakespearean, it has spirituality in it, and Buddhism and Hinduism. Every subject I could possibly imagine that I love is all in one mythology. It’s like a cult obsession for its fans.
Q: Is it live action?
A: Yes, it’s a complete departure. But there’s always some connection to my previous movies. In this new one, the mythology is about a world where there are four colonies of people. Each of the colonies has the ability to manipulate one element of the earth. One colony manipulates fire, one manipulates earth, one can manipulate air, and one can manipulate water. Not every member of that colony can do that, but members of them can, and that’s their identity.
Every generation, there’s one individual born who can manipulate all four. That person is called the avatar, and they are symbolically and physically the ones who keep balance among the four nations, so they all feel represented and balanced. It’s like the Dalai Lama: It’s the same person, reborn over and over.
So this young boy is told, “Well, you’re the next avatar.” And he doesn’t want it. He runs away. The story is about how he got frozen, and when he wakes up, it’s 100 years later in this world, and everything has run amok. It gets to the idea of responsibility and balance.
There are all kinds of wonderful themes in there. … His power, as I interpret it as a filmmaker and screenwriter, is more in what he symbolizes. If you think of the four colonies as religions, they’re all equal. They all have truth, and they’re all balanced. It’s a really powerful idea.
This interview originally appeared as a Cosmic Log posting.