Still riding high on the success of his 2017 box-office hit Split, Philadelphia filmmaker M. Night Shyamalan talks about his foundation’s expanding mission, new role with the Philadelphia Film Festival and the movie sequel nearly 20 years in the making.
A dark, overcast and humid afternoon is the perfect setting in which to speak to M. Night Shyamalan. The Philadelphia auteur famously known for suspenseful, twistfilled thrillers conjures sweat inducing frights without the need (or obviousness) of shadows or night. Consider the daytime dread of The Sixth Sense, sun-splintered dawns in The Village, midafternoons filled with mysterious crop circles in Signs, and the creepy poolside mornings of Lady in the Water: Shyamalan doesn’t need the dark. He can scare, shock and provoke in broad daylight.
“I love thrillers. My mind always goes there,” he says, sitting in the offices of his Penn Valleybased Blinding Edge Pictures. “I’m busier now and probably work more now in the last four years than I have since the beginning.”
This fall is proof of that: He’s working on his next film, taking on a new role as a board director with the Philadelphia Film Festival in October and hosting his annual Halloween bash, Shyamaween, in support of his Shyamalan Family Foundation.
The director-script writer laughs when teased that all details to his soon-to-startfilming Glass—the spooky sequel to his multiplepersonality- driven Split, itself a continuation of 2000’s Unbreakable—must be state secrets. “Yeah, but then again, I’ve found press and audiences who’ve seen my work, like Split, in festivals and early screenings to be beautifully supportive, self regulating about holding the secrets so everyone could enjoy them.”
Stressing the integrity of art and family, Shyamalan talks excitedly about this trilogy’s last piece and its need for a larger canvas from the start. “Split was in my head in outline form before I wrote the Unbreakable screenplay, but it was too sprawling a story, would have hurt one of the main characters.” Going forward with Split and the evil done by its 24-personality lead (played by James McAvoy) finally happened, “even if it took 17 years to do,” he laughs. “Then, when I was writing Split in the present, I was thinking that and Unbreakable would collide and should finish in a third movie.” All we know about that finale, Glass, is that it stars new friends McAvoy and Sarah Paulson (from American Horror Story), old pals such as Samuel L. Jackson and Shyamalan’s oldest associate Bruce Willis, who was spied dining in Philly (Scarpetta, Barclay Prime) before meeting with the director this summer. “We stayed close, our families too,” says Shyamalan of the action actor. “He was the greatest big brother when Sixth Sense was happening. He put his faith in me when I didn’t have a track record; really let me direct him, do a movie of my vision, one that, without his imprimatur, I could not have done.”
He desires to make all of his actors—regulars and newbies—familiars. For Shyamalan, there must be great trust between director-writer and thespian to allow each to “not worry about protecting themselves.” With that trust, Shyamalan says that his actors can take “the characters where they must go, defend them, bring truth to them.”
Shyamalan’s own sense of familiarity is most acutely felt in his hometown. Though born in Puducherry, India, the young Shyamalan was raised in the tony suburban Penn Valley as the scion of doctor parents. Upon being gifted a Super-8 camera at 8 years old, his dream of being like his idol, Steven Spielberg, was in full swing. Maybe that’s why, after viewing the region for so long through that particular lens, he feels so passionately about using his hometown for location shoots. He knows the nuances of his city, and what he doesn’t have at his command is so richly detailed in his scripts that he could find them blindfolded. “Oh yeah, I am a Philly boy—a Pennsylvania boy—and just can’t see it any other away. It’s like Stephen King setting so many of his stories in Maine or Woody Allen with Manhattan…you’re setting your characters in a place you feel a deep connection to—and then have everything go wrong.”
Mention to Shyamalan tax credits guided by the Philadelphia Film Office and he speaks platitudes of gratitude. For if those didn’t happen, Shyamalan wouldn’t be able to go on the journey he started with The Visit in 2015, making smaller, more contained films on (relatively) tinier budgets that look as sumptuous as anything he’s done on pricier dimes. “Making films super economically allows me, even if it’s just in my mind, to be more daring,” says Shyamalan of his less-is-more approach. “To do more audacious things with format, performance and shock creates a mom-and-pop-store mentality in me. It’s just different when it’s your money you’re playing with. You’re 24/7, all-in in every possible way.”
“Bruce Willis was the greatest big brother when Sixth Sense was happening. He put his faith in me when I didn’t have a track record; really let me direct him, do a movie of my vision, one that, without his imprimatur, I could not have done.”
Being “all-in” is exactly the advice he’s given his singingsongwriting daughter Saleka (one of three daughters, along with Ishani and Shivani) in her pursuit of a music career. Calling Saleka a perfectionist, Shyamalan says that he and his wife, Dr. Bhavna Shyamalan, are helping her to find her exact voice. “[We want Saleka] to be more formed, because if you’re not, the industry eats you alive. When you know who you are, and are clearest about who you are, that’s when the machinery of the industry starts working for you.”
Equally as important as his film work is the director’s commitment to giving back through his M. Night Shyamalan Foundation. With a mission to support grassroots efforts towards removing socioeconomic barriers and eliminating inequities created by poverty (“We empower communities, one leader at a time” is its motto), Shyamalan says that it is his wife who pushed him towards starting a foundation. “She’s the do-gooder of the two of us,” he says with a laugh. “I’m very supportive of Philadelphia and taking care of this city, so that kind of spurred me toward her thinking, which is more international in its breadth.” Feeling protective of marginalized children and fortunate of his “super lucky” circumstances, the director wants everyone to get to that point of agency and security, and hopes charitable events such as Shyamaween are flashier ways to get his family foundation’s messages across.
“I’d love to tell as many stories that come out of my head [through film] as I can, start anew each time, and I’m fortunate to be able to do that,” says Shyamalan. “It’s a dream job.”
Photography by Daryl Peveto. Shot on location at Shyamalan’s home. Grooming by Joseph Anthony Retreat Spa and Salon