Code yellow: Lucius Hunt (Joaquin Phoenix) marks a tree in The Village
M. Night Shyamalan is a movie phenomenon. Newsweek described him as "The Next Spielberg" after a string of massive hits including The Sixth Sense and Unbreakable. His latest film, The Village, is a spooky period thriller about a village community who have an uneasy truce with the creatures that live in the woods. Shyamalan was on promotional duty in London last week, and Inside Out Film caught up with him.
How did the idea for The Village start to take shape?
It first came from a desire to be rebellious. It's a period piece, but there's a punk element underneath, which is very subversive - I get that way after a successful movie. Unbreakable was like a punk reaction after The Sixth Sense. I was asked to adapt and shoot a movie of Wuthering Heights, and I fell in love with that time period and that kind of knotted romance. I ended up passing on that project, but it stuck with me so I kind of wrote my own love story.
Although it's a period piece, The Village deals with a culture of fear which seems quite contemporary after September 11th.
Yes. I'm coming at it from a positive place of innocence as strength, which may be an antiquated idea, but for me it's the ultimate form of strength. The supernatural in this movie turns out to be love, so I really was trying to throw on all these violent events that cause catalysts for you to find something extraordinary inside yourself. I mean all the four movies have that, it's a violent act that gives birth to something.
How important was the casting for The Village?
In my view, I just went and got the world's best actors for every part. I asked them all to come three weeks early, not get paid extra, just come three weeks early and live in a camp, with no cellphones, no nothing, just completely commit themselves to this life and living together and learning the period. And every single one said 'yes' and they all lived together for the entire movie, the entire shoot. And so that's how we bonded. And before we started I told them why I wrote this movie, about how I feel about the world in general and fearing losing this innocence. That was world-class actors committing 100%.
The Village has a clear system of colour coding, with yellow flags for the villagers and red representing the creatures. Why did you choose these colours
The colours came from the straight psychology of it - it's actually the same reasons why the US government has those colours of terror and all that stuff; there are psychological reactions to the colours. Red creates agitation; if this room was red we would be agitated and anxious and aggressive. And yellow calms us and placates us and makes us feel safe and more open to things.
Your films tends to deal with B-movie concepts, but in a particularly small-scale, emotional way.
I tend to like B subject matters, like ghosts and aliens and monsters in the woods and things, and I didn't want to take a too non-realistic stance on those things, I wanted to go real.
You're best known for your thrillers, but you also wrote kids' adventure Stuart Little. How did that come about?
It came from a desire to write something for my kid. My wife had just had the baby so we wanted to do something just for her. And, the phone wasn't ringing off the hook, it was a very quiet time in the Shyamalan house! I had plenty of time to write Sixth Sense and Stuart Little, plenty of time. So Stuart Little was a dead project, and they were like, "Let's get a cheap writer." So I was the right price.
Does your success influence the way people respond to your films?
I mean these things, success, it doesn't engender good feelings. When they put me on the cover of Newsweek calling me 'The Next Spielberg', I'm not going to have a lot of friends that way. When those kind of things happen you just need to prepare yourself, so I went at this movie going "let's assume failure, we're going to assume failure and do every step of the way so we can say to ourselves we did it the right way." And so hiring Bryce (Bryce Dallas Howard) was the first part of that, the decision was to hire from the gut the best actress in the world to play this, who just happens to be one who's never acted before in a movie.
Do people approach your films differently because you're known for your twists
Right. When this movie opened in the States they were not watching the movie, they were watching the movie presented by me. And I was so fascinated by how they were having a different experience than if your name was on it. In that case, every moment would be enjoyed, rather than this chess game going on, where people are trying to second-guess the twist.
One of your next projects is a film version of The Life Of Pi. Do you think making a film from a well-known novel with mitigate this expectation?
Yes, but Life of Pi being a huge hit in the United States means a million people bought it. Nine million people saw The Village last week. So the book's audience will be gone by Friday or Saturday, and then you'll be into an audience that thinks I wrote it, as far as they're concerned. My name being on it will say "I'm not telling you the truth" and so we'll have that same problem again. So I don't know how I'm going to deal with that. It's an interesting proposition.