During a recent Tribeca Talks, M. Night Shyamalan discussed the challenge that he faced while he was making a latest outing, “Old.” His upcoming psychological horror film “Old” was one of the first studio film that shot during the pandemic. He invested his own money to shoot it safely, especially after a hurricane destroyed the film’s set.
Here’s the Q&A with M. Night Shyamalan, moderated by Alex Wolff
A: I love the story of when you told your dad you were going to NYU and the positioning of him on the couch and the courage it took for you to tell him you’re going to be a filmmaker. Did you have any doubts? Maybe you can tell the story for people that don’t know it.
M: It goes with the immigrant experience. I was at NYU Film and it was a dream that was ignited by Spike and reading Spike’s book and watching She’s Gotta Have It. A sense of this was what I was going to do. I was a fairly good student, and both my parents are doctors, and all my aunts and uncles are doctors, 14 doctors in the family from optician to coroner so it was assumed I was going to be a doctor. I applied to one college, I applied to Tisch, and I applied early which nobody did in those days. I came in and my dad was in the den on the couch. He was a very avid sports watcher and was watching a hockey game and I said “dad, I got into Tisch on a scholarship and I’m going to go.” He had his head on the sofa and he was staring at the TV and didn’t look over to me, he just nodded.
It was so disappointing. For an Asian dad, when you get disappointed, that’s how you yell. It would be the equivalent if I said I wanted to be the lead singer of a goth rock band at the time. Same level of credibility. My mother was a little better about it, but I was terrified to go into uncharted territory. And there certainly weren’t any immigrants to look up to. Subsequently I’ve gotten to know Spike because he’s so sweet and supportive. This is how important your examples are, because if he didn’t do that then there’s no way I would have done that. I’m lucky that I’ve had a lot of people come up to me and say I’m thinking of being a graphic designer or artist because of what you do. Everything we do to try to find a new place for our voice in the world is an important thing. That was the beginning of that journey. It was super scary.
A: You are so kind to everybody. I remember your dad calling during the last few days of shooting and you talking to him. Part of why it’s so easy to be an actor in one of your movies is you’re so gentle, sweet and kind and understanding. Yet you’re technically a genius like Hitchcock where everything is mapped out. How do you balance that? Where everything is so technical and beautifully precise, while also being kind and encouraging with your actors?
M: I’m a very formal filmmaker, everything is storyboarded. I told these guys when they came to think of it more as dance choreography. Rather than fighting it saying I wouldn’t do that, think of it as choreography. We’re going to do paintings. The idea with this film is that we’re in an amorphous space, which is the beach, and I’m going to use the movements of the camera in an angular way to create geometric movements. This came from watching movies like Rashomon and other movies where Kurosawa uses these angular dollies. I don’t know if you’ve seen how sharp they are in the forest and they create paintings, then slice, then another painting.
I try to hire the most combustible actors to messy up those frames. You can do whatever you want in the structure of what I’ve created. The combination of that spontaneity in that structure I’ve created and thought of is almost like animation. That combination is very exciting. You’re getting both forms of the art form. The thinking ahead, but also the I can’t believe Alex just did that in the middle of frame. I don’t care if Alex leaves the frame and then comes back into the middle of the frame. That messiness is all part of the wonderful quality of the theatre we were capturing. We’re very much like a theatre troupe.
A: You hired people who had done theatre. What made you do that? Because it’s not very traditional and just about every person has done theatre and plays.
M: I’ll say something a little controversial and it’s a little blurry given the times. In the early days I would say the technique required for acting goes television, then movies, then theatre. Because each one requires more commitment. I’m gonna be angry in this take, and if you’re on stage with that the energy is everywhere you go. You don’t try to think your way through it or calculate it. Now more so it’s blurred, all the differences are blurred, but the people from television I have to unwind their acting habits a little bit. They’re going for it and putting things on the surface a little more. You want them to think the thoughts, don’t have the body do that. If somebody is on one , they’re like “we have to get off this beach!” and on the third take, they’re like “We have to get off this beach!” I’ll go there’s no way you had an original thought on the third take that made you go like this again. You’re not even present anymore, you’re just doing a ghost version of your first take. You don’t –
A: I’m the other extreme.
M: Alex, get out of the water! You can’t be in the water. That kind of spontaneity and just going with it. I don’t do a lot of coverage. They’re long takes and require take 4, take 7, take 16. That’s why I hire theatre trained actors. I push into that arena, whether it’s with James McAvoy, Betty Buckley, Alex Wolff. Whoever it is, I love theatre trained actors. They learned the beauty of letting go in that way, and I try to capture that on film. I always say we should do something we can never duplicate. Only us at that time on that beach. We could never go back to that.
A: And the set! Could you talk about what happened to that? You always keep such a cool, calm demeanor and you never exploded once, but you lost your set multiple times. It got washed away, and you’re like “well we’re gonna make it work”. What’s your secret? Is it just tons of valium?
M: There were a couple times I was on the verge of tears but I covered it. Because of the pandemic we were the first movie to shoot and cast during the pandemic. We all went to the Dominican and at that time the way we were making the movie was very new. We were making up the rules so I said we’re all going to stay in this hotel and I’m going to pay for everybody. The cleaning lady, the caterers, the reception person, the person parking our cars – everyone is staying with us. And if they commit to these ten weeks I’ll cover everything and we just go back and forth between the hotel and the beach every day and that’s it and we stay safe. We even had our own lab. We didn’t have a single positive case, which was fantastic in this very scary time. Because of this we had to push the shoot into hurricane season. Unfortunately because of people’s schedules I couldn’t have this cast if I waited. And so I made the choice thinking about what’s important to me. It’s because I wanted to make this movie with you guys that I took the risk. Of course there was a hurricane and it just took the sets and destroyed them.
A: Didn’t they find pieces of them a mile away?
M: They did. We had to do recovery and all that stuff. Ultimately the biggest concern was the beach had been eroded away. There was no beach for our beach movie. As we were rehearsing and I got word there was no beach. We were all together and I was like well, I don’t know what to do. You just go by faith. Making movies is a little bit an act of faith and there’s stuff that can go wrong.
A: But this was extreme. I remember you were totally calm and like “I think we lost the beach, but it’s totally fine, we’ll be good.”
M: You have to be a dreamer to do this for a living. We got very lucky. By day one part of the beach came back and we shot on that side. Then it just came back and then we became very versed with nature and tides and storms out a hundred miles away, the power, the waves, and how many times a day the water comes up. You have such respect for nature out there. We can’t shoot that scene with Alex because the water will be too far out, we have to shoot at ten AM. And because of the movie’s premise, they’re aging and it’s one day in the movie. If an actor was playing Alex’s character younger they’d be out in the morning and Alex would be in the daytime, and another actor later. So there was all this stuff and aesthetics and it was complicated but it put this respect in us.
A: Also the stakes were so high. It was fun and free too. I wish you’d tell people about this ritual we did at the end with the flowers. I don’t know any other filmmaker that would take a space so seriously to drop flowers in the ocean.
M: It’s very spiritual. I think a lot of people feel spirituality in my movies because that’s what I feel. I’m not a big religious guy but I very much feel there’s something out there and I respect it. We were on that beach, and honestly we were allowed to be on that beach. That was mother nature allowing us to be there. There was 40 days we needed good weather and we got 40 days. We couldn’t get rained out once. The local crew told me about a ritual to thank the beach. So we got flowers, it was 3 AM and we just finished shooting the last shot, everyone was crying. The cast and crew went to the edge of the water and made good wishes and showed thanks and put down our flowers. I think there’s a video of us with all our flowers going out into the ocean. And you can’t turn your back on the ocean, you have to just walk away backwards. Which brings us to my fractured toe.
A: What movies were you thinking about making Old? I know you mentioned Bergman and Kurosawa. Do you see different filmmakers in your older work compared to Old and Split.
M: At that time whoever is influencing or something I see and watch – I’m very careful – and my wife can attribute to what I watch or read – I’m very careful of what I’m digesting while I’m making a movie because I know it’s going to directly influence what I’m doing. Even the people that work with me I can make sure they’re reading or writing certain stuff because they’re influencing me in every way you can imagine. So we’re very careful. In Split, Mikey, who was my cinematographer, and I were watching a lot of Altman. Three Women was very influential to shooting Split. In this movie we were into a lot of Australian New Wave. Walkabout, Picnic at Hanging Rock, a whole group of them because there were a lot of these movies about the relationship with nature. Using zooms and movement with a kinetic nature to create a collage. This is us, you’ll see a lot of influence from Australian New Wave. Walkabout is one of my favorite movies, it’s so great. Mikey(Michael Gioulakis) and I watched it again while we were there.
A: You screened Psycho for everyone too, that was really fun. I wanna talk about a movie that you don’t bring up much but really changed my life, The Visit. Round of applause for The Visit. That was like a turning point in your movies and what you made. You were this gangster badass filmmaker that just made what he wanted to make, but then you’re like “fuck it, I’m gonna finance it and do it myself”. Can you describe the process of making Visit and what the process was like making it a found footage handheld movie? It’s the only one you done.
M: To be honest, I felt lost. We’re a contradiction, we want to be heard, but we also want to be accepted, and I’m an extreme version of that as well. This idea that I want you to accept me, I want the critics to love me, and yet I don’t want to change and I want to be myself. This contradiction is there and right before I did The Visit I was at a low point. I didn’t believe in myself, I don’t think the industry believed in me. I was making calculated decisions like this will keep me safe and I’ll be just hired to do this and this will give me a chance to do something later. I was thinking in ways I never thought. I was always like Spike Lee made that so I’ll do what I want, I was always that guy. I think that’s what happens to all of us.
Even after success you try to get safe, you try to keep yourself from being vulnerable and you don’t want to fail again. So you do all these things to keep yourself from failing and that’s exactly what causes you to fail. You keep doing these things to protect you and you feel more and more vulnerable and you make worse and worse decisions. There was a moment when I said I’m not doing this anymore. My wife and I got kids and we could take all the money and go away, they don’t care about any of it. We could go to a two bedroom apartment above a garage and be all good. The mortgage, the house and just make a movie and not ask anybody’s opinion about it. I had this tone in my head of comedy combined with horror. I found in life that when you’re telling stories and you’re nervous you laugh a lot. You’re giggling and you wanna release it.
There’s something there, but I don’t see it much in cinema. So I wanted to do this tonal thing and I said let me make this YA thriller. So I just went and shot it. It was a scary time, I didn’t make any money, I was just mortgaging out so it was two years with no money at a time when we really needed to get something. It was dangerous, very dangerous. I can’t give away too much of the story, but one day there was too much traffic so I was walking, and I walked by this restaurant where I said to my assistant, I was sitting right there waiting for Harvey Weinstein to tell me he was going to buy The Visit. I had just shown it to him and I was waiting at the bar. And I remember how nervous I was, looking at this napkin and thinking “this isn’t why I did this.”
How did I get here? I’m sitting at a bar waiting for Harvey Weinstein to tell me whether I have a career or not. The phone rings and he says “Night, I don’t know, I don’t make these kinds of movies. I make movies for old people” and then he’s like “talk to my brother” and he just hangs up. I was sitting there thinking “how am I back here?” When you ask somebody else to validate you, just think about that. I know who he is, I made a movie with him when I was a little kid, I knew what I was doing, and I was begging to go back. That’s how self destructive we can all be. And yet I was on the precipice of everything I ever wanted and I didn’t know that.
I already made the movie that was going to change my career, but I was asking the guy who crushed me to accept me. The psychology is so amazing. Luckily they said no and I finished the movie. There was a point right around that time where I was panicking again. You don’t lose that sense of panic where you lose your confidence and your sense of who you are. I screened it really early and everybody passed. There’s a list, by the way, there’s a list of everyone in the industry at that time who had come to see The Visit. This was six weeks after we finished, I didn’t even have time to finish. I panicked, I paid the money, I wanted to make sure it was going to get sold and everybody passed.
A: Meanwhile, you’re M. Night Shyallaman.
M: That doesn’t matter because Hollywood is Hollywood. It doesn’t matter what you did. At that point I had never messed with thrillers before. Everybody passes except Universal who say they’d love to see it when it’s finished. I’ll get back to that list later. But it was so dark at that moment where I was like wow, we’re gonna even lose this, lose our house, lose everything. What do I do? I’ll just go to the editing room and make one little moment better, and I did that and I was like “that was nice.” And I had another idea and did that, and the next morning I did that, and that. And I realized this was what I was put on this earth to do. Then I started to have fun and forgot about bankruptcy and all this and that. I said we could shoot this thing and explain this! I wasn’t thinking about anything (but) the joy of connecting with the material. When we were done we showed it to Universal, I said we’ll show it to you with an audience.
We showed it to them with an audience of 500 people and the audience went berserk, they bought it, it became the most successful independent movie of that year. We made 600 million. The best part of that story, we have the list of everyone that passed, there’s a hundred people on that list and we have it right here! There’s three people on this list that are still in the industry, two of them are the people that bought The Visit. It was an incredible moment of not believing, then believing, and then everything happens. Jordan Peele sees The Visit and everything keeps going. People are ready for this tone that I thought was possible. I enjoy this dark comedy. There’s so much inappropriate humor in our movie, as you know, so I love that tone. That’s how close we all are to finding out how powerful we are or how insignificant we are.
Every single moment like that. I’m gonna forget it again, that’s how we are as human beings, we don’t hold on to that sense of self, and probably society doesn’t teach us to. I’m hoping by being vulnerable every single time I make a movie, I’m like scared to death because we put 100% things people had never seen before into it. I have no idea what that person in the mall is going to think, but they go and see it. They had just seen Fast and the Furious and they’re going “wow, what is this!?” The 14 year old boy is crying and the 40 year old woman is like “I had just seen the most traumatic thing I had ever seen in my life.” They’re going to the same movie. But that’s what’s moving me. I’ve been most proud of the times when I felt like this, like how I feel about Old.
M: Yeah, it’s just me. Like when Unbreakable came out I felt very sad and disappointed and I was thinking “I thought people would like comic book movies, but I guess not.” It was a very somber movie about comic books. I didn’t know what to do and I wanted to be accepted. I’m hoping for the courage of the younger version of me, and the knowledge of the older version of me, that our power is that, that we’re so different.
A: It sounds very youthful, this idea of wanting to be accepted. I noticed in a lot of your movies that a lot of the characters that are most similar to you are a lot of the young characters in your movies, like Haley Joel Osment in Sixth Sense, or my character in Old. I felt that in Joaquin’s character in Signs. Why do you think that you gravitate towards younger people?
M: I think I’m always at that cusp, that place at 10 or 12 years old when you stop believing in the amazing and you become about reality. All there is is this table, this chair. That pivot moment. Spielberg was about that moment of a child becoming a man and a man child and holding on to that belief in something bigger. I still feel that way as an adult now. After all of this stuff. After having sat with Presidents and Prime Ministers, and seeing in them a child. I see that in their eyes it’s all very inspiring. An artist who brings tears to my eyes when I read a poem or hear a song where somebody really lets themself go. They don’t know whether there was a place for them, but now there is a place because they were so honest. I strive to be that artist, but there’s a part of me that would sell out to be accepted. I hate that part of me and I want to burn it to the ground. I was just watching Old and thinking about how subversive it is. There’s parts that are so inappropriate and I’m drawn to that. That’s what makes me want to spend two years on a project, that thing that will make you go “ahh!” They offer me a XYZ movie where I say “well that’s going to be completely accepted”.
A: And you throw it away.
M: I don’t get enough juice from it. But working with Alex, or a new composer like Trevor [Gureckis], it’s his first time doing a big movie, and a new editor, and a new music editor and new costumer. These are all first times for me. With every movie I try to do things to make me see things differently and be provoked by my partners and be vulnerable. I’m very lucky that the studio, Universal, afforded that. They’re the one studio that has promoted unique and unusual voices in the marketplace here. As you look at what’s being released this summer and it’s all sequels or something based on something else, and then there’s us and it’s based on a graphic novel a French documentarian wrote. I was telling Universal, and they believe it, that that’s our weapon. It’s not like anything else, don’t make the marketing materials look like anything else, we’re so different. Hopefully, one day, my dream is it’ll go back that way.
A: I think you already got back to that way. The Visit, and Split and Glass, everything new thing you do is pivoting the norm and I see a million young filmmakers imitating it. I think you set the tone. The Visit was like the first found footage horror movie I had ever seen and it really blew my mind. As someone that has specific odd facial features and odd personality, how do you struggle with seeing yourself in your work and not hating it? And I’ve never seen you once rest on your laurels. How do you wake up in the morning and like the work you do? Because I find it really hard for myself.
M: That’s a great question. It raises a different aspect of your relationship to what you’re doing. You’re trusting me so much so that when you watch the movie you’ll say “I can’t believe I did this”. I’m sure every actor is like “he’s great and she’s great, but I stink”. That’s what they all feel.
A: The difference is I actually will be bad. What do you do about that?
M: You’re crazy dude. For me, I’m done next Friday, I’m done making the movie and then it’s yours. Saturday I’ll start reading or watching movies and thinking about another one. That’s the healthy way for me.
A: When you see it on TV do you admire it for what it is or does it feel like a weird alien version of yourself that made it?
M: I don’t really watch it like that. I see it when it comes on and I say “oh the movie’s on” but I don’t really watch it. You could tell me I didn’t even write them, I don’t even remember a lot of them. Maybe it’s the headspace where you have to be like an actor. I’ll be like “remember when you did that thing?” and you’ll be like “I have no idea what I did.” It’s a little bit of that. I just came from the mix uptown, and I’m like raise that, lower that, put that water there, hem that. It’s just happening inspirationally in the moment. You don’t even remember writing that or telling people to do that. It’s been a joy to do this as my career, going from movie to movie. To be able to do this for so long and find people interested in the storytelling, it’s an honor.
My responsibility is never play it safe. That’s my thing for you guys. The contract between us is I will never play it safe, I’m gonna completely risk it. Even the filmmakers I love so much like Kubrick, they’ve had a hard time being accepted and I wanna have the courage to be one of the people I admire. As I said, there’s a part of me that wants to be accepted so bad that I’ll betray myself and I’m trying to burn that part of me to the ground. I think the movies I’m most proud of are the ones that represent all that quirkiness.
A: Is there a movie that you look at and say “that’s the most me, that’s the most Night.” Do you have one like that or are they all your kids that have an aspect of yourself?
M: Some of them. I know when I did Signs I was being protective of myself. I knew I had to make a successful movie. I still had a super fun time making it, it was very easy to write and make. It would be Unbreakable, Lady in the Water, and Old would be the three that are personal.
A: Do you have advice for young filmmakers and what they should or shouldn’t do? Should they just throw caution to the wind and do whatever? There comes a time when you meet a 17 year old and they’re like “I’m not re-writing a single word of my script”. How do you balance being too stubborn or listening. You’re an amazing listener too. You are super precise and if I say something feels funky you’ll sit and listen to me. Maybe you were just appeasing me for a moment so I’ll stop talking, which my parents do and the people in the audience do because I talk a lot. Do you have any advice for young people getting into film?
M: We talk about this a lot because I try to understand myself and what I’m doing. It’s something between conformity and rebellion. Somewhere in there is your own authentic self. When you’re younger you rebel and it feels good and you’re supposed to so you can find your true colors. But that’s not your place, just full rebellion, and conformity is not your place. It’s somewhere in between there and only you can tell. When you see Old I’m pushing the form, but I’m also aware of how far I can push them. There’s a little of that give and take. There is some honest version. If you think about independent films and commercial movies, commercial movies acknowledge the audience.
They acknowledge the cab driver and the doorman who spent that money and came to the movie and we know you want to escape, here’s the car exploding and whatever it is, the beautiful person, they see you. And in independent movies – I’m going broadly – they say this is what it’s like to be this person, a day in their life in this apartment and I’m going to give you so specific a thing that you can see who I am, you can see me. But they don’t acknowledge the audience at all. When you come away from the commercial movie you just put the key in the door and go onto the next thing because you didn’t change. You didn’t change and you acknowledge but you didn’t actually grow. With the independent movie you grew, you now have this person’s life as part of your world view and life experience, but you weren’t seen.
And some people say “hey, I need both”. And I strive for that where there’s some place where you can see me and I can see you. It’s a tricky, tricky balance because normally when it’s one or the other the rules are clear. But when I can see you guys and you can hear me it becomes a conversation and it’s a super uncomfortable relationship. This art form is really different. When I show my movies they’re alive and they’re sitting there, they’re listening. I showed Old to an audience recently and there’s a test I have when I show a movie called The Bathroom Test. The Bathroom Test is when as I show the first cut of the movie to 300 people, 30 people will get up and go to the bathroom like this. And I’m in a hoodie in the back and I’m dying. As you find the balance of this thing we’re talking about and this conversation between me and him, it becomes 15 people. Then 10 people. Then it becomes 5 people. Then we get to the last screening of Old and one person went to the bathroom but they ran to the bathroom and they ran back asking “what happened? What happened?” and their friend is like “Shut up! Shut up!
A: You want to start a fight between the two people.
M: What ends up happening there is the physiological connection of empathizing with the character and forgetting you’re in a movie theater and that you just came from work and your body has to go to the bathroom. It’s funny because it’s a psychological connection. It sounds silly, but it’s a one on one with how connected they are to the characters. That language of thriller is such a great way to tell a story and see this thing.
A: What gravitated you towards your love of thrillers and twists. People love when you turn things on their head. And is that more something for you that you love to see, or is it like the indie movie where you want someone to grow from seeing your experience and letting the audience in, or is it just something you love?
M: I think it’s a little bit of a scam. If you walk outside people will say “oh I love your horror movies!” And I’m like “I make horror movies?” I make dramas. They’re dressed up in genre clothes but they’re all dramas. When you’re making a mixed genre movie and direct, especially when you love genres, one of the rules is you can move up in genre to a more high octane drama during the telling of a story, but you cannot go back. You can start at drama, then go to mystery, then go to thriller, then go to supernatural thriller, then go to horror, but you cannot go back. You can’t go from drama to horror, then back to drama for ten minutes. They lose it because each has more stakes as you go. So you click up, click up, click up, but you can’t go back. This is what you learn. And part of the bathroom test as I go from drama to mystery to thriller, to supernatural thriller as you watch Old, the cadence of movement, you can spin it. I found it’s a great way to be disciplined, that the drama part can be amorphous.
But a thriller has a structure to it. If you’re thinking about literature on an axis, the wider the better. The wider- the more you know about the characters – how they think, how they move, all that stuff. And the vertical, the plot, doesn’t need to be so high in literature. You get more satisfaction in knowing what she cooks and why she’s waiting for the guy to come and the heartbreak. But in a movie the vertical is the most important. It’s the plot, it’s a structure driven format. You can do character work, but only along the way to the vertical, so that’s the pressure on us. As you go to a higher octane genre it gets tighter, and tighter, and tighter. You have the heartwarming conversation between two characters it has to be within the context of the pressure of the genre. This balancing act you can’t see it as well on the page, but when you see the visuals –
A: You can’t even see it too well when you’re making it. I remember doing a scene where I point out to the ocean and describe something and its been a long day, so you just point to the ocean and describe something. But a minute ago my character was a child, the stakes are extremely high, you say don’t just point at the ocean, remember! You were constantly trying to get people into your process of remembering. The stakes are always there.
M: It’s a hard one because you’re at minute 80 of the movie and it has to be pitched a certain way otherwise you know we tapped back in genre. It’s unconscious, but you understand the structure intuitively know we tapped back and go “I gotta go to the bathroom”.
A: It’s hard. That’s what I’m wondering. Signs is the most spiritually optimistic, and The Village has your darkest, most cynical message at the end the same way Psycho does. I wonder where Old fits on your framework of thrill or not thriller. What’s its outlook?
M: That’s such an amazing question to ask me as I’m finishing it now because I’m deciding that now. I’m deciding how to end on a minor note. Unbreakable ends on a kind of a dip. It goes to that dark note where that guy you thought was the best friend was the villain. Normally you want to pitch up. And yet the minor note sticks to you. It clings to you 20 years later to where I just signed a poster for it outside. But on the day it opened it opened against The Grinch on Thanksgiving day and everything is pitched up, up, up. It comes off as dissonant and “I don’t know what to feel.” But that I don’t know what to feel is so beautiful. The storytelling is still going on in you. That’s probably the only thing I struggle with in seeing my movie in 4000 theaters across the United States and all over the world in every multiplex. I tack towards this minor note and yet I know the consumption of it in the multiplex is hard for everyone and they say “what did I just eat?”
A: When I see some movies it’s like Gummi Bears, you can eat some and they taste great, but you can’t have a whole meal of them. Your movies are like a great burger, and a dessert and everything. To change gears, do you believe in ghosts?
A: Be real.
M: I believe in energy. I believe in something.
A: I said ghosts.
M: The girls say there’s a ghost in our house, but I dunno. I think it’s a squirrel. It’s in the attic. She’s sure that she’s seen a ghost. Whenever she says she’s seen a ghost I go “my god, you’ve proven the afterlife! That’s amazing, let’s get you onto a talk show! Now why don’t you just do the dishes?” I wish it, I wish you did see a woman in the room so you can say “wow, we keep going on”. I want that. I haven’t been able to confirm that, but I’m hopeful.
A: You would like to be ghosts.
M: I would like the idea that energy keeps moving in different forms. It feels right.
A: If you could hang out with a ghost who would it be?
M: I don’t know why, Jim Morrison just popped into my head.
A: I’m thinking about Ishana’s directorial debut was so amazing. How did they inform your work? In the past eight or ten years your work has gotten even more challenging and thrilling and soulful.
M: That’s sweet of you to say, Alex. I’m trying to set an example for them and be courageous so I’m trying to handle it in a way. Our two oldest daughters, one’s a musician who wrote a beautiful song for our movie, and Ishana, who second unit directed the movie. She’s directing right now, she’s doing the finale of Servant literally right now. THey’re amazing artists and I tell them to be fierce and fail. To be in that place where you can safely fail is the goal of an artist. You don’t want to have a situation where you can’t iterate and I always tell them to iterate. You get exponential growth as an artist and as a person if you can find a safe way to do that. Hopefully the legacy is once of being vulnerable. Go get your heartbroken, don’t be safe, there’s no benefit. You may mitigate your pain, but you’re mitigating all your joy. I try to be an example. You can say what you want, but you have to walk the walk.
As Old is about to come out I feel anxious. With every movie that comes out I’m terrified. I’m trying to handle that a little differently with this one. I want to feel peace. Friday I finish and then it’s yours. Part of me wants them to accept me, and I want my first New York Times positive review, and I want all that stuff. I don’t want to read the reviews, I just want someone to tell me “hey you got a rave review in the Times!” So lucky. I do try to convey that to the girls, that I’m so lucky I get to be on that beach and do these things and be me. You guys get to see a movie where I was being honest about so many things. Once I taught at an inner city school for this Teach for America program and it was a day thing. It was a really struggling school and half of the kids knew who I was and half didn’t. I was being provocative and said “I think word for word I’m the highest paid writer in the world” and they all looked up. And I said “how did that happen?” And then they all perked up and said “you’re really talented”.
I’m okay, there was a guy in my high school english class that was a better writer than me. Then they said “you work hard”. I do work hard, but definitely people work harder. Then they said “you got lucky”. Definitely I got lucky, but here’s what I think it is. I’m more willing to be me than some people are willing to be them. My limitations, my arrogance, my dreams, my pain, all of that, you guys see it and it’s raw and it shoots up into the sky. I was telling this girl in the front row, she was not in a great place, I said “if you can tell me exactly why you’re sitting that way and feeling that way, everyone in the world will hear your voice. But don’t try to be me, don’t try to be her, don’t mitigate it.
You don’t have to be anything different than who you are. Be exactly who you are and tell your story and I promise your voice shoots up into the sky and everybody hears you. The fact that I’m Indian but I live in Philadelphia, my mom does puja, but I wear flannel, and I follow the 76ers, and I watch Bergman and blockbusters, so I’m gonna make a Bergman blockbuster. All these dissonant elements. Who knows what the movie is going to be like, but Universal was telling me the excitement for the movie is pitched highest of any of my movies. Because they’re hearing this thing I’m talking about. Whether they come, whether it makes any money, that’s not what we’re saying, but the interest they can hear this note that it’s just this particular person, it’s not part of an agenda. It’s just this dude. That gives us all permission, it opens us up when somebody does that, it gives us all permission to be ourselves.
A: Would you say this is the most personal movie you’ve made?
M: To some extent the ones I made were the most personal. Unbreakable was about that time in my life where I wasn’t sure about being this person everybody told me I was and I woke up in the morning with this greyness, so I wrote about that, about a guy who felt like that. In Lady in the Water I wrote about our connection to society, and finding a place in a mythology and do we believe in mythology. Old is about how my father is very old right now, he has dementia, he comes and goes and thinks he’s at a train station. I can tell him I’m coming to the Tribeca Film Festival and I’m not sure he understands what I’m saying. The kids are now directing and singing concerts. When did this happen? So I made a movie about that feeling, how we blink and everything changes. The person that was changing your diapers, now you’re changing his diapers. How did this happen? And I think that relates to everybody.
A: Especially now, coming out of Covid. It felt like time just stopped and that’s what the movie is literally about. When I tell people about the movie they’re like “oh is it about covid?” and I’m like no, it’s just a coincidence. We’re coming at a close, are you more like Elijah Price or more Mr. Dunn? And which personality in Split are you most like?
M: I’m probably a little bit of both of them. The guy who doesn’t believe in himself and the guy who believes in a larger mythology that we’re all a part of. That would be Unbreakable. And Kevin Wendell Crumb, for me the idea that there are different parts of ourselves and how amazing we are at surviving. Dissociative identity disorder is a disorder that specifically comes from children that have been abused repeatedly from ages one to five, usually by a caretaker. Your brain bifurcates and makes other characters and other versions of yourself to protect you and that bifurcation, that skill goes on into your life until you have a myriad of people that aren’t you that are with you at all times that can protect you. How amazing are we that we can survive that or anything. We all do that a little bit, we all disassociate a little bit and become the tough guy on stage or the vulnerable guy.
They’re all me and telling about how scared I am and dealing with fears. Kevin Wendell Crumb, that’s who I am. I’m so scared about what’ll happen when Old opens, but I already know it’s going to be okay. Part of me already knows that because I told a story I love with all the artistry I learned from everyone and tried to honor everything. All the things in cinema that we love. I know that this is part of a larger conversation about how we relate to each other, but part of me is terrified and wants to hide and I want other parts of me to come forward. It’s such a joy to be here at a film festival. I always find film festival, I first went to the Toronto Film Festival, that’s when I first showed my movie at 21. I went to Toronto and showed that movie, and when I did The Visit and Split, I showed Split at Fantastic Fest in Austin. I just love the idea of people that love cinema and want to hear a new voice and it’s a joy to be here with you guys on the eve of this release. It’s an interesting thing to be finishing the movie and be here with you guys and just talk. You feel my energy, right? I’m almost there, but I’m scared, and still not done. I was tearing up watching it.
A: How do you not collapse or just become depressed? I finished our movie and slept for two months. I just couldn’t deal with it.
M: There’s these new characters I’m hearing for the next movie and they’re calling me. And my wife’s like “no!”, but they’re calling me and I cannot wait to start writing them. I know on Saturday I’m going to be like “hmm, what happens to her?” Is that a survival instinct?
M: The artists I love like Agatha Christie, they just wrote the next one. Just did the next one. That’s a joy, that’s where our energy should be. It should be out there and waiting for acceptance, but to tell this story of these characters in the most honest and powerful way so that whoever these new characters are I can’t wait to work on them.
A: You just work on them and go on to the next one. I love this idea that there’s two versions of a life. One way to look at it and another way to look at it. And your Street ball analogy. If you’re a basketball player you could go play Street ball to get a sense of your love for basketball. That really inspired me.
M: When we define ourselves in a way that starts to separate ourselves from each other, like I’m this successful dude who’s done all these things, this separates me from even me as well as all of you, as opposed to the things I’m honestly telling you. I’m scared, I don’t know. I’m trying to be honest, this could work, it might not. I wanna be accepted, hey I might sell out. I’m being honest with you. I’ve been trying to look at my life as…. You can look at it either way. There’s two columns I think about, which has brought me some sanity. There’s the column you have control over, and the column you don’t have control over. And you can get confused really quickly about those columns.
Write a song, the song becomes a big hit and it’s like I got control of the second column. You do not have control of the second column. You had control of the first column. I wrote a song and it was a failure, I have to do something to avoid that. I keep telling you you don’t have any control of that second column. The beauty is that all you ever need is this first column, what you have control over. It’s like The Visit. That second column I was trying to control so much that it involves a guy in Rikers Island prison right now, that’s who I wanted the second column to be. But due to certain circumstances I stayed in the first column and worked on the next line, worked on the next shot, worked on the next edit, that’s all I had control over and that’s enough. That’s enough. So that’s the two versions of your life. You can look at it like you have no control or look at it like you have a lot of control. It’s a beautiful freeing thing, the agency involved in that.
Here’s the trailer.