On the comeback wagon

On the comeback wagon

On the comeback wagon
“I don’t know, bro. I was screwed up in the head.” M Night Shyamalan, ruminating about career choices gone wrong, spoke those words and then burst into a giddy giggle. Just kidding! But the tenderness in his eyes betrayed him: There was some truth in that tease.

In contrast to his first four studio movies, which were all substantial hits, starting with The Sixth Sense in 1999, Shyamalan’s last four films have been a series of misfires. Lady in the Water, The Happening, The Last Airbender and After Earth severely tarnished his reputation among moviegoers.

But here comes a hairpin twist: Shyamalan, 45, seemingly humbled and more mature, took a hard look at his professional life, made a course correction, and the result, a quirky comedic thriller called The Visit, may well deliver a surprise cinematic comeback, or at least the start of one.

After getting beaten bloody two years ago for After Earth, a father-and-son outer-space adventure starring a real-life father and son, Will Smith and Jaden Smith, Shyamalan detoured into television. He was part of the team behind Wayward Pines, a limited Fox mystery series that captivated viewers (if not all critics) with its eccentricity.

“Because there are fewer resources in television, I learned how much fat I had on me, how many puffed-up bad habits,” Shyamalan said. “There was this great feeling of slowly shedding the fat.”

On the filmmaking front, Shyamalan made another sharp turn, veering away from lumbering studio projects like Airbender and After Earth — movies that, unlike his earlier hits (Signs, The Village, Unbreakable), were not based on his own stories. Shyamalan spent roughly $5 million of his own money to make The Visit, which he wrote, produced and directed.

“That may have been really stupid,” he said. “But it heightened the risk. There was only one way out of this one. I had to make a great movie. It just had to work.”

Featuring one of Shyamalan’s signature surprise endings, The Visit is about two teenagers visiting their oddly behaving grandparents; Nana, played by Deanna Dunagan, scratches the walls at night, and Pop-Pop (Peter McRobbie) has a weird secret in the shed, among other places. The film has been an unexpected hit with audiences in sneak-peek screenings.

Shyamalan did not disavow any of his previous films. He said one of his favourites remains Lady in the Water, a money loser from 2006, the making of which was infamously chronicled in the book The Man Who Heard Voices, by Michael Bamberger. But Shyamalan conceded that his focus on the audience had taken a back seat to executing a vision.

“I didn’t realise that the sweet spot had shifted,” he said. “Once upon a time, David Fincher and Christopher Nolan were way over to one side, barely hanging on the table. They were just too somber and dark. And now they are dead centre. Meanwhile, I was busy being sentimental. Airbender was based on a children’s show and rated PG. Lady in the Water started as a bedtime story I told my daughters.”

He continued: “For me, E.T. was always the holy grail. I was 13 when I saw that movie and was weeping in the theatre. There were other 13-year-old boys weeping in the theatre. Do you know any 13-year-old boys that would do that today? The era that I grew up in was a warm, sentimental time. That audience doesn’t exist anymore. My daughter is going to go straight from Pixar to Seth Rogen.”

The Visit was acquired for release via Universal Pictures by Jason Blum, who has delivered the Paranormal Activity, Purge, Insidious and Sinister horror franchises over the past decade. “Night, who I chased for years and years, had the courage to take a break from the Hollywood system,” Blum said. “That is exactly the type of director we want to bet on.”
Like some of Shyamalan’s earlier movies, The Visit is an intimate family drama tucked inside a horror picture. It uses the well-worn shooting technique (albeit new to him) known as found footage; one of the characters, in this case a teenage girl, catches the action on a camcorder.

Shyamalan’s script tries to keep the audience guessing in more ways than one. “It wasn’t just about the twist,” he said. “In the moments of dark comedy, I wanted people to be thinking: ‘Am I supposed to be laughing or appalled? I can’t really tell. But I like it.’ ” (Watch for the bizarre scene with a dirty Depend diaper.)

By the end of The Visit, the teenage girl — she’s an aspiring filmmaker, explaining her constant recording — has changed from auteur to something a lot more relaxed, perhaps reflecting Shyamalan’s own recent shift.

“At first, she is striving so hard to make something of art and beauty,” he said, “and finally she says: ‘You know what? Let’s just have some fun.’”

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