Few directors are as idiosyncratic and successful as M. Night Shyamalan. Dusting off the ‘twist man’ expectations he got after 1999. The sixth senseShyamalan has spent the last decade following his whims, taking risks, and challenging himself: he completed an incredible superhero trilogy, dabbled in found footage, and helmed an ambitious television project on Apple TV+.
Like in 2021 OldShyamalan’s latest, Knock on the cabin, is a one-seat thriller about parents and children, love and sacrifice, set against biblical stakes and played with intense sincerity. Armed with another fantastic cast that includes Dave Bautista, Rupert Grint, Jonathan Groff and newcomer Kristen Coo, he has created an incredible and unrelenting apocalyptic thriller for audiences to experience. AV Club talk to Shyamalan about his new film, finding inspiration in taking risks and why Bautista was the right man for the job.
The AV Club: So many of your movies are like that about parent-child relationships. What is so important about a child’s perspective to the way you create a film?
M. Night Shyamalan: I feel like they are closest to how I feel about things. In some ways, they see things more clearly. Or at least I believe in the version of the world that children see. There is something more accurate about the way they see the world as beautiful or the way they open up to individuals.
If you think about the opening scene of Knock At The Cabin, [Cui’s character Wen] is alone, and then this giant [Dave Bautista] he comes and sits with her. As we watch as adults, this is very disturbing. But the child character sees something in Dave’s character that is clear to her, and she sees something else in him. She sees another child.
AVC: There’s such an interesting back and forth in that scene where the shots match up. So they bond almost immediately. How did you build that relationship throughout the rest of the film?
MNS: I don’t want to do much cinema. I might bore everyone.
AVC: Not our readers. We want to hear it.
MNS: [Laughs] In this scene, I tilted the camera in extreme close-ups to convey a sense of intimacy between the two of them. It’s a very unusual sequence because I have them looking into the camera, looking down into the lens, so it’s already an unnatural relationship. They have an immediate kind of soul connection that I convey through this. And I do it again later at the end of the movie with two other characters.
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This language of seeing into each other’s souls is this moment. And yet the camera pans while the information is happening because Wen is experiencing two things in this scene, which is, “I’m really connected to this guy,” and the second thing is, “he’s not telling me something very, very bad. ” As he talks to her, something very, very bad grows and continues to shift the axis.
AVC: Your budgets have decreased over the last 10 years. You have done several one-stop films that have shown a new side of your work. Why did you make the leap?
MNS: I came to this realization when I was thinking about how to continue my career that I really didn’t enjoy being in the system. I think they bring out what is really good in me. I really don’t care about money if it means I have to give up something of myself to do it. Also, I realized that most of the movies I love are very limited movies, so let me just pay for them myself and work with new people, and then I’ll be successful. And if they want to let it go at that point, they can let it go, you know? And that’s the relationship I’m going to have with the industry.
I want to take huge risks and what has been wonderful is that most of the time my films are profitable after three days of release in theatres. Maybe it’s my “immigrant self” wanting everyone to be okay. A responsibility that my partners, even my distribution partners, earn every time. And so I take huge risks, and they win and feel secure and support us. I think this is the healthiest way for artists and commerce to co-exist.
AVC: Out Unbreakable trilogy, you didn’t do sequels. Are there other films you’ve made that you’d like to revisit and perhaps expand on?
MNS: I don’t know how to do that without giving up on the ideas I have in my head. To make these last two films, Old and Knock on the cabin, I had to push the next movies down a bit and now I’m backordered. I have three movie ideas that I’m dying to make happen.
I was afraid there was an expiration date on them which meant they wouldn’t represent me. But Split persuaded me. When I did Split, whatever it was, 19 years after I got the idea, it just came out in my new version. I realized, “Compelling ideas are fascinating ideas, and they will reignite you in your new language wherever you are.” So at least I have some peace of mind about that.
But no, I’m not really excited about (sequels). In fact, the thing that usually attracts people to sequels is exactly what turns me off, namely the safety of it. I just…ugh. And even if I was talking to myself, like, “Am I doing it because I’m going to make money or”—God, it’s so off-putting. For me, I want you to tear me apart. I want to risk everything – all the time. That’s the fun of being an artist and wanting to be a beginner every time.
AVC: Speaking of risks, this is a huge role for Dave Bautista, who is fantastic in the film. Was there a particular movie that you saw and said “this is definitely the guy”? What made you think this role was for him?
MNS: Blade Runner 2049. That did it for me. I knew it when I saw it; this guy was special. I wrote it down. Who is this? I looked at the captions and said, “I’ve got to remember this guy.”
I say this to everyone; your actions must be what you believe deeply. So Dave, making this movie, fighting to be in this movie, begging [director Denis Villeneuve] to be in that movie and then perform at that moment, he didn’t know it, but that was where his career was going to take off and be everything he wanted it to be.
This is another example, even for me, of making sure you know what you value. No matter how small it is, no matter what anyone says. “Why would you do this little thing in this little movie?” Well, you tell the world what you believe and then it comes back to you. And in this case, it came in the form of this story. There’s only one person in the world who can play him, a giant who can do 30 pages of monologues. And it’s like, well, who could do that? And that was David Bautista.