M. Night Shyamalan & Jason Blum, THE VISIT Interview
M. Night Shyamalan returns to his independent roots in “The Visit,” the terrifying story of a brother (Ed Oxenbould) and sister (Olivia DeJonge) who are sent to their grandparents’ (Deanna Dunagan, Peter McRobbie) remote Pennsylvania farm for a week’s vacation. Shyamalan teams up with Jason Blum, the producer behind such successful franchises as “Paranormal Activity” and “Insidious” who had been pursuing him for years to partner together on a project. Blum immediately responded to the drama, humor and scares in the film Shyamalan had written, directed and fully financed and felt it was a perfect fit for his first-look distribution deal with Universal Pictures.
At the film’s recent press day, Shyamalan and Blum discussed their creative partnership and the most surprising aspect of working with each other, why the scares in this film are deceptively simple yet terrifying and original, how the mock documentary style format gave Shyamalan new cinematic tools for keeping the audience guessing, his directing style, what he was looking for in his young actors, why he cast experienced stage actors for the grandparents’ roles, his collaboration with award-winning DP Maryse Alberti, how he recruited Oxenbould to shoot the chase sequence underneath the house, why he likes treating B genre movies like they’re A dramas, and more.
Check it all out in the interview below:
QUESTION: What was the inspiration for writing this?
M. NIGHT SHYAMALAN: Basically, when I’m writing something, I think about what is the subject of the piece. The subject of the piece is our fear of getting old, which is a variation on our fear of dying. I have to believe it’s a primal thing that we’re talking about, even though it’s fanciful and we’re doing it all in kind of a tongue-and-cheek manner. But what is the thing that makes it scary? What is the psychology behind it? I met my wife at NYU in an Abnormal Psychology class because I just love psychology and why we do things. What does the color red do? What is this? What does the camera angle do? All of that stuff. So that’s the primal thing of it, that we’re scared of getting old. Playing on that is a powerful conceit. (to Blum) I mean we talked a lot about that, that that’s what our [subject was].
JASON BLUM: Totally, yeah.
SHYAMALAN: My grandparents have passed away now. But my grandparents were classic Indian grandparents. My grandmother would put so much powder on her face that it was like a Kabuki play and she’d come down the stairs. I was like 8 or 9 years old. My grandfather apparently had no teeth because he would take out his teeth and put them in a glass, and then he would try to scare me with it. He was very mischievous, too. So then, I started to try to scare them when I was a little older. Now I feel bad about that. My parents, who are grandparents now, have not seen the movie yet, and I’m very nervous for them to see it. They’re going to see it at the premiere.
BLUM: Is that when? You’re really holding out on them.
SHYAMALAN: I don’t know what they’re going to think about the diaper and all this stuff. We’ll see.
Q: Did having the found footage format give you all new cinematic tools for the misdirects and keeping the audience guessing?
SHYAMALAN: We make a pretty strong distinction, (to Jason) if you want to talk about that.
BLUM: We do a lot of found footage movies and I really feel like this is very different. It’s a mock documentary and I almost feel like they’re opposite, because found footage is really purposely sloppy. The person documenting found footage has nothing to do with wanting to be a filmmaker. They’re amateurs and they’re catching things by accident. The lead of this movie is the opposite. She loves cinema and she’s making a documentary to bring her family together. I feel like one of my favorite things about the movie actually is that the shots are very composed and it’s not a shaky camera. It’s actually very far away from found footage, but mock documentary for sure, and shot by someone who loves cinema and is concerned with how it looks. (to Shyamalan) And I think that did provide a new way for you to shoot.
SHYAMALAN: I storyboard every shot of my thrillers in general. I draw them out and do them. The difference in this one is I had to put it in the screenplay, so it’s in the screenplay where the shots were. It’s like, “He picks up the camera. They leave it on the shelf. She is carrying it in as they enter the door.” That’s in the screenplay. As I was writing it, I was storyboarding it. And then, the really wonderful part about making smaller movies sometimes is that the limitations create opportunities. I know this is going to sound like pie in the sky stuff, but we can’t leave the locations much when you’re making a smaller budgeted movie. So, I found this farmhouse. I shot it in Pennsylvania near where I live. There was a farm that was going under foreclosure from a bank and I said, “Can I have this? Can I rent this from you for six months before you put a fire sale?” Then I gave them a whole spiel, “Once I make a movie there, you could sell it for more,” and all of that stuff. So they said, “Okay, okay, you can have it for six months.” So we had this incredible situation where I had the actual house where we were shooting through pre-production. I would go with the actors and we would rehearse in the rooms, on the stairs, in the kitchen, and I’d say, “You come around there.” Then, I would be there with the cinematographer or I’d sit there. There were a lot of times where I went to the house. It was really creepy actually. I would go to the house by myself and just sit there and think of the shots. It was different because I could really, really plan it out and think it through. This is where we want to tilt here. This is set off camera. All of those things. I would take copious notes on all of it. It’s how I like to make movies, but the challenge was to make it look like it was spontaneous.
Q: How restrictive were you with the dialogue? Was there room to ad lib?
SHYAMALAN: There was no ad-libbing dialogue-wise.
BLUM: That’s another bit about found-footage movies. On “Paranormal Activity” movies, there’s no script. It’s just an outline and then it’s all improvised. And so, this is really much more a totally different way to approach this kind of filmmaking.
SHYAMALAN: I don’t mind anybody suggesting. It has to earn its way in. But generally speaking, I have so much demands on them that they’re not thinking about being writers at all. We’re like, “Hey, that’s not where the character is coming from.” We give them a million suggestions and they’re trying to have it. And usually, if they add handles, it’s like “Um, uh, this…” or something, and I’m like, “Get rid of those handles. That’s just crutches. Get rid of that. Go right to the sale and go right to the line. This is why he or she said that kind of thing.”
Q: Did you allow the kids to shoot any of the scenes?
SHYAMALAN: Yes, there was one part that the kids shot. Mostly, it was our operator, who is a fantastic operator. I actually used the cinematographer, Maryse Alberti, who shot “The Wrestler” for Darren Aronofsky. It was actually Darren that recommended her, and luckily enough, she was available and wanted to do it. The kind of intimacy of the camera work was from her and the operator of how to portray, and when you’re holding handheld how not to feel like handheld. Don’t make it feel like handheld. This is someone who’s trying to make it beautiful, so they’re taking care to turn and hold it, all of those things. And then, like at the door, that kind of thing wasn’t intended so it’s where the intention is and the unintention and all of that stuff. We had one day that was a problem, which was the underground where grandma crawls. The camera operator was too big. He’s a grown man. He couldn’t keep up and go and crawl under there. In classic movie style, this is what happens on big movies all the time. The grips all got together, “We can figure this out, Night. We can make a contraption. Just give us 10 minutes. We’re going to make a contraption.” They made this mechanical thing, and of course, an hour and a half later, they’re trying to pull it, and it’s not working, and it’s tipping over, and we’re all sitting there, and I’m dying because literally one third of the day is gone. I look over and Ed (Oxenbould) is there and I’m like, “Ed, why don’t you just hold the camera?” and he was like, “Yeah!” Then, he just ran underneath like this. He was squatting and he ran. So, he did all the camerawork under the house. He was so proud that day.
Q: Both of the actors who portray the grandparents have extensive stage experience. Were you looking for people with that kind of background to create more dramatic, over-the-top performances?
SHYAMALAN: I try to take B genre movies and treat them as if they’re A dramas. Get the cinematographers, get the actors to do an A drama, but it just happens to be about aliens or ghosts or crazy people, or killers, or whatever it is. It’s that kind of thing. My directing style is long takes, and especially in this one, I had long takes. The longer take I can do, the more I can think of not doing it in cuts, the better. That requires that my coverage… Traditionally, coverage would be a close-up of Jason, a medium of Jason, a wide of the two of us. You cover yourself and then you figure it out in the editing room. I don’t really think like that. I don’t shoot like that. I choose whose scene it is. It’s Jason’s scene. He’s wondering, “Why the hell did I ever do this movie with this director?” He’s thinking that, or we had a big argument beforehand, and he’s covering it up, and he’s seething from what I just said, and he’s angry at me. So, what he thinks about you laughing at me is hurting him, or this or that, and he just wants to punch me. If that’s his point of view, I’m going to accentuate that. So, if you are laughing, it’s pushing in on him and it’s getting lower. It’s all about him. I’m committing to him as his point of view in this scene with all of us rather than coverage. That requires me, the only opportunities I have to adjust are this theater trained actor who’s used to getting up on stage every day and committing, doing a different performance at 2 o’clock, doing a different performance at 8 o’clock, and just committing and going, “Oh, I’m doing this angry. Go!” So, take 7, take 14, take 21, that’s my coverage. So, I need actors that are very versed in that style and they don’t start editing themselves. They don’t start questioning, “Can we do that again?” Because I do long takes, there’s a trust that happens on the set. So, if he and I are the actors, and take 2, take 3, we’re not getting it. I’m not getting it. I’m not there. And then, suddenly on take 4, I get it and I do something really genuine and truthful, it ignites him because he knows we’re tied. We’re inextricably tied together. Then he does something that’s very truthful. Then I’ll do it again. Then suddenly, you get that magic take like that. And theater actors know this intuitively. That’s how they know they’ve gotten magic on stage when everybody’s connected in this magic of storytelling. So, that’s kind of my philosophy. I love stage actors.
BLUM: I think the other thing that actually found footage and mock documentary do share is that you can’t have very recognizable people in found footage because, “Wait a second! How did Brad Pitt suddenly get in this footage that was captured by accident?” So, you really have to find people who are great actors but not recognizable, which is hard because most people get recognized when they become famous because they’re good at what they do. So, you’ve really got to find people who are great but haven’t been discovered yet.
SHYAMALAN: And so, the pool of world class actors that have done theater, there’s a higher opportunity of grabbing somebody from that pool. And then also, interestingly enough, the two kids are from Australia. It’s totally random and they’re from different sides of Australia. But that again makes sense in light of what Jason just said, because if you’re trying to find somebody that audiences haven’t really seen that much or is unknown, where are the biggest pools of untapped talent, so stage and Australia, that can do an American accent. I don’t know if you know this, but it’s easiest to go from Australian to American. That’s the easiest accent to switch to without losing your palette of colors as an actor. The harder that transition is, the more you squash your paint set of the colors that you can use. That’s why it’s very risky to do accents because you just keep on limiting. But Australian to American is the easiest transition.
Q: Your young actors capture the audience’s attention so well. Can you talk about finding them and then the excitement in seeing what they were able to do with the parts in the moment?
SHYAMALAN: I can’t take too much credit really for what they did because just being very, very lucky is part of it. I know it sounds weird, but making movies is an act of faith. When I write these characters, I just pray that these individuals exist in the world. I’m not looking for a 12-year-old Daniel Day Lewis who transforms from one role to the next. That’s not who I’m looking for. I’m looking for these kids to exist somewhere, that that’s who they are in real life and they’re going to do a variation on that for me. I need them to be super intelligent. There are like my criteria. I need them to be really smart because we’re going to talk like actors, the director and actor, and we’re going to get very deep about complexities, and I’m going to call you on it every time you do something that doesn’t defend your character. I use that term a lot. I go, “You’re not defending your character because you sounded like an ass right now. Is that what you wanted to say about him or her right there?” Then, their eyes go wide and I go, “We can try it again, but your choice was one where you weren’t respecting him or her.” It’s that kind of thing. So, you’re really talking on a certain level.
The other thing is I really require the families to be healthy, positive families, because literally they’re my co-directors with the kids. I just have them sit there. They don’t say a word. And then, I pound the kids about everything that I’m doing — the aesthetics, who the characters are, the process they need to have — and just so they hear it, because I know they’re going to get in the car and go, “Mr. Shyamalan said you need to do this. You better listen to him.” It’s that kind of thing. Then, if there is a problem where sometimes there’s a moment where I don’t have the vocabulary to speak to the kid… For me, I’m directing Jason in a scene. I say, “Jason, the character is this. He’s a producer and he does this.” He’s not getting it and I’ll keep on doing my analysis as I’m looking into his eyes until I see ‘click,’ and then I’ll go, “Roll camera.” I’m looking for the vocabulary to speak to him. Sometimes with children, I just can’t get there and I need someone who is a master of their vocabulary to do it. So, I will call the parent. Even on “The Visit,” I can tell you, there’s that intense moment with the boy in the kitchen where he releases it. It’s comedic, it’s scary, it’s emotional, all of those things, and I couldn’t get there to him. So, I called the mom in, and the mom was an actress. I said, “I feel like his humor comes from a guardedness,” which is what humor comes from. Humor actually comes from a dark place and we make fun of things. He uses it a lot to keep a little bit of a shield between himself and everybody else. I’m talking about the person. “And to get to the vulnerable part,” I said, “you have to let go of all that in this scene.” So, we reshot that end scene again but with the mom literally standing right there. I’m like, “I’m going to talk to you, and you’re going to talk to him, and everybody else is going to be really quiet. I’m going to say what the character needs, and you’re going to say it in Ed vernacular to him.” I could see it going like this to her eyes. She went click and then she would say to the kid in his mom-to-the-kid language and then his eyes would light up. I’d go, “Roll! Roll!” and then you’d get to this. But that’s like an emergency-like, pull-the-parachute kind of move. That happens like once a movie. You can’t pull that too much, because eventually that’ll get into the mom-kid relationship, but you can pull it like once.
Q: With the double camera documentary set-up that you had, how much burden did you place on yourself to try to make sure the focus on how you did it didn’t interfere with the audience’s experience of the movie?
SHYAMALAN: Well, it’s critical for me, because that’s all directing as well. In this case, as Jason has said, the camera is an extension of those characters. So, what were they thinking if the sister was trying to trick the boy in the closet scene? She set the camera up to catch this. It’s locked on a tripod in the living room staring at this closet. That’s all what happened. That’s what I would tell her would happen with her character. That’s all what would happen. It’s not added work. It’s the natural homework we would have done anyway. It’s manifesting in literal cinematography in this particular movie, but it’s the same practical homework you should do when you’re really digging into the performances.
Q: What was the first image that hit you from the movie?
SHYAMALAN: I believe it was probably Grandma in the rocking chair facing the wall. It’s actually from an Andrew Wyeth painting. He actually lived near me and there’s a sketch that he did of this old couple. I’ll show it to you. It’s beautiful. It’s a study or a sketch of an old woman with a rag around her head and she’s just staring at the wall. She was just thinking. I thought this was the scariest thing ever. I took it, I Xeroxed it, and I said, “This is what we’re making.” I kept that with the two-line summary of the movie and that’s what I had first, this old lady on a farm just staring at the wall in a rocking chair. That was a good question.
Q: With this movie, you went into a different mode of filmmaking, partnering with Jason Blum who’s a master of the low budget, atmospheric horror thriller. Was it a big decision to try something completely different and see if it would click back to the magic that you had with your early movies like “Signs”?
SHYAMALAN: This is what I feel, and Jason already knows this. I’m always a philosophical guy. Each movie is a new relationship. It really is. You have to start fresh each time. I can’t go, “Well the last date went really well, or it didn’t go well, but I was really funny on that last date, so I’m going to tell some great jokes on this date. She’s going to love me.” That’s a terrible way to start a new relationship. Or, “My last girlfriend, she always was on my case. I can’t believe you just said that to me.” That’s a terrible way because each relationship is brand new. But, I do feel like the best way – and I tell this to my kids – whenever I meet somebody, a human being, that is comfortable with themselves, their flaws, their arrogance, their love, their vulnerability, their fragility…if they’re just comfortable with themselves, with the whole totality of it all, they’re so amazing to be around. They’re an attractive person to you. They may not be the most beautiful. They may not be the most smart. But when they’re comfortable with themselves, with who they are, and they’re really okay with themselves, it’s like a light. And that’s true for artists as well. The second you try to conform, you try to be something else, you aspire to be something other than you are, your light diminishes. This is a Monday morning quarterbacking, philosophical thing I’m saying to you, but to go and make a small movie which never strikes me as less than. It’s not at all. It’s just the love of cinema and to be irreverent and funny and gross and emotional and dark as I am, and let that weird balance be me. I can walk away and say “The Visit” is 100 percent me. That’s such a wonderful feeling, and whatever comes from it comes from it, because how could the result be wrong? Right? Because it was me. So that’s kind of the philosophy. It’s really hard because even now, for example, I’ll just tell you honestly, as I’m finishing writing the next one, that hopefully Jason and I will do together, I’m like, “Is this as funny as ‘The Visit’? People were really laughing in ‘The Visit.’ I don’t think this is as funny as ‘The Visit.’”
BLUM: You’re out of your head.
SHYAMALAN: Yes! See, I’m already doing that. Already I’m not being myself. I’m already not being authentic. So, obviously there’s a different variation of me in this new movie. It’s a hard thing to not want to just be yourself. So, this was a version of that. Strip everything away and just have fun, and this was literally my funnest movie ever.
Q: As terrifying as this movie is, the sense of humor also worked really well. When I think of M. Night Shyamalan, I don’t normally think of comedy. Was it intentional for the comedy aspect to show up this frequently?
SHYAMALAN: I did a TV show this last year, “Wayward Pines,” and everybody is offering me TV shows and I want to make “Sex and the City” and nobody’s offering me that. That’s what I really want to make, but everybody was offering me sci-fiy, scary kinds of things. Me, in person, as a human being, I enjoy this balance. “The Visit” is a balance of who I am. I’m a little mischievous. I’ve had a couple of time where I wrote comedy. You know I wrote it in “Stuart Little,” which was a little more family-oriented movie, but there are signs that there was some comedy. Occasionally, I put in some things, but I’ve been enjoying making people laugh. I enjoy it and I hope to have that as a wonderful thread in the movies. I think it’s a great foil, don’t you think?
BLUM: I always think that the best scary movies or genre movies have a release. There’s a lot of funny stuff in “Insidious.” There’s a lot of funny stuff in “Paranormal Activity 3.” I always think it makes the movie scarier and more thrilling because it gives the audience a chance to relax and sit back and laugh, and then the genre aspect sneaks up on you again. Probably my favorite thing about this movie is that it’s got all the great aspects you hope for in a genre movie, but it’s also really fun.
Q: Night, I didn’t notice your usual director’s cameo. Were you maybe one of the guys on the cruise ship participating in the hairy chest contest?
SHYAMALAN: You know I so wanted to be in this one. This is the problem with being Indian. It’s hard to be one of the family members. Everybody is white usually. I was actually thinking about playing Kathryn Hahn’s boyfriend. In the original script, he comes back in the last scene, and I didn’t want everybody getting thrown off, so I didn’t put myself in there. But that’s a great idea.
Q: I think the pairing of you two has created a match made in heaven and I really hope you guys get to work together again in the future.
BLUM: Me too!
Q: For both of you, what was the most surprising aspect of working with the other?
SHYAMALAN: Wow, this is great. Well, we got over the whole awkwardness because we’ve had sex twice. We got over that. Here’s the thing about Jason. He’s like the perfect foil for me because he’s super inspirable. So, if I’m next to a partner, and I know there’s business, I know this is about art and commerce, and that’s always tough for everybody. It’s just so hard. We’re selling art and it’s just hard. I get it. You can go way over here and be like, “I’m the artist.” Or you can go way over here and say, “I’m selling out.” But that’s hard. And to have a partner that’s advising me on the business side but all he cares about is being inspired, that makes me feel safe. I know he won’t betray the individuality of the movie. Like that’s all he cares about. He’s the champion of those movies that other people did not see would become something that are universal in their reach. I really look to Jason. I’m super confident about creative stuff, and I’m really not confident about human interactions stuff, and he’s very good at it. He’ll always be like, “It’s gonna be alright. Let’s just do this.” So, it’s just been a really wonderful pairing. (to Blum) You can talk about how we first met.
BLUM: I’ve always obviously been a huge fan of Night’s movies. Three or four years ago, I started calling him and saying, “We have this low budget system. We make low budget movies.” He was really polite and listened, but he always played his cards very close to his vest.
SHYAMALAN: Wait! Let’s put a pause there. This is to tell you how insecure I am. He comes to my house…
BLUM: Yeah. Not only did I phone, I actually went to Philadelphia.
SHYAMALAN: He flew to Philly, sat down at my table, and was telling me about all the merits of making this small movie and not taking any money. I was like, “You don’t take any money. I got that part.” He’s sitting there and he had a hole in his sweater. It was just this hole in his sweater, and all I was fixated on was the hole because I’m a director. This means something. It’s a hole in his sweater. “How can this guy…?” And this guy looked exhausted. “He’s exhausted and he can’t buy a new sweater.” Everything that he was saying I was just staring at this hole in his sweater.
BLUM: I wore the wrong sweater, but I kept going over. I think one of my favorite things about making low budget movies is that when you get into expensive moviemaking territory, it’s almost impossible not to reverse engineer the movies. It’s irresponsible not to think about the result and the financial result. But when you make low budget movies, you can put that out of your head. I always encourage directors, and Night just said this before, if you start thinking, “This is what happened to my last four movies and then my other movies before that…,” it’s suffocating. So, one of the reasons I really love low budget filmmaking is you don’t have to think about that as much. You can have more fun and be more playful and be freer creatively. Anyway, I pitched our process and I pitched a longer version of what I just said now to Night a bunch of times with my holey sweater. Then, I didn’t hear from him for a while and then I got a call. This is about a year ago and he said, “Jason, I heard everything that you said and I did it.” And I said, “What do you mean?” And he said, “Well I made the movie.” And I said, “But you didn’t call me. We didn’t talk about it.” He said, “I know. I did it all by myself,” which, to me, was terrific. It’s the best version of what I said. I said, “That’s so cool.” He said, “I’m calling you to show it to you. I want you to see the movie.” So, I saw it and I loved it.
SHYAMALAN: He saw a rough cut version.
BLUM: I saw a rough cut version and we’ve obviously worked on it. I think, to answer your question specifically, we’d obviously met a bunch of times, but we hadn’t really worked together until we started working on the movie together. I was intimidated by Night and I’d always heard he has a very specific point of view. I think there have been a lot of terrific things that have come out of our relationship over that last 12 or 13 months, but the best one is it’s been so collaborative. I won’t always agree, but every single comment and every time we have a conversation, he says, “Wait, wait! Tell me more. Tell me more.” And it’s really fun. Some directors that we work with are like that and some aren’t, but it’s really fun when someone is as collaborative as that and really wants to hear ideas and our point of view, and we’ve had a very healthy dialogue. As a producer, that’s a very satisfying, fun thing. So, that’s been the best thing for me.
“The Visit” opens in theaters on September 11th.