M. Night Shyamalan laughs a lot for a guy whose career trajectory hasn't exactly been on an upward slope lately.
While "The Sixth Sense" made his career, his last two films "The Village" and "Lady in the Water" have yielded diminishing (commercial and, in most cases, critical) returns.
The filmmaker's latest, "The Happening," resists any sleight of hand for a straightforward horror romp in the tradition of "The Birds" and "The Invasion of the Body Snatchers." In it, Mark Wahlberg plays a high-school science teacher leading a band on the run from some kind of airborne neurotoxin that short-circuits humans' survival instinct.
A paranoid thriller featuring wave upon wave of people killing themselves seems like an odd vehicle for a career comeback. But Shyamalan, 37, doesn't believe he ever went away. He's just "trying new things to nudge the box a bit."
"The man has an amazing confidence," says "Happening" co-star John Leguizamo. "And that laugh ... it cuts through every conversation."Here, in an interview that includes what some might consider spoiler information, Shyamalan lets his cackle fly while discussing the finer points of suicide, Applebee's and the end of the world as we know it.
Question: When Mark Wahlberg wants to prove he's normal, he sings the Doobie Brothers' "Black Water." Wouldn't that just rile them up more?
Shyamalan: (Laughs) What can I say? I'm a Doobie Brothers freak. I haven't been able to get that song out of my head since I was a kid.
Question: When you brought this movie to Fox, you assumed it'd be PG-13 like your other films. They encouraged you to push limits to an R. Any instances where you pushed too hard?
Shyamalan: Just a handful of things. You'll see them on the DVD. There's the scene with the guy in the lion habitat at the zoo. We shot him just getting mauled. But it was gratuitous. Other things were just too traumatic.
Question: How did you choose the suicide scenarios?
Shyamalan: I wanted to keep them very theatrical. Nothing mundane. I had a notebook full of: "Oh (shoot), we can do this." They had to be creative.
Question: There's the scene in the city with the cop and the gun and a resulting domino effect.
Shyamalan: That was fun. Each suicide scene had to have a new wrinkle to the horror of the idea. That shot was tricky because of the practical effects involved. Even something as simple as somebody falling on the street is hard. It's the street! It hurts! It's hard to get somebody to fall properly.
Question: It's also hard to make trees look spooky in the light of day. But just about the whole movie is set during the daytime.
Shyamalan: Isn't that wild? I like making things pretty to scare you. Somebody said the motive reminded them of "Picnic at Hanging Rock." That was outdoors and very eerie.Nighttime seems like the obvious choice, but I definitely prefer the quiet of an empty field, and there's something wrong in the corner of the frame.
Question: You've always had a flair for creating tension out of stillness, and you do that a lot here.
Shyamalan: That's what I loved about "Blair Witch." At the end of it, when you see the guy standing and looking in the corner. It freaked me out! That was so much scarier than seeing a giant witch or something.Who's making him do that? It's such bizarre behavior. It really stuck with me.
Question: "The Happening" will probably be seen as the latest pro-environmental broadside from Hollywood.
Shyamalan: In Europe, they all see it as an indictment of America and Bush. (Laughs)
Question: Does that mean Hitchcock was making a pro-birds movie?
Shyamalan: (Laughs) Hitchcock probably loved birds. Especially under glass.
Question: In B-movie tradition, you take some digs at the times. Out in the sticks, Wahlberg and friends stumble onto a new housing development called Clear Hill with the sign "You DESERVE this!"
Shyamalan: Those developments drive me crazy. ... everything is faceless and interchangeable.
Question: With an Applebee's around the corner for your dining pleasure.
Shyamalan: And that's sad. The whole idea of using the same designs, getting the same windows. It's all pretend.
Question: It's very pod people.
Shyamalan: "Invasion of the Body Snatchers" was a huge influence on this movie.
Question: Does the ending send mixed signals? Life goes on and yet ...
Shyamalan: I wanted it to feel like our characters had learned their lesson and had moved to the side of hope for humanity and a positive future.When I talked to the composer, James (Newton Howard), I told him I want him to score tragedy. It looks like it's all very happy. But, really, it's too late.
Question: And here I always pegged you as an optimist.
Shyamalan: I believe we are good, you know? In the movie, (the character) Mrs. Jones is wrong. you shouldn't be scared of everybody and think everyone's going to screw you. That's wrong. Open up. And Alma makes the reverse decision and gets more vulnerable. And yet it's too late.
Question: You mentioned Mrs. Jones. She's a piece of work. I love her first line in the movie: "I see you eying my lemon drink."
Shyamalan: I was going to put that on T-shirts for the crew. Just that word "lemon drink." You're like, "Oh (shoot). This lady has not seen 'American Idol.' "
Question: The coda takes place three months after the "happening." Why haven't more people moved to Iceland?
Shyamalan: (Laughs) That would mean people would have to believe in what happened. I still have conversations with people who don't believe in global warming.
Question: That's because you live in Pennsylvania.
Shyamalan: (Laughs) No. No. But people find ways to rationalize anything. In the movie, people would find a way to forget about it. "Nah. It was the government." "It's some hidden thing." The speculation would be enough for people to try to forget it all.
Question: So you are, in fact, looking to send a pro-environmental message.
Shyamalan: I keep on framing the film as a 1950s B-movie about a paranoia that exists right now on a dual level about the atmosphere of us being afraid of strangers and each other and also wondering if we've screwed up the environment. The report card is coming in, but is it too late?
Question: We haven't had too many of those B-movie paranoia thrillers lately.
Shyamalan: Yeah. I wonder what a 13-year-old in a mall is going to think.
Question: He'll probably be scared. Not about the horror but because you included a love story.
Shyamalan: That's always my movies. The 13-year-olds wish they were scarier and the 60-year-olds say, "Why is it so scary? That's the only thing I didn't like about it."
Question: But the old-timers will like "Black Water."
Shyamalan: Oh, they'll be singing along, man.