M. Night Shyamalan explains the COVID-bubble production on his new movie, and why it's a good thing for filmmakers to be plagued by self-doubt.
In his career, Shyamalan has directed films like The Sixth Sense, Unbreakable, and The Visit, which have grossed over $3.3 billion. Not bad for an upstart “Indian kid from Philly,” as Shyamalan described himself in a chat hosted by NPR at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival.
No Film School was on hand to listen to this inspiring conversation about how to be a filmmaker. We’ve broken down some of the best takeaways, along with insight on how Shyamalan safely completed Old and Servant in the face of COVID-19.
Why it’s OK to have zero talent at the beginning (and there might be an obvious reason)
M. Night Shyamalan had a passion for filmmaking as a kid. However, the movies he made then were just plain awful. Like many kids at the time, he wanted to use his Super 8 cartridge to pretend he was part of X-men.
“The level of lack of talent shown in these pieces is staggering," Shyamalan joked. "If you’re looking for a morsel of creative instinct or originally, it’s void of those instincts. It’s me copying in the worst possible, ineffectual way. I was trying to make a Raiders of the Lost Ark and James Bond film. I was mimicking, not creating. It had none of the real joy. When I started doing original stuff, it was very different."
How to overcome self-doubt
"You don’t!” said Shyamalan.
“I have it right now in front of you. I just came from the editing room. I have all these issues. The voice inside you says, 'You’re not going to figure it out.' I’m supposed to write more of my next movie today. I’m scared to write it. Maybe I won’t be able to think of that thing [the script needs]. It's this constant battle.
"That is your plight. if you become a filmmaker, you’re going to wrestle with your demons every single day of your life."
If it sounds like a difficult struggle, know that Shyamalan says this is what makes you fit to do it.
“Self-doubt is what makes you a good leader. You’re able to interrogate yourself.”
How to balance the creative part of filmmaking with the business
Shyamalan balances writing and directing with less artistic parts of this art, like managing a production company and payroll. How does he maintain the right balance of those disparate elements?
“This is trial and error,” said Shyamalan. “I didn’t come out of the womb knowing how to do everything.”
Chief among what Shyamalan said were two rules that he has learned to follow.
“First, no dysfunctional geniuses.”
Second? The single greatest rule:
“Protect your process.”
For example, Shyamalan explained that he might get an offer to do an incredible project with a superstar. But he has to think about if it works for his sensibilities.
“If I don’t have the ability to iterate in a way that is safe for me… it’s a no. We heavily protect the process.”
Money is not the value system
“If you build the strongest connection with the audience as possible, money will come," said Shyamalan emphatically. "The stronger your voice is, the more specific it is—your blindspots are your strengths. It’s what makes you beautiful."
At the same time, Shyamalan discourages filmmakers from worrying about the opening night statistics, the critics, all the things that come after you make the film.
“It’s OK if you don’t make a lot of money. You can’t control a lot of things. The craft you can control… which is all about the character. Success is—did I bring them to life the way they were in my head, in my heart? That’s the metric of success.”
How Shyamalan was able to make 2020 his most productive year yet
“It was my busiest year,” said Shyamalan.
”We were the first movie in the world that started casting in the pandemic.”
According to Shyamalan, in 2020 he was able to find much-needed space to create. He thinks that this space is something that all artists or thinkers need to carve out—away from distractions. Living under the pandemic helped him find that.
He finished production on his new film Old for Universal as well as completed Servant for Apple.
How was he able to shoot Old, in the Dominican Republic, in the midst of the pandemic?
“My understanding of human nature is: I am not going to be able to stop the costumer from talking to the construction worker. But if I buy out everyone in a bubble. A true bubble, where for 8 weeks, you don’t leave, you don’t see your sister, you miss your daughter's birthday. The only way to do these projects is if everyone agrees to be in this bubble. So for 2.5 months, I didn’t meet a human being who hadn’t tested negative that week and was in our bubble. We made a movie and a TV show under those parameters. Some were scared to leave families, but they understood why.”
Do any of these kernels of wisdom ring true to you? Share in the comments.
And be sure to check out more free daily conversations with filmmakers throughout the 2021 Sundance Film Festival here.