The Visit marks M. Night Shyamalan‘s cinematic return to tense thrillers. In the film, Becca (Olivia DeJonge) and younger brother Tyler (Ed Oxenbould) say goodbye to their mother as they board a train and head deep into Pennsylvania farm country to meet their maternal grandparents for the first time. While everything appears to be comfy and cozy, when night falls, strange things happen to their Nana (Deanna Dunagan) and Pop Pop (Peter McRobbie), and they discover a terrifying secret that may end up killing them.
We were offered the chance to sit down with other journalists to talk to the film’s director about how working with the concept of found footage changed his directing style, working with the young leads, the conscious decision to use theater actors over recognizable ones, and much more.
Geeks of Doom: M. Night, you didn’t have your signature cameo, what’s up with that?
M. Night Shyamalan: I so wanted to be in this. This is the problem with being Indian, it’s hard to be one of the family members, everyone is white usually, and I was thinking of playing Kathryn Hahn’s boyfriend. In the original script he comes back in the last scene, but I didn’t want everyone to be thrown off, so I didn’t do it.
Geeks of Doom: Did having the found footage format give you all new cinematic tools in keeping us guessing?
M. Night Shyamalan: We make a pretty strong distinction. I storyboard every shot of my thrillers in general, I draw them out, and do them. The difference in this one, I had to do it in a screenplay, for example: he picks up the camera, he puts it on the shelf, he’s carrying it in as he goes through the door, that’s in the screenplay. As I was writing it, I was storyboarding, and the really wonderful part about making smaller movies is the limitations create opportunities. I know it’s going to sound like pie in the sky stuff, but we can’t leave the locations much when we are making a smaller budgeted movie, and I found this farm house – I shot it in Pennsylvania near where I live – and there was a farm that was going under foreclosure, and I ask “Can I rent this from you for six months before you put it on firesale?” I gave them the whole spiel about “Once I make a movie there you can sell it for more” and all of that stuff. So they said yes. So we had this incredible situation where I had the actual house where we were shooting through pre-production, so I would go with the actors where we would go in the rooms, on the stairs, in the kitchen, and I would say “yeah, come around there,” and I would be there with the cinematographer. There were a lot of times where I went to the house – this is really creepy actually – by myself, and just sit there, and think of the shots, and it was different because I could really plan it out, and think it through like “this is where we want to tilt here,” “this is where it would be off camera,” so I would take copious notes on all of it, so it’s how I like to make movies, but the challenge was to make it look spontaneous.
Geeks of Doom: Did you allow the kids to shoot the film? How restrictive were you with them when they were holding the camera? Was there even any ad-libbing?
M. Night Shyamalan: There was no ad-libbing dialogue-wise. I don’t mind anybody suggesting, but it has to earn itself its way in. Generally speaking, there is so much demand on them, they are not thinking about being writers at all. Like “hey, that’s not where the character is coming from,” and we give them a million suggestions, and they are trying to have it. And if they add handles like “um,” “uh,” “this,” or “something,” I’m like, “Get rid of those handles, they are just crutches. Get rid of that. Go right into the line. This is why she said that kind of thing.” The kids did shoot one part, but it was mostly our operator, who is a fantastic operator. I actually used the cinematographer Maryse Alberti, who shot The Wrestler for Darren [Aronofosky]. It was actually Darren who recommended her, and lucky enough she was available and she wanted to do it. The kind of intimacy of the camera work was from her as an operator of how to portray when you are holding handheld how not to make it feel handheld, don’t make it feel handheld, and try to make it beautiful. So they are taking care to turn and hold all of those things. We had one day where it was a problem, where it was the underground where the grandma calls. The camera operator was too big, he was a grown man, he couldn’t keep up and go and crawl under there. So classic movie style, this is what happens on big movies all the time, the grips all got together and said “we can figure this out. we can make a contraption. Just give us ten minutes.” And they give us this mechanical thing, and of course ten minutes later they are trying to pull it, and it’s not working, and it’s tipping over. And we are all sitting down, and I’m like “I’m dying, I’m dying,” and of course 1/3 of the day is gone, and I look over and Ed [Oxenbould] is there, and I’m like “Ed why don’t you hold the camera,” and he’s like “YEAH!” And he just ran underneath, squatting, and everything. He was so proud that day.
Geeks Of Doom: So what inspired you to make this film? Did you have a fear of old people?
M. Night Shyamalan: When I am writing about something, I’m thinking about what is the subject of the piece. The subject of the piece is our fear of getting old, which is a variation of our fear of dying. I have to believe there is a primal thing that we are talking about even though we are doing it in a tongue in cheek manner. What is it that makes it scary, what is the psychology behind it. I just love psychology, “why we do things, what does the color red do, what is this?” all of that stuff. That is the primal thing of it, that we are scared of getting old. Playing on that is a powerful conceit.
My late grandparents were classic Indian parents. My grandmother would put so much powder on her face it would be like a Kabuki mask. My grandfather would have no teeth, because he would take out his teeth, and put them in the glass, and try to scare me with it. He was very mischievous too. So then I tried to scare them when I was a little older. But my parents now, who are now grandparents, who have not seen the movie yet, I feel nervous for them to see it.
Geeks Of Doom: I noticed that two of the main actors in the cast have had a lot of theater experience, was that your intention or did that happen on accident?
M. Night Shyamalan: Someone asked me how would I describe my movies, so I said someone taking B-genre movies and turning them into A-genres. Get the cinematographers and actors to do A-genres about aliens or ghosts or crazy people or killers. My directing style is long takes, especially in this. The longer take I can do, the more I can think about not doing it in cuts, the better. That requires my coverage like a close up of Jason, a wide of Jason, a combination of the two, you cover yourself in the editing room. I don’t really think like that. I choose whose scene it is. It’s Jason’s scene, he’s wondering why the hell I am doing this movie with this guy. We had a big argument beforehand, and he’s covering it up, he’s seething at what I just said. And he’s angry at me. So what he thinks about you laughing at him is hurting him, and just like that he just wants to punch me. If that is his point of view, I am going to accentuate that. If you were laughing, it’s pushing in on him, and it is getting lower, it’s all about him, so I am committing to him as his point of view as is seen in all of us rather than coverage. The only opportunities I have to adjust are these theater trained actors who is used to getting up on stage everyday, and doing a different performance at 2 o’clock, doing a different performance at 8 o’clock, and just committing. I need actors who are first in that style, and they don’t start editing themselves, they don’t start questioning. Because they do long takes, there is a trust that happens on the set.
Geeks of Doom: Tell us about finding your young actors, and the excitement in seeing what they were able to do in parts of the film.
M. Night Shyamalan: Partly I can’t get too much credit for what they did. Just being very, very lucky. Making movies is an act of faith. When I write these characters, I just pray these individuals exist in the world. I am not looking for a 12-year-old Daniel Day Lewis, who transforms from one role to the next. That’s not who I am looking for. I am looking for these kids to exist somewhere. That’s who they are in real life, and they will do a variation on that. I need them to be super intelligent – that’s my criteria – I need to be them really smart because we are going to talk like directors and actors, we are going to get very deep in complexity and call you on it every time you do something that doesn’t defend your character. I go like: “you are not defending your character because you sounded like an ass right now. Is that what you wanted to say about him or her right now? You weren’t respecting him or her.” So we are talking on a certain level. The other thing I require is the families to be healthy, positive, families. Literally they are my co-directors with the kids. I have them sit there, they don’t say a word, and I pound the kids about everything I am doing, the aesthetics, who the character is, the process they need to have. Just so they hear it so that when they get into the car the parent goes: “Mr. Shyamalan says you need to do this, you better listen to him,” that kind of thing. Sometimes there is a moment where I don’t have the vocabulary to speak to the kids. Sometimes I just don’t get there, so I need someone who is a master of their vocabulary to do it.
Geeks of Doom: With a double camera mockumentaries, how much of a burden did you put on yourself to make it seem like “They must have put the camera up on the tripod” because I know you can get lost very easily creating that experience.
M. Night Shyamalan: Well it is critical for me because that is all directing as well. The camera is an extension of those characters. What were they thinking as the boy was trying to trick his sister? It was not added work, it was the natural homework we would have done anyway. It is manifesting in literal cinematography in this particular movie. But it is the same homework you should do when searching for those performances.
Geeks of Doom: What was the conscious decision to go to do something different by working with Jason Blum (CEO of Blumhouse Productions)?
M. Night Shyamalan: I’m always a philosophical guy. Each movie is a new relationship. It really is. You have to start fresh, I can’t just go “last day went really well/it didn’t go really well. So I was really funny on that last day, so I am going to tell some really great jokes, so on this day she’s going to love me,” that’s a terrible way to start a relationship. Or: “My last girlfriend she was always on my case, I just can’t believe you said that to me,” that’s a terrible way. Each relationship is brand new. But I do feel like, the best way – and I tell this to my kids – whenever I meet a human being who is comfortable with themselves, their flaws, their arrogance, their love, their vulnerabilities, their fragility, their just comfortable with themselves, the totality of it all, they’re so amazing to be around. They are so attractive to you. They may not be the most beautiful, they may not be the most smart, but they are most comfortable with themselves of who they are, they are really okay with themselves, it is like a light. That’s true for artists as well. The second you try to conform, or try to be something else, or try to aspire to be something other than who you are, your light diminishes. To go and make a small movie which never strikes me than less than, just the love cinema, just be reverent, be funny, and gross, and emotional, and arc, as I am, and let that fear balance be me, because the one thing I can say when I walk away is that The Visit is 100% me, that is such a wonderful feeling. Whatever comes from it, comes from it, because how could the result be wrong, right? Because it is me. It is really hard because even now, as I am finishing writing the next one that I hopefully will do. It’s a hard thing to not want to just be yourself. So this is just a version of just strip everything away, and just have fun.
Geeks of Doom: This film has a great sense of humor, so when I see an M. Night Shyamalan film, I don’t think of comedy, I think of horror. So was that intentional?
M. Night Shyamalan: I did a TV show this past year, Wayward Pines, and it went well. And everybody wants me to make these TV shows, and I want to make Sex in the City. That’s what I really want to make, I want to make Sex in the City. But everybody is offering me sci-fiy shows. Me in person, as a human being, I enjoyed this balance, like The Visit is the balance of who I am, mischievous of who I am. I had a couple of times where I wrote comedy, I wrote it in Stuart Little, it was a little more family oriented. In Signs there was some comedy, an occasionally I put it in some things, but I have been enjoying making people laugh, and I hope to have that as a wonderful thread in the movie. It’s a great foil.
Geeks of Doom: The pairing of you two is a creative match made in heaven, and I hope you guys get to work together again. Can you tell us what most surprised you about working with each other for the first time.
M. Night Shyamalan: Well we got over the whole awkwardness because we 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 am next to a partner, and I know there is business, and I know this is about art and commerce, and that is always tough for everybody. It’s just so hard, we are selling art, it’s just hard. I get it. You can go over here and say “I’m the artist,” and you can go way over here, and “I’m selling out,” but it’s hard. 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, because that’s all he cares about. He’s the champion of all the other movies that people did not see that would become something that are universal, no pun intended, in their reach. I’m super confident in the creative stuff, and I am not confident in the human interaction stuff, but he’s pretty good at it. It’s just been a wonderful pairing.
But Jason not only called me, but he flew to Philadelphia, and talked to me about all the merits of making a small movie, and not taking any money. I got that part, and then he is sitting there, and he had a hole in his sweater. All I was fixated on was the hole in his sweater, because I am like a director. It is a hole in his sweater. He looked exhausted too. “He looks exhausted, and he can’t buy a new sweater?” Everything he was saying, I was just staring at his sweater.
The Visit opens in theaters on September 11.