Trying for a new dawn

The US writer-director has experienced extreme ups and downs over his 23-year career, with more duds in the last decade.

When he burst onto the scene with the superb supernatural flick The Sixth Sense in 1999, followed by Unbreakable and Signs in 2000 and 2002 respectively, Shyamalan was hailed as a film-making wunderkind.

But everything went downhill after that.

His subsequent works - The Village (2004), Lady In The Water (2006), The Happening (2008), The Last Airbender (2010) and After Earth (2013) - were ridiculed by critics and US box-office receipts were dismal.

Yet Shyamalan kept chugging on, and now he's attempting to regain some of his former glory with his latest offering The Visit.

"I don't put any thought to all the criticism," the 45-year-old told M over the phone from Los Angles.

"If I focus too much on the (negativity), it will be too time-consuming."He added: "I don't have power over how people feel too."

What he has control over is who his characters are and how their stories are portrayed.

"I always aim to write characters that are truthful, (whose) stories evoke feelings from me."

The Visit, which he also produced and wrote, is something people can relate to, he said.

"The ritual of visiting grandparents... we all do that."

Opening here tomorrow, the suspense thriller revolves around teenage siblings Becca (Olivia DeJonge) and Tyler (Ed Oxenbould), who visit their estranged grandparents Pop Pop (Peter McRobbie) and Nana (Deanna Dunagan) for the very first time.

Of course, things get creepy, the old folks start behaving strangely and the poor kids are left to fend for themselves.

"I had an idea for the story about 12 years ago," Shyamalan revealed.

IDEAS

"I usually write down different ideas in my notebook, and a few years back, I thought it was a good time to revisit this story."

The Visit, unlike Shyamalan's past big-budget studio works, is a "very small movie", and the US$5 million (S$7 million) budget came entirely out of his own pocket - specifically, from his After Earth paycheck, he said.

Choosing to work on a micro-budget meant he had to work fast - The Visit was shot in 30 days - something he learnt from working on TV series Wayward Pines.

Shyamalan, who directed its pilot episode, produced the 10-episode sci-fi mystery, which starred Matt Dillon, Carla Gugino, Shannyn Sossamon and Melissa Leo.

A tiny budget also meant he'd have no fancy production sets, resulting in a contained set, which was an abandoned farmhouse in Pennsylvania that's near his house.

In addition, less money equalled less star power.

Shyamalan relied entirely on new faces for The Visit, something he admitted was "scary, but excitingly scary".

While it was easy to find actors to play the grandparents - McRobbie and Dunagan are theatre-trained - it was harder to cast the child actors.

"I had to look all over the world for them. Thankfully I found Olivia and Ed in Australia after two to three months of auditions."

He said he was lucky to get Oxenbould, last seen in the title role of the 2014 family comedy Alexander And The Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day.

"Ed really has talent, he's so great and so funny."

He added: "It helps that his parents are actors as they can help explain to him further what I wanted, so it was a really great team effort."

Working with children is something Shyamalan enjoys, ever since he turned a then-11-year-old Haley Joel Osment into a star with The Sixth Sense.

"There's a lot of purity in children, and I love that and I want to capture that," said the father of three.

The main advantage of financing his own movie was that he could really be the boss and keep it "very original" and eliminate the need to "show (it) to other people again and again, and make changes to it".

Shyamalan found this style of independent film-making so enjoyable that he's already planning another.

"I love trying out different things...I'm almost finished writing my next movie, and I'm going to shoot it later this year.

joannes@sph.com.sg


This article was first published on September 16, 2015.
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