M. Night Shyamalan Wants to Scare You Again

Shot locally on a shoestring budget with no A-list stars, The Visit is a risky return to M. Night Shyamalan’s indie roots — and may be his scariest film yet.

M. Night Shyamalan on the set of The Visit. Photograph by John Baer/Universal Pictures

M. Night Shyamalan on the set of The Visit. Photograph by John Baer/Universal Pictures

M. Night Shyamalan is sitting in an unfurnished dining room in Chester Springs, thinking about where the bodies will go. The house is someone’s recent heartbreak, a foreclosure situation; the bank owns it now. There may not be ghosts present, but there are certainly bitter vibes here in the winter gloaming. Shyamalan, who is renting the place for the next six months, isn’t thinking about the past, though. He’s busy conjuring up future phantoms.

Where will the girl be? How would she move? If the staircase is like this, do I see her legs move — and not her head?

The house is the setting of The Visit, Shyamalan’s 11th feature film (including his two pre-Sixth Sense efforts), which is opening this month. The movie represents a return to his spooky roots — Shyamalan promises it’s his “scariest one yet” — as well as his first step into risky indie territory.

Shot in semi-secret, with a small crew, no stars, and a budget of only $5 million funded by Shyamalan himself, The Visit is a serious about-face from his previous feature — the $130 million Will and Jaden Smith sci-fi disappointment After Earth. (The elder Smith told Esquire the movie was “the most painful failure of my career.”)

Forget high concept — the story of The Visit is as spare as a Grimm fairy tale: A pair of precocious children visit their grandparents for a long, wintry weekend. The grandparents are not what they seem. Extremely weird shit ensues.

Shyamalan smiles. “A lot of humor comes from — what the fuck’s going on? How would these sweet and wonderful kids react?”

And this Chester Springs house is at the heart of the film. “I had it for pre-production,” he explains, “so I would sit in the empty house and think about the shots, think about the movement, think about a scene at the dinner table.”

Having early access to a location is rare; usually, a director, actors and crew are allowed in only a few days (or hours) before the cameras roll. But of course, Shyamalan was footing the bill, so he could sit in that house for as long as he wanted.

This time around, his creative partner isn’t one of the Big Six movie studios; it’s Blumhouse, the production company behind micro-budget genre hits like Paranormal Activity, Insidious, Sinister and The Purge. They’re known for low budgets ($1 million to $5 million), short shooting schedules (20 to 25 days), and near-total creative freedom. It’s a liberating model that appeals to Shyamalan. The movie industry has completely transformed in the 16 years since The Sixth Sense premiered, and if Shyamalan wants to stay relevant as a storyteller, he needs to transform, too.

“The bigger the movie,” he says, “the more factors that are not about a character, a performance, a camera lens. The idea behind The Visit is to reduce it back to just those three things. Those are my gods.”

SHYAMALAN’S PRODUCTION OFFICE is a 100-year-old house in Media, situated at a bend on a woodsy suburban street. A huge stone fireplace with a generous hearth dominates the room. Copies of Agatha Christie and Elmore Leonard novels are tucked inside end tables. A manual Royal typewriter sits at attention, eagerly awaiting someone’s fingers.

Is this where he relaxes and thinks — or merely set-dressing for visitors?

“There’s always something in a room that betrays someone’s personality in some way,” he says, gesturing around him. “This is a reception room, so it’s not necessarily all me. But even the lack of clutter probably tells you something.”

Shyamalan, 45, is whippet-thin in a sheer white button-down and stylish jeans; he wears a bemused yet serene expression on his face. When something strikes him as funny, his laugh is siren-loud, almost high-pitched. He quotes poets and talks film composition, but also drops a Philly-esque dude or man at any given moment. He loves to eat, tucking into a lunch of mojo chicken with grilled limes, red beans and rice. When Shyamalan talks about a new idea, he’s as giddy as a kid.

“I can see the next three movies,” he says excitedly. “In fact, I can already see your reaction to these three movies, if we’re hanging out three years from now. You’ll be like, ‘They’re so different, but I get this period in your life.’”

You can’t help but love him for his enthusiasm. Shyamalan might be some film critics’ favorite punching bag — but goddamnit, he’s our punching bag.

The Visit, like almost all of his films, is set near Philadelphia, the city where his imagination still goes to play. “The people I love and respect,” Shyamalan says, “make art about their communities.”

But there is a downside to staying local. If you want to work in film or TV, everyone tells you, move to L.A. Like, right now. Hollywood is where you run into producers at parties or screenings or your kids’ ball games. People want to be in business with people they like, and it’s tough if you’re essentially a stranger parachuting into town two times a year.

Thanks to the overwhelming success of his earlier films, Shyamalan has been able to resist the siren call of Lotusland. He estimates he’s only spent some four to six months total in Los Angeles over the past 20 years.

“Because I was in control — at least, that’s how I perceived it — I just set my stories near my family so I could have a normal life,” he says. “Hollywood is an itinerant life. You go off for six months, have an incredibly intense experience, you come back, and your family doesn’t know you. So instead of typing ‘EXT. KREMLIN,’ you hold off a beat, then type ‘EXT. INDEPENDENCE HALL.’”

Still, the question looms: Has sticking close to Philly hurt Shyamalan’s career? When you play by your own rules, people sometimes want to punish you for it. Especially critics, who have whaled on his movies since Lady in the Water, which barely recouped half its $75 million budget in domestic box office in 2006.

“There’s a line from Rainer Maria Rilke,” Shyamalan says. “The rough version is something like: All forms of criticism are useless; art can only be touched by love. And that’s because you have to see its intention, its beauty, to have an effect on it.”

That said, Shyamalan admits he’s felt a bit scattered making his recent big-budget movies. The last time he truly had fun on a movie was Signs, back in 2002: “My headspace in general was not as minimalistic. And I love being minimalistic. I can hear myself better.”

What becomes clear is that for Shyamalan, the small scale of The Visit isn’t a desperate effort to stay alive in a tough industry. Hitting the reset button is something that’s been on his mind for a while.

“Have you read Andre Agassi’s autobiography, Open?” he asks. “When he hired a new coach, he went back to play tournaments at college. People would come and laugh at him. But he built himself up from scratch, just him and the game again, getting rid of everything else.”

Shyamalan’s point is clear. But another sports analogy comes to mind. Remember how in Rocky III our hero had it all — fame, riches, a cushy Main Line-ish pad — only to have his ass handed to him by Clubber Lang? The savage humbling forces Rocky to strip away everything and return to his roots. Apollo Creed takes Balboa to a seedy Los Angeles gym where he completely reinvents his boxing style.

As it turns out, Shyamalan found his own Apollo Creed.

FOUR YEARS AGO, producer Jason Blum took a train to Philly to sit down with Shyamalan and convince him to make a movie the Blumhouse way: creative freedom, tiny budget, and, if things go right, a huge return on that tiny budget. The studio’s Insidious, which cost $1.5 million to make, earned $97 million worldwide. The first Paranormal Activity cost about $15,000 and made $193 million worldwide.

Still, these were small movies — not at all what Shyamalan was known for. “He politely listened,” Blum says, “then sent me on my merry way.”

But the filmmaker wasn’t humoring Blum: “I really thought he had something,” Shyamalan says. After he’d made The Visit, he called Blum and told him: “I did it — what you said. Would you come see it?”

In those early days, The Visit had the working title of Sundowning, a reference to the psychological condition in which elderly people suffering from dementia can become confused or irrational in the evening. The idea is rich with horrific possibilities, the subtle psychological ones Shyamalan revels in — like the sight of an old man in a dark doorway. Blum saw the first cut of the movie and loved it. “I think The Visit is a cousin to his earlier movies,” Blum says. “It’s seriously scary.”

Over the years, Blumhouse has become synonymous with the “found footage” subgenre, which presumes that a) somebody’s cell phone was able to capture supernatural and/or earthbound mayhem; and b) audiences won’t want to throw up after 90 minutes of jittery POV camerawork. However, Shyamalan insists The Visit isn’t a found-footage movie — it’s a documentary, shot by the older sibling (known only as “The Girl”), a budding filmmaker.

“I make a pretty big distinction between documentary and found footage,” he says. “A documentary has artistic intention behind it, whereas found footage is grabbing shit, haphazardly. The movie is basically a documentary, made by a girl who has a great eye. She’s trying to make a beautiful movie about her estranged family coming together.”

Which brings up another big distinction between The Visit and previous films in Shyamalan’s oeuvre. “The Girl” is played by Olivia DeJonge, an Aussie actress who has none of the heat of, say, Jaden Smith, Shyamalan’s previous juvenile lead. In fact, the only actor you may have heard of in this film is Kathryn Hahn (Parks and Recreation; We’re The Millers), who plays the kids’ mom. If the trailer is any indication, the lone recognizable cast member is mostly seen through video chat.

Because Shyamalan ponied up the $5 million to make The Visit himself, Blum’s job was to help the director fine-tune the movie and release it theatrically. “I pride myself on not mandating,” Blum says, “and simply giving suggestions. We screened the movie, then tweaked and tweaked.”

Striking the balance between horror and comedy was difficult, Shyamalan says: “It took forever to get right. You have to hear a tone in your head, and you have to hold onto it through all the noise and the problems.”

Equally tricky is Blum’s deal with Universal. Producers have to make the case that a particular film is worth sticking in a cineplex — otherwise, it goes straight to VOD (or, worse, sits on a shelf in Blum’s house). Shyamalan and Blum insisted on showing The Visit to Universal in front of a live audience in the San Fernando Valley. It worked; the studio put the film on its fall 2015 schedule.

“The theatergoing experience is starting to get very specialized,” Shyamalan says. “Today, it’d be hard to convince a studio to make Terms of Endearment and put it in a theater.”

In Shyamalan’s mind, there’s only room for two types of movies in theaters these days. First, there are the tent poles — “where they spent hundreds and hundreds of millions of dollars and you’ve got to see every explosion, otherwise you’ll feel like you missed out if you’re watching it at home.” Then there’s the communal-experience movie — “and that would be a scary movie,” he says. Shyamalan promises you’ll dig The Visit if you watch it all by your lonesome. “But you’ll really miss out if you don’t see it with 300 people screaming, yelling, laughing and clapping.”

ON A WARM THURSDAY NIGHT in late July, the Philadelphia Film Society is screening the season finale of Wayward Pines, the surprise summer TV hit that Shyamalan executive-produced for Fox. (He also directed the pilot.) He’s here at the Prince Theater to listen to those communal gasps and screams, as well as to answer a few questions afterward. For the first time in a long time, he’s able to stand onstage and claim credit for a very successful production that’s earning high ratings as well as critical acclaim. (Eat it, True Detective.)

Shyamalan beams as he tells the audience he resisted TV for a while. “I was the runaway bride,” he jokes. “One of the last holdouts. But the show had a great idea at its center, and that felt like me.”

The Visit, Shyamalan says, was inspired by his time shooting Wayward throughout the fall of 2013. He name-checks Alfred Hitchcock, who worked his eponymous TV anthology show after a long run of traditional features. Hitch’s first movie after his TV stint? Psycho, which was shot on the cheap, using his television crew.

The audience is friendly and warm, and Shyamalan is charming and funny, aware that he’s playing to a hometown crowd. “So many things I want to tell you guys,” he says conspiratorially. “This is Philly, my family!”

Someone asks if this is Wayward’s season finale or series finale.

“I knew you were going to ask me that!” Shyamalan exclaims. After some tap dancing, he admits that it’s still up in the air. If the right idea presents itself to him and Blake Crouch, author of the Wayward Pines novels that spawned the series, then sure: “But I need risk. I need to feel like it could fail.”

Shyamalan follows up with an imitation of his father, complete with clipped Indian accent: “Son, why-didn’t-you-do-that-Harry-Pot-ter-mo-vie?”

Toward the end of the Q&A, the filmmaker is asked about “Shyamaween,” his annual charity ball. “Oh man, this is a serious party,” he says with a mischievous smile. “Not some Main Line thing. You come out to this, we’re gonna do shots!”

And the thing is, you believe him. You buy a ticket, and you’re going to be in a room somewhere with M. Night, downing Jäger together with gleeful abandon. It’s that communal experience he was talking about. This is the artist as showman, as Carnival Barker Supreme — a role he seems to relish.

BACK AT HIS production office, Shyamalan is in showman mode again, engaging in a bit of a performance — selling me on The Visit. With no major studio looking over his shoulder, Shyamalan says, he was able to create his film in peace.

“You’re not trying to win people over,” he explains, perhaps hinting at the ghosts of critics and Hollywood executives he’s worked hard to exorcise. “Your goal is to make one fucking great movie. Forget that — make one great scene. Make one great moment of dialogue. Make one great performance. You just focus. You have nothing else to worry about but this kid’s performance right now, or this line you’re writing.”

Shyamalan mentions one scene in particular as the single most shocking moment in the movie. As usual, he maintains some mystery and won’t divulge details, but he compares it to the infamous hobbling scene in Rob Reiner’s Misery. “No star wanted to do that scene,” he says. “But that scene is why we’re still talking about that movie 25 years later.”

Someone close to him read the first draft of The Visit and said, “No. You can’t do that. That’s crossing the line, man.”

Of course, Shyamalan kept his scene. Maybe that’s what he meant when he said I’d look back in a few years and understand how this film and the others he’s planning explain this moment of his life: a time when he’s reclaiming his art, stripping it down to its most essential elements, and making movies fun again, for himself and his audience. If that means doing an indie film rather than hurling himself into the churning gears of the big-budget Hollywood machine again, so be it.

“I made a crazy movie starring old people and little kids and funded it myself,” he says. Shyamalan compares this back-to-basics filmmaking experiment to being locked in a house much like the creepy foreclosure in Chester Springs where The Visit is set: “There’s only one way out: Make a great movie.”

Originally published as “Night Terrors” in the September 2015 issue of Philadelphia magazine.