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M Night Shyamalan
Antoine Doyen

M Night Shyamalan: ‘Writing is torture for me’

The writer and director of ‘The Sixth Sense’ talks about his new movie ‘Glass’, realistic superhero movies and cinematic universes

Helen O’Hara
Written by
Helen O’Hara

In his twenties, fresh-faced Philadelphian M Night Shyamalan was Hollywood’s sweetheart. He had smash hit ‘The Sixth Sense’ behind him and, like a fabulously haunting campfire tale, it wriggled under the skin of everyone who saw it. It was followed by ‘Unbreakable’, a riff on superhero movies that’s only grown in repute. Now in his late forties – though still fresh-faced – he bounced back from disappointments like Will Smith sci-fi flop ‘After Earth’ to register a hit with ‘Split’ in 2016. His latest, ‘Glass’, is the final part of a surprise trilogy that bundles ‘Unbreakable’ and ‘Split’ into a linked universe and brings together their three stars, Bruce Willis, James McAvoy and Samuel L Jackson, for a big showdown. It’s a cool notion,
if a bit complicated. We’ll let him explain.

‘Glass’ is a sequel to ‘Split’ and ‘Unbreakable’. How long after ‘Split’ did the movie take shape?
‘In retrospect, it seems inevitable [that it would follow ‘Split’] but that really wasn’t the case. “Split” had to be successful and then I had to get two studios to agree to do it. I wanted to do it my way [with a low budget] and Universal and Disney wanted to pay for it. There were a couple of seductive moments of, “Just take the money.” But when I do it this way, it weeds out people who aren’t passionate about the material. You go, “You’re going to get paid [a proportion of the box office], so if we make a great movie, we’re all going to win. And if we don’t, we don’t deserve to.’

‘I always start out questioning my validity as an artist and a human being’

Was it tough bringing these three characters together in the script?
‘It was not as torturous as some movies because I knew the characters. Normally, screenwriting is torture for me. I always start out questioning my validity as an artist and a human being [laughs]. Then I’ll write a line that feels good, and that will open a window. But this was different because I knew these characters. I couldn’t wait to write these scenes.’

Samuel L. Jackson, James McAvoy and Bruce Willis in therapy in ‘Glass’

It feels like the reputation of ‘Unbreakable’ has grown since it came out. Is that how you see it?
‘That’s my favourite thing about my movies: they have a good shelf life. For “Unbreakable”, we built every set to match my shots. It was extravagant: a mass-market art movie about comic books! But the audience ended up being confused because it’s sombre, the ending is the beginning, and a character they loved turned out to be bad.’

It’s surprising that there aren’t more films with such a realistic approach to superheroes. ‘Batman Begins’ is probably the closest.
‘And “Logan”. But it’s hard because most of them are adapting [comics]. If a character has lasers coming out of their eyes, that’s how it has to be.’

Is there a wider Shyama-verse? Is this set in the same world as, say, ‘Signs’?
‘There was a moment of mischievousness where I was thinking of making a reference to “The Visit”, but I was mature enough not to put it in. This isn’t opportunism; it’s a finish to the original story that I’ve wanted to tell. I’m not a sequels person.’

‘Glass’ is in cinemas from Fri Jan 18

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