When M. Night Shyamalan was asked what the biggest plot twist in his own life was, he paused and thought carefully.
The answer, said Shyamalan, whose name has been synonymous with twists since his 1999 breakthrough, The Sixth Sense, was having come full circle: back to making films in his hometown of Philadelphia, back to the kinds of thrillers that in 2002 led Newsweek to label him “the Next Spielberg.”
“All I want to do is make thrillers,” Shyamalan, 48, said in a phone interview last week. After years spent making other kinds of films, he added, coming back to what he loved most had prompted a realization: “Wow, I had everything I wanted in the first place.”
It’s appropriate, then, that Glass, which debuts this weekend, completes another kind of circle. Riding high on the success of its predecessor, Split (2017), the film concludes an original superhero trilogy that began in 2000 with Unbreakable — a grim and deliberate origin story that arrived, perhaps, just a little too soon.
Conventional wisdom then held that an original superhero story wouldn’t sell, and Shyamalan has said that Disney, which produced Unbreakable, encouraged him not to market it as a comic-book movie — an unthinkable strategy today. (A harbinger of the culture to come, X-Men, released that same year, grossed nearly $300 million.) Unbreakable made money, but it fell way short of The Sixth Sense and failed to resonate the way Shyamalan had hoped.
Still, his instincts were ultimately validated: Spandex went mainstream, and Unbreakable, always a critics’ favorite, amassed a loyal fan base over the years, not least with the Comic Con set. Then Shyamalan surprised fans with Split: a horror-thriller sequel starring James McAvoy that took in over $278 million on a $9 million budget. After a string of critical failures including The Last Airbender, The Happening and After Earth, there was talk of a comeback.
That momentum also put pressure on Glass — which with its $20 million budget and long script, Shyamalan said, was the toughest film he ever made. Calling from Europe, he talked about the film and offered insights on the Unbreakable universe, and on whether he would ever direct a Star Wars film.
Following are edited excerpts from that conversation.
Q: When you made Unbreakable, the market for superhero movies was nothing like it is today. What do you make of Hollywood’s being so welcoming of them now?
A: It makes sense. I was happy to be in front of that and say, “Hey, let’s make a comic book movie, a movie about comic books.” And everyone going: “That’s a very fringe market. That’s not a mainstream notion, and regular people don’t go to see those kinds of movies.” And now, it’s ubiquitous.
I understand it. It’s a mythology that’s self-empowering. It’s gods among us. It’s stories of regular people turning into gods, essentially, in a modern vernacular.
Q: You were born in India, brought up Hindu, but attended Catholic schools. What is your level of spirituality today, and has it changed since The Sixth Sense?
A: It’s become more clarified in my mind. I think I would define myself as more of a believer in things now in the sense that, post-Sixth Sense, I have always been a believer in something. I just couldn’t put a more accurate label on it.
Q: You’ve been agnostic.
A: Yeah, I’m not religious at all. I have my issues with the specificity of organized religion and the tribalism it conjures, but I am somebody who really believes in whatever you want to call it, the universe and our place in it.
Q: When you’re around your family and friends, are you the comedian in the room?
A: Yeah, I’m the goofball in the room for sure. The place that I’m dead serious is when we talk about cinema. That’s the place I’m not a whole lot of fun to be around. If you’re going to watch a (bad) television show, you don’t want to watch that with me. You’re going to have a miserable time because I’ll be wincing and I’ll be commenting. For me, it’s an art form. Cinema needs to be honored. Those ingredients need to be thought of in a sacred way.
Q: Some of the narrative surrounding The Visit and Split characterized them as “comebacks” for you. Was that frustrating?
A: No, the journey isn’t really about what others are saying about you. It just can’t be. You’re taking all of your power away from you. That’s not where your energy should be. Your energy should be in the things that you have control over. And as a writer, you have control over a ton.
Q: After Unbreakable came out, you talked about how it didn’t connect with audiences the way you thought it would. Do you think it would connect better today?
A: I do think it would do really well today. It would’ve done even better when we first released it if we had really embraced that it was a comic-book movie.
Q: Unbreakable and Split had drastically different tones. One was a comic book movie and the other more a horror film. How did you merge the two for Glass?
A: Think of it this way: The tone of Unbreakable matches its main character, David Dunn (Bruce Willis), who has a kind of somber, introspective, slow-build realization. And then the main character of Split is the kinetic, pyrotechnic character that’s violent, scary, funny and weird — and threatening. That film has a very dark thriller, almost horror, vibe. And so it matches its main character.
And Glass represents its titular character, Mr. Glass (Samuel L. Jackson). He is very philosophical and playing a chess match, and he has a little tongue-in-cheek smile. So each movie hopefully represents its main character.
Q: Looking at James McAvoy’s character in Split and Glass, he kidnaps teenagers and occasionally eats them. Especially in Split, some of the scenes are quite gruesome. What kind of head space do you have to be in to create that?
A: I’ve been in more of a mood of doing more shocking things and juxtaposing that against the emotion or the humor of a sequence. It’s funny because I feel that the tones I was interested in, when I was thinking about doing the trilogy, are more appropriate in the movie theater now than they were in 1999.
I’m a big supporter of my characters. I really am devoted to them. They may do something horrific — but overall, I’m a supporter and very empathetic to where they’re coming from and why they have this behavior and where the trauma came from. As you’re watching Glass, you’re incredibly sympathetic to all of them, as you see the story come to its conclusion.
Q: After Split, there was criticism of McAvoy’s character from mental health professionals, saying that the portrayal stigmatized people with dissociative identity disorder. Was that fair?
A: That was a very minor thing. In fact, this would be the biggest mention of it in its history. It was like 1 percent of 1 percent of people even had that (criticism). And there was a huge positive reaction to it. Obviously, when you see Glass, you will see the incredibly positive portrayal of the character and the core character and the things that they suffer from.
Q: When you were making Split, did you have an idea of how you wanted Glass to end?
A: I did. I had a couple ideas about where the literal stitch line could be. So, I was toying with those, but really between the time when I finished Split and when it came out, which was about four months, it was in that period that I was writing Glass, and I was really homing in on the exact specifics.
Q: When Unbreakable came out, you said, “I had more control this time, but not the fun.” Did you have more fun making Glass?
A: No, I don’t have a ton of fun making my movies. I’m super stressed out the whole time.
Q: You have joked in the past about directing a Star Wars film, so let’s get serious. Would you like to direct a Star Wars film?
A: Oh, my goodness. I think it’s probably best if I, for the most part, just consider making original movies — trying primarily to maintain the cinematic accent that is most comfortable for me. There are filmmakers who don’t fit easily into a system, and probably I’m one of those. This sense of losing your accent is you lose who you are.
So I think probably that’s the best way to think about it for right now. But you can never say no about the future.