Sixth Sense director M Night Shyamalan was joined by Sherlock and Doctor Who showrunner Steven Moffat, BBC Worldwide exec producer of The Refugees Ben Donald and Intruders showrunner Glen Morgan today at Mipcom for a chat about the perception of sci-fi and moving from film to television. Shyamalan, who is working in television for the first time with Fox’s event series Wayward Pines, said the experience taught him a lot. “I’m super precious, and probably in a very bad way, with my thrillers – no one changes a word, every shot is designed and that’s positive up to a point. Then when we were doing this, these guys move so fast. It’s unreal how fast you guys move and how much material you guys have to master,” he said to his co-panelists. “It made me less precious on the set… It loosened me up… As a filmmaker, you get a lot of bad habits creep in and you don’t realize — your posture starts slouching and you don’t realize you’re slouching until someone forces you. For me it was a great process.”
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Shyamalan and the others pondered the question of when sci-fi became cool on TV and in film given how cardboard and quirky it all once seemed with shows like The Twilight Zone and Star Trek. Talking about how the climate has changed, Shyamalan explained that when he was making Unbreakable, he distinctly remembered that the marketing conversations went like this: “We can’t mention this is a comic book movie because that’s just geeks.” He said that was the problem with the film, “It was about comic books which was so limiting.” At that time the so-called geeks “were so fringe” and didn’t have economic power. “Can you believe what’s happened to everything since then?” he said. “I think literally with the internet, they were given the keys to the kingdom and they used to be fringe and now they’re the doorkeepers to everything.”
Intruders’ Glen Morgan, who is an X-Files veteran, said that when he started out on 21 Jump Street, U.S. primetime was “cop shows and lawyer shows. The Twilight Zone had been successful and Star Trek had been very successful and even after Star Wars there was still hesitation. The X-Files filled a hole. So the audience has always wanted it. You just had (at the time) a generation of studio heads and people that greenlit projects that were just uncomfortable with the geek thing. And now the guys who are pushing the buttons grew up on X-Files and Doctor Who.”
It was suggested to Moffat that Doctor Who storylines are “preposterous”, but he countered they are “extravagant.” He elaborated, “Obviously we go hell-for-leather on the sci-fi fantasy aspect of Doctor Who because the main character lives in a telephone box that’s bigger on the inside and travels in time and can change his face whenever he’s ill – or the actor asks for a pay rise… The show has to match up to that. You can’t just introduce a character like that and then just have him teach in a school. It wouldn’t really work, would it?”
Why it works is “while it is fantastic and absurd and preposterous and mad, emotionally it’s quite grounded. It is frequently the intimate moments that make it connect with its audience.”
On changing the Doctor every so often, Moffat quipped, “It’s the best example of a recast ever. Not only do you change the lead. Each Doctor is quite different. We say the Doctor’s personality rearranges itself. That means Doctor Who can be a star vehicle and yet counterintuitively it can be a star vehicle for now 12 different actors. It’s a brand new show every few years.”
(Slightly off-topic but talking about Sherlock, Moffat said he didn’t have too many jitters about reintroducing a beloved character in such a modern way, but there was a moment when his new version of Doctor Who was about to come out in the same few months as Sherlock and he thought, “If I screw both these up, all I have to do is shoot Daniel Craig in the face and I’ve screwed British culture.”)
Turning back to Shyamalan and Wayward Pines, the helmer said it was the humor that really drew him to it. Footage from the David Lynch-esque series which will air in 2015 was shown and there is indeed dark humor. Shyamalan admitted he secretly wants to make comedies.
Looking at the other panelists, he said he had been trying to do television for a while, but “It’s very scary to me what you guys do. Since I was a teenager I’ve been making movies. I know how to do a two-hour (film) and in my head I can time it. In my head it becomes a mathematical thing. Sixth Sense is 107 minutes, Unbreakable is 107 minutes, Signs is 107 minutes, The Village is 107 minutes. This is completely new math for me. I was terrified so I said no a lot. Any excuse to not do it. I was looking and this came as a pilot and I read it at night and closed it and I was like ‘as long as everyone isn’t dead, I’m very interested’.”
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