Your typical Comic-Con panel runs the gamut from a cast’s excessive back-slapping to moderators’ carefully curated questions which yield even more carefully worded answers from film/TV panelists looking to keep details under wraps.
On Friday, however, moderator Ryan Turek (Blumhouse’s director of development) ceded the spotlight to director/writer M. Night Shyamalan and producer Jason Blum, who engaged in an hour long conversation about their filmmaking process and their first collaboration, The Visit. The session at the Horton Grand Theatre, off-site from the San Diego Convention Center, was unusually revelatory.
The Visit, which is being released by Universal on Sept. 11, marks Shyamalan’s first return to big feature thrillers since 2008’s The Happening. While the director recently served as pilot director and EP of the Fox series Wayward Pines, that wasn’t one he hatched; as he described it, the show was “customized” for him.
Following the panel, there was a fan screening of The Visit at the Gaslamp theater, one of three screenings, which is unusual. Judging from the great reaction at tonight’s screening, Universal has nothing to hide.
Shyamalan and Blum kicked off their talk by explaining how they hooked up. Blum was dogging Shyamalan to team up on a feature project made by Blumhouse standards: Director’s visions at a low budget, with zero studio interference. “He would listen politely and hang up the phone,” said Blum. The producer even flew to Philadelphia to pitch Shyamalan in person at his studio. Blum soon realized why his pitch to The Sixth Sense helmer fell on deaf ears: “Because he was already making big budget movies and no one bothered him!” said Blum.
Shyamalan regaled the crowd with the story of how he’d made The Sixth Sense for $40M with director’s final cut, but voluntarily gave that up when Bruce Willis boarded. However, “Bruce believed in me,” said Shyamalan about the actor who lobbied on his behalf to Disney. Hence, “there were no notes and we made the film in isolation,” said Shyamalan, a spoil he reaped on his next two movies, Unbreakable and Signs.
A year after Blum’s overtures, Shyamalan called the producer last summer, asking him to see the $5M thriller he personally bankrolled and shot about two kids who visit their estranged grandparents for the first time, and learn that they’re far off their rockers. Shyamalan wanted Blum’s opinion on the fresh face cast indie; whether it was prime for a wide audience. The only star of note is Happyish actress Kathryn Hahn, and she appears in a supporting role.
Blum immediately embraced The Visit for its mix of scares and laughs. “There was a lot of humor in Paranormal Activity 3 and Insidious, and there’s humor in The Visit. It relaxes you and disarms,” said the producer. Humor puts audiences in a level emotional state, priming them for the scary moments which lurk around the corner. “It’s about the deterioration of these grandparents doing odd things. At the same time, the audience’s fear is inherent given their resistance to the unknown” said Shyamalan.
Shyamalan told the receptive audience he’d flown his assistant to Los Angeles with the movie, who’d faced various delays getting it to Blum, who had a finite window to see the film. The director was under the impression that he missed his opportunity. “I thought for a moment, the universe is telling me something,” said the director.
Blum responded, “I hope you didn’t think too hard.” Shyamalan received an enthusiastic phone call from Blum the next day, and the director’s assistant kept his job.
Both Blum and Shyamalan explained that the trick to making great horror thrillers boils down to the drama. Great scares won’t fly when the drama isn’t there as a solid bridge. Blum explained how Ethan Hawke can’t stand genre films. Blum sends the actor all of his scripts, and is typically turned down by Hawke. However, Hawke committed to Blumhouse’s horror film Sinister since it spoke to the actor. “It was about a guy choosing his career over his family,” said Blum.
“All of my films are dramas masquerading as genre pieces,” said Shyamalan. My films are also about family. Signs was about tragedy in the family, The Village was about what would you do to protect your family and in The Visit it’s about forgiveness of family,” said the director.
As far as balancing the laughs, Shyamalan explained that he had a rhythm in The Visit that was essentially “comedy scare, comedy scare. Then the laughing and the screaming — they get close together, until there’s a 180 and you’re laughing and screaming at the same time.” Blum asserted that The Visit is a thriller, not a horror comedy such as an Edgar Wright title. “That’s a very specific tone to strike and it’s virtually impossible to sell in the market. I think having humor in a scary movie is important, but you can’t keep someone at the edge of your seat. It’s hard to do well,” said Blum.
Shyamalan has always taken a delicate hand with comedy, in order to maintain the jeopardy in his horror thrillers. While one liners are difficult, comedy is typically welcome when it’s “character correct” said the director, “you can’t hurt rising the floor.” He recalled that during a preview screening of Signs, “everyone was laughing. It had a buoyancy vibe.” But then five minutes in, the humor went away, and the audience was looking for it; even laughing in appropriate sequences. “I had to go back and do things editorially,” said Shyamalan who said it took him forever in the editing booth to get The Visit just right.
Another stylistic feat that Shyamalan was able to pull off in The Visit — one which he’s been yearning to do for some time — is that he left the score out of the film. “It was always my litmus test of how confident you are in the film. Alfred Hitchcock’s Birds doesn’t have music, nor does The Exorcist except for the opening theme. It’s something I’ve always aspired to do. I love watching my movies without any music. Seeing The Sixth Sense for the first time was like watching an Eastern European film. In The Visit, the sound effects are the score,” beamed Shyamalan.
The director explained how he’s a big believer in marketing, specifically when it comes to the one sheet; for him there’s a clear correlation between box office. The Visit marks the third film that Shyamalan has worked closely with a studio’s marketing department following The Village and Signs. For Signs, it wasn’t about throwing stars on the poster, but crop circle images. “It was an event movie.” For The Village, it was the back of a red cloaked woman amid spooky branches. For The Visit it’s cross stitch imagery of a house, quite similar to the style of Fargo‘s original movie poster. “I cheated a bit on The Village, it’s 75% romance and drama,” said Shyamalan.
Though the film bowed to $50.7M, the director’s wife always reminds him that he would have been better off opening to $25M and potentially a bigger multiple (The Village ended its domestic run at $114.2M). “The right audience would have seen it with the right expectation,” said Shyamalan. The Visit one sheet cleverly reads like a Gremlins movie poster: “Grandma’s Rules: 1. Have a Great Time. 2.Eat as much as you want. 3. Don’t ever leave your room after 9:30 PM.”
Though he’s largely worked on big budget films, Shyamalan is a total fan of Blumhouse’s system. In fact, he praised it at CinemaCon back in April. The director explained that he had a shot at producing a movie that he watched when he moved into his new house. It was handed to him with an unflattering comment about the project. After watching the film, Shyamalan said his family “all held hands and went to bed.” The name of the movie? Paranormal Activity which Blum produced. “I didn’t have the tenacity or the vision to fight the fight. But you keep going,” Shyamalan told Blum.
Blum said one of the reasons why he built a low budget production company that gives director’s creative freedom is so that they’re not forced to make decisions they ultimately regret; that backfire in their career. “When you’re a director at a studio, you’re under enormous pressure to make certain edits. But then when the movie comes out and doesn’t do well, critics point out that part where the director changed the film (for the studio). When you give a director final cut, they’re able to recognize a good idea when it’s suggested to them more easily rather than have their defenses up,” said Blum who pointed to Hawke again. “Every decision he’s made for money, he’s regretted. When you make a decision based on money, it’s not the right one,” added the producer.
When a panelist asked the director about the onslaught of negative criticism he has weathered more recently, particularly with such films as After Earth, The Last Airbender and The Happening, Shyamalan responded, “It’s not my job to comment on the commentators. I can’t control how the universe plays out; only that which I have control over…How everyone responds to the song is not where I should put my energy. I become less focused on being loved, hated, success or money. What tortures me is when I don’t know how to frame the character properly. If I put my energy there, all the other stuff works out.”