On November 22 of this year, director M. Night Shyamalan’s genre-bending superhero movie “Unbreakable” turns 10. In celebration of this achievement, the filmmaker sat down at New York Comic Con on Sunday with MTV’s Josh Horowitz to talk about the lasting appeal of his sophomore effort and what it’s like to look back on it now, in this age of nine figure-budgeted comic book-adapted blockbusters.
“The idea that we didn’t sell the movie on, which I’m sad about in retrospect, is that [there’s] the only survivor of a train wreck who doesn’t have a scratch on him and a stranger taps him on the shoulder and says, ‘I think you might be a real-life comic book hero,'” Shyamalan explained in front of the hundreds of gathered fans. He vividly recalls his initial pitch meeting for the movie, where the idea was floated and shot down.
They told him, “We can’t sell this as a comic book movie,” claiming that the entertainment medium, which is right now as popular as it has ever been, was at the time best described as a “fringe” market. With Shyamalan fresh off the success of his twist-driven horror/thriller “The Sixth Sense,” the decision was instead made to position “Unbreakable” as “an eerie movie from the guy who made that other movie.”
In spite of the comic book thrust of the idea behind “Unbreakable,” Shyamalan admits that his goal with giving David Dunn (Bruce Willis) superpowers was to keep things “grounded,” to steer clear of radioactive spider bites and other fantastical origin stories. He asked, “Have you ever seen footage of Thai boxers kicking each other with their shins? And you’re like, how are their legs not snapping off? There has to be a continuum of what would break his bones versus what would break my bones. [So I thought] there must be someone at the far extreme of that who has no idea that he or she is at the far extreme.”
Shyamalan admits that he wrote the script with Bruce Willis and Samuel L. Jackson in mind for the starring roles of hero and villain thanks largely to his love for “Pulp Fiction.” “I was writing it as we were editing “The Sixth Sense,” he explained. Speaking to Quentin Tarantino at the time, he recalls telling the director “I’ve gotta get those two guys in the movie. They’re so cool. Could you call Sam and see if he wants to be in the movie?” Willis followed after that, a surprising move given the actor’s knack for comedy-tinged action roles.
“He’s a very risk-taking guy,” Shyamalan said of his “Unbreakable” star. “I hadn’t directed anything worth his effort when “The Sixth Sense” came up, but he immediately gave me his support.”
Shyamalan also commented on the film’s eye-catching color scheme. While Dunn and his nemesis Elijah (Jackson) are notably identifiable with specific, vibrant colors – green for the former, purple for the latter – much of the rest of the world of “Unbreakable” is presented in muted tones. “The theory on the colors was that the real world is muted, so we tried to make it as monotone as possible. And the comic book world that was underneath it all was all primary colors, big, bold colors. And as the world started to be uncovered you’d see those colors come to the forefront.”â€¨”Even David’s outfit started changing color,” he continued. “As he was kind of accepting this he went from a gray-green to a green-gray to green – it started to slowly change. We would even tweak the color a bit, the timing of it.” On the other hand, Jackson’s Elijah is a villain in purple from beginning to end. It’s his hair that stands out the most, however. “It was a straight rip-off of Frederick Douglass,” Shyamalan explained, eliciting a round of laughter from the gathered audience.
While “Unbreakable” opened with a relatively strong weekend at the box office and generally favorable reviews, it has long been a matter of public record that Shyamalan was not happy with the initial response to the film. “I guess the 29-year-old version of me was just hurt by the reception,” he explained on Sunday. “I didn’t have the perspective. If I could go back and talk to him, tell him about the complicated world that was ahead. I probably wouldn’t have reacted the way I reacted. But at the time it was confusing to me.”
Looking back, Shyamalan admits that he still thinks it’s a strong film overall, but there’s one thing he would do differently if he were making “Unbreakable” now. “There’s one aspect – I think I was a little bit morose as a human being at that time,” he said. “I think that just a hair, just five percent, I would’ve gone more to the line of tonality that the movie is also about a little boy who thinks his father is Superman, and this little boy is right.”
“The joy of the gift,” he continued. “Just five percent more. I believe that might’ve been in the core that we needed, just to broaden it just enough without losing the integrity of the burden [Dunn is dealing with]. To underline the gift just a hair.”
The strangest revelation of the talk was the admission that, in his dealings with composer James Newton Howard, Shyamalan hatched a plan for “Unbreakable” which would have resulted in a fundamentally different finished product than what we now see 10 years later. “Our first attempt on “Unbreakable” was as an opera,” he revealed. “I said [to Howard], ‘We’re making an opera. Let’s get opera singers – can you write an opera?’ We tried, but we both chickened out.”
Of course, the talk eventually turned to what’s next. For years, Shyamalan has been teasing the possibility of an “Unbreakable” sequel. He’s claimed in the past to be done with it, to have developed a story for it and most recently to have taken elements from that story for use in one of his Night Chronicles trilogy of films. Now Shyamalan, sitting before a room filled with hundreds of his fans, was put on the spot: what exactly is the deal with the hoped-for “Unbreakable” sequel?
He hedged at first. “I’ve never done a sequel. If I did a sequel, I would do a sequel that wouldn’t even feel like [the original]. I had an idea for a sequel but I know it would cause a reaction because it wouldn’t be this movie, it would be a whole different thing that I had in my head,” Shyamalan explained.
Finally he relented. “I’m thinking about it. My instinct is always counter to the system, but I was just listening to the music [before this interview] and was feeling so inspired by it.”