Filmmaker M. Night Shyamalan and producer Jason Blum are, in very disparate styles, acknowledged masters of cinematic horror. But when they embarked on their first collaboration, did Shyamalan's highly polished, plot-twisting, suspense-driven technique ("The Sixth Sense," "Unbreakable," "Signs") mesh with the micro-budget, big-thrills, huge-grosses approach of Blum's Blumhouse Productions (the "Paranormal Activity" and "Insidious" films, "The Boy Next Door")?
"The Visit" is the first documentary-style creation from Shyamalan, who's enjoying a career renaissance of sorts with the success of his TV adaptation of "Wayward Pines," and the latest tweak on the "found-footage" genre so popularly employed in many Blumhouse chillers.
Following the journey of two camera-savvy siblings who visit their aged grandparents -- whom they'd never met before -- at their isolated country home, the film quickly takes on an increasingly disturbing and eventually downright menacing tone. "The Visit" is constructed soundly on the established strengths of both filmmaking forces, with a potent dash of dark humor on top.
Meeting with journalists to reflect on what promises to be only their first collaboration, Shyamalan and Blum seemed quite pleased with the result, and explained how they merged their styles into one cohesive, and terrifying, whole.
On blending the found-footage format with Shyamalan's style:
Jason Blum: We do a lot of found footage movies, and I really feel like this is very different. It's a mock-documentary, and I almost feel like they are opposite because found footage is really purposely sloppy and the person documenting found footage has nothing to do with wanting to be a filmmaker. They're amateurs and they are catching things by accident. The lead of this movie is the opposite: she loves cinema and she's making a documentary to kind of bring her family together.
So I feel like one of my favorite things about the movie, actually, is that the shots are very composed and it's not a shaky camera, and it's actually very far away from found footage -- but mock-documentary for sure, and shot by someone who loves cinema and is concerned with how it looks.
M. Night Shyamalan: I storyboard every shot of my thrillers in general -- I draw them out and do them. The difference in this one is I had to put it in the screenplay, so it's in the screenplay where the shots were because he picks up the camera, they leave it on the shelf, she is carrying it in as they enter the door. That's in the screenplay. So, really, as I was writing it, I was kind of storyboarding it. And then the really wonderful part about making smaller movies sometimes is that the limitations create opportunities.
I know this is going to sound like pie-in-the-sky stuff, but we can't leave locations much when you are making a smaller-budgeted movie. So I found this farmhouse. I shot it in Pennsylvania near where I live. There was a farm that was going under foreclosure from a bank. I said, "Could I have this? Can I rent this from you for six months before you put it up for sale?" And then I gave them the whole spiel of like, "Once I make a movie there you can sell it for more" and all of that stuff. So they said, "Okay, okay, you can have it for six months."
So we had this incredible situation where I had the actual house where we were shooting through pre-production. So I would go with the actors and we would rehearse in the rooms, on the stairs, in the kitchen. And I'd say, "Yeah, you come around there," and I would be there with the cinematographer, or I would sit there. There was a lot of times where I went to the house -- it was really creepy, actually! I would go to the house by myself and just sit there and just think of the shots. And it was different because I could really, really plan it out and think it through: "We want to tilt here. This is said off-camera," all of those things. And I would take copious notes on all of it. It's how I like to make movies. But the challenge was to make it look like it was spontaneous -- there was no ad-libbing, dialogue-wise.
Blum: On "Paranormal Activity" movies there's no script. There's just an outline and then it's all improvised. This is really much more a totally different way to approach this kind of filmmaking.
Shyamalan: I don't mind anybody suggesting [lines]. It has to earn its way in. But, generally speaking, I have so many demands on them that they're not thinking about being writers at all. I'm just like, "Hey, that's not where the character is coming from," when you give a million suggestions and they are trying to have it. Usually, if they add handles it's like "um", "uh", "this" or something. And I'm like, "Get rid of those handles. That's just crutches. Get rid of that. Go right to the salient. Go right to the line. This is why he or she said that kind of thing."
There was one part that the kids shot. Mostly it was our operator, who is a fantastic operator -- I actually used the cinematographer, Maryse Alberti, who shot "The Wrestler" for Darren [Aronofsky]. It was actually Darren that recommended her, luckily enough, and she was available and wanted to do it. The kind of intimacy of the camerawork was from her and the operator of how to portray -- when you are holding handheld, how not to feel like handheld. Don't make it feel like handheld. This is someone who is trying to make it beautiful. So they're taking care to kind of turn and hold it, all of those things.
But we had one day which was a problem, which was the underground where the grandma crawls. The camera operator was too big. He was a grown man. He couldn't keep up and go and crawl under there. This is what happens on big movies all the time. The grips all got together: "We can figure this out. We can make a contraption. Just give us 10 minutes. We're going to make a contraption." And they were like [makes mechanical noises] and they made this mechanical thing. And, of course, an hour and a half later they are trying to pull it and it's not working and it's tipping over. And we're all sitting there and I'm like, "I'm dying. I'm dying. One-third of the day is gone."
And I look over and Ed [Oxenbould, who plays Tyler in the movie] is there. And I'm like, "Ed, why don't you just hold the camera?" And he was like, "Yeah!" And then he just ran underneath like this. He was squatting and he ran. So he did all the camerawork under the house. He was so proud that day.
On finding the horror potential in geriatric characters:
Shyamalan: Basically, when I'm writing something I'm thinking about what is the subject of the piece? The subject of the piece is our fear of getting old, which is a variation of our fear of dying. I have to believe there's a primal thing that we're talking about, even though it's fanciful and we're doing it all in a kind of tongue-in-cheek manner. But what is the thing that makes it scary? What is the psychology behind it?
Actually, I met my wife at NYU in Abnormal Psychology class because I love psychology -- why we do things. What does the color red do? What is this? What does this camera angle do? All of that stuff. That's the primal thing of it, is that we're scared of getting old. Playing on that is a powerful conceit.
My grandparents have passed away now, but my grandparents were classic Indian grandparents. My grandmother would put so much powder on her face it was like a kabuki... and she'd come down the thing. And I was 8, 9 years-old. And my grandfather apparently had no teeth because he would take out his teeth and then put them in the glass. And then he would try to scare me with them. He was very mischievous, too. And then I started to try to scare them when I was as little older. Now I feel bad about that. [Laughter]
On turning to lesser-known, classically trained stage actors to drive the horrific elements:
Shyamalan: Yeah, someone asked me this morning to describe the films that I do. What is it taking B-genre movies and treating them like they're A-dramas. Get the cinematographers, the actors, but it just happens to be about aliens and ghosts or crazy people or killers. My directing style is long takes, especially on this one. The longer take I can do, the more I have to work on it with cuts, the better. [Typically] you cover yourself and then you figure it out in the editing room. I don't think like that. I don't shoot like that. I choose whose scene it is.
The only opportunities I have to adjust are this theater-trained actor who's used to going up on stage and giving a different performance ever day at 2 o'clock and at 8 o'clock and just committing: "I'm doing this angry," "Go!" So take seven, take 14, take 21 -- that's my coverage. I need actors who are versed in that style. They don't edit themselves, asking, "Can we do that again?" Because they do long takes, there's a trust that happens on the set because if he and I are the actors and take two or take three we're not getting there, but suddenly on take four I get it and I do something that ignites him.
He gets it because we're tired together. He gets something that's incredibly truthful and suddenly you get that magic take and theater actors know this. They know when they have magic on stage when everybody's connected in this magic of storytelling. That's my philosophy. I love, love stage actors.
Blum: I think the other thing that found footage and documentary do share is that you can't have recognizable people in a found footage movie. It's like, "Wait a second -- how did Brad Pitt suddenly get in this footage that was captured by accident?" You have to find people who are great actors, but who aren't recognizable, which is hard because most people get recognizable and get famous because they're good at what they do. You've got to find people who are great, but who haven't been discovered yet.
Shyamalan: So the pool of world-class actors that have done theater -- there's a higher opportunity of grabbing somebody from that pool.
On making key discoveries in the two young lead actors, Olivia DeJonge and Ed Oxenbould:
Shyamalan: I can't take, really, too much credit for what they did. Being very, very lucky is a part of it too. Making movies is an act of faith. When I write these characters, I just pray that these individuals exists in the world. I'm not looking for a young Daniel Day Lewis who transforms from one role to the next. That's not who I'm looking for. I'm looking for these kids to exist somewhere. That's who they are in real life, and they're going to do a variation on that for me.
These are my criteria: I need them to be super-intelligent. I need them to be really smart because we're going to talk like actors, director and actor, and we're going to get very deep about complexity and I'm going to call you on it every time that you do something that doesn't defend your character. I use that term a lot, "You're not defending your character because you sounded like an ass right now. Is that what you wanted to say about him or her right now? We could try it again but your choice was one where you weren't respecting him or her, so you're really talking on a certain level."
The other thing is I really require the families to be healthy, positive families. They're my co-directors with the kids. I literally just have them sit there, they don't say a word and I pound the kids about everything that I'm doing, the aesthetics, who the characters are, the process they need to have. Just so they hear it because in the car they're going to go, "Mr. Shyamalan said you need to do this." Sometimes there's a moment where I don't have the vocabulary to speak to the kid -- and sometimes with children I just can't get there and I need someone who is a master of their vocabulary to do it, so I will call the parent in.
Even on "The Visit," I can tell you there was an intense moment with the boy in the kitchen and it's comedic, it's scary, it's emotional, all of those things, and I couldn't get there to him, so I called the mom in, and the mom was an actress, and I said, "This is what I feel: his humor comes from a guardedness." You know, humor is actually coming from a dark place, and we make fun of things and so he uses it a lot to keep a shield between himself and everybody else. I'm talking about the person. And to get to bottom of that, I go, "You have to let go of all that in this scene."
We re-shot that scene again, but with the mom standing literally right there. I'm like, "I'm going to talk to you, and you're going to talk to him, and everybody else is going to be really quiet. I'm going to say what the character needs, and you're going to say it in 'Ed vernacular' to him." I could see it going like this to her eyes. She went click, and then she would [say it] in her mom-to-the-kid language and then his eyes would light up. I'd go, "Roll, roll," and then -- But that's like emergency, pull-the-parachute kind of a move. That happens once a movie, you can't pull that too much because eventually they'll get into the mom-kid relationship, but you can pull that once.
On the first horror image that arose that helped define the movie:
Shyamalan: I believe it was probably Grandma in the rocking chair facing the wall. It's actually from an Andrew Wyatt sketch -- he's an artist who actually lived near me, and it's a sketch that he did of this old couple. It's beautiful. It's like a study of this old woman with a rag around her head and she's just staring at the wall. She was just thinking. And I thought this was the scariest thing ever. I took it and I Xeroxed it, and I said, "This is what we're making." I kept that with a two-line summary of the movie, and that's what I had first, was this old lady on a farm just staring at the wall in a rocking chair.
On whether, after some of Shyamalan's recent films didn't connect commercially or critically as well as earlier efforts, the lower-budget effort was an attempt to significantly change up his approach:
Shyamalan: I'm always a philosophical guy. Each movie is a new relationship. It really is. You have to start fresh each time. I can't go, "Well, the last date went really well, or didn't go well, and I was really funny on that last date, so I'm going to tell some great jokes on this date. She is going to love me." That's a terrible way to start a new relationship. Or, "My last girlfriend, she was always on my case. I can't believe you just said that to me." That's a terrible way. You know, each relationship is brand new.
But I do feel like the best way is -- and I tell this to my kids, I tell [everyone] -- whenever I meet a human being that is comfortable with themselves -- their flaws, their arrogance, their love, their vulnerability, their fragility -- they're just comfortable with themselves. That holds the totality of it all. They are just so amazing to be around. That's an attractive person to me. They may not be the most beautiful, they may not be the most smart, but when they are comfortable with themselves, that is like a light. That's true for artists as well. The second you try to conform, you try to be something else, you aspire to be something other than what you are, your light diminishes.
This is a Monday-morning-quarterbacking philosophical thing I'm saying to you, but to go and make a small movie, which never strikes me as less-than, it's just love of cinema. And it's just irreverent and funny and gross and emotional and dark as I am. Let your balance be me. What I'm saying is, you can walk away and you can say, "'The Visit' is 100% me." That is such a wonderful feeling, and whatever comes from it, how can the result be wrong? Because it was me. Really me, and so that's kind of the philosophy. It's really hard because I'll tell you, as I'm finishing writing the next one that hopefully [Jason and I] will do together, there's this [little voice] "Is this as funny as 'The Visit?' Hmm, people really laughed in 'The Visit.' I don't think it's as funny as 'The Visit.'"
Blum: You've gotta get out of your head!
Shyamalan: Yeah. See? I'm already doing that. Already not being myself, right? I'm already not being authentic. So obviously there's a different variation of me in this new movie and it's a hard thing to not want to just be yourself. So, this is a version of just stripping everything away. Just have fun. It was my funnest movie, ever.
On upping the comedic elements this time out:
Shyamalan: I did a TV show this last year, "Wayward Pines," and [now] everyone's offering me TV shows. And I want to make "Sex and the City" and nobody's offering me that. That's what I want to make, but everybody's offering me, like, sci-fi-y, scary kind of things. Me as a person, as a human being, I enjoy this balance. Like, "The Visit" is the balance of who I am. I'm a mischievous kind of [guy]. And I've had a couple times where I wrote comedy -- I wrote it in "Stuart Little"; it was a more family-oriented movie but it was there. In "Signs" there was some comedy. Occasionally I put some things in there, you know? But I've been enjoying making people laugh. I enjoy it and I hope to have that as a wonderful thread in the movies. I think it's a great foil. Don't you think?
Blum: Yeah, I always think that the best scary movies or genre movies have a release. There's a lot of funny stuff in "Insidious," there's a lot of funny stuff in "Paranormal Activity 3." And I always think it makes the movie scarier and more thrilling because it gives the audience a chance to relax and sit back and laugh, and then the genre aspect sneaks up on you again. So probably my favorite aspect about this movie is that it's got all the great aspects you hope for in a genre movie, but it's also really fun.
On the surprising aspects of their collaboration:
Shyamalan: Here's the thing about Jason: he's like the perfect foil for me because he's super-inspirable, all right? If I'm next to a partner -- and I know there's business, I know this is about art and commerce, and that's always tough for everybody. It's just so hard. We're selling art, and that's just hard. I get it. And you can go over here and say "I'm the artist!" And you can go way over here and say "I'm sellin' out!" It's hard. And to have a partner that's advising me on the business side, but all he cares about is being inspired, that makes me feel safe. Like, I know he won't betray the individuality of the movie. That's all he cares about.
He's the champion of those movies that other people did not see that would become something, something that would be universal -- no pun intended -- in their reach. So Jason -- I really looked to him like I'm super-confident about creative stuff, but I'm really not super-confident about human interaction stuff, but he's very good at it. He's always like "It's going to be all right. Let's do this. Just put it out there." So it's just been a really wonderful pairing.
Blum: I've always been a huge fan of Night's movies and three or four years ago I started calling him and said, "We have this low-budget system. We make low-budget movies," and he was really polite and listened and played his cards very close to his vest--
Shyamalan: Wait, I'm going to pause there. This is to tell you how insecure I am. So he comes to my house. Flew to Philadelphia, sat down at my table and was telling me about all the merits of making a small movie, not taking any money. "Okay, we don't take any money -- I got that part." And he's sitting there and he had a hole in his sweater. Just a hole in his sweater and I'm like "This dude -- " And all I was fixated on was the hole because I'm, like, a director, right? I'm like "This means something, the hole is the sweater. How can this guy--?" You looked exhausted, too: "He's exhausted and he can't buy a new sweater." So through everything he was saying I was just looking at this hole in his sweater --
Blum: I wore the wrong sweater. But I kept going over. And I think one of my favorite things about making low-budget movies is that when you get into expensive moviemaking territory, it's almost impossible not to reverse-engineer the movies. It's almost impossible -- it's irresponsible not to think about the result, and the financial result. But when you make low-budget movies you can put that out of your head. I always encourage directors, if you start thinking about "This is what happened on my last four movies, and my other movies before that..." it's suffocating. So one of the reasons I really love low-budget movies is that you don't have to think about that as much. You can have more fun and be more playful and be freer creatively.
Anyway, I pitched our process and I pitched a longer version of what I just said just now to Night a bunch of times with my holey sweater, and then I didn't hear from him for a while, and then I got a call -- this is about a year ago -- and he said "Jason, I heard everything that you said, and I did it." And I said "What do you mean?'" And he said "Well I made the movie." "But -- but you didn't call me, we didn't talk -- " and he said "I know. I did it all by myself." Which to me was terrific. It's the best version of what I said. I said "That's so cool." He said "That's why I'm calling you. I want to show it to you. I want you to see the movie."
We'd obviously met a bunch of times but we hadn't really worked together until we started working on the movie together, and I was intimidated by Night. I'd always heard he has a very specific point of view and I think there's been a lot of terrific things that have come out of our relationship over the last twelve or thirteen months, but the best one is it's been so collaborative. Night doesn't always agree, but every single comment, every time we have a conversation, he's like "Tell me more, tell me more, tell me more." And it's really fun.
Some directors we work with are like that and some aren't, but it's really fun when someone is as collaborative as that and really wants to hear ideas and our point of view and we've had a very healthy dialogue. And as a producer that's a very satisfying, fun thing, so that's been the best thing for me.
"The Visit" arrives today in theaters.