Early in After Earth, Will Smith’s character, Cypher Raige, is trapped on a spaceship while his son Kitai (played by Smith’s real-life son, Jaden) heads into uninhabitable territory to save them. As his sheltered child embarks on his trek, the father warns him: "Every decision you make is life or death."
That’s often how things can feel when one is at work in a creative industry, whether it’s advertising, television, or film. Rarely do those pursuits actually tempt death, but the stakes can be so high that total destruction seems imminent.
M. Night Shyamalan laughs at the notion that the dialogue he wrote might be a metaphor for the creative life. But speaking to Co.Create by phone from his home office on the outskirts of Philadelphia, Night—as he is called—gamely addresses how he copes when the stakes are high, how he kept his sanity when the media turned against him (indeed, as you may have heard, the reviews and performance of After Earth have left something to be desired), and what he does when he’s all alone writing.
"You try to know what it is you’re making," says Shyamalan. "You have to have clarity about that. What is the movie and what is the smallest budget that will be appropriate for that? That gives you some peace. When you’re not taking all of that into consideration, that’s when you’re in trouble. I try not to put myself [in a situation] that makes it too hard of a thing to pull off. We shot After Earth for a budget that was reasonable for this size movie—on the low end of what’s reasonable. That already makes me feel some peace." [The filmmaker says he cannot reveal the movie’s budget, but, "I’m proud to say it’s small-ish." Reports have the budget at $130 million.]
"If I can get 70 [million dollars] but I think I can make it for 45 or 50 [million], I’ll make it for 45 or 50. It makes the equation really good for everybody. I don’t let them spend more money. It gives me artistic freedom. I’m big on that. I don’t let them spend more [than I need]. There’s freedom in that. You can have a long career."
When Shyamalan first became known—for The Sixth Sense, Unbreakable and Signs—he was hailed by Newsweek magazine as "The Next Spielberg." It wasn’t long before those grand expectations were blown (see The Village and Lady in the Water) and the media turned on its golden boy. When asked how he dealt with that shift, Shyamalan uses a metaphor to demonstrate how he tries to distance himself from criticism. "Let’s say, for example, that if you’re a painter, you don’t necessarily get known while you’re painting your paintings," Your life as a painter, he says, is a personal one, a "journey about you and your feelings about the world. You’re striving for something authentic that connects to you. Then," he says, continuing the painter metaphor, "sometimes artists get known for a certain period in their lives. ‘Oh, your Blue Period, I love your Blue Period. Can’t you do more of that?’ " Shyamalan doesn’t have to say it: His "Blue Period" was his first three movies.
He recognizes that the nature of his work is different, but he continues to speak of it in metaphor: "Our paintings are out there the second they’re done. You’re in the spotlight." He pauses for a moment, as if to let that difference sink in, because he is eternally hopeful. "It’s become easier for me to think in terms of a body of work, someday you’ll want to come to the gallery and see all of them, see all the different periods. Then you’ll get a clear sense of the person’s life and what the person went through. That feels so good as a storyteller to be known as a storyteller."
As for how After Earth is an expression of Shyamalan, the artist’s, life experiences, he says that he knows well what it’s like to have a teenager and feel worried about "putting them out in the world. Are they ready? Am I helpless to protect them?"
Shyamalan’s mornings are devoted to writing. Once he drops his kids off at school, he gets some solitary time to write before colleagues—agents, actors, casting directors—start working across the country. "Most calls from L.A. don’t happen until after lunch, which is one of the great things about being on the East Coast. Hopefully, I get another hit at [writing] at the end of the day when they go to lunch."
But those calls can intrude. "It’s: What’s on the menu for the Blu-ray, or Do you want to read this script, or Do you want to fly to Japan to open this? They’re practical conversations, and each one will spark 10 ideas. But writing is intimate. You should have no editor there. It’s the thing that since childhood has made me happy. The moment you infect it, the moment you stain it with that thought, it [becomes] hard."
So Shyamalan’s computer in his office is for one use only: writing. He treats it as if it were an old-school typewriter. "I don’t use it for anything else. It’s sacred. If I’m checking to see what the Miami Heat scored, I do that on another computer, my laptop." He has even gone so far as to place his desk in what he describes as a "not-grandiose place. It’s not the focal point, it’s not the hey-look-at-me-I’m-going-to-write-now," he shouts. "It’s tucked in the corner with great humility; it’s almost hidden a bit. It’s a slightly private act. You can go online and see famous writers’ rooms, like Virginia Woolf’s. It’s so cool to see those. I used to have a desk facing a bay window overlooking a field and a pond. It seemed so right—that’s the way you would do it in a movie, but that doesn’t work. I can’t write like that. It’s too much like, You think you’re great, but the paper knows you’re not great. You’re just like everybody."
"You have to have humility, because as an artist the thing you need to have is empathy." Humility hasn’t always seemed to be Shyamalan’s go-to quality. Then again, proclamations like the one he made on Twitter while filming After Earth, in which he compared the unfinished film to Tree of Life and Jurassic Park, have been perceived as arrogant, but they could be posturing or just a bit of fun.
Regardless, the director uses a favorite author to explain himself. "One of my favorite writers of all time is Elmore Leonard. He’s a hero of mine; I literally flew to Detroit to meet him. I bring him up because I was just reading one of his earlier books, The Switch. [In it], he’s writing about a kid playing tennis. I played tennis as a kid; I don’t know if he did but he was describing my childhood exactly in those seven pages where he’s talking about him playing tennis. He’s talking about why I picked the strings, why I looked up at the sky when I missed the shot. He so empathizes with that kid. It’s so dead-on that someone who has never played tennis before knows what it’s like. That’s masterful writing. The great writers know how to empathize, and how can you do that if you don’t have humility? If you don’t judge the kid who’s throwing the racket because you understand where he’s coming from—you can so easily victimize yourself when you’re playing tennis because it’s one on one. [Leonard] has to understand that all human beings have amazing capacities; he’s coming from a vulnerable human place. He needs to empathize with that kid for me to care."
The phone call ends with Shyamalan reflecting on facing criticism and feeling like a victim himself: "I have a lot of perspective that if you’re true to yourself, it will probably work out well for you at the end of it all."
[Images courtesy of Sony Pictures]