Originally published in Script Magazine Online in 2005 in a slightly shorter form here.
Below is the full article…
M. Night Shyamalan is the modern master of the high-concept thriller. He is also a mad scientist. A tinkerer.
With each new film, he’s gone back into his lab and concocted some new experiment in suspense storytelling. This is a screenwriter who has mastered traditional narrative and gotten bored with it, so he’s decided to consistently take chances with the form. From his sub-basement sanctum sanctorum, amidst the smoking beakers and jarred brains and that lightning-rod thingee, adjacent to the plasma screen playing non-stop Hitchcock films, he straps standard three-act structure down onto a slab of unforgiving granite and goes to work. With The Village he shocks his most bold experiment into life.
Shyamalan has always enjoyed playing the puppetmaster of our emotions. Don’t kid yourself — he may be fascinated with the retooling of narrative structure, but ultimately, he’s experimenting on us, the audience. Like Hitchcock before him, Shyamalan is the Great Manipulator. Manipulation is not a bad word to M. Night; rather, it’s his raison d’etre. He loves it, gets off on playing us like a marionette. And considering his four straight commercial successes (The Sixth Sense, Unbreakable, Signs, The Village), it’s safe to say we keep coming back for more.
We want him in that lab. We need him in that lab.
But with great chances taken, so comes the risk of great falls from grace. In other words, not every beat works, especially at a crucial point in The Village. Still, for successfully making a string of auteur genre films in the Hollywood studio system, for only writing on spec and directing only his own screenplays, we bow down to Manoj Night Shyamalan. We all work in the shadow of his dream gig, thus we can learn a little something from…
Shyamalan applies a number of general principles to each film.
All his films span approximately 100 minutes in length, from story start to story end (minus titles and credits). His narratives are structured in three 30-minute acts, followed by a 10 minute “Act Four” which acts primarily as a falling action. He always writes for a medium budget (in major Hollywood studio terms of budget), even when the subject matter would suggest a bigger film. For example, in Signs, there’s two reasons why this alien invasion thriller only contains a single alien: the first is so Shyamalan can withhold the alien to build suspense and for us to create the horror in our minds; the second is to keep the budget down. The consequence of this thinking is that Shyamalan keeps his stories contained – whether amongst a trio of main characters, in a confined farm house, or in a small village in 1897 rural Pennsylvania, he can escalate the conflict, tension and emotional attachment to our heroes that much more intensely with an intimate, as opposed to epic, approach.
He primarily writes thrillers, but the bulk of the scenes in his films are written more like those in a drama; he leaves out the action sequences, car chases, spacecraft landings, spectral ghost hauntings and shootouts that populate most thrillers. This may also relate to budget, or just his preference to write dramatic scenes, not action scenes. It definitely allows him to explore character and family dynamics over plot dynamics, although he still manages to drop in a solid framework of plot; in fact, one of his great skills as a writer is to hide active plot points within quiet dialogue scenes or seemingly mundane description. He is a master at knowing when to reveal tiny bits of information; this is only one reason why his films must be viewed more than once.
And he always keeps his pacing slow, deliberate; sometimes maddeningly so. But this aspect is more evident in viewing his films, the way he directs his actors in scenes, not so much in his scripts on the page, which contain enough active story beats to constantly keep us involved and turning pages.
Another hallmark of his films is that his third acts tend to be only 10 – 15 minutes on film, which is short, considering his screenplays tend to be longer. The 1997 draft of The Sixth Sense that I read on the job for Dimension Films was 127 pages, while the finished film was 100 minutes, or 100 pages (I daydream that M. Night cut the shooting script down after reading my coverage that suggested heavy trimming, but alas ‘tis but a dream…). The draft of Signs I downloaded recently from the internet came to 112 pgs. in MS Word but I don’t consider this reliable. Even so, if accurate, it’s longer than the running time of the film: 99 minutes.
And it should also be noted that Shyamalan always plays a role in his films; homage to the onscreen cameos of his hero, Hitchcock, perhaps?
So those are the parameters he consistently sticks with, but what truly sets him apart is when and how he takes risks…
Shyamalan’s boldest choices often have to do with the identity of the Protagonist, or “perceived hero” of the story. With The Sixth Sense we watch a ghost story for 100 minutes and are shocked to discover our hero is also a ghost; with Unbreakable we watch a superhero origin story for 100 minutes only to find out it was actually a supervillain origin story. Signs provides a more traditional Protagonist, but Graham’s (Mel Gibson) strong arc of change from angry atheist to believer forms the spine of the entire screenplay and builds up to the most surprising moment in the climax.
In The Village, Shyamalan actually borrows a page from Hitchcock’s Psycho when the initial Protagonist of the story is essentially killed off early on. In this case, Lucius (Joaquin Phoenix) is stabbed at the midpoint by the heretofore innocent “village idiot” Noah (Adrien Brody) — Lucius is not killed, but rather lay dying, and thus the unlikely blind girl Ivy (Bryce Howard) takes over as our Hero. Her mission, and the new External throughline of the second half of the film, becomes for her to leave the village, traverse through the untrod forest and get medicines in “the towns,” a location only seen by the elders of the village and only spoke of in harsh history lessons meant to scare children. Ivy may be blind but she’s quite capable of making it through a forest – the real threat is “the creatures:” razor-clawed, cloak-clad monsters who patrol the woods. So we not only have a new hero but we also have a new villain, Noah, who will contribute soon to the screenplay’s major misfire, as well as this foreboding, mysterious threat of the creatures which is expertly shown as an active source of conflict without being fully explained. Again, we see Shyamalan playing with the basic dramatic elements of the narrative, in this case our notion of Protagonist and Antagonist, subverting audience expectations not only through plot turns but at the most basic level. Now, let’s leave off from The Village, and pull back to look at perhaps the most basic of main dramatic elements…
At times, I’ve felt that Shyamalan was a slave to his explosive high concepts, even when they were eroding his narrative. Case in point would be those closing seconds of Unbreakable, when ELIJAH (Samuel L. Jackson) utters the words “They called me Mr. Glass,” and the film cuts to black. Well, that’s great that he’s gone to the trouble to give his supervillain identity a name, but I’m more interested in the hero of the piece and I want to see him kick some unambiguous ass once and for all! Specifically, I want to see the answer to the entire Central Dramatic Question of the film: “Is David Dunn (Bruce Willis) truly unbreakable?” This was launched right off the bat at the Inciting Incident when Dunn becomes the sole survivor of a train crash, coming out without a scratch. It seems fitting that the story should end on a scene of action that finally shows us the answer to this riddle and firmly establishes the true concept of the film.
Or does the concept for Shyamalan lie more in how he plays the puppetmaster? I.e., how to keep the audience riveted for 100 minutes watching the story of a real-life superhero gathering his strength to fight the enemy, only to have the rug swept out beneath them and find out this is only the origin story and they’ll have to wait for the *next* film, part two of this potboiler? Kind of…the ultimate act of cinematic manipulation, isn’t it? He doesn’t even bother to put a “Vol. 1” next to the title! But Shyamalan maintains there never was a proposed sequel to Unbreakable, it was written as a stand-alone film (and I choose to live in denial of such a statement. I’m still waiting for the announcement of that sequel…Unbreakin’ 2: Electric Boogaloo, anyone?)
On the Signs DVD, Shyamalan talks about his processs of choosing a concept to develop into a screenplay, saying that an idea must adhere to “8 levels of decision-making.” He continues, “An idea must have meaning, suspense, emotion, humanity, global significance, a universal message…touching on some connection between people…and also be a great roller-coaster ride all the same. An idea that can hold all that without bending it too far takes a while to come up with.” So the question becomes: is he bending his ideas too far?
The biggest structural experiment in The Village, the biggest of Shyamalan’s filmography, occurs on the level of concept. The film changes gears so abruptly it switches genres on us (for those who haven’t seen the film, probably best to bow out now, for fear of spoilers soon to come). For many moviegoers, this ending reversal didn’t work; they felt “cheated.” But Shyamalan supports it incredibly well in the film; where the story goes off track can be traced back to an earlier point…
END OF ACT TWO
Shyamalan encounters story obstacles at the end of Act Two, what Screenwriters and Readers know of as generally falling in the page 80-90 range. In my original coverage on The Sixth Sense, my only real logic problem came from this moment in the story: Cole, led by the ghost of a little girl, finds the videotape at the little girl’s funeral and gives it to the father; the videotape convicts the mother of the murder of her daughter. I noted that the mother’s motivation wasn’t clear; was it euthanasia or was this woman a flat-out psychopath? This ambiguity bothered me in a script that was so clear, especially with its powerful subtext of emotion. Upon watching the film, I didn’t have as much of a problem with this aspect, but one thing still stuck out: the family of the deceased girl are strangers. We haven’t met them before; Cole and we, the reader/audience have nothing invested in them. Although this scene functions ably as the means by which Cole and Malcolm both achieve their External goals, and Cole’s action to solve this family’s “problem” is focused on theme (“family communication”), it still feels like Shyamalan is reaching a bit too far outside the established world of the main characters.
Interestingly, I had a problem at this same juncture with his other three films! In Unbreakable, we finally get our would-be superhero’s act of heroism against a villain — the possibly unbreakable Dunn uses his newfound supernatural power (which is not related to being unbreakable; it’s a totally separate ability) to track down a psychotic killer — but this killer is a total stranger to us and Dunn, as are his victims…and we have nothing invested in him emotionally. Dunn overpowers the anonymous villain, and this display of strength suggests his skin may be impenetrable but it doesn’t clarify it, thus not answering that crucial Central Dramatic Question. Which would be fine, if the question was answered by the ending of the story…but it’s not. We’re left to wonder. And I can’t help but wonder if M. Night sits in his lab, stroking a phantom beard, laughing.
Now on to Signs, wherein the end of Act Two shows Mel Gibson’s son having an asthma attack and seemingly…dying? It’s unclear. What is clear is that they are in an extreme amount of danger as the house is besieged by aliens. So they decide to turn the lights out and go to sleep! This beat exists only as a motivation to cut to Graham’s dream, the flashback to his wife’s last minutes of her life, which will play a crucial part in bringing his arc to fruition and the plot to climax. When they awake the next morning, the boy is alive, it’s deathly quiet and they learn by radio that the aliens have retreated; it’s all meant to mislead us and them into thinking the coast is clear; but in fact there’s one alien left and he’s pissed! The ensuing climax works nicely, but the setup for it, the end of act two, is clunky. (And I didn’t even mention how when the aliens begin attacking the house, no one reaches for any kind of weapon in self-defense. I understand Graham isn’t the kind of man to own a gun, but they live on a farm — wouldn’t they have an ax or a rake or a disgruntled migrant worker to grab?!)
Back to Ivy’s dangerous trek through Covington Woods to fetch medicine to save Lucius’ life. At minute 66 she enters the forest for her journey; at 70, in the first of three big reveals, we learn via flashback that the legend of the creatures is a farce. Ivy’s father Edward Walker (William Hurt) shows her the shed where the elders keep the creature costumes they wear when they want to perpetuate the myth of the monsters and stoke the fear in the village. This is a nice reversal, but by 83, as we near the end of Act Two, Ivy is running in terror from…a creature! A porcupine-like monster in a dark cloak, it looks exactly like the creature suits we were shown earlier. The fake ones. Now, she’s blind so it makes sense that in only hearing the creature, she’d be terrified. But for us, we’re confused as Shyamalan is trying to sell us on a concept he just went to great pains to debunk!
It’s here where I think Shyamalan runs into trouble; he tinkers too much, attempts an experiment that cannot work. You cannot tell the audience the monster doesn’t exist, or rather, SHOW the audience that the monster is just a costume, then only a little more than 10 minutes later (or 10 pgs. of script) yell out: “I lied, monster’s real now!” At least, you can’t if you expect them to believe it. That’s going backward, and it’s an explanation, both of which are narrative anathema to the relentless push forward of a thriller. It’s inactive storytelling and against the logic of the film. And worst of all, it undermines the even bigger and better surprise to soon follow: no, not the revelation that the creature is merely Noah in costume (minute 87), which has no real significance to the story, but the big one, which first comes out at 91 when Edward opens up his secret box and reveals a picture of the elders that looks to be taken in the 70s: not the 1870s, the 1970s!
It’s not 1897, after all: it’s the modern day. The creatures, and indeed the entire turn-of-the-century village, was a farce, created to protect the younger generations from feeling the pain of loss felt by the elders, who all lost loved ones to violent crimes in a major city. Cinema’s ultimate unreliable narrator has lied to us once again.
Now, whether or not you predicted this surprise (and this may depend on your familiarity with The Twilight Zone, or even J.J. Abrams’ black and white Rod Serling tribute episode of Felicity!) , if you study the film you’ll see that it’s incredibly well-supported. But the problem is, the story is effectively over (well, there’s still Lucius to save but the “modern day” reversal is so huge it pretty much clouds over any other narrative concerns) and yet it continues to drag on. At the 91 minute mark, the close of Act Two, our new villain (Noah), like our old villain (the creatures) and original Protagonist (Lucius), has been taken out of the action, and our new Protagonist (Ivy) is left to battle a phantom Antagonist. But this is Shyamalan, he’s gotta have at least one more trick up his sleeve, right? And he does, but it’s merely an escalation of the previous beat and it happens only one minute later at 92! So if he’s going to salvage a third act, he’s going to have to stretch out…
Shyamalan never disappoints his eager fan base by delivering his trademark — yeah, he may deny it, but we know it and he knows it — it’s his trademark and it’s how he structures all of his scripts: the BIG ending. I don’t call it the surprise ending, because every good ending should be surprising, and this is too basic a term for his writing level.
In Signs, the Big Ending doesn’t change our understanding of the plot, but the function of the theme of faith. Graham has to believe first that his dying wife gave him the signs to defeat the aliens, and then he must follow her words. This leads to a chain of events by which they discover the method of defeat: water. And they save the life of Graham’s son, Morgan. Shyamalan expertly sets up the climactic method of defeat at the midpoint, when Graham scolds his daughter Bo about leaving her glasses of water around the house. This structural choice is echoed in The Sixth Sense — Cole’s second (Internal) climax comes when he finally tells his mother about his gift, by telling her the message from her mother, his deceased grandmother. The notion of the grandmother was first introduced at the midpoint, when Cole’s mother rebukes him for moving “grandma’s bumblebee pendant.” This sets up the emotional climax nicely.
Which brings us to the Big Ending in The Village, wherein he delivers his biggest doozy yet. Well, the creature’s pretty much out of the bag, already, but as said, there’s an escalation to the surprise that occurs at minute 92 when we cut to Ivy Walker coming in contact with a young man who looks to be modern day park Ranger driving a jeep that’s labeled “Walker Preserve!” We immediately understand that these turn-of-the-century settlers have been living on a pristine plot of land completely cut off from the modern world, and this preserve is kept secure by paid security personnel. And this works, but we still have looming questions (e.g., why don’t any planes ever fly over the village? who employs the Rangers?), so there’s a need for an explanatory epilogue, another no-no in a thriller. And thus, more need for that “bending” of the concept that Shyamalan tries to avoid. One wonders if Shyamalan had removed the creature fake-out scene at the end of Act Two, showed the big “modern day” reveal and immediately cut to black, perhaps to some end titles for a bit of explanation, if the film would have forged a greater impact (interestingly, this would have cut his onscreen role).
But Shyamalan the screenwriter is always conscious of lines of action and theme, so he decides to wrap up loose ends, which sticks out as the least bold choice in a risky script and ensures that the talky epilogue aids the deterioration of the impact of the Big Ending. (by contrast, The Sixth Sense’s famous ending is not an epilogue, but rather Malcolm Crowe’s active Internal climax: this beat shows Malcolm not only realizing he is dead but reconciling with his estranged wife. The film ends seconds later.)
There’s about 10 more minutes of story in The Village, in which Shyamalan the actor explains the history of the Walker Preserve and we see the younger Ranger steal the medicine to give to Ivy. The final scene in which the elders decide to stand with Edward and continue the legend of the creatures to protect their way of life, and Ivy returns to save Lucius, is done well; it’s not a scary ending, per se, as we had expected from the previously established horror elements, but it was definitely a chilling one that speaks to the damage of post-traumatic stress and the extremes of how a society’s leaders can use fear to control a population. Hopefully, this thematic exploration will prove to be the film’s legacy; I fear, however, that it will be that silly scene of the guy in a creature suit in broad daylight running after Ron Howard’s daughter, minutes after we were just told it’s a guy in a creature suit (why didn’t they shoot this scene at night so we could only see slight glimpses of the creature? It may have worked in scaring the pants off of us and saved the entire film.).
My personal feeling is that Unbreakable and The Village could have been two of the strongest 93-minute films of the past decade.
Shyamalan needs to find the courage to release shorter films — he can and should be the master of the 90 minute high-concept thriller.
With that said, in The Village M. Night Shyamalan manages to sweep that darn oriental out from under us, again, and pulls the biggest illusion of all — he changes the very nature of the film we’re watching. What we thought was a period horror film set in 1897 turns out to be a Science Fiction fable set in the modern day. And that’s quite an accomplishment. But, the question becomes: do we believe him? Does it work? Or does he need to get back in that lab?
That’s for you to decide. As for me, I can’t wait to see what he comes up with next.