m. night shyamalan career slump

Once, M. Night Shyamalan‘s name was synonymous with box office disappointment.

The horror director exploded on the scene with The Sixth Sense in 1999, and became known for his mind-blowing twist endings. He was on a roll for a while with Unbreakable and Signs, but then something happened. His movies began to get critically panned, and he became something of a has-been director — known for his cheap twists and shoddy plotting.

But Shyamalan has been quietly redeeming himself since then, most recently with the the surprise horror/thriller hit Split, through which Shyamalan is launching his own cinematic universe. In a candid interview about Split, Shyamalan revealed how he got out of that career slump and redeemed himself as a director.

Shyamalan isn’t under the illusion that his career has been all hits. After Signs, he directed misfire after misfire, from The Village to Lady in the Water and the meme-worthy The Happening. And there was the godawful movie that won’t be named, the travesty of an adaptation of the popular Nickelodeon animated series that was The Last Airbender.

In a radio interview on Sway in the Morning alongside Split star James McAvoy, Shyamalan gave an honest assessment of his career up until then and his failures as a director.

“When you think of artists and why over the course of their career — how come a songwriter doesn’t write a song that affects me anymore — what is that? What is that architecture of an artist’s life that causes them not be able to reach us? For me, this is all theory of this optimal moment of experience and instinct that happens, and it causes this electric moment and we hear them really beautifully. The way life is that experience becomes your expertise, and it becomes safety. You use your craft to kind of protect you, you stop doing the instinct thing.”

Essentially, because we had come to expect him to be “the guy with the twists,” so Shyamalan started to expect that of himself, and it became a storytelling crutch for him. When he realized this, he regrouped, stepping away from blockbusters — After Earth was his last one in 2013 — and going back to self-financed, smaller films.

“What I’ve been trying to do is become a beginner again,” Shyamalan said on the show. “So to do that, it was take away everything. I don’t have any money, I don’t have any trailers — just go tell a great story.”

He had his first surprise hit with The Visit in 2015, which was a found footage-style horror film with mostly unknown actors. Then came Split, which Shyamalan cited has a prime example of his new resolve to “not work with anyone I had worked with before.” The film had a cinematographer (Mike Gioulakis) with only two other films under his belt, and completely fresh composers and production designers. Shyamalan said:

“These are all young bucks who have never done anything before. They come and it’s all dangerous and instinctual, and I don’t have that. They’re bringing me back to that ‘gut’ [instinct].”

Now, Shyamalan has got his groove back.

The ending to Split was buzzed about for months afterwards, reinvigorating the Unbreakable fanboys who helped launch Shyamalan’s career. Now, Shymalan is launching his own veritable cinematic universe based off of Unbreakable, with a sequel titled Glass, set to hit theaters January 18, 2019 and featuring Bruce Willis and Samuel L. Jackson returning to their roles of hero and villain, as well as McAvoy’s “Beast” from Split.

With all the excitement and anticipation for this sequel and possible extended universe, I think Shyamalan’s slump is over. Though it will take me a while to forgive him for The Last Airbender.

See the radio interview below (remarks start at 12:26):

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