The Personal Connection Behind M. Night Shyamalan's Constant Bruce Willis Casting

No matter what you think of M. Night Shyamalan as a filmmaker, the one thing you can't deny is the man has ambition. Do you know how talented you have to be when your first film ("The Sixth Sense") gets a Best Picture nomination and is frequently brought up in the conversation of the greatest twist endings to any movie? The big carpet pull is basically Shyamalan's brand by now. He shoots for the stars, and even if the film itself doesn't quite work ("Old"), or it's a flat-out disaster ("The Happening"), at least you know you're getting a major studio release that comes from a singular vision.

Of his 14-film oeuvre, "Unbreakable" is one of Shyamalan's greatest, if not the best, and my personal favorite. As a mythic subversion of how we view comic book superheroes, it's truly unlike anything we've seen within the subgenre. And as a general superhero movie, it's undoubtedly one of the greatest to ever do it. James Newton Howard's score is god-tier composing work. "Unbreakable" carries the same subtle weight and dread of "The Sixth Sense," with a shaken man grappling with his mortality, and the extent of which it can transform him into something greater.

We all now know that the ending to Shamaylan's 2017 film "Split" confirms that the film takes place within the same universe as "Unbreakable," which ultimately led to the royal rumble of "Glass." But despite the bigger universe stuff at hand, "Unbreakable" still stands as an excellent deconstruction of the modern superhero not only because of Shyamalan's empathetic precision to detail, but because of the man who's inspired him since the beginning of his career: Bruce Willis.

A friend

Whenever filmmakers talk about their inspirations for getting into the field, it comes from a reverence for the form and the talented folks who make movies feel so magical. One of the coolest things about M. Night Shyamalan is that not only did he envision Bruce Willis in his movies when he was very young, he manifested it by sheer will-is power (I'm sorry). While promoting the release of "Glass" for Tass, Shyamalan went further into detail about how much the "Pulp Fiction" actor meant to him:

"He was my hero. As a kid I had a 'Die Hard' poster up on my wall forever. And when I was writing 'The Sixth Sense' and there was this 'Die Hard' poster, I thought, 'What about that guy? He could play it'. He is from New Jersey, he grew up basically 30 minutes from where I live, so we were always from the same part of the world ... I owe him a lot, I owe him my career really, to be honest. No kid, who's 24-25 years old writes a movie and has a superstar say yes and then lets them make it exactly the way that they want to make it."

Good for him! The "Die Hard" series showed off Willis' toughened yet vulnerable personality, but Shyamalan's films showed a more subtle and soft-spoken side to him. The horror in Dr. Malcolm putting the pieces together in "The Sixth Sense" is still so heartbreaking. With "Unbreakable," the fear, panic, and love across David Dunn's face when son Joseph (Spencer Treat Clark) points a gun at him to truly test his superhero strength features all the hallmarks of a truly spectacular performance.

A hero, a brother, a father

M. Night Shyamalan continued to share in the Tass interview of the really sweet way he looks up to Bruce Willis, and the roles he plays in his life:

"To me, [Samuel L. Jackson] and Bruce are somewhere between a big brother and a father figure. They have that vibe for me, protector vibe when I think about the two of them. And I feel that way towards them, a little reverence, I feel that way about them."

His explanation makes so much sense when you look at how Willis is portrayed in the three films they've done together (four if you count the cameo in "Split"). He's positioned as Shyamalan's personal hero figure, a protector of sorts. Dr. Malcolm spends a majority of "The Sixth Sense" attempting to comfort a scared and confused child in the haunting world he's been thrust into. When you get to Dunn, the man is a modern-day superhero, but his strongest scenes involve the rescue of children, whether it be his own son from making a terrible mistake or a group of children at the mercy of a murderer.

I can only imagine how the pivotal moment in "Unbreakable" when Dunn overcomes his fear of water and steps out of the pool to James Newton Howard's triumphant score is how Shyamalan must see him. While it's a shame Willis will no longer be a part of any more projects due to his retirement, I'm glad he'll be able to rest now. I'll treasure the collaboration that brought Shyamalan to the screen to begin with.

"The Sixth Sense" and "Unbreakable" are currently streaming on Amazon Prime.