Born in India but raised in the posh suburban Penn Valley area of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, M. Night Shyamalan is the son of two doctors. His passion for filmmaking began when he was given a Super-8 camera at age eight, and even at that young age began to model his career on that of his idol, Steven Spielberg. M NightShyamalan is executive producer on Wayward Pines, a 10 part series on Fox Network, which is based on a spec script written by Chad Hodge (creator of the short-lived 1960s crime-drama series The Playboy Club) and adapted from the Blake Crouch book series. Wayward Pines airs on Thursdays at 8 PM Central on Fox. I was lucky enough to get to speak with him on a press conference call, here is part 1!
Q: How closely did you stick to the books? What did you decide to pull and how did you decide where you wanted to go with it?
Night: Yes. It’s an interesting anamorphous answer to your subject. The normal provenance of a project seems clear. We adapted it from a XYZ book and that’s the end of it. In our case, we had Blake’s first book, which was fantastic, and they wrote the pilot and the information from the first book was basically in the five episodes that you saw, maybe a little bit into the sixth episode that you’ve seen. The decision to basically get to the reveal midway through the season was something that I felt strongly about, and everybody concurred that we didn’t want to have more the traditional format of tease, tease, tease, tease and then at the very end tell you the answer, because I thought the answer was a very exciting world to live in. Subsequently, as we started to write episodes, Blake continued to write books. Book 2 came out well into our shooting and Book 3, so he started to evolve the world. So to some extent, we were parallel creating our world post Episode 5-6
Q: What turned you on to Wayward Pines in the first place? What made you want to do this project? What was it about it that turned you on?
Night: It’s a really wonderful question. I’ve been hesitant about doing things other than movies for a while and very tempted to do something on TV. It was a tentative ride, got to the altar a few times and found a reason to not do XYZ projects. I felt a little bit like maybe I will never feel the clarity of the decision that I feel when I do most of my movies, when I do an original that I’ve written – a thriller or something. I always feel a great clarity and a commitment to how I want to put in this time. I can’t wait to do this for the next year and a half to two years and I wondered whether I would have that clarity. Then just when I was doubting all of that—and it’s been a while, maybe a year and a half of trying to find something that felt right to start the journey in TV, and then the pilot for Wayward Pines came across my desk and I’m really, really lucky that it did and lucky they chose me as their first choice and just that they thought of me and it just fit so well with what I was interested in. I was interested in doing dark material and doing, for me, a dark humor attached to that material and certainly the pilot had that approach. As it entered this world of mystery and stuff and suspense it took a dark irreverent tone to it. If you’ve seen the trailer to my new movie for Universal, that also has very inappropriate dark humor throughout. I’m a big fan of that and I’m in that headspace, so this pilot really spoke to me and it was such a great puzzle and a great mystery. And, ultimately, when you find out what’s going on, I thought meaningful. So it was a really easy decision.
Q: What do you see as the drawbacks and the benefits of only having ten episodes rather than anticipating a second season or knowing you have to fill a full twenty-two episode order?
Night: There’s not a ton of negatives, I’ve got to be honest with you. You get a certain group of people that wouldn’t necessarily be interested in doing an open-ended longform type of storytelling like Matt Dillon and others that were willing do a project if I said can you come and work for X amount of months and do one season for me. That’s a benefit. The beautiful thing about TV right now is that the form is very pliable. When it was you had to do twenty-four episodes it was a tough thing to fit, and now it went to thirteen and then it went to ten and then you could do eight, like True Detective, and you could basically can do whatever the material dictates and that’s a very beautiful thing. Even as we were deciding what to do, the length of this was supposed to be—it vacillated from thirteen to twelve to ten, and ultimately the decision to not have any vamping episodes—that kind of what we all feel is the telltale trait that they’re running out of material is that if they’re getting repetitive or vamping and going to a side thing because they just need to fill space. You don’t have those kind of problems with a ten-episode series. So really wonderful positives on all fronts. I’m trying to think of a negative. If the negative is we love this show and want to continue it, it’s a decision that can be made in the future. But that wasn’t the goal. And for me, especially, being involved with the show it would be something that would have to be made later and not we have to hit this target and we don’t know what we’re doing for that target. So a lot of positives for this format. And including me, I don’t know if I would have been ready to say I wanted to do an open-ended show as my first show. I’m not sure.
Q: I did want to talk to you about your casting on this. Melissa Leo especially. Overall casting is phenomenal. So many great actors play the intense characters. She really struck me, especially in the premiere. Tell me a little about the casting process for this run, because really you couldn’t of handpicked better people to play these roles.
Night: You know, you’re very astute. I don’t know if it was just a coincidence or a testament to your acumen. We’ll give it as a testament to your acumen that you mentioned Melissa. Because really for me, I’m always a bit—casting for me is the most critical thing. I’m always confused at the onset. I have my aspirations and my agendas and oh, I’d love to work with this person and that person and those kinds of things can be false gods sometimes. They can lead you down to the wrong path. There’s a moment where you feel peace and that peace comes from when you know the personality of the entire cast put together. Because basically, you guys as an audience member are going on a date or something, say a relationship with the cast as whole, what is that personality of their cast as a whole? So the first person was Matt. We signed on Matt and he was literally a no-brainer. Then I was, to be honest, a little confused for a second about how to cast this thing. I can’t remember who mentioned Melissa first. It might have even been Matt. I’m not sure and literally when I heard the name—the second I heard the name I went oh my God, I know exactly how to cast this show. Because the role that, for me, I was worried about was Nurse Pam because it needs to be handled really deftly, otherwise it becomes a caricature. I was struggling with the tone of the cast and then when I heard her name I was like oh my God let’s get her, let’s get her, let’s please see if we can get her. And then when we got her, I went wow, now I know what the rest of this cast is. This is the Melissa Leo version of Matt Dillon and those two in a movie, I know exactly how to cast this. This is an East Coast/New York independent movie. So then Terrence came on and Carla and Toby and Juliette, and just one after the other. I just knew the tone of how to cast it and luckily for us everybody said yes. It was a confluence of many, many things that got us this incredible cast. Very lucky. Casting is a—the casting Gods have to be with you.
Q: . I was wondering was it just the ten episode thing that made you decide to do TV for a change instead of movies?
Night: The year and a half prior to Wayward was the sense of getting inspired by what was going on in television. Since then even more so this sense of storytelling being led in—if you’re looking at the two mediums of film and TV—and we’re going to greatly stigmatize the two fields for a second just for simplicity—in film, in mainstream cinema right now there’s a great movement towards marketability and a lack of reverence for resonance, storytelling resonance and tone. Marketability is definitely the primary factor looked at when assessing movies and deciding which movies to make and those kind of things. In television, which used to have marketability as its sole God, as its sole criteria metric, because it had to have X amount of eyeballs on this day to sell detergent or whatever it was it came from and cable and all of this stuff started moving the metric towards resonance. It wasn’t about how many people were watching Mad Men. It’s how many people are talking about Mad Men, so that I make sure I put AMC on my cable package or whatever. So it started to change the metrics of what the product needs to be. And as you started to see storytelling swinging over to there you started to have filmmakers, and I’d like to put myself in that category, who are driven towards tone first and characters first. So there’s a great want and desire now in television and as you can see even in network TV now for resonance. Please make it sticky. Make it so as we are changing channels you have to stop on this channel because it’s being told in an unusual way. It’s disruptive in that manner. Their desire for that kind of storytelling started to attract me and I would love that. And then selfishly for me, because I write my films, it’s a big gap between movies to me, talking to my audience and having an opportunity to tell stories to an audience. So for me making a thriller, for example, it takes me eighteen months to two years to tell a story to the audience and nowadays that’s an eternity, right? A couple rounds of that and a whole generation has gone by. This is a great opportunity for me to tell more stories in between the movies and hopefully develop a strong broad relationship with them during that time, so they can get to know the stories that interest me and I can get to know their tastes as well. On a lot of fronts it feels like a very complementary thing to do.
Q: It seems like during the past few years we’ve seen an uptake of the mysterious, strange, scary, thriller kind of TV shows. What do you think is responsible for that?
Night: I wonder—it’s funny as you say that. I’m trying to think—it’s always been there I guess, but perhaps the format of a mystery just naturally leans towards tune-in and find out what happens next kind of agenda on television, and there’s great storytellers that have done great mysteries. Lost is probably a seminal one, JJ’s show, and X-Files back in the day. There’s all these seminal stories of dark, mysterious, weird stuff. As you know, that’s my particular area of fondness. I try to make dramas that have the fancy clothes of the genre on them. So very kind of a mixture of those two. And that instinct to make drama/genre it feels very much the appetite of what audiences want on television.
Part 2 of this interview will be posted next week! Keep watching for it on Threeifbyspace.net.
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