M. Night Shyamalan on Screenwriting
In this extensive interview, M. Night Shyamalan discusses his two most famous films, explores his writing process, and reveals what he should have made The Sixth Sense about.
By Daniel Argent.
In a career that already spans over twenty years, Oscar and Bafta nominated filmmaker M. Night Shyamalan has produced thirteen films, directed fourteen, and written screenplays for sixteen. Yet perhaps he remains best known for two of his early films, The Sixth Sense and Unbreakable.
Creative Screenwriting first met M. Night Shyamalan in 1999, before the opening of The Sixth Sense. Fourteen months and $293 million later, The Sixth Sense was the tenth highest domestic grossing film of all time, and we spoke to Shyamalan again as he worked on his next film, Unbreakable. The following article contains highlights from these conversations.
What idea sparked The Sixth Sense?
Well, there are two scenes. The first scene isn’t even in the movie; it’s fantastic. But the other scene is somewhat in the movie. I saw a wake at a house, and the food’s out, and people are walking around in dark clothes, and this child was sitting on the stairs talking to somebody, but nobody’s there. How intriguing that was, what that child was feeling, and who he was, and that perhaps he was talking to the person that everyone was mourning, and that the people were looking at this kid like, “Wow, that’s one weird kid, he’s not handling this very well,” and going out from there. And so that became the Collins scene at the end of the movie, when Cole goes to the house with the box.
What was the scene that wasn’t there?
Well, The Sixth Sense started out as a serial killer movie [laughs]. Malcolm was a crime scene photographer, a burnt-out one at that, and not a great dad. It was Parents Day at the school, and the parents are in the classrooms looking at the artwork, and his kid’s in there, and Malcolm’s outside, smoking in a non-smoking hallway, and he’s staring at a wall of these kids’ drawings, and suddenly his attention becomes focused and he walks towards the wall and stops smoking. More and more we get focused on this one particular drawing, a crayon design, a star of some kind. We’ve seen it before, it’s a design that’s on the victims of a serial killer, and this child has drawn this same exact design in crayon. So Malcolm lifts the paper that’s folded over it to see who drew it, and it’s his own son. That’s the movie; it’s about Malcolm realizing that his son is seeing the victims of this killer.
You said in an interview, “Once I see how they can sell the story, then I can write it.” How did that work with The Sixth Sense?
This, again, is one of those things I’ve learned over the course of films, because I’ve written so many films and some of them are impossible to market. I tried to write very different pieces that don’t feel like other movies. That’s a great thing and a bad thing, because when they get to market they’re lost. The studio doesn’t know what it is, doesn’t know which audience it’s for.
Writing The Sixth Sense was the first time I sat down and said, “Now how are they going to sell this?” And I said, “In the end I think they’re going to sell it as classic, old-school horror.” So I knew I would need to have enough of that in the movie for that selling point to be a legitimate representation of the movie, and when I made all my choices in the directing and execution of this screenplay, and the choices of what scenes to keep, I had to make sure that when in doubt I was always leaning there.
And of course, The Sixth Sense isn’t a normal movie, but that even comes up in the trailer. It says, “Here, this is close enough to what you guys recognize, but it’s new.”
What were the specifics of the sale of The Sixth Sense? You had some very special conditions I believe?
It was an amazing deal—it seemed too good to be true—but it turned out to be as good as it seemed. It’s a wonderful thing. The deal with Hollywood Pictures ended up being $2.5 million up front versus $500,000 deferred. So it was $3 million total for writing and directing services. The start date had to be within six months of the sale. I had cast approval, and a whole bunch of approvals—tech approvals, all that—if the budget was under $10 million.
So the studio protected themselves, and you protected yourself.
Right. It was the first time ever, that a spec screenplay had been green-lit without a rewrite.
How did you manage to get that?
They just offered it. A whole bunch of studios were offering it. They had to get okays from the higher-ups, because you have to get someone like the chairman to greenlight a picture. So slowly, New Line greenlit it, and a whole bunch of people were greenlighting it upon offering. That was the most amazing thing, they read the script and said, “This is at the level of the screenplays that we greenlight; to show you our commitment, we’re going to greenlight it.” That’s an amazing thing, because I was going to add a rewrite clause to it, whether one rewrite or no rewrites or whatever. But we didn’t even have to get into it because they offered a greenlit script. It’s essentially a writer’s final cut. And nobody’s had it. That, in itself, was the single most amazing factor of the movie.
How did Bruce Willis get involved?
We offered it to him. We had a whole bunch of actors who wanted to be in the movie. We took a long time before we went out to somebody, probably a month, and we ended up going to Bruce. We offered it to him, and he read it over the weekend, called up, and said he was really interested and wanted to see my previous film, Wide Awake. So that took a while because he was shooting Armageddon at the time. I didn’t know what the hell he was going to think of Wide Awake. This guy’s guy comes off of Armageddon and I’m going to show him this little movie about a kid looking for God? I said, “We’ll know if he’s the right guy, that’s for sure.”
And he watched the movie and he came out and he said to Frank Marshall, “This kid knows what he’s doing.” And that was it. He was on. And when I heard that he loved Wide Awake, I was like, “Wow.” Strangely enough, Bruce was the guy I was thinking of from the beginning. He had shot Twelve Monkeys here in Philly, so he was on my mind when I was writing the script. Before I wrote the screenplay, I wrote down the title of the movie. I said, “The Sixth Sense, that sounds like a great title.” And I put down Bruce Willis’s name, and I said, “You know, that might be somebody to think about.” A little dream world.
Before you wrote The Sixth Sense, you told people that the script would sell for $2 million. How do you do that, how you know something before a script’s even written?
You know, I don’t know. You play basketball? A basketball hoop’s ten feet high. And I’m 5’10”, 5’11”. And I look at the rim, and I just know that I can dunk a basketball. [Laughs] I haven’t done it yet, and I’ve gotten very close, but you just look at it and go, “I am physically capable of doing this. I’m not sure why I know that, because I haven’t been able to do it yet. But I know I’m physically capable of doing this.” It’s a lot of self-fulfilling prophecy. You make it happen yourself.
You hear a lot of writers say they weren’t confident until they had a success, a big sale, or a hit film. Yet you started off confident. Where does that confidence come from?
Don’t know how quite to answer that one. Say you’re writing a scene and you go, “Wow, I nailed that.” But if you’re honest, and you go, “Well, the dialogue’s excellent in that scene, let me look at it. Wow, that has the same essential message as a scene earlier in the movie. Well, screw it, ’cause the dialogue’s great. Move on.” That happens not in a conscious way, but it happens in every moment as a writer. But for me, I’m very cool with being able to go, “Shit, it’s the same meaning. One of the scenes has to come out, and you have to have the earlier scene to intro the characters. All right, I’m gonna chuck this great new scene with all this great dialogue.” You have to be able to continually be that brutally honest, every moment. The moment you stop being honest, you’re screwed.
What’s your process for writing a screenplay?
I outline. I spend months outlining. And by months I mean, I outline it, and then I go, “Okay, that’s the movie. Can you picture it in your head? Okay, that’s—that’s not very good” [laughs]. You’re also doing other things, you’re finishing up your last movie, and while you’re doing that you’re going, “Let’s look at that outline again. Hmm, this part here, I can definitely do this. And let’s add that. Oh, I’ve got a great idea!” Then you’re suddenly always thinking about this particular subject. Everything you read, everything you see, everything you do, gives you ideas. And you go, “Oooh, that’s a nice line for that character,” or “That’s a nice moment for that character.” So you have fifteen moments. Okay, gotta incorporate that into the next pass of the outline. Boom, the outline changes again. And then, eventually, you have to commit. You’re reading the outline and you go, “Yeah, I’m going to be able to commit the next two years of my life to this.”
What was interesting with Unbreakable was that I had been outlining a totally different movie for three months. Totally different movie. Totally. Has nothing to do with the movie I’m writing. Then all of a sudden I got this idea. And I told my wife, “How about this idea? Isn’t that a great idea? Damn, I’m gonna have to do that next.” Then I sat down and I thought, “Oh man, I can do this and this and this” and immediately I had an outline [for the new idea]. Immediately. And then I said, “Well, let me think about it, we’ll keep that away, now I have an outline,” and then I did it again. Two weeks later I told my wife again, “Remember that idea, how ’bout this happens?” and I told her the whole outline. And she said, “Oh my God, it’s amazing.” And when she said that, with that emotion in her voice, I said, “This is the movie I need to be making.”
Do you always fall in love with your main character?
No. I did on Unbreakable. But I don’t, usually, which is a bad thing, because you need to. I don’t think I wrote The Sixth Sense the appropriate way. I did a little bit of outside-in. But I did Cole’s character correctly, and eventually I got all the other characters to where they needed to be. But I didn’t do them the right way. Especially Malcolm’s.
What would you have done differently?
The twists and turns in the movie—the ghosts, all of that stuff—put that all aside and say, “All right, we got those. What movie are we making? Forget all that, you can’t use that as a description. You can’t use any of the twists and turns or the ghosts or any of that stuff as a description. What’s the movie about? Well, this movie, The Sixth Sense, is about a man, Malcolm Crowe, who’s looking for redemption in his work because he failed a child. Or, simply, he’s just a man looking for redemption.” That’s what the movie is about.
Had I started the process that way, I would have sat down and found another meaning for the movie. I probably wouldn’t have made it just about redemption. I might have made it about him wanting to be a father and the irony of his being a child psychologist but not having kids, and how he uses his patients in a self-serving manner—as a parent—and when he failed one, he failed as a dad. But I would have had to work that in everywhere… into every scene.
You have a very distinct, sparse, quiet writing style. How did you come to that place?
Every day I’m going through the same struggles and re-learning everything I thought I knew. It’s all re-learned. If you don’t look at it that way, you end up doing a cheesy version of yourself. For me, writing a screenplay is an important thing, it is a thing unto itself, as opposed to a blueprint for a movie. I take pride in those 120 pages, that the screenplay can be a piece of art all by itself, a thing you can sit down and read, as opposed to just connecting the dots, which a lot of screenplays are.
So, you’re giving readers starting point, then you’re letting them grow toward where they need to go, but you’re not micromanaging every step of the way.
You’re assuming certain movements on their part. You don’t want it to be your description of what their path should be—you’re assuming they’re gonna go from Point A to Point B in their own emotional movement, but they’ll take it themselves. Let’s say this scene is a young woman seeing her mother for the first time, they’ve been estranged for a long time. Rather than describing her as my mom, or how I feel emotionally about a mother, I might choose the bare bones, so then the daughter turns around and her mom is at the front door. I might describe her very sparsely and let the reader fill in their own mom or their own emotional person. I’ve given them enough to lead them right to the doorstep of emotion. The holding back is always important with regard to emotion.
You have to trust your characters to go to that next step, wherever you want them to go. Do you often find that you write a scene and the character goes somewhere else and you have to deal with that?
Well, the characters used to always sound like me. That’s the biggest mistake that young writers—or new writers—make. It always starts at that first level where they’re “generic me,” whether they’re old, young, everybody’s “generic me.” And with each script that I’ve done, I’ve gotten better at not doing that on the first pass. The characters fill out as the drafts come, and you find a particular line [that hooks you into that character].
In The Sixth Sense—this isn’t even in the movie, it was lost early in the process, but it made me hook onto something—it’s when Cole was sitting with this little chubby boy at the birthday party, they’re separate from everybody, and they had this conversation. What was happening was, they’re both freaks who have been ostracized, so when Cole sees this boy suffering in his own quietness, he takes on a healer role, and I had a dialogue there. That was the first time that Cole’s character appeared for me. I really went pretty far with it, with him trying to make this boy feel better.
Months later, when the film was written and up to the level, the thing he did there was too adult, too in control of himself. But it was the right spirit, and that was the first time that I caught the character, that I realized, “Oh, Cole is this hypersensitive individual who by nature would help someone who’s suffering.” That’s why he’s the perfect person to see people who can’t move on with their lives in the spiritual form. He would be the perfect one, because he sympathizes, he empathizes so much. That was midway through the movie, so then I went back and rewrote every scene that I had written so far.
That’s the scene where Cole talks about God choosing the strong ones to make them different.
Right! Right! Right! But that was totally me. I didn’t even shoot that, because I had never established this kid that way. It was a combination of too smart and too innocent. The dialogue was too extreme for me. It wasn’t delicate enough for the movie, for this character. What Cole was saying was so profound it was beyond his years. The other thing was, what he was saying was so naïve and innocent that it was almost a caricature of a child, or what occasionally a child would say, but on the very extreme end of it. Something was nagging me about it. It didn’t feel…correct. Afterwards, after I had developed the character, it didn’t feel right. It was a sweet moment, and it was a tough one to let go. But it didn’t balance with the movie. It was a tricky one; it’s interesting you remember that.
After all the writing you’ve done, is it still tough to let those moments go?
Well, I’ll tell you, it’s really tough. One of the mistakes I made in making The Sixth Sense, ironically, was that the scenes I felt the strongest about I paid least attention to, because…they were done already, how can they miss? But everything needs to be given its proper attention, in performance and in choreography and in camera setup, all that, as far as the execution of a script. In The Sixth Sense, I love the car scene with the mother and the son, but my favorite piece of writing in the whole movie isn’t in the movie! It was the last speech of Malcolm at the wedding [when he professes his love of Anna to the camera]. When we shot it, what I didn’t pay attention to was this moment before it. It should have been executed in an uplifting but very emotional way. But it was just sad. [Sighs] When we put the film together, it felt like two endings. So I let it go.
Do you kill a lot of those screenwriting babies?
I kill anything that resembles anything I’ve ever seen before. Even if it’s great, if it smells like I’ve seen it, or I’m copying this movie or it feels like that genre, it’s dead. The first draft of The Sixth Sense was a serial killer movie. The film that was sold was the tenth draft. The first draft was a very powerful movie about a little kid who saw the victims of a serial killer, and the hunt for this serial killer. But it kept changing; bit by bit, the parts with the ghosts became more and more unique. I’ve never seen that expressed before, and then the serial killer parts—which were good—I’d seen before, and they started to go away, and go away, and go away, until I said, “That’s not even part of this movie anymore.”
The same thing just happened on Unbreakable. The first pass I wrote by hand, and it had a whole storyline which I thought was the big anchor of the storyline. As I was going through it, I got to page twenty- something, when that storyline was about to kick in, and I said, “I really love the movie that this is. I have faith that you don’t need to do all that, or make it recognizable, or any of that stuff. Let’s continue along this unique path, let’s try to express this one feeling, this one unique thing, and trust.” So I took it out on the second draft. I didn’t wait five drafts like I did on The Sixth Sense [laughs].
It’s all about trusting yourself.
Whenever you get lazy and scared, you do the line that you’ve heard before, the expected line. When you’re writing the next line, in the distance you see something. You know where you want to go, and if you get stuck you get clogged with ideas that you’ve heard millions of times before, and they’ll keep pounding at you: “Just have him say that line, just have him say it, say it, say it.” Eventually you’ll either say, “Wait a second, I need to rethink this from another angle,” or you’ll put down that clichéd line. It happens over and over again. Hopefully by the time my script goes to sale it is…cleansed.
What do you do in a spec script that you strip out in a shooting script to make it more streamlined?
All of the changes that happen from the sale script to the shooting script are based on the changes that I make when I’m storyboarding, which is just visually writing it. Then I go back and incorporate all those changes into the screenplay. It’s almost not about rewriting the screenplay, it’s about going back and writing the visual script and then going back and changing the written script to match it.
What sparked the idea for Unbreakable?
As I said, I was working on another idea, and then I just got this idea for a guy, David Dunn, who survives a train wreck—at the time it was a plane wreck—and nobody survived. He’s the only survivor and he doesn’t have a scratch on him, and what does that mean? And then the realization of who he possibly is—was it luck? Was it something else?—all those things. It was a slightly different tone than it ended up being, but basically the same feeling, which was a family dealing with this possibility, and the repercussions on a dysfunctional family about the realization about who this guy is.
It seems like the premise is not, “What if superheroes are real?” but “What if someone slowly found out he was superhuman?”
Right. That’s what excites me, thinking in terms of a kid. A lot of boys think their dad is Superman, until they’re ten years old. He’s so strong, he’s so this, he’s so that, they feel so safe around him. What if one kid was right? Those kinds of questions really excite me—I can really write that kid character. And just an average guy coming to terms with this theory, with the possibility that this is true, is a pretty powerful thing. And how it might affect a dysfunctional family.
You have talked about building a character from the inside out. How did you create David Dunn?
One of the things that was important to me was that something wasn’t right with David, and trying to figure that out. So if something’s not right with this guy, and he feels like there’s something nagging at him, what is that?
Ever since David gave up playing football?
He thinks it’s that. He thinks it’s his wife. He thinks it’s his kid. He thinks it’s family life. He’s always pushing away his family. Those internal things that I can talk to the actors about that are there, and now you see my scene with that knowledge it all makes sense. The subtext of it all. Something about what Elijah says, this crazy notion, rings true for David. He keeps denying it, denying it. When he actually does it, goes out to try to act like a hero, it makes sense to him and he feels at peace.
For me an internal subtext character arc was really important. That’s like the fourth level of writing. People don’t care about that level, they don’t even think in terms of that level. Once I understood that—that the peace that David had could make him a whole person, a whole husband, a whole father—that this average man who was out of balance is now in balance at the end of the movie, with his family and such, then everything starts to align. He is the father that his son wanted. He is the husband that his wife wanted.
What is Unbreakable’s theme?
“What is your potential?”
And how actualizing your potential brings you back in balance?
Exactly. I’ve felt a little bit of that in life, when I just wasn’t doing what I was supposed to be doing. Then I stepped back and said, “Okay, what movies did I fall in love with? What kind of filmmaking made me want to be a filmmaker? Okay, then write that. Make that.” So I made Sixth Sense. Then it all fell in line. Then there was a peace. Once you do that, you can do things at a high level. Once you find the balance.
“Follow your bliss” philosophy.
It’s a Zen thing. But that really gave me a strength to it. Then I had very personal things I wanted to do with the movie. Making the romance, the story line, between the husband and wife very strong and very real.
You move into some much darker territory in Unbreakable, touching on everything from child beaters and acquaintance rapists to a housesitting serial-rapist killer. The third act is reminiscent of the grimness—or even past that—of The Silence of the Lambs.
It does remind me a lot of Silence of the Lambs in the last third of the movie. But it’s an unusual movie. It doesn’t really feel like any movie in particular. And that’s part of the thrill for me, and the fear, and the excitement. After a few moments of watching it you realize, “I’m not on familiar territory here, as an audience member. And I’m a little scared about it, because I’m vulnerable now.” I think that’s an exciting two hours to sit through.
In the end of The Sixth Sense Malcolm is going to a better place—it’s a relatively happy ending. Whereas in Unbreakable, there’s explanation but not closure. There’s closure on David’s self-realization, but not on his story.
Not on his life, right. That was part of the thing. I didn’t want to have it clean. I didn’t to want have it be fairy tale. At the end of The Sixth Sense, he’s dead. He can’t be with his wife. Those things are forgotten because there’s peace. But there’s still a bittersweet quality to the ending. I think the same will be the case here, but in the flip regard. David’s okay and his family’s good, and he’s good and right with his family now, but things aren’t all right with the world, they’re not at peace.
Your original ending of Unbreakable had David slipping into a crowd of “ordinary people, walking on an ordinary street, in an ordinary city.” You changed the focus of the ending slightly in the revised draft of the script. Why?
I think the greatest twists are when things change fundamentally. The two films I always use are Planet of the Apes and Psycho, where what you thought you saw you did not see. In Unbreakable what you thought you saw was a superhero becoming a superhero. But that’s not what you saw. The whole movie twists and turns on its head. It’s a kind of fundamental change that I was going for, that I didn’t quite get before.
Did you feel the need or pressure, after The Sixth Sense, to have another twist ending?
It wasn’t like that at all. The movie just evolves as I’m sitting down to write it. I said, “I really want another layer to the movie, what’s another layer?” And I think about it until another layer appears. In those two cases that extra layer came out like that. I don’t feel satisfied if it was working on just two levels— it needs to work on another level
Did that extra layer appear fairly early, or was that later in the process?
I think it was more toward the middle than it was in The Sixth Sense. Always in the good versions it evolves toward the middle, as you understand the movie, as you’re building on the elements of the movie.
How many drafts of Unbreakable did you do?
Eight or nine. One less than The Sixth Sense.
In both The Sixth Sense and Unbreakable, most people in Hollywood would start the story where you stop it. It’s as if you’re writing a normal screenplay’s first act in three acts, and delving into it in extremely realistic detail. Many screenwriters would say, “At the end of the first act David realizes he has a special power” and then go write a typical Hollywood superhero movie.
That’s exactly right: I took the first act and made it three acts. It was always that way when I wrote it. But when I was outlining it I was doing it in a more traditional fashion, and I said, “I hate the second and third acts. I’m not interested at all.” My first act just kept getting bigger and bigger and bigger and bigger. I said, “That’s what I want it to be, about a man coming to terms with this. That’s it.” And that’s a powerful thing.
For me, the original Rocky is awesome because it’s a buildup to one fight. That’s what it’s about. And really going into detail about it. The other people do it in the first act because they have to do it surface, because they don’t have anything to say about the growth. But there’s something I want to say about a man coming to terms with his potential. An average man, at that.
In the revised draft you added a penultimate breakfast scene, where David is reading the newspaper. Why did you add this scene?
In a way, that really is what the movie is about. That’s really the car scene in The Sixth Sense. The whole journey about all this supernatural stuff was so two people could be closer together and communicate and connect. It’s this moment where David says to his son, “You were right. I am Superman.” It’s a really powerful scene. When I wrote it, I was like, “Wow, I can’t believe I didn’t even write this scene in the movie.” And then when we shot it, it was so powerful. It’s one of the strongest scenes in the movie.
This article features interviews which first appeared in Creative Screenwriting volumes 6, #5 and 7, #6.