Best known for his “twist” movies, starting with The Sixth Sense, M. Night Shyamalan ventured into TV with the recent miniseries Wayward Pines, now released on DVD. Sci-Fi Bulletin caught up with him to look back over the first season…
What first interested you about making Wayward Pines as a TV series?
A lot of times with television it’s been difficult for me to say yes because it’s so unknown and there are so many factors that make me uncomfortable. But with this particular project, when they offered me the pilot it was written already and I really liked it a lot. I thought it was very dark and mysterious and funny and it was a great mystery. It is based on a book – and indeed on a book series that was being written at the time – and when they told me what the actual premise was, what the actual show was about, it was perfect for me. It was like this big giant idea that really straddled sci-fi and scary things and I just felt ‘Wow, this makes me feel really comfortable because the bones of the story have been worked out and I love them, I know how to execute this tone and it syncs with my taste’. So it was a really easy ‘Yes’ and it kind of snowballed from there. Fox came on very strong and wanted to make it, then we got Matt [Dillon] and one by one we got all the other cast members. It snowballed into this wonderful piece.
Did you go back and read the books by Blake Crouch?
I read the first one. At that time he hadn’t written book two or book three so we just had his ideas more than anything. It was a very unusual experience working with Blake actually. He’s such a nice man and we had our own writers’ room incubating ideas and he was writing his novels. He would tell us what he was thinking and we would tell him what we were doing and they kind of meshed together. Blake obviously came up with almost all of the structural things, but there were a lot of ideas that he liked and that he put back into his books. It was a co-existing, co-creating kind of thing and if you read all three books you’ll see that season one covers a lot of elements from all of them.
The real joy of making a TV show is the ability to spend time on the characters and really delve into them. With film you have this incredible pressure to hurry things along. You have to introduce the characters, put them in jeopardy and close their situations in a satisfying way, all in two hours. That’s a very tricky thing to do. I love characters and in making movies I love the first act; it’s such a fantastic experience to learn about peoples’ lives. I have a much higher tolerance for staying in the first act – like I would stay in the first act forever if I could. One would argue, for example, that Unbreakable is all the first act of a movie. TV really leans into that kind of sensibility so it was a nice match for me.
Given the plot’s many intricacies, do you think the show is something that will reward repeated viewings on DVD?
I think so, yes. There’s such a big reveal in the show that when you go back and watch it again you see all these different things – like ‘Oh, what is that building?’ and ‘Oh, what is that camera there?’ and ‘The way that person is acting, I thought it meant this the first time but now I know it means that’. It’s fun. You weren’t aware of what you were watching and now that you are aware it’s a different experience. Blake came up with such an intricate mythology. It’s so rich so the second time you’ll certainly find a lot of nuances in there.
I probably am, just because of my schedule and all that stuff. To sit down and swallow a whole season over the course of a couple of weeks is probably the best and most efficient use of my time. Obviously I’m a bit of an addict and, like everybody else, when you finish an episode you want to throw on the next one. I remember back in the old days with The Sopranos. Watching it every Sunday I’d be like ‘My god, I’ve got to wait another week for this! I can’t take it!’
With the behind-the-scenes features, how do you balance how much to reveal?
It’s a tricky balance and in a perfect world when you’ve seen the behind-the-scenes material it makes you want to watch the series. It makes you more excited about the experience. It’s like a docent in a museum who tells you ‘This is why Picasso was in the blue era of his work because this had happened and his friend shot himself’. Now you’re seeing sadness in the painting when you have someone who can frame it for you. It’s such an interesting show, with such a big cast and crew, and it’s nice to spend time with people who, you know, are no longer alive on the show and get to know them a little bit.
Speaking of which – and mentioning no names – there are some high-profile stars who get killed off. Did they know that was going to happen?
They knew. With those early deaths they knew what was going to happen. I told them in advance when I hired them.
[Laughs] They did do that, yes.
Has it been tough keeping all the twists secret?
Well, the books are out there so anybody could go read them and put the details online if they wanted to. But I think if you don’t want to know then you can avoid spoilers pretty successfully.
What do you feel Matt Dillon brought to the lead role of Ethan Burke?
He brought many things. As an icon he brought kind of a certain time period of our lives, to evoke that nostalgia. Some actors, like Travolta, have transcended into that and Matt is one of those guys. He’ s a very grounded, practical actor so his process is very much about asking questions. Until he understands it thoroughly he doesn’t stop asking questions. For my process too I love that. I thought it brought a rich deepness to television that’s maybe a little unusual. Also because he’s been only in films before he brought a certain imprimatur to the piece that said ‘Hey, this is not going to be just a regular TV show, this is going to be something that straddles TV and film’. As a person and as an actor he brings a certain masculinity that the role needed, a certain comfort with drama, and I find him funny. I could use his sarcasm to bring some lightness to the darkness of this whole story.
How do you account for the show’s international appeal?
Because we basically hired film people it’s a very big idea. You could make a movie of this. It’s a big cinema idea that appeals to a lot of people and for the first few episodes it’s a great mystery while you’re trying to figure out what the hell is happening. It’s a big, global idea and part of its bigger conversation about humanity is relevant to everybody.
The challenges were the speed at which you have to direct television and the lack of resources you have in comparison to filmmaking, but I loved it. I really had a great time. Even when you just mention about me shooting the pilot I have a flush of wonderful memories of having a great time shooting it. The pilot had that dark humour, that Lynchian humour that I love, so it was fun to direct it. We had a great time. We shot it in Vancouver and I don’t normally shoot away from home so that was unusual too. I’d hang out with all the actors in the evening and we’d have dinner. It was such a positive experience.
Was it hard to step back and let other people direct the remaining episodes?
I thought it was gonna be but it didn’t turn out to be. I hired people that I respected so that was the common link; the directors were people where I’d seen their films or a TV show they did and I asked them personally ‘Would you come and direct episode seven?’ or ‘What you could direct episode five?’ or ‘I saw your indie movie and I thought it was incredible, so will you come direct this?’ They were already in line with my taste and in a way I was casting them for the different episodes. There was a lot of faith and I told them ‘Please don’t copy me, really be yourself’.
What are the most valuable lessons you’ve learned from making a TV show?
I learned to move much faster than I had before. I learned to work without video assist, which is where you play back all your takes. I’d sit with the actors and just fire away. I also learned that I had a lot of bad habits. I had a lot of ‘fat’ habits that had gotten fatter over the years and they suddenly got skinny again. I went and shot a movie right after Wayward Pines, The Visit, and it directly affected that. It got me ready for that movie. I was like ‘Oh, I can shoot this in 30 days, no problem’ and I did.
Has it given you a taste for doing more TV alongside the film career?
It’s interesting. My dream version of how this was going to work out was that I would do a show, it would be my way to tell a story to the audience, we would get closer, I’d get new people interested in my storytelling and the things I’m interested in, then when I opened a movie they would all come see it. But because I write and direct my movies it takes two years to give you another movie and maybe TV shows are the way I can tell you stories. In this time, where everything is moving so fast, two years is an eternity to tell another story to someone. So TV is a wonderful way to keep telling stories and my dream version has played out so wonderfully because Wayward Pines was the number one show this summer. Now my new movie is coming out and doing TV was a nice way to tell a story before the movie. It’s a lot of work but I like the reward of being connected to the audience. It was such a joy.
No because I loved the premise of the story. It’s so grounded and it makes so much sense. The horror of it all is that it’s so plausible; all of this stuff could happen. When you get to a place where people are asking ‘Could this happen?’ then you’re in a great place.
How did you achieve such a distinctive and cohesive visual style for the show?
Every director that came on saw all the previous episodes so we had that lineage of approach and they’d get inspired. Also, as I say, I was hiring filmmakers who I thought had a great eye and great tendencies. They were matching my aesthetics naturally. We had a little thing like a Bible that we gave everybody which said ‘This is what I meant metaphorically by using this lighting and feel free to use these metaphors in your episode if you’d like’. There was a kind of philosophical umbilical cord.
What are the TV shows that you return to again and again as a viewer?
The Sopranos is my favourite TV show. It’s amazing. For me that’s the pinnacle of television, for drama of course. With comedy Seinfeld is my favourite. There are so many fantastic shows that have influenced me. Twilight Zone is probably the oldest one that I go back to and back to.
Will Wayward Pines be back for a second season?
[Laughs] I’m working on it! But I can’t say just yet.
It was a very difficult shoot. It’s a very ambitious show and I was happy that audiences connected so much with the premise and the mystery and the characters and how invested they got. It’s fun to do TV because audiences get so invested in what’s happening to the characters. They go to work and they’re like ‘I can’t believe that they killed him!’ I’m really proud of the actors and the crews that we hired and the amount of dedication they brought to the table.
Wayward Pines is out on DVD now