BY DAN TABOR FILM CRITIC Philly loves an underdog. Rocky, Gritty, The Phillies, The Eagles et al. Add to the list our own M. Night Shyamalan. Like all good underdog stories, after a promising start he hit a bit of a rough patch (The Happening, Avatar the Last Airbender) but eventually reconnected with audiences by returning to his low budget genre roots with his stealth sequel to Unbreakable, Split. The Sixth Sense, the film that originally introduced us to the world of auteur M. Night, turns 20 years old this week, and in the course of the last two decades it has become synonymous not just with Shyamalan but with our fair city itself. It’s a film I still remember seeing opening weekend in my rural AMC. Like Unbreakable, it struck me as a horror film that was a bit ahead of its time. And if you say you saw that plot twist coming at the end back before the hype, I am going to have to call bullshit.
The Sixth Sense is the story of Cole Sear (Haley Joel Osment), a young boy who claims he can see spirits in his therapy sessions with psychologist Malcolm Crowe (Bruce Willis) who is pining for his recently estranged from his wife. While everyone else in the horror genre at the time trying to make the nth iteration of self-aware slashers like Scream — and largely failing — Night made a film that feels like the current batch of elevated horror, since it works as both a film about human relationships just as much as it is a film about a young boy in Philadelphia who can see ghosts. It’s quiet, thoughtful and introspective, and blessed with a career highwater mark performances by Bruce Willis.
Instead of going Hollywood after turning in a film with a box office haul that was second only to Star Wars: The Phantom Menace, Night opted to stay in Philadelphia and continues to use our city as the setting for his stories. Seriously, you gotta love a man who produced a film that had Satan living in the Comcast building! To celebrate the 20th anniversary of The Sixth Sense, The Philadelphia Film Society recently hosted a 35mm screening at the Philadelphia Film Center. After doing an intro, M. Night came out to the lobby red carpet to humor me for a quick Q&A. Sporting a pair of super limited edition 76er Nike Jordan’s (there are only 10 pairs in existence, all given to local celebs, doncha know), Shyamalan was optimistic, humble and as grateful to be making films in Philadelphia as we are lucky to have him.
M. NIGHT SHYAMALAN: You know its kind of surreal, this is where they had the reception and the premiere of The Sixth Sense I think I was literally standing in this exact spot, it was an amazing memory, my wife was pregnant and she was feeling nauseous that day. I was like are you alright and I remember the anxiety of that day.
PHAWKER: This being the 20th anniversary of The Sixth Sense, I have to ask, knowing what you know now, if you could go back in time 20 years and give yourself any piece of advice, what would you say?
M. NIGHT SHYAMALAN: Be present. Because I didn’t even remember this whole thing when it happened. I was immediately writing Unbreakable and moving onto the next movie, making sure that they’d let me direct another movie again. I was just so worried about never making another movie again. I was like, before they say, ‘Hey, that’s it, it’s over, dude. We caught you. You suck. You’re no good.’ I was like, write another movie. Write another movie. So, I wrote Unbreakable as fast as I could and I really didn’t pay much attention to what was going on at the time.
Part of that’s healthy because the cultural thing that happened with the movie, it is better, to some extent, to not internalize that. But, I would have liked to just take it in a little bit more, I would tell my younger self to just enjoy it. I went from one stress to another stress, thinking like, I gotta make it, I gotta make it, you know? Rather than just enjoying the storytelling part of it.
PHAWKER: So speaking of Unbreakable, I loved Glass, it’s such a pure a representation of your directorial vision. Do you think the reason why it was so divisive is because we’re so used to this like mass produced filmmaking by committee with these superhero films?
M. NIGHT SHYAMALAN: Yeah, well, I didn’t find that it was divisive. You know, we had screenings around the world and even domestically audiences were super, super generous with the movie. So it was one of those things, half of the audiences knew Split and half of them knew Unbreakable, [each] really enjoyed kind of learning about the lineage of the other film. So, it was a really satisfying thing bringing two generations together like that. It was a beautiful thing. Funnily enough in preview screenings, at the end of our run on Glass, it was the kind of highest rated audience movie. Because two groups were bringing their love to the table together. So, it was really sweet.
PHAWKER: Do you feel vindicated at all with the success of it and sort of responsible for the comic book resurgence we have, considering Unbreakable in my opinion is like one of the best comic movies ever.
M. NIGHT SHYAMALAN: Oh, thank you brother. That’s really sweet of you. I’m just like everybody else. I love comic books and what they mean to us narratively, mythically and, how we kind of wish that we can wake up something amazing in us or that a spider will bite us or a lightning bolt will hit us. Whatever it is, so that someone will tap us on the shoulder and say, ‘I think you might be a superhero’ — that resonates with all of us and it did with me as a kid and as an adult as well.
PHAWKER: What’s your favorite comic book movie?
M. NIGHT SHYAMALAN: The first Iron Man was excellent. Excellent. I remember meeting John (Favreau) at a party once and I told him, you know, I went over to him specifically, I just said, ‘I thought you did something really, really deft, this grounded humor and the way Robert really brought this flavor.’ Of course that became the Marvel brand, that type of humor. But at that time when I saw it, I was super taken because it was really super grounded. Even to this day, I still find it the most grounded of the MCU.
PHAWKER: Finally on that front I have to ask, if Marvel called you up, what would you want to do?
M. NIGHT SHYAMALAN: We’ve talked a couple of times. All good. I love what they do. They’re amazing.