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Entries in Horror (7)

Friday
Aug282015

GRANDMA'S BOY: THE M. NIGHT SHYAMALAN INTERVIEW

Few films in recent memory have buzzed with such cinematic brio as The Visit, the terrifyingly entertaining story of teenage documentarian Rebecca (Olivia DeJonge), her kid brother Tyler (Ed Oxenbould) and the unnerving week they spend with their off-kilter grandparents (Deanna Dunagan, Peter McRobbie). It is the latest vision from M. Night Shyamalan, the auteur whose blockbusters The Sixth Sense (1999), Unbreakable (2000), Signs (2002) and The Village (2004) saw a Newsweek cover label him "The Next Spielberg". Yet The Visit represents a bold departure for the 45 year-old; his chilling, blackly funny script is brought to life using first-person perspectives and handheld camerawork. It exists in that ‘found-footage’ realm, but both deconstructs and revitalises the genre. The morning after a crowd-pleasing preview in Sydney’s cinema district, M. Night Shyamalan sat with SCREEN-SPACE to discuss his latest work…

There is a clarity, a leanness, about the storytelling in The Visit. I sensed that you were having a lot of fun making this film…

I’m so close to it still, but it seems like the most fun I’ve had making a film. I think it tops the last ‘most fun’ experience I’ve had, which was Signs. I think in both films you can sense a kind of buoyancy that was coming from me, like I was goofing around and having a good time playing with the movie. I think good energy comes from that.

After more than a decade of big studio projects, were there habits you had to unlearn or techniques you had to reassess when shooting the smaller scale, ‘first-person’ perspective used in The Visit?

I’m naturally a more intimate filmmaker. I think and view more in those terms. This idea of limitations and looking through one person’s perspective is naturally how I see things. Even when I’m shooting some big scene, with action and extras and all that stuff, I have to fight the instinct to see it as an intimate thing, to film it as one soldier’s perspective and examining it from the point of what they’re feeling. A story like this fits well for me, fits what I like to call the filmmaker's ‘accent.’ Some filmmakers are great journeyman directors. You hire them and they adapt and can be whatever you need them to be, but they don’t have a strong accent with the way they tell the story. In that way, The Visit is a really good match for me. I know I wrote it but I did that to match the story to my accent. I tend to come from a very optimistic place but do enjoy telling very dark stories, and my protagonists match that. (Pictured, above; Peter McRobbie as Pop-pop in The Visit)

In much of your work, your narratives centre on children in both lead roles (Wide Awake; The Sixth Sense; The Last Airbender; After Earth) and strong support parts (Signs). Why does childhood hold such a fascination for you?

It speaks to that period of time when we are growing up, let’s say between 10 and 15, that I find extraordinary but also sad and tragic. That’s when we stop believing, when we are throwing away childish beliefs and aspects of our imagination that help us be so present as children, and we start to believe instead in the real world. Those are sad moments. I spend a lot of time thinking about characters that are put in an extraordinary situation and then try to convince the adults, “Hey, something’s going on here.” And they are able to do this because they can still believe a little bit. I am anchored in that period because a lot of my movies are about faith and belief.

The casting of these two Australian actors, Ed Oxenbould and Olivia DeJonge, continues an incredible winning streak in your unearthing of child actors…

Casting is so critical and it is a very hard skill set to learn. You have to see something in them that you are going to have to draw out. That may be something that they may not have necessarily given you in the auditions, but you have to see it in them somewhere. It is their anchor; they are pivoting their emotions off this anchor, and you have to be able to say, “Ok, that’s it.” That’s hard to do, especially when casting early on and the material is still forming. I was very lucky with Ed and Olivia. I always look for a handful of traits when casting kids. I need them to be super smart, because we are going analyse the craft of acting in such a deep way I have to be able to talk to them about it as if they were adults. Secondly, they have to be good people, because that is what I want to bring out of the characters. And the third thing, perhaps the most important thing, is their family situation. Their parents need to be people who I can talk to and I can respect, because it is a team game when working with a child actor; I’ll push them and push them and I’ll eventually need to go through the parents to get to them. (Pictured, above; Shyamalan, left, directing Ed Oxenbould on the set of The Visit).

When directors place a camera in their character's hands, it is an opportunity to comment on the nature of their craft. What does Becca’s attitude to film reveal about you?

You know, both the kids represent two sides of me. Becca is kind of in awe of the art of filmmaking and an aspiring artist, even when it tips over into pretension or into a dogma about it, a pompousness that is stiff and unwavering. I feel all those things about filmmaking. Then there is the other side, that being ‘the entertainer’ and that’s Ed. Sometimes I just want to be a mischievious kid, capturing something shocking on film.

The core emotional arc in The Visit is about a family’s generational divide. How did this form?

Every story I write, I glimpse scenes and dialogue that ultimately pose the question, “What is the film about?” There’s a unifying thematic theory underneath it all, so that every scene represents a goal, one same thing. The Visit is about forgiveness. What happens when we do forgive, or when we don’t forgive. There’s a lot of pain in all the backstories of all the characters; the mum and her parents, or the kids and their dad. They are being juxtaposed throughout the film. When we don’t forgive, we eventually have to consider the years that are lost, the love that lost, the opportunities that are lost. That is the lesson that Becca comes to learn. (Pictured, above; Olivia DeJonge as Rebecca, left, and Deanna Dunagan as Nana in The Visit).

Prior to the screening last night, you made some very passionate points about the value of seeing films like The Visit as a shared, communal experience…

It is everything to me, that’s why I do what I do. Whenever someone tries to suggest that we can release across all these platforms, I just say, “No!” When I saw Raiders of The Lost Ark, I remember thinking, “Wow, this is it.” I saw it in an old theatre, something like 1500 seats, a sold-out session; I couldn’t sit with my friends. The experience I had bordered upon religious (laughs). And I use that word because it was like a group hysteria was happening. I was transported; this enormous crowd was transported. Now would I want to watch Raiders… for the first time, alone on my couch in my den? That’s sad! I would have been denied that shared experience. It is one of my great memories, seeing those great movies in great movie theatres. With The Visit, I was determined to make every gasp, every laugh, a crucial part of that shared experience. It is a film that is really about the responsibilities we, the filmmakers, take on when we choose to tell our stories to a group of strangers.

The Visit opens in US theatres on September 11; the film opens in Australia on September 24. Check local listings for other territories. 

Wednesday
Apr082015

DIRECTOR SUMMONS MIDDLE EASTERN DEMON FOR U.S. DEBUT

As a boy, Ajmal Zaheer Ahmad would sit spellbound as his elders retold the story of the Jinn. Mythological creatures that have walked amongst the living since the dawn of time, they have all but disappeared, unseen to the shallow gaze of modern man. Ahmad’s fascination with the legend has led to his debut feature Jinn, in which a centuries-old curse resurfaces to terrorise the present-day descendant of an ill-fated clan. For the young auteur, bringing to life the folklore of his Middle Eastern ancestry for a modern audience proved an enormous yet rewarding challenge…

“There has not been one particular project, book or film, that has attempted to modernize the concept,” Ahmad (pictured, above) told SCREEN-SPACE from his US base. Inherent to the spiritual teachings of Arabic and Asian cultures, the legend of the Jinn speaks of supernatural entities, conjured from ‘smokeless fire’, and are referenced throughout the Islamic holy text, the Quran; thought to be the basis for the legend of the ‘Genie’, they are one of the three creations of God, alongside man (made of clay) and angels (made of light). Says Ahmad, who also wrote and edited his film, “We wanted to use ‘Jinn’ the movie to not only bring the concept to the western world but to also create a mythology that had some rules to it.”  

For Ahmad and his production team at Exxodus Pictures, crafting a modern action thriller from a centuries-old text brought with it great responsibility. “Basically, (the narrative) stayed true to the beliefs that are common around the world, and then (we) filled in the story gaps so it became more fully-realised,” he says. The central figure is Shawn (Dominic Rains), a strapping hero whose life with his beautiful wife Jasmine (Serinda Swain) becomes the focus of a vengeful demonic force. He teams with wizened cleric Father Westhoff (William Atherton, of Ghostbusters fame) and mysterious warrior-type, Gabriel (fan favourite Ray Park, pictured, right; from X-Men, G.I. Joe and Episode 1: The Phantom Menace) to see off the powerful foe. (“Ray was a big win for us,” admits the director.)

Ajmal Zaheer Ahmad cites as his filmmaking influences the great modern directors whose works combine vivid imagery and assured technique with strong, soulful characters and storytelling. “The short list, of course, is made up of Spielberg, Cameron, Ridley Scott, Lucas,” he says. “These directors were able to create new worlds for people to visit and I want to do the same thing. Jinn was a exercise in that (style of) direction.” Raised in the once thriving American industrial hub of Detroit, Ahmad was determined to shoot his first production on the streets from which he drew much inspiration over time. “Detroit and the state of Michigan were integral to the creation of Jinn and rolled out the red carpet wherever and whenever we needed them to” he states. “We are all proud to be from here and are even prouder to have been given the chance to give something back.”

Raised in strict adherence to the Islamic faith, Ahmad was aware that a film steeped in Muslim iconography and originating from a culture misunderstood by many of his fellow Americans may prove to be a tough sell. But his faith in his family’s adopted homeland was unwavering. “I'm a firm believer that America is, in general, a great place to live, made up of mostly good people with open minds. If that weren't true, I don't think my father would have chosen to come here and settle with his family,” he says. “I know that prejudice still lurks in dark corners, (but) I grew up seeing a very fair America.” As his script began to take shape, Ahmad became determined to tell his unique, original genre story in a strong voice, confident that fans would respond. “Rather than concentrate on who wouldn't like the concept of Jinn based upon those prejudices, I think I was hoping that there would be more people that were interested in learning about a new idea and making it their own,” he says. “After all, that is what the U.S. was founded on. And I think that ended up being true.” (Pictured, left; the director, on-set)

Supporting that notion is the fan base that Jinn has generated since its release. Following a limited US theatrical run, the film has played to enthusiastic international audiences, both in densely populated Muslim communities and with broader western filmgoers. “We've been very lucky in that our fan base has grown substantially around the world,” says Ahmad, citing the social media following and VOD traffic numbers as evidence. “There have been thousands asking for a sequel and we feel that Jinn could easily support more movies. With a little luck, I'm sure we'll be back in production on another Jinn concept soon.”

Jinn will be released in Australia across all platforms on April 16 via Third Millennium Entertainment.


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