clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

M. Night Shyamalan Talks ‘Signs,’ Twists, and Crop-Circle Tattoos

The director chats about his most joyous, most alien-centric film 18 years after its release

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

2020’s summer blockbuster season has been put on hold because of the pandemic, but that doesn’t mean we can’t celebrate the movies from the past that we flocked out of the sun and into air conditioning for. Welcome to The Ringer’s Return to Summer Blockbuster Season, where we’ll feature different summer classics each week.


Signs opens with a shot of a family’s backyard, warped through the prism of a tessellated glass window. It ends with a similar shot, through the same window, now shattered. M. Night Shyamalan’s films are often catalogued as “twist-ending movies.” I see them, instead, as mosaics: meticulously plotted supernatural mysteries where the writer-director shows you different shards of glass—Merrill Hess (Joaquin Phoenix) is a killer baseball player who never went pro, Bo (Abigail Breslin) leaves water around the house, Morgan (Rory Culkin) has asthma—and then, in the climax, he zooms out and you finally see the full picture. Like his best films, Signs doesn’t end with a last-minute switcheroo. It ends with a revelation.

Graham Hess (Mel Gibson), a former minister who lives on a Pennsylvania farm with his two children and brother Merrill, lost his faith in God when he lost his wife in a tragic car accident six months earlier. One morning, elaborate crop circles appear in the cornfields. What follows is an alien invasion/house attack story in the spirit of War of the Worlds, Night of the Living Dead, and Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds. But as with Shyamalan’s other genre films, the suspense and scares are there to serve a bigger story—in this case, seeing benevolence and design even in the midst of catastrophe.

At 29, Shyamalan was crowned the heir apparent to Hitchcock and his other hero, Steven Spielberg, after the smash success of The Sixth Sense—which was nominated for six Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Director. He followed that up with Unbreakable, a somber valentine to superheroes in a time right before everyone rushed to see movies about them. Signs, which came out on August 2, 2002, started filming within days of 9/11—and, among other things, it’s a story about choosing to see scary and seemingly random calamities through a window of hope. Oddly enough, as Shyamalan told The Ringer, it all started at a Denny’s.

It’s interesting watching Signs in the middle of a pandemic, in the middle of a lockdown, in the middle of this global catastrophe. That put a new sheen on the experience the characters are having in the film.

I can see that. I think my tendency to see global events from a family’s perspective is an interesting one, because we kind of all experienced that just now, this year. Helpless protecting our families, insecurity about what’s happening in the world. So I could see how the emotions that were stirred with that story are very similar to the ones that we’re experiencing—hopefully in a slightly more benign way, today.

Signs came out after The Sixth Sense and Unbreakable, but when did the actual idea come to you?

If you look at the movies—because they’re all one after the other, I don’t really work on anything else—they’re very much kind of journal entries of where I am in my life. There’s literal things, like Abigail Breslin is 5 in that movie, and my daughter was 5. So they went trick-or-treating together. And then the girls that are abducted in Split are the exact same age as my daughter—19 years old. I’m kind of imagining what my life is like, in a fictional way. … Signs came from two ideas: One was a family finds a crop circle in their backyard, and then a kind of end-of-the-world movie, à la Night of the Living Dead, where it’s from the perspective of a house.

And then I had a complicated reaction to the reaction to Unbreakable. I wanted to make a movie about comic books … and it wasn’t a time when anybody was interested in seeing movies about comic books. In fact, it was not seen as a legitimate subject matter. I wanted to do it in a very kind of dramatic way, and I think my somberness at the time of Unbreakable came off in the film. If you see it, it’s a very burdened movie. There was this weird moment where, strangely, I went to Denny’s. I was sitting there and seeing a family that was silent, and they were eating. I saw a couple that was quiet, and they were eating. And I was saying to myself: I can make movies that are burdened, and that’s honest for me. But I was looking at those people in the Denny’s, and I knew they were coming to my movies, and I wanted to make them feel better. So I called Disney and I said, “I want to make a movie that is just joyous, and doesn’t have that lens of burden on it.” It can have a lot of conflict in it, but the voice, the angle, I wanted it to be inspired and childlike, almost. And so Signs was born that way.

So I wouldn’t write unless I was feeling lighthearted. If I started to get tight, I would walk away. I would be playful and laughing when I was thinking, you know, “How about he’s a home run hitter? Oh, that’s cool. How about she drinks glasses of water all the time, and keeps leaving them around? I wonder where that could go? My daughter wears costumes of angels all the time. Why don’t I just have her constantly in costumes?” Just one fun idea after the other like that. And what ended up happening was really interesting. It was a psychological experiment. Because it was the easiest script to write in my career. It’s on my shelf over there. … It was just lighthearted and fun. We had more than our share of troubles that a movie has—for example, a lot of the cast was different, and for many reasons things switched. [But] I just always kept on feeling light about it all. The shoot was the easiest shoot that I’ve ever been on. And my shoots are torturous for me. Every day I question whether I should have become a doctor, you know. But it wasn’t that way on that movie. It was really fun.

A few years ago I told James Newton Howard that Signs is the best score he ever wrote, and he said, “I disagree.” Which still makes me laugh.

[Laughs.]

But I do believe it, and I believe the music he’s written for your films is the best of his career. You started something with The Sixth Sense and Unbreakable that really blossomed in a big way in Signs, which is: suspenseful music that’s laced with emotion, usually kind of a sad emotion, that builds to this rhapsodic, rapturous, almost religious kind of revelation moment in the end. What films or filmmakers influenced how big you let music get, and how much you let it do in your films?

We had talked about—I don’t know how it came—but just going Bernard Herrmann on it. To have a score that’s meant to be thought about, that’s meant to be seen—it’s visual, and it’s on top of the movie. Don’t hide underneath, don’t be atmospheric. I was saying, “Let’s go big and bold on top of this piece, in an old-school way.” The credits sequence came after James wrote that music; I went old school with the credit sequence as well. We’re telling a story in big, primary colors.

As we do on all of our movies, I walked through the storyboards with him. I’ll walk through the movie, frame by frame, every single shot. “And then she does this, the camera does this, it’s underlining this.” And it takes hours and hours, and by the time I’m done my throat’s parched, and I’ve performed the whole movie from beginning to end. The idea is that James comes from the screenplay and the material, and can you write a suite of music from that? So that we’re coming from the purest source material—not necessarily reacting to the movie just yet, but where I was inspired from.

Then he writes a suite of music, and sometimes he’ll write 12 minutes, sometimes it’ll be four minutes. Sometimes, in the longer suites, I’ll say, “Oh, wow, this section feels great for this character.” But in the case of Signs, he wrote this piece really early in preproduction. I’m like, “This is it, dude. This is the opening credits. You got it.” And I played it for everybody in preproduction, and I said, “This is what we’re making!” James, I think, caught the big, bold, positive, “let’s have fun” vibe.

For a lot of people, Signs is a movie about an alien invasion. For me, it’s a movie about a man who’s lost his faith and regains it. That is not subtext—that is text. And he’s fresh off the wound of losing his wife—it’s been six months since his wife died. But it’s interesting: It doesn’t sound like you started with that as the idea, and then built an alien invasion story on top of it. Where does the faith part come in for you?

That’s when I know I’m going to make a movie. So there’ll be a bunch of ideas, but when I find what the movie’s actually about … you know, the sofa scene in Signs is what the movie is actually about, where he and his brother talk about, “What kind of person are you? Do you believe in things? Or is it all just chance?” When I understood that that’s what the movie was about, it filled everything. It filled the spaces and gave it canvas to tell the genre of it all. And I think if you see [Signs] off of Unbreakable, as a diary, it was about someone regaining faith in himself, and in the world a little bit, because of where I was.

How much of that explicit faith that God, or a divine power, sends signs—and things aren’t just pure chance—how much of that was biographical for you at the time? Because you’ve dealt with subject matter like that in the past.

Look, I think I have a very strong … I don’t know if we’d call it spirituality. But I’m not religious at all. It wasn’t about endorsing or advocating for any specific religion. It was really more about that sofa scene. I might say, right this second, that it’s almost physics, the idea of energy, and putting things into the world, the universe, and those things are attracted and come back to you. And if we believe in it, all we’re actually believing is that we have more agency than we truly believe. I still ascribe to that thinking, very much so. So when we think about our minds: Do you see the glasses of water around you to save you at that moment if you’re not open to seeing the glasses of water around you?

I want to talk about the glasses of water. You and I talked last year about Glass, and how I don’t see your films as twist endings. I see them as mosaics.

Yeah.

Signs is a perfect example, where you’ve dropped all of these little clues, these little shards of glass, and then you pull out at the end—and everything was there for a reason. We’ve been keyed into it, we just didn’t realize it. How do you engineer that?

The thing that I’ve noticed about myself is I have almost no capacity to compartmentalize. So, you and I are having a conversation, and the conversation I’ve had with my wife this morning is directly affecting how I’m interacting with you. And the interaction that I had with my assistant, and any thoughts I’ve had, is coloring how you and I are having this interview. That’s a really impractical thing, and a wonderful thing. People that are able to hyper-compartmentalize, it seems like a superpower. But I’m the opposite. So when I drop something—like, a line comes out of Bo that says, “Can I have a glass of water? There’s a monster outside my room.” I wrote that line to talk about how children think so fast, right? They just … the next idea, the next idea—“Can I have a glass of water? There’s a monster outside my room.” Well, why does she want a glass of water? In a movie about everything having meaning, what is that? So you keep thinking about it like that, and it unfolds and unfolds. So even in the word “engineering” … it’s lack of compartmentalizing [laughs], that everything you touch, every line, every choice you make spreads through the movie and affects everything. The art form is an art form of juxtaposition. So, you know, the Eisenstein stuff is the earliest and clearest form of: blank stare, bowl of soup. You put them next to each other. Man is hungry, you interpret that. But that goes on and on and on and on through the piece of a two-hour film.

“Engineering” is too cynical a way to put it. This feels much more organic, and not gimmicky.

Again, if you’re in a burdened place, then when you’re writing Unbreakable you come up with a dark ending. If I’m coming from a slightly joyous place, the ideas have that tint to them about it—the glass of water means something beautiful. And finding comedy, I think, has been an interesting thing. I went back and I read an early draft of Unbreakable, and there was more comedy in it. I think I just wasn’t versed enough as a director, and confident enough, to integrate humor that is additive to the piece. In the end, I either extricated most of the humor, or excised it in the editing process. But with Signs, everything just made me giggle. You get lines like Joaquin’s line of, “Besides the possibility of an Olympic-level runner that ran around, what are some other possibilities?” Even the way you do the revelations are meant to make you giggle. Like, Joaquin’s in a closet watching the alien when it first comes on, and he backs up into the clothes.

It’s funny you talk about joy—and there is a lot of humor and a lot of fun in this movie. But the main character is not in a place of joy. When we spoke last year, you talked about how the style and atmosphere of the film is reflective of the character. So Unbreakable was more somber and slow, and Split was more kinetic and violent. To me, Signs has an atmosphere of, like, the barometric pressure before a storm. It’s very pregnant, and kind of still. Is there a reflection of Graham’s journey, or his character, in the style of the film?

Yeah, that’s really, really interesting. I do think so. When I think of him, and I think of me—meaning Graham and me at that moment … I want to believe. I remember, I want proof. That’s where I was. Whereas, Unbreakable came of a time when I was kind of being introduced to the world, and I became part of a larger relationship to things, to people around the world, after Sixth Sense. Being young and going through that, it’s a struggle. And then I think, with having a child, and coming and seeing more light, I was hoping there was confirmation of something good in the world. That’s where I was, and where he is. And even though something tragic happened to him, he’s trying to make sense of it. Is there beauty even in the worst moments? Is there love there that goes on forever? All of these kind of questions underneath. How can a man of faith have faith after something like that?

Cherry Jones told me you shot that flashback sequence right after 9/11. It was either her first scene or the first scene of the movie, but there are fire trucks everywhere, and it’s all very tragic. Was that surreal?

Whenever I think about it, that’s so much what the experience was at the beginning of Signs, because 9/11 happened days before we shot. My experience of 9/11 was in the production office. And a lot of the crew was from New York. And me as a young leader, navigating an unprecedented situation and what to do. … People are crying, and people are on the ground, and they couldn’t get to their loved ones. There’s a photo of us, I think right before we shot the first shot—whatever it was, three, four days later—and everyone’s holding candles. It was a super, super emotional moment for everybody. It affected us. I think part of the spirituality of the movie came from its time, where we were at that moment. All of us felt vulnerable and grateful to be together, and that our particular loved ones were OK, and feeling lucky on a lot of levels—and randomly lucky, you know?

The story of Signs is tragedy through the prism of optimism, or hope and beauty, so it’s interesting with that real thing in the backdrop.

In retrospect, I think each of the films affect each other a bit. But Signs, because it was overtly about faith, I think it caused a lot of reactions to people. I went to the premiere of The Village in Paris, and they finished the premiere, and security’s taking me to the car, and there are barricades there, and fans along the street. There was a couple, and they were like, “Oh my god, it’s you!” And I’m like, “Hi!” And they go, “We’re on our honeymoon!” I was like, “Congratulations!” “We can’t believe we’re seeing you on our honeymoon!” You know, I’m gonna get in the car, and the wife’s like, “Show him, show him, show him!” And I’m like: I don’t know what this means. And then he, in the middle of street, takes his shirt off, and he goes, “We can’t believe we’re seeing you,” and he turns around, and on his back is the crop circle from Signs, tattooed on his back. For them, they chose to say: “We believe in this idea that things have meaning, and that it isn’t by chance”—and getting married against all odds, and all of that stuff. And for them to see me on their honeymoon in Paris was such a cool thing. I remember his face. It was really dramatic when he turned around.

This interview was condensed and edited for clarity.

Tim Greiving is a film music journalist in Los Angeles and a regular contributor to NPR, the Los Angeles Times, and The Washington Post. Find him at timgreiving.com.