Fear is the key for director Shyamalan

Director M. Night Shyamalan on the set of After Earth. PA Photo/Sony UK
Director M. Night Shyamalan on the set of After Earth. PA Photo/Sony UK
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Picture this – a man is sitting at home alone when he notices a photograph of his wife is faced down.

‘That’s weird,’ he thinks, before returning it to its upright position and leaving the room to make a cup of coffee. When he walks back into the room, he looks over at the photograph - it’s faced down again.

Pretty scary, right?

But while I’d love to take credit for this terrifying tale, it is, in fact, M. Night Shyamalan’s creation.

The director of The Sixth Sense has just conjured up this story on the spot, as we talk, to illustrate what he thinks makes a good thriller.

Before that 1999 film, starring Bruce Willis and a school-age Haley Joel Osment as the little boy who can “see dead people”, Shyamalan had a few completed projects under his belt but was little-known.

A huge box office success, later earning six Oscar nominations, The Sixth Sense propelled him into the big leagues, cementing Shyamalan’s reputation as a director with a gift for creating the fear factor.

“The unknown is what makes things scary,” the 42-year-old says. “The why, how, what... That story is more frightening than ‘blood dripping down the wall’ horror. Plus, it’s much cheaper to film,” he jokes.

The Indian-American director is in the UK to talk about his new film, After Earth, which sees Will Smith and his son Jaden starring opposite each other as father and son for the first time since The Pursuit Of Happyness in 2007.

It’s hailed as one of this summer’s big hits.

Set in the future (1,000 years after Earth became uninhabitable, to be precise), humans have been forced to move to another planet, Nova Prime.

Cypher (Will Smith), a legendary general in the United Ranger Corps, an army of sorts, takes his son Kitai (Jaden Smith) on a bonding trip. Unfortunately, it all goes very wrong and they end up crash-landing their aircraft on Earth – now a danger zone. With Cypher wounded, Kitai has to go on a perilous journey to find help.

Unlike many of Shyamalan’s films, including The Village and Unbreakable, After Earth isn’t necessarily a thriller, but fear is still a key part of the movie.

“Cypher teaches Kitai that when you get scared, you close your senses off,” the director says.

“It’s a very Zen thing – be present, stop anticipating what’s going to happen in the next moment. It’s also very much about mindfulness.”

While clearly passionate about his work, Shyamalan’s success has been somewhat unstable since the mega heights of The Sixth Sense.

Earlier films, like Unbreakable and Signs, were well received, but Lady In The Water and The Happening fared less well with the critics.

His 2010 offering, The Last Airbender was particularly slated and won a number of Razzie awards – those dreaded accolades that recognise Hollywood’s worst films.

It must have been a difficult decision, then, to choose his next project.

But when Smith called to reveal his plans for a new film starring him and his son, it was a bit of a no-brainer.

With the famous duo at the centre of attention, perhaps the media will be less scrutinising of Shyamalan’s directing skills...

Either way, while After Earth is unlikely to reach the dazzling heights of The Sixth Sense, it certainly shouldn’t earn him any more Razzies.

It’s beautifully shot, touching and even contains a joke or two. It’s a sure-fire summer hit.