Interview – M. Night Shyamalan on maintaining tension in new thriller ‘Knock at the Cabin’

While vacationing at a remote cabin, a young girl and her parents are taken hostage by four armed strangers who demand that the family make an unthinkable choice to avert the apocalypse. With limited access to the outside world, the family must decide what they believe before all is lost.

From visionary filmmaker M. Night Shyamalan, Knock at the Cabin stars Dave Bautista (Dune, Guardians of the Galaxy franchise), Tony award and Emmy nominee Jonathan Groff (Hamilton, Mindhunter), Ben Aldridge (Pennyworth, Fleabag), BAFTA nominee Nikki Amuka-Bird (Persuasion, Old), newcomer Kristen Cui, Abby Quinn (Little Women, Landline) and Rupert Grint (Servant, Harry Potter franchise).

Leading up to the films release in Australian cinemas on February 2, I was lucky enough to chat with acclaimed filmmaker, M. Night Shyamalan (The Sixth Sense, Split) about adapting the novel, shooting in a single location and his evolution as a director!

Nick: Mr. Shyamalan, it’s a pleasure to meet you and I really appreciate you taking the time to chat today

M. Night Shyamalan: Thank you very much. Also, cool shirt, man!

Nick: [laughs] Thank you, thank you! This is one of the very few times that you’ve adapted from existing source material. I’m interested in finding out what you process is like as a screenwriter when it comes to choosing what you’re going to stay faithful to in the book, and what you’re going to put your own personal twist on?

M. Night Shyamalan: You know, I think it depends on the source material and its relationship to the current culture. It’s funny, Stuart Little was my first adaptation and instead of a straight adaptation, I made up a whole new thing that really was inspired by that wonderful classic. Then my last movie [Old] was inspired by a graphic novel, but I was more inspired by the images and then I came up wit the plot.

But in this case, this was kind of a third version. I was inspired by the premise and a lot of the set up. Then the book takes a very sharp left turn, and I felt very strongly that that wasn’t the way I wanted the story to proceed. So, in this case, I changed the title of the movie to signal to the audience that it’s not a straight adaptation of the book.

It really felt ground-breaking to see a gay, single-sex parent family at the centre of this film without the marketing making a big deal out of that fact. Was there much thought given to that initially as that hasn’t really been done in a mainstream, thriller film like this before?

M. Night Shyamalan: It’s something I feel really proud about because I didn’t really think about it. This is just a family, and this is just a love story. And I relate to it very deeply as a love story. In fact, it may be the love story that I relate to the most out of all the stories about love that I’ve told! It’s actual people, and what their genders or sexuality is, is irrelevant to this conversation. It’s a beautiful thing, but it’s just this family and their love is relatable on every level. People around the world have had this reaction of seeing themselves in this family. How beautiful is that, man?

Looking back at your entire filmography, how would you describe the evolution of your relationship with the macabre, supernatural and twist-like elements that your filmmaking style is often synonymous with?

M. Night Shyamalan: You know, sometimes when I talk at these junkets, I feel like I learn something about myself. You’re basically like my therapist! I get to talk to you and let my feelings out. And I’ve realised that I am inherently, a very emotional guy. I’m a very sentimental guy. My first two movies I did, I was 21 and 24, and the emotions of those stories were very much so “on the sleeve”. I couldn’t talk to audiences properly for some reason, because I was only showing light, and love, and sentimentality.

But when I decided to go into genre filmmaking, which was with The Sixth Sense, at 27 [years old], then I had a darkness to balance out that light. And when that balance came in for the audience, I found I had more emotional stories and talk about emotional things, but balanced against the genre. And I think that balance feels more true to the audience. I’m able to take that darkness now– I love it – that’s inside of me and, you know, deal with it. It has stayed with me all these years and it makes me able to talk to the audience in a more powerful way!

Knock at the Cabin is set in a very limited location, and I’m sure shooting in a location like this would’ve been very complex, but you still managed to make the film feel incredibly dynamic. Did you face any challenges making such an energetic film in such a limited space?

M. Night Shyamalan: Thank you! I think that was part of what I was trying to allude to when I was thinking of the shots, and how challenging it was to evolve what the characters were feeling. How scene 38 is different to scene 80, even though their all sitting in the same place. They’ve separated the two husbands in their belief system, they’ve seen violence. The child has got to a different place in her arc.

So, it was a really interesting exercise in subtilties of a point of view changing. That within the nuance of being a hostage victim, there’s always threat, but it’s arcing, especially as time is running out. And how I wanted to visually convey that took a long time to get right. It’s the longest story boarding process that I’ve ever done! Just as long as the scripting. It took about four-and-a-half months!

Thank you to M. Night Shyamalan, and to Universal Pictures, for the chance to chat about Knock at the Cabin, in cinemas February 2.

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Nick L'Barrow
Nick L'Barrow
Nick is a Brisbane-based film/TV reviewer. He gained his following starting with his 60 second video reviews of all the latest releases on Instagram (@nicksflicksfix), before launching a monthly podcast with Peter Gray called Monthly Movie Marathon. Nick contributes to Novastream with interviews and reviews for the latest blockbusters.

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