INTERVIEW M. Night Shyamalan steps out of his comfort zone to direct father-son duo Will and Jaden Smith in the futuristic After Earth that releases on June 7
M. Night Shyamalan, the patron saint of the small intimate movie, seems to have moved to blockbuster territory with After Earth, a sci-fi thriller set 1,000 years after the Earth has become inhospitable and human beings move to a new planet, Nova Prime. Starring superstar Will Smith and his son Jaden, After Earth tells the story of Kitai Raige (Jaden ) who wants to become a ranger like his illustrious father, Cypher (Will Smith). Kitai and Cypher set off on a trip that is meant to help them bond; but unfortunately a horrific accident crash lands their spaceship on Earth — which, has evolved to be distinctly human unfriendly. Cypher is wounded and it is left to Kitai to get help.
A happy balance
So was Night very far out of his comfort zone? “Not very much,” says the director over the phone from London. “While it is true I prefer smaller films and I am confident concentrating on intimacy, here with all the CGI, After Earth is a little bit more muscular. I discussed it with Will. In the big action sequences I would probably have my character do two things, here I pushed myself to make the character do four or maybe five things. Like I said before it was more muscular and unrelenting. In the final count I found it rewarding; it was a happy balance. I would describe the film as a family-friendly adventure.”
After Earth is also the first film Night is directing which he has not written. “Not really,” the 42-year-old says. “The idea was Will’s, but I came on board fairly early on and was part of the writing process.” (Night shares screenwriting credits with Gary Whitta, who wrote the uber cool apocalyptic Denzel Washington-starrer Book of Eli .)
With Will Smith acting and producing the film, Jaden Smith in a leading role and various other members of the family Smith involved in production, one wonders how much creative control Night had.
“Well, it is similar to my other films. I designed it in my barn (with the production designer of course) in Philadelphia, I shot there with my crew. After Earth , like all my other films is so embedded in my point of view...”
When explaining why he chose Night to direct the film, Will Smith said: “Night is a master of building suspense and fear. If there were a single thing that I would say is clearly Night’s genius, it’s how to take a single, still image and terrify you with it.”
“Will is being very gracious,” counters the Pondicherry-born director. “Yes I believe you can say a lot with a still image. You convey a great deal if you are careful in your composition. In fact I feel if you don’t give enough thought to your shot, you are suppressing your narrative.” While on the one level, After Earth can be looked at as a straight adventure, on the other, it can be looked as a fable. “Yes I hope audience at some level see it like that. It is metaphorical. Is the spaceship a coffin? We have a young man whose fear is chasing him — do these things really happen to him?”
Describing the film as a “dissertation on fear and our misunderstanding of it,” Night says, “I’m fascinated by why human beings fear the unknown. In our earliest days as cave-people, that was really important — fear could keep us safe. But now, we fear a new job or a new relationship, because we don’t know what’s going to happen — and that’s not necessarily a good thing. Playing with that in a movie is a fun thing, and in this movie, it’s about a father teaching a son how to overcome that. It’s a wonderful lesson, because if you can learn how to control your fear of the unknown, you can do anything.”
Sense of reality
Movie locations apart from Philadelphia included “Humboldt Redwoods State Park in northern California, Costa Rica, the desert near Moab, Utah, glaciers in Iceland and Eiger in Switzerland. Shooting on location brought a sense of reality to the cast and crew.”
Night has always worked with young people right from Haley Joel Osment in his break out film The Sixth Sense (how many people have seen dead people after that iconic film is open to conjecture!) to his latest— The Last Airbender . Talking about Jaden, Night says: “I really like Jaden. He is a sensitive kid. As an actor he will not go to a place till he is convinced and I am sure he is like that in real life too.”
Jaden is all praise for his director when he describes Night’s style of direction as sleight of hand. “Ah he must have said that because I defeated him 19 straight times at ping pong,” Night says with a laugh.
“Seriously, it is like a magic trick, you keep the audience’ interest somewhere else and slip in the denouement. I like that juxtaposition of emotions.”
So is it going to be a special-effects stuffed action movie? Or is it a story of a father and son learning to let go and trust each other? We will have to wait for June 7 to find out.
I really like Jaden. He is a sensitive kid. As an actor he will not go to a place till he is convinced and I am sure he is like that in real life too
M. Night Shyamalan