He was driving to New York City, which is a couple of hours from where he lives in Pennsylvania. "You get into a kind of hazy half-sleep. And this idea kind of bloomed and it was big. The plot, like you could feel it. Sometimes the thing that makes me make a movie is a character. Sometimes it's a scene. And sometimes it's a structure. And this one had a structure to it which is really, again, another really wonderful moment if it happens."
It's one of those movies where the less you know, the scarier it is, and "The Happening" begins with a bang: People stop frozen in New York City's Central Park and then begin inexplicably killing themselves with a kind of stunned matter-of-factness. Is it an airborne toxin? Global warming gone vicious? The mass psychosis spreads like a virus through the Northeast, sowing numbed panic as humans scamper to outrun the threat.
It's Shyamalan's first R-rated film and it was the studio, 20th Century Fox, that encouraged him not to stint on the violence and blood. "Night has an uncanny gift at exploring the recesses of the human psyche," says outgoing studio Vice Chairman Hutch Parker, and in this film, particularly, "the psychology of fear. We felt that the R rating would allow Night to go beyond the limits he explored so far, breaking new ground for himself and for the audience."
Yet, the terror is wrapped up in a reconciliation drama between a young couple played by Mark Wahlberg and Zooey Deschanel. "It's a normal day in their kind-of-troubled marriage," Shyamalan says. "And then this thing happens on this day. And if you got to the point where you knew in the next minute you were going to be dead. You both know it; you're not fighting it anymore, it's a fait accompli. You get one last conversation. What do you say to each other? That's what the movie ultimately is about."
Shyamalan famously identifies himself as a family man. He met his wife, Bhavna, while he was still at NYU, and during their first year of marriage they lived in his parents' house. Now they have two daughters. What would he say to his wife if they had only a few minutes to live? Shyamalan has to pause a moment.
"The good thing for me is that my wife, she genuinely makes me a better person," he says finally. "She's not just a light, surface person. You will never have a conversation about what someone looks like or anything. It's just not the conversations that we have. They're always the conversation that you have at the end. I think the strength of the relationship is that we always are aware. That's why it's not so unusual for me to think about if it all went away. Because you're always thinking about that, you know?"
However, at the last moment, he says he would not try to be too profound. That's the Shyamalan twist to this particular story.
"I probably would have a real casual conversation," he says. "One last laugh. One moment about the irony of life . . . that what we thought was so important was so, so not important."