The ultimate M. Night Shyamalan twist was one no one saw coming.
After scoring a critical and commercial breakthrough with 1999’s Oscar-nominated “The Sixth Sense,” Shyamalan had more than his share of ups and downs with critics and at the box office. But the roller-coaster ride is reaching a new peak with a cinematic universe two decades in the making.
His latest film, “Glass,” in theaters Jan. 18, unites the lead characters of 2000’s “Unbreakable” and 2016’s “Split” for a compelling, suspenseful and very sly exercise in creating a comic book-esque universe from scratch. And Shyamalan – breaking Hollywood’s roles by not working with preexisting properties and making films on his own terms — just might succeed where others have failed.
“Glass” is the conclusion to a trilogy that Shyamalan, cinema’s unorthodox auteur, has been slowly orchestrating since “Unbreakable” — with a little help from the universe at many steps along the way.
“So many things had to go right that had nothing to do with me that had to fall into place,” Shyamalan said from Philadelphia two weeks before the nationwide release of “Glass.” “I’ve been fighting for so long to get things made and do them in the right way. When I look back on this trilogy and this movie there’s a sense of, ‘Wow — it was kind of meant to be.’”
A chance meeting with James McAvoy, for example, led to the actor starring in “Split” as Kevin Wendell Crumb, a man with dissociative identity disorder living with 23 “alters” collectively known as the Horde. A “friendly agreement” with Disney exec Sean Bailey granted “Split” studio Universal permission to borrow Bruce Willis’ “Unbreakable” character for the surprise post-credits cameo that signaled that the two films occupied the same narrative universe.
And then everyone had to be game to come back and tie the trilogy together in “Glass,” in which Willis fully reprises his role as everyman superhero David Dunn, now older, grizzlier and moonlighting as a vigilante hero known as the Overseer.
News about a kidnapping sends the Overseer on a collision course with the Horde, but “Glass” is purposefully named after Elijah Price, aka Mr. Glass, the comic book collector with a rare genetic disease who spent “Unbreakable” trying to prove he was the supervillain to Dunn’s superhero.
For the last 16 years, “Glass” reveals, Price has been wheelchair-bound and under heavy sedation at the Raven Hill Memorial Psychiatric Research Hospital, where Dr. Ellie Staple (Sarah Paulson) seeks to treat all three men for the affliction she suspects they share: A clinical disorder in which delusional patients believe they have superpowers.
The linchpin to the series, Samuel L. Jackson’s portrayal of Mr. Glass has been years in the making. And so has his understanding of what Price has endured since the events of “Unbreakable.”
“I thought it important to show that his mind was even sharper, and his focus was more intense,” said the actor via email ahead of the film’s London premiere. “He’s already been imprisoned by his body for his entire life, and his incarceration has focused him that much more. When he learns about Kevin Crumb and his relationship with [Dunn], he sees the opportunity to achieve his greatest goal, and he goes after setting it in motion with everything he’s got.”
"It had to be these studios,” Shyamalan said of Universal and Disney, who co-produced with the filmmaker’s Blinding Edge Pictures and split global distribution rights. “And it had to be these actors. There were a lot of ‘ifs’ on the table: Can we get this done? Will they be available? Will they want to do this in the way I want to do this?’”
In the intervening years, Shyamalan had moved on to write and direct more of his signature original tales (2002’s “Signs,” 2004’s “The Village,” 2006’s “Lady in the Water” and 2008’s “The Happening”) but found diminishing returns swinging for blockbuster heights (2010’s “The Last Airbender,” adapted from the Nickelodeon series and 2013’s “After Earth,” based on an original idea by Will Smith were both savaged by critics and delivered underwhelming box office).
2015’s $5 million-budgeted “The Visit,” made independently with Blumhouse for a fraction of what his biggest films had cost, returned Shyamalan to his roots. And the greater creative control that lower budgets afford. It grossed $98 million worldwide, setting him on a path to make films in a new way, his way.
Fans — and his own stars, adds Night – had been asking about an “Unbreakable” sequel since the film opened.
“It was actually them always saying to me, ‘Let’s make the sequel, let’s make the sequel,’” Shyamalan laughed. “And I was like, ‘Yeah, yeah, yeah — I’m workin’ on it!’ I think they probably just kind of gave up on the idea that I was ever going to do it. Until I wrote ‘Split.’”
He had the idea for the “Split” cameo and called Willis, who “was 100% for it and said yes immediately,” said Shyamalan. The actor flew to the set and filmed his scene in secret in a matter of hours. Shyamalan, meanwhile, kept the cameo footage out of early screenings of the film “just to be super safe – and to [let viewers] think of the movie as its own thing. It was a very healthy way to approach it.”
While making “Split,” he’d let McAvoy and costar Anya Taylor-Joy in on his plans, giving them an inkling of the cinematic worlds they’d be bridging. But Jackson had no clue yet that Willis’ Dunn was back in action or what that might mean for their long-ago plans. Shyamalan broke the news with a cryptic message.
“Night surprised me with the idea of ‘Glass,’” recalled Jackson. “He told me to see ‘Split,’ and to give him a call after I watched it. So I watched ‘Split’ and enjoyed and had no idea until the scene with Bruce at the end. When he mentioned Mr. Glass, I knew that we were finally going to do a sequel, and that these films were in the same universe.”
“He came out and said, ‘What does this mean?’” Shyamalan said with a laugh. “It means we’re making the sequel!”
Meanwhile, across the Shyamalan-verse …
Sarah Paulson had just flown to New York with her freshly acquired 2017 Golden Globe award for “American Crime Story: The People v. O.J. Simpson” in her carry-on luggage when a friend suggested they go check out the new M. Night Shyamalan film.
“I’m a huge fan of his movies, and I always have been,” said Paulson, en route to take another flight, this time to meet up with her “Glass” costars for the European press tour. “I saw ‘Signs’ at the Grove in Los Angeles with Amanda Peet, who wouldn’t let me leave her house afterwards because she was so afraid there was going to be some weird alien in the bathroom!”
“Nothing in his movies is happenstance,” she added. “Everything is really purposeful, and that’s extraordinary.”
Paulson caught a showing of “Split” on 34th Street and erupted along with the rest of the audience when she realized what Willis’ cameo meant. But she had no idea Shyamalan had her in mind to help complete the trilogy when he asked for a meeting months later.
Shyamalan was in the process of writing the role that would eventually become Dr. Ellie Staple, a character that required a “powerful” actor to hold their own against Willis, Jackson and McAvoy. He visited Paulson on the set of “American Horror Story: Cult” to discuss the mystery project over lunch.
“I wanted someone complex and buoyant, and I always tend toward theater actors because I think their craft is strong. The way I shoot my movies without much coverage requires commitment; not fearing it but really embracing the concept that whatever choice you made that started your take, that’s the right choice,” said Shyamalan.
Ever secretive, he didn’t tell Paulson much in their meetings about the character. But three weeks later he called to offer her the part “and I burst into tears,” said Paulson. “And I had not read the script! I had no idea what it was going to be, but it was the idea of working with him in whatever capacity that was so thrilling to me. That’s when he told me it was the sequel to these two movies. And I was like, wait – what?!”
Watching Paulson’s Dr. Staple introduce a new and electric dynamic to the already complicated connections between David, Elijah and Kevin as the four stars explored scenes set in an actual former psychiatric hospital in Philly “was just delicious,” said Shyamalan.
Adding another special undercurrent to “Glass” are the family members whose relationships to the central trio are key to understanding them as people, not just superpowered heroes or villains. To complete the cast and bring “Glass” full circle, Shyamalan tapped Spencer Treat Clark, who was 6 years old when he appeared in “Unbreakable,” to reprise his role as Dunn’s now-25-year-old son Joseph, and Charlayne Woodard, who returns as Elijah’s caring mother, Mrs. Price.
“It really gave veracity to what we were trying to do, this kind of ‘Boyhood’ approach,” said Shyamalan, who integrated unused footage from “Unbreakable” into the film. “You see a boy turn into a man on screen, and Bruce ages 18 years. It gave it a sense of inevitability, and hopefully power.”
He also compares “Glass” to “The Sopranos.” “To see what [Tony Soprano’s] home life is like, going to therapy, his teenagers not listening to him, all of that stuff, is amazing. Yeah, during the day he kills people. But he’s just a dude struggling,” he said. “For me, telling a comic book story about comic book characters and their struggles and seeing what their home life is like, essentially, ‘What are their hearts like when they’re at home?’ They’re just like us. It just so happens that they’re superheroes.”
In spite of his longstanding resistance to traditional Hollywood methods (“Glass” is the first sequel in his resume), might more films in the “Unbreakable” universe be in the cards if “Glass” connects with audiences?
“I highly doubt you will ever see another sequel from me. But I don’t want to be an idiot and say never, because tomorrow you’ll read that I’m doing ‘Star Wars 10’ and go, ‘He lied!’” he said, laughing.
Sequels aren't really his thing, said Shyamalan, who describes feeling more akin to a novelist, crafting original stories he dreams up out of his home base in Philly from his notebook of ideas.
“The challenge of original movies is that there’s no frame,” he said. “If you know it’s an appetizer, you’re taking it as an appetizer. If you know it’s an entrée, you’re taking it as an entrée — and you judge it that way. If I don’t tell you what you’re eating, then I say, ‘What do you think?’ It’s harder.”