The new Fox series Wayward Pines is an intense, mind-bending, 10-episode event thriller, in which Secret Service Agent Ethan Burke (Matt Dillon) drives to the town of Wayward Pines, Idaho to search for two missing federal agents, and mysteries within the town pile up, making Burke wonder whether he’ll ever make it home again. Based on Blake Crouch’s international best-selling series of books and brought to life by executive producer by M. Night Shyamalan, who directed the pilot, the show also stars Reed Diamond, Tim Griffin, Carla Gugino, Terrence Howard, Toby Jones, Melissa Leo, Juliette Lewis, Shannyn Sossamon and Charlie Tahan.
During this exclusive interview with Collider, M. Night Shyamalan talked about why Wayward Pines struck him in a way that other TV pilots hadn’t, the extraordinary premise and great screenplay that he had to work with, learning how to put the right writers’ room together for a TV series, the inspiration he gets from David Lynch, putting together a cast of actors who are such grounded craftsmen, and keeping the reveals of a story secret. He also talked about what led him to work outside of the studio system for his upcoming feature release The Visit, which he self-financed, why you can’t play it safe, as an artist, and why he’s always wanted to do a sequel for Unbreakable.
Collider: When Wayward Pines came your way, what was that made you want to sign on and get involved, as both director of the pilot and as an executive producer of the series?
NIGHT SHYAMALAN: I’ve been asked to direct pilots for a lot of shows. Sometimes they have their own vision and it’s set, and they just want me to come in and direct and episode and set the cast. Other times, they want me to do everything. They have just a light idea of where to go, but they haven’t figured it out, so they say, “Here, you can do whatever you want.” But this was the perfect balance of them coming to the table with a premise that I thought was really extraordinary, they had a great screenplay, and there was source material that I could work with that fit me really well. It was a very natural decision. I just enjoyed reading the pilot and was like, “Gosh, I think I can do this.” It was also very Lynchian humor.
It was one of those things where I was waiting to feel that way. I had a desire to do TV and wanted to get in, in the right way, knowing that I was going to learn a lot, along the way. It just needed to be the right balance, so that I didn’t screw it up and could have a good time. This just felt right. I felt confident that I could do this and could learn from my mistakes, along the way. I felt like I could do it because it wasn’t open-ended and forever. Now, I feel much more comfortable with the form. The muscles that writers need for film are very different from TV muscles. Now, when I hire the writers and put the writers’ room together, I know where their muscles need to be and how to think long-term vs. short-term. Sometimes people can write really great scenes and even a great episode, but they can’t see the bigger picture, and this is a long form. I’m better at sensing where their muscles are now.
How much of an inspiration is David Lynch and his work, for you?
SHYAMALAN: I went back and watched Blue Velvet just recently. I’m writing a new movie, and I’m just such a fan of what he’s done. I wrote so many notes watching Blue Velvet. You don’t want to watch classics with me ‘cause I’m constantly writing notes. Most of the time, I don’t watch classics with anybody. I have to be by myself. That’s my classroom. And the pilot for Twin Peaks is so incredible. It’s an art form, in and of itself. It’s so beautiful. There are those dolly shots around the table, and they take forever. And everyone is so odd and disturbing. It’s almost the opposite of every studio note that’s ever been given. And Wayward Pines feels like David Lynch in tone, but there’s a reason that they’re acting like they’re in a David Lynch movie. That’s the plot. Why are they acting like they’re in a David Lynch movie? When I understood what the answer was, then I really knew how to ground everything. I find it very eerie when somebody is being really polite.
It must have been challenging to put together a cast that could all really pull off that delicate balance.
SHYAMALAN: And these actors pull it off so well because they’re such grounded craftsmen. Even if their character is doing something incredibly bizarre, we talk and talk until we get to the rationale and reasoning of why they can defend what they’re doing. Even if it’s something heinous, they need to defend the actions of their character, or they’re not honoring their character. When they do that, that’s when it becomes real.
You have a lot of experience keeping reveals of a story a secret. Do you feel like that really worked to the advantage of the story you’re telling with this show?
SHYAMALAN: Yeah, it really did. Filmmakers have to find the right materials to match their [voice]. That’s the whole gig, when you match your [voice] to the material and characters. A TV show where all of the characters are trying to figure out what’s going on, and the suspense of that, fits my [voice] really well. You feel their frustration, anger and fear, and then, when the reveal happens, their sense of dread or horror, or whatever it is, and I like to paint with those colors. It felt really natural. The beauty is that we can blur film and TV a little bit more.
You’ve been in the studio system since you started your career, but you just self-financed your next movie, totally outside of the studio system. How was that even possible?
SHYAMALAN: It was a huge risk. You’re saying, “I’m gonna do this thing,” and you have to be aware, as a rational human being, that you may not be allowed back in. That was a real situation. Because they didn’t make it, it doesn’t necessarily go back into the system. That was a risk that I was willing to take. I tried to stay on top of why The Visit was an amazing movie to make, and why someone would want it in the system. Its best shot at being the best version of itself was to make it small. If I was a basketball player, it would be like me going and playing street ball. I just wanted to go back to feeling a love for the sport. I love making movies and I wanted to get back there. I had the greatest year making it. I had the greatest time writing it. You can feel that, when you see the movie. I’m super lucky that my number one choice, Universal, was interested. When I wrote it, I said, “Universal is the right place to release this movie.” They said, “Show it to me when it’s done.” I showed them when it was done, and they bought it.
Had you been thinking about doing something like that for awhile?
SHYAMALAN: Yeah. I’d made a couple of big movies and there’s a certain line. I consider myself an independent filmmaker. It’s absolutely true that I’ve been in the studio system, but I write and direct my movies, they’re always in Philadelphia, and they’re pretty much left alone. But when you do bigger budget movies, that’s not the case. It’s a different thing, altogether. Let’s not say bad or good, but it’s a whole different world. When you’re taking that much to make the movie, there’s so many people involved and there’s so much at stake. It’s so complicated a process. You don’t have your film finished when you have your director’s cut finished. It’s just a bunch of green screen. You can’t tell the rhythm. The performances of the characters are not there because they’re not there yet. There’s nothing there. They’re still animating it. It’s a very different discipline.
I’m so from the Woody Allen/Spike Lee school. Literally, I am from their school, NYU. But, I’m from that world where I feel so comfortable making small independent movies. I aspire for the biggest audience to see them, but I would love to make the smallest movie as possible to maintain the integrity of process. I want it to be quirky. Whatever that odd little tilt is, I don’t want to correct it. I want it to be that way and celebrate its individuality, and then hope that it goes back into the system.
It was the perfect thing for me. You don’t get to celebrate yourself unless you risk being mocked or rejected. As an artist, you cannot play it safe. You just can’t. You can’t grow that way. That’s the thing about humanity and artistry. You’re never the same. You’re degrading, or you’re getting better. You don’t stay the same. You’re continually doing one or the other. There’s no staying where you were. If you’re not doing anything, your skills and point of view are atrophying. If your mind is not actively looking for the thing in this room that you want to tell a story about, you’re not learning your skill set. This was one of those things that relied solely on making myself have no safety net. It’s gonna hurt, but you’re going to find a way to figure out the answers.
Do you see yourself doing that again?
SHYAMALAN: I do. My philosophy, for now, is to make movies with the biggest possible budget that will allow it to be made in an independent fashion. It doesn’t have to be made out of the studio system.
You’ve said that you’ve always wanted to do a sequel for Unbreakable. Is that something you’re still holding out hope for?
SHYAMALAN: Yeah, I do sometimes. I love those characters and I love that world. Of course, the whole world makes comic book movies now. At the time, it was completely novel. I remember when I made it, Disney was literally like, “Comic books?! There’s no market for comic books!” That’s all they make now! It was a hilarious conversation. I remember it. I was like, “Maybe you’re right. Maybe nobody will come see comic book movies.” They were like, “Those are people in little conventions who like comic books.” And I was like, “But, I like comic books!”
It would be interesting to see what a sequel to that would be like in the world today?
SHYAMALAN: Yeah. But the beauty of the world of Unbreakable is that you’re playing it for reality. It should never feel like a comic book movie. It feels like a straight-up drama. It’s real. You’re confronting the possibility that comic book characters were based on people that were real. That’s the premise, so the tone has to be super grounded. It would be cool.
Wayward Pines airs on Thursday nights on Fox. Click here for all our previous coverage.