M. Night Shyamalan on Knock at the Cabin and Why He Used a Lot of Close-Ups
Feb 14, 2023
When the line, “I see dead people,” was uttered, writer-director, M. Night Shyamalan, secured his place in cinema. The Sixth Sense, which went on to earn two Academy Award nominations that year, paved the way for nearly three decades of Shyamalan’s original filmography, now known for its psychological thrills and plot twists. In his most recent feature, Knock at the Cabin, the screenplay is an adaptation of the Bram Stoker Award-winning novel, The Cabin at the End of the World by Paul Tremblay, with themes the filmmaker found inspiration in.
During a family getaway, a couple, Eric and Andrew, played by Jonathan Groff and Ben Aldridge, take their daughter Wen (Kristen Cui) to a secluded cabin in the woods. While outside by herself, Wen is approached by a strange man who says his name is Leonard (Dave Bautista). At first, Leonard seems soft-spoken and kind, but when his “friends,” played by Rupert Grint, Nikki Amuka-Bird, and Abby Quinn, emerge from the trees with weapons, this family vacation goes south quickly. These four harbingers tell the family they must make an impossible choice in order to prevent an apocalypse.
COLLIDER VIDEO OF THE DAY
During the press tour for Knock at the Cabin, Shyamalan spoke with Collider’s own Steve Weintraub about taking on this project. In the interview, Shyamalan reveals how he almost wasn’t involved with the movie at all and how it eventually returned with him as the director. He explains why the movie doesn’t follow the novel beat for beat, how he worked with two cinematographers and natural lighting for a more “organic” feel, editing the script right up until the very last minute, and how the “degree of difficulty was the highest” of all his cameos to get into Knock at the Cabin. Shyamalan also discusses Apple TV+’s Servant and what movie ideas he has in the works. You can watch the interview in the video above, or read the full transcript below.
Image via Universal
COLLIDER: I want to start by saying how much I enjoyed this movie. This is one of your best films.
M. NIGHT SHYAMALAN: Thank you, sir.
But before we get into this film, if someone has actually never seen anything you’ve directed before, what is the first thing you want them watching, and why?
SHYAMALAN: I showed my girls the movies in order because they represented me in a different movement of wherever I was from a kid to here. So, probably, I would just say watch them in order because they speak to it. One’s a kind of reaction to the other or a movement from one to the next, so probably that.
Sure. When I spoke to you a few years ago, you told me you had your next three or four projects figured out – wouldn’t tell me what they were, but you had your stuff together. So at this moment right now, where are you in terms of your future, and how many projects do you have in your mind for the future?
SHYAMALAN: Yeah, it’s a really odd moment. Both very wonderful and confusing because I have three movie ideas. I even have the structure of all three to some extent. And so it’s a very weird and interesting situation I’m feeling. I wish I could tell them faster. I wish I could get there faster, but there is no shortcut. I have to spend the six to nine months to write it. I have to storyboard for three months, and then we have pre-production, and then shooting it and edit for as long as I can get, every single second.
I just finished Knock at the Cabin. I would say the three hours, four hours before I put my pencils down on Knock at the Cabin, I added one more line. I called an actor and I was like, “Say this into your phone and send it to me right now. I have an idea.” And I put it in. It was like, one last idea, and then they were like, “Pencils down. You can’t put another idea in it.”
Image via Universal
So basically, you’re saying that literally every two years from now for the next six years, most likely there’ll be a movie?
SHYAMALAN: Definitely, but I’m hoping to do it a tiny bit faster than that. Let’s see if I can handle it. What Servant taught me was, “Wow, there’s a beauty to creating when you have a lot, a lot of things on your table that you don’t…” Me as a human being, I don’t spend as much time angsting, and I spend more time doing. And the doing makes the iteration process quicker because I’m doing it and it doesn’t work, or it does work. And I’m like, “Oh, it doesn’t…” And so I stopped being so precious because there was just an enormous amount of work to do on Servant.
So one floor of a building had Servant and one had Knock at the Cabin. And I’m running upstairs [to] this side and the editor would show me something here, or the composer would show me something here. And I’d say, “This movement needs to go like that.” And you just go to the next question. It was almost like playing multiple games of chess at the same time. And I found that I stayed healthier rather than retreating to my unhealthy version of myself of imposter syndrome, or being destructive, or whatever it is, ego-driven stuff, that I was just reacting to the material.
Definitely have to know. Servant obviously was a big hit on Apple. Do you have another TV idea, or is that something that still interests you?
SHYAMALAN: It is. I don’t think I could do that anymore where I was doing everything. Where every sound effect, every music cue, everything was coming through me. I would love to find a fellow showrunner, or showrunner that I could help, that I could help with her voice or his voice, and help them get to the finish line.
Image via Apple TV+
I’ve got to be honest, I think you’re too much of a micromanager.
SHYAMALAN: It’s so true. No, don’t say that. Don’t say that. That’s going to scare off everybody.
I think that you are because you’re very passionate about your stuff. But that’s one of the reasons why your name is synonymous with quality. It’s because of who you are.
SHYAMALAN: I’m hoping that there’s a healthy balance in the future that we can find for something like that.
You’ve done cameos in all your projects, the cameo in this is spectacular. Which is your favorite cameo in all your films?
SHYAMALAN: Sometimes I’m not in the films because I just can’t, it doesn’t seem right. And this one I thought, for sure, I’m not going to be in. That’s what I thought for sure. And then in pre-production, I was like, “You know what? I have a funny idea.” And then everybody enjoyed the concept so much. I was like, “All right, let’s go shoot.” It was the first thing we shot, this thing that’s in Knock at the Cabin. And I was like, “This is never going to end up in the movie.” And it did. And the editor was like, “I love it. It’s so funny.” And I was like, “You sure?”
It is. Is this your favorite one?
SHYAMALAN: I think the degree of difficulty was the highest of how to get in there.
Image via Universal Pictures
So jumping into your film. This is adapted from a book, and you’ve definitely made changes from the book. There’s a huge change in terms of the daughter. I’m curious, how did you figure out what you wanted to change? And how nervous were you to change something like that?
SHYAMALAN: Well, it was very organic. The movie came to me as a producing entity where the writers and the directors who were on wanted to make a straight adaptation of the book, just moment for moment, straight adaptation. And that’s how it came to me. And then I said, “I love this premise so deeply. And I think you guys are onto something, I really do. I don’t believe in this story when it went left. I can’t get behind that. And I think my audience, I wouldn’t want to have them experience that.” That’s what I said. And I said, “I totally support you and I wish you the best.” And then they went, and it didn’t come together, that movie.
Then organically, the book came back to me and they said, “We loved what you were saying about…” I said what I thought should happen and where the story should go. And then they said, “We really believe in what you just said.” And I said, “Huh.” Then I was thinking about it and I thought, “I believe in this premise so much. I’m having that irrational connection to it.” And I could see myself working on it for a year and a half from there. And so I said, “You know what? I’m actually going to do it myself.” So it was very beautiful in the way it came organically back.
And they jumped up and down and were excited because it meant that it was going to get made.
You shot with two directors of photography on this. They both worked on Servant. One of them shot The Lighthouse. I mean, Jarin [Blaschke], his work is great. How did you end up with two DPs?
SHYAMALAN: It was a schedule thing. Jarin ended up doing all the interiors, not every single interior, but almost all of them, and then Lowell [A. Meyer] did the exteriors. So there was an organic place in the schedule where we could make that happen. I was very lucky to have both of them there. I love them both. They’re good human beings, really, both of them. And obviously, I loved them because I worked with them on Servant, and I was like, “Hey, let’s do this together.” I love working with new people.
Jarin is just a very special mind, the way he thinks about lighting, and, I mean, it’s a very complex way we shot the cabin. [There are] no lights inside. So we didn’t use any lights, there were no bounces, nothing. It’s just coming from the windows and the doors, and so [it is] a very naturalistic way to shoot on a stage. And it creates a very beautiful, difficult to expose to, difficult all of that stuff to work around. Because if you move a little bit like this, then you see the lights in all the windows, so you have to adjust everything. It’s a tedious process, but it yields something very beautiful.
It also looks like it’s shot on location because of that.
SHYAMALAN: Yeah, because of that. The discipline.
Image via Universal
I really like the aesthetic and how you shot this, and I loved the use of close-ups, and I’m curious if you could talk a little bit about why you wanted closeups in certain scenes.
SHYAMALAN: If you think about the language of cinema and wide shots, mid-shots, and then close-ups, they are different ways that the characters are interacting with their environment. So, let’s say I’m in a hostage situation like that and I’m thinking about escape. I might be talking to you, but I’m thinking about how to get out. And I could do that in a wide shot because that’s conveying that the character is saying, “Hey, it’s going to be all right. No, I’m fine, I’m fine.” But I’m thinking about the windows and the doors, and you see me struggling.
If there’s a specific thing that I’m feeling, I tend to do it closer. I’m trying to ascertain whether you are crazy, or [if] you’re going to hurt me right now. I’m in hyper close-up with you. I’m watching your facial expressions. I don’t really care about your legs. And so, the movie starts with a gunshot. It starts immediately with a stranger showing up. And so there’s a lot of close-ups because they’re at a nine from almost go. You’re with your daughter and strangers break into your house. You’re at a nine, and you need to get out of here.
You know I like talking about the editing process. So let’s talk about how this film changed in the editing room. Did you have a much longer cut?
SHYAMALAN: The movie’s my shortest screenplay. Noemi [Katharina], who cut it, is a very beautiful editor. She’s as sharp in her editing and physical as she is in her ability to assess performance, which is the most important thing. To be able to arc characters’ performances with me, and having a sense of that. So she has both muscles, the muscularity to keep it going, but the delicacy of picking the right performances.
Basically, we squeezed and squeezed and squeezed and squeezed it to get to the essence of it, because, “What is too much to be said?” I was amazed at how much we squeezed it. And when you watch it, it’s breathless because we took everything out. Every line, every redundancy that we could think of, we pulled out.
So it’s a harsh part of the process as you do that if you’re honest with yourself and you’re moving towards this one thing, this movement like that. And there’s a lot of rewriting that’s going on. “I wish the character said that,” and then I do that line, or we do reshoots and I make sure I get those things. “I wish that this scene ended with this.” And so it’s a very complicated, organic process of listening to the story and how you watch it. If me and her watch it in the editing room, then I have a little theater at home and we watch it with the crew, then it has a different feeling, but that’s different than when we put it with 200 people in an audience. And those are three different versions of the same cut. You have to be honest with yourself about the only one that matters is that last one with the audience.
Image via Universal
No, 100%. So I’m just going to see what you’ll tell me… I know you have a release date for your next movie. What can you tease fans of yours about the next one?
SHYAMALAN: God, there’s one thing I want to tell you so badly. I’m just dying to tell you. And then when we meet later for that movie, you’re going to tell me, “What was that?” So there’s this thing I’m dying to tell you about it, which is super special to me. Let me see. What can I tell you? It’s interesting, both this last one – meaning Knock at the Cabin – because I was thinking of it for somebody else, right? I was thinking of it as a mentor or as a producer for other people, so I was thinking about what it should be in a very organic way. And then I decided to do that version because I felt so deeply about it.
Same thing happened with this. I was thinking about it as something for someone else to direct, as an idea for someone else to direct. And I just kept on thinking about it and thinking about it. And I was like, “Well, then this could happen and then that can happen. Oh my God. And then this could happen. Oh no. And then this could happen.” And then I got through the whole thing and I was like, “I’m going to do this.” The same exact thing happening again. Maybe it’s one of those things, like you said, I can never let go of it.
Knock at the Cabin is in theaters tomorrow.
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