Writer and director M. Night Shyamalan has become one of our pre-eminent spinners of contemporary movie fables with a succession of multi-layered hit films featuring his distinctive blend of suspense, drama, humor and heartfelt emotion. Since his debut with the groundbreaking ghost story The Sixth Sense, he has gone on to forge a series of gripping modern films that explore provocative human mysteries, attaining critical accolades and phenomenal box-office success along the way.
Now, with THE HAPPENING, Shyamalan goes back to his roots with a stripped down, gut-wrenchingly intense thriller – a tale of disaster, harrowing escape, and of nature in deadly conflict with humanity. At its core, the story is perhaps his most immediate and direct, as it follows just three people – a man, a woman and a child – on the road, running from a nameless, faceless catastrophe. But it is also a story that boldly puts forth a haunting vision of an epic apocalypse triggered not directly by man but by the natural world; that asks what happens when the primal human instinct for preservation goes awry; and that explores how love and tenderness might help keep us alive in the darkest and most threatening of times.
The idea for THE HAPPENING came to Shyamalan as he drove across the New Jersey countryside, watching a lush, green world whirr by through the windshield. “I was on my way to New York,” he recalls, “it was a beautiful day and the trees were hanging over the highway, and I suddenly thought to myself, ‘What if nature one day turned on us?’ In that moment, the entire structure of the story for THE HAPPENING popped into my head instantly and the characters suddenly became perfectly clear. It was a great feeling because movies are always so much more accessible when the predominating thing is the structure.” Even from those earliest moments of inspiration, before a single word was on the page, Shyamalan also knew that he wanted a very specific style for this film. “I knew that I wanted to make a movie that would be electric, clean and dynamic,” he says.
The initial draft of Shyamalan’s screenplay was already quite intense, but when Twentieth Century Fox came on board, the studio suggested that Shyamalan might push the story even further, that he could approach it as an R-rated movie and take it to extremes of tension and terror where he’d not yet ventured. Shyamalan was surprised, but excited by the freedom this suggestion brought to let his imagination run even wilder. “When I thought about it, I thought this is really the way to make this story, because it is already a story all about taboos. I mean if you had tried to make THE EXORCIST as a PG-13 movie, it would be hard to imagine,” he muses.
Sums up producer Barry Mendel: “The big idea of the film was always to push the Night genre and Fox just said to us, there are no boundaries, take the gloves off, go for it, and we did.” Adds producer Sam Mercer: “THE HAPPENING takes many of the supernatural and emotional elements traditional to Night’s movies to a new level. And this story begs a compelling bigger question – have we gone too far as humans?”
Shyamalan envisioned creating a contemporary twist on the Cold War paranoia thrillers of the 1950s and 60s – movies that entertained and raised the anxiety meter with a spine-tingling sense of imminent doom and yet, beneath their roiling surfaces, subtly questioned the sanity of modern society’s direction. From the vengeful crows of Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds to the atomic-created Godzilla and the aggressive, plant-like pods of Don Siegel’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers, many of these classic tales of suspense played like horror movies, yet also left audiences reeling with the sense of a brave new world in which the earth might go on but the human species might not make it.
Shyamalan knew that, as with all these movies, the driving force of THE HAPPENING would be an all-pervasive sense of uncertainty and fear. But he went a step further to contemplate the most unthinkable kind of demise for humankind. “I think what’s really scary in THE HAPPENING is that people start acting in the opposite way of how they are supposed to act. Unexplainable behavior is always very disturbing and there’s a lot of taboo behavior in this story,” he explains. “After all, what is the one thing that keeps a species going – it’s the instinct to stay away from harmful things, to protect ourselves and each other. But if you take away that instinct what happens? Things will turn upside down very, very quickly.”
The writer/director turned the screws even tighter on the mystery of the story by staying away from any pat, detailed explanation of the causes of “the happening,” merely hinting at an environmental blowback that has affected the human mind. “The film is a conscience check but in a sense, I think the audience will fill in the answers and we don’t need the movie to say 100% percent what is going on,” he comments. “There are characters who are talking about what actually is going on but they’re dismissed and denied a lot by other people. Still, I believe our human responsibility for what is going on is very much in the movie, as well as the notion that this is a day of reckoning.”
Shyamalan enjoyed the liberating effect of breaking away from something for which he has become renowned: the tricky, twist ending. He always saw THE HAPPENING as playing out in just 36 hours, rocketing from the first hints of disaster to a singular climax, without any detours, that would leave the audience still breathless. “The end-of-the-world genre was a nice feeling for me because if I write anything that feels like a chess match going on with the audience, the audience will expect that, even if I’m not playing the chess match,” he laughs. “But sometimes a story is just a story. In the case of THE HAPPENING, it is really about a family trying to survive and learning to love one another and that’s what most drew me to this. My goal was always to make a fast-paced movie where you come out paranoid about things happening in the world you never really considered before.”
Although THE HAPPENING is in some ways a departure for Shyamalan, like his other films, the story’s large-scale apocalypse also becomes a way of exploring, on a very intimate level, two characters in the midst of a personal crisis. At the heart of the tale is a couple – science teacher Elliot and therapist Alma – who even as the world is self-destructing around them, are struggling with themes of protecting and caring for one another in their domestic life.
“For me, story ideas are always catalysts for characters to have conversations about faith, about love, about human life, and to reveal themselves spiritually and emotionally,” Shyamalan comments. “There is a lot in Elliot and Alma’s relationship about the way that love works, about who we really are in relationships, about what it means to be the chaser in a relationship or the chased, and about what we say to each other when we think we’re having our last conversation together. What interested me about Elliot is that he has a lot of faith in his wife that she’ll come through.”
Unexpectedly, as events play out, Elliot and Alma find themselves part of a newly formed nuclear family, one borne out of terrifying times yet imbued with a flickering sense of hope that provides just enough light in the darkness around them to go on. “I hope the new family that they create serves as a metaphor for humanity, for our ability to be positive and hopeful and move forward – and, at the same time, I hope the movie leaves you with the sense that we may not get that chance if we don’t start changing some things,” concludes Shyamalan.