M. Night Shyamalan remembers the first time he watched “Paranormal Activity.”
“I was just like, ‘This is terrifying!’” the writer-director told Business Insider over the phone.
Having received an early version of the film before it was released, Shyamalan also recalled thinking, “This is going to be a phenomenon.”
And it turned out he was right. Released in 2009, the “found-footage” movie about a ghost tormenting a young couple in their house (filmed entirely on a single camera the actors shot on), was made for only around $15,000 and ended up grossing over $193 million worldwide. It then launched an unlikely franchise for Paramount Pictures that is about to come out with its final installment, “Paranormal Activity: The Ghost Dimension.”
The success of “Paranormal” also launched the career of producer Jason Blum, whose Blumhouse Productions has taken the found-footage horror genre (shot in a first-person, mockumentary style) and grown it into a money-maker by releasing similar low budget horror hits like “Insidious” and “Sinister.”
But the genre will now get a shot in the arm as Shyamalan has entered the fore.
Known best for his spooky thrillers with twist endings like “The Sixth Sense,” “Unbreakable,” and “Signs,” Shyamalan’s new film “The Visit” (with Blum producing) injects his Hollywood-polished suspense tastes into the low budget horror sub genre (the film's budget was around $5 million) to deliver a spooky thriller that follows a film enthusiast sister and wacky hip-hop loving brother as they go to meed their grandparents for the first time.
Shyamalan believes whether it’s a big budget movie or an indie it all starts with the characters, and for him it was the creation of the sister character Becca (Olivia DeJonge) that set the story in motion.
“When I thought of her as an aspiring filmmaker trying to make a movie for her family to bring them together, I saw the emotional engine of the movie,” Shyamalan told BI.
“The Visit” is unlike most found-footage horrors as it includes a top-flight cinematographer overseeing the visuals (Maryse Alberti) and has a serious dramatic plot, which focuses on Becca’s motivation to make a documentary on her family that focuses on why her mother left home for good as a teen.
Becca tries to get these answers from her grandparents, but ends up instead shooting scary moments like grandma running around the house naked after 9:30 at night and grandpa polishing his shotgun in the barn (while it’s in his mouth).
Needless to say, the scares are often, and Shyamalan admits that was the biggest challenge of the movie: what to take out.
“The struggle of the movie was in the balance of humor and scares and suspense,” he said. “The original [cut] was a good 35 minutes longer and really what ended up happening was understanding how many weird things the grandparents were doing was too much. The questions of structure was what took me a long time to get right.”
The ability to have so much great footage to choose from came from the amount of preparation Shyamalan had for the film.
A couple of months before the filming began, the production team acquired a gutted house and completely redid the interior to match Shyamalan’s script notes and storyboards. “It was really a run down house so we were able to be like ‘Put the oven here,’ and ‘Take away this window and make it a wall’ and made the house that way we wanted it to flow.”
He also had a lot of time with the two kid lead actors and was able to nail down all the blocking for the scenes, in which it looks like they are holding the cameras but in fact all the movements were done by a camera operator.
“It was all very structured and very calculated to ultimately give you the sense that it was spontaneous,” said Shyamalan.
Shyamalan admits this might not be the last time we see him make a movie in the found footage style.
One of the biggest lessons he learned from his previous movie, 2013’s Will Smith box office bomb “After Earth," was that mega budget films don't always play to Shyamalan's strengths.
“The movies I like are much more simple and I feel really comfortable with limitations,” Shyamalan said. “I find that challenge very exciting. I feel I’m going to make more smaller movies.”
Shyamalan is already preparing his next movie, which he’ll shoot in the fall. Blum will reportedly be producing it and Shyamalan may be reunited with his “Signs” star Joaquin Phoenix.
The director would not confirm the reports but said his film will be a “very dark thriller” that’s more “adult oriented” than “The Visit” (and it won't be in a found-footage style).
But like "The Visit," the next film will be a relatively small production.
“A bigger movie takes years and years to make, and for me there’s a speed to creativity,” he explained. “I want to write about what I’m feeling right now and I need to tell it now, so the quicker cycle of a smaller movie is really exciting. And then when I’m done I’m ready to go and tell another story.”
“The Visit” opens in theaters on Friday.