In M. Night Shyamalan's new horror-thriller Old (out July 23), a group of vacationers find themselves rapidly aging on a remote beach. While the writer-director's filmography is full of shocks and surprises, this adaption of Frederik Peeters and Pierre Oscar Lévy's graphic novel Sand Castle is his most relentlessly unsettling movie to date.
"I'm so addicted to pushing people out of their comfort zone," Shyamalan tells EW. "Maybe I'm becoming obsessed by it. Any choice that pushes you to not feel comfortable, then I'm like, 'That feels right, that feels right.'"
Universal Pictures Alex Wolff in 'Old'
In our spoiler-free chat below, Shyamalan discusses rumors about how he considered ending the film differently, and whether he still has sand in his shoes.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: I know your daughters gave you the graphic novel Sand Castle, which I assume means that publishers now send everything they publish to your daughters. But what about this story clicked with you?
M. NIGHT SHYAMALAN: I probably was suspicious of it at first. Anything my daughters give me has, like, a magic dust on it. So if they give me a watch or pair of sneakers or whatever, I wear them as if they have magic powers — they mean so much to me. So when they gave me this graphic novel as a present it immediately meant a lot to me. So I was suspicious about how much it was affecting me for that reason.
But it stayed with me. I kept it in my bag and kept thinking about it. The graphic novel is almost picture-perfect as a trap for me because it's incredibly visual and Twilight Zone–y and it has an enigmatic ending. So you hand that to me and my mind's going tick-tick-tick-tick-tick-tick-tick-tick. Something said, "Hey, finish this story, and put it up on screen." So that's what ended up happening.
Universal Pictures Gael García Bernal and Vicky Krieps in 'Old'
The cast is very international. I'm assuming that was a deliberate decision on your part?
It was. How can I say this? I existed before everyone became woke. My dad came to the United States, had this dream, and then his son gets so lucky and gets to do this for a living. Yet I'm an immigrant. I was born in India. I guess I never identified with that, or maybe it was something that I ran from a lot, or hid in my mind.
With Old, I was just like, "Hey, I have this incredible opportunity to cast anyone I want," because [due to] the premise of the movie, they wouldn't be from the same places in the world. It doesn't have to be a political agenda — it's just naturally what the story wants. They're from everywhere! The decision to cast an international cast, and then have them with their accents, was a really cool thing for me. Hopefully, when audiences see it, it will be something they accept and they can see themselves in people that don't look or sound like them.
Could you talk about how you aged the characters? There's actually a lot of stuff going on there.
Yeah, there is. I have a particular pet peeve: I get distracted when I see an actor wearing a lot of prosthetics [to look] older. I can never ever let go of the fact that it's XYZ actor, no matter how good the prosthetics are. I find it much easier [when] another actor's playing that age, like in The Godfather or Moonlight. I think that's psychological, that we are different at different points in our lives, so it's more accurate to cast another person rather than just put prosthetics on them.
We did a combination of many things to convey aging. I changed the cast. Sometimes I never even showed you them when they were a particular age — I would obscure them in the frame or not let you see their face and just give you a glimpse of them. And then we did some prosthetics and CGI, but we did it extremely gently, as minimal as I could be. Sometimes the actors would be at lunch with us and I wouldn't know until 20 minutes into it [that they were wearing prosthetics]. I'd be like, "Oh, I guess Gael's a little older than I thought he was."
You shot the film in the Dominican Republic. What was it like making a movie somewhere other than Philadelphia?
It was the intention to make myself feel differently and do things in a different way. We were quarantined as well — we all were in this bubble in this hotel. We shot six-day weeks, which is very unusual for me, because I find it very difficult to keep going at that pace. So that was really different. We were obsessed — just always about the movie. It would be, "We'll get a quick bite, I'll watch the dailies, and then we'll go back and rehearse some more." Normally, there's a slower cadence when I shoot.
Phobymo/Universal Pictures Gael García Bernal and M. Night Shyamalan on the set of 'Old'
Is it true you almost ended the film in a different way?
You know, I've heard this a bunch and don't know where it came from. The ending you see in the movie is, in my mind, from the graphic novel and from some of the images, and only when I thought, "Oh, that's what's going on" was I interested in telling the story. So that has always been the same. Maybe the misunderstanding is, I never stop touching the movie until they drag me away from it at the last second. So it's always like, "Raise that music!" "Change that!" "Do this!" "Can we do a different sound effect over here?"
Have you wrapped season 3 of [your Apple+ series] Servant?
We did, and now I'm editing all the episodes and starting to compose and all that stuff. It's just an amazing season — and so, so rewarding to do this format with all these other filmmakers. I think there's a feedback loop happening where I find an independent filmmaker who inspires me from another country, I bring them in, they direct, I tell them stuff, and they inspire me right back. Working with all of them has given me more courage to take risks, like in Old, where it's more representative of very different interests of mine from around the world.
Phobymo/Universal Pictures M. Night Shyamalan on the set of 'Old'
One last question about Old: Are you still finding sand in your shoes?
I am certain, in the attic where we keep our suitcases, there's still sand from the Dominican [Republic]. Now that you're saying it, I should go find it and make sure nobody throws it out, because if we can pour it into a little thing, maybe I can keep it on my table there to remind me.
Old hits theaters July 23. Watch the trailer above.