Courtney Howard is a LAFCA, CCA, OFCS and AWFJ member, as well as a Rotten Tomatometer-approved film critic. Her work has been published on Variety, She Knows and Awards Circuit.
Though writer-director M. Night Shyamalan has burned audiences before with dreadful cinematic duds, he’s rising like a phoenix from the scorched earth with THE VISIT, a terrific little horror gem. The found-footage style film tells the tale of two teens’ (Olivia DeJonge and Ed Oxenbould) week-long visit to their estranged grandparents’ (Deanna Dunagan and Peter McRobbie) picturesque Pennsylvania farmhouse. In that week the kids notice wacky and weird things are afoot. Scares, shocks and surprises follow so come prepared to hide behind the seat in front of you.
At the film’s recent Los Angeles press day, Shyamalan and producer Jason Blum spoke about everything from genre filmmaking, to the image that inspired the film, to what sequence the director didn’t shoot himself.
8. M. Night Shyamalan bought that farmhouse. The house plays a key role in the film and with that posed challenges finding the perfect house to set the spine-tingling tale. The affable auteur states, “I found this farmhouse – I shot it in Pennsylvania – near where I live. There was a farm that was going through foreclosure from a bank and I said, ‘Can I have this? Can I rent this from you for about six months before you put it fire sale?’ I gave them the whole schpiel of, ‘Once I make a movie there, you can sell it for more.’ They said, ‘OK. You can have it for six months.’ We had this incredible situation where I had the actual house through pre-production. I would go with the actors and I would rehearse in the rooms, on the stairs, in the kitchen. I’d be there with the cinematographer. There was a lot of times when I’d – this is kind of creepy – go to house by myself and just sit there and think of the shots. It’s how I like to make movies but the challenge was to make it look spontaneous.”
7. This is a mock documentary, NOT found footage! Or so says Blum. “Found footage is really purposely sloppy. Really they are amateurs and are catching things by accident. The lead of this movie is the opposite; she loves cinema and is making a documentary to bring her family together. The shots are very composed. It’s not a shaky camera and is very far away from found footage. Mock documentary, for sure, but shot by someone who loves cinema and is concerned with how it looks.” Shyamalan adds, “I storyboard every shot of my thrillers in general. The difference in this one is I had to put it in the screenplay. It’s in the screenplay where the shots were. ‘He picks up the camera.’ ‘They leave it on the shelf.’ ‘She’s carrying it in as they enter the door.’ As I was writing it, I was storyboarding it. The really wonderful part about making small movies is the limitations create opportunities.”
6. Getting older can be scary. The trepidation that comes with the concept of getting older can be a terrifying thing for some people. That was the idea that inspired the auteur. He says, “The subject of the piece is our fear of getting old which is a variation on our fear of dying. I have to believe there’s a primal thing that we’re talking about – even though it’s fanciful and we’re doing it in a tongue and cheek manner. Playing on that is a powerful conceit.”
5. An Andrew Wyeth painting inspired one of the shots. Shyamalan was particularly struck by a sketch the Pennsylvanian artist had done. He says, “I believe it was probably grandma in the rocking chair facing the wall. It’s actually from an Andrew Wyeth, he lived near me, and there’s a sketch that he did of this old couple. It’s beautiful. It’s like a study, a sketch of an old woman, a rag around her head and she’s just staring at the wall. She was just thinking. I thought this was the scariest thing ever and I took it, I Xeroxed it and I’m like, “This is what we’re making.” I kept that with the two line summary of the movie and that’s what I had first was this old lady on a farm just staring at the wall in a rocking chair.”
4. Darren Aronofsky had a hand in its creation. Shyamalan spills, “I actually used the cinematographer Maryse Alberti, who shot THE WRESTLER for Darren. It was actually Darren that recommended her. Luckily enough she was available and wanted to do it. The intimacy of the camera work was from her and the operator of how to portray, when you’re holding handheld, how not to feel like handheld. Don’t make it feel like handheld – this is someone trying to make it beautiful.”
3. There’s no director cameo. He admits, “I was actually thinking about playing Kathryn Hahn’s boyfriend but then in the original script, he comes back in the last scene and I didn’t want everybody getting thrown off so I didn’t put myself in there.”
2. Ad-libbing wasn’t allowed. You might think since these kinds of films all have a certain “on the fly” feel that the dialogue could be ad-libbed. Not on Shymalan’s watch! He explains, “There was no ad-libbing dialogue-wise. I don’t mind anybody suggesting – it just has to earn its way in. I have so much demands on them that they’re not thinking about being writers at all. Usually, if they add handles, it’s like, ‘Um,’ ‘Uh,’ this or something. And I’m like, ‘Get rid of those handles. It’s just crutches. Get rid of that. Get right to the sailing. Get right to the line.’”
1. Ed Oxenbould shot the best scene. Shyamalan states, “We had one day which was a problem which was where grandma crawls underground. The camera operator was too big. He was a grown man. He couldn’t keep up and go and crawl under there. In classic movie style, this is what happens on big movies all the time, the grips all got together, ‘We can figure this out. We can make a contraption. Just give us ten minutes.’ They made this mechanical thing and of course an hour and a half later, they’re trying to pull it, it’s not working and it’s tipping over. We’re all sitting there and I’m dying. Literally one-third of the day is gone and I look over and Ed [Oxenbould] is there and I’m like, ‘Ed? Why don’t you just hold the camera?’ And he was like, ‘Yeah!’ He just ran underneath like he was squatting and he ran. He did all the camerawork under the house. He was so proud that day.”
THE VISIT opens this Friday, September 11.