M. Night Shyamalan had been plugging away in Hollywood for several years prior to 1999’s The Sixth Sense, in which Bruce Willis plays a psychologist trying to connect with a young man (Haley Joel Osment) who insists he sees dead people. The film’s twist—and even two decades on, we still won’t risk spoiling it—hit audiences like a sledgehammer, and saw Shyamalan being compared to everyone from Alfred Hitchcock to Steven Spielberg.
Though he’s had some hits and misses since, Shyamalan can still set audiences on edge. His latest film, Old, opens on July 23, and features a mysterious island that causes visitors to age rapidly. Though it’s not an original Shyamalan idea—it’s based on the graphic novel Sandcastle by Frederik Peeters and Pierre Oscar Lévy—it will almost certainly feature the director’s trademark unease. While you queue up for that film, take a look at some of the more interesting moments in Shyamalan’s life and career.
Born in Pondicherry, India, to obstetrician Dr. Jayalakshmi Shyamalan and cardiologist Dr. Nelliate Shyamalan, Manoj Nelliate (which he later shortened to M. Night) Shyamalan was expected to have a future in medicine. But at the age of 8, Shyamalan got his hands on an 8-millimeter movie camera and never looked back. The budding director—whose family had immigrated to the U.S. when he was just 6 weeks old—made 45 short films, including spoofs of E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial and James Bond, by the time he graduated high school in Philadelphia. He went on to attend film school at New York University.
In 1992, while still a student at New York University, Shyamalan made Praying With Anger, a film about an Indian-American struggling with his identity. Shyamalan starred in the film; his family financed the $775,000 budget. It won the American Film Institute’s 1993 prize for a debut film and also got Shyamalan his first agent, yet Praying With Anger never got a proper release. His second film, 1998’s Wide Awake starring Rosie O’Donnell, did. Neither film had a high profile, but 1999’s The Sixth Sense made up for it. In 2000, Shyamalan became the first Indian-American to be nominated for both Best Director and Best Original Screenplay at the Academy Awards.
Following The Sixth Sense, Shyamalan had his pick of projects in Hollywood. One tempting offer came from childhood hero Steven Spielberg to write and direct a fourth Indiana Jones film. Shyamalan clearly enjoyed the series, having played the character in one of his short films, but turned it down owing to other commitments. There is some indication that he worked on the script, though how much—if any—of his contributions made it into 2008’s Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is unknown.
Shyamalan followed The Sixth Sense with Unbreakable, a 2000 film starring Bruce Willis as David Dunn, a man who survives a train crash and discovers he has superhuman abilities. Shyamalan made a comic book movie and wanted to market it as such. But Disney, the film’s distributor, persuaded him not to, believing a comic book movie wouldn’t sell. It was marketed as a thriller instead.
“I was happy to be in front of that and say, ‘Hey, let’s make a comic book movie, a movie about comic books,’” Shyamalan told The New York Times in 2019. “And everyone going: ‘That’s a very fringe market. That’s not a mainstream notion, and regular people don’t go to see those kinds of movies.’ And now, it’s ubiquitous.”
Shyamalan’s instincts proved correct. X-Men, released that same year, did huge business and helped spark the current comic book entertainment era. (Shyamalan later made two sequels to Unbreakable, 2017’s Split and 2019’s Glass.)
When Warner Bros. was making the sprawling film series based on J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter books in the early 2000s, Shyamalan was one of the directors earmarked to direct at least one installment. It got far enough along that he met with Rupert Grint, who played Ron Weasley in the series, but ultimately Shyamalan decided not to move forward. He and Grint did eventually work together; Shyamalan’s Apple TV+ series Servant features the actor.
In the spirit of Orson Welles’s infamous 1938 War of the Worlds broadcast, in which Welles delivered a seemingly legitimate report of alien invaders, Shyamalan decided to try and trick audiences, too. In 2004, he conspired with Syfy (then known as Sci-Fi) to present a fake documentary, The Buried Secret of M. Night Shyamalan, that posited a boy who had drowned as a child in his neighborhood had sparked his interest in the supernatural. The special was presented as legitimate in press releases, though it was actually a fictitious show designed to promote the director’s 2004 film The Village. The network later apologized for misleading viewers and press.
After the success of films like The Sixth Sense and 2002’s Signs, Shyamalan’s career entered a lull. Films like 2006’s Lady in the Water and 2008’s The Happening—where Mark Wahlberg plays a science teacher facing off against malevolent plants—were misses. By the time 2010’s Devil, which Shyamalan produced, was released, audiences in theaters could be heard audibly groaning when his name came onscreen. (Shyamalan regained his footing with 2015’s eerie The Visit.)
Most film productions are transient affairs, shooting where it’s most affordable and sending cast and crew to various locations. But Shyamalan has been able to set the majority of his films in and around his native Philadelphia, allowing him to remain close to home and family. (A fear of flying might also play some part.) “We’ve had a very normal life, even though my kids have seen their father on TV,” he told Flood in 2021. “I’m there for dinner. I’m there on the weekends. I’m there all the time. I’m very entwined with their life, so filming abroad for an extended period of time would be an unusual step.”
Shyamalan broke his rule for Old, which required a tropical island location and COVID-19 precautions. Shyamalan believes it was worth the trouble. “No one has ever seen anything like it—in its tone and the way it’s just, I mean, it’s like nothing else,” he told a Tribeca Film Festival audience in 2021.