The ultimate M. Night Shyamalan twist was one no one saw coming.
After scoring a critical and commercial breakthrough with 1999’s Oscar-nominated “The Sixth Sense,” he’s had more than his share of ups and downs with critics and at the box office. But the roller-coaster ride is reaching a new peak with a cinematic universe two decades in the making.
His latest film, “Glass,” in theaters Friday, unites the lead characters of 2000’s “Unbreakable” and 2016’s “Split” for a compelling and sly exercise in creating a comic book-esque universe from scratch. And Shyamalan — breaking Hollywood rules by not working with preexisting properties and making films on his own terms — just might succeed where others have failed.
“Glass” is the conclusion to a trilogy that Shyamalan, cinema’s unorthodox auteur, has been orchestrating since “Unbreakable” — with a little help from the universe.
“So many things had to go right that had nothing to do with me,” Shyamalan said from Philadelphia. “I’ve been fighting for so long to get things made in the right way. When I look back, there’s a sense of, ‘Wow — it was kind of meant to be.’”
A chance meeting with James McAvoy led to the actor starring in “Split” as Kevin Wendell Crumb, a man with dissociative identity disorder living with 23 “alters” known as the Horde. A “friendly agreement” with Disney exec Sean Bailey granted “Split” studio Universal permission to borrow Bruce Willis’ “Unbreakable” character for the surprise post-credits cameo that signaled that the films occupied the same narrative universe.
And then everyone had to be game to come back and tie the trilogy together in “Glass,” in which Willis fully reprises his role as everyman superhero David Dunn, now older, grizzlier and moonlighting as a vigilante hero known as the Overseer.
A kidnapping sends the Overseer on a collision course with the Horde, but “Glass” is purposefully named after Elijah Price, aka Mr. Glass, the comic book collector with a rare genetic disease who spent “Unbreakable” trying to prove he was the supervillain to Dunn’s superhero.
For the last 16 years, “Glass” reveals, Price has been wheelchair-bound and under heavy sedation at the Raven Hill Memorial Psychiatric Research Hospital, where Dr. Ellie Staple (Sarah Paulson) seeks to treat all three men for the affliction she suspects they share: A clinical disorder in which delusional patients believe they have superpowers.
The linchpin to the series, Samuel L. Jackson’s portrayal of Mr. Glass has been years in the making. And so has his understanding of what Price has endured since the events of “Unbreakable.”
“I thought it important to show that his mind was even sharper, and his focus was more intense,” said the actor via email before “Glass’” London premiere. “He’s already been imprisoned by his body for his entire life. His incarceration has focused him that much more. When he learns about Crumb and his relationship with [Dunn], he sees the opportunity to achieve his greatest goal. He goes after setting it in motion with everything he’s got.”
“It had to be these studios,” Shyamalan said of Universal and Disney, who co-produced with the filmmaker’s Blinding Edge Pictures. “And it had to be these actors. There were a lot of ‘ifs’ on the table: Will they be available? Will they want to do this in the way I want to do this?”
Shyamalan had moved on to make original tales (2002’s “Signs,” 2004’s “The Village,” 2006’s “Lady in the Water” and 2008’s “The Happening”) but found diminishing returns swinging for blockbuster heights (2010’s “The Last Airbender” and 2013’s “After Earth” underwhelmed at the box office and were savaged by critics).
2015’s $5 million-budgeted “The Visit,” made independently with Blumhouse for a fraction of what his biggest films cost, returned Shyamalan to his roots — and greater creative control. It grossed $98 million worldwide.
Fans — and his own stars, added Shyamalan — had been asking about an “Unbreakable” sequel since the film opened.
“It was actually them always saying to me, ‘Let’s make the sequel, let’s make the sequel,’ ” Shyamalan said with a laugh. “And I was like, ‘Yeah, yeah, yeah — I’m workin’ on it!’ I think they probably just kind of gave up on the idea that I was ever going to do it. Until I wrote ‘Split.’ ”
He had the idea for the “Split” cameo and called Willis, who “was 100 percent for it,” said Shyamalan. The actor filmed his scene in secret in a matter of hours. Shyamalan, meanwhile, kept the cameo footage out of early screenings of the film “just to be super safe — and to [let viewers] think of the movie as its own thing. It was a very healthy way to approach it.”
While making “Split,” he’d let McAvoy and costar Anya Taylor-Joy in on his plans, giving them an inkling of the cinematic worlds they’d be bridging. But Jackson had no clue that Willis’ Dunn was back in action or what that might mean for their long-ago plans. Shyamalan broke the news with a cryptic message.
“Night surprised me with the idea of ‘Glass,’ ” recalled Jackson. “He told me to see ‘Split’ and to give him a call. So I watched ‘Split’ and had no idea until the scene with Bruce at the end. When he mentioned Mr. Glass, I knew that we were finally going to do a sequel and that these films were in the same universe.”
“He came out and said, ‘What does this mean?’ ” Shyamalan said with a laugh. “It means we’re making the sequel!”
Meanwhile, across the Shyamalan-verse …
Sarah Paulson had just flown to New York with her freshly acquired 2017 Golden Globe for “American Crime Story: The People v. O.J. Simpson” in her carry-on luggage when a friend suggested they check out the new Shyamalan film.
“I’m a huge fan of his movies, and I always have been,” said Paulson, en route to to meet up with her “Glass” costars for the European press tour. “I saw ‘Signs’ at the Grove in Los Angeles with Amanda Peet, who wouldn’t let me leave her house after because she was so afraid there was going to be some weird alien in the bathroom!”
“Nothing in his movies is happenstance,” she added. “Everything is really purposeful, and that’s extraordinary.”
Paulson caught a showing of “Split” on 34th Street and erupted along with the rest of the audience when she realized what Willis’ cameo meant. But she had no idea Shyamalan had her in mind to help complete the trilogy.
Shyamalan was writing the role that would eventually become Dr. Ellie Staple, a character that required a “powerful” actor to hold their own against Willis, Jackson and McAvoy. He visited Paulson on the set of “American Horror Story: Cult” to discuss the mystery project over lunch.
“I wanted someone complex and buoyant, and I always tend toward theater actors because their craft is strong. The way I shoot my movies without much coverage requires commitment; not fearing it but really embracing the concept that whatever choice you made that started your take, that’s the right choice,” said Shyamalan.
He didn’t tell Paulson much in their meetings about the character. But three weeks later he called to offer her the part “and I burst into tears,” said Paulson. “I had no idea what it was going to be, but it was the idea of working with him in whatever capacity that was so thrilling. That’s when he told me it was the sequel to these two movies. And I was like, wait — what?!”
Adding another special undercurrent to “Glass” are the family members whose relationships to the central trio are key to understanding them as people, not just superpowered heroes or villains. Shyamalan tapped Spencer Treat Clark, who was 6 when he appeared in “Unbreakable,” to reprise his role as Dunn’s now-25-year-old son, Joseph. Charlayne Woodard returns as Elijah’s caring mother, Mrs. Price.
Shyamalan compares “Glass” to “The Sopranos.” “To see what [Tony Soprano’s] home life is like, going to therapy, his teenagers not listening to him, is amazing. Yeah, during the day he kills people. But he’s just a dude struggling,” he said. “For me, telling a comic book story about comic book characters and their struggles and seeing what their home life is like, essentially, ‘What are their hearts like when they’re at home?’ They’re just like us. It just so happens that they’re superheroes.”
Might more films in the “Unbreakable” universe be in the cards if “Glass” connects with audiences?
“I highly doubt you will ever see another sequel from me. But I don’t want to be an idiot and say ‘never,’ because tomorrow you’ll read that I’m doing ‘Star Wars 10’ and go, ‘He lied!’” he said, laughing.
Sequels aren’t really his thing, said Shyamalan, who describes feeling more akin to a novelist, crafting original stories he dreams up out of his home base in Philly from his notebook of ideas.
“The challenge of original movies is that there’s no frame,” he said. “If you know it’s an appetizer, you’re taking it as an appetizer. If you know it’s an entree, you’re taking it as an entree — and you judge it that way. If I don’t tell you what you’re eating, then I say, ‘What do you think?’ It’s harder.”
“The nature of doing something unusual — I’m doing a sequel to two separate movies, from two separate generations, from two separate studios! — is the challenging part for me that makes me go, ‘OK. This dish has never been made before.’ ”