Old – A New Mystery from Visionary Filmmaker M. Night Shyamalan

The genesis of Old began, quite literally, as a gift for M. Night Shyamalanhan, who captured and maintained the attention of audiences around the world for the past three decades, creating films like The Sixth Sense, Unbreakable, Signs, The Village, The Visit and Split

For Father’s Day one year, M. Night Shyamalan’s three daughters had given him a moody, meditative, thought-provoking 2011 graphic novel, Sandcastle, by French writer Pierre Oscar Lévy and artist Frederik Peeters. The graphic novel, about a group of people vacationing on a secluded beach who discover that they are aging rapidly, immediately sparked Shyamalan’s imagination.

After he completed his blockbuster “Eastrail 177” Trilogy, which began with 2000’s Unbreakable followed by 2016’s Split, with his 2019 smash Glass, Shyamalan began to dive into the script for what would become Old, transforming and elevating it into an existential thriller that grapples with some humanity’s most eternal enigmas— mortality, regret, love, commitment and the nature of time itself— and that poses deeply provocative questions: If you had to live the rest of your life in one day, how would you spend it? With whom would you spend it? What would matter most to you?

Shyamalan wanted to amp up the tension and the sense of mortal danger for the characters while preserving the confounding mystery and chilling dread that throbs beneath the narrative. “I wanted it to feel like you’re watching a two-hour Twilight Zone episode—which I love, the weirdness, trying to understand what’s happening,” Shyamalan says.

“With Old, I never wanted the audience to feel safe. I wanted the audience to be figuring out one thing, now another and another and another, like the characters in the movie.”

Indeed, a host of inexplicable phenomena awaits the group of unlucky vacationers after they book a stay at a luxurious tropical resort. The family discover that the secluded beach where they are relaxing for a few hours is somehow causing them to age rapidly … reducing their entire lives into a single day.

Old is film that propels the proverbial “ticking clock” storytelling device to an unprecedented new height. The characters calculate that they are aging two years every hour, reducing about 50 years of life into one single day. As every attempt they make to escape the beach fails, the characters ultimately must decide whether they’re going to spend the rest of their lives fighting, perhaps futilely, to free themselves or to accept the seemingly inevitable and make the most of the time they have left.

Yet for all the dark and terrifying events that befall the Capas and those trapped with them on the beach, Shyamalan is careful to note that he does not consider Old to be a horror movie. “I don’t make horror,” Shyamalan says. “That’s not what I would ever describe what I do. In horror, there’s almost a sense that death is a destination. What I keep trying to do as I write is to imagine the very worst things and then ask myself if I would survive them as a human being emotionally. When I come back out on the other side, can I be stronger for that experience?”

Shyamalan long ago established his reputation for exquisitely crafted, cerebral and surprising thrillers—dating all the way back to his Academy Award-nominated 1999 blockbuster breakthrough The Sixth Sense. Still, according to his closest collaborators, Old represents one of the most ambitious undertakings ever attempted by the accomplished filmmaker.

“This was honestly such a wild and outlandish premise, I told him, ‘This might be your wildest idea yet,’” says Shyamalan’s long-time producing partner Ashwin Rajan. “This is definitely one of the most challenging movies he’s ever done. He’s gone back to what’s inspired him as a storyteller, and that is telling these very contained, character-driven stories that have this incredibly large threat at their center and exploring how these people deal with that as characters.”

Notably, for the first time ever Shyamalan is working outside the United States and outside his hometown of Philadelphia, which has provided the backdrop for his previous films as well as his current Apple TV+ series, Servant. Old was filmed in the Dominican Republic. “We’ve taken Night and his storytelling out of his hometown, and we’ve gone to a different country,” says Old producer Marc Bienstock, who previously produced Shyamalan’s films The Visit, Split and Glass.

Old executive producer Steven Schneider, who also executive produced The Visit, Split and Glass, says the result is a film unlike any ever made. “What’s most impressive about Old is how much Night is juggling here,” Schneider says. “The graphic novel is more like a mood piece, really; a loosely plotted, existential parable. Night managed to get inside it, make it very much his own. Every character arc is distinctive. He’s able to tell a deep and distinctive story filled with themes that are common to every one of us. Especially nowadays. He’s all about capturing what is fantastical, terrifying, weird and surreal on screen.”

To add greater depth of character and authenticity to this compelling story, Shyamalan also felt strongly that the actors in the film should hail from all areas of the globe, so he set out to cast Old with dynamic performers from an array of racial and national backgrounds.

“Every film I do has to represent something about where I am, and where I am right now is celebrating the fact that I’m an immigrant,” Shyamalan says. “I just quietly put that aside my whole career. I make movies in the United States. I was born in Puducherry, India, and I’ve been lucky enough to tell stories to everyone around the world and do it from Hollywood. To have a cast that represents that—a cast that has a Mexican accent, a German accent, English accents? It feels really beautiful.”

As the Mexican-born actor Gael García Bernal read through Shyamalan’s script, he found himself quickly turning pages, surprised by the events that were unfolding and excited to learn where the narrative was headed.

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“I read it with a lot of curiosity because I wanted to know what the hell was happening,” García Bernal says. “It was very dynamic. It was moving all the time, very operatic. It reminded me of classical tragedy. The characters are not in control of their destiny, and they’re fighting to understand what is happening, what the gods want from them. There’s something atemporal about all of this, and it just raises the stakes higher.”

As the peril begins to mount, Guy must overcome his initial shock and disbelief at each new disturbing development to find an inner reserve of courage and strength. “So much starts to happen, that this construct, his way of being, changes,” García Bernal says. “He puts aside his misgivings and instead becomes laser focused on doing anything he can to protect his loved ones. His mindset becomes, ‘He’s the father of these kids, he’s the husband of this wonderful woman. Let’s get out of here.’ That’s the journey of Guy.”

Luxembourg-born, Berlin-based actor Vicky Krieps recalls feeling a deep sense of unease reading the screenplay for Old, but Krieps says she was also intrigued that a contemporary Hollywood thriller had deftly managed to balance fast-paced chills with larger, more contemplative themes. “I don’t know why, but reading it, it made me feel so uncomfortable,” Krieps says.

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“I felt like something had come inside my body and made me feel very sick. But at the same time, I remember, clearly, being very moved, again by things I cannot place. Life and death, you know? Love. There’s something so deeply about love in this story.”

Prior to auditioning to play the imperious Charles, English actor Rufus Sewell made an unusual determination—namely, that he was generally wrong for the role. “I’m an intensely critical reader, and I always make a note of the things that I like, and things that worry me,” says the actor. “The character is so contradictory, and so difficult to get a handle on, it took me a couple of reads to really work out how I felt about him. But I did the audition the way I thought it should be, and I was quite shocked to discover that Night liked my interpretation.”

“People might think they are one thing, but they have subterranean impulses that sometimes come out in madness,” Sewell says. “In my experience quite often, unresolved fears, conflicts, can spill out in a very dangerous and frightening way.”

Filming in the Dominican Republic

Because Old takes place primarily in one location, finding that location became one of the single most important tasks facing the filmmakers. Together, they quickly set their sights on the Caribbean, specifically the Dominican Republic.

Filming took place during 2020 when much of the world was in lockdown because of the COVID-19 pandemic. This created additional complications, and no detail was overlooked to ensure the health and safety of the cast and crew. Still, Shyamalan was quite comfortable staying within a strict set of parameters, believing that those strictures kept his creative focus sharp.

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“I totally subscribe to that philosophy that the limitations really make you hear yourself,” Shyamalan says. “If you had the options for millions and millions more dollars to tell the story, that’s not going to make the movie better. In fact, I could argue it’ll make it worse. I make lower-budget movies even though they feel very, very big, so there is a limit to what we can spend and what we can do to solve a problem.”

Star Gael García Bernal, who directed the Spanish-language teen drama Chicuarotes in 2019, shares that belief. “Limitations, some people say it’s the basis of creativity,” García Bernal says. “It’s what gives you a guideline, because, obviously, the blank page is quite harrowing. If you don’t engage with the limitations, then I don’t think that’s being a director. That’s just being an event manager. To direct is to incorporate those limitations that the sun, the sea, the light, the setting give you. You work around them, and you play with them.”

Additionally, Old was shot in a short time frame, meaning that Shyamalan and his cast and crew needed to work swiftly and efficiently. “There was no room for error at all,” Shyamalan says. “We literally did not have one extra day on that beach.”

Fortunately, Shyamalan is known for his thorough planning. Before cameras roll, he meticulously storyboards all his films; once those storyboards are complete, he rarely deviates from them—they serve as a kind of creative Bible, not only for the writer-director but also for each of the principal behind-the-scenes departments including cinematography, production design and costume. “I had a style in my head for the movie, which was to use angular movements, not straight,” Shyamalan says. “Since I was a kid, and I saw Kurosawa’s Ran and Rashomon, the idea of shooting outdoor spaces with very formalistic movements and framing really intrigued me. There are no angles, so we add all the angles with our camera movements.”

The approach proved to be an excellent way to make a wide-open space feel both confined and threatening. “It becomes very claustrophobic for these individuals on this beach,” Shyamalan says. “You can see them panicking. They’re trying to get out, but there’s no door to leave. The audience feels that suffocation. What used to be beautiful now becomes oppressive and dangerous. The water, which looks so beautiful at first, just becomes death to you. That slow turn from something that was safe to something that’s unsafe is a goal of ours in the movie.”

Telling a story with a family at its core was especially personal for Shyamalan, who recently has been giving much thought to the passage of time in his own life as his parents and his children grow older. For the first time on one of his features, the writer-director worked with his daughter Ishana Shyamalan, who served as second-unit director for Old (she previously wrote and directed episodes of her father’s series Servant).           

“It’s funny, the movie is about seeing your children grow up so fast—that’s the feeling that I wanted to capture,” the filmmaker says. “In real life, my children have grown up now, and they’re amazing artists. Leaving home to make a movie was scary for me—having Ishana there made me feel like I never left home. That gave me a lot of courage, just to have her on one side of the beach shooting second unit while I was shooting over here. At the end of the day, we would go and have dinner together. It was just us two sometimes. It kept me centered on the storytelling.”

Screenwriter, director, producer, and Philanthropist M. Night Shyamalan

M. Night Shyamalan has captured and maintained the attention of audiences around the world for the past three decades, creating films that have amassed more than $3 billion worldwide. His original thrillers include The Sixth Sense, Unbreakable, Signs, The Village, The Visit and Split

In 2019, Shyamalan released Glass with Universal Pictures, the third installation of a 19-year trilogy that includes both 2000’s Unbreakable and 2017’s Split. Opening No. 1 at the box office, Glass has grossed almost 250M worldwide. 

Shyamalan previously teamed up with Universal in 2015 on the horror hit The Visit. Shot with a budget of 5M, The Visit brought in close to 100M at the worldwide box office, becomingone of the highest grossing horror films of the year.

Currently, Shyamalan is producing the third season of Servant, a television series for Apple TV+ which has nearly tripled its audience in its second season making it one of the streamer’s most watched series. The half-hour thriller, created by Tony Basgallop, follows a Philadelphia couple in mourning after an unspeakable tragedy creates a rift in their marriage and opens the door for a mysterious force to enter their home. Shyamalan directed two episodes in season one including the pilot episode, one episode in season two, and one episode in season three. 

Shyamalan’s original foray into television took place in 2015 when he executive produced and directed the pilot Wayward Pines. The 10-episode event series, based on a best-selling novel brought to life by Shyamalan, premiered May 14th, 2015 on FOX. The show quietly turned into a fan favorite, becoming the No. 1 watched drama of the summer.  

Shyamalan began making films at a young age in his hometown near Philadelphia. By 16, he had completed 45 short films. Upon finishing high school, he attended New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts to study filmmaking. During his final year at NYU, Shyamalan wrote Praying with Anger, a semiautobiographical screenplay about a student from the U.S. who goes to India and finds himself a stranger in his homeland. The film was screened at the Toronto International Film Festival alongside Reservoir Dogs and Strictly Ballroom

In 1999, The Sixth Sense, starring Bruce Willis, catapulted Shyamalan into stardom and he became one of the most sought after young filmmakers in Hollywood. One of the highest grossing films of all time, The Sixth Sense received a total of six Academy Award® nominations including Best Picture, Best Director and Best Original Screenplay.

Shyamalan collaborated with Willis again in 2000 on the film Unbreakable, also starring Samuel L. Jackson. A film ahead of its time, Unbreakable has become an underground hit in the years since its release. 

In 2002, Shyamalan once again explored the idea of a man questioning his faith in the box office success Signs starring Mel Gibson and Joaquin Phoenix. Shyamalan released The Village in 2004 starring Bryce Dallas Howard and Joaquin Phoenix. The film explores an isolated community and the treaty they hold with the mysterious creatures living in the surrounding forest. In his next film, Lady in the Water, Shyamalan delves into the supernatural world of a dark bedtime story. In 2008, Shyamalan wrote, directed and produced The Happening, starring Mark Wahlberg.  The film follows a man and his family as they try to escape from an inexplicable natural disaster. 

Shyamalan’s other feature credits include Stuart Little, which he wrote for Columbia Pictures, The Last Airbender, Shyamalan’s first foray with directing family entertainment and After Earth, an original sci-fi father & son story which starred Will Smith and Jaden Smith. 

As discussed in his 2018 Drexel University Commencement Address, Shyamalan is a believer in the universe’s fundamental benevolence. It’s this belief that led Shyamalan to recognize the incredible power inside every single person. He has used this philosophy to foster the creation of original films that have opened No. 1 in almost every country and have made him one of three individuals to have an original film open No. 1 in three separate decades.

Shyamalan also devotes his time to the philanthropic projects of his foundation which he cofounded with his wife, Dr. Bhavna Shyamalan, in 2001. The M. Night Shyamalan Foundation is dedicated to supporting remarkable leaders and their grassroots efforts to remove the barriers created by poverty and inequality in their communities.

With a great love for his hometown, Shyamalan is known for filming his movies in Philadelphia and its surrounding area. He currently resides in Pennsylvania with his family.