Of all the extraordinary achievements of M. Night Shyamalan’s acclaimed career as a visionary filmmaker, perhaps the greatest is that his films remain enigmatic, unpredictable and unexpected. The only thing you’re certain of, stepping into a new M. Night Shyamalan film, is that you don’t know what’s about to hit you. Knock at the Cabin just may be the apotheosis of the Shyamalan cinematic experience. It’s a film that both shares a bloodline with his previous films but is also unlike any film he’s made before.
Based on the national bestseller The Cabin at the End of the World by Paul Tremblay, Knock at the Cabin began, initially, as a 2019 screenplay by Steve Desmond & Michael Sherman that landed a spot on the famed annual film-industry Blacklist, which highlights the best-unproduced screenplays each year.
Originally, Shyamalan’s Blinding Edge Pictures considered producing the film only, but the idea was so compelling that Shyamalan was inspired to tell his version of the story. “One day in a meeting, Night said, ‘Well, what if I rewrite this and direct it?’” says producer Ashwin Rajan, president of production for Blinding Edge. “He had a real connection to the material and a take on it that made it feel contained but also profound.”
The film centers on a gay couple, Eric (Jonathan Groff) and Andrew (Ben Aldridge) and their adopted daughter Wen (Kristen Cui), who are vacationing at a remote cabin in the woods, when their house is surrounded by four armed strangers: Leonard (Dave Bautista), Sabrina (Nikki Amuka-Bird), Adrianne (Abby Quinn) and Redmond (Rupert Grint.) Taken hostage, the family is informed that these four strangers—who also do not know each other—have all been haunted and tormented by a shared prophecy: that the world will end unless the family in this cabin chooses one member of the family to die. Whether these four people are crazy or correct doesn’t resolve the problem. Both scenarios are horrific.
“It’s a thriller with a compelling question at the center of it,” Rajan says. “What would you do if you had to save your family or save humanity, and you could choose only one?”
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For Shyamalan, it was a question that contained multitudes, ideas that connected to themes in his AppleTV+ series Servant and his thinking about the state of our world today.
In his hands, Knock at the Cabin is a film that explores ideas behind faith and belief, certainty and doubt, and the power and limits of both.
“It’s a modern-day biblical story,” Shyamalan says. “Servant is that as well. The idea of telling large-scale biblical stories, but in modern times and in modern settings, is resonating with me right now. The film is reflective of my current feeling that everything that’s going on in the world doesn’t look good and doesn’t feel good, but I do feel we are struggling together in the right direction. We’re certainly not getting it right all the time, but in general, the direction that we’re moving as humanity is in the right direction and we deserve a chance to continue. That’s my feeling. One love story is evidence enough that humanity should keep going. Knock at the Cabin is this incredible opportunity for us to experience this gigantic global biblical story through the experience of a family.”
That idea of family is central to much of Shyamalan’s filmography.
“The one thing that’s consistent with Night is his movies center around family and there’s an emotional journey that the characters and the audience take with each of his films,” says producer Marc Bienstock, who has made five films with Shyamalan. Shyamalan also likes to give himself challenges, and this film presented a major one: a film set almost entirely in one interior location. “I’m very drawn to stories of confinement and telling very large stories through a small window,” Shyamalan says. “That constriction, that balance, a juxtaposition of the size of the story and the way we’re telling it, is very exciting to me.”
It also teemed with creative potential.
“This is an opportunity for Night to really focus in on the art of suspense,” executive producer Steven Schneider says. “Hitchcock is one of his favorite filmmakers and this is, in a way, an opportunity for Night to be very Hitchcockian in terms of his composition of shots and the way in which he can build suspense using every cinematic element, from the performances to the lighting to the editing to the blocking.”
Although the initial screenplay followed the plot of Tremblay’s book, Shyamalan’s revision takes the story in daring and unexpected directions
“We adapted a book to make this movie, but essentially went in an entirely different direction around the midway point of the story,” Shyamalan says. “And that weighed on me a little bit. But in my mind, the story needed and wanted to go this way very strongly. And in fact, that was the exciting part of the challenge: Can I make a movie about a very horrific ‘Sophie’s Choice’ and can I get the audience there?”
Nothing in the story is black and white and almost all the characters—and the audience—will have their assumptions challenged and their beliefs tested over the course of the film as the tensions and the stakes mount. “I subscribe to this type of storytelling where you count on the incompleteness of it, where you don’t fill in everything and you let the audience do the dance with you,” Shyamalan says. “Think of the Twilight Zone, where that conjuring of your imagination is required to finish the painting.”
Although the film is timely and provocative, it is not a bleak or pessimistic view of humanity, despite the terrifying premise. “I can tell very dark stories because I feel deeply about people and about the world in a very positive way,” Shyamalan says. “I can spin anything negative into a positive in real life, based in my deep belief in the positivity of things.”
Leonard is the leader of the group of four mysterious strangers who show up at a remote cabin to demand that a family make an unthinkable choice, claiming they’re doing so to prevent the apocalypse. The role of Leonard is complex and layered, director M. Night Shyamalan says. Leonard is not a fanatic. He’s heartbroken and tortured by the idea that he must force this family to make this impossible choice. “Leonard is like a giant who’s physically intimidating and has to do these horrific things, but is actually incredibly gentle, like a teacher,” Shyamalan says.
Dave Bautista of the Guardians of the Galaxy franchise was immediately excited about the story of Knock at the Cabin and the role of Leonard.
“Leonard is like a giant who’s physically intimidating and has to do these horrific things, but is actually incredibly gentle, like a teacher,” Shyamalan says.
One of the main messages behind Knock at the Cabin is sacrifice and not putting a definition on what love looks like. “Love takes all kinds of shapes and forms and comes from places you wouldn’t expect,” Bautista says. “I hate to be cliché, but it can save the world.”
Tony award and Emmy nominee Jonathan Groff (Hamilton) plays Eric, who, along with his husband Andrew (Ben Aldridge), are parents to eight-year-old Wen (Kristen Cui).
“You have these two opposing perspectives in a very heightened environment with this scary cult-like energy coming at them and people saying extraordinary things to them,” Groff says “I think the story is definitely asking us interesting questions about faith, trust, family and certainly questions about sacrifice.”
Shyamalan always had a very clear vision about what he wanted from his actors. “Night talks about the difference between hunters and gatherers as directors,” Groff says. “Hunters know exactly what they want. They go out and hunt it. Gatherers have an idea of what they want, but they wait until they get there on the day and see what’s happening and figure it out as they go. Night primarily identifies as a hunter. He knows what he wants, and the crew and cast help fulfill his vision. It’s one of my favorite ways of working because you can really lose yourself in the process. You have that person in charge who has your back and can see everything and can guide you to the kind of performance that they already know that they want.”
Groff notes that he and Aldridge connected on their shared experiences as gay actors in the industry. “Ben and I are both in our mid-late thirties, and it was different when we were growing up 20 years ago,” Groff says. “Acceptance of sexual identity was just in a completely different place. And we’ve come so far since then and we are pinching ourselves that we get to be in this Hollywood horror movie as gay actors playing gay characters in an M. Night Shyamalan movie. This would not have been the case 15 years ago. And it’s such a special opportunity to be able to just be ourselves in a movie—in a fun, interesting, scary movie—being gay both on screen and off. Now that it’s 2022 and things have progressed, we get to ride this wave generated by all of the work that’s been done before us to get us here. And that progress that we’re benefiting from is not lost on us.”
Shyamalan’s films encourage the audience to challenge their reality and what they believe in. “I think this film is doing that more directly than any film that he’s made,” Aldridge says. “It’s really asking its audience about faith and belief, it’s questioning religion and I think it’s throwing up all these direct, confronting questions that are life’s riddles and they’re encapsulated in this unconventional domestic family setting.”
Aldridge, who is openly gay, believes the industry has made noticeable progress in representation.
“In the UK, there were a handful of really extroverted, flamboyant TV presenters, and I remember thinking, ‘That’s what gay is.’ But I didn’t know what it meant on a human level or what I was experiencing myself. So, I think representation is hugely important across the board. It’s important to be able to see ourselves reflected in the art that we’re choosing to watch. It’s how we learn about ourselves; it’s how we learn about the people in the world who are different from us as well. I think representation has the power to change and impact the world in a really positive way.”
Sabrina is one of the four strangers who holds the family hostage, believing she is preventing the apocalypse. The role is played by Nikki Amuka-Bird, who was most recently seen in Shyamalan’s Old.
A common theme throughout the film is the idea of spirituality as an inroad to ask questions. “I was struck with this more than anything because these are questions that really matter to me: about how your spirituality, if you have one, affects your course in life,” Amuka-Bird says. “And I was just really shocked to see a mainstream film like this, a genre film like this, really tackle those big questions. It feels like a cautionary tale in some ways. But essentially, it’s something that you feel in your gut. It’s like the old stories when you were little: once somebody starts telling it, you have to know what happens at the end.”
Redmond, played by Rupert Grint, is one of the invaders of the cabin. The script for Knock at the Cabin combined two of Grint’s biggest nightmares: home invasion and the apocalypse. “There’s something quite seductive about apocalypse movies,” Grint says. “There is this fascination with an apocalypse, and people love contemplating what that would look like.” Rarely has been it explored in such a confined, remote, intimate setting, which. “Seeing it from this perspective, from this cabin, is a perfect setting for something like this.” Grint says. “This is a place where it’s so isolated, anything really could happen and you’re so far away from any help. So, it just makes it even more disturbing.”
Grint was also fascinated with the story because it taps into a lot of the topical fears that surround us right now. “We’re just coming out of a global pandemic,” Grint says. “There’s an environmental crisis in the world that has never felt more fragile. So that kind of impending fear of the demise of the planet is something that’s in a lot of people’s minds at the moment.”