M. Night Shyamalan Plays ‘Would You Rather?’ and Talks Faith and Family in ‘Knock at the Cabin’

Would M. Night Shyamalan want to see dead people or would he rather be unbreakable? Is there any chance he would get in a wrestling ring with Dave Bautista? Or sing with Jonathan Groff? As his new film “Knock at the Cabin” poses an impossible dilemma, Variety asked the filmmaker to play a quick round of “Would You Rather?” with questions set in the universe of his previous films.

As for whether Shyamalan would rather see a film of his gross $500 million or win 12 Academy Awards, the filmmaker doesn’t hesitate.

“The $500 million! Not even close!” he responds. “For me, it’s always the relationship with the audience. It’s all I care about: it’s me and them having a conversation.”

“Knock at the Cabin,” based on the 2018 novel “The Cabin at the End of the World” by Paul G. Tremblay, is sure to spark conversation when it opens in theaters Friday. In it, the characters are given an impossible choice: sacrifice one of their family members… or allow the world to end. The bargain is part of a prophecy foreseen by four strangers: Leonard (Dave Bautista), Redmond (Rupert Grint), Adriane (Abby Quinn) and Sabrina (Nikki Amuka-Bird.) The quartet appear at the vacation cabin of a loving family – Eric (Jonathan Groff), Andrew (Ben Aldridge) and their eight-year-old daughter Wen (Kristen Cui.) Whether or not the prophecy is real – and what choice they will make – unfolds over the course of the movie. But the intriguing premise is just the starting point for a film that works on several levels, including both as a thoughtful drama and a tense home invasion thriller.  

Initially, Shyamalan originally planned on producing Steve Desmond and Michael Sherman’s Black List screenplay through his company, Blinding Edge. But he found himself directing after being drawn to so many of its themes – including family, faith and sacrifice. These have come up not only in his previous works but in his current Apple TV+ series, “Servant,” now in its fourth and final season. And while these works may invoke Biblical overtones, Shyamalan says he doesn’t consider himself religious.

“It’s funny, I recently realized I think of religion as mythology,” he notes. “In the way I tell a story, I’m not proselytizing at all. I’m treating it as mythology, like alien mythology or ghost mythology, just an interesting mythology that people want to believe in. I tell stories that sometimes touch on religion, but not in the way you would think.”

Shyamalan ultimately opted to rewrite and direct the film. As for changing the title, Shyamalan says that was a deliberate choice to make it clear this was a different story for its new medium. “I did it intentionally to signal that we’re not making a faithful adaptation of this novel. It’s source material,” Shyamalan says. “So please, don’t come with those expectations.”

To round out the ensemble, Shyamalan called in some familiar faces he’s worked with before. That includes Amuka-Bird, who appeared in his last film, “Old,” and “Servant” star Grint as two of the intruders. Best known for playing Ron Weasley in the “Harry Potter” films, Shyamalan cast Grint against type as the aggressive, impatient Redmond.

“Rupert has reinvented himself,” the director raves. “I can’t wait for people to see him in a new light.”

Also showing new dimensions is Bautista, the former pro wrestler who has built an acting career with roles in films like “Guardians of the Galaxy” and “Dune.” But the sensitive schoolteacher Leonard is, in Bautista’s own words, “the opportunity of a lifetime.”

But the newest face is Cui, making her feature film debut as Wen. Shyamalan has shown his skill with young actors before – most notably directing Haley Joel Osment to an Oscar nomination with “The Sixth Sense” and casting Rory Culkin and Abigail Breslin early in their careers in “Signs.” When it comes to working with young actors, he says the approach varies.

“Abigail was five, Kristen was eight and Hayley was 10 and those are very different ages,” he notes. “Those are miles away from each other in their abilities to internalize direction in certain ways.” For example with Breslin, he took a gentler approach, describing each scene to her and what her character was feeling as they were shooting.

With Cui, he says, “She’s already so savvy that it was about her learning delicacy and vulnerability and not letting her intellect protect her. So it was about putting that sharpness and wit and all those weapons away and getting back to Wen. So we kept talking about what Wen was thinking, what Wen was feeling.”

Shyamalan says, despite the tense set-up, his on-set family was “super playful with each other” and it was a joyous experience overall.

“I cherish when I come across human beings that are giving and balanced and give light,” he notes. “All seven actors on this movie are beautiful human beings that gave light  and help me be the best version of myself. I don’t shut down when I’m with those individuals. I’m inspired.”

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