Watch: Haley Joel Osment on the making of The Sixth Sense above.
In 2019, Rotten Tomatoes turns 21, and to mark the occasion we’re celebrating the 21 Most Memorable Moments from the movies over the last 21 years. In this special video series, we speak to the actors and filmmakers who made those moments happen, revealing behind-the-scenes details of how they came to be and diving deep into why they’ve stuck with us for so long. Once we’ve announced all 21, it will be up to you, the fans, to vote for which is the most memorable moment of all. In this episode of our ‘21 Most Memorable Moments’ series, star Haley Joel Osment remembers the moment he said that iconic Sixth Sense line, “I see dead people,” the terrifying parts of that scene that were cut, and how it changed his life.
It’s easy, sometimes, to forget just how huge The Sixth Sense was. The movie that put director M. Night Shyamalan on the map – and drew all of those “next Spielberg” headlines that would hang over him for the next two decades – was the second biggest movie of 1999. And 1999, let us remind you, was no weak year for movies: The Sixth Sense made more money than Toy Story 2, The Mummy, and The Matrix at the domestic box office, and was only beaten out by a little prequel called The Phantom Menace. More impressive than what it earned, though, was how thoroughly Sixth Sense swallowed up the zeitgeist. If you didn’t know that – block your screens, under-a-rock–dwellers – Bruce Willis was dead all along, or couldn’t recite Haley Joel Osment’s famous line (whisper it with us: “I see dead people”), you had clearly checked out of pop culture. Here, Osment, who at age 11 was nominated for a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his portrayal of Cole Sear in The Sixth Sense, recalls how he became involved in the movie, and how it shaped his life and career.
“I think M. Night was auditioning people all over the country…[and] it was only with the third audition that I read for Night and everybody together at the same time. It was almost like doing a play ’cause I’d done it so many times in advance. It was nerve-racking in a good way. When the material is so good, the writing is so great, it’s emotionally affecting. Sometimes with acting you have to reach into your own history and your own life to find inspiration for feeling certain ways and that’s an effective way of doing things. But other times the scenes were just so well constructed that just by going through it you’re just kinda taken to the places you need to go.”
“My parents told me that [Die Hard] came out the year I was born and my parents went out and saw the movie while I slept in a little baby carrier in the theater. So I guess that seeing Bruce on screen was my first movie-going experience technically. I was really familiar with his work and I loved Die Hard and actually I think The Fifth Element had just come out and I enjoyed seeing that. And I think Twelve Monkeys was about the same time.”
“The tone [on set] was really set by Night. He would dribble a basketball sitting in his director’s chair when they were setting up the lights for each scene because he was so relaxed and on such an even-keel. He was, I think, 28 when we shot that movie. And you know, handling all the pressure and stress that comes with doing something like that, he was just one of the most fun, calming presences on set. And I don’t think it would have succeeded without that.”
Osment revealed to Rotten Tomatoes that he was glad Twitter didn’t exist at the time of The Sixth Sense’s release, and it’s not hard to see why. Even 20 years since its release, the scene in which Sear confesses to Bruce Willis’s Dr. Malcolm that he sees the dead is a GIF- and meme-maker’s dream. Clear away the fog of all those comic “takes” and the memorable Scary Movie spoof, though, and the scene maintains a palpable power and sense of dread. It’s expertly constructed – rewatching the film, it’s as if Shyamalan’s camera is screaming at us to get the big twist right then – and made memorable by Osment’s incredibly intense and mature performance. The actor says achieving that level of intensity wasn’t hard – a part of the scene that wouldn’t make the final cut helped him get into the character of the terrified ghost-seer.
“I was just sitting in a bed, doing this scene with Bruce and we’re in… I think it was a decommissioned hospital, but it was a very realistic and creepy place and it was just very easy to put myself in that zone. There was an even-more morbid element to that scene that actually ended up getting cut out: When I tell Bruce my secret, [at] the last shot of the scene they pull back from my bed and you look out the window where you can see another entire wing of the hospital and in every window there is a person with some horrible injury or someone who’s gone pale because, you know, being in a hospital is a pretty heavy place for a ghost to linger around in this world. So, you pull back and you see all these people lined up on the other side of the frame. That was cut out of the movie, but everybody was on set that day with all this intense prosthetic makeup – horrible car accident victims and everything and people were all made up; that added an additional level of morbidness on set that day.”
“Nobody circled that line or highlighted it or put it on the call sheet as a tag line or something that would come to kind of symbolize the film. I think it took us all by surprise when it sort of had a life of its own after the movie came out. I remember shooting the scenes very well. And even in preparing that scene, and shooting it and doing all that. [But] nobody’s on set saying ‘Oh, this is the big line. This is going to be a big part of this movie’s legend.’ It was just a significant line [in terms] of what my character reveals to Bruce in that scene.”
“It took a while for [the line] to become what it became, but eventually yes, after that first year it came out it kinda became… I guess you would call it a ‘meme’ now. I was lucky there was no Twitter at the time – not just because the ending would have been spoiled for people once the movie came out. It’s wild, because even today, at the Dodger game a couple weeks ago, they had the inter-inning trivia games they play with the players on the big screen and Yasiel Puig did the line and I was like, ‘Oh wow!’ It comes when you least expect it.”
Sense remains the second biggest horror movie of all time, only surpassed by the remake of Stephen King’s It in 2017. Watching the film again 20 years after its release, it’s not hard to see why it held the world so firmly in its thrall back then. There’s the crafty plotting, sure, and the precision of Shyamalan’s filmmaking. And it helps that it was a horror film that grandma could watch (the gore is tame by today’s standards, and the movie was just PG-13). But it’s the performances, particularly from Toni Collette (who would also be nominated for an Oscar) and Osment that give the film an unshakable feeling of realness – these are people you know – and, in so doing, also make it one helluva scary ride.
“The first time I ever saw it all cut together was at a screening room on the Disney lot. I went with my family and my really good friend and his family. And he was also 11 and I remember I went and stayed at his house that night and he went and slept on his parents’ floor in the middle of the night because he was still scared. That was the first window for me into, ‘Wow, this movie really has an effect on people.’ I don’t know if he was scared of me, but he definitely wanted to be close to his parents on the other side of the house.”
“I think it’s just really emotionally difficult to watch children go through things like that. Even in a fictional story, so I think that really sorta drags you into it because [Cole is] someone who’s being forced to handle all the difficult things at an age where you’re not really supposed to be handling anything like that. It’s weird for me to have been in that position, remember it as a 10-year-old, going back to it now that I’m an adult. I’m older than Night was when he wrote and directed it. It’s interesting to have that perspective after all these years.”
“That movie changed my life. It allowed me the opportunity to go on to work on all these other films that I enjoyed so much, so I will always be grateful to Night for making that possible. And just the experience itself of making that movie, I learned so much about acting and filmmaking, and it’s in many ways the start of a journey for me that continues to this day.”