In retrospect, it’s easy to see why Unbreakable was not the box office hit that many were expecting from M. Night Shyamalan in the year 2000. The director had the impossible task of following The Sixth Sense, the second biggest movie of 1999 (behind only The Phantom Menace); he was making a comic-book movie at a time when the genre was out of favor (thanks largely to the silliness of the late-’90s Batman movies); and the studio had marketed it, misleadingly, as a Sense-style thriller. And yet, it’s also easy to see why Unbreakable would go on to find a devoted audience on DVD and eventually streaming, and why it would start to pop up in “Best Superhero Movies” lists in the late 2000s: It’s really, really good – and well ahead of its time. The dark, grounded, and refreshing take on the superhero genre also benefited from some incredible performances from Bruce Willis (as train crash survivor and reluctant hero David Dunn) and Samuel L. Jackson (as Elijah Price, a.k.a. Mr. Glass, whose friendly fascination with Dunn belies more villainous intentions). In this oral history of Unbreakable, Jackson tells Rotten Tomatoes about his first impressions of “Night” (“a little dictatorial”) and the appeal of his fragile villain Elijah, while Shyamalan reveals the origins of his tale and its journey from risky studio proposition to cult favorite.
What follows is a history of Unbreakable (2000), and reflection upon it, drawn from sit-down interviews with M. Night Shyamalan and Samuel L. Jackson.
M. Night Shyamalan: When I was editing Sixth Sense, I was writing Unbreakable, and the idea originally was a plane crashed and the guy survives and then someone says, “I think you might be a real-life superhero.” But then I put it into a train ’cause I love trains and I felt it was more comic book-y for me. It felt more reasonable that he would survive [a train accident] without a scratch, and so [it] could be dismissed as luck. But then Elijah’s character comes to him and says, “No, I think you might be a superhero.” This idea of a regular person who doesn’t have anything to do with superheroes in a world in which that doesn’t exist is told: Hey, you know these fake things in comic books? I think they’re actually based on people like you.
Samuel L. Jackson: I was just finishing a job in Morocco and I had to go into Marrakesh. My wife was coming for few days, so we were gonna, I guess, take a holiday. I was in a casino, heard a voice – Bruce! – I turned around, we talked. He asked me what I was doing; I told him. I asked him where he’d been, and he said, “Oh I just finished this movie with this kid, and he’s writing a movie for us right now.” I was like, what movie was that, and he told me. I said, “Oh, I read that movie. I wanted to be in it.” He called Night on the phone, and Night says, “Oh, I’m writing one of your scenes right now.” And we start talking, he tells me what the movie’s about. [I said] don’t read it to me, I’ll just read it when you send it.
Shyamalan: One of my favorite movies is Pulp Fiction, and I really wanted that flavor that Sam and Bruce gave in Pulp Fiction for Unbreakable. Obviously, [it’s] a totally different story and all that stuff, but that kinda cool, edgy, grounded quality that they both had in that movie… I thought [Willis’] quietness versus [Jackson’s] pizazz could be really fun. It was really from Quentin that I grabbed that union.
Jackson: I love the character. I’m a huge comic book fan. I like the fact that he had this great arc. [He’s] not a weak character at all; he’s just fragile, physically fragile. It takes a certain kind of person to be able to accept that they have something like that, carry on and have a strong belief that, “If I’m this person, there must be some person out there that’s opposite me that can justify the fact that God made somebody like me.” He had these things that were wrong with him that made him stronger. That’s what you want — you want a character that definitely knows what he’s about. I talked to the costume director about the color scheme; we had great talks about the color scheme and the kind of materials he wanted to use. I kind of brought the hairstyle idea to him and Night accepted it, and then okay, let’s build it and see what happens and to give Elijah things that were very distinct. It has a level of strength to it that his body didn’t have. His body’s so fragile, but he had this great mane of hair like a lion, very strong.
Shyamalan: Sam brought that Frederick Douglas look to the table. The hair kinda parted and [created a] big silhouette that I love so much. He definitely brought the pizazz, which is what you expect from Sam.
Shyamalan: I think I was 29 when I was doing Unbreakable. Or maybe even 28 when I wrote it. I was still in the early stages of my career, and those guys were icons… And I was being very aggressive about the way we were making the movie. Long takes. Three-minute takes, two-minute takes, four-minute takes – really aggressive filmmaking. And they just had to trust me. There’s no close-ups. There’s no this, there’s no that. And it’s very play-like.
Jackson: First impression [of Shyamalan]: young, strong ego, a little dictatorial when we first started working together. He had certain ways he wanted us to do things, and he would tell us to do them. I came up through the theater, and theater is essentially a dictatorship – the director tells you to do something, you do it, or they ask you a question, you have to have the right answer to justify what you’re doing. Night went further than that. It was like, “I already know what you’re going to do, and I want you to do it this way.” We were kind of like his puppets in an interesting kind of way. There were specific times he would say, “Okay, try not to blink. Just do the whole thing without blinking.” Or he would say, “Don’t say the line that way, say it this way,” and I’m one of those actors that hates being given line readings. But he was very adamant about it. Bruce and I have been around together for quite a bit, so… it was kind of easy for us to kind of listen to Night and look at each other and go, “Yeah, wait till this kid finds out.”
Shyamalan: I think for the studio at that time… it was seen as a fringe element of the movie – that this is about comic books. “Oh, those are those weirdos that hang out at those conventions.” Back then, there was just Comic-Con, and it was very niche at that time. People weren’t aware of it. It was more cult-like. So, they said, “Let’s not make this a cult subject movie; let’s sell it more as a general thriller. We’re never gonna mention comic books, superheroes – any of that.” That meant you couldn’t even [promote] the main plot of the movie because that’s the plot of the movie: “Hey, I think you’re a real-life superhero.” That couldn’t be said in the ads. It was a really weird and ironic time that the thing that dominates the film industry now was the one thing they were running from. They thought that was the least commercial element of the film. Obviously, times have changed a great deal.
Shyamalan: When the movie opened I think there was a disconnect because [audiences] were thinking it was kind of a sequel to Sixth Sense – it was me and Bruce and we sold it like that. So, there was confusion. People were coming to see a scary movie and that’s not what they saw, you know? But immediately as the DVD came out, you started to feel the change in their perception of the movie. And… “Oh, wait, this is about comic books?” And then again, six months later, six months later, six months later… it just kept growing and growing until I would cross the street and, if you and I were hanging out, invariably someone would come up to us and say: “Unbreakable! I love it, man. When are you making the sequel?