Inspiration is a funny thing. It can hit you anywhere, at any time, often when you least expect it. For Isaac Newton, it was in an apple orchard. For M. Night Shyamalan, it was at a Denny's. That's where he was when he came up with the idea to write his 2002 movie "Signs."
Before we get to that, though, we have to understand Shyamalan's mindset at the time. He had broken out in a big way with the Academy Award-nominated "The Sixth Sense," but his follow-up, "Unbreakable," received a much more mixed response. The domestic box office was less than $100 million, a respectable number but also less than a third of what "Sixth Sense" had brought in. The response to that film — which has since earned plenty of praise upon reflection — made the director reconsider his frame of mind when making that film. As he told The Ringer in 2020:
"I think my somberness at the time of 'Unbreakable' came off in the film. If you see it, it's a very burdened movie."
And so, when he found himself in that Denny's, he began to watch the people around him. That was when he had a lightbulb moment, and "Signs" was the result.
Shyamalan Wanted To Inspire Hope In His Audience
Shyamalan began to observe the other patrons, and noticed there seemed to be a bit of gloom in the air. It clicked that maybe he could uplift his audiences, rather than contributing yet more gloom. As he told The Ringer:
"I was sitting there and seeing a family that was silent, and they were eating. I saw a couple that was quiet, and they were eating. And I was saying to myself: I can make movies that are burdened, and that's honest for me. But I was looking at those people in the Denny's, and I knew they were coming to my movies, and I wanted to make them feel better."
The result is a film that's lighter and leans into humor more than his previous work. Sure, it's a movie about an alien invasion, with plenty of scares and tension — but it's tension that's often broken by a cast including Mel Gibson, Rory Culkin, Abigail Breslin, and Joaquin Phoenix, who each get moments to shine with funny dialogue and clever sight gags, as well as an insightful ending that's full of hope.
As he said to The Ringer, it wasn't just the audiences who wound up being uplifted:
"Every day I question whether I should have become a doctor, you know. But it wasn't that way on that movie. It was really fun."
The script flowed out of Shyamalan, too, as he took small quirks from his family and friends and plugged them into his characters. He also made sure to only write when he was in a good mood. In the end, he gave the audiences a movie that's scary, but also inspiring. Just maybe not as inspiring as a Grand Slam breakfast.
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