The deranged psychological thriller from the director of The Sixth Sense follows a set of tourists stranded on an island where time is accelerated and they age rapidly
If you were to play Desert Island Discs with actors, it may well look like the cast of M. Night Shyamalan’s wild, beach-themed horror Old. Stranded on a shore in the Dominican Republic, the starry ensemble includes Vicky Krieps, Alex Wolff, Thomasin McKenzie, Gael García Bernal, Abbey Lee, Ken Leung, Nikki Amuka-Bird, Eliza Scanlen, and, in a meta cameo, Shyamalan himself – the director embodies the driver of the vehicle who transports tourists to their impending, sped-up, delightfully gruesome fate. Or ageing, as some people call it.
The film, adapted by Shyamalan from the graphic novel Sandcastle, starts off with Prisca (Krieps) and Guy (Bernal) and their two young children, aged 6 and 11 (unfortunately not Wolff and McKenzie in The Irishman-style de-aging CGI), holidaying at a tropical resort when they’re invited to a mysterious, exclusive beach. In this idyllic, sandy corner, there are only two teeny, tiny, time-y problems: everyone suddenly starts physically ageing at two years per hour, while any attempts to escape are thwarted by the invisible, spoiler-y powers of mother nature.
As the outrageous trailer teases, Shyamalan’s 14th feature is an unpredictable, often hilarious cocktail of sci-fi twists, sombre family drama, and elements of body-horror that might even gross out David Cronenberg. My seventh sense (my sixth one is for seeing dead people) is that the film’s many surprises and violent turns will be hugely entertaining in a cinema full of strangers (if you feel safe, of course). By the end credits, I felt like I’d aged by an hour and 30 minutes – this is a compliment, as the film is an hour and 40 minutes.
Shyamalan, in retrospect, has often been ahead of his time. Unbreakable predicted the marketability of superheroes; The Happening and its ecohorror (trees take revenge on mankind) makes for uneasy viewing during 2021; and The Sixth Sense foresaw that Bruce Willis would eventually become invisible to cinemagoers. Old, too, was planned pre-pandemic, but shot towards the end of 2020; the theme of families confronting an early death is surprisingly resonant considering how enjoyably ridiculous the rest of it is. Plus, it’s always worth remembering that Apichatpong Weerasethakul once called Shyamalan one of his favourite contemporary filmmakers.
Here, we speak to Vicky Krieps (Phantom Thread, Bergman Island) and Alex Wolff (Hereditary, Pig) about the scariness of Shyamalan Island, de-preparing for acting gigs, and why Old is a “total Bergman blockbuster”.
10 MINUTES WITH VICKY KRIEPS
You went to Faro Island, AKA Bergman Island, to shoot Bergman Island. Do you consider Old to be a sort of Shyamalan Island?
Vicky Krieps: I think he would have to live on that island for it to become Shyamalan Island, because Bergman actually went to live there. But maybe from now on it will be his island.
People say that Bergman Island feels like a Bergman film. Does Shyamalan Island feel like a Shyamalan film? The landscape is very dramatic.
Vicky Krieps: That’s true. What’s very Shyamalan is that he takes a place that we all know as this paradise. When you’re old, you’ll have enough money, and you’ll sit on this beach and drink Pina Coladas, and this is why you work and pay for your retirement. And that’s very Shyamalan, to use this kind of place (for a horror).
There’s an amazing close-up of your face when you see your children age for the first time. You’re like Liv Ulmann in Persona – but filtered through M. Night Shyamalan.
Vicky Krieps: It’s interesting, because I talked with M. Night about Ingmar Bergman. Bergman movies are as scary as M. Night’s movies, because they both scare (by showing) everyday life. Both use everyday life situations and constellations of relationships, and they show us things so clearly that it becomes scary, and it gets under your skin.
And here, it was the same. I tried to imagine that this was my son, who was six years old, and is now 13 years old. I remember having goosebumps because the thought was so scary.
So you’re not thinking that you need to look really cool for the camera, because it might end up in the trailer?
Vicky Krieps: (laughs) What a question – I never think about the trailer! When I’m acting, I try to forget I’m acting. Sometimes I never prepare. I de-prepare. I want to become as stupid as a baby. I never watch my scenes afterwards. Whenever I’m acting, I’m just there. There’s so much power in presence, which also the movie is playing with.
You did an interview from your hotel room during the shoot and referred to filming during COVID as a “pain in the neck”. Could you elaborate on why?
Vicky Krieps: It was a pain in the neck because it was a pain in the feet. It was very, very exhausting to be on a beach all day long, without a break, and your feet moves on the sand, and your back is aching – and you know you cannot get away. You go on a tropical island you’ve never been to before. Everything is new. There are insects you don’t know. People you don’t know. A temperature you don’t know. Food you don’t know.
And I knew that even if I wanted to, I could not leave the hotel. It was maybe not a pain in the neck. It was more that it was scary, almost, to just be in a hotel, and take a car, and be on this beach – but only this one beach – and take a car, and be back in the hotel.
I’m not surprised it’s scary – it’s Shyamalan Island.
Vicky Krieps: Yes, exactly!
“Instead of always trying to change my life, I should accept my life” – Vicky Krieps
I spoke to you a few years ago for Phantom Thread, and I recommended a three-hour documentary on Bergman Island. I was wondering if I indirectly influenced your decision to do Bergman Island? You probably don’t remember.
Vicky Krieps: I remember that! But no. It was Mia (Hansen-Løve) who wrote me an email one day, suddenly asking if I would be in her movie. But now you point it out, it’s a very interesting connection, because she saw Phantom Thread, and that was when she decided to cast me.
Did M. Night decide to cast you because of Phantom Thread?
Vicky Krieps: I’m sure he saw Phantom Thread. But what I know is, I sent him a tape for (his TV show Servant), and during lockdown he watched it.
Anya Taylor-Joy said that, on Glass, M. Night changed the way she cries in front of the camera. What’s the best acting advice you received from him? Did he change the way you cry on camera?
Vicky Krieps: No. I’m not that kind of actor. I feel like I’m not even an actor. I’m more like a creature (laughs). Really, I’m sometimes so unaware of what I’m doing. Me and M. Night, what we did was deeper than that. We were always talking about the meaning of life and philosophy and spirituality. This was our way of communicating.
So did Old change the way you think about life, death, time, and all the other themes of the film?
Vicky Krieps: We did it during COVID, so this was already something that was making us change our view. What I see as discomfort is probably the best it will be. Instead of always trying to change my life, I should accept my life.
10 MINUTES WITH ALEX WOLFF
We spoke to you in May 2020 about what you were watching in isolation, and you mentioned Scenes from a Marriage and Persona. Were you watching Bergman to prepare for Old?
Alex Wolff: No, I’ve been a Bergman fan for a while. I’ve watched every single one. It’s a religion at this point. It’s the way I feel about The Beatles. He’s an answer to my prayers. Oddly enough, those two, I had already seen them, but I rewatched them right at the start of the pandemic.
And then I got this movie, and those are two of the biggest comparisons I’d make. There’s a lot of Scenes from a Marriage between Vicky and Gael, and there’s a lot of Persona within the spooky, non-linear way that these relationships evolve.
I talked to Vicky Krieps about how there’s Bergman Island – and now with Old, there’s Shyamalan Island.
Alex Wolff: Well, Night and I have been calling it a total Bergman blockbuster.
Are beaches effective settings for horror? Your cinematographer, Mike Gioulakis, also did It Followsand Jordan Peele’s Us, which both have these terrifying sequences on beaches.
Alex Wolff: There’s more movies on beaches, horror or not, that I like than dislike, all the way from Forgetting Sarah Marshall to Persona or Woman on the Beach from a few years ago. All the Éric Rohmer movies are the best, like Pauline at the Beach. Or Juliet of the Spirits, the Fellini movie – that whole beach sequence is the most amazing thing I’ve ever seen. And 8½. I actually cannot think of one bad movie on a beach. 50 First Dates is amazing.
But it’s important for people not to go in expecting a horror movie with this. I’d say it’s more along the lines of the movies that we’re talking about like Persona or Through a Glass Darkly or Cries and Whisperstonally. It’s got this Hitchcockian, Bergman-y suspense, this dread, this existential panic running through it. The trailer makes it really look scary, and it is – it has some amazing, scary thrills. But I think what’s really scary about this movie is how it makes you feel the next few days – you know, looking in a mirror: “Am I changing?”
Well, speaking of which, there’s something outrageous your character does – I don’t want to spoil it – and it took me a few days to realise how fucked up it is. What was your reaction when you read that in the script?
Alex Wolff: I’m going to do Night a favour, and I’m not going to say anything about that!
What I enjoyed about Old and Hereditary is the finality. Recently, I watched Fear Street Part One: 1994, and I found it really tedious that so much of the plot revolved around some witch’s curse to set up a sequel.
Alex Wolff: There’s something operatic about having a crescendo – just an explosion that ends everything – the way that in Rosemary’s Baby or The Exorcist, things just collapse and explode, and it really ends. I love all the Harry Potter movies, and the way they leave things open. But I think this movie in particular has an operatic, final chapter to it.
I believe you wrote a script recently that Nicolas Cage is producing. Is that still the case?
Alex Wolff: I directed a movie (The Cat and the Moon) a couple of years ago, and Nic really liked it. We were going to make this other one. I’ve actually pivoted. That’s a tricky script to make. I wrote another one that I’m going to be directing in the spring of next year. An announcement will come out soon. So I’m going to make the movie with Nic probably a little later down the road. It’s really, really dark, and right now wasn’t the right time
But Nic and I have a movie coming out called Pig. Nic is my guiding light. I took a lot of inspiration from him for Old, and I called him beforehand to talk about these larger things, like: “How do I do a scene where I’m…” – like the scene you talked about. He was talking about writing letters to your dreams, and asking them for answers.
“There’s something operatic about having a crescendo – just an explosion that ends everything – the way that in Rosemary’s Baby or The Exorcist, things just collapse and explode, and it really ends” – Alex Wolff
Do you still live in the same building as Noah Baumbach? Can you slip your new scripts outside his front door, with his newspapers?
Alex Wolff: I feel like I exhausted that pipeline (laughs). I was leaving new drafts outside. I hope he’s seen my movie. But I moved out.
So the conclusion of the film is that time is our most valuable commodity. Would you rather be paid in time or money?
Alex Wolff: I’d rather be paid in animals. Money is good. Time is good. But if it were up to me, I would get a new pet every movie – a new dog, or a new animal I’ve never seen before, like a chinchilla and a dog, and they came up and hugged me. If I could do this whole press junket with animals all over me, that would be fucking sick.
Old is out in cinemas on July 23