The COVID-19 pandemic didn't really slow M. Night Shyamalan down. EW visited the set of his Apple TV+ show Servant days before lockdowns began across the United States, but it only took a couple of months before the production was up and running again (resulting in a very dark and funny season of TV). Shyamalan didn't stop at finishing Servant season 2, though. He was also one of the first directors to film a movie amidst the pandemic: Old, which stars Gael García Bernal, Thomasin McKenzie, Vicky Krieps, Alex Wolff, and others in a story about vacationers finding themselves on a beach that causes them to age rapidly. On Friday night, Shyamalan and Wolff discussed the pandemic production of Old during a talk for this year's Tribeca Festival.
As one of the first pandemic productions, Shyamalan explained that he had to create safety protocols without the benefit of precedent - but they worked out! Shyamalan paid for everyone in the cast and crew of Old to stay at the same hotel for 10 weeks, and they all just went between the hotel and the beach set. They also had their own testing lab, and never had a single positive case throughout the production.
But COVID-19 was one thing, and storms were another. Shyamalan wanted this specific cast for Old, but their limited availability meant they had to film during hurricane season.
"Of course there was a hurricane. It took the sets and just destroyed them," Shyamalan said. "The biggest concern was that the beach had been eroded away. There was no beach for our beach movie. We had been rehearsing, and then three days before we got there, I got word there was no beach. I was like 'well…' I didn't know what to do. Making movies is an act of faith, and that's what makes it magic. There's so many things that can go wrong."
"But this was extreme," Wolff pointed out. "I remember you were just totally calm, but then I saw you reach for water and you were like 'yeah, I think we lost the beach, and I think it's totally fine.'"
It wasn't a worst-case scenario. By the time filming began, some of the eroded beach had returned and would continue to reform as time went on. Shyamalan said that "we became very versed with nature and tides and storms out 100 miles away" so they could plan the shots they needed around the weather. When it worked out in the end, Shyamalan and his collaborators couldn't help but feel grateful.
"We were on that beach, and honestly we were allowed to be on that beach. Mother Nature allowed us to be on that beach," Shyamalan said. "We had 40 days where we needed good weather, and we got 40 days of good weather. We couldn't afford one rain-out. The local crews told me about a ritual to thank Mother Nature, to thank the beach. So we all had flowers, it was 3 am when we finished shooting the last shot. The crew and cast all went to the edge of the water, we all made wishes and expressed our gratitude, and put our flowers out to the ocean."
In this vein, Shyamalan also mentioned that some of his primary influences on Old were Australian New Wave films like Nicolas Roeg's Walkabout and Peter Weir's Picnic at Hanging Rock, which are also stories about humans struggling against the overwhelming power of nature. But ultimately, he said Old was one of his most personal films ever, comparing it to Unbreakable and Lady in the Water in that regard.
"My father's very old right now, he has dementia, he comes and goes," Shyamalan said. "Sometimes he's at a train station. I could tell him I'm coming here to Tribeca Festival, but I'm not sure he understands what I'm saying. My kids are now directing and singing concerts. When did this happen? So I made a movie about that feeling, about wow we blink and everything changes. The person who changed your diapers, you're now changing their diapers. I think that's relatable to everybody."
"Especially right now," Wolff added. "Coming out of COVID it feels like time just stopped. And that's what the movie's literally about. When I tell people about it they're like, oh is it about COVID? I say no it's just coincidence, it was kismet."
Old hits theaters on July 23.