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Credit: Universal Pictures

The cast of M. Night Shyamalan's 'Old' say they found hope in film's claustrophobic, time-warping terror

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Jul 22, 2021, 1:29 PM EDT

M. Night Shyamalan's new film, Old, is the story of a group of people stuck in one place, where the flow of time begins to warp before their eyes and they begin to ponder deep, existential questions at the core of their existence. So naturally, the script was an interesting read for a group of actors stuck at home in the midst of a pandemic.

"It felt very natural to be drawn to this because when you were in the lockdown and you spent weeks on end kind of trapped in your apartment, it felt very scary to read this script. But also, very moving. It gave me hope almost," Vicky Krieps, who in the film plays Prisca, a historian and mother of two, told SYFY WIRE. "Because it's about a woman who has two children, which I have two. You are always constantly thinking about these topics of time passing and life and 'Did I do enough with my time, did I do enough in my life?' Reading this script, it really helped me to understand things in my life."

Eliza Scanlen, who plays Kara, one of the film's rapidly aging children, agreed.

"It asks the question "If you had to live the rest of your life in one day, how would you spend it, and what is important in your life?' And I guess that's probably some of the questions that have been running through many people's heads at this time," Scanlen said. "I think that's why I'm drawn to it."

Credit: Universal Pictures

Shyamalan was also drawn to it even before the pandemic. Old marks a relatively rare instance in which the filmmaker behind The Sixth Sense, Unbreakable, Signs, and more actually chose to adapt the work of someone else, in this case, the graphic novel Sandcastle by Pierre Oscar Lévy and Frederik Peeters. After receiving the book as a Father's Day present, Shyamalan dove into its strange conceptual space, making the story his own until it became what he dubbed a "two-hour Twilight Zone episode" in the film's production notes.

With the script in place, Shyamalan began to assemble an all-star cast of actors from around the world, including Krieps, Scanlen, Gael Garcia Bernal, Rufus Sewell, Thomasin McKenzie, Abbey Lee, and Alex Wolff. Then came the hard part: venturing out of Shyamalan's home state of Pennsylvania to shoot the entire film on location in the Dominican Republic, amid a global pandemic and a beach environment that didn't always cooperate.

"I think that the shoot was challenging because of the environment that we were in, and we were on the backend of hurricane season," Scanlen said. And that meant that our set often was being threatened by the currents, and the tides, and also torrential rain. And every scene in the film is so high-stakes that it was quite hard to maintain that over the course of the film, especially when you're in high 30-degree [Celsius] heat. And I think that definitely colored my experience, and it made it a whole lot more challenging."

Credit: Universal Pictures

As the film's rather mysterious trailers lay out, the beach in question is the principal location for Old, the story of a group of tourists who are led to the private expanse of sand by workers at an idyllic resort, only to find once they get there that they're not only trapped, but aging years in a matter of hours. Prisca and her husband Guy (Bernal) must watch their children Trent (Wolff) and Maddox (McKenzie) grow up in the blink of an eye, with all the emotional turmoil that entails, all while the whole group tries to solve the mystery of the beach and find a way out.

For Shyamalan, that meant casting multiple young actors to play the rapidly aging kids. For the cast, it meant learning to grow up very, very fast.

"Night is such a visionary that he knew exactly how to linearly line us up in terms of our performances, without trying too hard to make us spend time together or get our mannerisms down," Wolff said. "It wasn't as important. He cast it based on people that echoed each other. And I thought it was pretty amazing casting. [Nolan Rivers, who plays younger Trent] just looks like a little me."

Wolff noted that, in preparation for playing a rapidly aging character, he read work by child psychologists Bruno Bettelheim and Jean Piaget, while also charting out the approximate emotional age of his character in any given scene. When he arrived on set, though, a lot of that went out the window.

"I read this Bruno Bettelheim book on fairy tales and went through all that stuff and found a lot that maybe I'd kind of soaked in, and then it's important that day one, you just destroy all that," Wolff said. "You just go, 'No, now I am here and I'm on a beach and I'm with Thomasin, and I'm with Vicky, and I'm with Night, and f*** all that s*** before. You do it to inherit it and swallow it and digest it, but you're not supposed to be still eating that food by the time you get to day one of the set."

For Scanlen, whom the trailers reveal growing visibly pregnant in a matter of moments during the film, the preparation also came from a more instinctual place of existential horror: The idea that you could go through childhood without actually living any formative moments.

"At the time I guess I was looking back on my own life and how there are so many experiences that shaped me as a person, and to not have those character-building experiences would be something incredibly lost," she said. "I think you could argue that those character-building experiences, whether they're traumatic or joyful, they are what make life worth living. And I think that's the whole point of existing. So to not have that would be incredibly sad."

Credit: Universal Pictures

To dig too deep into the various dilemmas the characters in Old face on that terrifying beach would be to give too much of Shyamalan's story away, but the frightening questions the film asks lingered in the minds of its stars even when the cameras weren't rolling. Because of the restrictions of the pandemic, the cast and crew spent virtually all of their time together while shooting the film, which led to some interesting conversations off the set.

"I think we were all in a heightened state of being and thinking," Krieps recalled. "We were all talking about life and the meaning of life. It was just that time. Because we were shooting and it was still lockdown. No one knew what was going to happen and we were on a remote island. I was gone from my children for almost two months. Then, we were doing this movie and acting these scenes. They're all about life somehow, and about death and the meaning of life and who we are as people alone, together, with everyone else."

Wolff added of his co-stars, "It's weird doing this press without them, because this movie was... we were all a body. We were all parts of the body. It's hard to even talk about it as if we're not all a family. So I felt like we really became a family because we were forced to. And so, people would get annoyed with me. I was a young, annoying kid and we'd have a blast and go swimming. They really became like my parents on the movie, and Thomasin became like my sister. And so I just feel like it forced us all to not do much of the Hollywoody stuff of going off and going to our trailer. We didn't really have time that much for that. We were just all in a tent together."

Old is a film that takes Shyamalan's knack for preparation and narrative structure and pours it into scenes that often feel like tightly controlled chaos, as a group of people react as realistically as they can to a situation they can neither control nor understand. And that's just the parts that are make-believe. For the cast, making the film meant leaving home for two months in the fall of 2020, amid a virus that had made filmmaking almost impossible for much of the year, and battling the elements as they tried to deliver a potent cocktail of emotions on camera. It was an experience that changed them, something they hope comes through on the big screen.

"When I had the script, I remember reading when Prisca says, 'I see life now in bigger movements.' It did something to me, which I didn't understand. Then, leading up to the shooting, I was still in Europe a long time and it was summer and COVID had settled down a little bit. We were able to go out. It sat with me," Krieps said. "This was a very intense time in my life because during the lockdown, I got very depressed. In that time, I went to the ocean I remember, swimming in the ocean for the first time. I kind of came back to me. I kept the sentence of Prisca in mind and it really helped me.

"So, once I came to the shoot, I had already evolved around this sentence. I had already changed. Then, doing the movie, I changed even more talking to Gael about life and death, talking with all the other cast members. So, when the movie was done, I felt like a changed woman. I was a new person really. I really also felt like I had survived the shooting of this movie. I mean, we were not in danger of life and death, but it was really intense personally and psychologically. Not only having survived it, but having done it in my best possible way. I felt I had grown, you know?"

Old opens in theaters on Friday.