In the months leading up to The Sixth Sense's release in August 1999, there was little buzz around the film and no expectations that it would become a hit. Disney had so little faith in it that, even though one of their executives paid millions for the script, the studio ended up offloading the production rights to an independent film company. M. Night Shyamalan was relatively unknown at the time, and the film starred a child actor alongside Bruce Willis, who was known for making big-budget action movies, not moderately budgeted psychological thrillers. Some publications left The Sixth Sense off their list of releases for fall 1999. Even Shyamalan was hedging his bets about its success - he hoped it would make enough money to give him a chance to direct another film.
But behind the scenes of The Sixth Sense, the cast and crew knew what they were making was something special, with a final plot twist that would shock audiences and critics alike. Their belief in the underdog project was validated when the film grossed a whopping $26.6 million in its opening weekend and spent a total of five weeks as the No. 1 film at the US box office. To date, the movie has grossed close to $700 million worldwide. It also received six Academy Award nominations: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Supporting Actor (Haley Joel Osment), Best Supporting Actress (Toni Collette), Best Original Screenplay, and Best Editing.
No One Knew 'I See Dead People' Would Become A Cultural Staple
Although Osment's "I see dead people" has become one of the most memorable lines in movie history, the actor claimed that no one connected with the film had a clue that it would have such a major impact.
"Even when we were shooting that scene, nobody was pointing to that line or singling it out for special attention," Osment told The Hollywood Reporter in 2019.
The actor believed the line only really started to have a huge impact after the movie was out and "I see dead people" was emphasized in the advertising.
When Shyamalan saw Osment's video audition tape, he didn't think the young actor was right for the part of Cole. The writer-director envisioned Cole as a brooding, enigmatic kid, and he saw Osment as a "really sweet cherub, kind of beautiful, blond boy."
Then Osment had an in-person audition. "There was something magical about his audition," Shyamalan recalled in a 2019 interview with The Hollywood Reporter. "He nailed it with the vulnerability and the need... He was able to convey a need as a human being in a way that was amazing to see."
The writer-director told THR that after Osment's audition, he remarked to the casting director that he didn't know if he would want to make the movie if Osment didn't get the part.
The young actor was well prepared for his audition - when asked by Shyamalan if he read his part, Osment replied that he read the entire script three times the night before (reportedly on the urging of his father, himself an actor). Osment was reportedly also the only child auditioning for the role who wore a tie.
In 1997, Willis was slated to produce and star in a romantic comedy entitled Broadway Brawler. But when a dispute between the actor and the director led to the film being shut down just weeks into production, Disney and Willis came to an agreement in which he would commit to star in two other films for the company instead, at a reduced fee of $10 million each. One of these films turned out to be The Sixth Sense.
David Vogel, the head of Buena Vista Motion Picture Group, sent the script to the actor's agent thinking Willis wouldn't want to do a small-budget film with an unknown writer-director. He was surprised to learn the actor wanted to play the role of the child psychologist.
"When I read [the script for] Sixth Sense, I was as fooled when I turned that last page, that last couple, the last three pages of that script, I was blown away by the fact that my character was dead," the actor said in a 2002 interview with Reader's Digest. "I didn’t see it coming. And that’s what made me want to do it. I went, 'If we can pull this off, it would be brilliant.'"
At first, there was a condition to Willis playing the role. "The script is good, but Night's [Shyamalan] not directing," Willis's agent told the executive. So Vogel thought Willis would withdraw from the project after being told that Shyamalan would indeed direct the film. Luckily, his agent backed off from demanding that Shyamalan be replaced.
Osment Thought He And Collette 'Whiffed' Their Big Scene
Osment didn't think the pivotal scene where he tells Collette his secret about being able to see dead people was nearly as well done as it should have been. In a 2017 interview with SYFY Wire, the actor explained that he felt rushed while filming the delicate moment: "We did seven takes of it, and we just felt like we weren't getting it, and by the seventh one we felt like we had gotten some good stuff but there was still this unsureness."
Osment went on to say that while he was nervous they might have missed the mark, he felt much better after the director showed the cast and crew the scene during that night's dailies.
In a 2019 interview with Variety, Shyamalan recalled his own doubts about how the filming of that scene had gone:
I felt I had all the pieces, but I was not 100% sure, because we didn’t do [the scene] in full takes that I felt comfortable with. We had to move on. I walked away, and I was talking to somebody else and then the AD came over and said "Hey, they’re both [Collette and Osment] really upset." And I went back to the car and they were both crying, and they said, "Are you sure we got it? Are you sure we got it?" And I go, "We got it," and I gave them reassurance. I said, "I’m pretty sure we got it."