M Night Shyamalan: The freedom to dream

Disney just didn't get the idea of M Night Shyamalan's new film fantasy. That's why they split, the director tells Gill Pringle
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

The director M Night Shyamalan stretches back on a leather sofa in his office on the upper floor of an 18th-century Pennsylvania farmhouse, now tastefully converted into a production facility, set amid glorious countryside.

The setting is far removed from the debate raging in Hollywood as a result of a book about why Shyamalan left Disney, his artistic home since his 1999 surprise hit The Sixth Sense. Written by Michael Bamberger, The Man Who Heard Voices: Or, How M Night Shyamalan Risked His Career on a Fairy Tale, is a reminder that not all fairy tales end happily.

This saga of ruthless executives and bruised egos ended with Shyamalan finding a new home at Warner Bros. As to who was right; well, the answer will ultimately lie with the box-office figures for his latest film, Lady in the Water, starring Paul Giamatti and Bryce Dallas Howard.

"It just felt like the right time to change studios," Shyamalan says. "This film is all about accepting and being free, not worrying what people will say and what the reactions will be. But, much more, it's about leaving safety behind. I needed to leave Disney to make that happen.

"Disney didn't quite get the movie. I showed them the fifth draft, and they looked at me like I was crazy. I said, 'I'm not sure I can make this here,' and they said, 'No, just make it. Forget it - we don't get it - but, here, make it,' and they gave me a cheque. And I said 'I can't make a movie like that. I'm sorry.'

"I saw Lady in the Water as the live-action version of what Walt Disney did back in the day. But Walt Disney could not make movies for Disney right now. Maybe one day I'll come back and make a film there, but this one - I could not make there. This original family film - I could not make it there.

"And I'm happy I made this movie at Warners because it could not have got there without seeing in peoples' eyes that they believed in it whole-heartedly, to the point of almost irrationally believing. It sounds silly, but it's important in the way I believe ET was important, or even The Exorcist was an important conversation to have," says Shyamalan, who conceived Lady in the Water as a bedtime story for his children.

"With this story, my two girls became obsessed by it and would draw the characters. I had a great time telling it, which is a different process to me going in there by myself and writing," Shyamalan, 36, says.

The result is the beautifully moody Lady in the Water. It's the story of an apartment superintendent (Giamatti) who rescues a drowning young woman (Howard) only to discover she's a "narf", a nymph-like character from a children's bedtime story now being stalked by vicious creatures determined to prevent her returning to her own world.

"There's a quiet suspense in this movie, and a lot of comedy because everyone takes the story kind of farcically at first. And part of the fun was to tell the most absurd story that I told my kids and then have you, through the course of the movie, laugh at it, and then slowly start to take it seriously and it becomes tragic and then grounded and real and has metaphoric qualities.

Shyamalan has expanded his trademark cameo into a fully fledged role, portraying a writer whose books will inspire future generations and may even change the world.

"It's really a story about muses that are supposed to inspire ordinary people to do things that will have big effects down the road, that will do something good for the world. This idea of being a link in the chain is an empowering story. That's what I tell my kids; that ordinary people can do great things, that your actions can have thousand-fold results."

In recent years, he's become impassioned about this "chain effect" theory, citing his discovery of Spike Lee's low-budget "guerrilla film-making" theory as an empowering inspiration. "Following that thread, I become a film-maker, I get lucky, I get successful, I get money, I put it into a foundation, so now we have a big foundation which my wife [Bhavna] runs and she just went to India where she visited this woman who stood up against these gangs and now she's helping the children. So we're going to help fund that village, to educate the women who then will help the kids go to school from where they might go on to become doctors and save thousands of lives - so Spike Lee saved thousands of lives in a village in India by his actions! Right? So how do you know where you are in that link?

"I think that ultimately the power of this movie is the realisation of the beauty of the idea of how connected we are," Shyamalan says.

He was born Manoj Nelliyattu Shyamalan; "Night" is a name he dreamt up in college. His first film, Praying with Anger (1992), was self-financed; he also directed, produced and starred in it. Wide Awake (1998) grossed little more than $250,000 in the US, giving little indication of the potential of The Sixth Sense, which raked in more than $600m globally for Disney. If Unbreakable (2000) was disappointing, then Signs (2002), with Mel Gibson, and The Village (2004) brought in healthy receipts.

Shyamalan was the son of an obstetrician mother and internist father. "Growing up, film-making didn't even register with my parents as a legitimate career. I could have said 'rock star' to them and they would have viewed it with the same level of legitimacy." He was born in India but raised in Pennsylvania's Penn Valley suburb, where his Hindi parents sent him to a strict Catholic school.

But he can't escape the doctors, even at home. "My wife just got her doctorate in psychology," he says, somewhat forlornly. Does she put him on the couch? "Yes, all the time. I have a lot of problems apparently! A wife with a PhD in psychology is not something I'd recommend." He met his Hong Kong-born wife while both were studying in New York.

If Shyamalan's wife is his daily muse, then Bryce Dallas Howard, 25, daughter of the director Ron Howard, is his film equivalent. "Sometimes it feels like everybody you meet is one of 40 different personalities, the whole world, everyone is one of 40 personalities. Our personalities create our facial features, and every now and then you meet someone who doesn't fit into an archetype. It makes you go, 'Whoa!' And I wonder if the 'it' quality of somebody is that they've created their own archetype and you're attracted to that glow because it isn't an archetype. That's what Bryce is to me - she isn't one of the 40." The director first showcased Howard's talents in The Village, although next year's Spider-Man 3 is likely to cement her future as a leading actress.

If Shyamalan ever doubted his wisdom in trying to conquer Hollywood from Pennsylvania, he's probably grateful to be so far removed now. "Being in Pennsylvania forced me to concentrate on the one thing I have that Hollywood didn't, screenplays. So in a way it was just perfect.

"If I'd gone there, I might have focused on networking, or a million things everybody says you need to do. But I spent those five years learning to write. I don't think you get to write a screenplay like The Sixth Sense unless you devote yourself exclusively.

"The only bad thing for me about not living in Los Angeles is that I make close friends and then I cannot continue that relationship on a daily basis. That can be very lonely. People like Mel Gibson and Bruce Willis. I physically miss these guys. You have such an intense relationship and then they're gone."

A bit like Disney, really.

'Lady in the Water' opens on 11 August