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M. Night Shyamalan


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Directing the Film, Then Its Hype

By CARYN JAMES

The New York Times

(July 17) -- Among the more obscure entries in Johnny Depp?s filmography is a sly cameo in ?The Buried Secret of M. Night Shyamalan,? a 2004 film about the making of Mr. Shyamalan?s period thriller, ?The Village.? Mr. Depp explains that he decided not to appear in the earlier movie ?Signs? because Mr. Shyamalan wanted to exert some creepy control over his cast, requiring a confidentiality agreement and feeding the actors comments to spout to the press (as if that never happens).

 

 

?Buried Secret? gives us the director as diva ? no ?eye contact with Night,? a publicist warns the documentary crew ? and eventually shows Mr. Shyamalan stomping out of an interview and withdrawing his cooperation.

 

 

We now know that ?The Buried Secret? was a ?Blair Witch?-style hoax, a mock documentary promoting ?The Village,? and that its subject played along with it until the end. (The Sci Fi Channel was forced to confess two days before the special was shown.)

 

 

Seen on DVD today the mock doc is an overlong, sporadically clever spoof of Mr. Shyamalan and the machinery of hype itself. But it is revealing because it uses what is beginning to look like a favorite Shyamalan ploy: self-promotion by proxy.

 

 

With his new film, ?Lady in the Water,? set to open on Friday, he seems to be making a push to raise his celebrity profile beyond that of the guy whose surprise-twist movies make boatloads of money when they?re good (?The Sixth Sense? and ?Signs?) and only slightly smaller boatloads when they?re bad (?Unbreakable? and ?The Village?). But in the current flurry of image-shaping, the egotist satirized in ?Buried Secret? seems all too real.

 

 

The most blatant part of the strategy is Michael Bamberger?s headline-grabbing new book, ?The Man Who Heard Voices: Or, How M. Night Shyamalan Risked His Career on a Fairy Tale? (Gotham Books). A work about the making of the new film, the book so echoes its subject?s point of view (he?s the sensitive artiste, misunderstood by his old studio, Disney) that it reads like an act of ventriloquism.

 

 

Beyond that, Mr. Shyamalan has given himself a substantial acting role in ?Lady in the Water,? a leap beyond the cameos in his earlier movies. Viewers might recognize his face from the extravagantly dreamlike American Express commercial shown during the Oscars. He has written a children?s book, also called ?Lady in the Water? (Little, Brown), and reads a snippet in a video on Amazon.com.

 

 

Then there are the articles about the Bamberger work, some as credulous as the book itself. All this, and Mr. Shyamalan is only now hitting the talk-show circuit. It?s as if he?s trying to vault himself into the Spielbergian reaches of fame.

 

 

He has never been shy about such outsize ambitions. He wrote, produced, directed and even starred in his first film, ?Praying With Anger? (1992), soon after graduating from New York University film school. On screen he comes across as a good-looking, mild-mannered, appealing guy, until some over-the-top comment boomerangs.

 

 

In a feature included on the DVD of ?The Sixth Sense? he says, ?My goal as a filmmaker is to make ? try to make ? cultural phenomenon,? as if such things can be manufactured by sheer force of will. It might seem that way to him; after all, ?I see dead people,? that film?s famous line, has become a pop-culture catchphrase.

 

 

But the movies that followed have not approached the same cultural impact, and now the children?s book shows how wrong things can go when someone strives overtly for mythic resonance. A bedtime story Mr. Shyamalan created for his two daughters, ?Lady in the Water? is the tale that inspired the film, about a narf, a gentle sea nymph, who lives under a swimming pool.

 

More From the TimesTexas Hospitals Reflect the Debate on ImmigrationG.O.P. Senator Resisting Bush Over DetaineesBrainy Robots Start Stepping Into Daily LifeChicago Weighs New Prohibition: Bad-for-You FatsA New Vaccine for Girls, but Should It Be Compulsory?In the book Mr. Shyamalan tries to capture a world where magic exists ? in movie terms, more Spielberg, less Hitchcock ? but he does surprisingly little to create that place. He tells what narfs do, but he doesn?t depict a single one with a name or personality.

 

 

Lacking any vivid characters for children to latch on to, the book is abstract and finally preachy. If you see a narf, he writes, ?one day you will do something important for the world.? He asserts mythic enchantment rather than enticing his audience into it, a curious lapse from a filmmaker who really knows how to tell a story.

 

 

Reaching for a broader audience, the film naturally has a more complicated version of this plot, and a major narf character (Bryce Dallas Howard). But while it sounds different from Mr. Shyamalan?s earlier works, promos link it to the thrillers. One television spot ends with a young voice eerily singing ?Who?s Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf?,? making the movie seem like a horror fairy tale. Another trailer shows Paul Giamatti attacked in the dark by an unseen creature. Yet even the film?s press notes place it in the tradition of ?E.T.? and ?The Wizard of Oz,? so it makes sense to be skeptical about those trailers.

 

 

Relying on Mr. Shyamalan as a selling point isn?t a stupid idea; sometimes when he asserts something, people do swallow it. That sort of spin worked for the supposedly explosive Bamberger book, with early newspaper reports summarizing its man-bites-studio story as if that were something bizarre. The Los Angeles Times?s headline was ?Horror Director Impales Disney in Tell-All Book,? while The Observer of London?s was ?Director?s Tell-All Assault on Disney Shocks Hollywood.? (Those Hollywood innocents; so easily shocked.)

 

 

Really, Disney doesn?t look so bad, not even in the episodes that have already become notorious: three Disney executives are not properly deferential when Mr. Shyamalan?s assistant hand-delivers scripts to them on a Sunday; those executives then fly to Philadelphia for dinner with Mr. Shyamalan and say they have problems with the screenplay. They are clearly indulging a star director?s childish self-importance. (To make ?Lady,? he moved to Warner Brothers.)

 

 

You can?t blame a filmmaker for trying to control the spin when there is so much uncontrolled information swirling around. The Smoking Gun Web site ? www.thesmokinggun.com ? once posted the production budgets of some of Mr. Shyamalan?s movies, which included salaries for ?The Village?: $2.75 million for Adrien Brody, $1.25 million for William Hurt and a measly $150,000 for Bryce Dallas Howard, who played the main character. She was unknown then, but still.

 

 

Mr. Shyamalan?s current ambitions seem bigger than mere spin control, though, and depend as much on the public response to him as to his new movie. ?My life is about finding time to dream? is the tag line of his Amex commercial. A dream can be a tough thing to share, especially when it?s the fantasy of turning yourself into a pop-cult star.

 

I think the guy is a good director, a merely OKAY writer (I mean, you know what you're paying for when you see his flicks, but whatever) and a really pretentious a**hole. I just have a problem with anyone putting their name above the title. If you're such a talented director they don't need to do that unless it's some really early work no one knows/knew was yours to begin with. I'm not a big fan of those "Best Week Ever" pop culture panel shows, but one of the better thing I've ever seen when I came across one last weekend was one of the comedians calling him out as "Mr. M. Night."

 

Interesting how the writer of the article liked Signs but not Unbreakable. I thought Signs, from a writing standpoint, was complete garbage. I didn't see the Village because, by that point, I'd become kind of bored of the whole Shyamalan excercise and figured the monster/villain of the piece wasn't really a monster. I'm sure in "Lady in the Water," the Lady in the Water probably only exists in the protagonist's minds and it's about a pool in an insane asylum or something.

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While I think everyone in the world would agree that 'Village' was not very deep or secretive, his other three bigs films (Sixth Sense, Unbreakable and Signs) were all very enjoyable. And considering that one of my favorite actors stars in 'Lady' (Paul Giamatti), I'm looking forward to it.

 

I may have glanced over it, but one of Shyamalan's more obvious tactics is using an actor from the previous movie in the subsequent movie. Bruce Willis (Sixth Sense-->Unbreakable); Joaquin Phoenix (Signs-->Village); Bryce Dallas Howard (Village-->Lady in the Water).

 

I just thought that was....cool.

 

Also, he played a pretty 'decent' sized role in Signs, as the neighbor who crashed (and killed) Mel Gibson's wife.

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This movie looks like it's going to be a disaster.

 

I read several reviews of it on RottenTomatoes.com, and they pretty much said the same thing:

 

-The story is made up by the director as he goes along

-It's too hard to create an entire mythology successfully in one film

-Shyamalan's character in the film has too important of a role

-One character in the movie is just used to bash Disney and is the director's own stereotype of a movie critic

-The film is being marketed as a horror/thriller, when in reality it's not.

 

I predicted earlier this summer that this movie would follow the downward trend since The Village, and it looks like I may be right.

 

It will probably make a decent amount the opening weekend, but I would expect a 60-70 percent drop-off in sales for next weekend.

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And kids singing in movie commercials is the kiss of death for me. I can't stand kids singing.

 

 

Good God, yes. Such a cheap and overused effect that I guess is supposed to be creepy, but to me just communicates "out of ideas".

 

I've actually liked all of his movies on some level or another, but I am still a little sick of him. I don't really have any interest in seeing this.

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From the upcoming Newsweek 7/24 issue:

 

The Crisis: He wrote and directed "The Sixth Sense" and "Signs." His films have grossed $1.6 billion worldwide. Now, judging from conversations with impartial observers around Hollywood, the perception is that success has gone to his head. "It feels like the entire town is rooting for him to fail," says one studio exec. "Is there a 12-step program for egos?" On the eve of "Lady in the Water," M. Night Shyamalan has cooperated with a book that details his arguments with Disney president Nina Jacobson. She advised him, for instance, not to cast himself as a visionary writer whose book will change the world. Shyamalan ignored her, and made the movie at Warner Bros. "He has completely burned a bridge at Disney," says a top agent. NEWSWEEK, some say, is partly to blame for Shyamalan's arrogance. "When your fine magazine proclaimed him 'The Next Spielberg' on the cover, this was all fated," says a studio exec.

 

Since that article four years ago, Shyamalan's movies?namely "The Village" and "Lady in the Water"?have certainly become more artificial and less engrossing. The success of "The Sixth Sense" gave him total creative autonomy, and he has isolated himself in Pennsylvania, where all his movies are made. "When someone is given total artistic freedom," says one blockbuster producer, "the result is usually bad."

 

The Cure: No one doubts his talent, or believes he has done irreparable harm to his career. What remains to be seen, though, is how he will react if "Lady in the Water" fails. "Will he be one of those guys who self-destructs," asks an Oscar-nominated producer, "or will he pick himself up and reinvent himself?" The solution, most suggest, is for him to break out of his self-imposed cocoon. "The smaller you make your world, the less of an artist you can really be," says an indie exec. "Look at Stanley Kubrick. If you see 'Eyes Wide Shut,' it's clear he hadn't left the house in 20 years." Others think Shyamalan should take a break from writing screenplays. "He could direct some big, great script that a studio is trying to get to someone like Spielberg," says the agent. Interesting thought, but this time let's leave the real Spielberg out of it.

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