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Holiday Sneaks

The Super Natural

Director M. Night Shyamalan prefers routines and a down-to-earth life. So why does he specialize in eerie thrillers?

November 12, 2000|GENE SEYMOUR | Gene Seymour is a Newsday film critic

CONSHOCKEN, Pa. — The distance between the administrative offices of Burning Edge Pictures and the actual production "annex"--for want of a better word--seems narrow enough to be covered as quickly by foot as by wheel. But given all the tricky curves and jumps along the way, it's better that we're getting a lift this morning from Burning Edge's head honcho, who's happy to oblige despite the fact that his outfit's about to enter what he terms the "red zone" of its latest enterprise.

"Red zone," for those with better things to do with their autumn weekends, is football jargon for the area between the 20-yard line and the end zone. M. Night Shyamalan, who grew up and still lives and works in this suburban Philadelphia community, may be more susceptible than most filmmakers to such metaphors as "red zone," given the City of Brotherly Love's fervent, if often ungratified, passion for sports.

The analogy is nonetheless appropriate, given that there is in Shyamalan's manner this morning the blithe assurance and keyed-up intensity one imagines in a quarterback mentally surveying his options for scoring with less than two minutes to play in a championship game.

For it is the morning after the second and final test-audience screening of Shyamalan's forthcoming movie, "Unbreakable," before its Nov. 22 premiere. This is the first film written and directed by the 30-year-old Shyamalan since his previous supernatural thriller, the $38-million "The Sixth Sense," shocked the world by making $293.5 million at the box office and garnering six Academy Award nominations.

Bruce Willis, who played the lead role of a guilt-ridden child psychologist in "The Sixth Sense," returns in "Unbreakable," co-starring Samuel L. Jackson. Disney's Touchstone Pictures is banking on Shyamalan's fourth feature film to perform well on that crucial Thanksgiving weekend. So, with the remaining time being measured in weeks and days, the clock is ticking. Yet Shyamalan is feeling no discernible pressure. In fact, he's buoyant over the previous night's reaction from his test audience (a positive response buttressed from a rave materializing that day on the Ain't-It-Cool-News Web site from one of the attendees). As he arrives at the annex for a full day of editing, Shyamalan (pronounced "shy-uh-MELL-in") is so jaunty that he tells his visitor a story about the highway overpass looming over the parking lot.

"There was a guy who tried to kill himself jumping off from way up high," Shyamalan says, pointing at the peak of the overpass. "Couldn't even do that right. He landed in the ravine down there, which had even less water than it has now. He lived."

Shyamalan relates this tale with enough of a glint in his wide espresso eyes to suggest that he's pulling his visitor's leg a tad. One can, in fact, be forgiven for thinking there's some calculation in leaking what could be little more than one of those urban legends since it's not too far from the story line of "Unbreakable," which is almost as creepily alluring as that of "The Sixth Sense." In "Unbreakable," Willis plays a stadium security guard who inexplicably walks away from calamitous train and car wrecks without a scratch. Jackson is his polar opposite, a man born with brittle, easily shattered bones, who seeks Willis out for some explanation for their physical conditions.

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Shyamalan says he got the idea while nursing a broken leg he suffered in a pickup basketball game. Other factors were in play as well. "Because I'm a little phobic about flying in planes, I would fantasize about what it would be like to totally survive a crash. [The idea] wasn't the first thing that came to my head after 'Sixth Sense' since I was already actually writing an outline for a different script before all these factors came together in this other idea for what became 'Unbreakable.' I talked it over with my wife. She said it sounded interesting. It just started to grow on its own."

Those looking for more plot detail than this about "Unbreakable" will get little help from this article. Shyamalan is so edgy about shielding the movie's secrets from his visitor that both he and his editor, Dylan Tichenor ("Magnolia," "Hurlyburly"), spend most of the day reviewing the test screening's reactions and talking around many of the crucial plot points. ("Not that we don't trust you," Tichenor unconvincingly assures us.) So the few clips that get worked over during this session are scrupulously unrevealing: Willis poking around a closet for a gun, Willis sneaking around a vacant lot on a rainy night and Willis aboard a passenger train that collides violently with another. "We want," Shyamalan says with a grin, "to keep you as virginal as possible."

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