For someone who makes such dark and scary movies, M. Night Shyamalan seems like an extremely well-adjusted guy.
The 32-year-old film director grew up in a posh suburb of Philadelphia. His parents, with whom he is still quite tight, were doctors, and they still live near their son in suburban Philadelphia. He's been married for nine years and is the father of two young daughters. His film career has been blessed. At 29, he was nominated for an Academy Award for best director for his blockbuster thriller "The Sixth Sense" (1999) and his current film, "Signs," took in more than $60 million in its opening weekend.
And his insightful examinations of the trials and tribulation of adolescence have had critics calling him the next Steven Spielberg--a recent Newsweek cover article, in fact, dubbed him "The New Spielberg." His deft handling of adolescent angst also brings to mind the early films of French auteur Francois Truffaut and Italian neo-realist Vittorio De Sica.
And like just like the protagonists in Truffaut's 1959 classic "The 400 Blows" and De Sica's seminal 1948 drama "The Bicycle Thief," Shyamalan's films are populated with somber young boys who carry the weight of the world on their shoulders--a troubled world in which the adults offer little if any real help.
In an interview earlier this week, the effusive Shyamalan says the young protagonists of his movies don't really reflect what he was like at that age. Rather, he says, "these little boys kind of remind me of important things in life. I don't have a son but I kind of imagine what a son would want from me and need from me."
In "The Sixth Sense," Cole (Haley Joel Osment) is such a sensitive lad that he sees and communicates with dead people. In "Unbreakable" (2000), Joseph (Spencer Treat Clark) is trying to cope with his parents' marital problems and his father's increasingly odd behavior after a train accident. And in "Signs," Morgan (Rory Culkin) is dealing with the untimely death of his mother, his father's emotional distance and the fact that the world may be coming to an end when malevolent green aliens invade Earth.
The adult male protagonists in Shyamalan's films also follow a pattern--they are restrained, noncommunicative, distant. They are all trapped in an emotional straitjacket. In "The Sixth Sense" child psychologist Malcolm Crowe (Bruce Willis) wants to help Cole but can't seem to help himself. He happens to be dead but he doesn't know it. Willis' David Dunn in "Unbreakable" doesn't know why he is the only survivor of a devastating railroad accident or has become a living embodiment of a comic book superhero. And in "Signs," Graham Hess (Mel Gibson) is a recent widower and former priest who has lost his faith and has shut himself off from his two young children.
When Shyamalan made "The Sixth Sense," his eldest daughter was just 2, and the film, he says, reflected his fears about being a good parent.
"Unbreakable," he says, examines the need for boys to envision their fathers as superhero figures. "Kids see their parents as superheroes," he says, "especially their dads--the kind who never cries and never gets scared. I imagined what if one kid's feeling about his father was correct."
For "Signs," he decided not to include a mother in the mix, but to add the role of Graham's younger brother (Joaquin Phoenix), a disenchanted former minor league baseball player who has moved back home.
"It was a much more interesting family," he says. "It was not the standard mother, father, children, boy, girl, who are trapped in this house but somehow a fragmented nuclear family. Then when I thought about the mom not being there, that was a kind of powerful feeling of wow--this is a weakened family, a kind of a family limping when we find them. And the brother moving in just added to the dysfunctional nature of their makeup at the beginning of the movie."
Shyamalan, who was born in India, raised as a Hindu but whose parents sent him to Catholic school for discipline, admits he was a sensitive kid like his young protagonists. "I was an overly sensitive kid for sure," he says, "and definitely shy. But with my friends I definitely wasn't shy. I was the smallest guy. I was the one leading everyone around. That kind of evolved into making movies where I am bossing everybody around now. I get paid to boss everybody around."
He says his family--Shyamalan has a sister who is six years older-- is exceptionally close because of the "immigrant mentality--you come here and you live close to each other and take care of each other."
Shyamalan says that he didn't get his inspiration to make movies about children from his idol Spielberg. "I don't think inspiration is the right word," he explains. "It is more that those movies really spoke to me. He was making movies about 10-year-old boys and I was 10 years old, so it is almost like a direct connection. I was seeing myself in those movies and maybe that identification just stuck with me--frozen."
Ironically, Spielberg's view of children and adults has changed radically as he's gotten older and become a father. The wonderment of "E.T. the Extraterrestrial" (1982) has given way to the dark, despairing take on children and families in "A.I. Artificial Intelligence" (2001) and the current "Minority Report."
Like Spielberg, Truffaut and De Sica, Shyamalan, who has earned a reputation in his brief career as obsessively single-minded in his approach, sees his movies as intensely personal.
"They reflect anxieties or issues I was dealing with at each of those stages of my life," he says. "You know what I mean, whether it is anxiety about work or family or marriage.
"Hopefully, if I keep conveying the personal journey that I am going through in real life with these characters, each of the movies will be genuine and a continued connection with the audience--a little biography of my life."