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Pride goeth before the fall

July 25, 2006|Patrick Goldstein | Times Staff Writer

IN Hollywood, a town where tales of self-immolation are passed along like hot new scripts, everyone has been frantically trying to score a copy of "The Man Who Heard Voices," Michael Bamberger's new book about M. Night Shyamalan and the making of "Lady in the Water." The fascination with the book has only been heightened by the poor opening of "Lady," which arrived practically dead in the water over the weekend, making a paltry $18.2 million, the filmmaker's worst opening ever.

As one wag put it, there's been an outbreak of Shyamaladenfreude.

If there is a recurrent theme in Bamberger's book, it's that Night is different from the rest of us. Like the mythic creatures who populate his new movie, he is not subject to the same mundane laws of gravity that keep us moored to the ground.

Early in the book, Night (everyone calls him by his second name) is at a meeting in his agent's office here when the conversation turns to basketball. "I believe if I had unlimited time to practice," he says, "after two years, I'd be able to shoot with any NBA player." After the meeting is over, his longtime agent, United Talent Agency partner Jeremy Zimmer, admonishes the scrawny filmmaker, who is, at best, a good Sunday morning pickup player. "You can't say stuff like that."

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday July 26, 2006 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 58 words Type of Material: Correction
"Lady in the Water": An article in Tuesday's Calendar about the new film "Lady in the Water" described it as the worst opening ever for filmmaker M. Night Shyamalan. It was his worst wide-release opening ever. The article also described the lead character in the film as a motel manager. He is the manager of an apartment complex.

But "Voices" is full of stuff like that. Most of the buzz about the book, which was written with Night's cooperation, has focused on a disastrous meeting between the filmmaker and the top brass at Disney, where he'd made four straight hits. After Disney production chief Nina Jacobson bluntly dissected the "Lady" script's failings, Night opted to take the film to Warner Bros., in part because studio chief Alan Horn, after seeing "The Village," had called to say the movie really touched him.

This was the kind of truth Night wanted to hear. At the end of the calamitous Disney meeting, Zimmer, trying to smooth things over, says, "We're thankful for the truthful response you've given us." Night instantly retorts: "I don't agree. I don't think it was a truthful response." For all his insistence on being the least "Hollywood" of directors, living far away on his bucolic 75-acre farm in Pennsylvania, Night has a perfect grasp of movie-town insincerity. In Hollywood, where everyone is carefully trained to never tell a filmmaker what they really think about their movie -- unless they actually loved it -- the truth couldn't possibly be the truth if the truth hurts.

It wasn't just Night's story that bothered Jacobson. "Lady in the Water" is a fanciful fable about a stuttering motel manager (Paul Giamatti) who happens upon a willowy Narf (Bryce Dallas Howard) when she surfaces one night in the motel pool. She is followed by other strange, made-up creatures, including a snarling Scrunt and a prehistoric eagle who transports Narfs from the human realm to a watery Blue World. Jacobson worried that Night was asking for trouble by casting himself as a writer whose prophetic work ultimately helps change the world, and making the movie's least likable character a sourpuss film critic (who is dispatched by a nasty Scrunt).

Night has said that "Lady in the Water" began as a bedtime story he told his daughters. But it's Bamberger's book that has become a grim fairy tale, a bracing reminder of how many of our best filmmakers, having achieved success, wall themselves off from reality and succumb to childlike self-importance. Jacobson has emerged as a hero, especially after being fired from Disney last week in an especially callous way -- getting the bad news after calling her boss from the hospital where her partner was having their baby. Though the book claims Night had "witnessed the decay of her creative vision," the opposite had happened. In a world of enablers, Jacobson had not only tried to protect Night from himself but also tried to preserve the U2-style emotional connection his films had with his audience.

What makes the book especially damaging, despite its relentlessly sycophantish portrayal of the filmmaker, is that Night violated Hollywood PR Law No. 1: Never let people see you as you really are. In an era when stars hide behind their handlers, who vet writers, limit their access and keep them miles away from any dirty laundry, Night let Bamberger see it all -- straight, no chaser. If Night weren't so insufferable, his honesty would almost be charming. In one scene, he is put out that Jacobson is late arriving home from a children's birthday party to meet Night's assistant, who is delivering a closely guarded copy of the "Lady" script.

As Bamberger puts it, "Night felt the reading of his script shouldn't be considered work. It should add to the weekend's pleasure."

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