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Horror Director Impales Disney in Tell-All Book

June 23, 2006|Claudia Eller | Times Staff Writer

A new chapter has just been written in Hollywood about the never-ending tension between "the talent" and "the suits."

It can be found in a soon-to-be-published tell-all book that offers something very rare, indeed: a candid recounting, complete with tears and recriminations, of a messy divorce between a movie studio and one of the world's most famous writer-directors.

In "The Man Who Heard Voices: Or, How M. Night Shyamalan Risked His Career on a Fairy Tale," the 35-year-old filmmaker whose name has become synonymous with spooky suspense thrillers crucifies the top executives at the company he long had considered his artistic home since his 1999 surprise hit "The Sixth Sense": Walt Disney Studios.

Penned by Sports Illustrated writer Michael Bamberger with Shyamalan's blessing and extensive participation, the 278-page book hits stores July 20. That's one day before the theatrical premiere of Shyamalan's new movie, "Lady in the Water," which is at the center of the dispute that led him to part ways with Disney.

The $70-million movie, a scary fantasy that stars Paul Giamatti as an apartment building superintendent who rescues a sea nymph he finds in his swimming pool, was ultimately financed by Warner Bros.

But arguably as shocking as the movie itself is the way Shyamalan, in the book, disses his former studio. As galleys circulate around town, that more than anything else has people musing about just how fragile relationships between artists and executives can be.

Disney production President Nina Jacobson gets the worst drubbing.

Jacobson and Shyamalan enjoyed a close, albeit sometimes combative, relationship. Over six years, she shepherded his four Disney films including "Unbreakable," "Signs" and "The Village." On what would have been their fifth collaboration, their bond so eroded that the two didn't speak for more than a year.

At a disastrous dinner in Philadelphia last year, Jacobson delivered a frank critique of the "Lady in the Water" script. When she told him that she and her boss, studio Chairman Dick Cook, didn't "get" the idea, Shyamalan was heartbroken. Things got only worse when she lambasted his inclusion of a mauling of a film critic in the story line and told Shyamalan his decision to cast himself as a visionary writer out to change the world bordered on self-serving.

But Shyamalan gets his revenge on Jacobson in the book, in which he says he had felt for some time that he "had witnessed the decay of her creative vision right before his own wide-open eyes. She didn't want iconoclastic directors. She wanted directors who made money."

Bamberger readily acknowledges that the book is told from Shyamalan's point of view.

"It's not intended to be balanced," Bamberger said of the book, based on a year he spent shadowing Shyamalan. "It's a Night-centric view of how Night works."

If that's all it was, of course, there wouldn't be so many bruised feelings at Disney, whose executives the book maligns as drones who lack creative vision.

Of Disney's three top executives, Jacobson, Cook and marketing head Oren Aviv, the book says, "They had morphed into one, the embodiment of the company they worked for. And that company ... no longer valued individualism ... no longer valued fighters."

Nevertheless, the book says Shyamalan was haunted by them.

"Sometimes Night would close his eyes and see little oval black and white head shots of Nina Jacobson and Oren Aviv and Dick Cook floating around in his head, unwanted houseguests that would not leave," Bamberger writes. "The Disney people had gotten deep inside his head, interfering with the good work the voices were supposed to do -- and it would be hell to get them out."

In an interview, Bamberger said that in that section -- like in several others -- he was channeling Shyamalan's deepest convictions, even though the book usually does not quote the writer-director directly.

"Night really let me get inside his head," Bamberger said. "He told me what he was thinking, and I wrote it."

Shyamalan was vacationing in France and did not respond to questions sent via e-mail. His publicist, Leslee Dart, said her client "totally supports the book," and the book's publisher, William Shinker of Gotham Books, said Shyamalan had agreed to help promote the nonfiction account.

Were it not for Bamberger's book, the Disney-Shyamalan split might have been viewed as just another beat amid the constant churn of Hollywood relationships. Everyone knows that highly accomplished artists are often as deeply insecure as they are brilliant. It can be a challenge for executives to pacify the creative folks, while pleasing the bean counters.

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