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Freed by failure

'Lady in the Water' sank like a stone, but M. Night Shyamalan is a soulful survivor.

June 08, 2008|Rachel Abramowitz | Times Staff Writer

MALVERN, PA. — HE DESCRIBES the experience of making "Lady in the Water," the biggest flop of his career, as something akin to stripping off all his clothes and running outside to have the world collectively laugh at him.

But in a good way.

M. Night Shyamalan, the 37-year-old film director who shot to fame with "The Sixth Sense" in 1999, is not talking about large-scale humiliation but rather personal empowerment -- the freedom that comes from giving up concern about other people's expectations.

"My hope for the movie was a personal one," he says. "I'm sick of feeling like I hope the cool people like me. I hope the teachers like me. You know that thing you do when you're in school? And you're in your mid-30s and you go, 'I'm sick of feeling this way.' And you kind of like have this urge to take all your clothes off and run outside and say, 'Make fun of me. Are we done? Is that it? Good, let's go on with our lives.'

"That really is what happened and I feel like I've been cleansed in some way."

Just weeks before the opening of Shyamalan's new movie, "The Happening," a phantasmagoria of paranoia that arrives on Friday, the director is sitting in the private dining room of Creighton Farm, his little equivalent of Skywalker Ranch. His business offices and editing suite are set in a colonial stone home on this bucolic spread of Pennsylvania land. Across the walls, in chronological order, are the posters from his movies, from the little-seen early ones -- "Praying With Anger" and "Wide Awake" -- to the better-known -- "The Sixth Sense," "Signs" and "The Village."

Everything about Shyamalan the person appears pristine, precise, aesthetic. He's extremely thin, in a white shirt and jeans. A private chef -- who cooks for everyone who works at Creighton -- has served an immaculate lunch (Thai chicken, wasabi mashed potatoes) in tiny portions, each the size of a baby's fist. Yet the director also exudes a disconcerting mixture of warmth, guilelessness and confidence -- though not the walk-on-water sunny assurance he had in conversation four years ago. A vague soupcon of chagrin hangs over him. He's been through a complete cycle of media glorification and diminution, and emerged chastened but certainly not bowed. He's also, perhaps more important, not embittered.

Shyamalan occupies an unusual place in the pop-culture pantheon. He's a writer-director, an auteur of popcorn films, who has turned his own idiosyncratic brew of horror, psychology and spirituality into a global brand. Most of the directors who've come of age with him have divided themselves into two camps: the entertainers and the artistes. The entertainers -- Gore Verbinski, Sam Raimi, Doug Liman, Christopher Nolan, Bryan Singer -- have almost all gravitated to big franchise fare, the juggernauts that Hollywood prizes most, such properties as "Spider-Man," "Batman" and "X-Men." The artistes, most of whom write, include Wes Anderson, Paul Thomas Anderson, David O. Russell and Quentin Tarantino. Most have made occasional missteps into insular self-importance and almost none has reached as broad an audience (nor made as much money) as Shyamalan.

The downside is steep

UNTIL NOW, Shyamalan has gotten a lot of approbation -- and flak -- for having a foot in both camps. He's received two Oscar nominations, but when he misfires, the fan base goes ballistic rather than simply wrinkle its nose in disappointment, as might happen for another director. And, oh yes, like Alfred Hitchcock, Shyamalan puts himself in small roles in most of his movies -- though his acting is less inspired than his filmmaking.

If Shyamalan had been just another writer-director trying to tell original stories, "Lady in the Water," released in 2006, would be considered just another arty misstep on the tortuous path of originality. But the film, a fractured fairy tale about a water nymph sent to awaken a mortal to make the world a better place, engendered outright vitriol. As Manohla Dargis wrote in the New York Times, it was unclear what the nymph was trying to get the humans to hear, "the crash of waves, the songs of the sirens, the voice of God -- until we realize that, of course, we're meant to cup our ear to an even higher power: Mr. Shyamalan."

The director's distress was amplified by the fact that he'd cooperated with a tell-all book by Sports Illustrated writer Michael Bamberger, "The Man Who Heard Voices: Or, How M. Night Shyamalan Risked His Career on a Fairy Tale and Lost." The words "and Lost" were added to the paperback edition after the film failed commercially. Although the book is fairly sycophantic, Shyamalan is portrayed as veering between arrogance and self-doubt with a huge chunk of mono-obsession thrown in, not unlike so many other directors.

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