A different take
Self-directed filmmaker M. Night Shyamalan forges his own sub-genre: suspenseful movies with revealing twists. How a confident Hollywood outsider keeps his focus on family and faith.
Manoj Shyamalan ended his high school years with a dramatic statement. Editor of the 1988 yearbook, he ran a full-page replica of a Time magazine cover - featuring himself. The grinning teen stands in bow tie and cummerbund, his suspenders thumbed to the limit of their elasticity. The bold headline: "Best Director. NYU Grad Takes Hollywood By Storm."
"It was kind of tongue-and-cheeky," says the man now known as M. Night, sitting near the window of a Manhattan hotel room, the foliage of Central Park a tangled jungle below. He giggles at the memory. The March 1993 date on the mock cover alluded to Hollywood's award season. "It was so outlandish, you know, that it was like a dream you throw out there."
Mr. Shyamalan has yet to win an Oscar, though his 1999 breakthrough film, "The Sixth Sense," was nominated for six Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Director. And he has yet to make the cover of Time (settling, so far, for Newsweek). But Shyamalan has indeed stormed the movie universe, becoming Hollywood's highest-paid screenwriter, one of few directors who can open a blockbuster on the strength of his name alone - and, effectively, sole owner of the suspense genre.
His new film, "The Village," opens Friday. Its cast includes two Oscar winners, Adrien Brody and William Hurt, not to mention Sigourney Weaver and Joaquin Phoenix. But on posters it is the writer/director/producer's name that looms above the title of a film that fits neatly into what has become the auteur's standard fare: paranormal tales with Twilight Zone twists.
"He's the star. M. Night Shyamalan has become a brand name," says Paul Dergarabedian, president of Exhibitor Relations, a Los Angeles-based firm that tracks box-office trends. Mr. Dergarabedian points to the strong association between Shyamalan (SHAH-ma-lawn) and his major works: "Signs," "Unbreakable," and "The Sixth Sense." "In order to sell the movie, you really push the fact that it's his movie," he says. "That's enough to get people in."
That power has led some in the media to dub him "the new Spielberg" or "the new Hitchcock." But remarkably, this director, a first-generation American of Indian heritage, is no Hollywood insider. The 33-year-old millionaire has remained resolutely anchored - physically and artistically - to his hometown of Philadelphia. The city is the setting for all of his movies and the headquarters of Blinding Edge Pictures, his production company.
Cloistered there, away from the self-absorbed universe chronicled by People magazine, Shyamalan seeks inspiration for scripts with emotional themes - faith and family - that will resonate with ordinary moviegoers.
"I think he is genuinely interested in why and how people come to believe," says David Thomson, author of "The New Biographical Dictionary of Film."
Shy yet confident, mature yet childlike, precise yet open to ambiguity, Shymalan aims high.
"My biggest fear in life," Shyamalan once told The Philadelphia Inquirer, "is to be average."
On that score, say those who know him, he probably needn't fret. It became apparent early on that Manoj was no ordinary kid. He took in "Star Wars" at age seven, and that experience kicked him into creative overdrive.
His mother, an obstetrician at a Philadelphia hospital, once told an Indian newspaper that she came home one day soon after to find her son with a movie camera.
His explanation was simple: He had rented it with money he'd borrowed from a friend's mother.
Later that evening, Dr. Shyamalan drove Manoj to the store to return the equipment. When her son failed to emerge from the building, she got out of her car.
What she saw next caused her to burst out laughing. The store owner was picking coins out of a trash bag and counting them. The boy had cracked open his piggy-bank savings and lugged in $500 in quarters to put down as a deposit for the camera.
In moviemaking, Shyamalan found the perfect escape from lulls of a quiet life in a wealthy suburb. His parents, both immigrant doctors who had moved to the US when their son was eight months old, were often away because of the demands of their practices. The young Manoj didn't find his sister much of a companion, either. She was six years older than he was.
"There was a lot of alone time [in which] to imagine, which is good," he says now. "If I had a big brother who was a year older than me or something, I probably wouldn't have ended up being a filmmaker."
Shyamalan took to making short films with uncommon brio. Using Halloween masks and kitchen gloves, he transformed radio-controlled cars into ketchup-dripping monsters. Visiting cousins were roped in as extras. The family dog, a docile German shepherd, became a very unconvincing version of Stephen King's Cujo.
Shedding his shyness, Manoj soon befriended a neighbor, Brian Rosenstein, to star in his cinematic projects.
"You can see the genius in his filmmaking even back then," says Mr. Rosenstein, now a manager in his family's Philadelphia-based textile business. "I mean, he's doing special editing, he's doing parallel cutting, he's editing in music. To think this is before we're driving."
By the age of 16, Shyamalan had filmed 45 shorts. When he wasn't making movies, he was watching them. Intently. There wasn't a title in the action-adventure and horror sections of the video store that didn't pass through the home VCR.
Outings to see "Poltergeist," "Raiders of the Lost Ark," and "E.T." left Shyamalan enraptured by Steven Spielberg.
Shyamalan's parents weren't worried about raising a film geek. They were actively supportive of the hobby, his mom happily acting as caterer on the backyard movie sets.
No shut-in, Manoj had other interests, too - basketball and tennis, in particular. As far as Nelliate and Jayalakshmi Shyamalan were concerned, their son would go to medical school, as had nine doctors throughout the extended family.
The Shyamalans had primed their son for success, sending him to a Catholic grade school "for the discipline" and then to The Episcopal Academy (motto: "Educating the whole child - Mind, Body, Spirit"), where the well-liked teen, renowned for his humor, graduated cum laude.
It was a major disappointment, Shyamalan says, when he told them he would study film at the Tisch School of the Arts at New York University.
In a nod to his parents, the filmmaker did don a white coat for a cameo role as a doctor in "The Sixth Sense."He has, in fact, cast himself in small speaking roles in each of his past four movies.
The director leaves other fingerprints on every reel of celluloid he produces. Look carefully in each film and you'll spot a scene in which curtains flutter in the wind. Another Shyamalan signature: someone reflected in the surface of an object. And then there are, of course, the trademark twist endings.
"The Sixth Sense," about the relationship between an extraordinarily empathetic child (Haley Joel Osment) and a psychologist (Bruce Willis) floored moviegoers - many of whom went back for a second look - with its surprise revelation about Willis's character.
The late-summer movie proceeded to streak to $293 million. It became a cultural phenomenon. (Bart Simpson even scrawled the film's most memorable line, "I see dead people," on his detention-room chalkboard.)
Shyamalan followed up with "Unbreakable" and "Signs." The latter, a 2002 film about an alien invasion, grossed $228 million.
A handful of twisting, supernatural-themed imitators - "Gothika," "What Lies Beneath," "The Others" - were released by other studios. But it is Shyamalan, many observers say, who owns the genre today.
"If he had been a filmmaker whose natural instinct is to move from one genre to another, he may have achieved the same degree of box-office success, but I'm not sure that he would be as well known to the public," says Gregg Kilday, film editor of The Hollywood Reporter. "He's kind of doing what Hitchcock did years ago, associating his name with a certain type of film."
In Shyamalan's universe, men are estranged from their family or wives, and children struggle to make sense of the adult world.
"It's an area of storytelling that can easily be misinterpreted as horror," says Mr. Thomson. But Shyamalan's films, he adds, exhibit a certain warmth.
Not that the suspense doesn't chill.
"People talk about the influence of Alfred Hitchcock all the time," says Andrew O'Hehir, a writer and editor at Salon.com. "[But] most of the time that shows up as the very shallow sort of [comparison]. I think Shyamalan is unique in the sense that he understands that Hitchcock created a unique sort of film language, and was a master of building tension through the camera."
If Shyamalan draws snipes, it is often for being a little too formulaic. A nation absorbed in the novel "The Da Vinci Code" has grown increasingly savvy about plot twists. And as popular as the approach has become, it may be predictable in its own way.
"At this point, anybody who goes to see one of [Shyamalan's] movies, is waiting for 'OK, what's the big narrative twist here?' " says Mr. O'Hehir.
Shyamalan bristles slightly at the charge. His hands, with numerous rings on each finger, fly as he mounts his defense.
"The reality is, right now, if I made 'The Sixth Sense,' everyone would guess the ending," he says. "So [would] I not make 'The Sixth Sense' if I got that idea right now? I mean, that would be sad."
A big opening weekend seems all but assured for "The Village," which might be described as the "Blair Witch Project" set in the 19th century. But the film's long-term success may well hinge on whether its serpentine twists manage to outfox the audience.
Shyamalan's first brushes with failure would not occur until after he had blazed through film school, completing the four-year course in three years.
"There was never any self-doubt or procrastination," recalls Lamar Sanders, a Tisch professor who says the prolific screenwriter had an uncanny flair for narrative.
Within months of graduating, Shyamalan - who had just adopted "Night" because people had struggled to pronounce Manoj - went to India to make a movie.
Shyamalan's father loaned him $500,000 to make "Praying With Anger," a full-length feature in which Night played an American Indian rediscovering his roots.
The 21-year-old mailed an unsolicited print to the 1992 Toronto film festival. It wowed the programmers. Though the film went on to win the American Film Institute's award for best feature debut, it grossed only $7,000.
What followed was a series of bad deals and false promises from studios. And by this time, the stakes were higher for Shyamalan. He had met an Indian student, Bhavna Vaswani, at NYU and had slipped a note into her fortune cookie asking her to marry him.
The couple immediately began a family. Shyamalan soon had two daughters to feed. He was devastated when his first studio film, Miramax's "Wide Awake," earned just $300,000.
"I've seen many students in that situation," says Mr. Sanders. "They frequently go off and lick their wounds for years and sometimes never reemerge, because their confidence has been destroyed. I can't imagine that happening to Night.... He was clearly not going to be stopped."
Shyamalan's ego, however, was bruised. He hints that it hurt when his family read the reviews. They still weren't fully convinced he'd made the best career choice.
Shyamalan quickly decided to make the setback work for him.
"I was lucky enough to fail multiple times in the very beginning. Fail dramatically," says Shyamalan. "That's the greatest thing that could ever happen to you, because ... [failure] no longer holds any power over you. And now you can assess cleanly what you need to improve and what needs to be fixed."
"The Sixth Sense" took 10 drafts to perfect. The discarded versions now hang framed in Shyamalan's office as reminders of the value of perseverence.
The script fetched $3 million. Disney later paid him a staggering $5 million for "Signs" - with a bonus $7.5 million to direct it.
His position in Hollywood secure, Shyamalan passed up an opportunity to direct "Harry Potter." He even turned down an offer from his enduring idol, Spielberg, to write "Indiana Jones IV," so that he could concentrate on creating his own stories.
Remaining self-directed has also allowed Shyamalan to carve out time for his children and his parents, who still live nearby. This spring, when the cast and crew of "The Village" retired to trailers in a remote part of rural Pennsylvania each night, Shyamalan would drive home to see his children.
One of his goals, he says, is to "make it like a job, like a regular job, so they feel like it's a normal dad, having a normal life."
Shyamalan, whose sophisticated GQ couture masks a child-like persona, enjoys the uncomplicated company of kids - and not only his own.
"Some of that comes from his wife. She has a heart for children," says Pastor Steven Avinger, whose work to clean up his poor neighborhood for children inspired Shyamalan to quietly donate $1.5 million to the effort.
"The first shot of 'The Sixth Sense' was done in that neighborhood," says Shyamalan, who calls his gift "a little nudge." "And so then this kind of four-, five-, six-block radius - this is our hope - will become a beacon, an example of other things we can do in other parts of the city."
Another beneficiary of the Shyamalan Foundation, set up to help children, is the Greater Philadelphia Food Bank. When Shyamalan visited one of the program's summer camps last year, Joan Mintz Ulmer was struck by how well he connected with the 35 children crammed into a hot church.
"What the children were most impressed with was that he had written the screenplay for 'Stuart Little,' " says Ms. Ulmer, the food bank's director of resource development. "He spent hours there, sat with every single child, and they put on little performances for him. He looked like he was having the best time."
Others say his joy is also evident whenever Shyamalan is on the set. "He comes down and horses around with us on the set," says Sigourney Weaver. "You wouldn't think he was a director and in charge of hundreds of people."
It's that puckish side of him that occasionally prompts him to appear on the "Howard Stern" radio show - a format many stars find intimidating - for a rambling chat. Shyamalan also participated in a hoax documentary this month on the Sci Fi channel. Called "The Buried Secret of M. Night Shyamalan," it included a segment in which he appeared to storm off the set when an interviewer probed him about his fictional supernatural connection to a fictional deceased boy.
Shyamalan's own inner 10-year-old still shoots hoops and opts for hamburgers over foie gras. The "E.T." poster that used to hang on his bedroom wall now adorns his office, along with a picture of "Raiders of the Lost Ark" and a statue of Superman.
"There's definitely a side of me that's still that shy kid," says Shyamalan. "If I let myself get into a certain uncomfortable situation, I can become like that."
There is also a part of Shyamalan, though, that has always seemed preternaturally mature. Several colleagues and friends independently come up with the same description: an "old soul" in a young person's body.
In part, it's his innate sense of order. His childhood room was so neat, says a friend, that even the tennis balls were piled in pyramids. In his hotel room, wearing a wrinkle-free cotton shirt, he gestures to the coffee table. He explains that he feels distracted because he still hasn't finished autographing a pile of "Signs" DVDs.
That organized approach also means that he storyboards every scene in minute detail months before filming. The result: He knows exactly what he wants. That startling self-confidence could be mistaken for hubris.
But colleagues insist otherwise. He is often called a very sensitive and active listener, someone who allows co-workers time to work through creative mental processes he has already picked his way through.
"It's not a Donald Trump situation, which is just a surface bravado," maintains James Newton Howard, the composer who scored Shyamalan's last four films. "It's not a shallow kind of confidence," he says. "There's just so much passion about it.... It just comes out as, 'I know this is going to be great.' He's just excited, it's almost like a little kid." A little kid with big thoughts.
Shyamalan's spiritual beliefs are largely a mystery. In high school he was put off by the dogmatism he encountered. He told Time magazine in a 2000 interview that he recalled teachers saying that those who weren't baptized were condemned.
He was soon drawn to the beliefs of native Americans. During the past few years he has been practicing Kempo, a martial art with roots in Zen Buddhism. But he has also been profoundly influenced by his schooling in Christian theology, and by his family's devotion to Hinduism.
The filmmaker's father once gave him a tiny scroll of Sanskrit proverbs to remind him to stay grounded. It never leaves Shyamalan's neck.
"One of the things with him that I was impressed about is that he has a great comfort in different cultural settings, because he's worshiped with us before," says Philadelphia's Pastor Avinger, a Baptist.
Shyamalan may not be the modern-day successor to Cecil B. DeMille, his epics laced with crowds, chariots, and Charlton Heston. But his characters grapple mightily with questions about the existence of God - especially after a tragedy. And, in most cases, they are rewarded with a sign that renews their faith.
Still, some film critics are less than satisfied with the conclusions that Shyamalan's films draw. Mr. O'Hehir applauds the filmmaker for doing something Hollywood doesn't do very often: tackling religious themes. But, he says, Shyamalan's ideas on deep issues are too vague.
"It feels very much like supermarket spirituality to me," says O'Hehir.
Shyamalan, naturally, has his own take.
"It's something somewhat blurred in the line between believing in magic and believing in something spiritual," he says. "That idea of faith is really cool.... And it's a nice thing to keep saying, 'OK, I'm going to tell you another parable about faith.' "
Consider one of Shyamalan's future projects, an adaptation of the Booker Prize-winning novel "Life of Pi," by Yann Martel. The book tells the story of an Indian boy who finds himself stuck in a lifeboat with a ravenous tiger after a freighter carrying zoo animals sinks.
"[Shyamalan] read it and, for fairly obvious reasons now, he was interested in doing it," says Mr. Martel. "The novel starts in Pondicherry, where he was born. The character is [simultaneously] a Hindu, a Muslim, and a Christian. So there's obviously a religious content to the novel."
Like Shyamalan's own serpentine plots, the novel unreels a series of revelations. "I argue that stories have a theology," says Martel. "You must make a leap in faith and believe in stories and the truth of it will be decided later." Shyamalan says he will make "Life of Pi" after his next movie, about which he remains secretive.
He's not chasing Oscars, he says. In that sense, at least, he's not a grown-up version of the high school boy in that yearbook spoof. Success to Shyamalan now means building a body of work that is defined by its originality, singularity of accent, and voice. He wants to be more courageous, he says, just like the figure in the Blinding Edge film logo.
"It's a man kind of leaping off a precipice into the light and having faith that there's something in that light," he says. "You're not sure what's going to happen to you and it seems almost dangerous but he takes the leap. There's something drawing him, so he goes for it."