M Night Shyamalan is making no apologies.
Sure, his films after The Sixth Sense were comparative flops (comparative is the operative word; his two lowest grossing films, Unbreakable and Lady in the Water, still generated a combined $320 million worldwide against the $670 million of The Sixth Sense) but the writer and director maintains he is a good bet for any film studio to bank on.
“The audience comes to see the voice. If they are coming to see the same dance movie, then they are coming to the wrong place,” he says in an interview with Lounge. “My five films are the most profitable of any consecutive films made by anyone of my generation,” asserts Shyamalan. “If the next five are not as successful as these five, then they will have to adapt the budget.”
The Puducherry-born director is based in Philadelphia
In his first visit to India in nine years, Shyamalan was in Mumbai and New Delhi early this month to collect the Padma Shri, one of India’s highest civilian awards, and to help promote his next film The Happening, a science-fiction thriller billed as his “scariest so far”, which is due for a worldwide release on 13 June.
Co-produced by 20th Century Fox and Ronnie Screwvala, chief executive of UTV, the film’s record-breaking $57 million budget has set a new bar for collaborations between Indian production houses and Hollywood.
Born in Puducherry in 1970 to a Malayali physician father and a Tamil obstetrician mother, Shyamalan moved to the US when he was just a few months old. “It would be exciting at any time (to come back to India), but it has more meaning to come here now,” he says. “The last time I was here was nine years ago, around the time I made my first movie.”
Shyamalan was hailed as a wunderkind in 1999, following the release of The Sixth Sense, the story of a boy who communicates with spirits and a troubled child psychologist. The film, which gave birth to the line, “I see dead people”, went on to be nominated for six Academy Awards. Although it didn’t win, it propelled the then 28-year-old into the super league, and the comparisons to Hitchcock and Spielberg flowed thick and fast.
Nine years, and five commercially successful films later, Shyamalan has been variously labelled by his critics as “a one-trick pony” who appears in his own films in Hitchcock-like cameos, and accused of adopting a formula where all his thrillers suffer a “twist” ending.
Mark Wahlberg in The Happening
He robustly refutes this charge, however, branding it “confusing”, words tumbling out incoherently in the rush to clear the score. “I have made three films with a twist and three without,” fires Shyamalan. “If this is a blanket statement, then it’s confusing.”
Amid his reserves of confidence and self-belief, a chink of vulnerability becomes apparent when he discusses the “spirit” of The Happening, which tells the story of an estranged couple who must survive a global environmental crisis.
“The spirit of The Happening reminds me of the feeling when I was writing The Sixth Sense,” explains Shyamalan. “The kind of boy-like enjoyment of making movies has returned on this one to some extent. It was a fun time and I have not been so unburdened for a long time.”
His need for “unburdening” is traced back to Lady in the Water, a fantasy about a water nymph, which heralded one of the lowest points of his career. Critics panned the film, with the New York Post calling it “dead in the water” and describing Shyamalan as “a crackpot with messianic delusions”, while the script triggered a split with Disney, the studio that had been his primary backer since The Sixth Sense.
“Lady in the Water is the reason for my unburden-ness,” explains Shyamalan. “It’s one of those things, where when you are making something, the thing that keeps you tight and keeps you scared is the fear of getting hit. And the greatest thing that can happen to you is if you get hit hard, and then suddenly, you’re free. That’s it.”
Shyamalan, who has been commissioned by Paramount to write, direct and produce The Last Airbender, a trilogyof live action films based onan animated television series, says his next project “will beits own thing”.
Despite the public acrimony in the wake of his split with Disney, Shyamalan does not rule out future projects with Disney, saying he “hopes” there will be opportunities to make films with the Mouse House further down the line.
“I love those guys, and I feel bad there was any awkwardness,” he insists. “Sometimes you just have to leave thehouse for a little bit, but hopefully I will come back.”
Shyamalan, who gave himself the name ‘Night’ as a student, saying it “encompasses a certain spirituality”, lists The Fountainhead by Ayn Rand as among his favourite books. He refers to the novel, whose central message holds that the singular test for the credibility of an artist or thinker is time and not conventional wisdom, as “a bible for an artist”.
“The critics are very suspicious of me,” he quips. “Iam suspicious of myself. Only time will tell if I am a complete fraud or not.”