Buena Vista Pictures
“The Next Spielberg” was the kind of light M. Night Shyamalan was once seen in. His first big break, The Sixth Sense, was a global phenomenon, so you can see where that too-easy comparison came from. All of his films that followed were sold as “the next film from M. Night Shyamalan.” He quickly became a brand, and once he realized it, it killed his creativity. That’s the impression you get from reading Michael Bamberger’s “The Man Who Heard Voices: Or, How M. Night Shyamalan Risked His Career on a Fairy Tale” — the book which detailed the making of The Lady in the Water, Shyamalan’s first real stinker.
I say it’s his first serious bust because The Village wasn’t an out-and-out failure. With William Hurt’s performance, Roger Deakins’ bold cinematography and James Newton Howard’s score, it had a lot going for it, including foreshadowing for Shyamalan’s fall. It’s the movie that made Disney question their golden goose’s talents. Disney President Nina Jacobson was not a fan of that gotchya ending, and even though The Village made over $250M worldwide, Jacobson felt it would’ve done even better with a less, shall we say, flat out ridiculous resolution. She thought it betrayed the audience, and she was right.
It was also indicative of a larger creative problem. That twist showed Shyamalan saw himself as above genre. He couldn’t have simply made a monster movie. It’s as if that was just too simplistic for the man who would be the next Spielberg. He wanted that movie to mean something. The Village became too serious for its own good, resulting in the kind of laughter reserved for a rubber-suited monster whose zipper is showing.
Whether Shyamalan wanted to pull a fast one over his audience is irrelevant. Not only did that reveal hint Shyamalan took himself too seriously, but it also exposed his low-opinion of his audience.
In fact, even Samuel L. Jackson once criticized Shyamalan for his ego during an interview for Django Unhained, believing, “Quentin [Tarantino] makes movies that Quentin wants to see. I don’t think M. Night makes movies for the same reason.” Jackson thinks Shyamalan sees himself as “smarter than everybody coming to watch my movie.” Of course you can see that high-mindedness in his films, but when an actor he worked with comes out and says that’s indeed the case, it’s hard to argue that Shayamalan is a sad case where content and intent don’t match up.
You’d have to have some kind of ego to cast yourself as a writer who will inspire a great man who will change the world, which Shyamalan did in The Lady in the Water. Take a moment and imagine if Steven Spielberg did that. Some people believe Shyamalan gets bullied, but if any other filmmaker wrote and cast himself in that role, in addition to killing a film critic in a comically mean-spirited scene, they’d be equally, rightfully, lambasted for it. Regardless of the name on the marquee, it felt like raw, tortured artist narcicism.
But if you criticized Night for that decision, he’d think you weren’t one of his believers. That was the case with The Lady in the Water. When he received genuinely reasonable notes for The Lady in the Water from Disney, for him, it came down to them “not getting it.” Throughout the production of that film he was haunted by Jacobson and the brass at Disney. “What if she was right?,” Night would keep asking himself.
Of course she was right, based on the reviews and audiences and box office, but Shyamalan was out to prove her wrong while making the film.
What’s so telling about “The Man Who Heard Voices” is that it’s written from a total yes man’s perspective by Bamberger, and yet, even when the author is praising Shyamalan’s questionable tendencies, it’s an unflattering portrait. During that time, and maybe even today, Shyamalan is someone more interested in approval than constructive criticism. Based on Bamberger’s reporting, Shyamalan takes it extremely personally, even when he claims the opposite.
Shyamalan worried whether people would understand The Lady in the Water, unsure if it was too strange for general audiences to accept. Would people seriously go along with “Narfs”? In the end, they didn’t, but Shyamalan never trusted them to, either. Almost all of that film is exposition. Even the opening animated set up gives you information you’ll hear later on in the movie. There’s no meeting Shyalaman halfway, it’s Shyamalan coming to your doorstep and explaining everything for almost two hours.
Even when telling such a simplistic story he thinks too little of his audience. As Shyamalan’s audience grew larger so did his ego. In some regard, it’s hard not to feel for him. People expected a lot. They wanted the next Spielberg, not the guy who directed The Last Airbender. Shyamalan knew he needed to make hits while also trying to match or top his first major success.
The Sixth Sense remains a terrific movie. At the time of its release, it was unexpected. Obviously the unknown director wasn’t the selling point — positive word of mouth for a great cinematic experience was. Shyamalan was making a movie for himself, and he hadn’t yet been pigeonholed by What A Twist!.
Breaking away from that heavily parodied label and the impossible expectations that once came with his projects can only be good for him as a creator, and it looks like he’s doing just that.
Last week, surprising news broke that he’d been working in secret on an intimate, microbudget thriller . Of course it wasn’t really much of a secret for fans, since Shyamalan has been tweeting about the film, Sundowning, for well over a month now.
However, little was known about the horror project until the other day when it was announced Kathryn Hahn was the star of the film, playing a single mother whose children run into some trouble when they visit their grandparents. If he can resist the urge to make the grandparents (twist!) psychic aliens, or the children to be (twist!) ghost monsters who dream the whole thing, he can prove that his talents don’t solely reside in the cliche he’s become.
Plus, the less attention this film is given the more fruitful it will be for Shyamalan. With Sundowning he doesn’t have a bunch of executives to appease or a mass audience watching over him. All he has is his creative impulses. The tools that served him so well at the launch of his career. While that idea makes most of you scoff, an independent production has the potential to save Shyamalan from the clunky, large-scale stories he’s churned out over the past few years. This could be his back-to-basics film. No problems can be solved with money on Sundowning, only with creativity, and that’s a great limitation to have. The only question is: does M. Night Shyamalan have any left?