Michael Bamberger. The Man Who Heard Voices or, How M. Night Shyamalan Risked His Career on a Fairy Tale and Lost. New York: Gotham Books, 2007.
Manoj Night Shyamalan wrote and direct several successful movies, including “The Sixth Sense” which grossed over $2 billion worldwide. His script “Lady in the Water” failed to garner the full support of his Disney executives. He decided to find other investors, deliberately avoided hiring superstar actors, and gave an eccentric cinematographer a major break. Shymalan, an auteur filmmaker, created the movie he envisioned. Unfortunately, audience support was less than expected, causing the book publishers to consider, by the title of this book, the film a failure. Interestingly, the author disagrees with his publisher’s title. While the film was not as big a success as Shyamalan’s previous films, he believes Shyamalan will bounce back as one of the top directors in the business.
David Bordwell notes that filmmakers can become so engrossed in their work that they become unaware of the flaws contained within their films. He notes that critics tend to be more negative to those with past successes. “Lady in the Water” may have been held to, and failed to meet, their higher than standard critical standards. Bordwell observes the movie had problems, yet these blemishes may have been overblown.
Shyamalan has both greater control and takes more responsibilities over his movies than do most other directors. He is also known for creating a family atmosphere with co-workers, actors and crew, when making a film.
“The Lady in the Water” was based on a story Shyamalan invented to tell his daughters as a bedtime tale. He found transforming the story to a screenplay daunting as it was, to him, a personal story. He was not satisfied with his first screenplay draft.
Shyamalan had been pleased working for Disney/Touchstone. Disney Chairman Michael Eisner had proclaimed Shyamalan;s “Unbreakable” as “the best Disney movie in 25 years.” Shyamalan’s films had been released under the more adult Touchstone label. Shyamalan intended “Lady in the Water” as a family film to be released under the Disney label.
Shyamalan had previously produced a film “Wide Awake” for Miramax, an independent-run company owned by Disney. Miramax co-founder Harvey Weinstein did not like the movie and told Shyamalan that he was not and never would be an A-list director. Even though Shyamalan was contracted to direct two more movies for Miramax, Shyamalan considered himself as fired by Weinstein. He wrote “The Sixth Sense” partially in spite to show Weinstein he could make an A-list movie. Shyamalan spent long hours going over every detail. He debated with himself, and followed advice that “sometimes what doesn’t make sense works”. He even removed the film’s famous line “I see dead people” during some rewriting before he put the line back in. Shyamalan demanded $1 million minimum and a guarantee to direct in return for selling the screenplay. Since he was not under to contract to Weinstein as a screenwriter, he sent the screenplay overnight mail to other film companies. He did send a copy to Weinstein, but by U.S. Mail. Shyamalan used bravado, in part fueled by his desire to get away from Weinstein, by calling the studios and telling them to put aside time to read the script. Shyamalan was known for his screenplay “Stuart Little”, so he was a known writer even if the calls still were a little unusual. Four studios quickly passed on the first day. Yet, New Line bid $2 million. David Vogel at Disney was convinced to quickly read the script, which he did. Vogel bid $3 million for the script plus $500,000 for Shyamalan to direct it. Shyamalan accepted Vogel’s bid. Weinstein did not object and asked for a share of profits for loaning Shyamalan as a director.
“The Sixth Sense” was a success and with that one movie, Shyamalan was on the A-list of directors.
Shyamalan’s subsequent movie “Unbreakable” had $249 million in ticket sales worldwide followed by “Signs” which grossed $405 million in ticket sales, followed by “The Village” which had a $256 million gross, as well as associated DVD sales and broadcast rights which additionally added tens of millions of dollars.
Some critics began hammering at Shyamalan. A.O. Scott of the New York Times declared his movies as ones that “never gives us anything to believe in other than his own power to solve problems of his own posing.” Roger Ebert stated “The Vilage” was “based on a premise that cannot support it.”
Shyamalan sent copies of the fifth draft of the script “Lady in the Water” to 23 people, including his wife, nanny, agent, music scorer, etc. He enclosed a detailed questionnaire which he uses in rating all his scripts. Shyamalan computes the results and compares the results to their reactions to his other scripts. Some feedback he received on “Lady in the Water” was the humor misfired. It also didn’t appeal as well to females. His nanny found it confusing and offensive to religious Christians. The sixth draft was the one that was sent to the studios.
Shyamalan planned to invest most of his liquid assets of $30 million into creating half ownership of “Lady in the Water”, which he planned would cost $60 million to make.
Shyamalan discussed “Lady in the Water” with Disney executives. He argued with them over their claims they didn’t understand the movie. Shyamalan believed he was no longer being treated with the deference he expected. Nina Jacobson of Disney found the script troubling, especially for a proposed Disney movie, as there were frightening mutated creatures in the script. She worried about Shyamalan’s plans to act in one of the major roles, since Shyamalan had little acting experience. She also thought the movie has too much dialogue and not enough action. The main problem she had was the story is myth, which she found difficult to follow. Her responses was “I don’t get it”, to which her Disney boss replied “neither do I”. Shyamalan was enthused by the Disney criticism and he strongly defended his script. Shyamalan then concluded that Team Disney didn’t appreciate his individualistic ideas. Disney offered to give Shyamalan $60 million to make the movie without their involvement. Shyamalan was upset as he liked the Disney executives and he wanted their cooperation and not just their money. He felt a rejection of their faith in him. Shyamalan tol his agent not to have studios bid for the script, as he feared possible resentment from the top bidder. Instead, he told his agent to show the script only to Warner Brothers. They bought the script.
Shyamalan initially had a list of actors in mind to star in “Lady in the Water”. He wrote the role thinking Tom Hanks would be best for the role. Paul Giamatti was on his list, but he considered Giamatti the least likely on his list for the role. Tom Cruise was interested in the lead role, yet Shyamalan thought his fame would overshadow the movie. Shyamalan changed his thinking about his list as he feared audiences would have preconceived notions about the actors on his list, except Giamatti. Plus, Giamatti had a record in past movies of portraying unlikable characters in a way so audiences liked him. Shyamalan sent the script to Giamatti and was disappointed to learn Giamatti did not rush to read a part, especially since he knew it had been written with him in mind. Giamatti was slow to respond, during which Shyamalan considered Kevin Costner for the role. Finally, Shyamalan heard from Giamatti, who had finally read the script, and who responded “dude, I am so “Lady”’. Giamatti had the part.
Shyamalan hired a cinematographer, Chris Doyle, who was known for being options to a director. They had worked together once before and Shyamalan wanted to recreate a dark feel that had been produced before. Shyamalan hired others to work on the film who had experience working on non-studio films and who were able to think for themselves.
In casting actors, Shyamalan was noted for quickly selecting actors based on intuition. He sought mentally balanced actors willing to be part of his filming community for up to six months of filming and editing. The role of Lin Lan was considered by many as impossible to cast as Shyamalan envisioned until Cindy Cheung auditioned.
Shyamalan thought Cindy Cheung was perfect for the role. He also thought she was an enthusiastic actor who would jump at the chance to have a lead role in one of his films for the SAG minimum. Shyamalan was disappointed when her agent asked for $1 million. While she settled for $100,000, Shyamalan had to separate his thoughts of her from his thoughts on her agent.
Shyamalan wanted to film “Lady in the Water” within the Philadelphia city limits, yet logistical problems prevented that from happening. Instead, a building in Green Lane, outside Philadelphia, was used.
Shyamalan treated visiting Warner Brothers executives gingerly. Warner had given him a $68 million budget. He hid some scenes from them he feared might raise too many questions. Although Shyamalan worried that he saw fear in their eyes as they toured the set, he was pleased when they left proclaiming “you wowed us.”
Mary Beth Hurt added dialogue not in the script. Shyamalan was not happy with this, but he knew with enough takes he’d get the scripted scene he desired.
The film editor carefully raised questions she had about the story’s logic. Shyamalan responded defensively.
The marketing for the film was presented as a tease that didn’t tell much about the film.
Editing was done in a barn on Shyamalan’s Pennsylvania farm.
The first day of shooting did not go well. A child actor was unable to perform a relatively simple lick and slap maneuver and would need to be replaced. Throughout the shooting, the Director of Photography (DP) seemed to have a drinking problem, sometimes causing shots to be missed. Shyamalan seemed comfortable with this behavior, which if it weren’t for the closeness of the cast and crew, would likely had led to harassment charges in other workplaces. The Director of Photography was known for kissing bellies and grabbing genitalia.
Shyamalan believed that providing good food on the set kept people happy. Plus, he enjoyed eating a lot. Shyamalan also, once a week, drew the name of a cast member’s name from a hat and rewarded the winner with a trip to Europe, Hawaitt, and once a two week trip to the Far East.
During shooting, Shyamalan was pleased with Cindy Cheung’s performance. He sometimes felt hers was the only role that was working. The film was shot darkly, which make it more difficult for a camera to stay focused. Warner Brothers was happy with the dailies, especially since they were steadily producing them.
Shyamalan was concerned about a scene where he initially wanted a handheld camera. It would make the scene appear like a documentary. He was worried if his Photography Director would be sober enough to get the desired shots. If he hired another to shoot the scene, he feared insulting the DP. He solved the dilemma by bringing in a Steadycam, which could get the shots almost as well yet was easier to handle.
Shyamalan tested “Lady in the Water” before 60 viewers. The group tested it better than any other test group had rated his previous movies.
Audiences tended to find their views were closer to those of the Disney executives. Many found the movie confusing. Some in the film industry condemned Shyamalan’s unwillingness to make a film with his contracted studio, Disney, even after they had agreed to put up the money, just because the executives stated they didn’t understand the script. The film cost Shyamalan his director’s right to insist on final cut approval. The author believes he will get that back.