Out Of This World

Looking back, the moment I liked M. Night Shyamalan most was the moment he liked me least, and that was the moment when he said he'll never understand why people occasionally think he's cocky and I said, Well, you are cocky--maybe that's why. This exchange took place in the back seat of a black SUV as Shyamalan's driver, Franny, ferried us out to the Philadelphia suburbs so I could see where the 31-year-old writer-director went to high school. Shyamalan wanted to know what he'd said that sounded cocky. "See, we have to clear this up," he said. "I can't believe you think that. Cocky? Give me an example." I was regretting that I'd opened my mouth. I told him I'd have to think about it. "Oh, now you've got to think about it. You had the statement right there in your hand with nothing to back it up!" The SUV pulled into the Episcopal Academy, in Merion. Shyamalan and I ducked into an administrative building, and a woman named Meg Hollinger whisked down the stairs. She told me that Shyamalan was a wonderful role model for the students, that he came to speak with them and that what struck her most about him was his humility. Shyamalan grinned, shot me a look and said, "See!" When we headed back out the door to tour the campus, he put his hand on my shoulder, a gesture, I later discovered, he inherited from his father. "I'm sorry," he said, pleasantly. "You weren't finished with your belligerent accusations."

Relax, Night, I'm about to say that you're a filmmaker who matters. At 28, Shyamalan--whose last name is pronounced Sha-ma-lon--wrote and directed "The Sixth Sense," which starred Bruce Willis as a psychologist and Haley Joel Osment as a trembling boy besieged by ghosts. That movie, of course, had a spectacular twist ending, and grossed nearly $700 million worldwide. More than that, though, "The Sixth Sense" proved that even in summertime moviegoers did not need to be pummeled or condescended to. As Mel Gibson puts it, "That one he did about the dead people--that was a phenomenally crafted movie. Night's uncompromising in the way he tells a story. He doesn't spoon-feed, and he doesn't pander to anyone." Shyamalan's follow-up, the somber "Unbreakable," misfired at the box office. But his latest offering, "Signs" with Gibson, is a welcome return to form.

Shyamalan is every bit the movie buff that the '70s auteurs were. His idols are unapologetically pop, though: not Fellini, Bergman and Kurosawa, but Hitchcock, Lucas and Spielberg. The scares in "Signs" call Hitchcock to mind, but Shyamalan is more akin to the young Spielberg in his careful rippling of the heartstrings, his deft touch with child actors, his fascination with the middle-class American family and his desperate desire to keep pleasing the same demographic over and over: people between the ages of 10 and 100.

Shyamalan is already Hollywood's highest-paid screenwriter. Disney gave him $5 million to write "Signs" and $7.5 million to direct. Now he's attempting to turn his name into a brand, like Spielberg, so that on opening weekend audiences will converge to see not a Mel Gibson or a Bruce Willis movie, per se, but an M. Night Shyamalan movie with Gibson or Willis in it. Says Marc H. Glick, the director's lawyer and earliest supporter, "Where we're headed is, 'Shyamalan' will open the film."

Cocky is, in fairness, too lazy a label to stick on someone who's widely liked, introspective and hellbent on self-improvement. "It's funny," says the director. "We were on the set of 'Signs' once--we were deep in the shooting--and we did something, and I went, 'No, no, no, I was wrong.' And Mel hugs me and goes, 'You said you were wrong! I can't believe it!' And I'm like, 'What are you talking about? I'm always wrong!' I can't be unclear about how I want to make movies. But that doesn't mean I'm right. It just means I'm clear." Point taken. But Shyamalan is nothing if not unabashed. He is Hollywood's next great entertainer. And I'm thinking he knows it.

"Signs" is an unusually moving thriller about a former priest named Graham (Gibson) who lost his wife in tragic circumstances--and his faith immediately thereafter. Graham, his brother (Joaquin Phoenix) and his kids (Rory Culkin and Abigail Breslin) are holed up in their Pennsylvania farmhouse when crop circles suddenly materialize in the cornfields, the first volley in what appears to be an alien invasion (see review). Like all of Shyamalan's movies, it is obsessed not just with the unknown, but with family, parenting and self-renewal, and shot through with the unmistakable admonition that we must draw whoever is near and dear to us even nearer. The director's mother had not yet seen "Signs" when I interviewed her for this story. She will love it. "I feel he should make the nice movies," says Jayalakshmi Shyamalan, a retired obstetrician. "The latest thing--sex and that sort of thing--I am not for it. But it is a different profession. He would turn around and say, 'Mommy, I didn't tell you how to deliver a baby.' We don't have any control over what he's going to write, but I feel it should be something nice which leaves a landmark on the people who see it. Maybe a little spirituality. That would be the greatest thing."

Shyamalan's career seems especially significant at the moment because Hollywood at large is patently not making the nice movies. Or at least the fresh ones. This summer has been a rush of franchise pictures based on pre-existing concepts and characters. Of course, attendance is up 15 percent--and so is self-congratulation. Which means it's getting exponentially less likely that mainstream filmmakers will do anything as radical as sit down and try to, you know, think stuff up. "Signs" will have to fight to be No. 1 because its release is bracketed by two blockbusters borrowing James Bond's mojo: "Austin Powers in Goldmember" and "XXX." The latter was set to open the same day as "Signs," but the "XXX" folks opted against going head to head and moved back seven days. "They're scared to death, man," says Shyamalan. "They're absolutely terrified." That didn't sound cocky, did it? Just checking. "Night thrives on being the one original movie in a sea of sequels and derivative products," says Disney Studios chairman Richard Cook. "He loves the competition. I think that's part of what gets him going."

One morning in June, Shyamalan paces around a sound-mixing studio in midtown Manhattan. On screen, Gibson's character and his family stand shellshocked in their front hall, as booms and bangs and what sound like scuttling claws start filling every corner of the house. At a mixing desk facing the screen, sound editors "audition" a series of noises for a crucial thud at the front door. Shyamalan considers each option with what, to an outsider, seems like an extraordinarily discerning ear. He tells the editors he doesn't want some cheesy, generic boom. He tells them the characters will seem smarter if they're responding to subtler noises--and that the audience's ears won't be ruined for quieter effects to come. All the while, he teases his team to keep the energy up, at one point telling sound mixer Michael Semanick to do the opposite of whatever he did on "Attack of the Clones." Semanick laughs, and says over his shoulder, "You don't want $245 million in five weeks?" Shyamalan grins and shakes his head. "I'm telling you, if you'd done a great movie, you'd have made four times as much as that."

For the record, the "star Wars" franchise has always been close to Shyamalan's heart (see "Top 10"), and he hasn't actually seen "Clones" yet: "I'm just giving Michael s--t.". Still, the director is obsessed with understanding why audiences do the things they do. "Last year was probably the worst year for movies for me since I've been alive," he says, after settling into a leather chair. "It was the worst. The quality of movies in general. We don't have to get into specifics. And what that creates is a starvation in the audience. And, ironically, what that creates is... If they know what they're getting--like a franchise, something established--the starvation says, 'I'll take that. I'll come in droves'." "Signs" will have to earn the audience's trust. "People believe in honesty. They really do," says Shyamalan. "And integrity--all the way down to the choice of a sound effect."

He pauses and looks up at the screen, where Gibson's character is trying to calm his kids down by telling them the stories of their births. They are the stories of Shyamalan's own daughters, 5 and 2, being born. "What will come across is something pure," he continues. "Hopefully. A voice. It will be the voice of a kid who was born in India and grew up in Philly. That's the only thing I have on the 'Scooby-Doos'." Later in the week, with "Signs" minutes away from being finished, Shyamalan shoots baskets in a portable hoop in the mixing room, and jokes around some more. "Let's say I decided to do 'Pokemon 5'--would you come?" he asks Semanick, brightly. "You wouldn't come?" He turns to his film editor, Barbara Tulliver. "If I did 'Pokemon 5,' would you come? Come on! I could turn it into a metaphor for the human condition!"

Shyamalan was born with the name Manoj in Pondicherry, India, during one of his parents' trips back home to visit family. A few months later, the Shyamalans returned to the Philadelphia suburbs, where his father, Nelliate, was a cardiologist. The director remembers being small for his age, an enormously sensitive kid scared of--well, what have you got? Everything. His family was inseparable--even today, they greet each other with a flurry of hugs and kisses, though they live only five minutes apart on the Main Line--and his mother says that whenever young Manoj had to be alone she'd call him every 30 minutes. Shyamalan was raised Hindu but sent to a Roman Catholic grade school for the discipline. Yes, he was aware of being different and other, but his memories of growing up have more to do with basketball and "Raiders of the Lost Ark." He began making his movies at 10 or so. He used an 8mm camera. He'd have to plug it into a VCR and lug the whole mess around with an extension cord.

Though Shyamalan tends to be quite frank in interviews, he hesitates when he's asked something that might affect his loved ones, might encroach on their "shared history." When I ask him if he drank or dated in high school, he grins nervously. "Uh, yeah. Are you gonna tell my parents? Are you gonna write that and tell my parents?" Surely they know. "I don't think they do! You're gonna shock them. They're gonna have a heart attack!" Shyamalan is laughing now. He is tall and broad-shouldered, but he has a laugh that is so childlike it is almost a giggle. While Shyamalan was at New York University studying film, he fell hard for a fellow student named Bhavna, who's now getting a Ph.D. in child psychology. He proposed to her not long afterward with a note in a fortune cookie in a Chinese restaurant. "She was like, 'This is so weird. This says...' " He was already on his knees.

Shyamalan's first feature was an independent movie called "Praying With Anger," which grossed $7,000 and change at the box office in 1992. He shot the movie in India to save money, and actually starred, turning in an endearingly creaky performance as an American finding his roots. (These days, Shyamalan limits himself to cameos.) Because "Praying With Anger" contains not one but two star-crossed romances, I ask Shyamalan if Bhavna's parents objected to their marriage. He does not giggle. "I don't know how I can talk about that without bringing in her business and her family's business," he says. "That's a shared history." He elaborates a bit, saying that Bhavna's family was from the north of India and that his was from the south, and he was slightly younger. Those things are deal-breakers in India, of course. "But everything's cool now," he says. I ask him if he'd ever thought about giving up. "No, I'm not that kind of guy." Did she? "Probably." How did he persuade her not to? "I'm kinda hard to get off your back when I want something."

In 1994, Shyamalan wrote a script called "Labor of Love." Fox, he says, offered him hundreds of thousands of dollars, assuring him he could also direct. Once he had sold it to them, it became clear that they'd just been yesing him to get the screenplay. "I cried. It killed me. It was a story about what I felt about first being married. It was pure. I said, 'You can't do this.' So they flew me out and I met with all the bigwigs in a room. I was wearing a pin-striped suit. My mom got me that suit so I wore it. Apparently, you don't wear suits in Hollywood. So I walked in looking like some high-school kid trying to get a job. Immediately, there were all these jokes about my suit. They're like, 'Yeah, we're gonna give you a $25 million movie'." The film was never made. "I cursed it."

When Shyamalan did get a second feature off the ground, in 1996, things actually went far, far worse. "Wide Awake" is about a Catholic schoolboy whose grandfather's death sets him on a search for God. After Shyamalan edited the film, Miramax's famed co-chairman, Harvey Weinstein, insisted that it be recut. Rosie O'Donnell, who plays a nun in the movie, intervened on Shyamalan's behalf. A meeting was set so that everybody could clarify his position. O'Donnell got the flu, and had to call in on the speakerphone. Weinstein was already put out with her because she'd just fired a friend of his from her TV show. "I said, 'Listen, Harvey, I don't want you to release it unless it's Night's version'," O'Donnell remembers. "'He's the artist. You're just the guy who frames it and sells it.' Well, you know what? That didn't go over big. He started saying, 'Who do you think you are? You're just a f---ing talk-show host!' He went off. I was stunned. I thought he knew that he acquired the films and that the other people were the artists. I didn't think this was news to him. He said, 'Like you would f---ing know. You b----! You c---!' "

O'Donnell cried, and told Weinstein to shove it somewhere very specific. "Night called me afterwards, like, 'Oh my God, are you all right?' " she says. "Thank God Harvey didn't crush him, because it takes a lot to stand up to that. I gotta tell you, it takes a lot to make me cry and he totally made me cry." O'Donnell says that to Weinstein's credit he later apologized, sending her jewelry and flowers. Asked to respond to all of the above, Weinstein sent NEWSWEEK a gentlemanly statement: "Night is an incredibly talented filmmaker, and it's unfortunate for us that we were unable to find a successful way to market 'Wide Awake.' It's one of my great disappointments, since I loved the film. Thank God for DVD."

Shyamalan himself regards the "Wide Awake" fracas as a pivotal moment in his career. "Harvey's just the way the world is," he says. "If the movie was great and was going to make a lot of money, it would have gone very smoothly." The episode taught him that making uncommercial movies makes you vulnerable and that, as he puts it, "I never want to be weakened and victimized again." (At one point while Shyamalan was in the mixing room finishing "Signs," he joked to his film editor, "Harvey called. He wants you to recut this." Somebody else piped up, "He's heading right over." Chuckling ensued.)

After "Wide Awake" grossed all of $300,000, Shyamalan reminded himself that it was blockbusters like "Raiders" that inspired him in the first place. "I think Night recognized that he has a very sensitive, sentimental streak in him," says Barry Mendel, who produced "The Sixth Sense" and "Unbreakable," "and that he needs to juxtapose that with something darker, edgier and more commercial." Shyamalan began writing a supernatural thriller about a serial killer and a boy who sees dead people. It was lousy at first. A "Silence of the Lambs" rip-off. Then he started thinking about the kid. What if he was a really sensitive kid, a kid so empathetic that he even felt bad for ghosts? Shyamalan wrote some dialogue for a birthday party--a turning point, though it never made it to the screen--where the sensitive kid and a chubby kid are just sitting there, friendless and ostracized. The sensitive kid tells the chubby kid, "My mom said God made some of us different, knowing that it'd be hard. But he picked the people who would be different really carefully." Then the sensitive kid leans forward to the chubby kid: "God thinks we're strong."

When shyamalan finished writing 1999's "The Sixth Sense," he told his agents at the United Talent Agency that he had a screenplay for them to sell and that he was going to direct it. No matter what. And that the minimum bid was $1 million. No matter what. Says Mendel, "Night came out to L.A. and he bought himself a new pair of shoes, and he and Bhavna checked into the Four Seasons determined to have something great happen." Disney gave him $3 million. "I was only 10," says Haley Joel Osment, "but I could tell it was amazing writing."

On the day that Shyamalan's driver, Franny, drives us out to the Episcopal Academy, the director and I have our spat about whether he's cocky or not, and then we walk around campus in a funk trying to find somewhere cool to talk. We wind up in the chapel, which is empty and quiet except for a whispering air conditioner. I ask Shyamalan about 2000's "Unbreakable," about the making of a superhero. The movie was his second with Bruce Willis, and it was so grave and slow that it seemed to suggest he'd become overconfident about his ability to hold an audience. Shyamalan is fiercely proud of "Unbreakable" and of its status as a cult favorite. Still, when he talks about it, it's clear that if he was arrogant before it opened--"Sixth Sense" had made the all-time box-office Top Ten, and he was quoted as saying it'd be cool if "Unbreakable" made it, too--his theories about movies and audiences took a beating when "The Grinch" clobbered him at the box office.

"When 'The Grinch' took us, it really shocked me," he says. "It was such a great lesson for me. 'Signs' could go out there and completely tank, I'm telling you. I couldn't believe what was happening. 'The Grinch' became the phenomenon! They stole Thanksgiving!" By the time we leave his old school, Shyamalan seems chipper. His driver heads the wrong way down a one-way street and, from the back seat, the director says, "Franny! I'm gonna get expelled."

The thing that broke "Unbreakable," of course, was the ghost of "Sixth Sense." "I think Night suffered from second-film syndrome," says Willis. "People wanted to say, 'This guy isn't the genius that everyone said he is.' I don't use that word casually, but I believe he has elements of genius in him--as a writer, as a storyteller and as a film director." When I ask Shyamalan about his expectations for "Signs," he sounds grounded. Sort of. "I don't care about the box office," he says. "I care about the connection. I want it to be a phenomenon--a cultural phenomenon, where the audience feels some connection to this place, these people and what was being said here. That's 'Jaws,' 'E.T.,' 'The Exorcist.' All those movies. They just connected." I tell someone that Shyamalan has worked with that the director is hoping for a cultural phenomenon, and he laughs fondly: "In my opinion, just even saying that is stupid. As a tactic, you know? Keep that to yourself! That's a fine goal but by saying it you're sticking your chin out and saying, 'Punch me.' I think that Night--and this is an endearing quality--is not that savvy about how to promote himself. He definitely wears what he's thinking and feeling on his sleeve."

The morning I leave Philadelphia, Shyamalan's parents offer to drive me to the train. As the green, leafy Main Line darts past the windows--beautiful lawn after beautiful lawn after beautiful lawn--I ask why Manoj ever stopped calling himself Manoj. "You are pronouncing it so well," his mother says, sweetly. (It's Ma-noge.) She says that Shyamalan's teachers used to mangle it, so when he was a teenager he came up with Night. His father tells me that his son always felt a kinship with the Native Americans, and that the word resonated for them because the elders told their children stories around the fire in the evening and because you can see the universe only at night. Also, his father adds, "it was a good entertainment name." And there are the twin strands of Shyamalan's DNA, it seems to me--the very things that will keep him on minds and movie screens for years. A profound sincerity. And a profound ambition. We would never have known the one without the other.