Monday, April 09, 2007

Much riding on Shyamalan's 'Lady' luck
Updated 7/20/2006 8:44 PM ET E-mail | Save | Print | Reprints & Permissions |

Enlarge By Robert Deutsch, USA TODAY

Director M. Night Shyamalan split with Disney over Lady in the Water. The movie arrives Friday, and a book about his departure from Disney is on the way.


M. Night Shyamalan's The Lady in the Water, based on a children's story he wrote, is a departure for the writer/director of movies that have surprise endings.

Shyamalan's movies so far:

Year Movie U.S. box office (in millions)

2004 The Village $114.2

2002 Signs $228.0

2000 Unbreakable $95.0

1999 The Sixth Sense $293.5


Photos: A look at M. Night Shyamalan's work

Much riding on Shyamalan's 'Lady' luck

Review: 'Lady in the Water' is a little lukewarm

By Scott Bowles, USA TODAY
CHESTER COUNTY, Pa. — M. Night Shyamalan settles into a chair in his dining room, examining the movie posters from a career defined by hits —The Sixth Sense, Unbreakable, Signs, The Village— and wonders whether he has lost his touch.
GALLERY: See photos from Lady and his other films

"Maybe I've had a disconnect with people," he says. "Maybe the wine and food I like isn't the wine and food everyone else likes now."

It's a remarkable admission for a man whose four big-studio pictures have taken in more than $2 billion in theaters and home video sales.

But it has been a remarkable 18 months for Shyamalan, 35. In just a year and a half, he has parted ways with Disney, the studio that distributed all of his big movies. He has cooperated with a new tell-all book, The Man Who Heard Voices: Or, How M. Night Shyamalan Risked His Career on a Fairy Tale, that details the split and vilifies Disney executives.

But most disconcerting is a question that has been nagging at him for months: Has he made a movie no one wants to see?

Lady in the Water opens Friday with a lot of reputations at stake. Disney executives will be watching the film's performance to validate their decision to end the relationship with Shyamalan. Warner Bros. will be watching the same numbers to justify their decision to snap up the director and give him $70 million to make this film and, they hope, more under the Warner Bros. banner.

No one's credibility, though, is more on the line than Shyamalan's. Already some media outlets are blasting the director, whom they say has fallen prey to hubris. The New York Times called Voices "a full-length, unintentionally riotous puff book." Newsweek, which once put Shyamalan on its cover under the title "The Next Spielberg," is now calling for a "career intervention" to address his arrogance.

Lately, Shyamalan concedes, he has caught himself agreeing with the criticisms.

"In your darker moments, you worry that your tastes have rarefied," he says. "It's very possible that's what's happening. And in the event that Lady doesn't find its audience, that's going to be looming over me."

Yet for all the questions and self-doubt, Shyamalan says he has found an inner peace he rarely has known as a director.

"I've never gotten to this place this close to the opening where I felt as little anxiety as I feel right now," he says. "Even if it's a financial disaster, I know it's going to work out, because I got to make the movie I was dreaming to make."

Divorced from Disney

It was a movie he planned to make with Disney, which shepherded his last four films to a box office haul of $1.6 billion domestically and worldwide.

But tensions began to mount after 2004's The Village, about a blind girl who must enter woods she believes are haunted to save her fiancé. Although it took in $114 million domestically and $142 million overseas, the movie underperformed for a Shyamalan picture and was raked by critics.

The director knew Lady would be a hard sell. Born of a bedtime story he told his daughters, his newest film is a fantasy that stars Paul Giamatti as an apartment building superintendent who rescues a sea nymph, played by Bryce Dallas Howard, whom he finds in his swimming pool.

The movie proved the toughest since Sixth Sense to write. Shyamalan reworked the script six times.

"It's a modern-day fantasy," Shyamalan says from his office on a 40-acre horse farm that doubles as a family getaway.

Lady "has a female lead with no superstars in it," he says. "It isn't a traditional scary movie for me to sell. It doesn't have a twist ending. I expected it would send a lot of mixed signals to people who perceive me as a certain type of director."

What he didn't expect was the reaction he got from Disney executives.

When Shyamalan finishes an early cut of a movie, he screens it for two dozen of his closest friends. All must fill out a report card about what works and what doesn't.

Though he won't say what Lady scored, he says, "It did well. Better than I thought it would."

At a dinner at a Philadelphia hotel in February last year, however, it became clear that the movie had not scored well with Disney. Shyamalan met with Disney chairman Dick Cook, marketing chief Oren Aviv and Disney president Nina Jacobson.

Shyamalan says that when Jacobson rattled off a list of concerns she had about the movie, including his decision to give himself a meaty role and a scene in which a movie critic is mauled, he lost his composure. He left the restaurant vowing that he was through with Disney, even though Cook offered to produce the film with a $60 million budget and the freedom to make Lady any way he wanted.

Though Disney executives confirmed details of the dinner and offer, officials declined to elaborate on the split.

"We enjoyed a fruitful relationship with Night Shyamalan that lasted six years and yielded four wonderful movies," a press release from Disney says. "We wish him the best of luck with Lady in the Water and on all of his future endeavors."

Such divorces are rare in Hollywood because the marriages are even rarer. Most directors shop their scripts to the studio that bids highest.

Shyamalan says money had nothing to do with the split. Instead, he says, he felt Disney had lost faith in him.

"They didn't like the movie. They weren't saying 'Let's work it out.' They weren't saying 'Tell me how you're going to fix it.' It wasn't like that," he says.

"Warner Bros. loves the movie. That's important to me. Until they loved it, I wasn't happy."

Shyamalan has spent much of his life seeking approval. When he was admitted to New York University's film school, his father, he says, told him "It's not Princeton." When Newsweek put him on its cover, he says his father reminded him the magazine had a smaller circulation than Time.

Disney, Shyamalan says, "was very much a parent to me, one that I wanted to please. I thought I would make movies for Disney until I was an old man. But at some point, the child has to decide to go on his own."

Faith in his movies

Will audiences follow?

Gitesh Pandya of says that Lady could be a hard sell "because it seems to fall somewhere in between a fairy tale and a horror movie. It's not well defined, at least in the ads."

He's quick to add, though, that "Shyamalan is still a director who attracts an audience by his name alone. There aren't many of those around."

There also aren't many filmmakers "who evoke such strong feelings, on both sides of the fence," says Howard, who also starred in The Village.

"His movies polarize people because they're so emotional," she says. "And he's uncompromising about the story he wants to tell. I think the feelings run the gamut from obsession to hatred for him.

"But whatever you're feeling, it's un-ignorable."

There was no ignoring his bolt from Disney, says Michael Bamberger, author of Voices.

"You can say that he's a crybaby for walking away from Disney's offer," says Bamberger, a senior writer for Sports Illustrated. "And he does have an ego. He is obsessive. But he's not cynical. He believes in the movies. And he really was hurt that they didn't believe in a movie that's about faith."

Now Shyamalan must face whether moviegoers still believe in him. He admits that the question has been pressing of late.

"I don't know that I could be an independent filmmaker," he says. "I think there's something universal in the stories I try to tell. But trying to do that, you can torture yourself. The 'I (stink)' is a pretty powerful tool when I'm doing a movie."

In fact, Shyamalan has enjoyed making only one, Signs, a movie he says was made "for the Denny's crowd. I think that was fun because it was a popcorn movie. I was going for the masses."

His personal favorite, however, is Unbreakable, a movie he made his way, with the clout he earned from Sixth Sense's $672 million worldwide box office haul. Unbreakable did $95 million at the U.S. box office despite shots from critics that it was too dense and dark.

If Shyamalan prefers underdog movies, Lady may soon become his favorite. He concedes that the battle with Disney to make the film might have overshadowed his reason for making it.

"If this doesn't do well, maybe I'll realize that I was so worried about getting it made that I didn't realize I had something that doesn't reach audiences," he says.

There may even be something cathartic about the movie failing, he says. "Maybe what would really help is a complete disaster. Something that would clean the slate. People could trash me to oblivion, say I'm done. Then there are no great expectations. There's nowhere to go but up."

But this is one film for which he'll try to tune out the skeptics, the studio execs, the box office analysts.

"People may turn this into my disaster," he says. "But it won't be for me. This is the movie my kids wanted to see get made. It's the movie I wanted to make. No matter what happens, I love this movie."

Posted 7/18/2006 10:16 PM ET
Updated 7/20/2006 8:44 PM ET E-mail | Save | Print | Reprints & Permissions |


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