The Man Behind Lady in the Water

  • Share
  • Read Later
He's known for creepy and dark box-office hits, but just how mysterious is M. Night Shyamalan? TIME writer-reporter Barbara Kiviat spoke with the filmmaker at his office — make that country estate — in Pennsylvania and asked him about his eerie artistic vision, his new movie Lady in the Water, his break with Disney and what it feels like to get a stinging review.

Where did the idea for Lady in the Water come from?

It was one of the stories that I told my kids, but it was the most elaborate of the group and had a certain magic to it. It had a kind of inexplicable magnetism about it that made it want to be bigger. We kept talking about it and I told it again, which is not a normal thing, so it stood out as an anomaly. I had really been dancing around with making up my own mythology. Ive been reading Tolkien and J. K. Rowling and Roald Dahl, because the kids are at that age, almost 10 and 6.

Was it a story you made up one night or the sort of thing you built on night after night?

Night after night for many many nights, and then once it was done there was a period where we just talked about it. I started flushing it out more. There was a real sense that I was following something and I didnt know why I was following it. Certainly, it could be a sign of mental instability. Or I guess the more popular belief would be a sign of someone becoming so idiosyncratic to the point of inaccessibility or irrationality, which is a possible future for an artist. And I think perhaps the fear of outsiders — and by outsiders I mean anyone thats not me — is that the first sign of being unorthodox is a symptom of this. Thats one side of the argument.

Okay, but thats not yours?

Where I was coming from, there was an intoxicating freedom in telling stories to my kids that was using a kind of reliance on faith. I said, Id love to make a movie under that umbrella of feeling. So I proceeded to write, cast, crew, shoot, edit, and conduct myself in that same spirit of I dont know whats coming, but I have faith that the gods of stories will come and help me.

In your movies, men are always estranged from their families. Does that worry your wife at all?

Yeah, right... Its really about cherishing what you have, how precious it all is. Its a hypothetical that makes you realize how precious it is, so you dont have to go through that in real life, the exercise of imagining what it would be like with no one in the chairs with you around the dinner table. Theyre fears. You write your fears.

Why did you give yourself such a big role in this movie?

Ive had various size roles in the pictures. Ive done seven. In the first one, which was an independent movie in India, I was the lead. Signs was a very big role. That was a fun experience. Here, first of all, I was writing a struggling writer who gets told he needs to continue, which is such a poignant non-reality that writers would never have. Writers are alone in a room all the time, and thats the dream of all of us that something like that would happen.

The Cookbook is your characters thoughts on cultural problems, leaders and stuff. What are your thoughts on those things?

I feel like we are in the death rattle of religion right now. Its parameters which were totally appropriate and defendable for the history of man are on the verge of being obsolete, and that is because of this real and cyber global community that we are in now. Isolation of cultures, which was the glue, is vanishing. We need to have a faith, a type of belief that makes sense to everyone in the room who hears it. In the Buddhist philosophy, it is all boats to get us to the shore. We have to let go of the feeling that the boat is the shore. We dont have to let go of the boat — we can still love the metaphors and they can mean a great deal to our cultures, but they have to be seen as boats.

Do you have any political aspirations?

No, but Ive thought about writing for people. Speechwriting. I never really give it serious thought, but its interesting.

What does it do to a filmmakers psychology to hit it big so early on, as you did with The Sixth Sense?

It was an interesting time. It wasnt reviewed well. I was just so happy to have a movie anybody saw. The two movies Id made got regional releases. Just to have a nationally released movie was a huge step. For a while, I was very peaceful and didnt feel bad about the reviews. There was plenty of criticism to go around.

But then the numbers came in.

But thats not my memory of it. When youre in it, its not like you imagine. There wasnt a clear celebrating moment. Ive never had that celebrating moment yet, to be honest. Basic things were nice, which was I can do this for a living. I can buy a house. At that point, I wasnt sure if I was going to be able to do this for a living.

You were once called the next Spielberg. Do you think thats true?

No. Im a writer, I do different things. I feel more and more aware of my independent side of me that I cant let go of. Maybe Im East Coast. I think thats a real thing. Im an East Coast filmmaker. Im not a techie. Im terrible at that stuff — special effects. Its like first grade for me. Hes just so much more talented than me.

Walt Disney Studios chief Dick Cook once said, this is a quote from 2004, Its a real advantage to be able to identify a film as an M. Night Shyamalan film. How do you feel about that statement?

Good. What Im trying to do is have an author relationship with the audience. And Im not going to apologize for that. I want to have the relationship that a novelist has when they put their name on the book. It happens in plays, it happens in novels, and it has happened here in the films.

Why did you break with Disney?

They are good people, and they have tried to do well by me. But the relationship was definitely parent-child, in all the best ways and in some of the difficult ways. The things that made me conventional were celebrated, and the things that made me unconventional were not celebrated. You start having an interest in unusual music, and your parents arent going to be like, Im so excited youre getting into rock 'n' roll or whatever it is. I felt a large part of me was unconventional and I didnt want that part to die. We borrow from each other emotionally. And so if I know they dont believe in this, all Im going to see when I look at that page is I dont believe in this, either. I told them, I wont be able to pull this off in this atmosphere. I wont be able to do it. Ill make a bad movie. All Ill see is the version of me that hasnt figured this out yet.

Who do you make movies for?

The collective soul.


No. The name of that thing that we become when we are in a room with strangers. Its a group consciousness. A collective soul. That collective soul is an entity that is smarter than me, smarter than anyone. Theyre the ones who love Adam Sandler movies and we dismiss it. The archetype he portrays is so dead-on and pure and needed in our psyche. And when a really arty well-crafted movie does not resonate with them, they are sending you another message. You can say theyre stupid, but I believe in them 100 percent, and thats what makes it easy. Every reaction to every movie tells me where the collective soul is right now. March of the Penguins tells me whats still possible.

Would you ever make a comedy?

This is it.

Well, this I thought Lady in the Water was about a quarter comedy.

In normal life, I like humor a lot. If you and I were out drinking, wed be laughing it up. But I cant do that alone. I have to have some metaphor, some meaning, some moment where I can be all my colors. I need to find pathos and drama. I like comedy as relief, but if you just throw me on the ground and see what I look like, Im suspense.

You wrote but didnt direct Stuart Little. Would you ever direct a movie that you hadnt written?

Its possible. But they come to me to write a lot of times. Even for other people directing, they ask me to do the rewrites and things like that.

But youre not against it?

No, Im not. In fact, I was once offered a really cool script, and I thought this would be fun, I could just go and direct. Itd save myself eight months of torture and maybe not identify with it so much that Id live and die with every single thing.

In your American Express ad, you say your biggest challenge is not letting work make you unhappy. Whats that about?

Its human nature. Twenty-six people love the movie and the 27th person hates it, and the only thing you can think about it is the 27th person.

What are your moments of self-doubt?

As I said, of becoming that eccentric artist, that Im not relating to anyone. I guess Im scared of losing perspective, or of becoming bitter.

Whats next for you?

I have two ideas. One is a big, broad idea, a Jurassic Parkian kind of idea. And one is kind of an Agatha Christie type idea. Im trying to decide which to do.

Why wouldnt you just get around to both?

Love changes. You fall in love with something else. Between movies, its two more years of ideas and meeting people and experiences.