The Man Behind Lady in the Water

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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. Iíve 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 didnít 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 thatís not me — is that the first sign of being unorthodox is a symptom of this. Thatís one side of the argument.

Okay, but thatís 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, Iíd 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 donít know whatís 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... Itís really about cherishing what you have, how precious it all is. Itís a hypothetical that makes you realize how precious it is, so you donít 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. Theyíre fears. You write your fears.

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

Iíve had various size roles in the pictures. Iíve 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 thatís the dream of all of us that something like that would happen.

The Cookbook is your characterís thoughts on ďcultural problems, leaders and stuff.Ē 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 donít 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 Iíve thought about writing for people. Speechwriting. I never really give it serious thought, but itís interesting.

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

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

But then the numbers came in.

But thatís not my memory of it. When youíre in it, itís not like you imagine. There wasnít a clear celebrating moment. Iíve 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 wasnít sure if I was going to be able to do this for a living.

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

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

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

Good. What Iím trying to do is have an author relationship with the audience. And Iím 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 arenít going to be like, Iím so excited youíre getting into rock 'n' roll or whatever it is. I felt a large part of me was unconventional and I didnít want that part to die. We borrow from each other emotionally. And so if I know they donít believe in this, all Iím going to see when I look at that page is I donít believe in this, either. I told them, I wonít be able to pull this off in this atmosphere. I wonít be able to do it. Iíll make a bad movie. All Iíll see is the version of me that hasnít figured this out yet.

Who do you make movies for?

The collective soul.

Society?

No. The name of that thing that we become when we are in a room with strangers. Itís a group consciousness. A collective soul. That collective soul is an entity that is smarter than me, smarter than anyone. Theyíre 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 theyíre stupid, but I believe in them 100 percent, and thatís what makes it easy. Every reaction to every movie tells me where the collective soul is right now. March of the Penguins tells me whatís 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, weíd be laughing it up. But I canít 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, Iím suspense.

You wrote but didnít direct Stuart Little. Would you ever direct a movie that you hadnít written?

Itís 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 youíre not against it?

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

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

Itís 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 Iím not relating to anyone. I guess Iím scared of losing perspective, or of becoming bitter.

Whatís 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. Iím trying to decide which to do.

Why wouldnít you just get around to both?

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