Today I finished reading The Man Who Heard Voices; Or, How M. Night Shyamalan Risked His Career on a Fairy Tale. Philadelphia-based writer Michael Bamberger, after meeting Shyamalan in 2004, got the chance to follow the filmmaker through the entire process of making 2006's Lady in the Water. During those two years, Shyamalan ended his long working relationship with Disney, and often felt at-sea trying to get the film set up at another studio. (He'd come up with the hardest-to-sell film idea of his career so far. A fairy tale? A PG-rated non-thriller? Where it all takes place in one apartment building? With the fairy tale using terms like "tartutic," "scrunt" and the already-used-by-Animaniacs "narf"? Where two of the most important supporting characters are a six-foot-tall Korean girl and a writer played by Shyamalan himself?) The book covers the sale to Warner Brothers, the casting and other preproduction ups and downs, the filming, the long time spent editing, and the contentious test screening process where even the people closest to Shyamalan had to admit Sorry; we don't get it.
Bamberger, definitely on the fan-and-friend-of-Shyamalan side (even when he admits he didn't understand the rough cut, either), portrays both the filmmaker's crazy confidence in defending his ideas -- the PG rating was because he'd first hoped it could be released under the Walt Disney Pictures banner, like Disney's fairy tale animated films, instead of Hollywood or Touchstone Pictures; he'd used "narf" because "angel" was too loaded a term for Bryce Dallas Howard's angelic character -- and his frequent panic as he tried to make the story work, from when he was writing the earliest drafts to his final, surprising decisions while editing. (I want to know more about the very early Ain't It Cool News review of the film; that story takes a surprising turn.) What works best about the book is how Bamberger conveys the craziness and risk of the film:
...[The Village] was not, to them, a home run. It was not Signs. Night understood that whatever he did after The Village could not be in a minor key. On his good days, he knew that the script he was writing would be nothing like minor, if he could get it to work. If, if, if. If it came together, it would be like Dylan and Clapton and Springsteen and Eminem and Kanye West and Miles Davis and Bonnie Raitt and Joan Armatrading and Jerry Garcia and every musician you've ever loved joining George Harrison and belting out the opening chord of "A Hard Day's Night" at the same time. But how often in your life -- your life, my life, Night's life, anybody's life -- do you hear that chord?Shyamalan comes off as maybe the most complex and likeable I've seen him. He fits that mold I've seen in chef Anthony Bourdain and writer-producer-director Joss Whedon: well-developed ego, definite talents with which he'd earned that ego, encyclopedic knowledge of his chosen field, and frequent dark thoughts that all of that would not be enough to help him create a worthwhile piece of work. Shyamalan also turns out to be a sports fan (which I didn't know), finding useful metaphors in sports and blowing off steam with involved games of basketball.
I haven't seen Lady in the Water. I know the massively mixed reaction it got. I'm still rooting for Shyamalan, as much as he can frustrate me -- Signs didn't work for me, Unbreakable needed a lonnnnnng time to grow on me, and as my friend octoberland said, "I'll just pretend The Happening didn't happen"* -- because he's taken risks, and has kept taking risks even after many viewers have gone "Huh?" at his most recent works. I've seen Wide Awake, his second film, and while it doesn't work en toto it shows his blooming ability with child actors and long takes. I could see the filmmaker he became, even if I had to look past Rosie O'Donnell as a baseball-loving nun. Makes me want to see Lady, to remind myself of the passion that should be there for even a film that ultimately doesn't work.
Whatever you're trying to figure out about your career, Mr. Shyamalan, I hope you do figure it out.**
* This means I'm in the supporter camp for The Sixth Sense, of course, and, less obviously, The Village. I went into that film knowing much of the last quarter of the movie, the part that maddened a lot of people, and focused on the film's mood, the (I think) most successful part. And I've come around on Unbreakable after my initial, confused reaction.
**I still think Shyamalan would be well-served by directing a film by another writer; I think of the strong results Terry Gilliam had when he directed Richard LaGravenese's The Fisher King and David and Janet Peoples's Twelve Monkeys.