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by Una Lamarche
photographs by jennifer s. altman | June 1, 2010 | People
Shirt, Hugo Boss. Similar styles, King of Prussia Mall; hugoboss.com. Jeans, Adriano Goldschmied. Similar styles, The Pier Shops at Caesars; agjeans.com. Work boot, Rag & Bone ($495). Barneys Co-op, 1811 Walnut St., barneys.com. Watch, IWC. Similar styles, Govberg Jewelers, 292 Montgomery Ave., Bala Cynwyd; govbergwatches.com
For someone named Night who spins dark tales for a living, M. Night Shyamalan is surprisingly sunny. I’ve finally gotten the director on the phone at his Main Line home after three scheduling attempts, and in order for him to speak with me uninterrupted, Shyamalan’s essentially locked himself in his writing room. “I’m busier than I’ve ever been in my life,” he says happily, adding that he can’t so much as take a bathroom break without hearing his name being called by an assistant, summoning him for a conference call with Paramount Pictures.
Manoj Nelliyattu Shyamalan—he started going by “M. Night” in college—has lived in Pennsylvania for almost his entire life, having moved with his family from India to the suburbs of Penn Valley when he was just six weeks old. “I think my dad was the classic immigrant, coming to America for the dream, and he wanted to settle in a historic city,” he says. “[It was between] Boston or Philly, and he chose Philadelphia.”
Shyamalan the younger also chose the City of Brotherly Love. Today he lives with his wife and two daughters in Gladwyne and has never moved west even though, he admits, “in retrospect it was a completely unrealistic and foolhardy position to stay in Philly as I was establishing a career.” The director’s decision to remain in the area seems natural for a guy with such loyalty to the town. “I’m just a huge Philly fan,” he explains. “But I am not alone. [Lots of natives think that] if you grew up here, you come back here to live. That is just standard behavior for Philadelphians.”
From an early age, Shyamalan was inspired by the movies. “A lot of the filmmakers from my generation were infl uenced by Star Wars and E.T. and Raiders of the Lost Ark,” he says. “[George Lucas and Steven Spielberg] were making their iconic heyday movies at the exact moment that I was going to the movies, and I was impressionable.” In his teens, Shyamalan procured a Super-8 video camera from his father’s closet and began experimenting. But his talent was, shall we say, raw. “I don’t know if you would call them fi lms as much as convulsions,” he laughs. “They were terrible! They were terrible in every way you can imagine. I was a prodigy of terribleness.” True to his directorial nature, he goes on to describe his early efforts via a tried-and-true cinematic cliché: “It wasn’t like in the movies where the coach sees the kid running across the fi eld and he’s, like, a world-class athlete,” he explains. “[It] would have been the coach seeing the kid tripping over himself, disoriented, and then that kid becomes a world-class athlete.”
To extend the metaphor, you might say Shyamalan didn’t really earn his letterman jacket until 1992, when he debuted his fi rst fi lm, Praying With Anger—which he wrote, produced, directed and starred in—at the Toronto International Film Festival. Shot on location in Madras, India, just after he graduated (a year early) from NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts, Anger follows an Americanborn Indian student, played by Shyamalan himself, who returns to his family’s homeland as part of a college exchange program. The movie’s success in Toronto led to a limited run at the Village East Cinemas in New York, where it won praise from The New York Times; film critic Stephen Holden called it “an astonishingly accomplished movie for such a young director.”
“When I think back to that movie, it was before I knew what I was doing,” Shyamalan says. “It was a great experience, though, because I’d always come up to a creative wall, but [making that fi lm] made me realize there was something on the other side of the wall.” Based on the strength of Praying With Anger, Miramax Films bought Shyamalan’s second screenplay, Wide Awake, a quiet drama about a young boy’s search for God, and agreed to let him shoot the movie on location in Philadelphia. The film starred Rosie O’Donnell, Denis Leary, Dana Delany and a young Julia Stiles, and while it bombed at the box office, it still opened doors for Shyamalan. He wrote a spec script, Labor of Love, that caused what he calls “a frenzy” in Hollywood (though it ultimately was never made) and was subsequently hired to write Stuart Little. “That combination set the table,” he remembers. “They said, ‘Wow, the last two things he wrote were great! When is he going to write the next one?’ So The Sixth Sense was the next thing I wrote.”
IN THE SPOTLIGHT
The Sixth Sense, of course, is the 1999 sleeper hit with the famously twisted ending that placed Shyamalan fi rmly on the Hollywood map. It grossed more than $650 million and garnered six Oscar nominations including Best Picture and Best Director, and remains Shyamalan’s most successful fi lm to date, both critically and fi nancially. His follow-up effort, Unbreakable, got mixed reviews, and while his next movie, Signs, was generally well-received, it fell short of The Sixth Sense’s box-offi ce numbers. His more recent works (The Village, Lady in the Water and The Happening) have been generally panned, leading some critics and fans to wonder if he’s lost his mojo. When I bring this up, Shyamalan remains unflappably upbeat.
“I have no hang-ups about anything,” he says. “I just have so much fun writing these movies. I know that… people are going to have a different reaction. I may get bludgeoned, or they may not understand it.” Laughing, he pulls out another fi tting metaphor: “I can only describe it as like being perpetually in high school. That’s what being famous is. You either come to the conclusion that it’s better to fi t in and be a part of the group or be OK with being the freak in the corner. Those are your choices when you’re famous. That’s the Faustian bargain you take—it’s in the fine print, I guess.”
It’s clear that Shyamalan sees himself as the outcast in this scenario, but his next film, The Last Airbender, which opens over the Fourth of July weekend, could very well make him the big man on Tinseltown’s campus. Based on a Nickelodeon cartoon, the movie is in many ways a departure for the director, who has never worked with existing source material, much less something intended for children. And while Shyamalan admits that his daughters initially turned him on to the series, he is clearly enthralled by the subject matter, which encompasses Buddhism, martial arts and supernatural mythology based on the four elements. “The series gets darker and darker,” he says excitedly. “So it will get darker and darker over the three movies.” You read that right: M. Night Shyamalan is making a trilogy. And he’s paying respects to those who have come before him.
“I was reading about The Godfather,” he begins, invoking what many consider to be the greatest fi lm trilogy (well... excepting part three) ever made. “And about what [Francis Ford] Coppola went through [adapting] a best seller. The Godfather is my favorite movie, and I thought it would be a good experience for me as an artist to make a film that didn’t come directly from my own head.” He has always wanted to do a story told over more than one movie, he says, but “not a sequel. The Lord of the Rings movies aren’t sequels—that’s one story.” Shyamalan knew that he wouldn’t be able to create an original story of that magnitude unless he took years off to write it (and the fact that he barely has time even to use the bathroom these days doesn’t bode well for the kind of concentration required for such an endeavor). “It didn’t seem realistic to me to drop off the map and do that,” he concedes. “But I was looking for it. I was looking for a Harry Potter or a Star Wars in the back of my mind.”
Enter The Last Airbender, the creation of Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko, who also executive-produced the Nickelodeon series. The tale, set in an Asian-inspired universe in which the Air and Fire nations are at war, follows a boy named Aang (the last “Airbender” and last surviving member of his mystical tribe, the Air Nomads), who must fi ght and defeat the Fire Lord. While he took creative liberties, Shyamalan shared the script with DiMartino and Konietzko at various stages in the writing process, welcoming their feedback. “When we got to the fi nal version, they loved it,” he says. “So that was a great endorsement.” Other, perhaps less fawning, endorsements came from Shyamalan’s children. “I would say, ‘I’m thinking of changing this,’” he remembers, “and if they started screaming, I would know that it probably wasn’t the best idea.” While he is confi dent that fans of the series will love the film, Shyamalan was insistent on making the story his own. “The show exists and it had its time,” he explains. “On Nickelodeon [the creators] were working under certain parameters. I don’t have those limitations.” The result, in his words, is the “edgiest, coolest, most philosophical” version of the story that he could conceive.
In addition to being something of a maiden voyage for the director, The Last Airbender marks the cinematic debut of 12-year-old Noah Ringer, a total unknown whom Shyamalan tapped to play Aang. (The movie also stars Dev Patel of Slumdog Millionaire.) “The character [of Aang] is a sweet, innocent, martial arts monk kid,” Shyamalan says. “And that’s who we found! We found a home-schooled martial arts expert—he’s the equivalent of a modern-day monk. It’s unbelievable. He is literally the cartoon.” As for Ringer’s acting chops, the director says he was a natural. “This kid was so in tune,” he raves. “He’d never acted before, so this was like going from scratch. By the end of the movie, he was really doing some wonderful things.”
The Last Airbender filmed in Greenland as well as at various locations in Pennsylvania, largely in Reading and Ontelaunee Township. Shyamalan has a vast production studio in Berwyn and has shot parts of every film he’s made (apart from Praying With Anger) in the Philadelphia area. This allows him to stay close to his family while working, but it’s clear that he’s also committed to bringing industry and revenue to his hometown. “I think we could turn Philadelphia into the other fi lm capital of the United States, next to Los Angeles,” he says. “With our versatility of locations and our seasons, we can accommodate almost anything. I would love it if one day you came down Broad Street and there were just studios up and down the block and people were shooting multiple movies. People would move to Philly to be in the film industry; that’s where you would want to get to. I hope that’s going to start happening in the next five to 10 years.”