“Last year, I went to India and received an award. This was a big thing – like getting knighted. There were Nobel Prize winners there”
ing spurred by a degree of ego.
Born in the Puducherry province of India, he comes from a family of doctors: dad is a physician; mum is an obstetrician. He was raised in Philadelphia – a presence in his films – and studied at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts.
“I feel a son of many cultures,” he muses. “When I go to different countries I am impressed by how they embrace me as a local film-maker. I go to Spain and, whereas I am not seen as Pedro Almodóvar, I am not seen as a foreign Steven Spielberg either.”
One of those movie junkies who was playing with a Super-8 camera before he could talk, Shyamalan cobbled together the money for his first film while still at college. Praying with Anger was not a success, but the very fact that he got it made singled him out as a determined individual. The follow-up, a family picture called Wide Awake, also failed to set the world alight, but, having written that script for Stuart Little, Night could secure meetings with the moguls. The completed screenplay for The Sixth Sense was good enough to attract Bruce Willis to the party.
“I had just gone from living with my wife’s parents. After writing Stuart Little I knew I’d be able to pay the bills, but I wasn’t prepared for The Sixth Sense. I had no context. It all happened very slowly. It opened to okay but not great reviews and it didn’t have a very big opening weekend. It took six months to become this phenomenon. By the time we got to go to the Oscars, I was already deep in production on Unbreakable. So, it kind of swept by me.”
Not surprisingly, his parents had been wary of Shyamalan’s decision to drift off towards the entertainment industry. It must, thus, have been very satisfying for him when The Sixth Sense became the most talkedabout film of its era.
“Yes. It was interesting. Last year, I went to India and received an award. As I understand it, this was a big thing, like getting knighted. There were Nobel Prize winners there. Yet, when my name was called out, everybody cheered. I thought they wouldn’t know who I was. Can you imagine my parents’ reaction? When I said I wanted to make movies they said my life was going down the toilet. Now, here I was.”
And yet. The road has, of late, been somewhat bumpy for M Night Shyamalan. He delivered a few hits after The Sixth Sense: The Village did pretty well; Signs was huge in the US. But the reviews have got steadily more appalling. When the dire notices for The Last Airbender arrived, quite a few media outlets had fun constructing charts showing the precipitous but steady decline in his standing. Starting from the high point that was The Sixth Sense, the average star rating has slipped for every pic- ture.
He has, to this point in our chat, been quite jolly. But mention of the critics sets his jaw juddering and his tongue wagging.
“The dream that they were ever kind to me is rubbish,” he snaps. “On the opening day of The Sixth Sense, there were good reviews, but there was a terrible one in the New York Times. With Unbreakable they were neutral. Signs got decent review, but then this pattern set in where they objected to this guy having his name over the title.”
So, he puts the criticism down to a perception that, by taking on the role of auteur, he dallies with hubris.
“I know that’s what it is!” he almost shouts. “It’s not seen as hubris when Tom Hanks has his name over the title. It’s not seen that way in literature: it’s okay for Stephen King to have his name in big letters. If Vin Diesel has his name in big letters, then fine. But, when I put two years of my life into it and my name is up there, it’s ‘What a fucking asshole.’”
I want to tentatively suggest that, by getting so angry about it, he only encourages the bullies. Joel Schumacher has elected to (through gritted teeth, I’m sure) laugh along with his critics and, as a result, he wins grudging affection. Shyamalan’s outrage serves to increase the perception that he has a rather high opinion of himself.
I wonder how he keeps it up. It must be distressing to sit at the wrong end of the bile dispersal unit.
“Hey, I am not giving up my relationship with the audience,” he says with a smile. “Dude, it’s like having babies. Every time you finish making a film, you forget how painful the experience was.”