“Last year, I went to In­dia and re­ceived an award. This was a big thing – like get­ting knighted. There were No­bel Prize win­ners there”

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - Film -

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.”

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