The Curious Case of Manoj Night Shyamalan: Hollywood’s black sheep talks about his reputation and fears—and of filmmaking as therapy
Attempting to fathom what exactly it was that caused Manoj ‘Night’ Shyamalan to go from being a darling of critics at just 29—an Academy Award nominee for Best Director and Best Screenplay for The Sixth Sense in 1999—to being one of the most loathed and despised directors of his generation, is almost as much of a struggle as trying to understand some of the plot twists in his sci-fi-suspense-thriller dramas.
Having broken out in mainstream Hollywood with The Sixth Sense, which not only bedazzled critics with its ‘twist ending’ but also became a worldwide smash hit, making over $600 million on a relatively small budget of $40 million, Shyamalan received offers to write and direct films of franchises like Indiana Jones and Harry Potter and was hailed as ‘The Next Spielberg’—no small achievement for even the most versatile of directors, and Shyamalan was only three films old at the time.
For Unbreakable (2000) and Signs (2002), which followed The Sixth Sense, critical reactions were mostly positive, and even if there was some dissent over his trick endings and laboured creation of ‘atmosphere’, their box office numbers were enough to make Shyamalan invincible in the view of film studios. Everyone loved Shyamalan, a first generation Indian-American boy from Mahe, Puducherry—or Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, depending on which side of the world you were rooting for him from—who loved to scare and surprise audiences in equal measure, and was bloody good at it too.
Trouble began with The Village (2004), about a village turning inward in terror, in which Shyamalan’s trademark ‘twist’ ending not only fell flat, but failed so spectacularly, it moved the late legendary critic Roger Ebert to remark that, ‘To call it an anticlimax would be an insult not only to climaxes but to prefixes.’ Other American film critics followed suit, and soon, there was such a clamour for Shyamalan’s fall from grace, it seemed almost as if the entire critic community had been anxiously awaiting such a movie, just so they could pounce on him for trying to be too Hitchcockian for his own good.
Shyamalan didn’t help matters by defiantly defending his movie in interviews to all and sundry, nor by creating and violently killing off the character of a smug movie critic in his next film, Lady in the Water (2006), in which Shyamalan himself plays a visionary writer whose ideas are so momentous they inspire presidents and change the course of the world. In future interviews, Shyamalan would laugh whenever the topic was brought up, calling it tongue-in-cheek, but critics found the film singularly unfunny and unintelligent, and hated it with both their hearts and their pens.
That hastened Shyamalan’s downward spiral, and though all his films, barring Lady in the Water, have turned a profit, everything he’s touched since has been a critical disaster, with his last film, The Last Airbender (2010) being called ‘The Worst Movie Ever’ by Entertainment Weekly. But Shyamalan has marched on, undeterred, even producing the indie horror flick The Devil, which was publicised as being ‘From the mind of Manoj Night Shyamalan.’
Shyamalan has never admitted that he’s made a mistake with any of his movies, reasoning that his films take time to find their place in history after preconceived notions around them have passed. It’s hard to say whether he is unfairly castigated by biased critics and audiences, or, as Collider.com puts it, ‘if he’s delusional, narcissistic or just super defensive’. Ahead of the release of his next film, the Will Smith-starrer After Earth, which releases in India on 7 June, Shyamalan answers questions about critics, his family and his ‘obsession with fear’. Interview excerpts:
Q Did working with global star Will Smith change your approach in any way? How is After Earth different from other movies that have been sold on your name and under your sub-genre?
A You know, it’s a great advantage to have a partner who can help define the movie, and when we sell the movie, all I’m looking for is to define the movie in the most accurate way possible. That’s always my goal. And when it’s generally just me at its helm, misconceptions of me can sometimes be not great for the movie. Because with my name attached, the audience…get[s] the wrong impression.
Where I am concerned, I make all types of movies, but what they feel [my] name means might be a little bit off from what exactly I’m making. But this time, I had the opportunity, with Will [Smith], to define the movie perfectly. I was very excited to have this, and we’ll see when the movie comes out, but my hope is that the expectations and the movie are much more in line…and that thereby, the immediate reaction would be a very positive one.
Q Some of your films, like Unbreakable, may not have opened to widespread acclaim, but went on to become cult hits. But in the last couple of years, there seems to be a lot of negative buzz around your name, even before a movie release. Do you think this is because audiences have come to expect a twist ending in every movie, and are disappointed when you fail to live up to their expectations?
A Maybe. I don’t know. There are a lot of theories (laughs)…I believe that, with time, the context of the movies change. If you have a conversation about any movie of mine, let’s say The Village, you’re going to have a very different conversation with a hundred people today than you would have had with a hundred people on the day it opened. Getting away from expectations and getting away from the context that each movie is born into has been a really positive thing for my movies. Once my movies are away from that, they are seen as the stories they were meant to be seen as, rather than second guessed for twists.
With After Earth—at the end of the day, it’s a father-son story at the centre. You could do this as a play on stage. That was my goal and my hope for the movie. All the razzle-dazzle and [computer graphics], the creatures and all the other stuff was just the tapestry on which I did the drawing. But the drawing is just a personal story. With each of my movies, I aspire for them to be cross-genre. It’s always a drama and something else, but the problem is that they usually release it as a ‘something else’ and that’s where all the expectations come into play. In my heart, they are all dramas.
Q This is your second film with a massive budget. With the number of superhero movies and kind of global box office openings such ‘event’ movies get, are you getting to make the kind of films you want? Is there pressure from the studio or even from the audience to make event movies? Is that why you have moved away from your more intimate films?
A No, no. I try to write about things that I’m going through. I have two teenage daughters and a small daughter, and so I have all these feelings of letting go of my kids, [letting them go] out into the world, into the dangers that they may face, and I’m constantly thinking if I’ve taught them well and [if] I get to keep whispering advice to them. It’s a very vulnerable moment where the roles shift a bit, from complete protector to letting them go out into the world and become their own person. So, when I look at my movies later, each of them should be a kind of a diary of where I was at that time as a human being.
After I know what I personally want the movies to be, then come things like scale, budgets and release dates. If you choose to make a summer movie, then you have to compete at a certain level of muscularity. So my last two were summer movies and I’m probably going to make smaller movies the next couple of times.
Q What is it about fear that fascinates you so much that you’ve spent such a huge part of your life exploring it?
A I think ‘fear’ is a genetic thing that was built in us to keep our species alive longer, but I don’t know if it’s a great thing for us as individuals anymore. I think it’s very stifling with regard to growth. It has so many negative aspects to it. When we fear things that we don’t know, we ascribe to [them] a negative value. If we don’t know people from [an alien] country… we fear them. If we don’t know about a job [in] another city… we are scared we might not do well there. I think fear isn’t conducive to personal growth. It’s always something I’ve struggled with myself and I’m generally a very fearful guy. So my movies are all kind of dissertations on that subject of: ‘Does anybody else have these questions about whether our involuntary mechanism for fear is a good thing or not?’
I also think of all my movies as therapy—you try to work something out emotionally. Maybe that is what all art is to the artist. I’m trying to say something, I’m trying to understand why I feel this way. All the things I make movies about are still there. Maybe they’ll never go away. It’s just [a] conversation about why I feel scared, why I’m fearful. I get very angry with myself for constantly living in a state of apprehension. You know, ‘What will happen when the movie opens?’ ‘Oh my gosh, will they like it?’ ‘Will they be mad at me?’ ‘Will it be a success?’ That is ridiculous. I’ve gotta stay in the moment.
Q Since your films have a lot to do with spirituality and have often featured children in central roles, I’m curious if there was a particular incident or phase in your life that got you so keenly inclined towards this ‘dissertation’, as you call it. Was there?
A I don’t know if there was a particular incident. There are certainly plenty of incidents…[when] I got scared or there was something dramatic that happened when I was a kid, but I don’t know if there was any one incident that sent me on that trajectory. Being an overly sensitive kid, I think, was part of the equation. I was always scared to be alone. My parents knew I was always terrified when they left me by myself at home, because my imagination would go wild. I heard every single noise and imagined it was some killer coming into the house. Every single noise was wrong. So there would be somebody breaking into the back door, climbing on the roof, ghosts… and all these thoughts.
The same thing happened in adulthood too, which was such a waste of my energy and time. The few… things that did go wrong in my life weren’t such a big deal—you dealt with them. The father in After Earth is trying to teach his son that fear is a liar. He’s saying, ‘If you can see that fear is a choice, you also see that you have options every single time.’ Fear is an obsession for me. The two obsessions in my life are: a) Why do I have this grey feeling when I wake up? What is this about? Am I not balanced? It’s there every single day for a minute, and then it goes away…
What is my subconscious saying to me? So I make movies like Unbreakable that talk about that weird feeling, about ‘why am I not at peace here?’
And, b) the other [obsession] is fear.
Q Could that fear stem from having been raised a Brown kid in America, especially at a time when there weren’t many Indians there?
A I think you hit it on the head! It’s White people I’m scared of (laughs). I’m just kidding. You may be right, actually. The sense of isolation, the lack of examples, [of] older kids you can relate to—you don’t have that kind of guidance. Feeling alone tends to evoke fearfulness. Feeling different from others can evoke that as well.
I still didn’t face issues as much as my dad did. He was the first of his family to become a doctor and he chose to come to the US. At that time, in the 60s, it was not, you know, the most open-armed place.
I’m not sure if I’m as courageous as him. I know the ups and downs that he went through in his life. He took them hard and he now has perspective, and that’s what he’s given me, by talking to me now about how he felt and what went through his mind when he was doubted a lot by a lot of people.
Before he retired, his office was in the not-great area of Philadelphia, so he was treating more… lower income people in this little brick building. And sometimes we went on Saturday mornings and the windows would be shattered and we would see spray paint. I was a kid, but the image of him with his hands in his pockets, staring… he was hurt, you know, this was his life. You feel like there’s no place for you, and yet he made good.
I feel proud that, as an extension of me, now he can have perspective and success.
I remember the first time he got out of the car at my premiere and saw his name 20 feet wide on the marquee. I remember his face. I was doing press, and I looked down the red carpet and he gave me a thumbs up, and I felt in some way it was like fulfilment for him more than it was for me.
Note: This interview first appeared in Open Magazine on January 26, 2013
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