The Epic Losing Streak of M. Night Shyamalan, ExplainedJason LaVeris/FilmMagic
M. Night Shyamalan, once tipped as the next Spielberg, has been on an epic run of bombs — starting with 2006’s Lady in the Water and extending to his last film, Will Smith’s lunatic disasterpiece After Earth. Every film he’s done in the past nine years seemed designed to be as financially cataclysmic and personally embarrassing as possible. It’d be nice to think that he’s the Sam Hinkie of cinema and we should trust his “process” of tanking his career, but there’s no Hollywood draft for which he’d need to hoard picks. There’s no process other than the stunningly dreadful decisions he’s made. Now, he’s one of the producers behind the new Fox limited series Wayward Pines and is positioning himself for a comeback. Can this new project break the dreaded Curse of the Shyamalan? Some of Grantland’s most senior Shyamalologists collected their thoughts on this historic streak with the hope that they could put it all in perspective.
***Please read to the end for a SHOCKING TWIST YOU WILL NOT SEE COMING!***
The Happening (2008)
Mark Lisanti: The trees weren’t killing people the way you’d expect trees to kill people in a respectable B-movie horror-thriller, luring victims into the forest and strangling them with vines and branches, or by becoming Entish nightmares that uproot themselves and shamble through the countryside, fangs extending through gaping knotholes, ready to devour all in their path.
No, the trees of The Happening were up to something far, far worse. These trees stayed up late as saplings to watch syndicated Twilight Zone reruns on their local TV channel, and they had a far more baroque plan to rid the dying planet of the two-legged ecological menace quickly destroying everything, one that the human scourge would never see coming. They’d release neurotoxins, carried by the wind. Neurotoxins that drive people insane, make them violent and suicidal. That induce them to hurl themselves off buildings, or feed themselves to lions, or shoot kids at close range with shotguns.
Indeed, that’s a lot to take in. And Mark Wahlberg needs a second to process this. Can’t everybody give him a second to think? He’s just a humble high school science teacher from Philly. Vegetation that emits deadly, mass-extinction-level suicide-farts are not exactly his area of expertise, OK? He realizes they need to do something. He agrees they shouldn’t be the assholes on the news who watch a crime happen and don’t do something. He needs a second, WHY CAN’T ANYBODY GIVE HIM A GODDAMN SECOND? He’ll figure it out eventually. It’s a pretty complex situation. Those trees really know their Rod Serling.
Lady in the Water (2006)
Sean Fennessey: For Lady in the Water, Shyamalan’s worst film, the director perverted the phrase “bedtime story” into a faux-wonderment marketing tool, appending it to the title as an after-the-colon hook. Other Shyamalan movies to that point had been similarly fantastical or supernatural, but none had been quite so gimlet-eyed about its identity. That level of self-conscious zeal is most apparent in Harry Farber (a typically watery Bob Balaban), a loquacious movie critic who finds himself on the wrong end of a murderous dog-beast. In this scene, Farber monotonously explicates his role in the story, identifying this as a family film, and noting that he expects to have a humorous moment before just barely eluding the beast and finding safety. He is ravaged by the animal. It’s a two-birds, one-stone proposition for Shyamalan: show the power of his creation while also killing off his one true enemy, the critic.
Film critics should be regarded by filmmakers like paintings in a museum. Look, observe, maybe even understand. But do not touch. Lest we call security and have you removed. The long history of directors grappling with how to indemnify their persecutors is not pretty. From All About Eve’s Addison DeWitt to Birdman’s Tabitha Dickinson, there is only acid, distaste, and anger. Ratatouille’s Anton Ego melted only when the titular rat-chef made him a dish that shattered his critical faculties with a sweep of nostalgia. Harry Farber doesn’t seem like a particularly insightful film writer, so maybe isn’t a representative figure for his plight, but it doesn’t matter. Shyamalan began his career with the kind of unexpectedly graceful work that is impervious to the insecurities that criticism sometimes confirms. As soon as he started reading his own press, he discovered who he really was.
Alex Pappademas: Another interesting thing about Lady in the Water is that it’s one of recent history’s most extensively documented flops. In 2004, a few months before The Village was released, Sports Illustrated contributor Michael Bamberger met Shyamalan and his wife, Bhavna, at a dinner hosted by mutual friends on Philadelphia’s Main Line. Struck by the director’s boundless energy and personal magnetism, Bamberger began courting him as a subject, and eventually Shyamalan agreed to let Bamberger follow him through the production of his next film. Shyamalan had read and liked Bamberger’s book about one year in the life of a Philadelphia high school; the director’s only stipulation was that Bamberger approach this project with the same unflinching honesty. With a handshake deal in place, Bamberger spent the next two years reporting what became 2006’s The Man Who Heard Voices: Or, How M. Night Shyamalan Risked His Career on a Fairy Tale. That fairy tale, of course, was the critically lambasted Lady in the Water, which remains Shyamalan’s lowest-grossing post–Sixth Sense movie; Night was about to step on a rake, professionally speaking, and Bamberger would be right there with his notebook open.
There is abundant evidence that having a long-lead genius-at-work feature story written about you while you’re shooting a movie is always bad juju for a director, and it’s possible that Bamberger’s presence on set brought the Tad Friend Curse down on Lady in the Water. But The Man Who Heard Voices is no ordinary making-of story. It’s a work of determined, over-the-top hagiography whose blinkered narrator remains convinced that he’s watching a wizard perform supernatural feats of creative daring, right up until the moment (Shyamalan twist!) when Bamberger actually sees Lady in the Water and is seemingly blindsided by its badness — then has his awe renewed when Shyamalan gratefully accepts his thumbs-down review. Bamberger is a sportswriter by trade, which may explain why he assigns such overriding importance to Shyamalan’s work ethic and ignores the way aesthetic considerations can trip up even the hardest hustler, and why Voices often brings to mind those ultra-credulous superstar-athlete profiles in which the writer spends time with somebody who’s pretty obviously an asshole and somehow comes back with a worshipful portrait of a “fierce competitor.” Night isn’t, on the face of things, an asshole, but it’s hard to read Bamberger’s story without concluding that circa 2004, he was a pretty classic Hollywood Icarus flying high on his own supply, even if the book itself bends over backward to sell “Night” as a dreamer whose only weakness is caring too much and the failure of Lady as inexplicable. The book is a wrong-end-of-the-telescope account of the filmmaking process that largely excludes all perspectives but Shyamalan’s — and yet, in its own inadvertent, Kool-Aid-chugging way, it’s one of the most revealing and unflattering books ever written about a major director.
The hyperbole comes fast and furious. Bamberger meets Shyamalan for the first time and comes away wondering if he has superpowers. “I go down the New Age road skeptically,” he writes, “but I felt a powerful force coming off the guy.” That’s from page 4. This is from page 12: “Night knew there was something telepathic going on between him and Michael Jordan, him and Bob Dylan, him and Walt Disney.” Later, as Night struggles with the Lady script: “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.”
From page 50: “He wanted to be Dirty Harry, breaking rules to get results. He wanted to be Michael Jordan, taking the last shot, whether he made it or missed, whether the Bulls won or lost. He wanted to be Dylan, Picasso, Kubrick, William Hurt, Walt Disney.” From page 170: “He had thought it all out. I’m sure there are astronauts who think like that, mapping out every possibility, but in my experience only Tiger Woods has that move. Tiger can play every shot in a tournament in his head, on a practice tee, before the event begins. He and Night both had not only intelligence, but discipline. If it was Eastern or not, for either of them, I did not know, but it was impressive.”
Eventually Night, the Michael Jordan of Picassos, finishes the Lady in the Water script and puts his assistant Paula on a plane from Philadelphia to L.A. to ceremonially hand-deliver copies to three Disney1 executives, which is where the trouble begins. Disney Motion Picture Group chairman Dick Cook demonstrates insufficient excitement upon receiving the script; Disney president Nina Jacobson isn’t even home when Paula shows up at the precise Night-appointed time of 1:45 p.m., having had the audacity to take her kid to a birthday party. “To Night,” Bamberger writes, “the three Disney executives should have treated the reading of his new script at the appointed time on the appointed Sunday as part of the fun. If Nina had really been on board, she would have left the party a half hour earlier and kept her date with Paula, and with Night’s script.” After the Disney people finally do read the script — which is set entirely in a rundown apartment complex but overstuffed with confusing references to the mythology of a fantasy realm called the Blue World, including creatures called narfs and scrunts and the Tartutic and the Great Eatlon, and also features a plum role for Night himself, as a writer whose book is destined to change the world — they meet Night for dinner and attempt to talk him into making something/anything else. Night immediately goes into “Johnnie Cochran mode,” rattling off a defense of his opus that includes a rundown of his previous films’ box office stats, “an excellent and funny ‘if the glove don’t fit, you must acquit’ bit,” and a digression about the story that begins with the phrase “All right, you know Harriet Beecher Stowe, she wrote Uncle Tom’s Cabin, right?”
Dick Cook blinks and says Night can have $60 million to make his narfs-and-scrunts movie after all. Instead, Night takes the project to Warner Bros., but carries the memory of Disney’s faithlessness around with him throughout production like unresolved childhood trauma. (“For Night, where there had been assuredness, now there was doubt. Nina was back in his head again. He was all fucked up.”) Eventually Lady in the Water goes before the cameras and Bamberger stows what’s left of his objectivity under the craft-service table (“At breakfast there was so much fresh colorful fruit, you’d have thought you were at a Marriott Sunday brunch. There was a young Hispanic man who made smoothies all morning long … Jimmy Mazzola, the prop man, brought in the espresso machine Tom Hanks used in You’ve Got Mail … ”) and climbs all the way into the Team Shyamalan tank. When Shyamalan hires the not-famously-trim character actor Paul Giamatti as his leading man, then warns him about his weight — “I don’t want Brad Pitt,” he says, “I’m just trying to say you’re close to the line”— Bamberger sees this as proof that Shyamalan, the long-suffering perfectionist, will “stand up” to anybody. (Later, when Giamatti mispronounces “narf” in a crucial exchange with Bryce Dallas Howard, Shyamalan calls him out again: “Sometimes I don’t mind the word you decide to stutter on, but narf is a loaded word.”) And when Wong Kar-Wai’s maverick cinematographer Christopher Doyle makes some conservative, Hollywoodish choices during shooting, Shyamalan admonishes him, “Don’t give me that American Chris Doyle shit, okay? … I want the Asian Chris Doyle!”; when the Asian Chris Doyle’s dailies prove equally unsatisfactory, Bamberger offers this explanation: “They weren’t inspired madness. They were just bad. Still, at least they were bad for a reason: Doyle was trying to do too much.” It sounds less like the opinion of an outside observer and more like the doublespeak of a director who isn’t sure what he wants, dutifully parroted by a Boswell who doesn’t know any better.
It would have been easy, Bamberger writes, “for Night to lead a wholly narcissistic life. Instead, he kept regular office hours; worked hard but could also get away from work; set up treasure hunts for his girls on their birthdays; read Bhavna’s doctoral thesis for content and typos; gave scholarships to the needy; treated his employees well; tipped generously at Christmastime. And he did it all with a distinct sense of fun. He wasn’t going through the motions. It was exceptional, really.” By this point, Voices becomes a cautionary tale about how, for a writer, unfettered access to a charismatic subject can be a slow-acting poison. It’s also a deeply compelling story about directorial hubris and believing one’s own hype, even if the only conclusion Bamberger comes to is that the failure of Lady in the Water couldn’t have happened to a nicer guy.
The Last Airbender (2010)
Dave Schilling: Are you ready for the mind-bending twist? I’ve been setting this up for the last 2,200 words, slowly seeding in the clues. In Mark’s section, you’ll note the use of the word “saplings.” The first three letters of that word: “sap.” A sap is a dunce, a fool, a doofus, a rube, or a sucker — someone easily swayed. Sean Fennessey mentioned the movie Birdman, which is a story about a man grappling with his identity and warring with himself. Alex references the narf. An anagram of “narf” is “farn,” which is a variation on the word “fern” or plant. Plants try to extinguish humans in The Happening. Farn is also the name of a character from the video game Star Wars: The Old Republic. The Star Wars saga was created by George Lucas, who is best friends with … Steven Spielberg.
Here we are, back at the beginning. The snake eats its own tail. The Human Centipede is complete. You see, M. Night Shyamalan is not to blame for his losing streak. The twist ending is … we are. The media machine that built him up after The Sixth Sense and told him he was the next Spielberg was also ready to carve him up like a cheap rotisserie chicken in the deli aisle of your local grocery store. The studios bent over backward to glorify him and give him carte blanche to make Lady in the Water. Dick Cook didn’t even understand that story, but he was going to give Shyamalan millions of dollars to make it because of his perceived greatness. The war he’s fighting is with himself, or at least our idea of him as a genius. How does one live up to that reputation without taking big swings and doing completely batshit projects in the hope that people will continue to eat up his rubbish like a bunch of saps? We were all duped into believing the hype, and then reacted badly when we uncovered the deception.
By the time he made The Last Airbender, he was taking director-for-hire gigs instead of doing the auteurist work on which he’d made his name. He was savaged for a terrible last-minute 3-D conversion, for casting Asian characters from the Last Airbender cartoon with white actors. The movie was a joke from the get-go, but its biggest joke was Shyamalan himself. The hyperbole we all threw his way at the turn of the 21st century was bound to curdle into ridicule at some point. The movies themselves being terrible just accelerated that process. The Last Airbender was also the last time we’d see “An M. Night Shyamalan Film” proudly displayed on a movie poster. The After Earth poster and the film’s press campaign did little to spotlight its director. Wayward Pines doesn’t shy away from promoting the fact that it’s “from the director of The Sixth Sense,” but I’d guess that they’re betting we won’t remember that that’s also the guy who directed this scene.