Jon Dudley discusses the career of filmmaker M. Night Shyamalan…
The Sixth Sense grossed $672,806,292 worldwide… Unbreakable grossed $248,118,121 worldwide… Signs grossed $408,247,917 worldwide… what do these three films have in common? They were all written and directed by M. Night Shyamalan. Lady In The Water grossed $72,785,169 worldwide but was nominated for four Razzie ‘awards’, winning two of them; Worst Director and Worst Supporting Actor… The Happening grossed $163,403,799 worldwide, which is a very respectable taking, however it was also nominated for four Razzies, including Worst Picture and Worst Director.
So what do the last two films have in common with the first three? They too were both written and directed by M. Night Shyamalan… but what caused his sudden fall from grace from being one of Hollywood’s elite storytellers to having his films being recognised as some of the worst movies of the year?
First let’s look at the narratives: there is no doubt about it that Shyamalan is a master at leading the audience down one path then suddenly showing them they have been following a different one the whole time. This skill is regularly attempted but more often than not it backfires and the audience can guess the conclusion of a film halfway through. The twist at the end of The Sixth Sense was pulled off so amazingly well that after watching it audiences just had to tell their friends – one of the films biggest marketing tools, other than having Bruce Willis as the lead, was word of mouth. But it left Shyamalan with a lot to live up to.
Unbreakable had an incredibly inventive storyline (and also starred Bruce Willis, alongside Samuel L. Jackson), however its marketing strategy prevented it from being a bigger hit – although it was very successful. The fact that Shyamalan’s projects attracted big Hollywood actors goes to show that his ideas were interesting and captivating for audiences. Mel Gibson was the lead in his third hit Signs – which was a lot more successful than Unbreakable, showing that Shyamalan was getting close to achieving what he did with The Sixth Sense. Signs was followed by The Village, and then Night took a gamble which backfired horrendously… he decided to make a film based on a bedtime story he invented for his children.
Let me just make it clear here that there is nothing wrong with deciding to make a children’s tale into a film – look at the successes of The Chronicles of Narnia franchise and Harry Potter films for example. But a sign that should have perhaps made him think twice about making Lady in the Water the way he did was that Disney executives were not going to allow him anywhere near as much freedom on this project as they had done in the past. This led to a highly publicised dispute.
Interestingly, Shyamalan’s epic falling out with Disney was made into a published book written by Michael Bamberger – with Night giving his blessing for the book to be released. Upset with Disney’s lack of faith in him despite his films making them hundreds of millions of dollars, Shyalaman took his idea to Warner Brothers. They emphasised their trust in his project by shelling out a reported $70 million just on the films marketing campaign. But unfortunately for both Night and Warner Brothers, the content left audiences far from satisfied.
And so began his movie-making slump. In a behind-the-scenes documentary of the film, actor Bob Balaban can’t praise the film enough, saying that it was wonderful and unique. Actress Sanita Choudhury says she remembered crying whilst reading the script… whether that was because it was so bad remains to be seen!
I shall at this point make it known that I am, or should I say was, a devoted fan of Shyamalan for many years, and I have written papers in the past doing nothing but praise his delightfully articulate ways of telling beautiful stories. Although I wasn’t the biggest fan of Lady in the Water, I still had a huge amount of enthusiasm for his next film, The Happening. Unfortunately, and it actually hurts to write this, I really thought it was a poor movie… I shall explain…
I waited for months for the release of this film, and as the day of its opening came around I persuaded a friend of mine to go and see it with me. All the way to the cinema I was chatting away about Shyamalan’s previous films – my friend hadn’t seen Lady in the Water so I didn’t bring it up as I wasn’t the films biggest admirer. The friend I was with was Indian like Night, so he thought my childlike enthusiasm about one of his countrymen was quite interesting. And so we took our seats, the lights dimmed and I positioned myself as evenly as possible so that neither of my “cheeks” went numb during the movie, and so limited my fidgeting.
It began… the moment I had been waiting for… M. Night Shyamalan’s return to greatness. About five minutes into the movie the core element of the film was made clear – people are seemingly randomly committing suicide. The whole cinema erupted in laughter, and this is no exaggeration! I was mortified. My friend said nothing to me for the entire film and on occasion I could see him shake as he tried to hide his chuckles from me. I thought the acting in this film, in particular from Mark Wahlberg, was remarkably bad and I was surprised as Night usually generates superbly poignant performances from all the actors he works with. As soon as the film finished I couldn’t wait to get out of the cinema and go home! On the way out of the screen I heard a group of lads in their early twenties mocking the film, and even heard one of them declare that The Happening was “one of the funniest films I’ve seen in years!”
The walk home was a very melancholic one. I felt humiliated in front of my friend, and was so embarrassed that there was one point I nearly offered him the money he paid for his ticket! We lived in the same building so after we had parted ways I immediately ran up to my room and searched the internet for explanations, others peoples opinions and anything else that I could use to convince my friend, and to some extent myself, that what we had just watched wasn’t utter trife.
I did come across one interesting notion – one article I read briefly explained the representation the events were homage to, and how some aspects of the movie cleverly highlighted the current problems in society. This was it, my armoury to prove to my friend that Shyamalan had made a good movie. I emailed him the link to the article and he did read it, but he then said to me in order to appreciate a film he didn’t want to have to read up about it when he got home, which was a very valid point. Unfortunately I thought that I was probably the only person in the screening that wanted to read about it to find its unique selling point.
Shyamalan is currently working on the live action adaptation of the animated TV series The Last Airbender. Maybe the fact that his last two films haven’t been received the way he had thought has led Night to taking on a project that isn’t an original one of his. I will definitely go and watch this film as I would like to see Shyamalan prove he still has what it takes to be a big name in Hollywood, however this time I won’t be as enthusiastic about it like I was when I went to see The Happening, just in case I end up looking like a fool again!
Jon Dudley is a freelance film and television journalist and his 17-minute short film Justification was shown at the 2009 Cannes Film Festival.