Will someone please tell me what the big deal is about M. Night Shyamalan? His new film, The Village, doesn’t open until July 30th, but the ’net has been buzzing for over a year with plot spoilers and criticism and gossip and guesses. Not only that, the super-secretive Shyamalan is the subject of a three-hour (!) documentary called “The Buried Secret of M. Night Shyamalan,” which debuts on the Sci-Fi Channel July 18th. According to press releases, Shyamalan granted two documentarians (Nathaniel Kahn & Callum Greene) unlimited access to The Village set, only to halt an on-camera interview halfway through the process, refusing any more contact with the filmmakers. Is the resulting footage an accurate portrait of the “real” M. Night Shyamalan at work, or an elaborate hoax designed to sell tickets to a movie that has been troubled from the start?
M. Night Showman, or M. Night Charlatan?
In 1992, Shyamalan wrote, directed, and starred in the little-seen Praying with Anger. His next feature, Wide Awake, met a similar fate. Between them, the two films grossed something in the neighborhood of $350,000. All that changed with Shyamalan’s next project, a ghost story entitled The Sixth Sense. That film, with its now famous “I see dead people” tagline, went on to gross almost $300,000,000 and garnered half a dozen Academy Award nominations. The film didn’t win any Oscars, but it quickly became part of the popular culture. Unbreakable, Shyamalan’s follow-up, was a modest success, grossing less than $100,000,000 at the box-office. Signs, Shyamalan’s next effort, starred a pre-Passion of Christ Mel Gibson, and went on to become a monster hit. Based on his ticket sales, Newsweek crowned Shyamalan “the next Spielberg,” and he’s often compared to Hitchcock as a modern master of suspense. He has a “no-rewrite” clause in his contracts, and is so meticulous about storyboarding his screenplays that he doesn’t bother shooting any “coverage” (alternate angles) during production. In anticipation of The Village, I decided to reacquaint myself with Mr. Shyamalan’s oeuvre--or at least the three films that made him famous.
Trust me—there’s no point in trying to tell fans of The Sixth Sense that you saw Shyamalan’s twist ending coming a mile away—they’ll just pat your head and call you a liar. I suppose the film must seem terribly original to anyone who’s never read a ghost story, never been to the movies, or doesn’t own a television. The Sixth Sense reminds me a lot of a Twilight Zone episode called “The Hitchhiker” where Inger Stevens drives cross-country by herself and keeps seeing the same creepy man waggling his thumb at her all the way from New York to Arizona. The zinger comes when the woman realizes she’s actually died in a car accident in Pennsylvania several days earlier. Spooky, huh? In his dvd commentary for Unbreakable, Shyamalan admits that one of his goals is to make “feature-length Twilight Zones, where something amazing happens in the last second and you realize you weren‘t watching what you thought you were watching.” I love a twist ending as much as anyone, but audiences looking for a twist are twice as hard to fool.
I certainly didn’t hate Unbreakable, but I don’t think it holds up particularly well, either. Shyamalan claims that in creating his indestructible protagonist David Dunn, he was only interested in focusing on the origin story. I don’t mind that Bruce Willis spends much of the picture discovering his secret powers, and I don’t mind the fact that fragile Samuel L. Jackson--with his Frederick Douglass haircut--is a super-villain, but the film ends too abruptly to be truly satisfying. Audiences don’t want just an origin story—they want the sheer excitement of issue #2! The cool reception was not lost on Shyamalan. According to Ain’t It Cool News, Shyamalan witnessed an obese family sitting in Denny’s, more preoccupied with their food than the conversation. Satisfied the diners couldn’t care less about Unbreakable‘s deeper meanings, he decided to make his next film completely accessible and decidedly more mainstream.
Shyamalan says Hitchcock’s The Birds, George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead, and the original Invasion of the Body Snatchers were all indirectly responsible for Signs. The film is an unusual mix of monsters and metaphysics, with more chuckles than outright chills. And what’s with those monsters, M. Night? After making water the convenient kryptonite of Unbreakable’s David Dunn, I was a little surprised that Shyamalan would unleash the same deadly element on the aliens in Signs. Douse them with water, then swing away! Some critics complained that Shyamalan had given himself too large a role in the film, casting himself as the sleepy veterinarian who inadvertently kills Gibson’s wife in a car accident, causing Gibson’s character—a reverend--to question his faith, setting the story in motion. Of course, none of that kept fans from buying tickets.
Clearly, Shyamalan writes for his audience, not the critics--and especially not Stephen Holden, the New York Times critic Shyamalan blames for the failure of his first two films. He is obsessed with precocious children, outcasts, secret powers, and powerful secrets. He has a fondness for alliterative names, and is a champion of the misunderstood and the frequently teased. Criticizing his films is like suggesting Big Macs are bad for you. If you got your money’s worth, hell—good for you. If his films grab you like something hiding under the bed, far be it from me to spoil your fun.
Which brings us to The Village
The Village is set in 1897 and centers on a group of simple folk living with a race of monsters in the woods outside their community. Edward Walker (William Hurt) and Alice Hunt (Sigourney Weaver) are both village elders. Walker’s two daughters Kitty (Judy Greer) and Ivy (Bryce Howard) are both sweet on hunky Lucius Hunt (Joaquin Phoenix). Eventually, Lucius tells Kitty that he’s really in love with her blind sister Ivy, and Kitty settles for the proposal of Noah Percy (Adrien Brody), a mentally challenged man who is prone to violence.
By all accounts, the birth of The Village was not an easy one. Originally entitled The Woods, the name was changed when it was discovered another writer had registered the title first. Kirsten Dunst was originally set to star, but dropped out to take the lead in Cameron Crowe’s new film, Elizabethtown; she was eventually replaced by Bryce Howard. Ashton Kutcher was also linked to the film at one time.
For over a year, Shyamalan fans have lived with the knowledge that a draft of the screenplay had supposedly been unearthed and subsequently reviewed by over a half-dozen sites, including Ain’t It Cool News, Filmjerk, and Underground Online. None of the reviews were particularly favorable; many were disappointed with the film’s multiple—and unoriginal—twist endings. Some fans suggested the script was part of well-orchestrated ruse to throw people off The Village trail, and cited typos that couldn’t possibly have come from Shyamalan’s word processor. Others claiming to be in the know repeated the rumor that Shyamalan’s original scripts are actually rife with misspellings, including a tenuous grasp on the homophones “who’s and “whose.” I’d dismiss the whole business as jealous gossip, perpetrated by individuals whose screenplays have not been filmed, whose films have not grossed upwards of half a billion dollars. But if you pay close attention to the bonus material on the Signs dvd, you’ll find a genuine misspelling on one of Shyamalan’s enlarged script pages. So who’s right, and who’s wrong?
One of the early trailers for The Village began with a short list of warnings:
Let the bad color not be seen. It attracts them.
Never enter the woods, for that is where they wait.
Heed the warning bell, for they are coming.
The only thing I know for certain is that before the movie is over, the bad color—it’s red, folks!—will be seen, and the woods will be entered, and the warning bell will sound. Is it possible that the leaked script was genuine? Will Noah Percy injure Lucius, prompting Ivy to venture outside the village? Are the monsters merely costumed village elders, trying to keep community members from leaving? Does the story really take place in the 21st century? Are the woods merely being threatened by developers and construction workers? Is the village an experiment, conceived by a mad genius?
Production on The Village wrapped last December, but on May 24th it was reported that Shyamalan and his crew were back in Philadelphia shooting additional footage. Sigourney Weaver, William Hurt, Joaquin Phoenix and Bryce Howard were all on hand for the three-day shoot. According to crew members, Shyamalan was shooting a new ending, which a spokesperson for Shyamalan vehemently denied.