The advance word on M. Night Shyamalan’s latest film, Lady in the Water hasn’t been all that favorable, yet this South Asian-born, Philadelphia-raised director has succeeded in become a sub genre all his own with surprise hits such as The Sixth Sense and Signs.
The L Magazine: Do you really believe that filmmaking or writing can change the world? M. Night Shyamalan: Now with regards to the character in Lady... The idea of Harriet Beecher Stowe really caught me — this idea that you write a book, somebody like Lincoln reads the book, and other people in that time period read that book and you’re creating change. Then someone who can make a difference decides to do something about it. Harriet Beecher Stowe didn’t know she was doing all that, she was just writing a book. But it actually opened minds and created points of view.
The power of the writer is the wish that an angel would come in and say, ‘You think that that sucks right now? You should do it because down the line, the 80th person who [reads] is going to cause this [happens] and this to [happen]. And you’ll be part of a chain that you can’t possibly know, but it’s very important that you keep [being] proactive.’
How many people don’t believe that they’re part of that inevitable chain of things. My babysitter once left a book by mistake that she was reading, about how people are having a hard time making ends meet because their cost of living is so high. It’s called Nickel and Dimed [by Barbara Ehrenreich].
So I went and I bought a bunch of low-income houses and built them up and gave them to families in Philadelphia. [All] because my babysitter was reading it — because her teacher had assigned it — because the teacher was moved by this lady. Look at that chain of events, all from writers. It’s a beautiful thing.
The L: This was originally a fairy tale for your kids and then it evolved into something darker. What was the evolution in your mind? MNS: Well, when it was back at Disney [laughter], they were so stringent about what has the Disney label on it — to the point that it hurt the piece. So when [it] didn’t happen [with Disney], it really freed me up to be more visceral.
The L: And with Paul Giamatti —what attracted you to him? MNS: Paul’s kind of everyman brilliance is just great against the two of them. They both give off such different vibes, even as human beings.
The L: Did Bob Balaban enjoy the idea of playing this film critic character? MNS: He loved it! [When] we met I said, “I’m going to say to you what I never said to another actor: I want you to start three-dimensional and become two-dimensional, so it becomes more of a parody by the time it happens. You’re going to deconstruct as you go.” He [replied], “I’m totally into that.” I gave him the script, and I didn’t tell him what the part was — I just said “You’re going to play the part of Farber.” He called and left me this message. It was so funny, I wish I’d kept it.
The L: Do you read what critics say about your films? MNS: I get a general vibe that if you get caught up in too much of this, you lose your mind, because it’s all a momentary perception. These movies are so clouded by expectations that it can be damaging to you as an artist. What you think may be the critical response to my movies is very different from the reality. Signs is my best reviewed movie, then Unbreakable, and next is Sixth Sense and then next is The Village and that’s the order of the reviews. Also, Signs is my most popcorn movie. It’s that aspiring to something higher that always gets everyone all riled up. The perceived realities are very different as you move on. If everything was re-reviewed now, [they] probably would be different reviews.