Movies: Night Vision

Want to know the twist behind M. Night Shyamalan’s new movie, Lady In the Water? It’s not on the screen, but behind the scenes, where the director stands at a career crossroads

AT THE FAR END of a crimson booth inside an anonymous French restaurant, M. Night Shyamalan sits alone at a table for one. His eyes dart from side to side, but he’s not expecting company. He’s searching for inspiration. A somber piano plays as Night examines the diners around him more closely. There’s a couple sitting in silence, but Night hears them arguing. He sips slowly from his water glass and sees a man who’s so overheated, his skin literally sizzles. Customers watch a glass shatter, then they vanish. A middle-aged woman captures a pesky fly with her tongue — and suddenly, Night is interrupted.

“Mr. Shyamalan?” says a waitress. “I love your movies. I’ve seen every single one of them. … ”

Night smiles like he’s heard this before as the girl rambles on about his oeuvre. He’d rather be left alone with his visions. The camera pulls away from the table, and Night’s voice drops in. “My life is about finding time to dream. That’s why my card is American Express.”

TV commercials rarely say more than “Buy me!” When this ad aired during this year’s Academy Awards, though, it announced that M. Night Shyamalan is more than a 35-year-old director whose films have earned seven Oscar nominations and $730 million at the box office. He’s now a brand unto himself. “Night,” says an AmEx spokeswoman, “is one of the few directors who can sell a film on his name alone.”

But the commercial, which Night wrote and directed, masks the tension of the moment in which he now finds himself. Ever since The Sixth Sense crossed over from blockbuster to cultural phenomenon in 1999, Night has straddled the line between artiste and Hollywood A-lister, visionary and businessman. What he now finds imperiled is what he cherishes most — the freedom to dream.

ON JULY 21ST, NIGHT unveils his latest fantastic tale, Lady in the Water, and in doing so arrives at a crossroads in his career. He has broken off from his longtime studio, Disney, and his new pals at Warner Brothers have pumped no less than $70 million into his film. Yet Night isn’t playing it safe: Lady is a fanciful story about a schlubby apartment super who finds a mermaid in his pool, unlocking the door to a universe of “narfs,” “scrunts” and “the Great Etalon.” There’s also no “twist” ending, Night’s signature stroke that was a blessing with Sixth and more of a curse since, particularly in his last film, 2004’s The Village. Thanks in large part to its predictable and unsatisfying finale, it drew the most vicious reviews of his career and tallied just $114 million — a blockbuster by most standards, but by Night’s and his studio’s, barely a passing grade.

“He’s an auteur,” says Michael Speier, managing editor of Variety. “There aren’t many of them left in Hollywood. He’s going to say he’s just making the movies he wants to make. But there’s a part of him that wants a hit. After The Sixth Sense, he’s gone downward almost every time.”