M. Night Shyamalan: The Super Natural

The thirty-year-old creator of 'The Sixth Sense' casts a cold eye on life and death in 'Unbreakable'

M. Night Shyamalan Credit: Munawar Hosain/Fotos International/Getty Images

Samuel L. Jackson lies motionless on a mock hospital bed, staring into nothingness. A mock doctor stands over him, naming the bones he has broken. It is not a short list, since Jackson's character suffers from osteogenesis imperfecta and is as fragile as fine crystal; should he brush against a woman on a subway, he could damage a few more bones.

The camera pushes in on Jackson's tortured face, slowly, slowly, as the catalog of fractures grows unbearably long, and just when you think you, too, might snap, the director says, "Cut! Something's wrong. Anyone have a cell phone?"

The director walks to a window and talks to someone about the script — the script for which he was paid a record $5 million (with an additional $5 million to direct), the script he wrote when he broke his own leg and couldn't play basketball, the script whose surprise ending has already been debated for months by movie geeks on AintItCool-News.com. He asks about metacarpals and distal phalanges while sixty-some people wait patiently.

If directors generally exercise militarylike powers over their troops, this feels more like a voluntary surrender. The commander is a congenial man, who leads without harangue or subterfuge. The word visionary gets bandied about, and higher consciousness enters casual conversations. One producer nods toward the dark-skinned, handsome man with the cell phone and says, "We are dealing with someone who has lived a hundred lifetimes."

The same people who last worked on a gory shoot'em-up or a teen sexploitation flick are now basking in the glow of so much virtue. The troops honestly believe they are making more than just another film here.

Though not the Holy Grail, Unbreakable is not your quotidian Disney fare. It begins with a horrendous train crash that kills everyone on board except Bruce Willis, a mild-mannered security guard. When Superhero Willis runs into Supersusceptible Jackson, the questions fly: Why has God created a world wherein some are blessed and others misbegotten? Or do they justify each other's existence, the yin and yang of humanity, the light and dark sides of the same moon?

"I have to change the script," says the director. "The words are wrong. I screwed up the bones in the little finger."

Who did he call? "My mother," says M. Night Shyamalan, and goes off to fix his homework. The writer-director of the remarkable Sixth Sense — which earned six Oscar nominations last year and almost 700 million bucks worldwide and stands at ninth on the all-time money list — has just stopped production to call his mommy. And it wasn't even a long-distance call! She lives about thirty minutes away from the set. And only twenty minutes from her son's home. None of this is to suggest that M. Night Shyamalan is a mama's boy — rather, he is an Indian boy, a Brahman boy, a good son who knows his mother is all-living, all-giving and a pretty fair physician.

Dr. Jayalakshmi Shyamalan, recently retired from her obstetrics practice, is one of eight siblings, five of whom are doctors. Dr. Nelliate Shyamalan, M. Night's father, is a cardiologist, one of seven physicians in his family.

Their son was expected to make it a baker's dozen, but when he was around ten years old, he picked up an 8 mm camera instead of a stethoscope and started spoofing E.T. and James Bond and Freddy Krueger. He had made forty-five short films by the time he graduated from high school, where he once told his guidance counselor, "Making movies is not only my hobby, not only my primary interest, not only my extracurricular life; it is my future."

His parents still thought he would be wearing scrubs someday. "Medicine was in my genetic makeup," says M. Night. "As an Asian child, it comes as naturally as driving a car. You get good grades and you plan for a profession in medicine, without even thinking. It was always my backup plan because there was deep concern about my future. No yelling or screaming, that's not the methodology, but my father was disappointed when I told him, that's for sure. He may have thought I didn't notice, but I noticed."

Papa Shyamalan did some noticing, too. "We knew early on that the interest in medicine was not there," he says softly. "Some kids watch doctors on television and like what they see. Manoj [M. Night's given name] would watch, and he liked the television, not the doctors."

"Medicine is not a profession," says M. Night's even softer-spoken mother. "It is a calling. It is a life of compassion. Filmmaking is a profession, and not a very attractive one."

Dinner talk in the Shyamalan household ran to life and death, to human strengths and inhuman suffering. Did it affect young Manoj? "You mean the corpse my parents brought home?" he asks. "The one they hid in the garage? Nah, didn't affect me at all. Happy and normal." Less normal, perhaps, was the amount of time the pair of docs spent with their kids, Manoj and his older sister, Veena. "For many years, we never left the kids alone," recalls Mama Jayalakshmi. "We lived like Indians. Everywhere we went, the kids went, even medical conferences. One unit, the four of us. As I think back, they must have thought me strange. No one else did such things. They were very tolerant."

So tolerant that a few years in Philadelphia to complete their medical education turned into thirty-five. Mama Jaya Shyamalan went back to Pondicherry, India, to give birth there so her son could be a desi — Hindi for countryman — and returned less than a year later to Philly.

M. Night grew up fussed over, tended to and chaperoned. Constant companions can make a kid secure — until the security blanket is yanked away. "It was always a traumatic event when my parents worked late, and my sister was out, and I'd hear things in the bedroom and ask, 'Is someone there?' It was torture. I was certain someone was there, and by the time my parents got home, I was a quivering mass in the corner, and they'd tell me it was OK, I was a big boy. I was twelve, thirteen. They had taught me about ghosts and spirits, and to me, there was no difference between burglars and spirits. They were all real."

Watching over him in the living room were statues of Shiva and Krishna; in the corner was a shrine where the daily pujas were performed: reminders of family deities, offerings of food to gods and prayers to departed souls. There remains, in his parents' home, a central photo of the four Shyamalans before a temple in Japan where an old woman first taught Manoj about communicating with the dead.

He was seven.

"I was a hypersensitive child, emotionally," he has said. "I could sense what other people were feeling three times as deeply as other kids, and my reactions would be times three. I would visit a friend and not feel comfortable, and I would leave and never go back."

Did he ever see a therapist? "I see therapists," he says, then pauses. "But I don't talk to any of them."

Equal parts Indian and American, M. Night believes in the goodness of the soul, the dominance of nature, the sweetness of dharma. He also believes in eating Big Macs in his Land Rover on the way from his good life in suburban Philadelphia to a 76ers game.

Everyone who knows M. Night Shyamalan likes him (except maybe Harvey Weinstein, but that will come later). He is funny, smart, approachable and genuinely humble. Being a Philadelphian, he is also a sarcastic wisenheimer who delights in booing someone who needs a good booing. Mostly, his disposition borders on the serene. When learning about the Oscar nominations for The Sixth Sense — including best movie, best screenplay and best director — he said only, "I must have done something good in a previous life to have such karma."

When most movie folk talk about reincarnation, it means someone has just returned from a visit with Deepak Chopra or a vacation in Nepal. Though M. Night does not go to temple (Philly is not big on Hindu temples), he is mindful of the gentle, ironclad Hindu principle: One becomes good by good action and bad by bad action, and there's no escaping cause and effect, not now, not for eternity.

For his first documentary at NYU film school, he interviewed local shopkeepers about their belief in the supernatural. Yes, shopkeepers in Greenwich Village believe in the supernatural! The mission now is to enlighten as well as entertain, to nudge the unwashed into thinking about Nirvana and Vibrations and Really Big Stuff while scaring the bejesus outta them.

"Unbreakable," he says, "is about discovering the best version of ourselves, finding the supernatural elements of our own lives." It is also the thirty-year-old filmmaker's meditation on success: In a world of suffering and servitude, I have health, wealth, a city at my beck and call, and an industry at my feet. Am I truly unbreakable? Or, like a speeding train about to crash and burn, am I unbrakeable?

His complete faith in the divine notwithstanding, M. Night would like to dominate the movie business, to earn more money than any filmmaker in history. He says all this so sweetly, so disarmingly, that you begrudge him nothing; you, too, think he is destined to go directly from downtown Philly to Cinema Immortality. "The ultimate goal," he says, "is to draw audiences just with your name, which not many filmmakers have done. Who? Spielberg? Hitchcock? I'd like to be with them someday."

His name above the title, above the stars, like night itself. As a high school senior, Manoj Nelliate Shyamalan shortened the Manoj to M. and transformed Nelliate — his father's family name — to Night. Calling himself Night was much like calling a tall guy Shorty, or a fat guy Tiny. There is hardly a trace of melancholy in the man and nothing malicious. He plays with light and dark.

Shyamalan sits down with an artist months before shooting and draws every shot in the film, every close-up, every shadow, every transition. The compositions are painterly and stark. Rarely done for dramas, storyboarding is usually reserved for action films or special effects. Hitchcock was a storyboarder.

"I like everything organized," says Shyamalan. "I'm anal in that way. I have to see the whole movie in my head before I shoot a frame. I start with a very specific feeling and duplicate that feeling scene by scene. The production is just a chance to mess it up.

"Spielberg used to be like this, controlled, but he has evolved into a different type of filmmaker because the bones are so strong. If I keep getting better, I might get to that point where I can go with the flow, change the game plan moment to moment. I am in awe of directors who can let actors go wild on the set. I'd like to turn Bruce loose sometime."

If you are expecting Bruce Willis to make a splashy entrance right about here, or maybe one of his solemn lip-squeezing stare downs, you will be disappointed. He will not. The press is not allowed on the set when Bruce is in the vicinity, and even if they (we) were, Bruce does not speak to the press during the shooting of a film. Bruce does not trust print journalists because Bruce will say one thing, and they (we) will print something else entirely, and that gets Bruce's goat. Besides, Bruce is just a little tired of all the attention he gets.

Not so for M. Night. He is still in his Moonlighting phase of fame. At lunch hour, he walks down 16th Street in crowded center city Philadelphia, with his good friend and assistant Jose Rodriguez. Passersby wave hello or just look at him. He likes it. He likes it so much, he won't let his wife read his scripts or visit the set.

"You want your wife looking at you with the same look that people on the street have. Movie magic. I would never let her come to the editing room or the set when everyone is flubbing lines. I wouldn't want to know how they made E.T.'s arm move — that would really suck — so she will see Unbreakable for the first time at the premiere."

The first time he saw Bhavna Vaswani at NYU, he knew instantly they would be married. He says it, you believe it. Bhavna will not talk. She is busy caring for their two young daughters and writing her Ph.D. thesis in child psychology at Bryn Mawr College. She, too, is protective of her process — M. Night hasn't the slightest idea what his wife's thesis is about. (Nor do her in-laws. They are content to know there will soon be another Dr. Shyamalan in the family.)

Philadelphia is a small town strutting around like a major metropolis. It has its own food, its own patois, its own culture, but is short on local heroes who refuse to emigrate. M. Night will never abandon Philadelphia, no matter what (even though Spielberg just asked him to write the next Indiana Jones sequel).

He cannot say exactly what it is about Philadelphia that has him so firmly rooted, but Philadelphia doesn't care. More than half of the cast and crew on Unbreakable are locals, and estimates say $10 million was generated by the shoot. Some personalities do more for a city than all the public relations that taxpayers' money can buy.

"When I took over as Philadelphia film commissioner," says Sharon Pinkenson, "we needed three things: stories about Philly, a soundstage and a Barry Levinson to make movies about Philadelphia instead of Baltimore. Then came Night. He's my Barry Levinson, only better. Night only makes movies about Philadelphia in Philadelphia. He's a godsend.

"He contacted me in 1992, and said he had made this new film, Praying With Anger. His talent was obvious, and he cared about film and the film community. We used it for a benefit for the film office. It was a coming-of-age film, shot entirely in India — very, very ambitious."

Very, very is an under-understatement. M. Night, all of twenty-two, fresh out of film school, was the writer, director and star of this tale about an ABCD (American-Born Confused Desi). It is an earnest, if unsophisticated, film that presages things to come: A dead father helps the hero in a pinch. The $750,000 budget was picked up mostly by M. Night's family, wealthy owners of plantations in Madras, India.

Never released, Anger won the American Film Institute's 1993 debut film prize and, more important, attracted Peter Benedek, an absurdly powerful agent. Benedek sold an M. Night student screenplay, Labor of Love, to Fox, but Fox wouldn't let him direct it. So M. Night put a curse on it, and it is still floating in turnaround purgatory. Then Benedek got him a deal with Miramax to direct another of his scripts, Wide Awake, about a ten-year-old boy in Catholic school who tries to figure out where his dead grandfather went. The Shyamalan themes emerge.

"We taught Manoj that no one ever dies," says his mother. "When you become self-realized, you can choose to come back or not. Until then, we go to various levels of heaven and then return. In heaven, there is no jealousy, no crime, no conflict." And no Harvey Weinstein. His company, Miramax, put up about $10 million for Wide Awake and then pushed the young director around, squeezed out his cinematographer, threatened to close down production and generally created working conditions directors fear most. The final product was devoid of any charm or drama or interesting performances. (Rosie O'Donnell was a snappy nun in a Phillies cap.) It grossed about a buck and a half, but it showed M. Night the pleasures of shooting in Philadelphia and the necessity of relying on his true nature.

"I am not into confrontation," he says. "I was receiving bad advice about establishing myself as a leader. I was told to demand things, to say: 'We do this or else!' It didn't work. Nowadays, if the producers want a certain actor, hypothetically, and I don't like him, I will say, "I sure hope he's worth the effort and the money and the hard feelings you're causing. It's OK by me, I'll go along with him, but in exchange, I would like this and that.'"

What he likes most is to stay put.

When he needs office space for preproduction, the Philly film office gives him an entire floor of an abandoned museum adjacent to a hundred-year-old convention center across from the emergency ward of a children's hospital. M. Night feels comfortable around sick kids and overworked doctors and a haunted basketball arena that has been converted into a soundstage.

There is no reason to leave Philadelphia again, except to receive awards or make speeches. Which creates a small problem for a man who controls every detail of his existence: He is afraid of flying.

M. Night sums up flying with a single word: "Wrong. It's wrong. Everything about flying is wrong. I've learned to trust my instincts — all of them except the one that says, 'Don't get on that airplane.' You have to fly. You cannot be defined by your fear, so I force myself to fly."

He flew from Philadelphia to Buffalo recently. The flight lasted an hour. The anxiety preceding the flight started two days before takeoff. He doesn't like to talk about fear, but you have to wonder how many times, on his many trips to and from NYU, he imagined, visualized, experienced in his bones the horrendous train wreck that kicks off Unbreakable.

M. N. Shyamalan sees things.

In 1988, before he was accepted at NYU, he turned a full page in his high school yearbook into a mock-up cover of Time magazine, featuring himself sitting on a bar stool and snapping the suspenders of his tuxedo with the screaming headline: "NYU Grad Takes Hollywood by Storm!" Later on in his career, after fighting with Harvey Weinstein and falling into a deep blue funk, Shyamalan resurfaced with this modest vow: I will write a great script that will sell for over two million bucks and will star Bruce Willis and will finally allow me to fulfill my destiny to "take Hollywood by storm."

They all laughed.

M. Night locked himself in a room and watched Ordinary People over and over and Carrie and Presumed Innocent, and when he finished the seventh draft of The Sixth Sense, he rested. And then told his agent to set up a Hollywood auction. Within hours, Disney came back with an offer of $3 million for the script. And another million for M. Night to direct. In Philadelphia. With control of casting. When Willis agreed to star, the budget went from $10 million to $40 million, and this failed Philadelphia Hindu filmmaker was about to have his cheesesteak and eat it, too.

When Shyamalan saw a rough cut of The Sixth Sense, he turned to producer Barry Mendel and said, "We will win a nomination for best movie. I have no doubt. We will not win the Oscar, however."

He continues: "That rough cut was special. The cumulative effect was so strong that I didn't think it would be forgotten by Oscar time. But it couldn't win. If it had kept evolving, if I wrote four more drafts, I would have shoved the ghosts back and back until they weren't there at all. No ghosts. And then you would never know if this kid is ill or not, is talking to real ghosts or not, not until the last possible minute, until the very end of the movie. It takes a lot of balls to do that. More restraint, more holding back. That picture would have won best picture Oscar. But it was not in my arsenal at the time.

"I had no speech ready for the Oscars because I had no prayer. I couldn't win." His mother, halfway around the world, in Pondicherry, India, was watching the Oscars on television with family and friends. They were shocked when The Sixth Sense was shut out.

M. Night took it in stride. "There's so much behind-the-scenes politicking," he says. "How did Cider House Rules get nominated? How much money was spent on the advertising, how many favors were returned? Politics has more to do with it than true merit, obviously, and I am apolitical."

The first Indian-American — the first person of color — to be nominated in both best writer and best director categories, and barely a word about his origins at the Oscars. Had he been an African-American or a Chinese-American or a female American, there would have been sidebars and commentaries and maybe the cover of Time.

But Indian-Americans are a small and unknown clan. Schools may teach about the white and black and red races, but no one mentions the nearly one billion inhabitants of India. They are Asian, but not yellow. They are brown, but not Latino or Arabic. They are a foreign people.

Name the three most famous Indians in history: Buddha, Gandhi and Nehru. Now, name the three most famous Indian-Americans: Apu, from The Simpsons, and ... and ... uh-oh.

"Indian-Americans don't have a lot of recognizable figures to gravitate to," M. Night says neutrally, "so, for the moment, I have become the most prominent voice in that community. It's a huge deal when they have a celebrity, a professional golfer or a chess champion, and I get lots of calls. Thousands of invitations — every school, every charity, every Indian group across the country wants me to come and speak. I can't do that. I say no to redundancies immediately. If invitations come with passion, and it's a good audience, I'm likely to go. I have to work at getting the balance right. I was born in India, but I am an American, and I have to get both sides right."

His celebrity has spilled over to his father's practice.

"My patients are always asking to be in the movies," says Dr. Shyamalan. "And they think I am a millionaire now. It is so funny. Indian groups call me all the time to get Manoj to speak, and I say, 'I cannot do that,' so they ask me instead. [Laughs.] One guy from Arizona sent me a script last week, and it was called Cloning Jesus Christ. I think he is barking up the wrong tree."

After a thirteen-hour day, you expect everyone to say good night and trundle off to some private zone. Instead, M. Night leads a group of guys to their respective sports cars and 4x4s, and you follow them through downtown and into the suburbs, onto the Main Line, near Lower Merion, and you remember that the Lakers are playing the Pacers tonight in the NBA finals and you figure they'll go to a bar and knock down a few Yuenglings and root for the local kid Kobe Bryant, who attended Lower Merion High.

The motorcade turns down a side street, past the Barnes Foundation gallery, parks in an unlit lot; the guys march en masse down a grassy slope and into a large gymnasium that is festooned with banners and gonfalons, marking triumphs in rowing and lacrosse and all those rich-kid sports. We are at Episcopal Academy, M. Night's alma mater, standing on a basketball court where he never played as a student. God didn't let him grow until college, he says.

The five-on-five game includes friends, actors, Jose, the ever-present assistant, and a producer (who travels every time he touches the ball, though no one ever calls it). M. Night does not move like a natural athlete, but he is fast, always alert, and damn if the ball doesn't go in most every time he launches it from the perimeter. Although he can hippity-hop left or right, three-pointers are his specialty. As on the set, Shyamalan seems to be having more fun than anyone else. You'd think you'd want to smack the guy, but you don't.

His team wins three games in a row. Players are swapped to even up the sides. His team continues to win.

As midnight approaches, players are dragging and want to go home. "Some of us have to work tomorrow, Night."

"See you tomorrow," he says. "Let's play three-on-three."

His team keeps winning until someone else has to leave. M. Night wants to play two-on-two. People throw things at him, basketballs and bons mots.

"Let's find out how the Lakers are doing in the finals," he says.

"Right now," M. Night is asked, "would you rather be Kobe Bryant or M. Night Shyamalan?"

Without hesitation, he fires back, "M. Night. Kobe might lose. I have no chance."