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DARK PRINCE

Times Staff Writer

In a field in rural Pennsylvania, the director M. Night Shyamalan is surveying the remnants of his handiwork, a collection of worn wood and stone houses, forlorn outposts of humanity, reminders of an era of when daily life was hard. The houses intentionally echo the lonely isolation of the paintings of Andrew Wyeth, who lives but 20 minutes from here. In prepping for his new film, “The Village,” Shyamalan spent a long time flying around in a helicopter looking for the perfect field, surrounded by dense woods, that he’d seen in his head.

He’d imagined an expanse “more regimented, more rectangular” than the lolling hills at his feet. “There is no such thing in this area like that,” he says with a laugh. “You have to go to the other side of the country. I don’t mind letting go of those kind of details as long as it’s exchanged for other details.”

He points to the trees that stagger along the perimeter -- they’re an essential character in “The Village,” the cold, stark lair of malevolent red creatures. “It’s nice when my crew, even actors, come in and mess up my very pristine, perfect impression of things. But even when you see the movie, it still comes through a lot -- my very stringent aesthetics.”

“Pristine,” “perfect,” “precise,” “controlled,” these are all words that 33-year-old Shyamalan tends to use repeatedly, mostly in reference to his minimalist aesthetic, and mostly with a slightly self-mocking spin to take off the edge of self-importance. But it’s clear he’s serious.

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Despite the muddy ground, the overcast sky, the director himself is rather pristine in a stark white shirt and jeans. Around his throat and neck is sleek silver and black jewelry -- much of it bearing Sanskrit blessings for health and happiness.

In his cameos in his films, the 6-foot-tall Shyamalan has an awkward, long-necked geekiness, none of which is apparent today. What might have been presumed as arrogance several years ago has mellowed into the jaunty assurance of a young prince who’s assumed his birthright.

Shyamalan’s mantle includes “The Sixth Sense” ($673 million worldwide), “Signs” ($408 million worldwide), and the disappointing (for him) “Unbreakable” (“only” $249 million worldwide).

He’s Hollywood’s poet laureate of dread, the purveyor of his distinctive brand of melancholy-drenched paranoia. He’s tapped into the pervasive modern anxiety that something unfathomably bad is just around the corner. Yet his films also offer a respite from the helter-skelter speed of modern living. Shyamalan’s world moves slowly, decisively. There are few special effects, no swooping, spinning camera moves, just a series of fluidly turning master shots as he exquisitely controls the climate of fear, systematically raising it degree by degree. Shining through the shroud of foreboding are also glimmers of faith -- religion without the treacle -- a sentiment that certainly has its following in a God-fearing America. The films also end with his signature surprise epiphany, less a plot twist than a revealing of the underlying premise of the film.

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He’s one of the last original voices in mainstream Hollywood, a writer-director who’s working for the masses and not just the art house elite.

Much about Shyamalan is a contradiction. He reportedly earns close to $20 million per picture (along with 20% of the back end) and yet he offers to carry this reporter’s bag. He’s firmly ensconced on the Hollywood A-list but acts like a newly minted suburban dad, preferring to live in the countryside outside of Philadelphia, close to his parents and where he grew up. He rigidly and meticulously orchestrates every frame that bears his name and yet believes almost mystically in intuition, which he describes as a kind of peace that settles over him when he knows he’s on the right path. He’s tremendously confident and yet fastidious about examining his weaknesses, like a minister constantly searching himself for sin.

“He’s a gigantically hard worker and he has an almost religious attitude towards the thing he’s trying to achieve,” says “The Village” producer Scott Rudin. “It’s of tremendous importance to him. He also understands that that’s not all there is in life. He’s very committed to his family.”

The sense of family imbues all his films, and “The Village,” which debuts Friday, plays on the distinct post-Sept. 11 theme of how far a parent would go to protect his family. The story is then refracted through the kaleidoscope of the 19th century novel, much like Emily Bronte’s “Wuthering Heights,” which Shyamalan was offered to direct but declined to do this, his own take on the genre.

The film tells the tale, more suspenseful than pungently scary, of a utopian 19th century community, founded by refugees fleeing the violence and evils of the city to live in pastoral isolation. Their serenity is threatened only by the evil creatures (“those whose names we dare not speak”) who lurk in the surrounding woods. As the film opens, a romantic triangle is burgeoning and the demon beasts have begun to encroach; it will fall to the town’s most vulnerable -- the blind girl played by 23-year-old newcomer Bryce Dallas Howard -- to sally forth into the forest. The characters in the film speak with an old-fashioned simplicity, a lack of irony, which Shyamalan knows might be jarring to modern ears but which he likes.

He was inspired by the view from his period farmhouse window -- of woods, a pond, and geese, a serene spot where, as he says, “nothing bad could happen.”

“This is definitely the most personal of the four movies,” he says. “The idea of me desperately, desperately trying to hold on to my own innocence. I came at it from protecting my own innocence, the value of simplicity, the value of an ethic, a standard. There’s something in the walking out to go get the butter, walking out to get the milk -- we’ve forgotten the lessons in that, the character-building in that. I don’t want the decisions that I’ve made to affect my ability to stay or be innocent. I don’t want to be 40 years from now and not be able to smile for the right reasons.”

By his own admission, Shyamalan is veritably obsessed with purity, though it doesn’t simply mean the simple life, the traditional values of love, honor and work. It also refers to the artist uncorrupted by ego concerns, by the lure of success, and adulation, all of which he cheerfully admits is “internally intoxicating.” It’s also a metaphor for the original voice, that endangered species in an industry increasingly filled with sequels and comic book franchises.

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If Shyamalan is something of an idealist, he’s also a minister who wants a flock. He likes what he sees as his covenant with the audience and sees his originality as “the only weapon I have” in the marketplace. “That’s what they’re selling -- originality. That will be our strength and our weakness.”

Shyamalan will soon transform into a full-fledged brand -- the film equivalent of that other master of the supernatural, Stephen King. “The Village,” which costs $72 million (about a third of the cost of “Spider-Man 2"), boasts no certified box-office draws. The studio, which has been suffering through a recent box-office drought, is selling the film primarily on the Shyamalan name. Its ABC wing has already replayed his greatest hits, with Shyamalan acting as emcee much as Walt Disney used to do. “Primetime Live” did a segment on him, and thousands of fans showed up at Regal movie theaters in towns across America for a satellite-feed town meeting with Shyamalan.

Since “Signs,” Shyamalan has become tremendously involved in the marketing of his films, suggesting footage for the trailers and ideas for the campaign. (One bit of marketing he disavows was the Sci Fi Channel’s promotion of an “unauthorized biography” of him that was in fact a “Blair Witch"-style hoax.)

“It’s a real advantage to be able to identify a film as an M. Night Shyamalan film,” says Disney Studios Chairman Richard Cook, whose company has tested the concept with filmgoers. “For him, it’s really gutsy to be out there like he is in front of it.”

“It definitely puts more pressure on him,” says Buena Vista Motion Picture Group president Nina Jacobson.

With a laugh, Shyamalan explains that he called the studio to make his name smaller and to get his actors’ names (Oscar winners William Hurt and Adrien Brody and nominee Sigourney Weaver) on the poster, but he was told “this is the one that’s working.”

Still, it’s clear that the filmmaker is pleased to be the marquee name. “It’s almost taking responsibility. I hated me when I was this little kid in high school that hated when people looked at me. Who wants to be that kid?” he says. “I believe that because of the specificity of the process of my movie, there’s an opportunity for people to have a relationship with me. I’m the author. I write them completely. They get made directly from my screenplay. It becomes as much like a book or novel as possible. This is about following in the footsteps of the writer. It’s a writer-dominated mentality.”

Very careful, very risky

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A little while later, Shyamalan is eating crab cakes in a kitschy colonial-style restaurant off the interstate. He’s the only face of color surrounded by chunky suburbanites and Andrew Wyeth prints. He’s been talking about his film but gets distracted by the waitress and begins to riff as if she’s a character who has walked into his film. “She’s interesting, with the dyed hair and the smoker’s voice. I just love trying to analyze people and where they come from.” He guesses about the waitress, “From a girl who’s trapped in a town and then rebels who may end up being one of those overweight women in the car who pulls up next to you at a traffic light.” He sighs. He pointedly lives away from the media centers, from the worlds where the stars never have to interact with the hoi polloi. “How did that happen? Just the constant numbing of life.”

As Shyamalan describes the woman, she somehow seems more alive, as if the deeply internal struggles could rise to the poignancy of art, instead of simply women’s magazines and self-help books. His is a writer’s gift, and he plays the game with other better-known figures, like the stars of his film. Of William Hurt, he says “an extremely intelligent man who has unbending ethics and values that the world is continually failing to achieve. You’re in the presence of a man who’s teaching you.” Of Sigourney Weaver, he adds, “She has a majesty about her. She’s never going to be dragged down into the mud.”

Shyamalan writes his scripts with actors in mind and spends a long time on the conception of the film, jotting down notes in beautiful leather-bound notebooks and then writing draft after draft of the screenplay. Unlike almost any other director working today, he also storyboards for six months, working with a storyboard artist who meticulously draws pictures of every scene in the movie. “It’s tedious, and everybody fights you on it from beginning to end,” he says. “It’s at once a very, very controlling thing to do and at once a complete act of faith.”

“That’s very intimidating for an actor who thinks he has a contribution to make,” Hurt recalls. “I had a moment of anxiety about that, but I realized very soon it wasn’t about that at all. It wasn’t about restriction. It was about having a structure with a guideline that we could meet or change. He had one criterion: If we came up with an idea, try to be succinct, which is terrific for an actor. To be on the set with Night and Roger Deakins (the cinematographer), it’s like being inside a crystal. It’s very, very clean and precise but gentle. You know there are 10 million details coming together.”

“I think one of the surprises for us was that he did every scene -- if he could -- in one shot,” Weaver says. “One of the reasons big movies aren’t as much fun is that they have the budget to do masters and three-shots and two-shots and angles and close-ups. Usually it’s on the low-budget films you’re flying by the seat of your pants. Some of the scenes of the elders [the village leaders, of whom Weaver is one] were [focused] always on our backs even when we thought our reactions were important. Actually, backs are articulate, and it was a daring thing to do and in keeping in the austerity of ‘The Village.’ All the slow pans across people’s backs and then looking at one face or two.”

Shyamalan shoots no coverage, the customary practice of filming a scene from a multiplicity of angles and reassembling it in the editing room. There are consequently almost no cuts.

“It’s very risky,” Shyamalan allows, “but risk keeps everyone at the edge of their talent. That’s why I hired theater-trained actors, who could go two, three, four minutes and go with that energy flow.” He also required the actors to attend three weeks of rehearsal, including a week staying in tents for a kind of boot camp in 19th century practices.

“It was a lot of unself-conscious time together with people who spend a lot of time being watched, and aren’t watched for a change,” Hurt says. “Studying basket weaving and how to make fires. You have to really commit to making fire with a stick, especially when the matches are right down on the floor and you’re freezing your butt off.”

“It took us a whole day to make a meal for the group,” recalls Weaver, laughing. “The butter was like soup, and the cheese was tasteless. Whatever the French know, we needed some of that.”

The director is a great believer in intuition, of just knowing things. Sometimes the instincts seem random. As a kid, he became convinced that a girls school would play a part in his life; it’s now where he sends his kids. “Most of my decisions -- and it drives my wife crazy -- I gut completely. That’s it. That’s the way to do it.”

The director counts casting unknown Bryce Howard as the lead of his film as his latest example of instinct.

The director had been talking to Kirsten Dunst about playing the lead in the film, and wrangling over her schedule, and her inability to come early to prepare. Rudin had suggested Howard, the daughter of director Ron Howard, for a smaller part and the director, who doesn’t usually go to the theater, came to see her in a New York production of “As You Like It.”

He later called Rudin and told him, “Bryce, she’s the one. She should be in the movie,” Shyamalan says. “Don’t you want to audition her? No. Why? It’s not out of anything other than I felt magic and magic is a very, very rare thing to feel. It’s a kind of peace about it.”

From basketball to Bond

As a 7-year-old, Shyamalan was obsessed with getting into the Guinness Book of World Records. “I was going to bounce a basketball for 1,800 hours,” he says. When he got a little older, the desire generalized ... a little. “I wanted to be great at something. I spent 1,000 hours with the Rubik’s Cube.” He chortles. “That wasn’t going to be it.”

Perhaps, he admits, it was just the immigrant mentality. The director, born Manoj Shyamalan, is the son of a pair of Indian doctors who raised him Hindu but sent him to Catholic school. (He considers himself spiritual but not particularly drawn to organized religion.) As a kid, he was tiny, and social, and, as he says, “buoyant.” “Very entertaining, and I could entertain myself. My parents were doctors, so they weren’t home a lot. I was making up games, shooting movies.”

At age 10, he was making James Bond films with a Super-8 camera that he’d plug into a VCR. He went on to make 44 other homages, including many new chapters of “Friday the 13th.” “They were so awful. They were all copies. It was all kind of trying on the clothes of this person, that person.”

Around 16, he began thinking about his own identity. That’s when he adopted “Night” as his middle name, drawing it from a book about the Lakota he was reading. “I feel very close to American Indian culture,” he says now. “It’s very much about getting back to the land and simplicity. It’s a connection to nature.” He begins to riff, pointing out along the way that much of how he feels about the name comes from now, 2004. “In that word is the unknown, lack of information, so there is potential. You’re kind of nervous about it but ... it’s just because it’s unknown.”

Despite coming from a clan of doctors, Shyamalan opted for NYU film school, where he met his wife, Bhavna, and proposed with a fortune cookie.

In 1992, he scrapped together $750,000 mostly from family members and shot and starred in his first film, “Praying with Anger,” about an American finding his roots in India. It grossed $7,000. His next film, “Wide Awake,” is a sentimental fable about a Catholic schoolboy searching for God. The film is earnest and dull and earned Shyamalan ritual humiliation at the hands of Miramax co-chairman Harvey Weinstein, who according to several accounts recut the film and treated the director brutally.

Years and much success later, Shyamalan blames himself for what happened but finds value in such failure.

“I don’t think you can be the best at what you do or be the best person with who you are unless you have that incredibly cathartic, difficult thing that says: ‘The world is not going to help you at all. What do you have left?’

“What’s left? After everything that’s gone, all your desires, all your aspirations, all your pride, everything has been crushed, there’s nothing left. What’s left? And all that was left was telling stories. I just like telling stories that were not intended for anything.

“It turns out the way I spoke was very accessible to people, but it never would have happened if ‘Praying with Anger’ or ‘Wide Awake’ were moderately successful. There were all these silly, silly things I was considering at the time, of doing writing and directing, and if I had any success at all -- any -- I would’ve done the wrong thing.

“In a way, the greatest moment for me is almost failure. Then everything washes away, and all that’s left is that thing, intuition, which is there, and says, ‘Get up and do this.’ ”

The rest of the Shyamalan narrative takes on a wonderful Horatio Alger glow. Undaunted, Shyamalan holed up in his home outside of Philadelphia and wrote “The Sixth Sense.” He flew to Los Angeles, checked into the swank Four Seasons hotel, gave it to his agents on a Saturday, and told them to auction it on Monday. The minimum bid was $1 million, and he’d have to be guaranteed to direct. Disney bought the film for $3 million, beginning what has been a multiyear relationship.

It’s strange, driving around the back hills of Pennsylvania with Shyamalan: He’s much less interested in talking about his startling successes than analyzing his missteps. He returns the topic repeatedly to “Unbreakable” (which he regards as a child that no one loves except himself) and dissects his need for emotional restraint, which sometimes thwarts the audience’s desire for emotional closure. For someone who operates from his gut, he operates in a constant state of rigorous self-examination. He seems to be constantly reminding himself to stay, as he says, “pure.”

When he sat Hurt, Weaver, Brody, Howard and Joaquin Phoenix down for the first read-through, he didn’t want anyone mumbling their way through, as actors are wont to do. “I’m going to assume the movie’s a failure,” he told them. “I want to look back at this moment at this table and say I sat with the world’s best actors.”

He exhorted them to make the moment count, and he would do the same. “That’s all that we have is this right here,” he told them.

Many months later, the director, sounding intensely vulnerable as his film is about to enter the public arena, says again: “If the movie’s a failure, I have all of that. It was built on the right thing.”


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