They seem a typical lot, the residents of the apartment complex that's the setting for M. Night Shyamalan's new film, Lady in the Water. Yet many of them are searching for a mission. One, Vick (played by Shyamalan), is composing a tome he calls The Cookbook, which is full of his thoughts on how to make a better world. But Vick's not at all sure about his endeavor. He wonders if he has been wasting his time.
Vick is not, by a long stretch, Night (as everyone calls Shyamalan). The filmmaker not only has a vision, he already knows it sells. His big-break movie, The Sixth Sense, which gave us the phrase "I see dead people" in 1999, took in $672 million at the worldwide box office; Signs in 2002, an additional $408 million. Even his "flops," Unbreakable and The Village, grossed in the $250 million range. Shyamalan (pronounced Shah-ma-lahn) is well aware of the power of those numbers. "Except for Pixar, I have made the four most successful original movies in a row of all time," he says--not as a boast but to explain Hollywood math. His films are relatively inexpensive to shoot, costing about $65 million to $68 million. "If you're not betting on me," he says, "then nobody should get money. I've made profit a mathematical certainty. I'm the safest bet you got."
In some circles, though, there's a feeling, as creepy as the tingle his films give his audience, that Shyamalan's exalted position is a little precarious. First, there's the suspicion that, as a storyteller, Shyamalan might be a one-trick pony. O.K., it's a great trick: the notion of dread congealing around some ordinary man, capped by a switcheroo that casts all that preceded it in a darker light. But the surprise ending can restrict an artist. (Ask O. Henry; ask Rod Serling.) If viewers of each new Shyamalan film get a twist, it feels predictable. If they don't, they feel cheated.
Alienating his core audience is one thing; alienating a studio is another. In a move that caused no small commotion in the industry, Shyamalan and Disney, which had sponsored his four big films, parted ways over his latest movie. According to an adoring new book, Michael Bamberger's The Man Who Heard Voices: Or, How M. Night Shyamalan Risked His Career on a Fairy Tale (Gotham Books), the Mouse House offered him $60 million to make the film, but the director felt the studio didn't give the script enough love. (His assistant flew to Los Angeles to deliver the script to Disney execs on a Sunday at their homes, and when one of the executives wasn't home at the appointed time--she had taken her son to a birthday party--Shyamalan felt dismissed.)
"The relationship with Disney is definitely parent-child, in all the best ways and in some of the difficult ways," Shyamalan, 35, says. "The things that made me conventional were celebrated, and the things that made me unconventional were not celebrated. I felt a large part of me was unconventional, and I didn't want that part to die." So Shyamalan went to Warner Bros., which is releasing Lady and which, he says, "has already offered to make the next movie, sight unseen." Disney, in a statement, said it wishes the director "the best of luck with Lady and all future endeavors."