From his office walls, M. Night Shyamalan's idols and inspirations look down on him. His production company, located in Conshohocken, Pa., just outside Philadelphia, has a cozy main room that is dominated by several framed movie posters. There's one from The Exorcist, which is one of Shyamalan's favorite horror films. There's also a poster from Raiders of the Lost Ark, a film directed by one of Shyamalan's heroes, Steven Spielberg. And finally, there's a large poster from Die Hard featuring a sooty portrait of Bruce Willis, who right now is Shyamalan's favorite leading man.
Despite the decor, Shyamalan, 30, is not simply some starry-eyed fan. When he looks at these posters, you can be sure he sees his own reflection on the glass encasing them. His breakthrough film, The Sixth Sense, which featured Willis in the lead, was about as big as Hollywood hits come: it garnered six Oscar nominations (including two for Shyamalan, for Best Director and Best Original Screenplay) and grossed more than $600 million at the box office worldwide, making it the ninth highest-grossing film ever. Shyamalan wants to build on that success, and he'll get his first shot to do so with the release this week of his new film, Unbreakable, co-starring Willis and Samuel L. Jackson.
"I feel a lot of pressure, from myself mostly," says the young director, in modest but confident tones. "I don't want 20 years from now for people to walk around and go, 'He's the guy who did The Sixth Sense.' It should be, 'He's the guy who did The Sixth Sense, Unbreakable and so on.' It shouldn't even be that. It should be, just say my name, and it represents a body of work."
The name he was born with was Manoj Shyamalan. His parents, physicians living in the U.S., went to Pondicherry, India, to have him, then moved to the Philadelphia area when he was a few months old. Although the family is Hindu, young Manoj was sent to a Roman Catholic school "for the discipline." He says he felt like an outsider and remembers teachers saying that people who weren't baptized were going to hell. (Says Shyamalan: "I'd be, like, 'I'm not baptized, so I guess I'll see you guys later.'") He also recalls being called in front of his schoolmates after he got the highest grade in religion class and being used as an example of why other students should work harder. ("The teacher was upset that I got the best grade and I wasn't Catholic.")
Such experiences made him curious, particularly about spiritual beliefs. As a teenager, he gave himself the middle name Night because he associated the name with Native Americans after seeing it in a book about such cultures and finding himself drawn to their sense of spirituality. He had started making short films at 10 and eventually went on to study filmmaking at New York University's Tisch School of the Arts. In 1992, at 21, Shyamalan wrote, directed and starred in Praying with Anger, a low-budget film about an American of Indian descent who goes to India. Five years later he made his first studio film, the comedy Wide Awake. It was a commercial and critical disaster. Discouraged, Shyamalan found his writing got "darker and deeper." The result was The Sixth Sense. Now Shyamalan thinks Wide Awake's failure was a blessing: "Had that not happened and had I not failed so absolutely, I wouldn't have been able to grow as fast as I did."