M. Night Shyamalan, writer/director

M. Night Shyamalan is that rare Hollywood creation -- the auteur who can pack them in at the multiplex.

On paper, writer-director M. Night Shyamalan's third film didn't look like blockbuster material. After all, would moviegoers really be interested in watching a big-name actor -- best known for his action roles -- spend most of his screen time talking quietly in still, low-key scenes filled with an almost unbearable sense of dread?

The answer, as it turns out, was an emphatic yes. Shyamalan's 1999 drama "The Sixth Sense" would defy virtually all expectations, steadily progressing from sleeper hit to genuine blockbuster and grossing nearly $300 million at the domestic boxoffice in the process.

In the years following, Shyamalan has been compared to everyone from Alfred Hitchcock to Steven Spielberg. Employing a quietly subversive style that is alternatingly meditative and menacing, the prolific director has gone from making Super 8 movies in his backyard as a child to become that rare breed of contemporary filmmaker: the auteur who makes blockbusters.

Now, on the eve of the release of his latest effort, Warner Bros. Pictures' typically moody thriller "Lady in the Water," Shyamalan is being named ShoWest Director of the Year. It's yet another accomplishment for the filmmaker who was gone from struggling screenwriter to A-list helmer in a remarkably short time.

From the start, Shyamalan's sense of purpose quickly set him apart from the competition. When the director was shopping his screenplay for "Sense," he was adamant that no one be able to read it without the understanding that he planned to direct. After making two small, albeit well-received films -- the 1992 production "Praying With Anger" and 1998's "Wide Awake" -- he was hardly in a position to make demands. But as Buena Vista Motion Pictures Group president Nina Jacobson recalls, the "Sense" script was more than good enough to make her consider giving the reigns of the production to a virtual unknown. In fact, she was so impressed that the project became an incentive for her to leave her former job at DreamWorks to work on the film herself.

"The truth is, I read it at DreamWorks, and I loved it," Jacobson says. "But David Vogel at Disney/Hollywood Pictures was very aggressive and very quickly closed the deal to have the movie greenlit with Night directing and with (producers) Barry Mendel, Kathy (Kennedy) and Frank (Marshall). David was in conversations with me about coming over at the time, so because of that and other reasons, I came to Disney and stepped into the project immediately and very early on."

Despite the buzz, Shyamalan points out that expectations for "Sense" were decidedly modest. "It had such low expectations," he recalls. "They were releasing it at the 'graveyard shift' at the end of summer, and just get your money back was the idea."

Adds Kennedy: "The deal was made at the time that the movie was going to be made for $10 million total, including his fee as a director. So, it didn't fall into the category of an independent director now stepping into a $100 million movie; it was a very modest production. We had seen the movies Night had directed, and we felt that he was more than ready to take this on."

When "Sense" was released, the millennium was ending on a note of cinematic overkill, with loud, frenetically edited action and horror films dominating theater screens. Shyamalan is the first to admit that he was bucking a trend and, in the process, creating one of his own. "I have a lot of patience in watching movies," he says. "I know that as time has gone on -- with computers and video games -- that's not something that's being cultivated in audiences."

Adds "Sense" executive producer Barry Mercer: "People weren't used to (that style,) and it took some time for them to adjust to this kind of minimalist approach and how it forces you to listen to what he has to say."

The result looked and felt like an art film, but Kennedy says that from the beginning, Shyamalan was very clear about the fact that he had every intention of reaching as wide an audience as possible. "Night's intention was to make commercial movies, and he stated that," she says.

"He was not interested in making small, independent art films -- he wanted to make commercial movies that would appeal to as many people as possible."

By the time "Sense" earned six Oscar nominations, including best picture and two for Shyamalan for writing and directing, the filmmaker was now quickly becoming a Quentin Tarantino-like brand name for a new generation of moviegoers. But as Shyamalan the comic-book fan might have remembered from old copies of "Spider-Man," with great power comes great responsibility.

Anticipation for the superhero-concept film "Unbreakable," Shyamalan's 2000 follow-up to "Sense," was high, but after opening to $30 million stateside, the film failed to break the $100 million domestic blockbuster ceiling. "(At) the first preview of the movie, I thought the audience was going to love this, and then it didn't score particularly well, and we all thought that was just some strange anomaly," Jacobson says. "Ultimately, it wasn't. Audiences don't lie, and what they tell you at a preview is usually what they will tell you later on -- not always but usually."

Nevertheless, "Unbreakable" became a healthy cult hit with its $73 million domestic tally, allowing Shyamalan the freedom to tackle another epic idea -- an alien invasion seen from the perspective of a single family. In the 2002 Mel Gibson starrer "Signs," Shyamalan once again kept his perspective intimate, avoiding elaborate visual effects in a genre typically loaded with them.

Bryce Dallas Howard, who was given the lead in Shyamalan's next film, 2004's "The Village," after the filmmaker saw her in a small New York theater production (she also plays the title character in "Water"), says an anti-technological bent is part of Shyamalan's appeal.

"As far as tricks or computer graphics or really elaborate stunts, he keeps those out of his movies as much as he can," she says. "He believes that the audience can feel it when they're watching a computer effect and not something that was shot on film."

With "Signs" pulling in well more than $200 million stateside, Shyamalan was back in blockbuster territory. But "Village," a canny, politicized allegory about people who create an isolated community to protect themselves from the pain of the contemporary world, made half what "Signs" did, and audiences appeared disappointed by a story that lacked "Sense's" surprise ending and the redemptive message of "Signs."

Kennedy says that given the extraordinary success Shyamalan experienced early on, a downturn was inevitable. "That happens with anybody that has an enormous amount of success at a very early point in your career," she says. "Everything you do in your career from that point forward is going to be measured against that."

The upcoming "Water" represents something of a new beginning of sorts for Shyamalan, who took the project to Warner Bros. after parting ways with Buena Vista. Warners president of production Jeff Robinov says he was happy to take on the film, which tells the story of a lowly apartment manager who discovers what might be a mystical being in his facility's swimming pool.

"It's very real, and it deals with real and normal characters that extraordinary things happen to," Robinov says. "I guess the arena, the sort of fairy-tale aspect of it, is more of a departure. It's still very suspenseful, like most of his pictures. He has an incredibly unique voice and style, and clearly, audiences really respond to his movies. We obviously were fans of his pictures and were really excited about the opportunity to work with him."

As with any Shyamalan production, expectations are high for "Water," but studio executives who have dealt with the filmmaker surely appreciate one aspect of Shyamalan's persona: He's on record as wanting his movies to make money for their studios. "He doesn't really put it in those terms to us, that he wants to make money, but he wants the movie to be embraced; he wants people to really enjoy what he's done," Robinov says.

And Tak Fujimoto, the veteran cinematographer who shot both "Sense" and "Signs," says there's a simple reason Shyamalan should be around to stay: "I think he knows how to tell a story. A lot of young directors sort of miss the forest for the trees, but he has a very good story sense about how the characters fit in, what they're doing and how they're feeling. Ultimately, his storytelling ability is paramount in all his movies."
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