M. Night Shyamalan

(Photos by Ebet Roberts) You might not know the name, but you definitely know the movies. The Sixth Sense, the left-field hit of 1999, put director M. Night Shyamalan on the map in a big way, made Haley Joel Osment a star, helped prop up Bruce Willis's "serious actor" credentials, and did more for the twist than Chubby Checker and Chuck Berry combined. The Willis/Samuel L. Jackson thriller Unbreakable (2000) laid down a solid foundation for the burgeoning comic-book cinema movement. And Signs, a deceptive tale of little alien shocks and Really Big Faith, sent popcorn flying in theaters across the land last summer. But Shyamalan (pronounced "Sha-ma-lon") is far from your typical Hollywood hitmaker. He actually prefers characters over special effects, story over action sequences, and carefully crafted images and audio over the usual sound and fury. In a sense, he's an old-school director (Hitchcock is one of his idols) in a film-school-bred, 32-year-old body. When Shyamalan invited us to his home in the tony Philadelphia suburbs to check out the Signs DVD on his system, we weren't sure what to expect. But it didn't take long to figure out that he's no prima donna. An enthusiastic and passionate student of film, he's like a kid who gets to spend all day, every day, in the ultimate candy store, savoring every bright color and sweet flavor. And his enthusiasm is infectious. You can't spend a couple of hours with him and not leave with your faith in the power of film redeemed. All Geared Up You would never mistake Shyamalan's screening room for a gaudy movie palace-which is surprising when you consider that this is where one of Hollywood's most successful directors watches movies. It's about the size of the average upscale home theater, with big, comfortable reclining seats arranged in tiers. Black-and-white prints of scenes from The Sixth Sense and Unbreakable adorn the walls-no velvet curtains, no vintage movie posters (those are in the billiard room), no ticket counter, no popcorn machine. The equipment is all first-rate but not hyper high-end, and it shows the director's personal touch. "The system is made up of stuff I've accumulated over the years," he explains. "It's a little hodgepodge, but it's pretty cool. I get an emotional reaction to something and say, 'I like the sound of that, or the look of that.' But it's not necessarily the most expensive doodad on the market." "Hodgepodge" is a fairly accurate description of his system. Based on B&W Nautilus 801 speakers and a Faroudja RP4800 rear-projection HDTV, it's driven by McIntosh amps, managed by a Lexicon processor, controlled by a Crestron touchscreen remote, and fed by a Theta DVD transport, an Escient audio server, Sony 300- and 5-disc CD changers, a Sony S-VHS VCR, and an ADA multiroom tuner. If you're watching cable at my house and The Godfather comes on, I go, "If you're going to sit down and watch this from beginning to end, go ahead. But if you're planning on watching only 15 minutes of it, you can forget it. Not in this house." That's why I love DVD, because I'm not entirely comfortable with the ancillary markets for movies like airlines or TV or cable. People go, "Yeah, I saw Unbreakable on cable. I turned it on and watched the last half hour again. That was great." I'm like, "Thanks." That's like going to an author and saying, "I read the last 60 pages of your book. I can't wait to read the first 240." It's not surprising that a filmmaker as obsessed with sound as Shyamalan would go for B&W speakers. "The B&Ws have a warm, very musical sound," he says. "They're really wonderful." But with front projection all the rage, it is surprising to find a 55-inch widescreen rear-projection TV as the system's centerpiece. "It may need to be tweaked right now-it's so temperamental-but for me it's the best screen ever," he says with pride. When asked why he didn't go with a front-projection setup, Shyamalan immediately comes back with, "Because that stuff is still one generation away from me being ready for it. Whenever I go to somebody's house and they show me their overhead thing, I'm like, 'I can't believe you can even watch this,' because it's so fuzzy and big." And what about plasma TVs? "They're just getting to the point where I feel really good about them. I just bought my first one for the office, a Fujitsu, and it's pretty clear and sharp. The blacks are getting there-getting there." But for now he'll stick with the temperamental Faroudja. "It creates a great, intimate experience when you turn the lights off and crank up the system." Given that his screening room provides a cozy and inviting environment for viewing flicks, it would seem like the perfect place for Shyamalan, his wife, and two daughters to settle in for some family entertainment. But it turns out the kids don't always find it as comfortable as the adults. "The experience can get a little too intense for them," he says, "so they like watching upstairs in the family room. When we're in a rhythm, my wife and I normally watch a movie on Friday or Sunday down here." DVD Dedication Before cueing up Signs, Shyamalan fills us in on the disc's creation. Some directors deal with DVDs because they have to, while others do their best to pitch in but don't really add much to the final product. Shyamalan belongs to the third camp-of technologically savvy directors who understand what watching at home brings to the movie-viewing experience, and who'll do whatever it takes to make sure their DVDs enhance that experience. "I get involved at every level-so much so that it's a little daunting," Shyamalan says. "I go make the movie, and then I go and make it again, in some little form, for the DVD. You've got to do the documentary and the other extras, and then you have to decide how the menus will look and all that stuff. And now there's a time conflict because you're out promoting the movie at the same time that you're supposed to be delivering the DVD." Realizing the format's potential early on, Shyamalan used the original edition of The Sixth Sense to help give other directors, the studios, and movie fans a glimpse of what was possible. "DVD is a dream medium because the filmmakers have been involved since its inception. With the early discs, it was better that I did my little extras and Paul Thomas Anderson [Boogie Nights, Magnolia] did his, so that the studios thought, 'Well, you know what? DVDs are more for fancy people, and VHS is for regular people. So you guys go ahead and do what you want with the discs.' The irony is that DVDs are about to pass VHS sales. With Signs, I'm sure that more than 50% of the sales will be DVD-probably 60, 70%. That's amazing." Working with DVD for the past few years has only increased his enthusiasm for it. "Because of the high quality of the recordings, because they don't deteriorate over time, and because of the amount of thought and effort that filmmakers put into them, DVDs have become almost like books that you keep in your library. 'Yeah, I experienced Signs, and it was part of my life. It's a movie I really love. It's on my shelf there because it represents who I am.' " Extras Effort As the Signs DVD loads, we ask Shyamalan if he was thinking about the disc while he was working on the movie. "Oh, definitely. Even now, as I'm just beginning to write my next movie, I'm thinking, 'How can we maintain the personality of this story in the DVD of it?' I mean, I've been thinking about the DVD already. "For Signs, Disney gave us a digital camera that my assistant José [Rodriguez] carried with him from preproduction to post. He just shot whatever he felt like-unless I or Mel [Gibson] or Joaquin [Phoenix] said, 'Hey, turn off the camera.' We then gave all of the tapes to Laurent Bouzereau to make the documentaries, and said, 'Do what you want with them.' " Shyamalan has seen the "behind the scenes" documentaries on other DVDs, and he's acutely aware of where they often go wrong. "One of my pet peeves is that they tend to cut too much to the movie. If you've just watched The Matrix, you don't need to see the scene of Keanu having the conversation again. I always tell the people who work on my DVDs, 'Hey, man-I did my job; you do yours. If you want drama, create drama. Don't keep cutting to my drama and using that.' There was one version of the Unbreakable documentary where the guy used the entire ending of the movie. And I was like, 'What?!? Are you insane? Come up with your own ending. What if they haven't seen the movie yet?' "I feel the same way about the menus-don't show too much from the movie. Whenever I see a menu that has a montage of what you're about to watch, I press play as fast as I can so I don't hear De Niro's big line, because 45 minutes from now I want to hear that line. You want to tempt viewers without ruining the experience." m2 The number of people buying movies to have at home now is fantastic. If you went into some guy's house in the late '80s and saw him with 100 VHS tapes, and he wasn't in the film industry like me, you'd think, "This dude needs to get a life." But now, if you walk into somebody's house and see 100 DVDs on the shelf, you're like, "Oh, man. He's a connoisseur of movies. Wow. What an intelligent guy." It's much more hip. Of course, Shyamalan has to take the reality of DVD production into account. Although plenty of attention is lavished on the better DVDs, they're still assembled on much more constricted schedules and budg-ets than the feature films they contain. "A perfect DVD really would require a ton of time so I could make it a complementary experience that's just as carefully thought out as the movie. The movie would be wrapped in a package that you just can't not watch. You'd want to press play on the extras because they're a journey. I broke the documentary on Signs into parts to give you a sense of that journey." Cut to the Quick This is actually the first time Shyamalan has had a chance to play with the finished disc, and he's having as much fun exploring the menus as any of his most avid fans. His first stop is the deleted scenes. "This makes it easier to edit the film because I know that anything I love that's been cut can go on the DVD-not in the movie, but in the extras. Even though I cut it, a scene can still tell you a lot about a character." He goes to the longest of the deleted scenes, "Alien in the Attic and the Third Story." As Gibson and Phoenix (who plays Gibson's brother Merrill) barricade doorways while they're forced to retreat into the basement, Gibson pauses to tell a story about his brother. Shyamalan obviously still feels great affection for the scene, "but I took it out because, after you heard the birth stories of the girl and the boy, hearing the one about Merrill was too much. I always thought, 'Wow, this is going to be great. Right in this action sequence, I'm going to stop and tell you three dramatic stories, and isn't that totally breaking the rules?' But I guess I broke the rules too much, so we had to go back a little." As Shyamalan returns to cruising the extras, we point out that the DVD doesn't include the now obligatory director's commentary. "I haven't done one for any of my movies because I don't want to break their magic," he responds. "The DVD should enhance the movie so you can appreciate it that much more when you watch it again. It shouldn't be a gynecological exam where you can no longer see the movie as you saw it before because I told you that the sound guy is sitting right behind the chair where the woman's crying. It's tempting, and I've heard some commentaries that didn't hurt the movie, but some things need to be kept secret. "For some reason, I don't feel that way about 'behind the scenes' documentaries. When I see [Francis Ford] Coppola directing Apocalypse Now in Hearts of Darkness, I can appreciate his film more." Considering that Shyamalan graduated from New York University's legendary film program, it would seem that he'd want to help students by sharing his thoughts on filmmaking. But he doesn't see it that way. For him, the best way to learn is by maintaining your enthusiasm for the film. "My biggest thing is, this is supposed to be creative, an art, so don't intellectualize it. When Michael Jordan suddenly does an amazing move, he doesn't go, like, 'Right foot, left foot-pivot.' He just opens his mind up, and creativity comes out. In that same way, I don't want to analyze why the introduction of Indy by showing his shadow on the wall as he enters the bar in Raiders of the Lost Ark is an amazing metaphor for his character. I want to just instinctively know that; not pause and go, 'Hmm-shadow on the wall.' "Of course, Raiders isn't on DVD yet, is it? [laughs] It will be soon. Steven [Spielberg] slows the release of his stuff down until he knows the market's gigantic-which is smart. The Sixth Sense sold only 3 million DVDs because the format was still in its infancy. If I put it out for the first time now, it would sell 20 million copies, maybe more-maybe become one of the biggest titles. But we missed our opportunity." No Place Like Home Shyamalan is now ready to take a look at Signs itself. After he hits play, the famous swooping synthesizers in the THX trailer fill the room. "That won't bother my baby," he comments. "We designed this space with the kids' rooms two floors above, so we've got a buffer. Plus, this room is insulated with rubber." Then the credits roll, accompanied by James Newton Howard's forceful North by Northwest-meets-Psycho theme. Shyamalan relishes the sound of the music on his home theater rig. "You never get a sense of the 100-man orchestra if you're in the theater and a guy is still talking." After one particularly loud staccato outburst, he comments, "That's definitely the 'Shut-up-and-listen music' here." "With DVD, you get the full benefit of the movie, as opposed to maybe 75% of it in the theater-which sounds ironic, but it's true, because you don't have some guy munching on popcorn, cellphones going off, and speakers that haven't been checked in three years. Plus, one speaker's facing the wrong way, another one's blown out, and the whole system's set too low or too hot. Sometimes people will tell them to turn down the sound because the trailer for XXX is on first and it's so frigging loud that you can't even think. But then the actual movie is played so low that you can't hear it. signs If you have a huge hit like Signs, it stays in theaters four, five, six months. If you don't have a hit, you have four weeks and you're out. So in the best-case scenario, you have six months in the theaters, whereas people will have the DVD forever. Kids'll be watching it at some birthday party maybe ten years from now. And somebody will be pulling it off their shelf to watch even longer after that. So it really merits the time and the effort now. With these three DVDs--Sixth Sense, Unbreakable, and Signs--I put more and more time into each one. "Also, my films deal with literally very dark subject matter. So the bulb in the theater projector could be 10% too dark-almost none of those projectors have the correct light level. Plus, you could be watching Print 4002 that nobody inspected. But the DVD was supervised by me and [cinematographer] Tak Fujimoto, so it's of the highest quality." Shyamalan has a way of praising his own handiwork without sounding like an egomaniac. As the film's titles come to a close, he notes, "These are the best credits I've ever done. I finally got them right." The last card reads "Written, Produced, and Directed by M. Night Shyamalan"-an almost impossible credit to secure in Hollywood, where the various guilds sniff over filmmakers thoroughly before awarding them "one-man band" status. That accomplishment alone puts Shyamalan in the tip top of the movie elite. Signs & Sounds What also makes him stand out from the crowd is his painstaking attention to the soundtrack. Most directors are far better at visuals than they are with sounds, but Shyamalan is equally adept at both. And he doesn't wait until postproduction to figure out the surround mix-he's already planning it in the storyboard stage. "For me, sound effects are special effects," he explains. "They add to the suspense so that you're more scared than you've ever been in a movie, or more enthralled-they give you that 15% more. "For Signs, I hear in my head how the cornstalks snapping should sound, and if we can get that amazing sound, that's as good as a special effect for me. Instead of the usual creature sounds, the aliens use a clicking sound-it's more like an African tribal thing. They're surrounding the house and giving code. It tells you that they're intelligent and methodical, that they're systematically checking every entry-as opposed to just [makes a monster sound], like in Night of the Living Dead. And the audience is thinking, 'Oh my-they're going to get in.' " As we watch the opening scene where Gibson and Phoenix wake up to discover massive crop circles carved in their cornfield, Shyamalan dissects the mix. "There are a lot of effects going on here. You hear the environment of the bugs, the birds-the crows-for the first time. The dogs are slowly working their way in." When Gibson asks his son, "Morgan, what's happening?" and the boy responds, "The dogs are barking," Shyamalan points out that he had the barks bounced back and forth between the surround speakers. Like a magician relishing his sleight of hand, he gestures toward the back of the room and says, "Let's see if you can hear it." As the characters examine the circle, the sound of the cawing crows and barking dogs continues to build-only to be cut off by an orchestra cue as a high-angle shot reveals the full extent of the mysterious symbols. "We had one version that had no music," Shyamalan explains, "nothing but the dogs and the birds and then the wind. But James Newton Howard wrote a piece that we really wanted to use. The music and effects were competing, though, so we pulled the sound effects out." During the next scene (Chapter 3), where Gibson calls in the sheriff (Cherry Jones), Shyamalan points out, "At the end of this, you'll hear a cool thing we did with the crows." We wait as Gibson and the sheriff discuss local vandals and other matters. Then, like a conductor cueing a section of the orchestra, Shyamalan says, "And now listen to the crows." There's a short burst of cawing, faintly in the distance. "That's the first one." A pause while the dialogue continues, and then a second burst, closer. "They get louder and louder." And then, over a close-up of Gibson looking out over the field, trying to listen for his children, the crows fill the room. "You know, with this kind of thing, whether you're surrounded in music or sound effects, your senses are really being heightened. But getting it right takes a lot of time." We can't help pointing out that he seems to be breaking his own rule by offering up a commentary. "Yeah, exactly. See, I'm ruining the movie for you." Turning Down the Man The Sixth Sense was a phenomenon before it made it to DVD, and the Signs DVD can only bolster that film's hit status. But what about the film that fell between? Does Shyamalan think DVD has given Unbreakable a chance to build a reputation? "Oh, definitely. Some kid will run up to me with the DVD, and I'll say, 'You're just carrying it around?' And he goes, 'Uh-huh. This movie, I keep it in my knapsack.' He's freaking out and he's shaking, and I'm like, 'Aw, I'll sign it for you, man. Jeez, you carry around a DVD of Unbreakable.' " When we sheepishly point out that we've also got a copy of the DVD with us for him to autograph, Shyamalan laughs and says, "Unbreakable's interesting because it's a very quiet, nonblockbuster approach to a big idea, a big movie, like Spider-Man. They offered me Spider-Man, but I wanted to do a different, human take on it, not the 'guy in tights on the rooftop' version." Given his love of comic books, would he ever consider bringing a superhero to the big screen? "The problem with basing a movie on a popular character is that I wouldn't know whether I'd earned its success. I'll take Unbreakable's $100 million over Spider-Man's $400 million because I earned it from scratch. The studio was scared that calling Unbreakable a comic-book movie would be too limiting, but now we're seeing that it's not at all. The people who grew up on comic books are now older, and even have kids, and the kids want to come, too. We switched the Unbreakable campaign over to comic books when we went foreign, and it really performed better. People didn't know what it was before." Scene Stealers As we wrap up, we ask Shyamalan if he checks out movies any place other than at theaters and in his screening room. For instance, would he watch one on a portable DVD player? "I can't do that. If I'm going to watch something like Glory or Braveheart, I want to totally get into it from beginning to end. It's magic-I know it's magic, because I know that I couldn't make Sixth Sense again, even if I wanted to. I'm not that human being, I don't know how to make it. You can't will it like that, it just happened. Haley obviously is too old now. It worked because of his innocence and where Bruce was and where all of us were. But that's what's so amazing about it, and I wouldn't want anybody to watch it casually." While Shyamalan is a film purist, he's also aware of the gritty reality of how movies are sold-and stolen. When we ask if he's concerned about online piracy of his films, he responds, "Yeah, it's terrible, terrible. You know, all movies get bootlegged when they're released. Some douche bag records one in the theater and then goes online and says, 'Hey, I got Austin Powers,' or whatever. "Unfortunately, Signs and Attack of the Clones were on the Internet two weeks before their theatrical release, and that was really traumatic for me because the quality is so shitty, and the people who are going to be watching it there first are my biggest fans. Ultimately, if it's a good movie, they'll come back and watch it in the theater when it opens. But we weren't even done with it. It's like running with the paper off somebody's desk and showing it to everybody while the guy's screaming, 'Don't do that! I'm not done yet!' I'd rather write novels than have my movies seen in a bad way. "I wasn't ready to show Signs to you. I wanted to present it in the theaters, with surround sound, with 600 people. It's the group experience first, and then, at the very end, this intimate experience here. Aside from the people in the theaters, the only other true fan is the DVD buyer. "When the Internet gets fast enough and you can download a movie in 5 minutes instead of 3 hours, we're going to have a big problem. Instead of a million downloads of Signs, there'll be 40 million downloads. So my opening-week box-office numbers are lower by half because so many people saw the bootlegged verison. And then the DVD doesn't sell because they have this 65% version. That means the next time I want to do a movie like Signs, I can't make it for that budget, because the return isn't as much. No longer can I pay Mel Gibson, so he and I can't make a movie together. In the future, I can't make something like Signs-I have to make something else." As we make our way out of the screening room, we point out that Shyamalan only has photos from The Sixth Sense and Unbreakable on the walls. Is there a reason why Signs isn't represented? "Yeah," he admits, "I haven't had a chance to put the pictures up yet." True to his nature, he immediately leaps over the mundane to the grand. "Once there are too many movies, I guess I'll have to move."