Earlier this week, I started reading a book primarily based on the title: The Man Who Heard Voices, or How M. Night Shyamalan Risked His Career on a Fairy Tale. I’m a big fan of the Shyamalan’s first four films – The Sixth Sense (1999), Unbreakable (2000), Signs (2002), and The Village (2004) – but I had no particular desire to read a critical analysis of the films, or a biography of their director. Michael Bamberger’s title promised something different: an intimate look at the filmmaker’s creative process, following Shyamalan’s latest film from script to screen.
First, I should admit that I didn’t see Lady in the Water in the theater… According to ticket sales, I wasn't the only one who stayed away. The 140 million dollar movie barely made back half of its cost in worldwide ticket sales. Since I hadn't seen the film, Bamberger's book title made me wonder: If the director heard “voices” that helped him produce his earlier films (and it’s tempting to take this literally, since we are talking about the writer/director gave us the line “I see dead people”), what went wrong with Lady in the Water? Did the voices give him bad information? Did he misinterpret or disregard them? Did the movie-going public simply fail, this time, to understand what the voices were saying?
Bamberger initially presents his subject as a man with a powerful – almost spooky – charisma. For years, everything he touched turned to gold, in spite of the fact that he broke all of Hollywood’s unspoken rules. Bamberger tells us that the filmmaker is, in all respects, honest – - honest with the people around him, and honest with himself. True to his inner voice. Shyamalan doesn’t literally hear voices… but, like any good Jungian, he knows that we all have subconscious “voices” inside our heads, and he has learned to trust his own instincts. That, the author proposes, is the reason for his success.
With Lady in the Water, Shyamalan continued to follow his inner voices…. But the road was a bit rockier this time. Although his earlier scripts had come easy, Shyamalan struggled with Lady – he wrote twelve drafts and was never completely satisfied with any of them. I myself am currently working on a third draft of an original script that has been tormenting me for years… I can’t imagine the self-doubt that must result from second-guessing a story through twelve drafts. The filmmaker certainly had his doubts, but he stubbornly stuck to a self-imposed pre-production schedule and sent his most recent draft to executives at Disney, where his previous four films had been made.
The execs “didn’t get it.” One of them said that she felt like a “pregnant woman looking at her ultrasound and seeing an embryo at four months.” The message from Disney was clear: The story isn’t there yet.
Shyamalan had built his career (not to mention the careers of several Disney execs) on a simple formula. The Sixth Sense, Unbreakable, and Signs all hinge on a “trick” ending that affirms the audience’s belief in the unbelievable. By the time Signs was released, however, critics and audiences recognized the formula and started complaining that the filmmaker was a one-trick pony. Admittedly, the trick ending of Signs was the weakest of the bunch – though you’ll never convince me that it is, in any respect, a weak film. Shyamalan decided to shake things up. The Village turned the formula on its head, ending on a cynical note that debunked the film’s mythology. With Lady, Shyamalan wanted to shake up the formula again: he wanted to make a film in which the believability of the film’s mythology would never be called into question. The story would be a straight fantasy, but in a recognizably real-world setting. The filmmaker thought it could be his Wizard of Oz. His E.T. His most important film.
But, suddenly, the people who’d been supporting him for years seemed to be losing faith in Shyamalan’s vision. And so did he. When Warner Brothers picked up the project, the filmmaker wondered if it was because they had faith in Lady… or simply because they were willing to gamble on it, based on his track record. By the time the film went into production, the filmmaker was feeling uncharacteristically fearful and angry. He considered the possibility that perhaps the story really wasn’t there yet. By that point, it was too late to turn back. Production was underway. Shyamalan tried to ignore the nay-saying voices (from the outside world and inside his own head), and moved forward.
Lady in the Water is the story of a sea nymph named Story, who is sent from a mythical water-world to inspire a writer whose work will “begin a movement of great change.” After their meeting, the writer confesses to his new muse: “You did something to me. My thoughts. Everything became clear. The fears that were muddling my thoughts went away. I can hear myself.” Shyamalan cast himself in the role of the writer. That decision alone made the film an easy target for critics – one of them went so far as to accuse the writer/director of having a “messianic complex.” We can safely assume that Shyamalan expected such criticism, since he not-so-cleverly mounted a preemptive strike against film critics by making the most unlikable character in the film… a film critic.
Regardless, Lady is not simply an ego trip for the director. It is an ensemble piece with a broader message about belief. Story’s presence has an impact on every single person living in the apartment building – beginning and ending with Paul Giamatti’s landlord, who has been beaten down by life – and she eventually enlists everyone’s help in a plot to return her to her own world. Only the childlike belief of the characters can keep Story alive. That same belief eventually gives each character a sense of purpose and destiny.
This all sounds great on paper, but the film vets these ideas in a rather uninspiring manner. My misgivings can be summed up with one question: Why don’t any of the characters have to struggle to believe that Story is a sea nymph from a mythical world that they’ve never heard of? These are, after all, real-world adult characters. Wouldn’t they have to re-learn to think like children? It seems to me that the film and its characters should have been filled with doubt, setting up an eventual affirmation of faith in the unbelievable. Not because it fits Shyamalan's familiar formula, but because it makes the characters easier to empathize with, and gives them more of an arc. The fact that none of the characters ever express any doubt about the reality of Story’s world takes the magic out of it.
Looking at the film in the context of the creative process from which it sprung, one can’t help but think that the big issue for M. Night Shyamalan’s future as a filmmaker is whether or not he can trust other people’s voices. Early in his book, Michael Bamberger recounts an incident that he witnessed while flying to Los Angeles with Shyamalan to make a deal with Warner Brothers. After an extended conversation with a stewardess, the filmmaker turned to the author and said, “You know, if you and our stewardess were in a burning building and I could only save one of you, I’d save her.” Bamberger, naturally, asked why. Shyamalan responded: “You already believe in something. All she’s got is hope. No faith, just hope. She’s trying so hard. She’s trying with her hair, trying with her makeup, trying with her smile. But life’s beat her down. Her expectations are low. She’s hanging on by a thread, but she’s hanging on. Save her from the burning building, she’d have faith for the rest of her life.”
One wonders if Shyamalan considered the reverse possibility – that the stewardess might be able to save him, by making him acknowledge his own uncertainty. In Lady in the Water, Story needs to be rescued. In the process, she rescues her rescuers.