I haven’t been reading as much as I would like to this year. First I thought it was just laziness, but I’ve realised it’s because there hasn’t been a book that’s made me want to devour it like a rabid dog.
That changed when I came across — almost by accident — The Man Who Heard Voices: Or How M Night Shyamalan Risked His Career on a Fairy Tale by Sports Illustrated writer Michael Bamberger. The book flew completely under my radar when it was released in 2006, the same year as Lady in the Water was released. However, with the recent release of Shyamalan’s so-called “return to form” film, The Visit (review here), articles referencing the book started popping up all over the place. They were mainly to remind us what an awful film Lady in the Water is, and to take digs at Shyamalan for being a megalomaniac who thinks his shit don’t stink.
So in all I honesty, I was looking forward to reading the book so that I could gain a better understanding and of just how much of a douchehole Shyamalan truly is. Now that I’ve read the book, I can say this about him: I’ve never been a bigger fan.
First off, some general background about how the book came into being. Bamberger met Shyamalan at a party in 2004 and became fascinated with the “it” director of the time. Night (the English name he made up himself) was still riding high from the phenomenon that is The Sixth Sense and follow-up successes such as Unbreakable and Signs. His latest film at the time was The Village, a moderate success that polarized some viewers but remains one of my Shyamalan favorites.
Anyway, Bamberger asked Night if he could follow him around and write an independent account of the making of the next Shyamalan project, Lady in the Water, based on a bedtime story about a “water nymph” the writer-director tells his two young girls. Night said yes, and, and The Man Who Heard Voices was born.
The book itself turned out very different to what I was expecting. Bamberger is a good writer who tries to keep himself out of the picture unless his opinion as an integral part of the experience is called for. Through observing on set and interviews, he gets into the heads of key people – most of all Shyamalan – involved in the making of the film and delves deep into their thinking and motivations. At first you wonder whether he’s just making stuff up, but he eventually explains that if he describes what a person is thinking it’s because that’s what the person has told him.
For people who have ever wondered what it is really like behind the scenes of a movie set, this is the book for you. I’ve never come across any book that gives practically a blow-by-blow narrative of exactly how a film is made, beginning with the writing of the script to workshopping it, from pitching it to a studio to meetings with studio executives, from selecting each member of the team in pre-production (we’re talking cinematographer, cameraman, set designers, special effects designers, music writers, script managers, caterers, stand-ins – the list goes on and on) to building the sets, from auditioning the actors to contract negotiations. I’ve always wondered how cool it would be to direct a Hollywood blockbuster, but this book has definitively put all such fantasies to rest. It’s exhausting; shooting 12-14 hours a day with random start times, braving the elements (in this case the scorching Philadelphia summer), managing all the personalities and egos, controlling the budget and dealing with studio politics. Even the most organised person can be overwhelmed.
For me, reading an in-depth account of a film production from start to finish was intoxicating stuff, though I can understand how it can be boring for others. The only feedback given to Bamberger by Shyamalan, who wanted the book to be completely independent, was to take out “the boring bits,” meaning the nitty gritty of the production process. Bamberger said he tried, and I think his writing style is conducive to a swift and enjoyable read. But that’s just me.
Now for the good stuff – what the book revealed about Shyamalan and the crew. Well, as expected, Shyamalan does come across as a dude with a massive ego and immense self-belief. However, he is also revealed to be quite fragile, suggesting a sense of low self-esteem. The contradiction is not unlike another genius I worship – Larry David.
In a way, it’s not hard to understand why Shyamalan turned out the way he did. Both his parents are doctors from India, and they always wanted him to get a “real” job like being a doctor or lawyer. Even when Shyamalan boastfully told his father that he had become the first director to grace the cover of Newsweek, his father’s response was that Time had a wider circulation.
My affection for Shyamalan comes from his hard work and pure balls. The book tells the story of his big break, The Sixth Sense, which was the ultimate example of betting on yourself. Shyamalan had made a couple of largely ignored indy films for Hollywood heavyweight Harvey Weinstein, who thought very little of him. Night hated Weinstein’s interference, but he was contractually bound, so he thought of a bold and brilliant plan. He made sure the script for The Sixth Sense was so awesome that there would be a bidding war for it by the major studios. He sent it to all of them – except Weinstein, who received it later – at the same time and staged a make-or-break auction soon after. He gambled on the possibility that a top studio would pay so much money for the rights to make The Sixth Sense that Weinstein would scoff at matching it and let him go. He won when Disney offered US$3 million despite the condition that Shyamalan himself would direct, and the rest is history. The film would go on to gross more than US$670 million on a US$40 million budget.
Reading this book, you get an amazing sense of Shyamalan’s dedication to his craft. I know it sounds phony and pretentious, but he really sees his work as “art”, and he wants to suffer for it. I’ve only seen Lady In the Water once (I plan to see it again) and thought it was a piece of shit, but I respect and even envy his ambition and the amount of effort he put into the film, as misguided as it was. It also shows that, no matter how much a project can seem promising on paper or during its making, you can never tell how it’s going to be received once it is released.
Shyamalan is also portrayed in the book as a loving father and a generous and thoughtful director. On the set of Lady he had weekly prizes – such as overseas vacations – picked out of a hat for staff, and all of it came out of his own pocket.
On the flip side, there’s no denying that Shyamalan can come across as a complete dick because of his bloated sense of self-importance. Being called the “next Spielberg” can do that to some people. This is a guy who got his assistant to send a hard copy of his script to the homes of Disney execs at the exact same time like it was God’s gift to the world, and questioned their devotion when one of them wasn’t there on time because she had to take her kid to a weekend party.
Bamberger tells it as it is and doesn’t sugar coat it. Night thought of himself as a visionary on the same level as artists like Bob Dylan, and wanted to be the Michael Jordan of the film world (more on Night’s basketball exploits later). There was one incident in the book where Night shared an elevator with a mother and son who didn’t know who he was and had little interest in making small talk with him despite his best efforts. Afterwards, he says that if only the mother knew who he was she’d be clamouring to get her son into one of his movies, and lamented how people don’t “connect” with others anymore.
There was another incident in the film when leading lady Bryce Dallas Howard (whom he made a star in The Village) was getting cuts and welts from being dragged on grass during filming.
“This is not about you. This is about the movie,” Night told her. He was apparently more worried about continuity problems. “I can’t have a reputation as a director who doesn’t protect his actors.” Yes, Night, it’s always about you.
One interesting fact I discovered from reading this book was that Shyamalan is a huge basketball fan and can even ball a little. I think he’s around 5’11” and was likened by Bamberger to a solid high school point guard. Living in Philly, he was actually a neighbour of Allen Iverson and the two often saw each other playing on their respective driveways with their respective cousins or nephews. And apparently, Night once said that if he had unlimited time to practice for two years, he’d be able to shoot as well as any player in the NBA. Like I said, balls.
The now-legendary Disney blow-up during negotiations for Lady was also described in painstaking detail in the book, and it’s not as bad as proclaimed. If you don’t know the background, Disney had produced all of Night’s films since The Sixth Sense, but for Lady he ended up going with Warner Bros. Interestingly, the guy who picked it up from Warner because he loved The Village, Alan Horn, is now the chairman of Disney.
The truth of the split from Disney was much tamer. The went to a dinner where the execs told him they didn’t “get it,” but were still willing to give him US$60 million to do whatever he wanted out of goodwill. Too late. To Night, having someone say they didn’t get his art meant they “no longer valued individualism” and cared more about the bottom line. For him, it wasn’t about the box office; it was about their belief in him. He was more disappointed than angry. He was really only angry after Disney came out with a statement that they had parted ways due to “creative differences.” In reality, it wasn’t the hostile break-up it has been made out to be. Disney was hurt Night didn’t want to reconsider; Night thought he had no choice but to leave. Both sides thought they were the loser in the situation.
As for the other characters in the book, Paul Giamatti, the lead actor who played protagonist Cleveland Heep, comes out looking best. He’s shown as a down-to-earth guy, a humble dude who likes to act but doesn’t want to be a star. I had no idea his late father was the former commissioner of the MLB.
Bryce Dallas Howard, daughter of Hollywood heavyweight Ron, is depicted as more of a mixed bag by Bamberger. She’s well-intentioned but comes across as a little phony; she’s sweet and true to herself with all her vegan philosophies and enviable determination to prove her worth, but is never able to shake off that weird privileged hippy wannabe vibe.
The other crew member who gets a lot of mentions is Chris Doyle, the Hong Kong-based, Chinese-speaking Aussie cinematographer. He’s an amazing character – a flamboyant genius and habitual line-stepper with his over-sexualized antics and alcohol problems. Reading about how Night manages this ticking time bomb on set is one of the most compelling aspects of the entire book.
The book actually ends without any discussion of how Lady in the Water actually performed. All we know is that Night surveyed 40 advanced screening subjects and was shocked to discover that it was his best-performing film since The Sixth Sense. Bamberger himself said he didn’t like the movie.
Well, Lady in the Water grossed US$72.8 million against a US$70 million budget, excluding the cut going to cinemas and tens of millions in marketing expenses. It got 24% on Rotten Tomatoes and a 36/100 at Metacritic. Night won for Worst Director and Worst Supporting Actor at the Golden Raspberries (beaten out by Basic Instinct II). Asian-American actress Cindy Cheung, who played Young-Soon Choi in the movie, won Worst Supporting Actress and Most Annoying Fake Accent at the Stinkers Bad Move Awards.
Shyamalan would go on to make The Happening with 20th Century Fox in 2008, which performed even worse with critics but was a financial success, making more than US$163 million against a US$48 million budget.
The Last Airbender (Paramount) in 2010 was Shyamalan’s nadir in terms of critical failure – 6% on Rotten Tomatoes and 20/100 on Metacritic. But surprisingly, it was still a financial success, making US$320 million on a US$150 million budget. And for all the jokes about After Earth in 2013 (11% on RT, 33/100 MC), the film still made US$244 million against a US$130 million budget on the back of moderately successful box office intake overseas.
And now, Night appears to be back. He directed the pilot of the TV show Beyond the Pines, which was well received. The Visit has been huge, making US$66 million already on US$5 million budget and with a 62% rating on RT and 55/100 score on MC. It’s his best-performing film, critically speaking, since Signs in 2002.
I’ve gotten a bit off track, so back to the book. The Man Who Heard Voices is a fascinating book and a wonderful insight into both Shyamalan and his filmmaking process. Interestingly, I have read some reviews that question why Shyamalan didn’t object to the publishing of the book because it paints him in such a bad light, and others that suggest the book is effectively a hagiography. I don’t believe either is true. While it is obvious that Bamberger has a soft spot for Shyamalan in his heart – why else would he write a book on him – he does, for the most part, divulge the bad and the ugly along with the good. My takeaways from the book are: nobody is perfect; making a film is a lot of work; excessive praise has never done anyone any good; you can be a dickhead but also a great director; hard work and determination pays off; and that you never know how a film will be received no matter how magical the production process may have been.