‘The Man Who Heard Voices’ by Michael Bamberger

October 30, 2015 in Book Reviews, Reviews

man who heard voices

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.

Night600

Night with his star Paul Giamatti

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.

Paul Giamatti from a scene in Lady in the Water

Paul Giamatti as Cleveland Heep in Lady in the Water

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

Bryce Dallas Howard

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.

4.5/5

Movie Review: After Earth (2013)

September 26, 2013 in Movie Reviews, Reviews

after earth

I am…well, was…one of the staunchest M Night Shyamalan defenders out there. I loved The Village and thought The Happening was, er, good (up until the ending) and didn’t think The Last Airbender was as awful as advertised, though Lady In the Water pushed me about as far as my limit would go. And so when I discovered that he was directing Will Smith’s latest sci-fi adventure After Earth (the same Will Smith who does not choose to make bad movies, apparently), I did not run off screaming like most other people.

I probably should have.

After Earth is, plain and simple, a bore, which is an incredible feat considering the semi-interesting premise and how much “action” there is. Basically, humans are forced to abandon Earth at some time in the future after making the place inhabitable, and the new place they decided to settle down has these alien creatures who are blind but can sense fear. Will Smith is some legendary commander who can suppress his fear (and hence practically invincible), and Jaden Smith (his real life son), is constantly living in his shadow. On a final trip to an abandoned Earth, their spaceship crashes and Will is hurt, and the only person who can save them (by trekking through dangerous terrain with evolved/mutated monsters) is Jaden.

So yeah, After Earth is basically a Jaden Smith star-making vehicle produced by his family. Will Smith, who came up with the idea for the movie, is more or less there for the star power and barely moves for the entire film. Jaden’s name even comes up first in the credits (this is living proof of fatherly love).

Apparently the original premise was not sci-fi and was about a father and son duo who are trapped after their car breaks down in the wilderness. That idea might have made a better motion picture, because the sci-fi elements in After Earth don’t really work. Maybe it’s the effects of a hangover from The Last Airbender, but After Earth has a childish feel to it, as though it was made with a Nickelodeon-esque audience in mind. It’s a morality tale and a coming of age story, but there is no nuance or subtlety. Everything is so painfully obvious and predictable. Bland and uninteresting, even when the characters are supposedly in danger. It’s not often that a 100-minute film feels too long. I’m not kidding here, but I think perhaps the film would have been better as an animation.

It’s pointless dissecting Will Smith’s performance because he has so little do to. As for Jaden Smith, I think his acting abilities have regressed from The Pursuit of Happyness (made 7 years ago) and The Karate Kid remake (3 years ago). Maybe it’s the script’s fault, or simply a lack of charisma, because I could not connect with his character at all. The most emotional parts of the film, including a (remote) tearful exchange with his father, felt strangely empty and cliched.

That said, the film is not quite as bad as it has been made out to be. Though clunky, the film tells its story adequately, and the special effects and scale are quite impressive. It’s not the worst of the movie of the year and 11% on Rotten Tomatoes is a brutal overreaction. However, After Earth is still ultimately a huge disappointment and a failed experiment. Maybe it’s time for M Night to retreat into the shadows and get back to the smaller, more intimate projects that made him a respected filmmaker in the first place.

1.75 stars out of 5

Movie Review: Devil (2010)

December 10, 2010 in Movie Reviews

Unlike most people, I still look forward to M Night Shyamalan movies — even if he just produced it and came up with the idea for the story.

Yes, Devil is neither written nor directed by Shyamalan, but it is still very much his project.  It is the first film of the Night Chronicles trilogy, which deals with supernatural themes in modern society.  Without giving too much away, it’s about a bunch of strangers who get stuck in a skyscraper elevator, and one of them may or may not be the devil.

Sounds like a gimmicky film, and it kind of is, but Devil is better than I expected considering the low budget and the narrow premise.  There is an inevitability about the progression of the plot, but I was nevertheless kept guessing until the end — and knowing Shyamalan, there is always a clever “twist” or “revelation” of some sort to look forward to.

That said, potential viewers of Devil need to keep their expectations in check, for this is really not much more than an average film backed by an intriguing idea.  My biggest problem with the film is that none of the characters felt very convincing.  The situation, the reactions and the dialogue don’t feel very authentic, and as a result the film never becomes as scary as it should be.

Nevertheless, at a tight 80-minutes, Devil is a crafty little thriller that can be enjoyable if in the right mood.

3 out of 5 stars

Movie Review: The Last Airbender (2D) (2010)

September 22, 2010 in Movie Reviews

The Last Airbender is not as bad as people make it out to be.  In fact, I quite enjoyed it.

That said, I did have lower than low expectations for the film (given it recorded an abysmal 6% at Rotten Tomatoes), and perhaps more importantly, I have never seen the popular cartoon series on which the film is based.  Keeping that in mind, I think writer and director M Night Shyamalan did a pretty decent job (and let’s face it, he had an extremely difficult job) in creating a ‘kids film’ that is, for the most part, entertaining and enjoyable.

The Last Airbender dropped the word ‘Avatar’ from its title because of that highest grossing film of all time.  It’s set in a fantasy land where people are born with the natural ability to ‘bend’ one of the four elements — earth, fire, wind and water.  Kind of like Captain Planet (he’s a hero, gonna take pollution down to zero).  However, there is only one person in the world that has the ability to bend all four elements, and that’s the Avatar.

Naturally, for a bunch of reasons, the tribes of the various elements are at war, largely thanks to the ambitious Fire Nation people.  Conveniently, the Avatar reappears, seeking to restore balance to the world with the aid of his friends from the Water tribes and a big flying animal that reminds me of The Neverending Story.

So yes, the idea and the story is actually pretty cool.  There’s an obvious Asian influence with all that martial arts and those taichi-like moves they do to ‘bend’ stuff.  The battle scenes are grand and reminiscent of The Lord of the Rings (or perhaps, more accurately, Narnia).  The special effects were genuinely excellent.  In terms of aesthetics, The Last Airbender is solid.

But of course, the film fails in a few other key departments.  It squeezes a ridiculous amount of stuff into 103 minutes, and as a result, the story jumps all over the place and is rarely coherent.  You just have to go for the ride and accept all the things that suddenly pop out of nowhere for the sake of progressing the story.

And the acting…poor Dev Patel from Slumdog Millionaire does all that he can to bring out the character of Zuko, and he’s by far the best of the youngsters despite some awkward lines.  Katara, played Nicola Peltz, received high praise from Shyamalan but didn’t feel like anything particularly special.  Her brother Sokka, played by Twilight‘s Jackson Rathbone, was, well, a bit on the stiff side, though to be fair he wasn’t given a whole lot to work with.  However, it is the strange kid with the constantly flaring nostrils, Noah Ringer, who plays the Avatar, that fails to deliver any semblance of real emotion whatsoever.  It’s his first acting role, so he deserves a break, but if he’s going to be in the sequels he’ll need to work on his performance.

Look, The Last Airbender was never going to be a great movie.  M Night Shyamalan has been absolutely caned over his last few movie-making attempts (in my opinion not all deserved) and he was always going to be on the back foot defending himself from critics.  The complex story required so much explaining that it was always going to be an uphill battle to begin with.  Taking all of that into account, I think things could have been a lot worse.  For all its flaws, it still has an interesting concept, great fight scenes and terrific special effects.  I certainly think it’s significant better than Dragonball: Evolution.

The film is actually only the first of three parts, and from what I understand, Shyamalan has already done a rough script of the second film.  If they make it, I’ll watch it.

3 stars out of 5

PS: So glad I watched the 2D version and not the 3D crap (which I hear added nothing).  We had a choice of a 2D and 3D session and went with 2D, even though that meant we had to sit in the fourth row.  And get this — we went on cheapo Tuesday which has $10.50 tickets (that’s supposed to be cheap?), but for 3D films there’s conveniently no discount.  And guess how much each ticket would have cost if we watched the 3D version?  $24.50!  That’s just insane, and another reason to hate 3D.

Avatar causes depression and death

January 20, 2010 in Entertainment

Avatar kills

As James Cameron’s Golden Globe winning Avatar streaks towards the all-time box office record held by Titanic, reports have emerged that the film is actually a dangerous health hazard.

Viewers have found themselves depressed after watching the movie as they realise that Pandora, the beautiful planet on which the story takes place, is actually not real.

Some of the things viewers have said in response to the film include:

“When I woke up this morning after watching Avatar for the first time yesterday, the world seemed grey. It just seems so meaningless.  I still don’t really see any reason to keep doing things at all.  I live in a dying world.”

“I even contemplate suicide thinking that if I do it I will be rebirthed in a world similar to Pandora.”

Doctors, psychiatrists and other specialists have all weighed in on the debate.  Some believe it is the amazing realism of the special effects.  Others say it’s because the film is in 3D, so viewers have trouble distinguishing the fantasy world from reality.  A more radical theory is that the blue aliens in the film remind people of giant smurfs. 

The truth however, is much more simple.  It is because these people are idiots.

The damage of Avatar has gone further than just stupidity.  A 42-year-old Taiwanese man recently died from over-excitement after watching the film. 

The man had a history of high blood pressure and had mistakenly walked into Avatar believing it was the latest M Night Shyamalan live-action sequel to Lady in the Water starring Matthew McConaughey.

Okay, that last bit was made up, but the rest of it is all true.