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'I got this very scary idea for a movie, and that's The Happening'

Last updated on: June 09, 2008 18:56 IST

The course of Manoj Nelliyattu Shyamalan's life was defined not by the family's involvement in the practice of medicine, but by the Super-8 camera he was gifted in his pre-teens. By the time he turned 17, and decided to study film at New York University's Tisch School, he had famously made 45 home movies; fans who buy his DVDs will have noticed that in each of them Shyamalan -- who by then had adopted 'Night' as his name of choice -- includes a clip from one of those childhood films, choosing the segment that in his opinion most closely represents his first attempt at making the same kind of film.

Also Read: The most Happening director in town

Though he was born in Pondicherry, India, his connection with the country has been tenuous at best. The only occasion he has spent significant time in this country is when he wrote, directed, acted in and shot his first film, Praying With Anger, funded by a $500,000 loan from his father, Dr Nelliyattu Shyamalan.

Until now, that is: last week, Night was in India on two counts -- to receive, from India's President Pratibha Patil the civilian honor Padma Shri for his contribution to cinema, and to co-host with Ronnie Screwvala, CEO, UTV Films, a media interaction pegged to the Friday, June 13 release of his latest film, The Happening.

Also See: Shyamalan on The Happening

A still from The HappeningThis marks the first occasion that an Indian producer joins Night as co-producer; UTV announced that it was putting up half the estimated $57 million budget of his latest film, and sharing production credits with Fox Searchlight and Shyamalan's own Philadelphia-based company, Blinding Edge Pictures.

In person, Night is an engaging speaker, capable of extempore excellence at the drop of a cue, or question. Hollywood's supernovas tend to treat media calls as a necessary evil, coasting through them with less than full engagement. Shyamalan differs; over a span of 55 minutes, he held an audience of 50-plus engrossed with considered responses to wide-ranging, and even occasionally inane, questions. Here, unfiltered through a reporter's lens, is Night in his own voice:

On working with UTV and Ronnie Screwvala

We met in Philadelphia -- Ronnie was travelling past, and I asked him to come for breakfast; we had pancakes and I gave him the script, and he called me back after he had read it and said 'Let's do it!'. So it was a fun beginning to our relationship.

When I had talked to my agents about my next one, we said let's go in with our own financier and we'll go sell the movie together as a package. The agent said we have this Indian guy, and I was like, it doesn't really have to be an Indian guy, but he said you'll really like him -- and I thought this might be a wonderful way to connect again with India, which we obviously haven't had a lot of opportunities to do.

Also Read: Shyamalan's take on Indian cinema

I believe that when you are picking someone to finance your movie, it is like picking the cinematographer or the editor -- you are picking a personality that will influence the movie. So you should feel good about that person and that company and where they are coming from, and it felt really good to join up with Ronnie and his crew.

My life, my way

A still from Sixth SenseI went to NYU [New York University] film school, which was a big disappointment for my Indian parents, and it turned out well. I made my first little movie here in India, Praying with Anger, in 1992, and no one went to see that -- just my parents and a couple of strangers who went into the wrong theatre.

You are very lucky to make one movie, but I got a second chance with Wide Awake [1998], which was a screenplay that I wrote, and Harvey Weinstein of Miramax bought that one. I couldn't tell what kind of movie I was making at the time, I was having a tough time figuring out was I making an art movie, a commercial movie? I made that movie, and no one went to see it either. And I was like, two strikes, you are out -- I mean, I was very lucky to get two chances, and I failed both times, so this was definitely not going to happen again.

Also Read: Why Shyamalan loves the supernatural

I sat down and said, I am putting in enough love, enough effort, so what am I doing wrong? I looked up at my wall and I had all these [posters of] movies on my wall, The Exorcist, Raiders of the Lost Ark, famous movies I grew up loving, so I looked at them and I said to myself, let me stop pretending I'm an art filmmaker, stop pretending to be something I am not, and let me make one of these movies.

So I wrote The Sixth Sense [1999]. Luckily, I got an opportunity to make that movie for Disney. You know, it is one of those things -- it was meant not to be a big movie; it was supposed to be dumped into theatres in a certain part of the year, in September, and at that time, Bruce [Willis] was not a big thing, and horror movies went straight to video. It was a small movie from a filmmaker that had failed twice.

I remember on opening day, I was writing Unbreakable, and I said, whatever happens, let's make another movie before people stop giving me chances to make movies. And I read the New York Times review, and it was terrible, it tore me up again. This NY Times guy just hated me, and ever since I was little he reviewed me and hated me, and here he reviewed me again and hated me again, and I thought here we go again, at least let me try and get this other movie made.

Also Read: Shyamalan on his earlier films

Mel Gibson in a still from SignsAnd then Bruce Willis called me Saturday morning and said 'We are number one!' and I told him he had to be getting the wrong information, because the first rumours I heard that Friday were we weren't doing too well. But then we got number one on Friday, and Saturday, and on Sunday it didn't drop at all, which was really unusual, and then every weekend for six weeks, I kept getting that call.

On a little note, from Titanic to now, only three movies have had number one in their fifth and sixth weeks; one was Titanic, then The Sixth Sense, and Signs was the third, which is really cool because, you know, the longevity of the movie is an indicator of how it is seeping in to the people.

We made Unbreakable [2000] after that. I guess the way people perceive you is based on the first thing you did -- the song you sang, or the painting you made, that became a hit, people see that and figure, right, that is what you do. Unbreakable was my drama take on the comic book genre. At the time, no one was making comic book movies -- now just this weekend, a comic book movie [Iron Man] made $100 million, but back then that was really a dangerous thing to do. But we made it, and we had a wonderful time, but people were going what is this movie you made, is it a ghost movie? Disney actually tried to sell it as a ghost movie, that was before I said sell them as they are.

Then I made Signs [2002], with Mel Gibson, and that was the quickest writing experience. Sixth Sense and Unbreakable were torturous, they took so long to draft, but Signs came out just like that, the way you see it on the screen. It was a fun shoot and it did really well. All these movies had begun having a kind of spirituality about them. I wasn't doing it as an agenda; it just turned out my films had a kind of emotionality, spirituality, about them.

After Signs I did The Village [2004]. I was very into [Emily Bronte's novel] Wuthering Heights -- Fox actually offered me that movie, and I was re-reading the book and thinking about whether to do it or not, and all that thinking about period pieces got me thinking about The Village. It was the first time I got to work with Bryce [Dallas Howard, the female lead]. In my life, I have had two acting experiences where people do something phenomenal -- one was Haley [Joel Osment] in The Sixth Sense, and one was Bryce in The Village, where you were seeing something transcendent. The Village went on to become number one in all the countries except Japan, where we opened up against a Japanese video game.

And then I did Lady in the Water right after that, which is a story I wrote for my children. I wanted it to feel like The Princess Bride, and Edward Scissorhands, that kind of off-beat fantasy that has its own language. I spent two years making a certain kind of movie, and then you get the feeling that you want to do something different, and I was driving to the mix on Lady in the Water when I got this very scary idea for a movie, and that's The Happening.

It's kind of like [Alfred Hitchcock's] Birds -- it has that feeling to it, where people are trapped in an area where something bizarre is happening. I was writing a different movie at the time, when I got this idea, and I realised it was the right idea to do next. And it came pretty easily. Overall, The Happening has been the easiest movie to do, from beginning to end. We got Mark Wahlberg to star in it; we got a wonderful cast of side characters in the movie -- you keep meeting these bizarre characters right through the movie, and the casting came out just right, and production went smooth, nicely under budget and post went really great, and now we are opening June 13.

Catch the second part of this extensive interview tomorrow!

Prem Panicker