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Is Manoj Night Shyamalan a freak?

By Prem Panicker
Last updated on: July 19, 2004 19:09 IST

Manoj Night ShyamalanIt's official: Manoj Night Shyamalan is a freak. A weirdo. A being not entirely of this world. Or at the least he is – thanks to a life-changing experience that happened when he was 10 or thereabouts – someone who marches to the beat of a different internal drummer; a person around whom ravens hover protectively; someone who can converse with spirits; someone who can commune with the dead.

We know that courtesy helmer Nathaniel Kahn (Academy Award nomination for The Architect) and producer Callum Greene (Lost In Translation, 3 AM), and their documentary The Buried Secret Of M Night Shyamalan, which aired on the SciFi channel on July 18 between 8pm and 11pm.

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It starts as a routine behind-the-scenes peek into the making of Shyamalan's upcoming horror flick The Village, and into the working style of the famously secretive director.

The initial scenes are routine for this kind of project — the film's publicity agent setting out the ground rules. Thus: you will not talk to actors or crew without specific consent; you will not attempt to talk to or make eye contact with either actors or with the director when they are working, yadda yadda....

The documentary ratchets up a notch when its makers drive over to Shyamalan's home in Philadelphia. Outside the barred gates stand a group of young lads almost identically togged out in jeans, caps, and hooded sweatshirts. The filmmakers approach them for comment; they are initially reticent. Soon, they talk of random sightings of the director driving into and out of the home, and then one says Shyamalan "can connect with the other side".

That cues up a cheesy little sequence involving the young man, Kahn, and an ouija board that, when asked if there is a spirit in the room that knows Shyamalan, shimmies across the board.

Oooooooooo. Pause here, to let shivers run up and down the spine.

Just to underline how absolutely spontaneous it all was, there are shots of the director and his crew repeatedly cueing up the sequence on their computer screens. 'Look,' they exclaim to each other in wonder, 'the boy is not touching the board, no way he could have made it move.'

All right already, we get the point — there really was a spirit in that boy's room that knew M Night Shyamalan. So why did the sequence end there? Why didn't the filmmakers do something that is as basic as Journalism 101 — ask said spirit the obvious follow-up questions, as in who are you, what is your connection with Shyamalan...?

A still from The VillageThe sequence sets up another one where Kahn, courtesy the same young lad, logs on to a supposedly secretive Shyamalan fan website (a Google search threw up a few, but none remotely resembling the cloak and dagger site we were shown on screen) where the faithful gather to exchange notes.

Their screen names are followed by numbers from one to five — supposedly to indicate how into the director they are. Thus, a person who has '1' after his handle is a neophyte, and a '5' knows everything there is to know about the director and his work.

The chat room is a recurring motif. Kahn keeps going back in there whenever he needs clues to various aspects of the director's life, and a certain TRUFAN3 keeps pointing him in the right direction.

From that point on, Kahn attempts to underline Shyamalan's secretive nature. On discovering that Johnny Depp was first considered for the role played by Mel Gibson in Signs, Kahn drops in on the actor. Depp tells him of how he had initial discussions with the director, how there were all sorts of non-disclosure agreements to be signed, and how he was even given scripted responses to various questions.

There was this one quote I don't remember, Depp says, something to do with George Bernard Shaw. And then, says Depp, there was this other line he was to throw out: 'All people have secrets. I think secrets are what make life interesting, don't you?'

Cut, to the sets of The Village, and an interview with Adrien Brody where Kahn asks about the storyline and is told by Brody that he can't discuss that. And then Brody says, George Bernard Shaw said the only secrets are the secrets that keep themselves.

But is M Night Shyamalan a secretive sort of person, Kahn asks. "Everybody has secrets," Brody says. "Secrets are what make life interesting, don't you think?"

Ah, the penny drops. (Just to make sure it does, Kahn keeps intercutting Depp's and Brody's statements, repeatedly. There is one thing you cannot accuse this documentary of, and that is of being subtle.)

Again -- significant, because? Studios control media access; stars on big projects are told what they can, and cannot, say.

Cut, to a late evening session with Shyamalan that is less interview and more about hanging out together, having fun — a late night drive through Philly for cheese steaks and pool. And somewhere in there a fan comes up and asks for a picture of the director. Shyamalan obliges, posing with the fan while someone clicks the picture with the fan's own Polaroid camera.

A few minutes later, the fan is back. Something's wrong with the picture, she goes, can I get another one? She does. Kahn and Shyamalan drive away, and as soon as the director drops Kahn off, he rushes back to the nightspot, hunts up the fan, gets from her the discarded first photograph, and has a delicious little frisson when he discovers that there is this blur somewhere around the right side of Shyamalan's face.

A still from UnbreakableVarious camera professionals shake their heads in puzzlement over it. It could be smoke, says one; could be some movement, says another; but yes, it is very rare, say both.

(Very rare my aunt fanny – I have one exactly like that at home. Shot it on July 4, it was a long shot at night, of the 34th Street stretching towards the east side and, right at the extreme end, the bloom of fireworks silhouetted in between two tall buildings. The stuff in the foreground has the very same blur. Maybe there were ghosts around that night? Or maybe it has to do with a shaking hand?)

The whole mood of the documentary darkens as a pizza deliveryman takes a look at the picture and goes, ooh, that man in the picture, he is a Sindero (that's phonetic spelling, based on how the word sounded when Javier Ortez said it), a person who can communicate with spirits.

Former high school friend Cecilia Meadows is next up, talking of how at one time she was close to Shyamalan. Of how he used to love going to this particular place – all woods and a pond – about 45 minutes away from where his parents live. And how he told her that as a very young boy, 10 or so, he had fallen through the ice while trying to help a trapped deer, and been submerged underwater and subsequently rescued.

Turns out Shyamalan actually gave her the watch he was wearing at the time. Which makes Meadows and Shyamalan very close. It also makes the viewer scratch a puzzled head. The friendship between the two must have come several years after that incident; why Shyamalan would gift a watch he had preserved all this while to her is not clear, nor is it clear why she still keeps it in a brand new rosewood box, though she says she doesn't like thinking about that part of her life. But those are asides to the main story.

(There's a prime example of journalistic impropriety here, incidentally. Meadows is reluctant to talk; Kahn tells her he has
Shyamalan's okay and that the director will see and approve all footage before it is telecast. Obviously, either Shyamalan did approve this footage, though the filmmakers say no, or Kahn was lying about it, and that constitutes an invasion of privacy, false pretences, and a few other such ethical imponderables.)

Meadows revisits the region with the filmmakers, on a suitably dark night, and during the trip, the point is made: the watch has stopped at 6.30pm; per newspaper archives, Shyamalan was fished out at 7.05 pm; so the boy spent 35 minutes under water.

Wow! And in all these years, no one thought to notice. Not even his parents. In a later sequence, Shyamalan's mother, when asked, says she has no knowledge of her son having fallen into water.

What, the local newspapers knew he had fallen in and been fished out, but his own mother didn't?

Kahn goes fishing through newspaper archives, and discovers that the area is famous for drownings, dating back some 200 years or so, when a kid drowned amidst rumours of witchcraft and stuff.

A still from SignsIn an earlier sequence, an old school teacher of Shyamalan digs up a drawing he did as a child. It shows a kid with lank hair and squinty eyes. Keep that image in mind. One buried secret coming up in due time.

The filmmakers focus on another mystery. Apparently, in official bios, it is not clear where Shyamalan lived between the ages of 10 and 12. Cue in a film shot by Shyamalan when he was a young boy. The camera pans over a harvested cornfield that makes you think of a similar sequence in Signs and finally focuses on a house that is a dead ringer for the home of the Mel Gibson's character in that film.

And all this is interesting because? Shyamalan is known to have made home movies. He made 45 of them by age 17, starting from age eight when he first got a Super8. Among those, he shot one of his own home (it even shows his mother calling him in to dinner). And later, when planning Signs, used his childhood home as prototype for the home of the protagonist. Cool, break out the ouija board.

Kahn, anyway, tracks the house down, gets a real-estate agent to open it up, wanders around its deserted interior (with suitably jerky camera moments and Hitchcockian pauses in front of innocuous white doors) and, finally, they open up the master bedroom. And lo! a raven comes flying out, and flies into the faces of the estate agent and Kahn and his cameraman.

That cues in more bizarre business. Shyamalan wandering along the set of The Village, talking to himself ("Who is he talking to? There is no one there. Turn up the sound a little more"). And suddenly glancing off as a raven takes flight from a nearby branch. Shyamalan talking to Kahn, out in the woods, and a raven flying by, and the director glancing in its direction. You get the picture? Ravens. Associated with death. Why is Shyamalan looking at them all the time? Cue eerie music.

And finally, cut back to that home, and the opening bedroom door. As the estate agent opens it, we see vague shadows in there – and, in the mirror, something that could have been a human face. (It could equally have been a partial view of dust-cloth covered furniture, but let's not go there.)

I think, says Kahn, that is "Henry" – Shyamalan's pretend friend from childhood, the boy whose picture he drew. The boy who, 200 years ago, died in the same pond Shyamalan almost drowned in. Or not.

The documentary ends on a suitably cheesy note. It is a snowy night in Philadelphia, and Kahn goes around asking people what they think of the supernatural. You believe in it? Yeah? Anything happened in your life to make you believe in it? Yeah? What would you say if someone offered you proof that the supernatural exists?

Yeah!

At the end of three hours in front of the television screen, it is hard to tell whether it is Shyamalan, or the viewer's intelligence, that should feel more insulted.

The documentary supposedly had Shyamalan's initial okay; then, we are told, the director withdrew permission and even attempted to stop its airing. More recently, media reports say, the prints mysteriously vanished from the studios, just a couple of weeks before its scheduled airing.

It appears as mysteriously to have reappeared – and there is no word on how it went missing, and how it was recovered. A gigantic publicity stunt?

Could well be that the studio appears to be pushing this particular film as hard as any picture has been pushed, ever. Some two months ago, for instance, Shyamalan's The Sixth Sense was aired on another television channel, with the director appearing every half hour to tell you of an "unprecedented event" later on in the film.

That event came right at the end — the airing of a seven-and-a-half-minute trailer of The Village. And as Shyamalan himself said at the time, "The film hasn't even been completed yet, this is not even an official trailer..."

Is this documentary part of that push? Did Shyamalan co-operate, and set it all up, to create this buzz about a director with a hotline to the netherworld just in time for the July 30 vision of his next cinematic foray into the supernatural?

If he did, Shyamalan is slipping. This film is as hokey as they come. (There is, for instance, this particularly hilarious sequence of an 'occultist', "Chucmool", dipping the lighted end of his cigar into his mouth and blowing out streams of smoke, then tossing cowrie shells onto a mat and going, "He sees spirits, but he won't admit it; he doesn't sleep well at night because the spirits keep him up" that might have played well in one of those home movies Shyamalan made as a kid, but are way too cheesy for an adult effort.)

A still from The Sixth SenseOr is it just Kahn's attempt to take a notional button and sew an entire suit around it? Maybe it is Significant that it aired on the SciFi channel – the accent seems more on 'fiction' than 'science'.

The documentary underlines one "fact". Shyamalan, who grew up in Philly, is comfortable there; he likes to shoot his movies in and around that region and rarely ventures far away. Which everyone knew all along. Shyamalan has said as much, in umpteen interviews. Kahn invests even this with eerie overtones: from a book, he reads out something about how Sinderos rarely stray away from the area in which they had their near death experiences. (Steven Spielberg, if memory serves me right, shot a lot of stuff around the Phoenix, Arizona, region he grew up in. But let's not go there.)

Various scenes from past movies are dredged up and sought to be invested with significance beyond the films themselves. Thus, much is made of the water motif, via clips from Unbreakable (water is the weakness, remember?). In another clip, Haley Joel Osment (Oscar-nominated for The Sixth Sense) makes his epochal revelation that he can communicate with the dead. And somehow we are expected to believe that is an indication that Shyamalan can, too.

At the very end, you are left asking yourself the same question Cecilia Meadows asks Kahn and his crew, late at night by the side of the pond Shyamalan allegedly had his life-changing experience in: "What are you trying to do? What are you trying to do to him?!"

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