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August 7, 1999
Night Shyamalan Is Very Disturbed: Bruce Willis
R S Shankar in Los Angeles
One of Hollywood's most expensive stars, Bruce Willis, who gets $ 20 million for films like Armageddon, has a complaint about the director of his latest film.
"Night is a very disturbed individual," says Willis, referring to Manoj Night Shyamalan, who directed him in The Sixth Sense, now showing on more than 2,000 screens across America.
Of course, Willis is joking.
"Seriously though, he assigns a lot of meaning and mysticism to the fact that he simply wrote a really brilliant script," says Willis.
Shyamalan was about 27 when Willis agreed to act in the movie two years ago. Willis slashed his massive fee so that the film could be made for a budget far less than Hollywood's $ 60 million average.
"There have only been three scripts that I have ever read in my career that I immediately knew I wanted to do and The Sixth Sense was one of those," he said.
This is the second filmed script by Shyamalan. Last year, Wide Awake, a drama about a young boy's obsession with God and the afterlife, was released through Miramax. And now Buena Vista, which, like Miramax, is an arm of Walt Disney, has released The Sixth Sense, a suspenseful melodrama about a complex relationship between an eight-year-old boy with paranormal abilities and a troubled psychiatrist.
According to the story, the psychiatrist had been confronted a year ago in his home by a former patient, who blamed him for his persistent mood disorder. The intruder puts one bullet in the doctor and another through his head. A few months later, the chastened psychiatrist comes across a boy who has similar mood disorders -- at least on the surface -- and seeks to help him.
Willis, who loves to make occasional departures from his high-octane, big budget films, considers himself lucky for having got to act in The Sixth Sense. But a lot of people in the movie industry wonder if this stark, slow-moving film could have been made without his presence in it, since it does not have another easily recognisable actor.
Had a lesser star acted in the film, Hollywood insiders say, the distributors of The Sixth Sense would not have dared open it in a season that is overcrowded with big budget mass-appeal films such as The Thomas Crown Affair, Mystery Men and Deep Blue Sea.
Willis, notorious for his quick temper and quirkiness, on the other hand considers himself lucky to have been chosen for the film.
"Honestly," says Willis, "I think Night would have got any number of leading men to respond to this script the way I did."
The veteran star was also glad to work with Haley Joel Osment (the young Forrest Gump). "He is the most amazing child actor I've ever seen," says Willis, while complimenting Shyamalan for choosing an exceptional cast that includes Toni Collette, a distinguished Australian actress (Muriel's Wedding) as the mother of the child.
Casting Willis in a key part in his film and seeing him perform gave Shyamalan a lot of satisfaction. "Bruce's performance is so poignant in this film," he says. "There were times when we were shooting and I would look through the lens or at the monitor and I didn't even recognise him. It is a fascinating performance, filled with subtle humour and pathos... definitely some of his best work as an actor."
The two parts -- of the doctor and the patient -- were obviously written with a lot of care.
"You have Malcolm, a doctor who has devoted his life to children and families," says Shyamalan, "and you have Cole, a boy who is so ultra-sensitive. Through the growth of their friendship, they come to recognise the goodness in each other and the prospect of helping each other."
Casting Haley Joel Osment in the pivotal role in his movie did not come easily. Shyamalan had interviewed dozens of children in New York and Philadelphia, but had not found the right actor. So he went to California, reluctantly.
At the audition, Haley came in wearing a little Oxford shirt. Shyamalan thought the kid looked cute. But would he do well in the complex part? At that time Osment had not acted in many television shows such as the recent episode of Ally McBeal, and some of his films, such as Bogus were box-office duds.
"I just leaned back and Haley started the scene," Shyamalan remembers, "and it was like I had never heard the scene before.
"It was as though I had never heard the dialogue. All of a sudden, every word was perfect. He finished the scene and he was crying, and I was crying and all I could say was, 'Who are you? Where did you come from?' "
Now moviegoers across America are discovering a major talent and there is already buzz of an Oscar nomination for Haley Joel Osment. As for Willis, there is indeed satisfaction of having worked with two immensely talented young men -- a co-star and a director. And who knows, there could be an Oscar nomination too.
And if The Sixth Sense does score big at the box-office and gross over $ 100 million -- the break-even figure for it -- Willis stands to get part of the money as per a backend deal he reportedly negotiated for forgoing his usual hefty fee.
The Sixth Sense is not a Bruce Willis film, said a reviewer in Newsday, referring to the fact that film revolves around a child. "He can, however, be proud he was in it."
And so can Shyamalan. When there are scores of young men and women who moan that Hollywood wants only formula movies, he convinced one of the biggest movie production companies to buy his script and let him have the final say in the editing room.
Shyamalan, born and raised in Philadelphia by his doctor parents, has shot the film in and around the city he loves. Today he waits to hear about its box-office performance.
The Sixth Sense is his third and most expensive film. It reportedly cost about $ 40 million. His first, Praying With Anger, a partly autobiographical film about an exchange student from America who goes back to India and finds himself a stranger in his home country, was made in Madras seven years ago, soon after he got a degree in film-making from New York University.
The movie cost less than $ 100,000; Wide Awake, his second film, cost about $ 6 million, but made less than $ 300,000. And yet The Sixth Sense got the green signal because people like Bruce Willis backed Shyamalan to the hilt.
"Hollywood does like to take risks and often does not get the credit for it," says film-writer Ric Ornellas. The Sixth Sense, Ornellas points out, was worth taking a risk.
"But if it does not do well, will there be others like Bruce Willis to back up Shyamalan in another film?"
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