From the Vault: M. Night Shyamalan on Lady in the Water

As M. Night Shyamalan's career takes another knock with After Earth, Culture Web takes a look back at Stephen Applebaum's meeting with the filmmaker for the release of Lady in the Water.
You’ve said that writing Lady in the Water was the greatest struggle of your career. Why was this film particularly difficult?

“[Sighs] I think I was purging some stuff. Bad habits, protective things, neuroses that were starting to build up in my system. I had to get them out and the only way to do that was to make something void of any protection, and to experience the freedom of that. The only thing I can say is it would be like you’re in a fight, and the whole time you’re nervous you’re going to get hit, so you lower your guard and let the other guy hit you as hard as he can. The reason that you’re doing that is to say, ‘You’ve hit me as hard as you can, now I have no fear.’ Now the rest of the fight, if you’re still standing, this other person has no power over you whatsoever.

“I remember I used to watch Mike Tyson and he was an okay boxer until someone hit him. When he got hit, I remember this as a kid watching him, the other person was dead. He was reacting out of anger, of course. But it would awaken some kind of monster in him. It was like he couldn’t achieve his full potential until he was hit, because the first part of the fight was covered with fear. He was purging fear, basically.”

I have to say that the film felt like your most personal work, like you were in a sense dissecting yourself on screen.

“Yes, yes, for sure. It was a very naked thing. Very raw. I think it’s the responsibility of all filmmakers, not only filmmakers, artists, that have been lucky enough to have an audience to risks. Take huge risks. Risk it all. Take it all. If you’re not willing to do that, ultimately I don’t think that the audience will respect you - if you are an artist. And I strive to be an artist as opposed to someone that works at Wal-Mart putting things on a shelf. It did feel that way making it. And I think probably, as time goes on, it will be a shining thing in the body of work. When there’s, say, 20 movies, they’ll say, ‘This was what was going on.’ It will be easier with time to look back and watch the movie, I think.”

But what was the nature of the fear? Where did it come from?

“A fear of what people will say. The fear of innocence. Because, you know, if someone came in here and said, ‘I believe all people are good’, you and I would be like rolling our eyes, you know? That would be our reaction to that. Now, if they said, ‘I believe all people are good and I’m going to give you reasons why,’ we’d start to listen. But that comes from strength, you know what I mean? Innocence has been thrown on the heap of bad. It’s not an admirable characteristic. It’s associated with weakness and naiveté, crazy. I don’t agree. Life is complicated that’s true, very complicated, but essentially we’re moving in the right place. Essentially, we as a world realise that killing is wrong. Essentially. These things weren’t true before. You’d be walking and there’d be heads on London Bridge, say, and you’d be like, ‘OK, let’s go to work.’ That’s the way it worked not too long ago. Blacks just got the vote in the generation of the people that are alive now. . . You know what the answer to your question is? Fear of being yourself.”

Had you reached a point then where you felt you weren’t being yourself? Why did you feel that you needed to do this now?

“There’s a children’s story, it’s a parable, about a bear that goes to bed in a cave in winter and when he wakes up a factory has been built over it. So he gets up and the foreman says, ‘Hey, get back to work,’ and he says, ‘I’m a bear’. The foreman says, ‘No you’re not. You’re a man who needs a shave and wears a silly fur coat. Now go to work.’ He’s like, ‘I know I’m a bear.’ So the foreman takes him to the manager. He says, ‘I’m a bear’, and the manager says, ‘No you’re not. You’re a silly man who needs a shave and wears a fur coat.’ Finally he’s taken to the president, who says, ‘You’re a silly man who needs a shave and wears a fur coat. Stop acting like this.’ He says, ‘I’m a bear.’ And they’re like, ‘We’ll prove to you you’re not a bear.’ So they take him to the zoo and they show him to other bears, and they go, ‘Is this a bear?’ The bears go, ‘He can’t be a bear because he’s outside the cage. He’s obviously a silly man who needs a shave and wears a fur coat.’ So then the bear goes, ‘Maybe I am a silly man who needs a shave and wears a fur coat.’ So he goes to the factory and works there for years, and then the factory closes down and everyone leaves, and he’s the only one left and doesn’t know what to do. It starts to snow, it’s cold, and he’s shivering. Suddenly he sees a leaf fall from a tree and remembers that bears, when the leaves falls, need to go to caves. So he goes to a cave and he’s warm, and he goes, ‘I am a bear.’

“So it’s that. The world will pound individuality out of you. They will pound it out of you until you can prove that those things that make you different are admirable and an asset. Until you prove that they will be seen as a negative and they will pound you into oblivion until you conform. Would it be much easier for me to go make, like, Mission: Impossible 4 or something? Hell yeah! It would be so much easier for me to do that. I would not be me, though, unless I could do it for the right reasons. And I promise you, if I did do a Mission: Impossible 4, it would come out in a way where everyone would be, like, ‘What the hell is this?’ [Laughs]”

So is that what you felt was happening to you at Disney when you split from them and took your script for Lady in the Water to Warner Bros? Was your individuality being pounded out of you, or at the least being questioned?

“Well, um, it’s a common thing; it’s not just a Disney thing. They were always like parents to me, they still are, and they were giving me parental advice. This is not a caustic relationship; this is a great relationship, as I have with Warner. The fallacy is that I’ve ever had a tough relationship with these people. These have all been great relationships. That’s why it was so difficult to leave. If it was a fractious relationship it would have been cake. But it was not that way. But they were being parental and parents say, ‘Don’t do this. Don’t that. You’ll get in trouble. Don’t become a rock star. Don’t be a filmmaker because it’s highly risky.’ That’s what my parents said.”

Yes, your father has been particularly difficult to please and I wondered whether what Disney was telling you reminded you of your relationship with him.

“Yes. That’s why I describe them as parental. They’re coming from a good place. They’re trying to protect. But you can’t say the things that make me similar to a man who’s wearing a fur coat are the only things. Those aren’t the things you nurture necessarily. The bear parts of me are also those things that need to be celebrated and nurtured. It’s not like, ‘We would have made $700 million off of The Village if you had done this, this and this.’ I’m aware of that. But I side with the parents in that film. So I did the movie from the point of view of the parents, and so that’s going to piss a lot of people off. If you side with the children and blow up the fucking village and get the hell out of there, and all the parents are the villains, that’s easy to understand and much more in line with the general population’s feeling. People’s expectations would be met - boom, boom, boom - and we would have two times as much gross, I guess. I totally understand that. I can’t do that. I wish I could. I told them, ‘I wish I could, I hear you, but I actually side with the parents. If I’d had these horrific things happen to me that those people have had in their lives, I’d say enough’s enough. I don’t want to raise kids in this world anymore. I have the ability to do this, let’s just go back to an older time.’ So in this fictional moral question I chose the side that I consciously knew was going to cause more problems and limit us. That’s the bear instinct. In the long run, I feel that that’s why I will still have an audience 20 years from now. And that’s why, whatever you call it, the media critics – in the United States at least – react so personally to me. So personally.”

Yes, the criticism recently has been very harsh.

“Yeah, very personally to me. Way over what’s needed. And based on no evidence at all that I am difficult or crazy, or any of those things. They don’t write anything that would contradict their premise that I have gone crazy. Warner Bros. actually likes Lady in the Water. So they’re crazy as well. We’re all crazy. The cast loves the movie so they’re also crazy. The crew loves the movie to the point where they will say it’s their favourite movie. So they’re also crazy. So there’s a lot of crazy people. I’m just not crazy. Then the crazy people acknowledge that the movie can be seen and not understood. So the crazy people seem to acknowledge the other people, but they don’t seem to acknowledge anybody else but their point of view. They can’t imagine anybody liking this movie.

“Really, go to any multiplex in the United States and there’s a contingent of people that are standing up and applauding. I’ve heard from all across the nation of standing ovations in multiplexes. Also there’s the other contingent that are like, ‘What the fuck was that? Where’s the fucking scares? Where’s this? Where’s that?’ They don’t get it. I totally know there’s a way to look at it where you don’t get it. There’s also this other way to look at it. And that’s the thing, you know? Some part of me really does wish I was one thing or the other. And my wife always says, ‘Why don’t you make one or the other?’ You know, I almost get tears in my eyes when she says that because I know she’s trying to protect me, but unfortunately I’m neither one nor the other.”

Do you regard this as a defining moment like the one when Harvey Weinstein took control of Wide Awake and the film flopped, spurring you on to write The Sixth Sense?

“Yeah, but not in the same way. Almost in a reverse way. Because that was one where I was lost and the system took advantage of me. I was searching and lost and I was fumbling. This is one where I’m not lost and the system is trying to take advantage of me. I am finding, for me, this is just my point of view, they are powerless. Because I am going to write another one, I am going to get one of the best actors in the world, and I will try to inspire someone with money to pay me to make it. I will convince them why I believe it will connect to people. I will convince them in a room. We will go make another one, then another one after that, another one after that, and then another one after that. And you can keep coming at them but eventually you would have to say, ‘He’s a fucking bear. Leave him alone. He’s a bear.’ So it’s a reverse kind of realisation. One was, ‘I need to get my shit together because I’m going to get killed in this industry.’ That’s what happened with the Harvey thing. If I was the me now, it wouldn’t have turned out like that because I would have been clear. I would have said, ‘Harvey, no.’ Look, I’ve been super, super lucky. Super, super lucky and been given a strong responsibility, which I don’t take lightly. I consider part of my responsibility to not cater, not even to my own protective feelings.”

You’ve said that each film reflects where you were in your life when you wrote it. So what mood will you be writing the next piece in?

“It’s interesting you said that because I immediately had an answer, because I know what I’m writing next. It’s funny you should say that because right now, who knows by the time you see it, but the lead character right now is undeniably faithful. He’s not doing the arc. Other people are doing the arc around him. In the middle of this supernatural dark event that’s happening, he’s the one that’s going, ‘Follow me’, and they’re going, ‘You’re crazy’. There’s a real sense of it’s all going to work out and that there’s a reason behind things that sound awfully bad right now. So he’s a man who has faith and not a man who’s finding faith, which is very different to a lot of these characters. So till you just said that it didn’t even occur to me.”

And that’s how you feel now?

“I’ve never felt so fearless in the writing, so it actually allows me to write incredible thriller-like movies, because I am not proving or giving up anything. It’s coming from faith and confidence. So you can have the great scares and the great ride and the great everything and it’s coming really great and effortlessly rather than being a struggle. Everyone’s normal perception is one for them and one for you. So you make the big popcorn movie then you go make your own personal movie, and I’ve always wanted to do both of them together. And that’s where all the problems come from. The audience goes: ‘Hey, that’s not scary enough’ or ‘It’s not popcorn enough’, and then the critics are like, ‘Oh, he’s a hack’. So they’re both looking at it through the wrong lenses. Not the joint lenses.”
© Stephen Applebaum, 2006

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