Archita Kashyap - 48 weeks ago
20 years since its release, The Sixth Sense created a filmmaker who has survived lowest falls to emerge truer to his craft.
(Director M. Night Shyamalan with Bruce Willis and Olivia Williams on the set of The Sixth Sense)
For those who recall, 1999 had a punch line of sorts - “I see dead people.” Manoj Night Shyamalan, Indian origin American director, who had taken the Hollywood studio system by storm with The Sixth Sense, had made the horror drama with the ultimate twist. The author recalls her college notice board, a day after desperately landing affordable tickets at a multiplex for the film, where a couple of classmates had put out the spoiler on the notice board - Bruce Willis is the ghost. Infuriating as it was, one was further motivated to find out why this was such a big deal, in what was, well a movie about ghosts.
Manoj Night Shyamalan made The Sixth Sense 20 years ago. It released on August 6, also his birthday, across America, stunning audiences and careening past cautious predictions of its performance riding on solid word of mouth. Mobile telephony and the Internet had not caught on quite so widely yet, but it still became a cult with its twist in the end; getting people to come back and watch as to how it had fooled them so. The film made $ 673 million worldwide, as per Hollywood Reporter, making it the second highest grossing film of that year. Interestingly it released on the same year as The Blair Witch Project, another indie that had set box office records. Shyamalan was nominated for the Best Director Oscar, along with five other nominations for the film. Bruce Willis didn’t get one but his turn as a sensitive and vulnerable therapist, after his macho action hero avatar, revealed the actor in him. No surprises then, that Willis continues to collaborate with Shyamalan on other films like Split and Glass.
(Adrien Brody, Scott Rudin and M. Night Shyamalan during the shooting of The Village)
Shyamalan had made the film with a tough bid. Having written a few hits, like Stuart Little, and directed cold turkeys like Wide Awake, the filmmaker had told his agents to price his horror film at an opening bid of $ 1 million and with a clear condition that he would be directing. Despite such high handed tactics for a relatively nondescript newcomer, Shyamalan’s script had Hollywood studios scrambling, especially when it became known that Bruce Willis, action superstar of Die Hard movies was already attached to the project. Backed by a now defunct label belonging to Disney, Shyamalan earned over $ 2 million for his script. He picked the vulnerable, gentle Haley Joel Osment after giving it some thought and because the child actor wore a tie for his audition. Surprised at his prep, Shyamalan discovered that Osment had read not just his part, but the entire script over 3 times before rehearsals. Essentially a relationships drama about this kid who can see ghosts, his single mother struggling to make their life work and his bond with a child psychological therapist, The Sixth Sense raised the bar in horror story telling, with Toni Collete delivering a masterful performance as the confused mother to Cole (Osment).
(M.Night Shyamalan and Mel Gibson in a behind the scene still from Signs)
Shyamalan followed up on this film with Unbreakable (2000) re-teaming with Bruce Willis and working with an unhappy Samuel L Jackson. Unbreakable was a super hero meets spooky meets supernatural thriller. Critics loved the film and it went on to become a cult, if not a blockbuster. Signs, Shyamalan’s next, was a thriller about extra-terrestrial invasion, without the usual hyperbole but set in a family’s story in rural America. With Mel Gibson delivering a controlled performance, this film fared well with both critics and audiences. And then came the downslide. The four films that followed next - The Village, Lady in the Water, The Last Airbender and After Earth - were immediate washouts with critics, operating on story lines that defy credibility and logic. Each one featured a star and rode on an intriguing trailer, allowing the studios to make money. But Shyamalan’s credibility as a genius filmmaker with the Midas touch dipped massively. In fact, The Happening, where India’s Ronnie Screwvala also stepped in with a co-producer credit walked this line of a promising trailer, but crashed and burned with audiences because it was about trees joining up to release a toxin that could make you want to kill (duh!). So much so that Mark Wahlberg, the film’s star, has called it a ‘bad movie’ in retrospect. The wide eyed, charming filmmaker who had become the toast of Hollywood critics, had suddenly become the butt of ridicule, and in his own words, a ‘cautionary tale’. In fact, while promoting After Earth, where Jaden Smith was meant to be launched into Hollywood fame, Shyamalan’s name was hidden by the studio from promotional materials.
(Bruce Willis and M. Night Shyamalan on the set of Glass)
As is often the case with a downfall, re-invention began for Shyamalan with a high risk, all-bets-are-off approach. He made The Visit in 2015, a found footage horror with strains of comedy that don’t blend in, but don’t jar either. He mortgaged his house and almost all family assets to club together about $ 5 million to make this film free of studio system pressures and expectations. His first round of efforts to present it to studios failed, and he came back home, disheartened. He returned with a different cut and Jason Blum, experienced producer of horror hits, decided to team up with Shyamalan to release the film. Made on a shoestring budget, the film clocked nearly $ 200 million. But it did much more than that to Shyamalan’s career - it gave him prestige and critical appreciation once again. Most reviews were headlined with a tone of surprise, that Shyamalan had finally managed to make a film that went beyond the shock ending twist formula, and delivered an uneasy, conceptually disturbing film. The Visit felt like that indie that this devotedly mainstream filmmaker never got a chance to make in his early years. Emboldened by its success and the acceptance that his TV series, Wayward Pines had found, Shyamalan made Split, a superb thriller about a split personality that is not just calculating, menacing and violent but in one manifestation, seems to be supernaturally powered. James McAvoy delivers a winning performance, and Split went on to gross hundreds of millions while winning critics over. it was self-financed by the filmmaker. More importantly, it brought back the credibility that he had lost - of a potential mainstream Hollywood filmmaker who could cut across genres and create original, edge of the seat thrillers. Shyamalan followed up with a sequel, Glass, earlier this year, but the film didn’t go down well with critics. Once again, having double mortgaged his home and having risked his family assets, Shyamalan’s sequel made money, ensuring that the maverick filmmaker continues with his experiments with fear.
Currently, Shyamalan has returned to his favourite city to film, Philadelphia, also home to his best film ever, The Sixth Sense to produce and direct a show for Apple’s streaming service. As stated to Rolling Stones, he has come to terms with the fact that he is still motivated to make thrillers more than anything else. While speaking to the AFI years ago, the filmmaker had said, “Go into this profession if only you want to do it so badly that you are willing to risk everything. If you are considering it along with some other profession, I would say don’t go for it. You will hear a lot of stuff, you will be disappointed and your parents, people around you might think you are a failure. You’ve got to want to do this so bad, that despite of it all, you are still willing to go on making films.” His ability to resuscitate his career so often perhaps is best explained by this statement - after all, grand failures teach you hard lessons. In the case of M Night Shyamalan, failure has strengthened his craft and made him focus on that which he chose to do in the first place - make a truly kick ass, thrilling film.
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