M. Night Shyamalan Biography


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Birth Name: M. Night Shyamalan
Born: 08/06/1970
Birth Place: Mah


Born Manjo Nelliyattu Shyamalan in Mahe, Pondicherry, India, he was the son of prominent Indian doctors who raised their son in the United States. He was given a Super-8 camera while very young and filmed his own version of Spielbergesque fantasies and adventures while growing up in the affluent Pennsylvania suburb of Penn Valley. Shyamalan's father envisioned a future in medicine for his son, but his mother encouraged him to pursue his interest in film, and he studied film and liberal arts at the Tisch School of the Arts at New York University.

While there, Shyamalan not only dreamt up a new middle name, but he also completed his first feature film. "Praying with Anger" (1992) was a semi-autobiographical drama about a young American-born Indian (Shyamalan) who visits his native country on a cultural exchange program. There, he discovers not only hidden truths about his family, but also the simmering tensions between Western and Indian cultures. Written, directed and produced by Shyamalan - on a budget of $750,000 raised largely by friends and family - "Praying with Anger" screened at the Toronto Film Festival to mixed reviews, though many critics in attendance noted that Shyamalan had potential as a filmmaker.

After college, Shyamalan began submitting scripts to various studios. He found his first patron in Miramax, who purchased "Wide Awake" and agreed to the conditions that he would be allowed to direct the film and shoot it in his native Pennsylvania. A wan comedy-drama about a grade-schooler (Joseph Cross) who sets out on a spiritual journey after the death of his beloved grandfather (Robert Loggia), "Wide Awake" featured all the earmarks of Shyamalan's future efforts - a preoccupation with faith and the possibilities of belief in the face of traumatic events (in addition to his grandfather's death, Cross' character must deal with his friend's epilepsy) - but its treacley script prevented a deeper connection with audiences. Undaunted, he continued to work on scripts, and earned one of his first high-profile jobs as the writer of the hit kiddie film, "Stuart Little" (1997).

While working on "Stuart," he began penning a supernatural story - reportedly inspired by an episode of the juvenile fantasy series "Are You Afraid of the Dark?" (Nickelodeon, 1990-2000) - about a young man with the ability to see ghosts. The script, titled "The Sixth Sense," found its way to Disney, where it was instantly snapped up by Disney Pictures president David Vogel without prior approval by his superiors. The company balked at his payout of $2 million for the script and agreeing to allow Shyamalan to direct, so sold off its distribution rights to Spyglass Entertainment.

Unfortunately, the move was a massive mistake for Disney. The film, which starred Bruce Willis as a psychiatrist who attempts to aid a young boy (Haley Joel Osment) who is plagued by visions of spirits, was a colossal success at the box office with over $600 million in ticket sales, thanks to its astonishing denouement (that Willis himself was a ghost, having been killed by a former patient, played by an emaciated Donnie Walhberg in the film's opening sequence). Critics praised the lean and clever machinery of the script as well as Shyamalan's atmospheric, Gothic-steeped direction, noting also his Hitchcockian cameo, which would become a tradition in future efforts. Audiences helped to usher Osment's tag line, "I see dead people," into the pop culture lexicon. "The Sixth Sense" earned six Academy Award nominations, including Best Picture and Best Director, and minted Shyamalan as the go-to filmmaker for supernatural fare.

He earned a $5 million payday for his next film, "Unbreakable" (2000), on which he served as producer as well as writer and director. The project reunited him with Willis, who played a decidedly ordinary security guard who discovers that he may possess otherworldly powers after surviving a horrific train wreck. His belief is fostered by an art director (Samuel L. Jackson) who himself is something of an outsider, thanks to a condition that has rendered his bones as fragile as glass. Under Jackson's tutelage, Willis fosters his latent powers, which later come to include an ability to ferret out evildoers through extra-sensory perception. The development of these powers later leads Willis to make some unsettling discoveries, including one about Jackson's true identity. An intriguing mix of mythology and folklore and comic book derring-do, "Unbreakable" failed to earn the same box office as "The Sixth Sense" but the audience anticipation for his second big picture was substantial. Shyamalan blamed some of the box office failure on Disney's decision to market the picture as a supernatural thriller and not a superhero-driven action adventure film. In subsequent interviews, he would consider this as the beginning of a rift with the studio that would deepen in later years.

After being bandied about as the director on several high-profile projects, including an Indiana Jones sequel for his hero Spielberg and one of the Harry Potter films, Shyamalan rebounded with "Signs," a remarkably creepy science-fiction thriller with another top action star, Mel Gibson, in the lead. The film perfectly synthesized the director's Spielberg-like aspirations of presenting a character-driven story within the context of a special-effects heavy epic, crystallized by playing out Gibson's internal conflict - being a former priest, he loses his faith after the accidental death of his wife - against the backdrop of a massive alien invasion. And if the finale staggered under the weight of its own implausibility (Gibson dispatches the extraterrestrial menace with a well-placed Louisville Slugger and a glass of water), audiences did not seem to care. "Signs" went on to be Shyamalan's second biggest box office hit to date, and restored some of the faith he had earned from critics and moviegoers after "The Sixth Sense."

His rebound, however, proved short-lived. "The Village" (2004) featured an all-star cast, including again, Joaquin Phoenix, as well as Sigourney Weaver, William Hurt, Adrien Brody, and Ron Howard's daughter Bryce Dallas Howard. It also had an intriguing premise. The inhabitants of a rural 19th century village live in fear of menacing creatures that lurk in the nearby woods. As the tenuous truce between humans and monsters appears to break down, some of the younger villagers discover that the atmosphere of terror in the village may actually be the work of its elders. Audiences were willing to follow the film's conceit up until the final "sting" - the village was actually a construct created by Hurt as a means of warding off the pain and ugliness of the modern world. The ending generated a firestorm of negative criticism for Shyamalan, and resulted in lower-than-expected ticket sales. The director again responded to the outpouring of dismal reviews by placing the blame on Disney, who allegedly marketed "The Village" as a horror film and not a period romance, per his wishes.

Shyamalan's profile took another hit when he participated in a Sci Fi Channel special titled "The Buried Secret of M. Night Shyalaman." A three-hour biography-cum-tribute that was shot on the set of "The Village," it generated massive controversy for its claim that his interest in the supernatural came after a near-death experience at the age of 11, which allowed him to communicate with the spirit world. The "revelation" of this fact reportedly incensed Shyamalan, who refused to participate in the project, and the special was aired without his consent. Upon its airing, the film was revealed as a massive hoax, which caused both Sci Fi's parent company, NBC-Universal, and Disney to distance itself from the special and Shyamalan in the ensuing fallout. Further controversy was courted when author Margaret Peterson Haddix briefly considered launching a lawsuit over similarities between her novel Running Out of Time and "The Village." This charge of plagiarism was not the first generated by one of Shyamalan's films; science fiction readers noted similarities between "The Sixth Sense" and Orson Scott Card's Lost Boys, and a suit was later launched over allegations regarding "Signs" and an unpublished screenplay.

After briefly considering a film adaptation of Yann Martel's novel Life of Pi, Shyamalan began work on a new film based on a story he had told to his child. "The Lady in the Water" starred Bryce Dallas Howard as a fairy-like creature who emerges from an apartment swimming pool to bring clarity to the lives of the downtrodden tenants. The overly complicated script was met with resistance by Disney, which led to the final breakdown between the studio and Shyamalan. Unfortunately, rather than keep the details of the preproduction meetings private, he discussed them in detail with Michael Bamberger, who was penning a book about the film. The resulting tome, The Man Who Heard Voices, had Shyamalan publicly excoriating Disney executives for their shortsightedness and lack of faith in both him and filmmaking in general. The reaction to the book and to Shyamalan's apparent inflated ego was largely damning.

Even more unpleasant was critical reaction to the film, which cost Warner Bros. $140 million to make and ended up grossing just $42 million in its initial month of release. The implausible nature of its fantasy elements was the central area of critical complaint, though many lodged charges of self-indulgence at Shyamalan's decision to cast himself as a central character, a perplexed writer whose work would someday change the world. Others singled out Mr. Farber (Bob Balaban), a movie critic who is also the film's most unlikable and narrow-minded character in the film, as further indications of Shyamalan's public slams and ego run amuck. Brickbats such as these and countless others helped to assure "Lady's" quick demise at theaters. The sole positive note associated with Shyamalan during this entire period was an impressive commercial for American Express that depicted the filmmaker dreaming up strange scenarios while dining at a restaurant.

Shyamalan made appearances in many of his films. In addition to this lead performance in "Praying with Anger" and the supporting role he played in "Lady in the Water," he cameoed as a doctor in "The Sixth Sense" and an alleged drug dealer in "Unbreakable." He had a larger part in "Signs" as a dazed neighbor of Mel Gibson who has captured one of the creatures, but took a small role in "The Village." The character was nevertheless significant, since he proved instrumental in revealing the movie's twist to the audience.

Despite such a considerable fall from grace following the "Lady in the Water" box office and bureaucratic debacle, Shyamalan's film career continued unabated. In 2007, a new script titled "The Green Effect" was reportedly making the rounds in Hollywood, but was receiving no offers. After an extensive rewrite, 20th Century Fox (in conjunction with the India-based film company UTV) committed to the project, which was now titled "The Happening," and marked Shyamalan's first entry into R-rated fare. A dark horror-thriller about a rash of mysterious deaths that throws civilization into a global panic, the film's human element was provided by Mark Walhberg and Zooey Deschanel as a couple attempting to make sense of the traumatic events.

The year 2007 also marked Shyamalan's connection with a live-action version of the popular animated fantasy series "Avatar: The Last Airbender" (Nickelodeon, 2005-2008). Once again, his children served as the inspiration for the project; reportedly, Shyamalan discovered the program after his daughter requested that she dress as a character for Halloween. He began production on the film in May of 2009, and the effects-heavy movie, entitled "The Last Airbender," was released in 3D during the summer of 2010. Widely panned and domestically unsuccessful, the film performed decently abroad, but did nothing to rehab Shyamalan's career. After producing the modest horror hit "Devil" (2010), he returned to directing, collaborating with Will Smith and his son, Jaden, for the 2013 futuristic father-son adventure "After Earth." Despite the senior Smith's significant box-office clout, the movie crash-landed upon arrival, both critically and commercially, providing yet another setback to Shyamalan's attempts at regaining widespread appreciation.