The writer/director talks about his new film and his pivotal role in the dark fantasy

M. Night Shyamalan, goes by "Night" if you ever meet him, is a pretty engaging guy. He conquered Hollywood at an early age and has more or less run his own show ever since. Lady in the Water is his most original film to date. It's his idea and he builds a fairly elaborate story to support it. Lady in the Water marks the biggest acting role Night has had in his studio films. He plays a pivotal character that is fated to change the world through his words. I had to ask him whether he thought filmmakers or writers really had that power. His answer was brilliant. Read on to find out...

This was originally a fairy tale for your kids and then it evolved into something much darker. How far did you want to take the scarier themes without losing the younger audience?

M. Night Shyamalan: When it was back at Disney (laughter), they were so stringent about what has the Disney label on it, to the point that it hurt the piece. I wasn't allowing it to be visceral, because I was so worried about those kinds of things. When that didn't happen over there, it really freed me up to do it. When I was shooting the movie, I was going, "I'm starting to lose some kids," it was getting scarier and scarier and scarier. So for me it stops at around 8 years old, and for 7 year olds, it probably will be too much for.

Do still you read bedtime stories to your children?

M. Night Shyamalan: I do that a lot, but not as much as I should, because they ask every day.

How old are they?

M. Night Shyamalan: 9 and 6. I wasn't told stories like that when I was a kid. I read a lot and wrote a lot as a kid; a lot of stories, so I always thought it was very magical. I guess the storytellers were the filmmakers at that time, like Lucas and Spielberg, telling those amazing stories when I was 7 to 12. I had the best storytellers in the world. They were telling me stories right when I was ready to hear stories. "Once upon a time in a galaxy far, far away..."

Where did this story come from?

M. Night Shyamalan: There's always some hook that gets me, like the idea of what if someone was living under your pool, why would they be there? Then why would they be there spawns a whole story that comes from that.

There's a great scene where the smarmy film critic gets his due. Was that a thumb in the face to all critics?

M. Night Shyamalan: I was in a very raw mood when I wrote the movie. It came out very heightened and parody-like. The movie had an eccentricity about it, like "Princess Bride". The characters are commenting on the story, as the story's going on, do you believe in them? He's a part of a world where everyone is realizing their potential, but he's stopped learning. The moment it's too late, he thinks he's part of the story and he's safe, this couldn't possibly happen. Because that's the only way stories are in a family film.

Did any critic in particular inspire that character?

M. Night Shyamalan: I was thinking of putting a list, inspired by...(laughs) No, it's just goofing around.

Do you read what critics say about your films?

M. Night Shyamalan: If you get caught up in too much of this, you lose your mind, because it's all a momentary perception thing that happens. These movies are so clouded by the other movies or being a part of the group, or the expectations, that it can be damaging to you as an artist. So I get a general sense. Signs is my best-reviewed movie, next is Unbreakable, and then next is "Sixth Sense" and then next is The Village. Signs is also my most popcorn movie, so the least aspiring to a higher thing. It's that aspiring to something higher that always gets everyone going "Oh, yeah, motherfucker?" That gets everybody all riled up. If everything were re-reviewed now, it probably would be a different group of reviews that would come out.

You have a pivotal part in the film, which leads me to believe that you really had something to say through that character. That character was going to change the world, but do you really believe that filmmaking or writing can change the world?

M. Night Shyamalan: Let me answer the first part of the question. This is my seventh film. In the first movie that was "Praying With Anger", I was the lead in that, and that was a very tiny movie in India and then Wide Awake I wasn't in that at all, and then "Sixth Sense" and Unbreakable I had very small parts, because I was learning to make movies in the big studio system, and then Signs I had a big part. There was only like five characters in it, and I was the fifth character. It was an important part emotionally. Now with regards to the character in "Lady," the idea of Harriet Beecher Stowe was that idea that really caught me. Wow, this idea that you write a book and somebody like Lincoln reads the book and other people in that time period read that book and you're creating change. Then someone who can make a difference decides to do something about it. Harriet Beecher Stowe didn't know she was doing all that, she was just writing a book, but it actually opened minds and created point of views. The power of the writer is the wish that an angel would come in and say, "You think that that sucks right now? You should do it because down the line, the 80th person that's going to read it is going to cause this to the left and this to the right and you'll be part of a chain that you can't possibly know."

When you're directing and doing post-production, as a writer, do you still have time to write and work on the next projects you want to do, or do you wait until one movie is done before even thinking about your next one?

M. Night Shyamalan: This was simultaneous with The Village, most of it was. I have a full notebook of ideas about everyone realizing their parts. There's this weird story and they all might be characters in it, and one character that doesn't believe he's a character in it, and I was like either this guy has to be a lawyer or a critic, he's one of those. (laughs)

But do you have time to write while you're making movies or not really?

M. Night Shyamalan: It's dangerous, because you may burn a great idea cause if you do it too early. Like all during "Lady", I had this great notebook of ideas about this movie that I was certain was going to be my next movie. And as soon as I finished "Lady" I was like, "Dammit!" I dated that one, too long. I didn't commit, and now it's like okay, I feel like I've been there already. I got another idea that has so much power, and it's new and it's fresh. It's very dangerous to explore, it's a dance between holding off the next idea as much as you can.

Can you talk about casting this film, especially Bryce and Paul? What did you seen in Bryce that made you want to cast her a second time?

M. Night Shyamalan: She has a regalness, an unusual otherworldly quality about her. She doesn't have normal 24-year-old actress affects. She doesn't think that way, it's odd. Whether it's how her parents brought her up and the circumstances in which she was brought up. She has strong dogma. Her belief system is really like a monk, she believes in things. To the point where you're like, "Come on, just be a human being! Just chill out!" But she's like that and that would be perfect for story because she doesn't have to pretend to be otherworldly. Paul's kind of everyman brilliance is just great against the two of them. They both give off such different vibes, even as human beings, they do.

How was it working with Jeffrey Wright? I've heard he can be difficult.

M. Night Shyamalan: Oh, man, I love it. I've heard those stories, too, but he was a joy, an absolute joy for me. I've had a lot of actors in my movies who have supposedly been difficult. When they know that someone's driving the bus, then they don't have to take the wheel. When they truly believe that, they don't even think about taking the wheel. They don't want to. They want to ride the bus and go in the direction. At the read-through for "Lady", because my movies are a lot like plays, I hire only theatrical actors, especially on this one, only theatrical actors, and they did it like a play. They were amazing. The table was in awe, because we had two Jedi's at the table, we had Paul and Jeffrey. They're limitless talents, those two.

Would you consider directing a movie by someone else and has Warner Brothers hit you up to direct a Harry Potter movie yet?

M. Night Shyamalan: That dance has gone on a long time, that Harry Potter dance. The problem is that it is a living breathing thing now, all by itself. When it comes over to my camp, it needs to be kind of handed over, adoption papers and everything. And that's a tricky, tricky move.

Have you ever met with J.K. Rowling?

M. Night Shyamalan: No, I haven't met with J.K., but the first one was offered to me, and that conflicted with Unbreakable, which was unfortunate. I've gotten close a few times to adapting books. "Life of Pi" was one of them.

Is there anything you can tell us about your next project?

M. Night Shyamalan: Well, the one I thing I'm going to do is going to have a big star in it. (laughs) Different than Paul.

Are you going to be in it as well?

M. Night Shyamalan: You never know, it wouldn't be any bigger part than this. In fact, I feel a little bit more comfortable if it was like 15-20% less, so that the balance is just right for the directing. It's difficult to do both. Very difficult to do both because you want to just walk on the set and totally be that guy.

How involved are you in the marketing of your movies?

M. Night Shyamalan: Yeah, I definitely do. There's a certain integrity to them [trailers, commercials] that I wouldn't want them to cross, so I'm involved with that. I give them ideas. I just gave them my thoughts and took off to France.

Lady In the Water swims to theaters July 21st and is rated 'PG-13' for some frightening sequences.

Julian Roman at Movieweb
Julian Roman