The following was originally published on my blog, Deus Ex Malcontent, way back in the summer of 2006. I posted the piece, then, thinking the better of it, very quickly took it down for fear of losing my job, as it details an amusing run-in I had with writer/director/notorious egomaniac M. Night Shyamalan during a press junket for his film Lady in the Water. At the time, I was working for CNN and had been tasked with producing an interview with Shyamalan for American Morning. Since I did eventually wind up being fired for my extracurricular blogging, however, and it doesn't really matter much what I disclose anymore, I figured now was as good a time as any to relay this entertaining little tale to the HuffPost crowd.
Suffice it to say, I'm not exactly crying in my beer over the fact that Shyamalan's new movie, The Last Airbender, is currently pulling down a dismal 8 percent rating on Rotten Tomatoes.
INT. LARGE OFFICE BUILDING CAFÉ
Light streams in through the giant floor-to-ceiling windows of a large office building in Midtown Manhattan. The sun creates long, ominous shadows -- cast from the various ominous cafeteria-style chairs which are scattered about the large room. In the distance we hear the ominous sounds of workers going about their morning routine. There is a sense of forboding all around -- heightened by the ominous tones of two or three drawn-out notes composed by James Newton Howard, apparently in his sleep. This single shot goes on -- uninterrupted -- for another five minutes. Don't argue. This is art.
Slowly the camera pans over and when it finds THE FRUSTRATED NEWS PRODUCER seated, it begins a fixed-field dolly-in/zoom-out shot -- because this is a completely unimaginative first-year film student trick. THE FRUSTRATED NEWS PRODUCER, a quiet and mysterious everyman with an obligatory dark secret, hears a sound off-camera and slowly glances up from the floor. The sense of foreboding is now palpable. James Newton Howard draws out a fourth or fifth note.
INT: END OF LONG HALLWAY LEADING TO CAFÉ
A door opens slowly -- ominously. The camera follows the feet of THE BIG-TIME MOVIE DIRECTOR who walks through the door; behind him the multiple feet of his ENTOURAGE can be seen following closely, eager to be in the presence of such artistic greatness. The horde of feet moves slowly down the hall -- possibly in slow-motion, because that'd look really, uh, ominous -- toward THE FRUSTRATED NEWS PRODUCER.
INT: LARGE OFFICE BUILDING CAFÉ
THE FRUSTRATED NEWS PRODUCER -- having already figured out the incredibly obvious ending of this story -- simply shakes his head and sighs, wondering to himself why he didn't choose a more noble profession -- such as peep-show attendant. He speaks in an ominous whisper as James Newton Howard's sixth note rises to a crescendo.
FRUSTRATED NEWS PRODUCER: "I see arrogant people."
FADE TO BLACK
It's a Hollywood cliché that's as old as Joan Rivers's first face, but if there's any value left in it then it may be safe to say that I'll never work in this town again.
This morning, I pissed off M. Night Shyamalan. Pissed him off to the point of getting a condescending lecture from him. A lecture which could better be described as a humiliating public chewing-out. A humiliating public chewing-out as in a questioning of my qualifications as a news producer and more than likely a human being in general. I could go on and on until I'm reduced to the size of a dust mite, but I assume you get the picture.
It happened after the taping of an interview with him, Paul Giamatti and Bryce Dallas Howard -- all of whom are wisely busting their asses to promote Shyamalan's latest cinematic insomnia cure and last-ditch chance at cultural relevance, Lady in the Water.
Before I explain the details, let me rewind. (If this were a Shyamalan movie, it'd be in the form of a nebulous flashback which would hint at the film's final silly twist).
For the past couple of months, I've remained pretty steadfast in my desire to never divulge my place of employment, nor ever to write about anything that goes on there. I have no problem pontificating on the media in general, but when it comes to the day to day specifics of my job or my opinions of them, I'd rather keep my big mouth shut. I have New York City rent to think about; the less I put my income at risk, the better. But I'm willing to bend the rules ever-so-slightly in this case for several reasons which include, but aren't limited to A) the fact that it's a really hysterical and infuriating story, B) the fact that it proves unmistakably what Shyamalan's detractors have been saying about him for years -- namely that he's a raging egomaniac, C) the fact that there's still enough subversive punk left in me that I'd love to exact a small amount of revenge, even if it's simply by discouraging one person from seeing a Shyamalan film, and most importantly because D) if I don't say something, the world will believe that this man was all sweetness and light to both me and my network -- since I already know for a fact that our completed story will portray him favorably, and that pisses me off.
Let's flashback a little further; it's a ridiculous parlor trick that I'm sure Shyamalan would appreciate.
The story behind the making of his new movie, Lady in the Water, is the stuff of Hollywood legend. It's well documented in the painful new hagiography The Man Who Heard Voices: How M. Night Shyamalan Risked His Career on a Fairy Tale. The short story is that Shyamalan ("Night" to his friends, of which I obviously can't count myself one) pitched the idea to his personal di Medici family at Disney, only to have them express reservations about the idea of turning a bedtime story he told to his kids into a multi-million dollar investment. During the "Creative Process," it's said that Shyamalan threw a fit when Disney studio chief Nina Jacobson wasn't at home to personally receive a hand-delivered script as if it were the lost five commandments. It's also said that in spite of Disney's reservations, they were fully willing to green-light Shyamalan's pet project based solely on their faith in his vision (and keep in mind, this was the same vision that gave us The Village, a movie whose final twist I actually figured out from watching the commercials). Still, Shyamalan wasn't feeling the love and petulantly walked across the street -- taking his script about pool-nymphs and grass monsters to the more trusting suits at Warner Brothers.
I've seen the result. The movie is average at best.
I should probably mention that I never thought The Sixth Sense heralded the arrival of the next Spielberg. I figured out the ending about fifteen minutes into it, and although I admired the clever construction and willingness to allow the plot to simmer rather than boil over, I never understood why a series of static shots and a sleepwalking Bruce Willis constituted such a laudable achievement. I actually think it says something about the film industry as a whole that a guy like Shyamalan can be considered a visionary auteur. I often wonder what our collective opinion would be if we didn't have Michael Bay and Rob Cohen to compare him to. Shyamalan gets popcorn bucketfuls of credit for a style that Kubrick perfected a generation ago.
Since his breakout hit, Shyamalan has yet to prove himself to be anything more than a self-important myth created by none other than Shyamalan himself.
Lady in the Water does little to change that. It boasts a fantastic performance by Giamatti, but that's become as common in Hollywood as tiny dogs in handbags. Howard meanwhile is asked to do little more than meet the necessary standard of "mysterious luminescence." The supporting cast is composed of fine actors who do their best to buy into Shyamalan's fairy-tale mythology; how they keep a straight face most of the time is beyond me. The movie also takes Shyamalan's legendary self-indulgence to unparalleled heights: He casts himself as a writer whose destiny is to change the world, and he literally eviscerates a film critic in a sequence which is no doubt supposed to be funny and clever, but instead winds up looking like the celluloid tantrum of an upset child.
On the plus side, if you completely suspend logic and disbelief -- seemingly a requirement for most Shyamalan movies -- you might not regret spending the ten dollars. Once again, it's got Giamatti; it can't be all bad.
So now we flash-forward to this morning. See what a simple trick that is?
I was saddled with the task of setting up and producing the interview with Shyamalan, Giamatti and Howard, and rather than do the usual, boring in-studio thing, I wanted to show a little vision myself. My initial plan was to shoot the interview in the screening room theater within my office building; unfortunately it was booked. My backup plan was to shoot it outside with the city as a backdrop; unfortunately it was too damned hot. So we went to plan C.
Plan C involved setting up a table at the edge of the café within our building; it's relatively quiet at the hour we needed it, and has a massive window with a beautiful view of Central Park. My hope was for the interview to look less like an interview and more like a casual conversation. There would be coffee. There would be a roundtable discussion. There would be three Hollywood heavy-hitters just relaxing. I even made arrangements to make sure that the entire interview was shot with handheld cameras -- cinema verité-style.
After sitting down and being mic'ed up, it took all of about ten seconds for Shyamalan to begin voicing his displeasure. At first it was done in the form of not-so-subtle jokes.
"This is really where we're doing this?"
"Don't your big anchors actually get sets?"
"Hey, can I get a tuna fish sandwich? This is a cafeteria right?"
I smiled and played along, stunned at the level of professionalism I had unwittingly adopted at some point during my career -- a career which was at that moment flashing before my eyes, as a man who makes his living directing films was picking apart my production techniques. This was of course immediately followed by the realization that in reality, nothing would be cooler -- or more personally beneficial in the long run -- than to have M. Night Shyamalan get me fired.
Over the next twenty minutes, the jokes turned to open hostility.
"This is like high school."
"This is ridiculous."
And my personal favorite:
"Somebody's gonna get railed when this is over. I just want you guys to know that. I just want to warn you that it's coming. You've never seen me on a movie set, but you're gonna."
I can call M. Night Shyamalan a lot of things -- "hack" and "asshole" immediately come to mind -- but I suppose I can't call him a liar. As promised, the moment the cameras stopped, the bitching started.
Shyamalan pulled me and his Warner handler (a man with the apparent patience of Job) aside, and basically did his impression of the shark in Jaws during the final clash with poor Quint. Once again there were accusations of unprofessional work: he was distracted by noises in the next room; he didn't like the look of the shots; we obviously didn't care enough to take this interview seriously. He then pulled an argument out of his ass that was so transparent, you would've thought it was the first half of The Village.
"Look, I don't care about me. You can do what you want with me. But these are good actors and they deserve better."
It's a testament to Shyamalan's oft-maligned acting skills that he actually managed to project something akin to genuine concern for someone other than himself. I fought the urge to applaud. What I did do though, was smile; I smiled the entire time. The thought which kept that grin glued to my face was simple: thank God this guy knows nothing at all about me, otherwise he'd be speaking to my boss right now; if he understood anything at all about who he was talking to, he'd be too worried about leaving here on a stretcher to actually be taking this shit up with me.
As he continued to rant, I noticed that he was either delusional or narcissistic enough to believe that everyone around him adhered to his personal point of view unquestioningly (and you wonder why the leaps of logic in his movies). He flat out said that both the anchor conducting the interview, and the video crew taping it had told him that they agreed that the shoot was shit. Suffice it to say I suffered through the tapes of the interview several times during the course of the afternoon. He apparently really is hearing voices.
The most cringe-inducing part of this story however, will be the final insulting act. In a day or two, this interview will hit the airwaves. Once edited and post-produced, it will be exactly as originally advertised. It'll be a blow job for the movie, and its pig-headed director will look positively golden. All day I've grappled with this journalistic dilemma -- one that I admit is relatively silly in the great scheme of things (although even Murrow thought celebrity journalism represented all that is unholy in this business). The issue is this: We went into this story with the mindset that we were going to -- at least peripherally -- ask a director about his own personal issues which may have stood in the way of getting a movie made. During the interview, he proved every single negative comment we had heard about him to be unequivocally true. What's worse, he knew that it didn't matter how he behaved, because he arrogantly -- although probably correctly -- assumed that we would paint him in a rosy light either way. Once again, it takes either self-delusion bordering on sociopathy, or messianic conceit to believe that no matter what you say or do, the television crew who can make or break you with a single edit will somehow fall in line and heap adoration on you.
This is the why M. Night Shyamalan isn't a visionary so much as a megalomanical bully. I now know that first-hand.
INT. LIVING ROOM AT NIGHT
THE FRUSTRATED PRODUCER sits at his computer typing away furiously. The camera pans around to show the computer screen. On it is a website. A closer examination reveals that it is a MySpace site -- specifically the official site of THE BIG-TIME DIRECTOR.
THE FRUSTRATED PRODUCER hits the "FRIEND REQUEST" key.
The camera zooms in on THE FRUSTRATED PRODUCER'S face. An evil smile spreads across it.
THE FRUSTRATED PRODUCER laughs hysterically.
FADE TO BLACK