Exclusive Book Excerpt

Sink or Swim

How writer-director M. Night Shyamalan lost a studio and found a leading man for ''Lady in the Water'': An EW exclusive book excerpt from ''The Man Who Heard Voices'' by Michael Bamberger

M. Night Shyamalan | SHYAMALAN ''He felt the reading of his script should not be considered work. It should add to the weekend pleasure.''
SHYAMALAN ''He felt the reading of his script should not be considered work. It should add to the weekend pleasure.''

In 2004, M. Night Shyamalan, a two-time Academy Award nominee for The Sixth Sense who went on to write and direct Unbreakable, Signs, and The Village, invited writer Michael Bamberger to follow the creation of his newest movie. Lady in the Water would be an unusual dark fantasy with elements of both children's stories and horror movies about an apartment superintendent who discovers a mermaid-like woman in the building's swimming pool. The result, Bamberger's book The Man Who Heard Voices: Or, How M. Night Shyamalan Risked His Career on a Fairy Tale, offers an unusually intimate look at the driven, ambitious filmmaker's combination of brash confidence and gnawing insecurity, as well as his moviemaking process, decision by decision, blow by blow. At the time Bamberger started his book, neither he nor Shyamalan knew that the first of those blows would come quickly and unexpectedly — when Shyamalan finished the sixth draft of his Lady in the Water in February 2005, and arranged to have it delivered to the top brass at Disney, which had made his last four movies.


Night, who thrived on tension, chose a date: The three key Disney executives would get the script on Sunday, February 13. Paula, Night's assistant, would fly from Philadelphia to Los Angeles that morning with copies of the script and hand-deliver them to the homes of Dick Cook, the chairman of the Walt Disney Motion Picture Group; Oren Aviv, the head of marketing (Disney did not make movies that it didn't know how to sell); and most significantly, Nina Jacobson, the Disney president. Nina's tastes largely dictated what kinds of movies Disney made. Later that evening, on an itinerary established weeks earlier, Paula would collect Cook's script, then Aviv's the next morning. Night wanted to know where they were at all times. Nobody kept Night's scripts for very long.

Except for Nina. Because she had worked with Night from what Disney saw as the start — The Sixth Sense — Night granted her one special dispensation. She could keep the script. Night trusted her.

Because of the twist ending to The Sixth Sense, and the surprises in his other three movies, Night had to keep his scripts under tight control. The script for Unbreakable had been leaked on the Internet months before the movie came out. Night was determined that would not happen again, and it didn't. Secretiveness had become part of how he marketed himself. When Paula used Night's copier that could handle only twenty pages at a time, each page was stamped with a name or a serial number superimposed in large light gray type over the text. If this established Night as untrusting, which it did, it also established him as mysterious and neurotic, and he was okay with that, because it was true and because it served him well.

There was another advantage to having Paula hand-deliver the new script on a Sunday. It promised his script immediate and undivided attention on a day of the week when phones rang less, when time slowed down, when people were closer to their emotions. He was comfortable getting in the middle of people's weekends. He felt that the reading of his script should not be considered work. It should add to the weekend's pleasure.

Nina read the sixth draft of Lady in the Water that night, after her kids had gone to sleep and the house was quiet. On four previous occasions she had sat down to read original M. Night Shyamalan scripts, and all four times the scripts had been well-crafted, unique, and interesting. The scripts didn't have any big plot holes. He always worked them over hard before sending them out. They typically contained little direction, or notes for the director — for himself — about how the scenes should be shot. There wasn't much exposition. The story was told through the dialogue, in what was said, and often in what was not said. Reading Night's scripts was like reading a play. She knew Lady in the Water, whatever it was, wouldn't be a mess.

There was an early, funny scene in Spanish, the fastest-growing language in America. Nina was fine with that. The protagonist, Cleveland Heep, had a stutter. She made a note of it — two hours of stuttering could make an audience insane. The beautiful wet pool creature, the role slated for Bryce Dallas Howard, showed up on page 15. Bryce was not a star, nobody would come to a movie because she was playing the female lead, but she was pretty, talented, inexpensive, and Night had loved working with her on The Village. There was a character named Reggie who worked out only the top half of his body, and Nina found him amusing.

And then she started to have problems. She wasn't yet on page 20 of a 136-page script.

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