Ten years ago, M. Night Shyamalan was on top of the world, touted as “the next Spielberg” by Newsweek and fresh off a string of successes including the Oscar-nominated smash The Sixth Sense, the Bruce Willis superhero origin story Unbreakable, and the alien thriller Signs, which would be Mel Gibson’s last studio hit. But things have changed: The filmmaker who could once open a movie on his moniker alone has a new film coming out today, the sci-fi story After Earth, where his name doesn’t appear in the key marketing materials at all. It’s only the latest setback for Shyamalan, whose career woes have been compounded by giddy press reports chronicling his fall from grace, including a memorable round of media attention in 2010 when audiences supposedly booed his title card in the trailer for the horror film Devil, which Shyamalan produced. Where did it all go wrong?
Cinematic historians trying to pinpoint the place where Shyamalan’s hubris outgrew his oeuvre would be well advised to hit up YouTube; there, they’ll find a weird, misbegotten 2004 Sci-Fi channel pseudo-documentary titled The Buried Secret of M. Night Shyamalan that hints at the problems to come. Built to lead up to the heavily hyped release of Shyamalan’s film The Village, this bizarre special follows documentarian Nathaniel Kahn as he begins to profile Shyamalan for what’s ostensibly an authorized puff piece … at least until Kahn begins poking around into the director’s shrouded personal history, at which point Shyamalan appears to pull out of the proceedings in anger. Before Buried Secret aired, Shyamalan had been planting stories in the press that he was unhappy with the movie, which promised to reveal a secret that the filmmaker preferred to keep hidden; it didn’t take long before the media figured out that the entire thing was a publicity stunt. Kahn and Shyamalan were in cahoots, carefully crafting an “unauthorized documentary” that was actually a burnishing of the Shyamalan brand.
It’s a fascinating look into how Shyamalan wants to be perceived. Shyamalan’s actual backstory is pretty interesting — born in Pondicherry, India, before moving to a suburb of Philadelphia, Manoj Shyamalan was a movie-obsessed kid who’d grow up to be one of the youngest Best Director nominees ever — but Shyamalan can’t help but embellish those humble beginnings. Throughout Buried Secret, it’s implied that some sort of childhood accident left him with a connection to the supernatural; his best-known characters, it seems, are just avatars for the possibly superheroic Shyamalan. At one point, Kahn ventures to Shyamalan’s supposed alma mater — Ravenhill Academy for Gifted Children, which doesn’t actually exist — where school administrators remember little Night as a bright boy who never came late to class and never had to call home with a fever. “You know,” replies Kahn, “in his second movie, Unbreakable, the character has never been sick.” It’s a breathtaking bit of braggadocio, both for how it posits Shyamalan as an invulnerable god like Bruce Willis in Unbreakable and for how it wipes away the two smaller movies (Wide Awake and Praying With Anger) that Shyamalan had made without fanfare before The Sixth Sense.
In this version of his life, everyone is in awe of him. Throughout the doc, fans and friends of Shyamalan (most of whom are played by actors) speak of the filmmaker in the sort of hushed, reverent tones that suggest the whispery register inhabited by Shyamalan’s own characters. Kahn comes calling on a childhood friend of Shyamalan’s who bashfully admits, “I stopped trying to get in touch with him because I started getting nervous. I thought maybe I was starting to achieve stalker status.” With shaky hands, an old woman hands Kahn a copy of Shyamalan’s childhood films as though she were entrusting him with the Pelican Brief. When Kahn drives by the front gate of Shyamalan’s mansion, he finds starstruck groupies loitering outside. “Everyone knows … M. Night’s connected to the other side,” one says gravely.
And the movie isn’t shy about suggesting Shyamalan’s supernatural power. When Kahn first tries to film Shyamalan, the camera and sound begin malfunctioning as though Shyamalan is surrounded by a ghostly, tech-disrupting force field. (That must be hell on his boom mike operators.) Later, Kahn recruits one of Shyamalan’s superfans to use a Ouija board with him; after Kahn murmurs, “Are there any spirits in the room with a connection to a man named Manoj?” the planchette flies across the board on its own accord. And the buried secret alluded to in the title? As a child, Shyamalan accidentally drowned, and when he was finally resuscitated after a half-hour spent dead, he returned to life with the Sixth Sense ability to speak to spirits. Take that, Spielberg!
What’s also fascinating about Buried Secret, though, is how Shyamalan seems eager to portray himself as a prickly pear. Kahn says multiple times that the director is something of a recluse — which certainly wasn’t true of the press-happy Shyamalan in 2004 — and indeed, Shyamalan flakes on his interviews with Kahn throughout, a detail that may have been intended to make Shyamalan look mysterious but instead comes across as diva behavior. His careful publicist lays down ground rules for dealing with the filmmaker, warning, “The most important thing is not to make eye contact with Night,” and even Johnny Depp puts in a cameo where he complains about all the nondisclosure forms he has to sign to have a simple conversation with Shyamalan. If it’s his attempt to be Terrence Malick, it’s not a good look.
Buried Secret came and went that year, but you can see it as a pivot point for Shyamalan’s career, the moment he reached a point of self-mythologizing usually reserved for rappers or pop stars. A few years later, he’d push his luck in two ways that seem presaged by Buried Secret. In his next film, Lady in the Water, Shyamalan cast himself as a writer with the power to change the world and influence presidents — the kind of tonal misstep you might make when you’re already willing to hire actors to play your fawning fans in a documentary. And the year after, another self-mythologizing work commissioned by Shyamalan would see release: The Man Who Heard Voices, a book by author Michael Bamberger that detailed Shyamalan’s creative process while working on Lady in the Water. Fawning though it was, Bamberger’s book also plumbed that prickly-pear side of Shyamalan that he so eagerly sought to showcase in Buried Secret: Shyamalan burns his bridges with Disney executives when they express reservations about Lady in the Water, then continues to press ahead with what would become his first significant flop. The man might be able to hear voices, it seems, but he won’t listen to naysayers.
Early on in Buried Secret, Shyamalan is asked, “What is it like to be so successful so young?” He replies sheepishly: “It feels like I can’t just make a movie. It has to connect in some unusual fashion for it to be appropriate [for me]. Otherwise,” he says, “it’s just a movie.” The irony is that though Shyamalan continues to make big-budget features, his movies now are just that: movies. Recent films like The Last Airbender and After Earth lack Shyamalan’s personal touch, the style and feel he worked so hard to cultivate — and publicize. Still, don’t count him out: As directors like Michael Bay and Quentin Tarantino have proven, Hollywood is willing to tolerate hubris as long as you can deliver the goods. And if you’re trying to mount a critical comeback, who better to do that than the filmmaker who claims to have come back from the dead once before?