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An Evening With M. Night Shyamalan: Still Philly’s Favorite Filmmaker

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M. Night Shyamalan and Carrie Rickey at the Kimmel Center

M. Night Shyamalan and Carrie Rickey at the Kimmel Center

Director M. Night Shyamalan appeared Friday night at the Kimmel Center, in his hometown of Philadelphia, for a one-on-one Q&A session with Carrie Rickey, the longtime Philadelphia Inquirer film critic, about his life and work.

In the discussion, part of the Center’s occasional Close Encounters series in which Rickey interviews major directors, Shyamalan was charming and self-effacing, both providing insight into his work, and telling lots of amusing stories and anecdotes about his career. The capacity crowd of hundreds, which included much of the director’s immediate and extended family, was very much engaged with the M. Night, and gave him a response which, frankly, hasn’t been so associated with Shyamalan in the last several years.

In other words, it was as though everyone in the room tacitly, implicitly agreed to not acknowledge that the director’s reputation isn’t what it once was, and that his last four or five films were greeted, by critics and audiences, at best with indifference and at worst with outright derision. There was absolutely none of either in evidence on Friday night.

Even an audience Q&A period, in which it did not appear that any of the questioners had been prescreened, most of the questions were along the lines of “you’re my favorite director” and “you inspired me to pursue filmmaking.” Perhaps it was the hometown aspect, or maybe it was because this audience was people who actively chose to go and pay money see him speak. But for one night, Shyamalan was on top of the world again.

The evening began with a series of clips from the director’s work, followed by the start of the Q&A between Rickey and Shyamalan. The director went through his biography, some parts well-known- he’s the one non-doctor in his Indian-American family, he picked up a camera at a very young age and was heavily influenced as a kid by the work of Steven Spielberg and George Lucas, he spent many years as a struggling writer and filmmaker before breaking through with “The Sixth Sense”- and some not.

I hadn’t been aware, for instance, that he directed a film in 1992 called “Praying With Anger.” It was barely released, but played the festival circuit at the same time as Quentin Tarantino’s “Reservoir Dogs” and “Robert Rodriguez’s “El Mariarchi,” leading to a film festival Q&A in which an older female attendee told Shyamalan his film was great because it didn’t have violence and drugs and sex and smoking like the other ones.

He also acknowledged that he followed his now-wife to psychology classes at New York University, learning lessons about psychology that he would later put to much use in his work. The director also discussed the way he, while “not big on organized religion,” has utilized aspects of various religious traditions in his different films, though he did not address whispers that his recent film “After Earth” was an allegory related to Scientology.

“My career was dead before I was 26,” Shyamalan, now 42, said. This led to a period in which he wrote such Hollywood films as “Stuart Little,” directed the 1998 flop “Wide Awake,” and sold a script that was his labor of love- it was even called “Labor of Love”- for a large sum of money. The film was never made but Shyamalan hopes to direct it eventually, with Denzel Washington a potential star.

“How do you get in?,” he said, “you write your way in.” And all through that fallow period in the 1990s, he kept on writing. The director’s breakthrough, the Oscar-nominated ghost story “The Sixth Sense,” launched Shyamalan into the stratosphere in 1999. More hits followed with  “Unbreakable” in 2000 and “Signs” in 2002.

“The Village,” in 2004, was less critically-acclaimed, although it did gross over $100 million domestically. Trouble came later with critically reviled “The Lady in the Water” (2006), “The Happening” (2008), “”The Last Airbender” (2010) and this year’s “After Earth.” Of those, only ‘Airbender’ was a strong box office performer. Critics have largely fallen out of love with the director too; his last film with a positive Tomatometer score was “Signs.”

The one acknowledgement the entire evening that the director’s career hasn’t gone so well lately was from Shyamalan himself, when he noted that his work of late has often been better-received abroad than in the United States. He and Rickey also only briefly touched on the recent controversy over whether Shyamalan polished or ghost-wrote the 1999 film “She’s All That.”

Shyamalan also addressed the somewhat controversial decision to film his upcoming TV series, Wayward Pines in Vancouver, rather than in the Philadelphia region, where he has shot much of his work. He said it ultimately came down to regional topography. “If it were called ‘Wayward Oaks,” he joked, it may have worked to film the series in the area.

As one who loved “The Sixth Sense,” enjoyed “Unbreakable” and “Signs,” and has seen signs of brilliance in some of the director’s more recent films, I would love nothing more than to see M. Night Shyamalan to make another great film and reclaim his place as one of America’s top filmmakers. I’ve got a feeling the crowd Friday night would love that even more.

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