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by Eric Kohn
June 3, 2013 10:02 AM
6 Comments
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Why M. Night Shyamalan Should Take a Cue From Joss Whedon and Make Microbudget Movies

"After Earth."

I haven't seen M. Night Shyamalan's "After Earth," the reported $150 million sci-fi survival narrative starring Will Smith and his son Jaden that made just a fraction of that amount at the box office this weekend. I also didn't bother with Shyamalan's "The Last Airbender," his previous directing credit. After "The Happening," reports suggested that the filmmaker had lost the intrigue that made his work so attractive in the first place. I couldn't bring myself to confront the change. Even though "The Happening" and, god help us, "Lady in the Water" had their rampant absurdities, they were Shyamalan's absurdities: ideas that existed primarily to set in motion an array of frantic reactions and paranoia.

His penchant for third act twists, though they became derided as clichés, reflected a genuine interest in showmanship that actively defied predictable Hollywood formulas. In "The Sixth Sense," "Unbreakable," "Signs" and even parts of "The Village," nobody shook up familiar genre ingredients in the context of studio filmmaking with more offbeat strangeness than Shyamalan. With the minimalist post-apocalyptic scenario of "After Earth," for all I know Shyamalan has returned to his roots, though a good amount of trustworthy sources suggest otherwise. If the industry adheres to a three-strikes-you're-out philosophy, Shyamalan's rise and fall could mark the final nail in the coffin of a slowly dying career -- or, if he takes the excuse of another flop to shift directions, the start of a new one.

A throwaway line from a recent interview suggests that the director already has the right idea. Talking to MTV last week, Shyamalan called his mysterious next project "a little micro-[budget] film" involving familial discord. With no details announced yet, one can assume this project is in its early stages. Meanwhile, he also recently worked on a television show called "Proof," collaborating with Marti Noxon, a writer "Buffy the Vampire Slayer."  While Shyamalan's thinking things through, he may want to use the lull between projects to check out another achievement from the "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" team: Joss Whedon's "Much Ado About Nothing," which hits theaters this Friday.

Like Shyamalan, Whedon has been tethered to storytelling expectations for much of his career, though his rabid fan base has yet to abandon him. Whedon's female-centric supernatural narratives have taken on an epic scope by way of their expansive nature on television, yet they've also maintained a playfulness steeped in old-fashioned wordplay and a comedy of manners that give his characters permanence. That skill carried over surprisingly well into the blockbuster realm with Whedon's "The Avengers," certainly the best mass produced, CGI-laden spectacle released last year. Yet watching "The Avengers," it was hard not to imagine Whedon grasping his integrity for dear life. This had to be the hardest project he ever made.

Which is why, in the immediate aftermath of "The Avengers," Whedon shot a black-and-white, contemporary take on Shakespeare's romantic comedy in his house over the course of 12 days. When I saw "Much Ado About Nothing" at the Toronto International Film Festival, I was mostly underwhelmed by the slightness of the project. Yet Whedon's faithfulness to the still-potent material and the slapstick talents of a dedicated ensemble familiar from his other work elevates the movie's humor and depth; it's a blatantly sincere grasp at Whedon's core appeal, and with its scrappy production values, a downright adorable cleansing of his soul.

Paramount Pictures M. Night Shyamalan in the set of 'The Last Airbender'

Shyamalan could use a hit of that. Prior to "The Happening," none of the director's movies relied on huge, effects-driven set pieces (even the train wreck that set the plot of "Unbreakable" in motion took place off-screen). Instead, his disturbed and perpetually spooked protagonists learned of the threats surrounding them by way of whispered revelations and bizarre rationalizations that were more stabs in the dark than anything else. The most compelling ingredients in Shyamalan's first four movies involved the absence of logic (ghosts, superpowers, God and an antiquated town inexplicably shrouded from civilization) in favor of inexplicable dread. It's that very same element that made them so deeply unsettling and keyed into real life experiences, where the full details of jarring events tend to be obscured by the limitations of how we comprehend them. Shyamalan now has the money and, if "After Earth" has strengthened the bars of the movie jail in which he was already partly incarcerated, probably the time to go back to these low key stories in search of the  substance that made him a significant American director.

This is a direction he should have taken long ago. When I interviewed Shyamalan a few years back, I asked him what was keeping him from simply financing his own projects and leaving the studios behind. "I like their points of view for the right movies," he said, shortly before churning out a couple wrong ones. But he added a curious side note: "Independent filmmakers are my heroes, and I look for them for integrity and the bar." Rather than looking at his heroes, Shyamalan has reached a point where he would do better inspecting his own career and taking cues from period that clicked.

And if that doesn't work, he should just buy a ticket to "Much Ado About Nothing."

6 Comments

  • JOV | June 9, 2013 7:06 PMReply

    He attempted to go down the indie route with producing Devil, the first in a supposed series of indie horror films. That film wasn't received well either.

  • RayT | November 13, 2013 1:12 AM

    WRONG. It was well-received by critics (the mixed zone is considered favorable reception for any movie) AND it was a box-office success (over $60M on a $10M budget, and that might not include the Canadian tax-incentives which could lower the budget to $6-$7 million, making it even more successful).

  • John Healy | June 3, 2013 11:54 PMReply

    Eric, how can you write an article about the future of a directors career when you haven't seen his last few films? This is speculative writing and I can't help but feel it's completely uninformed.

  • imnotcocteau | June 4, 2013 2:13 PM

    Mr. Healy is absolutely correct. Eric Kohn reminds me of my students who come to class having not done the assigned readings and who want to chat away, exposing their intellectual abysses of the subject matter at hand all the while. indieWire has a superb reputation that should not be soiled by writers who refuse to do the groundwork for their articles. This exercise in empty blather reminds of the French bestseller, How to Talk about Books You Haven't Read. indieWire and its readers both deserve more.

  • Gabe | June 3, 2013 2:55 PMReply

    Eric: IMHO, Shyamalan needs to go to television. His early success spoiled him--and he began to feel invincible. Convinced he could recapture the Sixth Sense magic, he kept increasing the stakes, to the point of absurdity. His "signature" films (Sixth Sense, Unbreakable, Signs, The Happening Village, Lady in Water) actually feel like super big budget remakes of Twilight Zone or Hitchcock Presents episodes anyway. The problem is that the gimmick began to wear thin and the payoff felt forced. Most of his films are disappointing for a variety of reasons--but there is no doubt that the writing and acting never measured up to that of Willis/Haley Joel/Toni Collette in 6th. In TV, he'd be forced to scale back on the visual hocus pocus and focus more on story and character. This could be what you're getting at with indie film, but the thing is, the films would STILL be too precious. He needs stop trying to make everything into a masterpiece, and simply tell good stories. Unlike indie film, on TV, he could continue to take chances without going "all-in" with every project. And it would be really interesting to see what someone of his caliber might bring to a "Lost" or "Buffy" style TV series.

  • Stephen Wise | June 3, 2013 1:23 PMReply

    "The most compelling ingredients in Shyamalan's first four movies involved the absence of logic..."

    People always mistakenly think that "The Sixth Sense" was Shyamalan's first directorial effort. In fact, other than his first independent film ("Praying with Anger") that he starred in as a young man that only made it to the festival circuit, he also wrote and directed "Wide Awake" a year before "Sense." It starred a young Joseph Cross as a boy contemplating the afterlife when his grandfather (Robert Loggia) died. It's a sweet and funny coming of age story that also features Dana Delaney, Dan Lauria, Camryn Manheim, Julia Stiles, and Rosie O'Donnell as a nun (!?). That's the roots that Shyamalan needs to return to--simply good storytelling.