A director who struck gold with the 1999 blockbuster The Sixth Sense, M. Night Shyamalan came out of almost nowhere to become one of the year's greatest sensations. The second biggest moneymaker of 1999 (the first being Star Wars: Episode I -- The Phantom Menace), The Sixth Sense also proved to be a critical favorite, earning a slew of Oscar nominations that included Best Director and Best Picture.
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Born in Madras, India, on August 6, 1970, Shyamalan was raised in the posh Philadelphia suburb of Penn Valley. The son of doctors, he developed a passion for filmmaking when he was given a Super-8 camera at the age of eight. By the time he was 17, Shyamalan -- who idolized Steven Spielberg -- had made 45 home movies, and after receiving a Catholic school education, he studied filmmaking at the Tisch School of the Arts. He graduated in 1992, and that same year he made his first feature film, Praying with Anger, which was based to some extent on his trip back to the country of his birth.
Shyamalan's first major theatrical effort was Wide Awake (1998), a film he partially shot in the Catholic school he had attended, as well as Bryn Mawr College. The story of a young Catholic school student attempting to cope with the death of his grandfather (Robert Loggia), the film -- which also starred Rosie O'Donnell, Dana Delany, and Denis Leary -- quickly plummeted into box office oblivion.
Shyamalan had considerably better luck with his next project, 1999's The Sixth Sense. A supernatural thriller about a young boy (Oscar-nominated Haley Joel Osment) who is able to communicate with the spirits of dead people, it was a sleeper hit and gave its director his unequivocal career breakthrough. Graced with an understated cast of performers and a twist ending, the film garnered incredible word-of-mouth among audiences and became the must-see film of the late summer, well into the fall. The Academy in turn showered the film with seven Oscar nominations, including nods for Shyamalan's script and direction. He enjoyed further success that same year as the screenwriter for Stuart Little, earning praise for his smart, funny script.
Following the success of The Sixth Sense, Shyamalan -- who continued to reside in the Philadelphia suburbs with his wife and daughter -- directed another supernatural thriller, Unbreakable. Starring Bruce Willis (who had also starred in The Sixth Sense) as a man who undergoes mysterious changes following a train accident, the mannered, pensive thriller was released in 2000 to mixed critical reviews and a healthy -- if brief -- box-office run. A curiously low-key film considering its comic-book underpinnings, Unbreakable retained much of The Sixth Sense's sharp direction, though its lukewarm reception found the director hesitant to expand the film into a trilogy as originally planned. Approached by producer Frank Marshall to pen the fourth chapter in the further adventures of Indiana Jones, Shyamalan gracefully turned down the offer citing his reluctance to enter a collaborative effort with Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, and Harrison Ford, and rejected yet another offer shortly thereafter, this time to direct the third Harry Potter film .
Deciding instead on a begin work on an entirely new project, Shyamalan penned a screenplay concerning a rural family who discover crop circles on their farm, selling it to Disney in April of 2001. Though the role of the family patriarch was originally intended for an older actor, Shyamalan made a few minor alterations when Mel Gibson expressed interest in starring in the film, with You Can Count on Me star Mark Ruffalo cast as his brother. Another unforeseen casting change beset the production when Ruffalo pulled out of the film due to health problems, and Joaquin Phoenix stepped in to assume the role with production moving along as planned following the brief delay. If Unbreakable was a subdued hit, then Signs was a full-blown blockbuster, easily exceeding the 200-million-dollar mark.
With late-summer firmly established as Shyamalan's most-profitable stomping grounds, he began work on his 2004 project, the buzzed-about period allegory The Village. After many casting rumors and changes -- including the mention of Ashton Kutcher for the lead -- the director locked in a group of talented actors ranging from newcomer Bryce Dallas Howard (daughter of Ron), to the recently Oscar-anointed Adrien Brody, to distinguished Hollywood veterans like William Hurt and Sigourney Weaver. Reuniting with Signs star Joaquin Phoenix for the lead role, Shyamalan wove an intricate -- or convoluted, according to critics -- tale of a remote pioneer-style community where the village residents dress in muted browns and yellows and live in fear of "those we do not speak of," namely, scampering creatures with thorny exoskeletons. Touchstone Pictures' marketing push ensured a colossal opening for the film, but when word-of-mouth spread about The Village's rug-pulling final twist, box office dropped off considerably.
Regrouping after the critical drubbing and somewhat lackluster returns of his 2004 film, Shyamalan returned in 2006 with a film he curiously dubbed "a bedtime story," the somber fable Lady in the Water. A subdued take on the mermaid-out-of-water tale put forth in Ron Howard's comedy Splash some twenty years earlier, Shyamalan's film once again starred Howard's daughter Bryce -- this time cast as a water nymph who mysteriously appears one night to a apartment-complex superintendent played by Sideways' schlub laureate Paul Giamatti. Though the film did little to disprove the theory that Shyamalan's career was on a downward slide, it was a virtual masterpiece compared to his laughable 2008 film The Happening. A ham-fisted tale of nature-run-amuck, The Happening became the butt of jokes for critics across the globe, and even had longtime supporters howling with laughter as the film's terrified protagonists attempted to outrun the wind. Fortunately with The Happening, Shyamalan only managed to disappoint his own fans, though with his next film The Last Airbender -- a live action adaptation of the popular animated television series, the director managed to upset a whole new crowd.
~ Rebecca Flint Marx, Rovi