M. Night Shyamalan found a credulous Boswell in Michael Bamberger, a Sports Illustrated scribe willing to inflate every imagined slight the director ever faced into comic levels of bathos. His parents wanted him to go to Princeton, not NYU. Poor guy! Disney execs didn’t fall all over themselves praising his script for “The Lady in the Water.” The nerve! This quickie tome elevates petulance — and hagiography — to dizzying heights. Clearly, the scribe, like the helmer he so adoringly profiles, needs a healthy dose of perspective. Or at least a better project to wrap shared indignation around.
Bamberger, who met Shyamalan at a party for Philadelphia power brokers, seems dazzled by him from the start. “Night’s shirt was half open — Tom Jones in his prime,” he gushes.
The scribe quickly pitches a book aiming to show how the writer-director thinks, and Shyamalan assents. To convey this, Bamberger re-creates the proud and censorious voices inside Shyamalan’s head throughout “Lady’s” gestation. Given Shyamalan’s healthy ego and Bamberger’s penchant for florid flattery, the narrative frequently goes over the top, with Bamberger variously invoking Moses, Michael Jordan, Bob Dylan and Walt Disney when describing Shyamalan.
“Not since Mr. Walt Disney himself had any one director been so associated with Disney,” Bamberger asserts while setting the stage for the Mouse House betrayal.
The scribe rhapsodizes about Shyamalan’s farm, driver and cook, as if no one else on Philadelphia’s affluent Main Line ever engaged the latter two. Bamberger, and, we suspect, Shyamalan, want us to have it both ways; we’re meant to simultaneously sympathize with Shyamalan’s fight against the Mouse House and vicariously admire his wealth.
Aside from pesky writer’s block, the first sign of real trouble emerges when since-ousted Disney exec Nina Jacobson fails to receive Shyamalan’s script — a script so closely guarded his assistant wouldn’t even visit the bathroom on the plane ride to L.A. — at her home the exact moment he dictated.
“What could Nina be doing that’s more important than getting Night’s new script?” Bamberger wonders, using italics to directly invoke the director’s thoughts.
A confab at a Philadelphia restaurant turns even more disastrous when Jacobson, Dick Cook and Oren Aviv criticize Shyamalan’s script. Deciding they wanted him to be a cog, he quickly phones Alan Horn and gets the film set up at Warners.
The rest of the book gives a blow-for-blow account of “Lady’s” production, from casting woes to drunken antics by cinematographer Chris Doyle.
Occasionally, Bamberger allows a slightly reproving tone to creep in, as when he recounts Shyamalan’s churlish behavior to Bryce Dallas Howard during pre-production. When the vegan thesp declines a piece of his birthday cake with the explanation she doesn’t eat anything with animal fat in it, Bamberger writes, “Night was annoyed.” Then when she offered him “a gruesome-looking vegan cake” a few days later, co-star Paul Giamatti ate a piece but Shyamalan passed, saying he wouldn’t eat anything that didn’t have animal fat in it.
“He was joking, but with a hint of hostility,” Bamberger observes.
The scribe then proceeds to outline the way Howard’s technique had changed for the worse since she worked with the director on “The Village.” It’s moments like these that Bamberger’s decision to present events from Shyamalan’s “voice” proves especially maddening; the passage is clearly biased but written in standard third person form normally associated with more balanced reportage.
It’s not always clear who is making which judgment. Is Bamberger as dismissive as Shyamalan of actors’ fussy diets? Does he really believe providing food on location illustrates Shyamalan’s generosity? Has he never heard of craft services? And does he really think Disney grievously dissed Shyamalan by daring to criticize his script?
This technique provides a convenient out for both participants. Bamberger’s insistence that Shyamalan made no suggestions to make himself look better doesn’t remove the inherent murkiness.
Beyond problems of tone, the tome is hugely bloated and would probably have been better served as a lengthy magazine piece. But that way we probably wouldn’t get to read, at such great length, how fabulous Shyamalan is.
Also not clear: Who the audience for this highly selective account is. By rushing this into stores for “Lady’s” bigscreen bow, Bamberger and Gotham Books are banking on sympathy for the director, and his point of view. Will that gamble pay off if the movie tanks? Early reviews suggest Disney, and especially ousted exec Jacobson, were right all along.
When Nina Jacobson was not at home to receive M. Night Shyamalan’s script, he took it as an ominous sign. The book describes his reaction:
The lesson of Night’s own 34 years was so clear to him: If you’re a Bob Dylan, a Michael Jordan, a Walt Disney — if you’re M. Night Shyamalan — and you have faith and a vision and something original to say, money will come. But if you’re chasing money, the audience will see you for what you are. Night knew his ideas were no longer making an impact on Nina. He was losing her, losing the hold he once had on her. He blamed that on the culture of her corporation. Disney, he realized, in the blind final years of the Michael Eisner regime, had changed. It was now in the business of cloning.
And now, a half-year after “The Village” had run its course, Nina was not home at the appointed time to receive Night’s new script.
JJ called Paula back and said, “I couldn’t get her on her cell phone, but I’ll email her on her BlackBerry.”
Paula waited in her car, stewing, wondering how this delay would affect her other appointments.
A few minutes later, JJ called again. “Nina’s on her way. She should be there in 10 to 15 minutes. She’s just coming back from a birthday party with her son.”
Birthday party? Nobody said anything about a birthday party.
Nina arrived at 2:15 with her young son. By way of apology, she offered Paula a low-carb soup from the refrigerator and a ride to Philadelphia on the corporate jet.
His assistant declined both offers. Disney execs flew to meet Shyamalan a few days later; that dinner ended their relationship.