By Claudia Eller, Los Angeles Times Staff Writer, June 23, 2006
A new chapter has just been written in Hollywood about the never-ending tension between "the talent" and "the suits."
It can be found in a soon-to-be-published tell-all book that offers something very rare, indeed: a candid recounting, complete with tears and recriminations, of a messy divorce between a movie studio and one of the world's most famous writer-directors.
In "The Man Who Heard Voices: Or, How M. Night Shyamalan Risked His Career on a Fairy Tale," the 35-year-old filmmaker whose name has become synonymous with spooky suspense thrillers crucifies the top executives at the company he long had considered his artistic home since his 1999 surprise hit "The Sixth Sense": Walt Disney Studios.
Penned by Sports Illustrated writer Michael Bamberger with Shyamalan's blessing and extensive participation, the 278-page book hits stores July 20. That's one day before the theatrical premiere of Shyamalan's new movie, "Lady in the Water," which is at the center of the dispute that led him to part ways with Disney.
The $70-million movie, a scary fantasy that stars Paul Giamatti as an apartment building superintendent who rescues a sea nymph he finds in his swimming pool, was ultimately financed by Warner Bros.
But arguably as shocking as the movie itself is the way Shyamalan, in the book, disses his former studio. As galleys circulate around town, that more than anything else has people musing about just how fragile relationships between artists and executives can be.
Disney production President Nina Jacobson gets the worst drubbing.
Jacobson and Shyamalan enjoyed a close, albeit sometimes combative, relationship. Over six years, she shepherded his four Disney films including "Unbreakable," "Signs" and "The Village." On what would have been their fifth collaboration, their bond so eroded that the two didn't speak for more than a year.
At a disastrous dinner in Philadelphia last year, Jacobson delivered a frank critique of the "Lady in the Water" script. When she told him that she and her boss, studio Chairman Dick Cook, didn't "get" the idea, Shyamalan was heartbroken. Things got only worse when she lambasted his inclusion of a mauling of a film critic in the story line and told Shyamalan his decision to cast himself as a visionary writer out to change the world bordered on self-serving.
But Shyamalan gets his revenge on Jacobson in the book, in which he says he had felt for some time that he "had witnessed the decay of her creative vision right before his own wide-open eyes. She didn't want iconoclastic directors. She wanted directors who made money."
Bamberger readily acknowledges that the book is told from Shyamalan's point of view.
"It's not intended to be balanced," Bamberger said of the book, based on a year he spent shadowing Shyamalan. "It's a Night-centric view of how Night works."
If that's all it was, of course, there wouldn't be so many bruised feelings at Disney, whose executives the book maligns as drones who lack creative vision.
Of Disney's three top executives, Jacobson, Cook and marketing head Oren Aviv, the book says, "They had morphed into one, the embodiment of the company they worked for. And that company … no longer valued individualism … no longer valued fighters."
Nevertheless, the book says Shyamalan was haunted by them.
"Sometimes Night would close his eyes and see little oval black and white head shots of Nina Jacobson and Oren Aviv and Dick Cook floating around in his head, unwanted houseguests that would not leave," Bamberger writes. "The Disney people had gotten deep inside his head, interfering with the good work the voices were supposed to do — and it would be hell to get them out."
In an interview, Bamberger said that in that section — like in several others — he was channeling Shyamalan's deepest convictions, even though the book usually does not quote the writer-director directly.
"Night really let me get inside his head," Bamberger said. "He told me what he was thinking, and I wrote it."
Shyamalan was vacationing in France and did not respond to questions sent via e-mail. His publicist, Leslee Dart, said her client "totally supports the book," and the book's publisher, William Shinker of Gotham Books, said Shyamalan had agreed to help promote the nonfiction account.
Were it not for Bamberger's book, the Disney-Shyamalan split might have been viewed as just another beat amid the constant churn of Hollywood relationships. Everyone knows that highly accomplished artists are often as deeply insecure as they are brilliant. It can be a challenge for executives to pacify the creative folks, while pleasing the bean counters.
"There is an elusive balance that all parties strive for between art and commerce," said Warner Bros. President Alan Horn, who was Shyamalan's first call after the breakup with Disney. With "Lady in the Water," which is being launched with a $70-million marketing campaign, Horn said, "We're trying to support a film that has unique artistic expression and at the same time make money."
Paramount Pictures President Gail Berman, whose studio recently decided to postpone production of "Ripley's Believe It or Not," starring Jim Carrey, over budgetary concerns, agreed.
"We all walk the line of devotion to the artist and fiscal responsibility," she said. "Sometimes this is the trickiest part of the job."
But, whereas Carrey and director Tim Burton are continuing to work out their script issues with Paramount, Shyamalan didn't give Disney that option. As the book says, Shyamalan felt that when executives criticized his "Lady in the Water" script "they were rejecting him." So he walked.
Disney's executives are not the only ones who are ripped in the book. Miramax Films co-founder Harvey Weinstein is described as "famously tyrannical" and is portrayed as ruthlessly recutting Shyamalan's 1998 indie film "Wide Awake."
"Why is he doing this?" Shyamalan is quoted asking one of Weinstein's lieutenants.
"Because you're not an A-list director," the unnamed aide answers.
"But could I be?" Shyamalan asks. Then, Bamberger takes us into Shyamalan's head as he imagines Weinstein's answer: "Night heard Harvey screaming in the silence: 'You're not, and you never will be.' The movie bombed, as it had to. It had been made in bad faith."
That, in essence, is the reason Shyamalan — who today is not only A-list, but is such a known quantity that his name alone sells a movie — gives for his refusal to continue his relationship with Disney.
The book's most revealing scene is the tense dinner of Feb. 15, 2005, and its aftermath — referred to by Shyamalan's colleagues as "The Valentine's Day Massacre."
The setting was a fancy Philadelphia restaurant, Lacroix, not far from the farmhouse where Shyamalan, his wife and two daughters live. But from the start, the book says, the dinner seemed doomed. The tables were too close together, and "Night felt that other diners could hear their conversation."
Seated next to Shyamalan, Jacobson aired her problems with the script. Criticisms "came spewing out of her without a filter," Bamberger writes.
"You said it was funny; I didn't laugh," the book quotes her as saying. "You're going to
let a critic get attacked? They'll kill you for that … Your part's too big; you'll get killed again … What's with the names? Scrunt? Narf? Tartutic? Not working … Don't get it … Not buying it. Not getting it. Not working."
Her words went over like spoiled fish. "She went on and on and on," the book says. "Night was waiting for her to say she didn't like the font" his assistant had printed the script in.
After way too many courses, Disney executives walked Shyamalan and his agent to the elevator, and Cook asked to speak to the director alone.
"Just make the movie for us," Cook said, hoping to keep Disney's most important director in the fold. "We'll give you $60 million and say, 'Do what you want with it.' We won't touch it. We'll see you at the premiere."
Shyamalan said he couldn't do that. He couldn't work with those who doubted him. As Cook and his team left the hotel, Shyamalan broke down and cried.
"He was crying because he liked them as people and he knew he would not see them again, not as his partners," the author writes. "He was crying because he was scared … He was crying because he knew they could be right."
Shyamalan wasn't the only one crying. Jacobson has confided to colleagues that when she returned to her hotel room at the Four Seasons that night, she broke down.
She and Shyamalan would not talk again until March of this year. At the director's request, the two met for breakfast at the posh Hotel Bel-Air.
By then, Bamberger writes, Shyamalan had realized that "it wasn't Nina's fault that she didn't 'get' the original 'Lady' script, it was Night's fault."
Despite that late-in-the-book mea culpa, associates of Jacobson say that reading the tell-all was painful for her. She declined to comment on the book and on Shyamalan himself. But she acknowledged the inherent difficulties of the "patron-artist" relationship.
"Not seeing eye to eye on a particular piece of material doesn't have to be the end of a relationship," Jacobson said. "It may not always be easy to have an honest exchange. But in order to have a Hollywood relationship more closely approximate a real relationship, you have to have a genuine back and forth of the good and the bad."
She added: "Different people have different ideas about respect. For us, being honest is the greatest show of respect for a filmmaker."