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Who is M. Night Shyamalan?

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  • Written By: Tricia Ellis-Christensen
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  • Last Modified Date: 16 November 2016
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M. Night Shyamalan, or Matoj Nelliyatu Shyamalan, is a film director, producer and screenwriter, who has enjoyed a great deal of success in his relatively short career. He was born in 1970 in India, but his physician parents soon immigrated to the US. He was educated at a private school in Pennsylvania, and received his film training at NYU. During his college work, he changed his professional name to M. Night.

In the 1990s Shyamalan received critical attention for his first film Praying with Anger. It was shown at the Toronto Film Festival but was never released to theaters or on DVD. He had more success with his work on the screenplay Stuart Little. He also released the film Wide Awake in 1998, which he wrote, directed and produced.

In 1999, his film The Sixth Sense brought him international praise. The film stars Bruce Willis and Tony Collete, and also launched the career of the young Haley Joel Osment, who received an Oscar nomination for his insightful performance of a boy who “sees dead people.” In common with all the later films of Shyamalan, he incorporated an unexpected twist ending that thrilled audiences. The film made over 600 million US dollars (USD), a testament to its strength and popularity.

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Shyamalan followed up with the film Unbreakable which again featured Bruce Willis. The movie was only modestly successful as compared to The Sixth Sense. In the US, profits were little more than 20 million USD. Shyamalan has commented that he feels he rushed the production of the film and considers it his least favorite of his popular films, lacking in emotional content.

In 2002 Shyamalan rebounded with the hit Signs featuring Mel Gibson and Joaquin Phoenix. Unlike Unbreakable, Gibson and Phoenix both give the film plenty of emotional content. Critics praised Gibson’s layered performance as a preacher who has ceased to believe in God since the death of his wife. Again, the Shyamalan twist ending delights viewers.

The Village, which was released in 2004, enjoyed commercial success but more mixed reviews. It is visually the most arresting of the Shyamalan films to date. Use of color evokes the work of current Chinese films. The film also introduced Bryce Dallas Howard, Ron Howard’s daughter in her first starring role. Her performance wrought praise from even the most severe critics of the film.

Bryce Dallas Howard also stars in the 2006 film Lady in The Water, where Shyamalan attempts to divert from his twist ending which viewers seem now to expect. Though the film blends elements of suspense with drama, the tale derives from a bedtime story Shyamalan created for his children. Shyamalan has expressed a wish to make films without the twist, as he fears his work will become more or less predictable.

Unlike most films of the horror and thriller genres, the work of Shyamalan is praised for thoughtful and intricate plots and character development akin to high quality dramas that do not explore the supernatural. Like Hitchcock, Shyamalan loves to make appearances in his films. He plays a doctor in the The Sixth Sense, a baseball fan in Unbreakable, the vet who kills Gibson’s wife in Signs, and a guard in The Village. He has his largest role in Lady in The Water.

Shyamalan is known for his sense of humor. In 2004, the Sci Fi Channel released a “documentary” from which the director very publicly disassociated himself. The documentary was actually a hoax, encouraged by the director to promote The Village. The “mockumentary” full of ridiculous facts resulted in a huge audience, because of its negative publicity campaign.

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