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M Night Shyamalan

Despite his making amateur movies from the age of 10, M Night Shyamalan was being groomed for a medical career by his cardiologist father and obstetrician mother. When it came time for college, the Indian-born, Philadelphia-bred aspiring Spielberg opted to attend NYU's film school rather than Penn's premed program. While his parents may have suffered some consternation, it all worked out in the end, particularly by 1999 when Shyamalan had written and directed one of the year's biggest and most surprising hits, the supernatural thriller "The Sixth Sense".

While attending NYU, the future filmmaker was determined to develop a Catholic aesthetic by taking liberal arts courses. Less interested in creating a distinct visual style, he concentrated on creating rounded characters whose behavior is rooted in reality. As part of his degree requirements, Shyamalan completed several screenplays (including one which became his second produced film, 1997's "Wide Awake"). In fact, while still an undergraduate, he was attempting to put together a deal to direct that film but negotiations broke down. Instead, he turned to another idea that eventually became "Praying With Anger" (1992), a film about an Indian American who travels to Madras to explore his roots. Shyamalan took on the leading role as well as producing, writing and directing chores. Made for a reported budget of $750,000, it debuted at the Toronto Film Festival to mostly negative reviews that effectively killed a national release. One of the few particularly positive reviews appeared in DAILY VARIETY (September 22, 1992), deeming the film "an impressively self-assured triple-threat debut".

Undeterred, Shyamalan pressed on, selling the script "Labor of Love", about a widower and his devotion to his late wife, to Fox with the guarantee that he would direct. The studio eventually balked on his helming the project relegating it to development hell. In 1995, he sold "Wide Awake" to Miramax on the condition he direct the film and that it would be shot in Philadelphia . Focusing on a ten-year-old Catholic schoolboy who embarks on a spiritual mission questioning whether his dead grandfather is being cared for by God, the script attracted well-known names like Denis Leary, Dana Delany, Robert Loggia and Rosie O'Donnell (as a nun!). Most reviewers, however, found the screenplay too coy and contrived. A few appreciated Shyamalan's earnestness but audiences stayed away and "Wide Awake" quickly was relegated to the video shelves.

While working on a 1997 rewrite of the script for a combined live action-animated version of the E B White children's classic "Stuart Little" (1999), Shyamalan also drafted the original script for "The Sixth Sense", a tidy thriller about a clairvoyant boy that became a summer blockbuster in part because of a twist ending that drew audiences back for multiple viewings. The film offered Bruce Willis a fine showcase but young Haley Joel Osment emerged as the real star. The movie's success and six Oscar nominations, including Best Picture, Best Director and Best Original Screenplay undoubtedly served as a balm for his previous failures. It also helped that he picked up a record $5 million for his next script, the suspense thriller with supernatural overtones "Unbreakable" (2000), and another $5 million as director of the project. Clearly Shyamalan had made the right choice when he opted not to become a doctor.

"Unbreakable" was released to eager audiences in 2000 and was quickly panned by critics. Shyamalan had failed to live up to the expectations set by "The Sixth Sense" but one can't help but wonder if all the pressure led to the deflated feeling of "Unbreakable." Shyamalan sought to correct his record with the intriguing sci-fi thriller "Signs" in 2002. Mel Gibson starred as a reverend in a small town in Pennsylvania whose farm begins producing mysterious crop circles.

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