Mel Gibson and Joaquin Phoenix have an alien encounter in Signs, a drama about fear and faith. Will audiences be transported? Ask director M. Night Shyamalan, who has a sixth sense about these things.
In one way, it was the worst possible timing that writer-director M. Night Shyamalan's sci-fi thriller Signs started production on September 13, 2001. That day, a shaken cast and crew assembled in the countryside near Philadelphia - many of them far from home - while, 90 miles away, the remains of the World Trade Center burned, families searched for missing loved ones, and every American struggled to accommodate the dawning realization that life was altered forever. "I don't know how many times I'd find myself just standing in a cornfield, paying respects," recalls Cherry Jones, who plays a deputy sheriff in the film and who had trouble with her early scenes because of the circumstances.
Months later, Signs producer Frank Marshall (Raiders of the Lost Ark, The Sixth Sense) says sadly of the effects of September 11 on the shoot, "There's a producer problem you never had before."
But, in fact, the tragedy had a peculiar resonance for those working on the movie, just as it may for the audiences who see it. Signs is about family - a widower (Mel Gibson), his children (Rory Culkin and Abigail Breslin), and his brother (Joaquin Phoenix) - living on a farm in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, who, instead of waking up to a morning like the one before it, wake up to the end of the world. The epicenter of that mind-shattering event - a three-day invasion by some kind of aliens-takes place not in a war-torn part of the planet far away, but in the cornfields of their own backyard, trampled into the shapes of giant crop circles. The widower is a former minister who left the fold after his wife's death; faced with the unimaginable, he is forced to conjure a new type of faith. "The movie became a metaphor for what was happening (post-September 11), "Shyamalan says." (It was), 'Hey, let's talk about faith for real.'
Shyamalan has learned that no one shows up at theatres for "meaningful"; what audiences want, when they go to the movies, is "entertainment." He likes to start with cheesy, dismissable, grade-B subjects-ghosts (The Sixth Sense), comic books (Unbreakable), and now aliens - and mix in emotion and a spiritual profundity that takes viewers by surprise. "Make the fun more fun," he says, "the scares scarier - and then it turns out to be much deeper and darker than that.
So, perhaps, in one way, the timing of this shoot was fortuitous: If any of the actors or the creative team had been inclined to overlook the meaning behind the story's entertaining elements, they weren't about to miss it now.
"Look," Shyamalan says, standing by the driver's side door of the Mercedes-Benz he picked up from his dealer that morning - a warm one in April 2002 - "no hands!" He raises his arms like he's being held up at gunpoint, and the door locks of his first luxury vehicle magically snap open. He steps back and laughs, delighted by the technology.
Cheerful energy radiates from his body, whether he's got a smile on his face or not. This is a man who never stops: never stops thinking, imagining, talking, listening, working, joking around, or trying to figure things out, the grander and more high-minded the better. A husband and devoted father of two, he always brings the conversation back to topics like Respect, Loyalty, family, Justice, and How to Better the World. Sometimes his voice cracks like a teenager's. You imagine that he either never sleeps or he sleeps very soundly, with a smile on his face.
One of Signs' themes is the myth of coincidence - that nothing happens by accident; that luck, good or bad, is always more than simply luck. Production designer Larry Fulton, who also worked on The Sixth Sense and Unbreakable, says it's highly relevant that Shyamalan, who has lived most of his life outside of Philadelphia, was born in India to Hindu parents, both doctors. "I do believe," Fulton says, "that there is the soul of a 500-year-old man inside him. I think his depth of emotion and his abilities are not those of a (32-year-old)" he pauses, mirth gathering steam in his lungs "who I know eats Ring Dings and chili."
"You know," Gibson jokes about the fact that Shyamalan seems like an old soul, "his uncle is actually a cow."
Shyamalan's first two films - Praying with Anger, about an Indian-American student who goes back to his ancestral country and finds himself a stranger, and Wide Awake, about a Catholic schoolboy coming to terms with the death of his grandfather, were made when he was in his early 20s and feeling the burden of having to please everyone and achieve everything. They quickly sank from view. So at 26, when began writing The Sixth Sense, he felt liberated in a way. "Anything it did," he says, "was positive movement in my career."
He readily embraced all that was cheesy and entertaining. "If I said to you, 'You can go out with three people: one that's really fun and exciting, one that's very deep, or one that can give you spiritual, cathartic moment...'" He raises his eyebrows and waiting, giving you a chance to decide on curtain one, curtain two, or the big box. But then he cuts in. "Let me call that fun and exciting person again, and again and again and again and again." Instead of starting with the fact that the son and mother had a communication problem, he started with a boy who saw dead people and a man who didn't know he was one. The result was a film that grossed $294 million.
What this means to Shyamalan, among other things, is that he hasn't had to sign a multipicture deal for security, although, since The Sixth Sense, he also hasn't directed a film for any studio other than Disney. "There's a sense of loyalty," he says, gingerly maneuvering his new car into a parking space at a bustling restaurant in an otherwise sleepy Pennsylvania town. "They're the ones that I went to the dance with. Now that I'm prom queen - you know, you don't leave." He also may never have to take a project he doesn't believe in, or one that will diminish his audience's respect for him, just to stay in the game. "That is the ultimate form of power," he says.
His subsequent film, 2000's Unbreakable, dealt with good and evil in the framework of a comic-book-style hero and villain. It topped $95 million but was generally perceived as a letdown after the phenomenon of The Sixth Sense.
Shyamalan feels that he didn't quite let go emotionally when he was writing The Sixth Sense and Unbreakable. Where the characters played in each by Bruce Willis should have had an "unburdening," all they experienced were the epiphanies that come from discovering who on really is. So on Signs, Shyamalan went all out for the unburdening. The last 45 minutes, he says, are a "super-emotional take on a sci-fi movie."
"It's necessary to have some cataclysmic obstacle," Gibson says, "that brutalizes you somehow, so that you can come out the other side of it."
When Shyamalan tested the film with a mixed-age audience of 50 people or so, he felt like he'd hit his mark: He heard their scream and their laughter and saw their tears all in the right places. Inside the car, Shyamalan screams to illustrate. Then he looks at his passenger. "It's fun to watch a movie where that's audible," he says, smiling.
Fulton did not point out to Shyamalan - a man who will not sit down to write until he knows every major plot point, who storyboards every shot, that he his crosses all through the design of the Victorian farmhouse constructed for the film. "It's one of those things you do, but you don't tell Night," Fulton says, "cause he'll say: Oh, that's hitting them over the head with a hammer."
Shyamalan did want to use color, specifically, a bluish-violet color to evoke the dead wife. He hopes that when audiences see that bluish-violet, they'll have a subliminal sense of the residue she has left on the family. (Similarly, he used red as a visual hint of ghostly presences in The Sixth Sense.)
The music, too, composed by James Newton Howard, was written to give a feeling of residue. "It's almost an anti-scoring kind of thing," Howard says. "We almost scored the vapor that's left after the major event."
At the beginning of the shoot Shyamalan rented a theater for the crew and their families and showed them Alfred Hitchcock's The Birds, just to give them a sense of the tone of Signs. The Birds is a film with no score at all.
"There's stuff in the house (in Signs)," Howard says, "which might normally have been scored with scary music. But we decided to make it sound-driven." Instead of musical notes, the filmmakers used creaks and squeaks, howls and cracks.
Shyamalan wrote Signs in five drafts, over about six months. When it came time to talk casting, he had Mel Gibson in mind even though he'd never met Gibson and had no idea whether the actor liked his movies. But he had been impressed by the scene in Lethal Weapon where Gibson's character comes close to shooting himself over the death of his wife, and the 46-year-old actor's particular brand of ambivalent, suicidal angst was exactly what Shyamalan wanted.
Disney, which made an eight-figure deal with Shyamalan days after getting the screenplay, thought the project was so strong that they didn't need to cast a star. But Shyamalan wanted Gibson. So he called the actor himself, spoke to him on the phone for 45 minutes about filmmaking, and then finally said to him, "I wrote something I think you'd be great in, but I'm not big on waiting. So, when you're ready to read it, I'll give it to you. And I just want a yes or no. Then we're good." Gibson wanted to see Signs that day, so Shyamalan sent his cousin over the actors house in L.A. to hand-deliver the script. The next morning, Gibson called to say, "Yeah. Let's go."
Neither man felt it necessary to meet before Gibson got to the location to begin shooting. Something about faith.
It is a sparkling day In Pennsylvania, November 2001. The wind is so strong that birds are flown in flocks across the sky, and an American flag snaps over and over again. At a long table in the large, chilly dining tent, some crew members are lamenting the fact that the shoot is almost over. It can't be, they say; they'll have to think of someway to extend it. One person suggests they sabotage the set, and they all laugh. "Why is it," asks someone, the still photographer, or the boom guy "that Mel has his own chiropractor on the set (the answer is that he has scoliosis) and Joaquin is a vegan, and yet they both smoke?"
The mull this over for a while, gossipy neighbors in the smallest of towns, and finally someone says, "Well, tobacco doesn't have a face."
Meanwhile, in "the basement," a small set insides a large warehouse, Gibson is wandering around between takes, smoking, smiling, grab-assing.
There is what everyone describes as a "family feeling" on this set, not only because the events of September 11 brought everyone together and many of the people hired for the job, including the cinematographer, the production designer, the composer, and the producers, worked on one or both of Shyamalan's past two films, but because most of the story has been shot in this one, location, so everyone's pretty cozy there. Outside the warehouse, there's a basketball court, an after-work bar set up in a small tent (pool table courtesy of Gibson), and occasional live classical music at lunchtime. On Halloween, they held a gold tournament at a nearby course.
Gibson gets into an enthusiastic discussion about Scrabble, a games he's played a lot on this shoot, rather than do things like watch dailies, which he says, "bore the hell out of me."
"You know the old saying, If you love something let it go?" He says this in a French accent, mockingly. "I still care about acting, but I realize there are more important things than prostituting your emotions for money."
His face lights up when he turns to Shyamalan's longhaired assistant, Jose Rodriguez, who keeps foiling him in Scrabble. Once, he says, Jose invented the word hained, saying that it was a certain way nylon was weaved, and Gibson was fooled. Anotehr time Jose laid down the word candled, and Gibson thought he'd made it up. Turns out "it's when you put a light behind an egg to see of there's a chick in it," Gibson says, gingerly holding up an imaginary egg. The egg, the word, the fact that Jose knew it, the small details of really life, that's important.
Shyamalan had wanted either Joaquin Phoenix (Gladiator) or Mark Ruffalo (You Can Count on Me) to play Gibson's brother, an ex-minor league baseball player. Because Phoenix was filming in Europe when the role was being cast, it went to Ruffalo. When Ruffalo had to recover from an ear operation, though, in early September, Shyamalan went to New York to meet Phoenix for the first time. The director says he "loved him immediately."
Phoenix remembers that meeting with some anxiety. "If I agreed to do it, I had to start rehearsing in, like, three days, "he says, walking down a street in New York's West Village on a spring day months after production has wrapped, a black-and-white-striped wool scarf around his neck, laceless Pumas on his feet, and a cigarette in his hand. "Usually you have three months before a film starts. So Night said, 'Look, if you're on the fence about it, just come down and do it anyway.' He had enough confidence in this story and in his ability as a director and I guess, hopefully, in me as an actor that we would be able to find this character."
Like fellow New Yorker Cherry Jones, he suffered some post-September 11 stress during the shoot. "He lives downtown," Jones says. "He was feeling that distance. It was comforting to both of us to sit in those rockers (on the back porch of the house) and talk about home."
Another issue for Phoenix was that for a long time, he'd been one of the youngest people on any of his sets, having acted for 18 of his 27 years. But with the inclusion of 12-year-old Rory Culkin and 5-year-old Abigail Breslin in the Signs cast, Phoenix felt as if he were "moving into a level of responsibility and professionalism" that he'd avoided before. "It was the first time where it was like, I couldn't afford to forget a line or screw something up."
And then there was the dog: In one of the early scenes, Phoenix has to go get a dog that's barking outside and lead her over to a leash. On the first take, when the actor called the dog, she came right over.
"Night said, You're really good with animals, Joaquin," Phoenix recalls. "And I was like" here he whispers "Shhh! Don't jinx it!" For the next 14 takes, the dog ran away from Phoenix every time he called her. "Every... single... time," he says. "Cause Night jinxed it."
Just then, a girl with braces and jean jacket walks by with a little dog on a leash, and the dog pulls its way over to Phoenix. The girl, who doesn't recognize him, waits while Phoenix, squatting, knocks the dog on its back and tickles it madly with both hands, telling it the whole time, in high-pitched baby talk to get lost.
Shyamalan makes it clear to his actors that what he's going for is the best performance they've ever given. (With The Sixth Sense, he elicited Oscar-nominated turns from Toni Collette and Haley Joel Osment, and burnished Bruce Willis' reputation as a serious actor.) So when he doesn't get what he wants from a scene, he makes sure his stars know it, just to remind them of where the bar is.
"I'll say, 'We got something that I can put in the movie, but we didn't get what I wanted,' and they'll go back to their trailers, like 'F**k!' They're probably cursing at me out back there." This seems to make Shyamalan even happier than usual. "But when they nail it, I'm like, 'Oh my god, you killed it!' And then you seem them, they're almost, like, high." He thinks for a moment. "It's nice to have a little bit of fear in their eyes."
Back on the set, Gibson is shooting a scene in which his character runs into the basement to join his frightened family. He closes the door, puts his ear up against it, and grabs the knob when he sees it moving. There are few lines spoken, and yet Shyamalan asks him to do the sequence again and again - for more than an hour, with tiny variations. It is almost never done, this kind of microdirecting of a star like Mel Gibson, but the actor doesn't seem to mind.
"He wouldn't settle for any of my shortcuts," Gibson says later. "He'd go bzzzzzzt!" Gibson makes a loud, obnoxious, game-show buzzing noise. "It was almost Pavlovian. The minute you start swallowing or something - bzzzzzzt!" He laughs. "He allowed me to breathe. It's been a long time since I've had a director that would jump in there and wrestle that monster."
About movies stars in general and about Gibson in particular, Shyamalan says, "These guys are superstars for a reason. They're supremely gifted, and they're charming people, so charming sometimes, that they get by on charm. And we play on Mel's charm a lot in the movie. But when it's time, you surround them with as much hard-core talent as you can, people who don't know the charm game, like Joaquin Phoenix, and Joaquin will sit there like just another human being and blow it out of the water, and Mel will have to turn it up."
At another point during the shoot, Phoenix is struggling with a scene in which he has to run through the basement, looking for something with which to jam the door shut. He searches some shelves and finds, at the very back, a pickax. As he pulls the pickax off the shelf, he's supposed to turn, say "Got it!" and, as he movies from where he's standing, accidentally hit the lightbulb, or pretend to hit it, because this is only rehearsal, drowning the room in darkness. But Shyamalan notices that Phoenix keeps peeking up at the bulb before he pretends to hit it, making the hit seem anticipated. Phoenix tries it over and over again, and finally gets it: turn, say line, swing without look, run. Trouble is, Phoenix hits the bulb, sending glass all over the set.
"How many more bulbs?" he asks. He seems mildly mortified. "Don't you worry about that," Shyamalan says.
A moment goes by, then, from off in the distances, the prop guy yell, "Last bulb!" like a bartender announcing last call. Phoenix looks alarmed, and everyone laughs. It's a joke. "Last bulb!" the guy yells again, just to ruffle Phoenix's feathers.
Shyamalan and Phoenix work on this set of movies for a while longer, this time with the camera rolling, and when the lights are doused one last time, and the director has finally gotten the scene he wants, he says, "Nice one, brother." From the pitch-blackness of the set comes Phoenix's voice, doing a perfect Elvis imitation. "Thank you," he says. "Thank you very much."
Shyamalan says later that Phoenix is shy and sometimes a little reticent, because "he doesn't ever want to be fake. Innocence, it's his brilliant strength, that when he shows it to you", he pantomimes opening his jacket and revealing something pure inside his chest, "it takes your breathe away, because it's been untouched." He closes the imaginary jacket. "If he wanted to, he could be the biggest actor in the world."
The new Mercedes won't start. Or at least Shyamalan can figure out how to turn it on using the ignition button. But he needs to, because lunch is over and his wife and daughters will be waiting, and there's a plan to bring the car over to his father's house tonight. His father will be happy: For a doctor, Shyamalan says, driving a Mercedes is a sign of success. The director, however, doesn't agree. His marker for success is not finances, he says, but "connection." He wants to unite people, not just by making them all scream and cry and laugh together in a movie theatre, but by setting an example the same way Bruce Lee or Tiger Woods did: by giving the world a "non-white hero."
Asked if he identifies with being non-white, Shyamalan says, "Different. I identify with that for sure."
He tells the story of how terrible he felt recently, when he was at an industry event and Glenn Close stumbled over his name, then mangled it even more while trying to fix her mistake. "I'm a person, you know," he says, revealing the rawness of what must be a lifelong wound, one that is at the heart of all his movies. "I'm a person," he says again.
But then he remembers a time when a store security guard recognized him, and said, "Mr. Shyamalan, I just wanted you to know that I love your movies." Shyamalan was moved by the fact that this man, who had probably never pronounced his name before, had gotten it right.
"And the world got a little bit smaller," he says. "It's hard to be racist when your favorite movie is made by a little Indian guy, you know?" He gives up on the ignition button, pulls the key out of his pocket, and starts his car the old-fashioned way.
Shyamalan knows when he has finished a screenplay that works be he feels a kind of peach, he says. "It started on The Sixth Sense, I wrote until I felt peace. And then I was like, 'This is how we're going to sell it, this is how we're going to make it, this is who's going to be in it.' Not out of arrogance, but out of peace, you know? I couldn't imagine that a studio would read it and pass. It would mean that they were closed to everything inside them." Now, after his success at connection with audiences, he feels people in the industry view him rather as they do Bob Dylan. 'He's just going to do his thing,' he pictures them saying. "Sometimes it's going to be exactly what I want to hear, and sometimes it's not. But it's always going to be something that you can respect." No question, he has amazing instincts about people, what grabs them, what makes them happy or sad. Mention this to him however, and he says, "Sometimes I feel completely lost." He shakes his head. "Completely. More lost than everybody else."
He recalls a moment not too long ago, as Signs was nearing completion, when he sat in a window seat in his home outside of Philadelphia, pondering faith. Signs was born from Shyamalan finally having faith in himself as a filmmaker with an original voice, "celebrated or not" but that's not the faith he was trying to understand, sitting in his window seat.
"Pain and chaos, they're just part of the same thing," he says. "In badness, there's a call for something" He looks puzzled. "I almost got there," he says, trying to understand The Secret of the Universe. "But I couldn't crack it, and it floated away." He laughs. "Maybe I'd go poof if I figured it out."