Mel Gibson, Signs
Credit: Signs: Frank Masi

There is one thing M. Night Shyamalan wants folks to know about his new movie. ”’Signs’ is not ‘Unbreakable,”’ he says. ”’Signs’ is ‘The Birds.’ ‘Signs’ is ‘Night of the Living Dead.’ ‘Signs’ is ‘War of the Worlds.”’ Got that? After exploding seemingly out of nowhere with ”The Sixth Sense” in 1999, the 31-year-old filmmaker grossed almost $100 million with his next outing, ”Unbreakable,” but the film was derided by detractors as gloomy and airless. So Shyamalan went back to the drawing board for his new supernatural thriller. And the drawing board had…crop circles.

”I love the idea of this big prank going on all over the world,” he says. ”But then I thought, What if there’s another meaning behind them?” So he set to work on the script, about a lapsed minister and widowed father of two (Gibson) who is living on a farm with his younger brother (Phoenix) when mysterious patterns appear in his cornfields.

A fan of ”You Can Count on Me,” the filmmaker had originally tapped two of that movie’s stars, Mark Ruffalo and Culkin, for the roles of Gibson’s brother and oldest child. Then Ruffalo came down with a serious inner-ear problem that required surgery. ”This wasn’t one of those BS publicity things,” says Shyamalan. ”He really got sick. We waited until a week before [filming] to go to Joaquin.” With Phoenix on board, they went down to Shyamalan’s native Pennsylvania for the 42-day shoot, which began within days of the Sept. 11 attacks.

Now, more than six months later, the movie has found at least one fan. ”I saw it last Tuesday,” says Gibson. ”It’s really cool. Night dropped only four minutes from the rough cut. It was already edited in his head. There’s a certain genius there. Peter Weir, [”Mad Max”’s] George Miller, and Night, those are the [geniuses] I’ve worked with.”

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