On the eve of his latest release, the director talks about the reaction to his previous film, the critically panned ''Lady in the Water,'' why he loves the movie, and how the furor around it changed him

It has been two years since we last heard from M. Night Shyamalan, and a lot has changed in the interim. Back in the summer of 2006, the acclaimed director of blockbusters like The Sixth Sense and Signs released the fairy tale Lady in the Water at the same time as Michael Bamberger’s authorized book about him, The Man Who Heard Voices, hit bookstores. The controversial tome, ostensibly about the making of Lady in the Water, included an extensive account of Shyamalan’s less-than-amicable departure from his longtime studio, Disney, and it resulted in heaps of bad press for the director. The result: critical sneers for the film; Shyamalan’s lowest box-office take to date ($42.3 million); and a bath of red ink for his new Hollywood home, Warner Bros.

Now, the filmmaker has returned with The Happening. Starring Mark Wahlberg and Zooey Deschanel, it’s another of Shyamalan’s trademark thrillers — but it arrives via another studio, Fox, and bearing the director’s first R rating. EW.com recently phoned Shyamalan to see how he feels now about the ”perfect storm of stuff” that happened two years ago — and why he followed it with his darkest movie yet.

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: How did your experience with Lady in the Water affect how you made The Happening?
It was a great one-two for me because Lady is so innocent and had a kitschy quality to it, an offbeat sensibility that gave it kind of a jazz feeling for me, which is why I was so excited and drawn to it. I got the idea for The Happening while I was mixing Lady. I was driving into the mix and thought, Oh s—, I got the idea. And the idea of going from such an innocent thing to such a dark thing felt good in terms of the balancing act for me, to fill all my different creative nooks and crannies. If I did two innocent movies back to back it would be too much for me, and if I did two dark ones it would be too much, almost oppressive.

Looking back, three years later, on the book being released at the same time as the movie, was that a good decision?
Well it had nothing to do with me, that’s the fallacy. We were doing a making-of book with Lady and that event [Shyamalan’s falling-out with Disney] happened in the first 40 pages of the book. The rest was about the making of the movie. Ideally, it was supposed to be written about me making the movie at Disney, and that book was supposed to come out whenever, most likely after the movie. [But] the publisher wanted it to come out to coincide with the movie. I asked them not to, but they did, and I still didn’t think it would be a big deal. I thought it would be in the corner of the bookstore in the film-geek section. I was surprised how nobody reviewed the movie. That’s what was surprising. It felt like they were looking for an excuse to do whatever they needed to do to me, which was fine, everybody takes their hits. Do I wish I fit in more? Yes. Am I willing to change clothes to make that happen? No. I’ve always [been criticized for seeming] too innocent, which feels preachy. But what am I going to do? I’m just not that cynical.

But I love that movie. If my house was burning down and I could run in to get two movies, I’d go get Unbreakable and Lady. I don’t know why; maybe they are more me than anything else. The other movies are parts of me. I have no regrets. I love that f—ing movie, and if killing critics in a movie is going to get me that, it’s all right. [Laughs] I didn’t do it as part of an agenda, the movie was about storytelling and about emotionally what I need to do. What I believe is important to make a good story is you have to put yourself into it. And people on the street have come up to me and said that [watching Lady was] some kind of transformative experience for them, in some bizarre and spiritual way. It’s definitely the most spiritual movie I’ve ever made. It’s sad, because maybe it was just too innocent for the times or whatever. But certainly there was no maliciousness intended in anything, in any of the actions or anything, so it’s bizarre. I do think it was a little bit of a perfect storm of stuff.

Do you regret participating in the book at all?
How can you, when the intention was a good one, and the writer was a good guy, a good writer, and I had not met him before he wrote it? Still to this day, I think he’s a sweetheart. He was just moved by the whole experience of the making of Lady, and tried to document it. No bad intentions were intended anywhere. I’m friendly with all those people. It’s the usual thing where they’ll write a million stories about anything negative. But a positive thing? That must be a freak of some kind. At the premiere of Lady, there was a real feeling for me, an epiphany, a release. I felt so much like Cleveland Heep [the film’s protagonist, played by Paul Giamatti], in that I felt a release of fitting in. I don’t know why. It was a very important movie, and a very important time for me. Even my family — my wife feels like I’m completely different.

Since that film?
Yeah, in that something blessed has happened. I really don’t have any negative feelings toward the critics, or anything like that. I’m sure they’ll be kind and bad to me many times in the future. I’m willing to put my own vulnerabilities up there, and so much creative satisfaction comes from that; it’s hard to guard yourself and lose that. One thing is for sure: They know who I am. When you look at those last six movies [that I made], that is who I am, good and bad.

The Happening
  • Movie
  • 99 minutes