Lady in Water: Interview with Shyamalan

In 1999, writer-director M. Night Shyamalan captivated audiences with his internationally acclaimed thriller “The Sixth Sense,” a multi-layered ghost story powered by equal parts suspense and emotion. The movie became a worldwide cultural phenomenon and added a new dimension to the character-driven blockbuster. The films that followed, “Unbreakable,” “Signs,” and “The Village,” have established Shyamalan as a prolific storyteller with vision.

And now comes “Lady in the Water,” which stars Paul Giamatti as Cleveland Heep, a man trying to disappear among the broken appliances of the Cove apartment complex. But on the night that irrevocably changes his life, Cleveland finds someone hiding in building, a mysterious young woman named Story (Bryce Dallas Howard), who has been living in the passageways beneath the buildings swimming pool. Cleveland discovers that Story is actually a narf, a nymph-like character from a bedtime story who is being stalked by vicious creatures determined to prevent her from making the treacherous journey from our world back to hers.

Storys unique powers of perception reveal the fates of Clevelands fellow tenants, whose destinies are tied directly to her own, and they must work together to decipher a series of codes that will unlock the pathway to her freedom. As the window of opportunity for Story to return home is closing rapidly, and the tenants are putting their lives at great risk to help her. Cleveland has to face the demons that have followed him to the Cove, and the other tenants must seize the special powers that Story has brought out in them, if they hope to succeed in their daring and dangerous quest to save her world and ours.

Personal movies

My movies are an expression of who I am and where I am emotionally, Shyamalan says. Each film has its questions that Im wrestling with at that time. I believe in being honest with the audience, so I try to talk honestly about the things Im dealing with in the context of a fictional story that everyone can enjoy.

The $2 billion that Shyamalans films have earned in box office and DVD sales suggest that his movies are as universal as they are personal, resonating with audiences not only for their originality and honesty, but also for their intelligence. Whether hes delving into the extraordinary or the painfully intimate, Shyamalan asks us to consider not only the most personal aspects of the human condition, but our relationship with the universe as well. And he doesnt rely on violence or heavy visual effects to make his point.

Bedtime story

“Lady in the Water” began as an impromptu bedtime story Shyamalan invented for his two young daughters. The way I tell stories to my kids is very freeform–whatever pops into my head and comes out of my mouth, he says of their nightly ritual.

Do you know that someone lives under our pool is what popped out of Shyamalans head on that particular night, sparking a story that played out for days and weeks on end. It developed into this kind of odyssey, he recalls. There was something at the heart of this story that made me want to tell it every night, and to keep it going. After the story finally ended, my daughters and I kept talking about it and what happened to the characters. It resonated with us in an unusual fashion.

“Lady in the Water” tells the legend of Story, a mesmerizing nymph-like young woman, and Cleveland, the broken-spirited building superintendent who discovers that she is actually a Narf a character from an ancient and epic bedtime story who has journeyed to the human world to fulfill a vital and sacred purpose. Temporarily trapped between realms, her mission and maybe even her fragile existence in jeopardy, she has taken refuge in Clevelands building, living in the cool dark passageways beneath the swimming pool.

Storys quest to return to her world is fraught with danger, inhibited by ferocious creatures whose attempts to stop her carry catastrophic consequences for the human realm. As Cleveland and his fellow tenants work together to unravel the mystery of her destiny, they discover that they too are fated to be characters in this extraordinary story unfolding in the real world around them.

Believing in your own stories

Like Cleveland and the other tenants, Shyamalan came to believe the story himself. I had to absolutely one hundred percent believe in this story for it to come to life as a film, he says. My hope is, if I tell you the honest truth, that I do believe in these kinds of possibilities, that youll be open to receiving that message.

Shyamalans decision to share the story with a wider audience was largely a matter of timing. I got the ideas for The Village and Lady in the Water at the same time, but I was in a darker place, and The Village is an expression of the questions I was grappling with. How far would I go to protect my family Would I run away from society Would I make questionable choices I wasnt ready to make such an optimistic statement yet. What I feel now is inspired and hopeful, and Lady in the Water is a reflection of that.

With Lady in the Water, Shyamalan has created a brand new mythology in the tradition of The Princess Bride, E.T. and The Wizard of Oz that encourages us to have faith in something greater than ourselves; to believe in a world of possibilities beyond those we can see or fully comprehend. The problem with us when we grow up is that we forget that anything is possible, Shyamalan believes. So the things that used to be possible had to become stories. And then we became so cynical that these stories had to become childrens stories. So things that were once true are now disguised as childrens stories.

In Lady in the Water there is a whole ecosystem of creatures who exist right outside this apartment building, he continues, but the tenants have to go back centuries in their thinking to become like children again and believe anything is possible so that they can connect with this other world that coexists with theirs.

Finding Your Purpose in Life

While the film furthers Shyamalans exploration of faith, a key theme in each of his movies, most notably Signs, Lady in the Water also examines the significance of finding ones purpose in life. Whenever I veer off the course of doing what Im supposed to be doing, Im really unhappy, Shyamalan admits. When I see people who are not glowing, who do not have that glowing feeling you recognize in people who inspire you, its because they are not doing what theyre supposed to be doing. They havent found their purpose.

Lady in the Water represents the latest chapter in Shyamalans journey as a storyteller, his seventh film in a canon of distinctive stories united by a common purpose: to inspire and entertain. When people come out of this movie, he says, I hope they feel a sense of hope for themselves and for others; hope that everybody finds their purpose and well all be able to do what were supposed to do on this planet.

Lead character

Running from his past and miles from his purpose, Cleveland Heep has suffered undeniable loss, says Shyamalan. The former doctor has taken refuge as the superintendent of The Cove, a run-of-the-mill apartment complex in the Philadelphia suburbs, where he buries himself in the busy routine of quick fixes and all but anonymous interactions with the world around him. But Clevelands attempts to suppress his tremendous pain and sadness have manifested into a stutter, leaving the other tenants to regard him, as a bit of a sad figure, a guy with a cloud over him.”

When Cleveland finds Story hiding in the shadows of The Cove, he is jolted from his disconnected reverie and compelled to help this powerful and alluring creature make the treacherous journey back to her fabled home, The Blue World. Cleveland needs to father someone. He needs to give of himself and nurture somebody, but hes not aware of this until he meets Story, Shyamalan says.

Paul Giamatti

Shyamalan began writing the character for Giamatti, an Oscar nominee for his performance in Cinderella Man, after seeing the actors hilariously heartbreaking performance in the indie hit Sideways. I was blown away by his humor, his humanity and his ability to be leading man. I felt for him in a way that very few actors make me feel, Shyamalan says.

A screening of American Splendor and a subsequent meeting with Giamatti convinced Shyamalan that he had found his guy. Paul and I felt a common bond right away. We have a similar sense of humor and share the same point of view on a lot of things. Like all of us, Paul grapples with stuff, but hes a light.

Paul Giamatti is my Richard Dreyfuss, says Shyamalan, who cites Jaws and Close Encounters as two of the films that inspired him to become a filmmaker. He can make you laugh and yet feel the depths of his characters confusion, and then emerge with a hopefulness for mankind.

Bryce Dallas Howard

During the shoot of The Village, he shared the story of Lady in the Water with Howard. Months later, after screening The Village for the actress and her parents at his farm, Shyamalan told her that he wanted her to play Story. Shyamalan recalls: “It was an act of faith. I hadnt written the script yet, but I knew I wanted her to do it.

Shooting in sequence

“Lady in the Water” was shot entirely on location in Leavittown, Pennsylvania, approximately 20 miles outside of Philadelphia, at the site of a former 3M tape manufacturing plant. The 81 acre property provided an area large enough to construct the films principal set, an expansive apartment building called The Cove, as well as warehouse space for interior sets, workshop and office space, and a massive water tank (previously used by 3M as a fire tank) for the underwater sequences.

The close proximity of the various facets of production on the compound made it possible for Shyamalan to shoot the movie in sequence. From the moment Cleveland introduces himself to Mr. Farber, the film was shot scene-for-scene as the story unfolds in the script (with the exception of the underwater sequences, which were filmed at the end of the production schedule).

The apartment complex

The Cove a U-shaped, 5 story, 57-unit apartment complex complete with a center courtyard, swimming pool and a detached bungalow bordering on a sprawling wooded meadow was built from the ground up under the supervision of production designer Martin Childs.

Childs, an Oscar winner for set designs for Shakespeare in Love, had never been to Philadelphia and drove around the citys suburbs to absorb the architecture as he was researching and developing ideas for the look of The Cove, which Shyamalan envisioned as a transitory building housing tenants whose lives are in state of flux. I tried to imagine the sort of social feel that a building like The Cove might have, with its residents from different ethnic backgrounds, of different ages and social classes, Childs recalls.

Rather than create a stylized structure with inherent architectural ambience (like the foreboding atmosphere exuded by a Gothic building, for example), Childs and Shyamalan purposely chose a nondescript design for The Cove one that would give no hint of the diverse worlds cohabiting within or portend the events to come. We decided to create a completely blank building that would be given character by the characters inside it, Childs explains. In a sense it was a blank page upon which the story could be written.
A scale model was made of Childs design for the complex, which he and his team strategically placed on the 3M property where the massive set was to be built. Then they calculated how sunlight would fall onto the building from various angles. Using computer diagrams to chart the trajectory of the sun and how it changed the light flow onto the building, Childs determined how to best position and construct the horseshoe-shaped structure, with its open end facing what would become a wooded area.

The art department and construction team built and dressed the complex in seven weeks. Nine of the units were built out and fully dressed as the residences of the films principal characters. The complex had everything but plumbing and heating, confirms producer Sam Mercer. In fact, The Cove was so realistic, during production a memo was distributed to the cast and crew reminding them: Please do not use the sinks and/or bathrooms in the apartment sets. They may look real, but theyre NOT!

As in the story, each tenants apartment is a microcosm unto itself, reflecting not only the character of the inhabitant, but how he or she relates to the outside world from the warmth and tradition of Mrs. Chois home to the learned and solitary feel of Mr. Leeds bookish abode, to Mrs. Bells nurturing, animal-friendly environment or the lethargic, unstructured vibe of the Smokers apartment.

Childs and his art department so thoroughly outfitted the tenants living spaces, many members of the cast remarked that they became more deeply acquainted with and connected to their characters upon entering their apartments. Some reactions were more visceral than others; as Shyamalan recalls, When I walked in the Smokers apartment for the first time it looked like somebody had vomited on the walls.

The interior of Clevelands bungalow was built on stage as well as practically, with anonymity as a guide. In Clevelands bungalow we wanted an absence of past because he keeps his past stuffed away and never talks about it, says Childs of the caretakers modest surroundings. There are some older items in there but those could easily be left by previous caretakers, like the filing cabinets. Theres nothing there to learn about Cleveland unless youre nosy, like Story.

Vick and Annas apartment was also created as an interior set, along with The Coves mailroom, laundry room and basement hallways. These sets were built in life-size dimensions, without removable fly walls typical of most interior sets, in keeping with Shyamalans desire for authenticity. For a key scene that takes place in the mailroom, 20 cast members crowded into the tiny set along with key crew and equipment.

In designing Storys secret alcove beneath the swimming pool, a set that was built and then submerged in the productions massive water tank for filming, Childs found insight in a comment Story makes to Cleveland the first time she comes to his bungalow. Story tells Cleveland that he has a beautiful sofa, but its actually quite ordinary, the designer notes. I got the idea that Story thinks The Cove is a pretty special place, so she decided to recreate something that looks a bit like it in the home shes made for herself.

The swimming pool

The pool is not only Storys conduit to and from the human realm, but it also serves as the nucleus between the rigid grid of the apartment complex, the organic world that is beginning to encroach upon it, and the mysteries of Storys mythological home. The pool is the point at which all the worlds collide, Childs observes. On one side you have the man-made building. On the other side you have nature in the shape of the forest. Underneath you have Storys world. So the pool is literally the heart of the building where all of these worlds meet.

After construction, the pool was painted with gradations of color to add to its mystery beginning with light blue at the top edges and deepening to a black-blue at the bottom. Shyamalan and Childs penchant for detail extended to the pools grill, which is based on the design of a sewer grate in a pivotal sequence from Alfred Hitchcocks classic thriller Strangers on a Train, in which a character inadvertently drops an incriminating piece of evidence down the drain.

It is through this grate at the bottom of the pool that Cleveland discovers Storys secret world beneath The Cove. Paul Giamatti and the dive team, led by stunt coordinator Jeff Habberstad, filmed these underwater scenes on two sets submerged in a 350,000 gallon water tank. Dubbed Big Bertha by the crew, the tank housed a 20-foot tunnel that Giamatti had to navigate in the dark with no breathing apparatus, as well as the set for Storys alcove, which Cleveland discovers at the end of this long passageway.

We were able to do things that we would not have been able to do with any other actor, Shyamalan attests. It was dangerous. Not only did Paul have to hold his breath as he was swimming and acting, but he couldnt see very well because it was very dark in the tank and the water was filled with particles so that it would feel muddier and more organic. And I do long takes.

The creatures

Like the legend of the The Blue World, the creatures that serve as guardians between it and the human world are inventions of Shyamalans imagination. It was fun to create something entirely new, that doesnt have its roots in anything else, he says. I had to figure out how these creatures could exist without us noticing or knowing about them. So the trees and the grass became elemental places for me to start.

Shyamalan brought creature designer and illustrator Mark Crash McCreery (The Village, Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl, Van Helsing) aboard as he was writing the second draft of the screenplay. Crash is an incredibly brilliant guy and I trust him implicitly, Shyamalan says. A lot of what he drew really inspired me as I was working on the script and throughout the making of the movie. We had his pictures up in the editing room to remind us of the beauty and the scariness and the feel that we were trying to create.

Unbeknownst to the tenants, living in the untamed meadow at the edge of The Cove is the Scrunt, a fierce and formidable beast on a mission to stop Narfs like Story from moving safely around the human world and to prevent them from ever returning home. Spiky blades of grass protrude from its back and help the Scrunt camouflage itself in the lawn. A mere scratch from a Scrunt infects its prey with deadly poison called Kii (pronounced key) that slowly saps the life from its victim.

The only entity that the Scrunt fears is the Tartutic, three simian-like creatures who form an invincible force that maintains law and order in The Blue World. These three beings are so evil, they killed their parents on the night they were born, says Shyamalan of the fearsome threesome, whose bark-and-branch-like exterior enables them to conceal themselves in trees. Fear of the Tartutic has upheld the laws in The Blue World for centuries. No living creature has ever seen the Tartutic, because if you see them, that means youve broken the law and are going to be killed.

The fully functional Scrunts were capable of walking, running and conveying a wide range of facial expressions produced through the collective performance of four to six Spectral Motion puppeteers operating a computer console and remote controls. The number of puppeteers operating the Scrunt depended upon the complexity of the shot and the action called for in Shyamalans script. One puppeteer each was dedicated to the ears, mouth and eyes, with another operator controlling the overall body movement via the computer.

The Tartutic was played by three actors, each outfitted in a bodysuit, feet, hands and a mechanical head controlled by two puppeteers. The bodysuits were cast from foam latex, with their branch-like outer skin hand-formed from heated plastic tubing.

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