Monday, May 21, 2018
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Once again, the book's better than the movie

THE MAN WHO HEARD VOICES. BY Michael Bamberger. Gotham Books. 288 pages. $27.50.

The title of Michael Bamberger's book may have been prescient.

The Man Who Heard Voices is subtitled, "Or, How M. Night Shyamalan Risked His Career on a Fairy Tale." And while no one would argue that Shyamalan's career is over, his golden boy glow is starting to fade. That's because his latest movie, Lady in the Water, opened on July 21 and landed in third place, behind Pirates of the Caribbean and Monster House.

Whether or not you see the movie, in The Man Who Heard Voices Bamberger has provided a smart, highly readable account of how Lady in the Water came to be made, how Shyamalan divorced Disney and landed at Warner Bros., and what it's like to shepherd a motion picture from idea to final cut.

Bamberger, a fellow Philadelphian whose warts-and-all account of a big public high school won Shyamalan over, captures the mood, both merry and miserable, on a movie set.

He chronicles the pressure, the tedium, the 12-to-14-hour days, the smothering heat and damp chill, the ability to create something where there was nothing, the sheer number of people involved, the meals that come at odd hours, the downtime, the cast or crew member (here, cinematographer Chris Doyle) whose eccentricities quickly wear thin, the flashes of temper ... the optimism and the fun.

"At least 80 people, from various parts of the United States and other places in the world, gathered daily around a real pool surrounded by a fake apartment complex," Bamberger writes. "After a while, you knew the entire wardrobe of the head gaffer's assistant's assistant."

Although Bamberger doesn't shrink from detailing the rare moments when Shyamalan berated someone, he also reports the crew liked him. "Many of the union workers on the movie said Night was the best director they had ever worked for," because they found him organized, accessible, and ultimately endearing.

"On Friday nights, a crew member's name would be picked out of a hat, and Night would award the winner an all-expenses-paid vacation for two to a European capital or Hawaii or some other lush place."

Shyamalan, not the studio, paid for these rewards. It could be argued that he could afford it, but so can others who don't do the same or don't cultivate a similar sense of camaraderie.

Bamberger does more than document the making of a movie; he tries to crawl inside Shyamalan's head. He writes about his insecurities, his transition from Manoj to M. Night, his first great movie experience watching Raiders of the Lost Ark, the expectations of his biological parents and his cinematic ones at Disney, and how his creative wheels turn.

Bryce Dallas Howard, cast in the title role, comes off as a sincere, polite, well-liked young actress (despite her penchant for eating only raw food) who reminded the crew of Gwyneth Paltrow. As for star Paul Giamatti, Bamberger suggests, "You could not imagine a less pretentious person."

Giamatti and Jim Gaffigan, who plays a pool maintenance man, laugh at the idea of two character actors sharing a screen moment. "Never has there been so much male-pattern baldness in one scene," Gaffigan intones.

Bamberger is a former newspaper reporter who is now a senior writer at Sports Illustrated. Spend this much time on one subject and you either end up seduced or sick of it. The more Bamberger knew Shyamalan, the more he rooted for him.

"Maybe that sounds like the writer getting too close to his subject, but to me, honest reporting is you dig as deep as you can and you write what you find, and what you feel."

What I found in The Man Who Heard Voices was an illuminating book that made me eager to see Lady in the Water and to like it. When you walk into a movie you know, on one level, how much effort went into it and how you'll ultimately have to assign it a grade of one to four stars. That's often the first (or only) thing readers notice.

In the end, the film didn't quite work for me. I couldn't say that about the book, which was written with an observant eye, insider's ear, telling detail ... and heart.

The Block News Alliance consists of The Blade and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Barbara Vancheri is movie editor of the Post-Gazette.

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