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How the World Turned on M. Night Shyamalan

Shyamalan’s long downfall kicked off in 2004 with a bizarre, largely forgotten vanity project. It was meant to be a tribute to the magic of storytelling. Instead, it became a cautionary warning about the danger of believing your own hype

If you’re looking to pinpoint the exact moment the public began to turn on Glass filmmaker M. Night Shyamalan — as a celebrity as well as a filmmaker — a good place to start would be the notorious 2004 SyFy promotional special titled The Buried Secrets of M. Night Shyamalan.

Shyamalan’s long, seemingly endless downfall kicked off with a bizarre vanity project that posited that the filmmaker’s movies were so uncannily authentic in their depiction of the spirit world because their maker had a direct connection to the “other side.” Supposedly, Shyamalan drowned as a child and briefly died, before coming back to life with supernatural powers that informed hits like The Sixth Sense, Unbreakable and Signs, rendering them simultaneously fantastical and semi-autobiographical.

Hoping to re-capture The Blair Witch Project’s success, SyFy (then called Sci Fi) cynically attempted to pass off The Buried Secrets of M. Night Shyamalan as a timely and important documentary — instead of the mockumentary it was. Finally, public outcry forced the cable channel to concede that the epic tribute to Shyamalan’s Texas-sized ego was a clunky hoax designed to promote his upcoming film The Village.

Documentarian Nathaniel Kahn, who had risen to prominence with My Architect, a critically acclaimed exploration of the director’s complicated relationship with his legendary architect father, Louis, sacrificed his dignity for a paycheck playing a fictionalized version of himself as a hot documentarian who gets a prestigious gig making a behind-the-scenes documentary on the making of The Village. The film treats Kahn getting to interview Shyamalan several times in tightly controlled environments as a coup on par with J.D. Salinger inviting a New York Times writer to spend a month shooting the shit in his cabin in the 1980s. Secrets treats its titular twist maven as a cross between Stanley Kubrick, Salinger, a real-life superhero and a mystical shaman who works with celluloid and stories rather than spells and potions.

“The Man” — that is, the fake-maverick director’s TV bosses — wants Kahn to deliver a standard-issue puff piece that will sell tickets to The Village without giving audiences any relevant information about Shyamalan’s latest movie. But a hungry, ambitious Kahn can’t help but sense that there’s more to the story than first appears. No, there’s a big, spooky, supernatural muckraking exposé he’s being kept from pursuing by people afraid of what he might find, and what incredible powers Shyamalan might possess beyond being able to pull off gimmicky twist endings in at least some of his movies.

So Kahn goes rogue. Instead of sticking to approved interview subjects and approved questions like “What are your top 10 movies?,” “What’s it like to be so successful so young?” and “How do you get such good performances from your actors?,” an obsessed Kahn starts interviewing unapproved subjects like Deepak Chopra and a hoodie-clad goth teen superfan who hangs out in front of Shyamalan’s home like it’s a goddamn shrine and uses a Ouija Board to illustrate to a skeptical Kahn Night’s undeniable connection to the spirit world.

Using tools like chat rooms, email and fan sites, which Buried Secrets hilariously depicts as state-of-the-art, cutting-edge technology, Kahn uncovers the secret that, um, Johnny Depp at one point was in talks to star in Signs. This revelation prompts Kahn and his scrappy camera crew to head to Hollywood to interview Depp behind SyFy’s back.

Of Shyamalan’s mania for secrets and control, Depp reasons sagely in that hypnotic cadence of his, “It’s not worth it, you know. It’s only cinema, you know? It’s only movies, man. Just have a good time. Step outside once in a while. Go get a donut.”

It’s a testament to just how bizarrely and badly Secrets has aged that its funniest and most entertaining element is Johnny Depp’s oddball cameo as a guy rightly spooked by his encounter with this Night weirdo. Needless to say, for a number of reasons, Depp is not the kind of guy you want to see popping up in projects these days. Yet Depp is nevertheless the only person involved with Secrets who seems to realize that he’s in a nonsensical cosmic joke rather than a conventional promotional special.

Secrets is a crazed exercise in hagiography disguised as an exposé, a portrait of Shyamalan as not just different but special, blessed, better and smarter and more spiritual than everyone around him. Magical, really. In Lady in the Water, his even more disastrous follow-up to The Village, Shyamalan notoriously cast himself in the role of a writer so brilliant his work changes the course of humanity. He’s cast in a similar role here, playing himself as a creative titan who lives his art as a spirit too powerful for death.

In order for the special’s rather silly central conceit that the much-maligned filmmaker is magical and can talk to ghosts to work, Shyamalan has to exude so much danger, charisma and mystery that he seems genuinely otherworldly, a creature who exists exhilaratingly and impossibly between two worlds, instead of a bland, arrogant dude promoting a movie that will turn out to be terrible and widely mocked, just like ones that follow. To pull it off, Shyamalan would need to be David Bowie in The Man Who Fell to Earth. Instead he just comes off as a typical show-business egotist.

The Buried Secrets of M. Night Shyamalan would be more forgivable if it were a 20-minute special feature on the Village DVD instead of 125 of the most overhyped and endless minutes in the history of cable television, not to mention an astonishing waste of everyone’s time and energy, the slumming Kahn’s most of all. Shyamalan became one of the biggest jokes and walking punchlines in movie history (I’ve seen theaters burst out in groans and mocking laughter as soon as his name came up in a preview) in no small part because he takes himself so seriously in projects like these. Egos that huge are just asking to be popped by a public itching to tear down their former heroes.

Still, The Buried Secrets of M. Night Shyamalan does not exist in a vacuum. It will forever be associated with the crushing disappointment of The Village as well as The Man Who Heard Voices: Or, How M. Night Shyamalan Risked His Career on a Fairy Tale, another behind-the-scenes look at the secretive (but obviously not too secretive) filmmaker at work, this time an endlessly fawning book about the making of Lady in the Water.

Like Secrets, Voices was designed as a tribute to the magic of storytelling and one very magical storyteller named M. Night Shyamalan in particular. Instead, both now stand as unintentionally hilarious, utterly revealing cautionary warnings about the danger of believing your own hype.