Why 'Labor Of Love' will be the most important film in M. Night Shyamalan's career
"Citizen Kane" holds such a monumental place in our popular culture that whether or not you've seen the film, you most likely know the film's "big secret," since like "Psycho" and "Planet Of The Apes" and "The Empire Strikes Back," the film practically embodies the idea of a film built on a twist or a surprise or a reveal, and those things have been parodied and re-stated and borrowed from endlessly by now.
In the case of "Kane," the entire film is built around a search for meaning in the final words of a dying mogul, and it is only in the film's closing moments that the meaning of the cryptic word "Rosebud" is revealed. It all goes back to a pivotal moment in childhood, a lost sled that he misses still. So many people are defined by a few particular moments along the way, and one of the biggest questions in life is whether we would be different people if a few key things that happened a different way at key turning points in our lives. It's easy to pinpoint those moments in a movie, but for someone's real life, it can be far more difficult. However, in the case of M. Night Shyamalan, I think there is a pivotal moment that pushed him in the direction he's been heading for most of his career, and in a surprise twist, it looks like he's about to get a chance to go back and try again.
For Shyamalan, everything changed when "The Sixth Sense" was released and he was a sudden overnight sensation. For most people, that was their introduction to his work, and when he ended up on the cover of Newsweek, where they declared him "The New Spielberg?", it helped cement the narrative that he had come out of nowhere, fully formed and awesome.
The truth, though, is that by the time Shyamalan made "The Sixth Sense," he was already several films into his career. His first film, "Praying With Anger," was a very small and self-financed effort, and the movie he made for Miramax, "Wide Awake," was an enormously frustrating experience for him, and the final film didn't really reflect what he set out to make. There was one chance for him to make something that would be exactly what he wanted to make, and he pinned all his hopes on a spec script he wrote called "Labor Of Love."
At the time, he was still willing to take assignments as a writer, and he did some work on the early drafts of "Stuart Little." But he knew that the only way he could every truly get his voice into the finished film was to direct his own work, and "Labor Of Love" was set up at Fox for him to direct. It's a lovely script about a guy who is gutted when his wife dies. He had made her all sorts of promises while she was alive, and never followed up on any of them. At one point, she asked him if he was willing to walk across the country for her, and he said yes. Looking for a way to prove his love through a gesture, he decides to do exactly that: walk across the country. He ends up becoming a national news story in the process, and he also impacts dozens of lives. It's a very human story, and it's not built around some big third-act twist. Instead, it's all character, all about someone wrestling with grief but on a large scale.
The thing is, before Shyamalan got the film in front of the camera, the development process went south. He started working with Fox on the film in the mid-'90s, and it dragged on for years. After seeing "Wide Awake" turn into a film he didn't care for, he wasn't able to do the same thing to "Labor Of Love," and by the time he sold "The Sixth Sense," he had already decided that "Labor Of Love" was a dead issue. He had to leave it behind, and then "The Sixth Sense" became a massive hit, and starting with "Unbreakable," Shyamalan instituted a policy that defined him for many years afterwards. He refused to take any script notes at all. What he wrote was what he would shoot, and he was the only person who could decide that something needed to be changed. He was so wounded by the process that he withdrew from it altogether.
If you want to see where that eventually led him, you should read the book "The Man Who Heard Voices," a behind-the-scenes look at the nightmarish production of "Lady In The Water." It is a damning portrait of a filmmaker so sensitive and bruised that he's unable to collaborate in any meaningful way. Success gave him plenty of room to demand certain things, and the result was a filmmaker who was increasingly out of touch with the talent that launched him in the first place. His last original script, "The Happening," was so wrong-headed that it's become a cult comedy classic, and the demands that were attached to that script when he was trying to set it up as a spec were pretty remarkable. It was also the last time he was given that much freedom.
So now we get word that that Shyamalan has managed to finally get the script for "Labor Of Love" back from Fox, and Emmett/Furla/Oasis will end up financing the film for him to direct with Bruce Willis set to star.
It's an interesting move. It reunites him with the star of his two most successful films, creatively speaking, and if he goes back to the script he originally wrote, then we'll get a film told in the voice that first launched him to success. While I'm not sure he can ever write another script like this, the idea of him shooting this one finally is exciting. According to the story that Mike Fleming ran today, Fox still technically controls the script, but they're in the process of working that out. If this ends up being distributed by Fox, that's going to bring the whole thing full-circle in a way that almost feels like it's right out of a Shyamalan script.
This is an important moment for him. This script has been that nagging unfinished business that he's always had lurking out there, and now he's in a position where audiences laugh when his name shows up in a trailer and studios actively hide his involvement when they're selling a film. That's a long way for him to have fallen, but I have to believe that the writer whose work knocked me out so much when I first started reading it back in '97 is still in there somewhere, and this seems like a bold way to try to reconnect with who he was at that point.
The biggest twist of all would be if he manages to remind audiences what they liked about his work in the first place.
In the meantime, he's got the pilot episode of "Wayward Pines" coming soon, as well as a micro-budget film he's been teasing on Twitter for a while now.