Out of This World: Hollywood Is Fat and Happy with Its Summer of Sequels. Meanwhile, in a Galaxy Far, Far Away -Philadelphia--director M. Night Shyamalan Is Proving Himself to Be Our Next Great Storyteller. A Close Encounter with the Man Behind 'Signs'

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Byline: Jeff Giles

Looking back, the moment I liked M. Night Shyamalan most was the moment he liked me least, and that was the moment when he said he'll never understand why people occasionally think he's cocky and I said, Well, you are cocky--maybe that's why. This exchange took place in the back seat of a black SUV as Shyamalan's driver, Franny, ferried us out to the Philadelphia suburbs so I could see where the 31-year-old writer-director went to high school. Shyamalan wanted to know what he'd said that sounded cocky. "See, we have to clear this up," he said. "I can't believe you think that. Cocky? Give me an example." I was regretting that I'd opened my mouth. I told him I'd have to think about it. "Oh, now you've got to think about it. You had the statement right there in your hand with nothing to back it up!" The SUV pulled into the Episcopal Academy, in Merion. Shyamalan and I ducked into an administrative building, and a woman named Meg Hollinger whisked down the stairs. She told me that Shyamalan was a wonderful role model for the students, that he came to speak with them and that what struck her most about him was his humility. Shyamalan grinned, shot me a look and said, "See!" When we headed back out the door to tour the campus, he put his hand on my shoulder, a gesture, I later discovered, he inherited from his father. "I'm sorry," he said, pleasantly. "You weren't finished with your belligerent accusations."

Relax, Night, I'm about to say that you're a filmmaker who matters. At 28, Shyamalan--whose last name is pronounced Sha-ma-lon--wrote and directed "The Sixth Sense," which starred Bruce Willis as a psychologist and Haley Joel Osment as a trembling boy besieged by ghosts. That movie, of course, had a spectacular twist ending, and grossed nearly $700 million worldwide. More than that, though, "The Sixth Sense" proved that even in summertime moviegoers did not need to be pummeled or condescended to. As Mel Gibson puts it, "That one he did about the dead people--that was a phenomenally crafted movie. Night's uncompromising in the way he tells a story. He doesn't spoon-feed, and he doesn't pander to anyone." Shyamalan's follow-up, the somber "Unbreakable," misfired at the box office. But his latest offering, "Signs" with Gibson, is a welcome return to form.

Shyamalan is every bit the movie buff that the '70s auteurs were. His idols are unapologetically pop, though: not Fellini, Bergman and Kurosawa, but Hitchcock, Lucas and Spielberg. The scares in "Signs" call Hitchcock to mind, but Shyamalan is more akin to the young Spielberg in his careful rippling of the heartstrings, his deft touch with child actors, his fascination with the middle-class American family and his desperate desire to keep pleasing the same demographic over and over: people between the ages of 10 and 100.

Shyamalan is already Hollywood's highest-paid screenwriter. Disney gave him $5 million to write "Signs" and $7.5 million to direct. Now he's attempting to turn his name into a brand, like Spielberg, so that on opening weekend audiences will converge to see not a Mel Gibson or a Bruce Willis movie, per se, but an M. Night Shyamalan movie with Gibson or Willis in it. Says Marc H. Glick, the director's lawyer and earliest supporter, "Where we're headed is, 'Shyamalan' will open the film."

Cocky is, in fairness, too lazy a label to stick on someone who's widely liked, introspective and hellbent on self-improvement. "It's funny," says the director. "We were on the set of 'Signs' once--we were deep in the shooting--and we did something, and I went, 'No, no, no, I was wrong.' And Mel hugs me and goes, 'You said you were wrong! I can't believe it!' And I'm like, 'What are you talking about? I'm always wrong!' I can't be unclear about how I want to make movies. But that doesn't mean I'm right. It just means I'm clear." Point taken. But Shyamalan is nothing if not unabashed. He is Hollywood's next great entertainer. …