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Interview of the week: M. Night Shyamalan

By KAREN BUTLER

NEW YORK, Aug. 1 (UPI) -- Writer/director M. Night Shyamalan is a sensitive guy, but that doesn't mean he feels comfortable making overly emotional films.

"I'm definitely more emotional than the average Joe," confides the man who gave us the masterful psychological thrillers, "The Sixth Sense," "Unbreakable," and, most recently, "Signs."

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"It just comes out and it's necessary in making movies and telling stories, but it's something I know that is dangerous, dangerous territory because it's an intimate thing."

The 31-year-old filmmaker says his decision to steer clear of emotionally charged material came after his 1998 film, "Wide Awake," was deemed by critics and audiences as sappy and cloying.

"So, 'Signs' is a little bit of coming back home to emotion," Shyamalan notes. "This is as emotional as big movies get ... It takes a lot of courage to go right to the line and stop."

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"Signs" explores the mysterious real-life phenomenon of crop circles and the effects they have on a widowed farmer who has lost his faith (Mel Gibson,) his brother (Joaquin Phoenix) and his two children (Rory Culkin and Abigail Breslin.)

Regarded by many as a true American auteur, the man who was born in India and raised by his doctor parents in Philadelphia often makes extraordinary use of color and sound in his films, outdoing himself in this respect with "Signs."

"The color design was something that I didn't get to do as predominantly as I wanted to," the young director explains.

Shyamalan says he felt the film's sound design was just as crucial as the color, even though it might not be as obvious as, say, the noises the laser guns and space ships make in "Star Wars: Episode II--Attack of the Clones."

"For me, it felt like one of the biggest sound jobs, one of the most important sound jobs that movies have asked for," he says, adding that he employed sound in much the same way that he did dialogue -- to tell a story.

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"Using [sound] just like dialogue to tell a story -- it's my special effects for 90 percent of the movie.

"It was very important, so we went through 100 chime sounds, until we got the one that had a combination church chime feeling because that was supposed to be a metaphor for the spirituality of something coming. Everything you can imagine -- the creaks around the room, those little moans we had in there... and also the language of the creatures, which eventually, finally became about clicking, like an African tribal clicking ... that instantly tells you primitive intelligent."

Although his films have focused on topics such as ghosts, superheroes and aliens, Shyamalan admits he has never had a real-life brush with the supernatural. That doesn't mean the man who is as big a fan of Joseph Campbell as of Stephen King wouldn't welcome such an experience.

"I just think it's fascinating, fascinating," he emphasizes.

"Maybe I had a questionable ghost thing when I was a kid, but you're a kid, who knows? All of it fascinates me to the point of wondering..."

Asked his stand on whether the worldwide, crop-circle phenomenon is a series of hoaxes or actual alien messages, Shyamalan gets philosophical and replies: "Only one has to be correct, right?"

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Though he may be a hopeful skeptic, there is no denying the strong theme of faith that has been central to Shyamalan's last three films. The young director says that is because faith is a concept he is still trying to wrap his own head around.

"For some reason, I just keep pounding away at this until I get it myself, which is kind of a guy waking up to his potential and who he is and the things around him," he states. These are things that I was dealing with (in my own life) at the time. Each one is a different thing and 'Signs' was basically about believing in faith."

The filmmaker went on to say that as much as he enjoyed making his wildly popular ghost drama, "The Sixth Sense," he would not return to that world and those characters because there basically wasn't much left to say.

Besides making his own films, Shyamalan is also a very talented and successful screenwriter. He penned the script for the blockbuster "Stuart Little" and was courted by Steven Spielberg and George Lucas to write the fourth installment in the Indiana Jones franchise. The latter project did not pan out, however, as it was difficult to get all of the principal players on the same page at the same time. He is also one of the most sought-after directors in Hollywood, a position, he admits, that makes him more than a little nervous.

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"Anything that smells like anything else bothers me. It's just a gut feeling. Even if it works, it bothers me. The moment where it's not my voice anymore just becomes depressing," he notes.

"I get offered all these movies that are out this summer to do and I get sad in some ways because you bring it on yourself, but then you get to hold your head up and have your daughter say, 'My dad made these movies and they were made with the most integrity of the movies of the time.'"

Shyamalan credits Mel Gibson's wonderful performance in the film for any success "Signs" might enjoy and says he remembers how elated he was to find the "Braveheart" star and director interested in the role.

"Mel did 'Lethal Weapon,' which was a big moment for me," he recalls. "I was on my parents' sofa watching a video of 'Lethal Weapon' and this guy did stuff emotionally that had no business being in an action movie. I completely believed the humanity of a man who was so torn up about losing his wife that he wasn't afraid of dying, which made him a lethal weapon, and those steps were profound."

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"Signs" opens in the United States on Aug. 2.

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