Hollywood's most precious resource is a writer-director who can create films that are original yet accessible, powerful but not off-putting, and in tune with popular taste but not pandering.
Such artists are rare in no small part because the studios, paradoxically, tend to stifle the creativity of gifted filmmakers.
But occasionally there arises such a talent as M. Night Shyamalan, who insists on doing it his way. The 33-year-old goes quiet for a time, then emerges with a movie that blends art and commerce in unexpected ways.
"I play for a living," Shyamalan says from his home office outside Philadelphia. "Success is tied to a feeling of magic, which I can protect."
With that alchemy comes staggering rewards. Shyamalan has skyrocketed to the top ranks of writer-director-producers who earn more than $15 million a picture upfront, against a healthy cut of the box-office take. His latest movie, "The Village," hits theaters Friday.
Shyamalan never tells Disney production chief Nina Jacobson what he's writing. She just eagerly waits for his latest mystery script to arrive. That's because, after his first two micro-budget feature films, the NYU Film School graduate delivered three supernatural thrillers to Disney: "The Sixth Sense," "Unbreakable" and "Signs." The worldwide gross on all three totaled $1.3 billion.
Naturally, the studios have chased him, dangling lucrative properties such as "Harry Potter" and "Indiana Jones," but he refuses to be distracted from his own work. By the time he is finished making a movie (close to home so he can see his wife and two kids), he can't wait to get back into his room overlooking trees and fields, pond and sky. And write.
The spark for "The Village" came from an adaptation that Shyamalan turned down, "Wuthering Heights."
"The idea of making a movie set in that time period was exciting," he says. "The emotional angst of people, out in the open, saying what they want, loving who they shouldn't, willing to die for love. I went, 'Wow, I wish I could be telling stories like that.' "
Also knocking around his head was a horror tale about a group of people living with the existence of predatory creatures.
"The most intriguing moment in 'King Kong,' " Shyamalan says, "is when you come across the tribe of people and their ritual with the 40-foot wall. Things don't make sense unless you know what they're living with."
"Wuthering Heights" meets "King Kong"? "It was a natural fit!" insists Shyamalan.
With success comes the freedom to break the studio mold, and Shyamalan thinks "The Village" is his most original, rule-flouting movie since "Unbreakable." "My hope is we broke so many rules we created a new rule," he says.
Among the wreckage of rules:
Use big stars or big effects: "The Village" has neither. It boasts an ensemble of respected actors (including Joaquin Phoenix, William Hurt and Sigourney Weaver) but no marquee names.
Don't rely on a female lead: After Shyamalan removes one of the leads from the action, "Psycho"-style, he turns the story over to Ivy, a blind girl played by newcomer Bryce Dallas Howard. After producer Scott Rudin urged him to see the daughter of actor-turned-director Ron Howard perform off-Broadway, Shyamalan cast the rookie without an audition. He cites "Alien" as the model for a movie that starts off one way, then turns an unknown (Weaver) into an unlikely hero.
Avoid flashbacks: Tricking the audience via hairpin twists and turns is the director's stock in trade. (Similarly, the recent TV mockumentary "The Buried Secret of M. Night Shyamalan" was a "fun idea, like 'Larry Sanders,' " until, he says, the Sci Fi Channel went too far in promoting it.) He almost told "The Village" story straight, then flipped back to his initial impulse. "Otherwise it's not organic," he says. "I just have to do what I do. It's the only way to be brave."
With "The Village" ready to go, Shyamalan has two scripts ahead of him: his next Disney original and an adaptation of "The Life of Pi" (his first since 1999's "Stuart Little"), which is partly set in his native India. The latter is for 20th Century Fox -- and unless he builds an ocean tank in his back yard, it won't be filmed in Philadelphia. He's breaking his own rules now.