NEW YORK — Lady in the Water is a fairy tale, so everything about it requires suspension of disbelief. Including the assertion by leading lady Bryce Dallas Howard (who plays a “narf,” a kind of sea nymph) that her favorite childhood fairytale was The Little Mermaid. Then again, her dad is Splash director Ron Howard. In M. Night Shyamalan's world, there are no coincidences.
BRYCE, MEET PAUL: “I had to take off the shirt, and he was like, ‘Hi . . . I, uh, know your dad.’ ”
For instance, before meeting reporters at Lady’s New York press junket, Howard says she was in her hotel room watching Cinderella Man, in which her father directed her Lady co-star, Paul Giamatti. “He is the most unbelievably talented man,” she says of Giamatti. “He’s willing to totally change his performance 180 degrees based on one suggestion. He’s also one of the most well-read people I’ve ever met.” Then she recalls how they met on the Lady set. “It was a slightly inappropriate thing that he had just worked with my dad and then we come to the set on the first day and I'm wearing that little shirt [and nothing else], and I had to take off the shirt, and he was like, ‘Hi . . . I, uh, know your dad.’ ”
For his part, Giamatti recalls that Ron Howard was also nervous. “He was kind of like, ‘What do you do with my daughter in this movie?’ She’s an incredibly open and vivid and vibrant person. She’s really fun and a really good actress. She’s incredibly skillful, and she’s one of those people who makes you better and sharpens you up.”
Giamatti also has kind words for Shyamalan the actor, who gives himself a more prominent role than usual in Lady. “I never even thought about the fact that he’s not even an actor. He’s really good and he’s totally natural. There were times I was like, ‘Damn, he’s a good-looking man,’ or, ‘He’s got more on the ball than I do as an actor.’ He can just stand there with a smoldery look and, wow. I wish I could do that.”
Shyamalan, the fabulist who wrote the narf role with his Village star Howard in mind, says he didn’t grow up hearing bedtime stories. “I guess my storytellers were the filmmakers at that time, Lucas and Spielberg. My generation had the best storytellers in the world.”
The writer/director goes on to illustrate a point from the movie, how storytellers can change the world, by recalling that Spike Lee’s book on how he made She’s Gotta Have It inspired him to become a filmmaker. As a result, Shyamalan became rich, started a foundation that helped alleviate poverty in India, and built low-income housing in his home town of Philadelphia. “So Spike Lee saved lives. Is he aware that he saved lives? No. But he’s a link in a chain.”
It’s that sense of something beyond oneself, his characters’ yearning for meaning, that Shyamalan says irks his critics. (He gets his revenge through the Lady character Farber, a film critic whose cynicism proves his undoing.) He claims his best-reviewed movie isn’t The Sixth Sense but rather Signs, “my most popcorn movie so the least aspiring to a higher thing. It’s that aspiring to something higher that always gets everyone going ‘Oh, yeah, motherfucker?’ That gets everybody all riled up.”
ACTOR SHYAMALAN?: He gets the thumbs-up from Giamatti.
Giamatti, who considers himself a connoisseur of sci-fi and fantasy, said he was unsure at first about Shyamalan’s ambitious script. “I thought, this is really odd. But in a good way. I thought, if he could pull this off, it’d be really cool. It’s an ambitious idea to make the action of the movie the unfolding of the plot. All anyone does in the movie is sit around and tell each other the plot. It’s a really weird thing to try to do, but he pulls it off, I think.”