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Shyamalan aiming to regain box-office mojo

Will M. Night Shyamalan's new R-rated film scare up bigger box-office numbers?

On location for "The Happening," Shyamalan reviews a scene with Mark Wahlberg (left) and John Leguizamo.
On location for "The Happening," Shyamalan reviews a scene with Mark Wahlberg (left) and John Leguizamo.Read moreZADE ROSENTHAL

As he waits for his beverage at a Starbucks along West Chester Pike, the portly, middle-aged businessman has no idea of the sinister plot being hatched behind his back.

Less than a yard away sits renowned filmmaker M. Night Shyamalan. The master of suspense is gleefully describing how he would set up the oblivious customer for cinematic slaughter.

"He's the perfect guy to get taken out," Shyamalan says, "with the hair and the glasses and the suit. All tucked-in. We'd have him maybe talking, trying to get a little connection going with the barrista. And you'd be laughing at this older guy trying to flirt with a younger girl. And you're having fun; you're having fun, and I got you. That's when he'd turn around and WHAM!"

It's a trick Shyamalan pulls off again and again in The Happening, his sixth major feature, which opens Friday: lulling the audience into a false sense of familiarity before the mundane turns nightmarish.

But because this is the filmmaker's first R-rated release, those thrill-ride twists are more graphic and bloodcurdling, right from the opening sequence.

The movie, which stars Mark Wahlberg and Zooey Deschanel as a Philadelphia couple caught up in a widespread toxic event, demanded heightened violence, according to Shyamalan.

"I felt it was the right thing for the screenplay," he says. "I can't keep cramming in the same vocabulary. The movies that I love, that are on the walls in my house - The Godfather, The Exorcist, even Jaws, which I think would get an R-rating today - are made up of visceral, powerful moments punctuating a character's experience."

Apart from the rating, The Happening has many of the usual Shyamalan trademarks, including its Pennsylvania setting. You can see landmarks from Rittenhouse Square to 30th Street Station to the cooling towers at the Limerick nuclear plant.

Sitting in the coffee shop near his Chester County estate, Shyamalan, who looks younger than his 37 years, insists that he may shoot locally, but he's always thinking globally.

The universality of his themes is a major reason, he believes, that his films typically do well overseas. His 1999 breakthrough, The Sixth Sense, earned more than $670 million worldwide.

"What they draw out of my work is an international point of view," he says. "I live here in Pennsylvania, which is as American as America gets, but I was born 10,000 miles away in a French province of India, Pondicherry. And I have family everywhere. When I was a kid we used to go back to visit, so I got to see London and Singapore and Malaysia and all the places my family lives.

"In Italy and Mexico, they really respond to the magic surrealism of my movies," he continues. "And the decorum of my approach, which is probably an immigrant thing - you'd never see an Indian kid cursing in public. That reserve appeals to some European countries like Germany."

Of course, in the United States we tend to focus less on aesthetics than on the bottom line. And with the diminishing returns of Shyamalan's most recent projects - 2004's The Village grossed $256 million worldwide, 2006's Lady in the Water just more than $70 million - The Happening is being portrayed in the media as a crucial test of the filmmaker's commercial appeal.

But if Shyamalan is feeling pressure on this muggy June afternoon, he isn't showing it, talking energetically about his art and laughing often.

He seems to have arrived at an oasis of gratitude and acceptance in his life.

"I'm surprised at how unnecessarily unhappy I've always made myself," he says. "If it ended right now, man, I've had the best career. But I was upset the whole way. About what? 'This happened, that happened. Oh, this person said this!' What a stupid way to go about life. You miss it all."

Then again, if the reviews of The Happening take a harsh tone on Friday morning, Shyamalan's Zen-like detachment could quickly vanish. "I can see the right way to think about things," he acknowledges. "I just can't always maintain it."

It's hard not to take criticism personally when you have so much of yourself invested in a film. Shyamalan is the writer, director and producer of The Happening (the same three hats he has worn since 2000's Unbreakable).

But, as he says, "All the [three] partners don't work so well together. When you read a script of mine, the writing is sparse. It creates a haiku kind of feeling that people find provocative. But it's too literary.

"The writer says, 'This is beautiful, right here' and the director says, 'This is six pages of dialogue in a Starbucks in the middle of a horror movie. What are we supposed to do with that?' "

He also has the added responsibility of finding a suitable role for himself in every film, another Shyamalan signature.

"As a director, it's tough to cast me," he says, laughing. "I don't like to be a gimmick. I genuinely like to contribute and thereby tattoo the movie as a personal creative experience. But it's hard.

"If Dustin Hoffman is the main character, I can't play his son. I can't play his friend. Everything about me is odd: my age, my ethnic background. I don't fit any archetypes. I can't even play a traditional techie Indian guy. I don't give off that vibe."

He found a creative way to insert himself into The Happening, though you may have to stick around for the credits to realize who he is playing.

Shyamalan has gained a reputation as the king of the twist ending. But because he generates and shapes his own material, he's never felt bound by any formula.

"All my movie ideas have some kind of spirituality and emotion at the core set against a canvas that is somewhat dark," he says. "Everyone thinks of them as genre films, but I never feel trapped by that.

"If I want comedy, I put it in," he says. "If I want romance, I put it in. Really, all my movies are romance-centered."

Oh yeah? Tell it to that poor doomed schlub at the Starbucks counter.