M. Night Shyamalanhas spent most of his career as a filmmaker coming up with supernatural plotlines and creepy characters, but these days, he says, he’s got a different sort of fantasy character in mind: Clark Kent, the nerdy, bookish counterpart to the glamorous, highflying Superman.
Best known for producing films such as “The Sixth Sense” and “The Village,” Mr. Shyamalan is about to come out with a book called “I Got Schooled” on the unlikely subject of education reform. He’s the first to admit what a departure it is from his day job. “When you say ‘ed reform’ my eyes glaze over,” Mr. Shyamalan says, laughing. “I was going to have some provocative title like ‘Sex, Scandals and Drugs,’ and then at the bottom say: ‘No, really this is about ed reform.’ ”
Mr. Shyamalan, a fit 43-year-old with shaggy black curls and wide, animated eyes, is sitting in the lobby of a midtown Manhattan hotel talking about American schools with as much energy as he usually devotes to the subjects of his films. He attributes this new cause to what he calls his “Superman versus Clark Kent life.” When he’s in Los Angeles, he lives the life of a big-time filmmaker, represented by the superagent Ari Emanuel; at home in Philadelphia, he is Clark Kent, the guise in which he has come to his absorption in the complexities of education reform.
Born in Puducherry, India, Mr. Shyamalan’s parents moved to the U.S. when he was a child. He grew up on Philadelphia’s Main Line, a string of affluent suburbs, and attended the private Episcopal Academy. He still lives on the Main Line today with his wife, whom he met in college at New York University, and their three daughters, ages 8, 13 and 17.
It’s an unusual home base for a Hollywood director. He used to think that making movies from Philadelphia was “completely unrealistic.” But after he watched a documentary on his favorite artist, the realist painter Andrew Wyeth, who lived on a farm in Chadds Ford, Penn., he realized that his location was “completely lucky.” “Wyeth became specific and microscopic about the world around him,” says Mr. Shyamalan.
His own anchoring in the world of a suburban husband and father has given him, he says, “a slightly different take on things than if I’d lived in Beverly Hills.” There he would have felt pressure to be a figure in the Hollywood scene. “I so want to be part of the group…. I would have been a sycophantic please-love-me version of myself,” he says. And he didn’t want that.
Mr. Shyamalan attributes the often eccentric nature of his movies not only to his distance from the film community but to his Indian heritage. “I write a movie, and it’s just slightly off,” he says. “It comes from that Indian part of me and that cultural background that’s unusual.”
Until recently, he says, moviemaking was his real passion. “I’m not a do-gooder,” he says. Still, after the commercial success of his early movies, he wanted to get involved in philanthropy. At first, he gave scholarships to inner-city children in Philadelphia, but he found the results disheartening. When he met the students he had supported over dinner, he could see that the system left them socially and academically unprepared for college. “They’d been taught they were powerless,” he says.
He wanted to do more. He decided to approach education like he did his films: thematically. “I think in terms of plot structure,” he says. He wondered if the problems in U.S. public schools could be traced to the country’s racial divisions. Because so many underperforming students are minorities, he says, “there’s an apathy. We don’t think of it as ‘us.’ ”
One reason that countries such as Finland and Singapore have such high international test scores, Mr. Shyamalan thinks, is that they are more racially homogenous. As he sees it, their citizens care more about overall school performance—unlike in the U.S., where uneven school quality affects some groups more than others. So Mr. Shyamalan took it upon himself to figure out where the education gap between races was coming from and what could be done about it.
Much of his initial research was contradictory. When he asked experts which improvements would close the gap, some said smaller classes, others said school vouchers and still others said school spirit. He discovered that none of these reforms had worked across the board, but this finding, paradoxically, encouraged him. He knew he had to think more broadly. More…