M Night Shyamalan interview: Split, non-conformity, creative freedom

Writer-director M Night Shyamalan talks about his new film, Split, its making, themes and lots more...

Following the expensive Will Smith sci-fi vehicle After Earth in 2013, M Night Shyamalan returned two years later with lean, found-footage horror thriller, The Visit. Made for a tiny fraction of After Earth‘s investment, it marked something of a turning point for the writer-director: tense, quirky and at times blackly amusing, it was Shyamalan’s lowest-budget film since the 90s, and also his most warmly received piece since 2002’s Signs.

The partnership between Shyamalan and prolific indie producer Jason Blum – who’s also taken such filmmakers as Barry Levinson, James DeMonaco and Damien Chazelle under his creative wing – is clearly an effective one, since the two have reunited for another movie, Split.

Starring James McAvoy as an unpredictable kidnapper suffering from dissociative identity disorder, it sees three abducted teenagers attempt to negotiate their captor’s numerous personalities and find a means of escape. Unsettling and tonally unpredictable, it’s prompted a further uptick in Shyamalan’s critical notices, and provides an effective showcase for his strengths as a crafter of suspense. Likewise his cast, with McAvoy chewing into his multiple roles with evident hunger; The Witch’s Anya Taylor-Joy, who plays one of the kidnapped young women, is arguably his equal.

On the eve of Split’s UK release, we met with Mr Shyamalan to talk about the making of Split, the creative freedom afforded by partnering up with Jason Blum, and why Yorgos Lanythimos’ nightmarishly strange drama Dogtooth blew him away…

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Congratulations on the film. I liked the sentiment that traumatic experiences, and scars – whether physical or mental – can become a beneficial part of your personality.

Mm-hmm. Yeah. The conversation was about the things that happen to us, that change us – is that bad? Is it always true that being normal is the right place? That non-suffering is the way of life, you know? I think Casey’s character [played by Anya Taylor-Joy] feels that as well: she feels detached from everyone because she feels so different. She’s had a different experience. These kind of healthy girls that she’s with, she can’t really relate to them. They’re not mean – they’re actually really nice. It’s the flip of a [conventional] horror movie – normally, they’re bad girls who are having sex and doing drugs, so they get killed. It’s a flip in this movie: you’re in a life-threatening situation because you’re good. I was explaining this to everyone; “These are the nice girls.” 

That’s interesting. I hadn’t thought of it that way. [Casey’s] a non-conformist, isn’t she? I might be wrong and getting old, but I sometimes feel that society’s becoming increasingly conformist. You have to act, look and dress a certain way to be considered successful and popular.

Oh yeah. I agree. I was in Madrid yesterday, where we had a screening at a university, and it was packed. The kids were all losing their minds. I was saying, “All we have, to alter the world, is our point of views. No matter whether you’re a doctor, an artist, a journalist, whatever – it’s about your point of view. So cultivating a specific, honest, new point of view is [important]. If you’re walking, talking and acting like everybody else, and you have a general point of view, you have no value to the world.”

“Whoever, in this room,” I said, “is the most specific with their point of view is going to be the most powerful. So don’t just think the same way as everybody else.”

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It’s so hard, though. I don’t know how old you are, but we didn’t grow up with the pressure that these kids have. I mean… how old are you?

I’m 39, so I was around way before social media and stuff, so…

Yeah. So the blessing of going in your room, and there’s nothing in your room but the shit you put in there, right? So there’s something belonging to your girlfriend here, and there might be a baseball mitt over there. It’s not like we just sit on our phone and looking at all the same videos and having all the same interactions. We have moments where we can just be ourselves. It’s kind of fascinating, given the film’s subject matter of compartmentalising, right? 

Right, yes. Do you think of yourself as a non-conformist in terms of filmmaking?

I know my instincts are counter. I get most excited when I’m doing something that hasn’t been done before. Whether it’s the truth or not, it’s a feeling I get. I feel heartache if something feels similar to something else. So in that way, yes. Last night, before we got on the plane to come here, I just ran to the Prado, the museum. There was a guide there who was taking me around, and he was explaining how there are these painters who shattered what happened, and there was a constant swing between classicism and then shattering it. And then it lost its power and swung back to classicism in order to relearn the basics, and learn to reinvent them again. It’s almost like a movement of artists – not that they all got together and said this, it just happens. It made me really inspired. I’m going to make this next movie… [trails off] 

These were the thoughts in my head: why did Dogtooth blow me away? What is it that they were doing? What was it that went on in that movie that [made it so effective]? There’s something there, you know? Why am I drawn to this, why am I drawn to that? Really go for it. Really dig, dig, dig, you know? It inspired me to think like that. Because it’s so easy not to; it’s so easy to generalise. It’s less work, but not as satisfying. 

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Do you think that’s what you did with The Visit in a certain way? You stripped everything down, shattered it, in terms of formal style, and made a found footage, documentary-style movie.

Yeah, yeah. For me, I feel excited by that challenge. It’s almost the reverse of, if you gave me $200m to make a movie, I’d be so lost. I love the feeling of, if you said, “Alright, everybody gets a small amount of money to make a movie. Go make the best movie you can.” I’ll be like, “Yeah! Let’s go.” [Rubs hands eagerly]

It’s so exciting. I don’t know what it is about that, but limitations really excite me. I don’t trust myself with excess – I’m a minimalist. I like limitations: “You have to have the script done by this point. You have to shoot it in this many days. You have this money.” I like it.

So working with Jason Blum has given you the chance to experiment, then, within that smaller form.

You know, it’s really funny. Jason Blum’s really prolific with his company. I make these movies, and I ask Jason to come on as an advisor. So I showed him The Visit after it was done – not completely done, but about 85% done. For me, what I look for in a producer isn’t to tell me how to shoot or all that stuff. No one’s ever involved in all that stuff. What I like is, “Here’s what I’m worried about. What’s your opinion? I’m worried about this; I’m trying to do this – what do you think? Should we show it this way.” 

And then it’s, “Here’s the movie, what do you think? Oh, you thought that part was slow? Great, great. You liked that? Great.”

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He’s more like a big brother advisor. And I love [Jason Blum’s] tastes. He’s super calm, and he calms me. He gets me in my better head space, so I’m not being defensive. It comes from confidence – so, for example, we showed Split four months before it opened, right? We open next week. We showed it, I think, in September, in Austin Texas, at a film festival. It’s crazy to do this, with a movie with the ending that it has and all that stuff. 

I said [to Jason Blum], “This is what Universal is suggesting. They love the movie, and they want to put it out there in the world that there’s something special coming. And there’s a huge chance that we’re going to hurt our movie here. A huge chance. What do you want to do?”

So Jason and I talk it out, and I trust him. He comes at me and goes, “We got the goods, man. Just be confident. Go in there and just trust it. It’s not a guarantee, but let’s trust it.” If I don’t have that big brother there, I probably don’t make that move. I come from insecurity. But it worked out for us, and it could have not worked out for us, but it did. Either way, it was still the right decision. That’s a perfect example, though, right? A big giant decision like that – you don’t want to make it in a vacuum. Jason and I, I love us as a team, and I hope we make more movies together. I’m lucky to have found somebody that champions original filmmaking like that. 

That’s the interesting thing looking over your career, is that you haven’t done any sequels or remakes. So it’s important for you to have that control. 

Here’s what I’d say: there’s an optimal process for me. That process looks like this: I want to take the pressure off the original shoot. Like, with these two movies: if I could lay out my dream version of a movie [production], well, I just did it twice. I’m going to go for it, and shoot as fast as I can, but know I’m coming back. And so in my schedule, I have everyone scheduled to come back three weeks later – every actor, every crew member comes back for three, four days. I don’t know what we’re shooting, but everyone’s coming back.

So think about that. You took the test, you got to look at it really quickly for three weeks – you don’t get a really in-depth look, but you get to look at it. Then you go, “This scene doesn’t work for me. God, I know we can do that better. You know what? I didn’t want it to be angry, I wanted it to be this.” Those kinds of things. So slowly you build up what you want to shoot, and the schedule gets filled up. You tell all the actors, “This is what we’re shooting.” Literally, right up to the day we’re filming, I’m still filling it up with things. Those three, four days get full, so you automatically get a second rewrite before it’s done. And it’s not ever really done, because in these two movies, the other things I did in the process was, I kept the sets up the entire time. So they broke down… I think it was in November. So just, like, three weeks ago, I took the sets down.

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Because I was, like, “Wait, wait. I need that, I need this.” And because we made it at a certain level, and because all the material’s there, and because everyone comes to the table – from James [McAvoy] all the way to the PAs, they all know the deal here. This is how we’re making the movie, and if I come up with a great idea, they trust me, and I trust them. If I say, “I’m working on the movie, can you spare me a Saturday? When can you come back? Great. Come to Philadelphia, and we’ll grab that scene.” You know what I mean? That fluid movement allows me to do what I do when I write a screenplay, which is a listening process. Both these films have allowed me to hone it, and that’s the process that’s the most important. And yes, with that came, “I have an idea” and I can just execute it. There’s no committee, there’s no checking, there’s no nothing. I just go ahead and do it.

It’s interesting how you balance the fear we have for the antagonist and the empathy we have for him. This reminded me a lot of Peeping Tom; I don’t know if that was an influence.

I don’t think I’ve seen that. 

Michael Powell, 1960. 

Ohhh, yeah, yeah. I haven’t seen it, but I know of it. Is it great?

Oh, yeah, yeah. You could watch these two films on a double bill, I think. 

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You know, I’m gonna write that down right now. [Gets up and fetches a pen and paper from a desk nearby] No, my favourite thing is getting film recommendations, because when someone asks me, “What’s your perfect day?” My perfect day is, I read a book, I work a little bit at home, very quiet, and then I go down to my theatre and watch a great, classic movie, like a gem. 

That movie was interesting, because it sparked a real moral outrage at the time, precisely because of its empathy for the villain. And I wondered if you were aware that going out on a limb like that can be risky. 

Yeah. So in a traditional narrative, you probably don’t want to sympathise with the antagonist. The structure of the movie is, “I’m going to simultaneously raise the stakes and make you more sympathetic of the antagonist”, right? Really interesting challenge. But that is the disorder: the disorder is, there are many people in the room, and some of them aren’t great. But most of them are great, so now what are you going to do? My big question, that I love, is: someone with DID is holding a gun on someone. Can you shoot them? Because you’re not just shooting one person, you’re shooting, in this case, 23 people. Are you going to extinguish 20 consciousnesses when only three are really capable of immoral acts? If you truly believe this, that the mind and body are different consciousnesses, you can’t. It’s a really powerful idea. 

It is, yes.

And then you could jump… I don’t want to get all philosophical, but one could argue that’s why you can’t kill anyone.  

I was going to say that, because human beings are complex. We’re not just one person.

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There’s something that could get you or I to commit a crime. There’s something. Family, or some outrage, or jealousy – we can’t pretend, you and I, that we couldn’t get to that point. So should we be extinguished because of that part of ourselves? There’s a real argument there, then, for not killing anyone. 

Absolutely. Did James McAvoy ever voice to you, whether there was one particular persona that he was nervous about portraying?

You’d have to ask him. I’m blurring now what the challenges were, because it was all so challenging. For me, I have a tone in my head and I’m trying to get it. Who’s Patricia? We do something like 20 takes of her coming in the door, and I’m like, “There it is, right there. That one where you did the thing with the eyes.” She’s a fanatic, right? And her fanaticism makes her forget that other people are not on the same page as her. She thinks, “This is so beautiful, what’s happening to you three. It’s so beautiful that you’re a part of this ritual. And I am equally offended with Dennis touching you. That’s completely wrong – completely wrong. I mean, I’m angry.”

Once he gets that vibe, that’s her. Righteous! And blind to the notion that this might not be what these girls want. 

I think a lot of people will be asking you about James McAvoy’s performance, but I think Anya Taylor-Joy’s performance is the anchor in this film. She really is amazing.

Thank you so much. She is. She’s very raw. I really relate to two kinds of actors, which is, the highly-trained, technical actor… I can just be, like, “I didn’t buy what you just did on the fourth line. You moved from there to there, and I don’t buy it.” And if they try to fight me, I’ll say, “I didn’t buy it. You think about it: you made an emotional jump that you didn’t believe in, so let’s talk about it.” And they have all the technique to go, [mimes the act of moving small boxes around very quickly] and do all the prep. I can push and push and push. 

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Then there are the newbies, who are just open and raw. I can do the same thing, and they’re hyper-sensitive to everything I say. Anya was hyper-sensitive, just like kids are. So you have to be gentle with them: “When you made that decision, you were not defending Casey. So you came off as arrogant there. Is that Casey? Because I didn’t write her that way. She’s not meaning to hurt these girls”. That kind of thing. And you might see her tear up a little bit, because she’s like, “I didn’t mean to portray her like that.” It suddenly becomes a real thing that they empathise with. And the kids – I consider Anya a kid even though she’s just turned 20 – there’s this pure empathy that these individuals have.

And of course, most kids don’t have that, so when they audition, they have already learned all the tricks that you and I have. Like, “I’m just pretending to be this person”. Because we learn so many pretending things as adults, we don’t even realise it. Even that, [adopts a note of false delight], “Hi!” Everyone does that, and that’s fucking, not real, right? What we you want is, in a truthful moment, I see the person that I recognise, and I’m slowly building up an emotion. That’s the proper level of speed for our emotions: “Oh hi. Great, nice to meet you.” 

It’s falseness. Again, it’s creating a persona, isn’t it? It’s wearing a mask.

Yes. Yes, it is. It’s really fascinating, the stuff we’re talking about.

Like I said, I like the way your films go out on a limb. You don’t do the obvious thing; you don’t take the easy way out in your storytelling. So what is it like for you, emotionally, when a an audience doesn’t necessarily connect with one of your movies? I’m thinking about something like The Happening or The Last Airbender.

Well, you shouldn’t really look at the result, even if the result is great. That shouldn’t be where the energy goes. The people that I’ve loved in art, both in movies and in literature, they’re not looking at that. You can smell when I’m trying to please you. And if they’re trying to please, they’re not artists. That’s the definition of a prostitute: prostitution is the selling of a value system. So if you did something that you love, and in the moment it was misunderstood, that’s all good. My energy should be in, “Did I do the very best version of those characters? Did I understand those characters, or did I round the corners? Was I lazy? Did I rip out my soul to get to them? Was I truly honest with myself in uncovering these characters?” 

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If you put the energy there and tie it to that craft, it will work out. I don’t know the form of how it’ll work out, it may not mean that I open at number one with every movie, but it will work out. Because people will say, “There’s no way around it. He has a very clean value system that he believes in.” I’ve learned over the years to not put my energy into that: “You’re an idiot! You’re a genius! You’re an idiot! You’re a genius!” Don’t put any energy into that; the only thing that matters is the story and the characters. And again, everything will work out if you do that. If I spend the next 30, 40 years until I’m an old man concentrating on that, I’ll be happy. If I spend my energy on, “They love me, they hate me, they love me, they hate me,” I won’t be happy.

With that, we’re out of time. M Night Shyamalan, thank you very much.

 Split is out in UK cinemas on the 20th January.