M. Night Shyamalan on Finding Split’s Headspace

We talk with M. Night Shyamalan about preparing the shocks in store for his fans in Split.

In the many years since his 1999 blockbuster thriller, The Sixth Sense, filmmaker M. Night Shyamalan has probably lost more fans than he gained with some of the choices he’s made. But following 2015’s The Visit and now his latest chiller Split, Shyamalan seems to be back in familiar territory with thrillers that are as shocking and thought-provoking as his earlier work.

Splitstars James McAvoy as Kevin, a man suffering from DID (dissociative identity disorder) with 23 distinct personalities, one of them who decides to kidnap three high school girls from a party. We’ll soon find out why as he locks the girls in the basement as an offering to someone he refers to as “the Beast.”

Anya Taylor-Joy from The Witch plays Casey, one of the three girls who has her own troubled past, but we learn more about Kevin as he has sessions with his psychiatrist Dr. Fletcher (Broadway star Betty Buckley), who has no idea that her patient has turned to kidnapping.

It’s a movie that brings the filmmaker back to the territory of his earlier thrillers that got him so much attention in the first place, and likewise, it will leave a lot of people talking after seeing it.

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Den of Geek got on the phone with Shyamalan a couple weeks back.

Den of Geek: What started you down the road to making this? Was this one of the ideas you had when you made that deal with Universal that led to Devil, or was this something new you came up with more recently?

M. Night Shyamalan: No, I’ve had this idea forever and thought about so many different ways to do it, never really pulled the trigger, and then finally just kind of committed. I felt like I was in the right headspace to embrace its tongue-in-cheeky, weird, dark humor suspense and found a way into it that I was very excited about. Finding the Dr. Fletcher angle, and how was it all going to play out in the philosophy of “the Beast.” Sometimes you just wait. I have a notebook full of ideas and wait for it to go “click.”

I imagine a lot of filmmakers have a notebook or a drawer full of ideas, so how long ago did you rediscover this one? Was this an idea you had forgotten about?

Yeah, I was thinking about it as I was doing The Visit, and there was a group of ideas that I was considering, and then I was thinking about The Visit and Split, and was thinking even about which one to do first. Then I was like, “You know what? Let me do The Visit first and really go for it on this kind of documentary-style filmmaking, try to do something really, really different, and then go back to formalistic thriller.” I like this order, going The Visit to Split, so it felt like getting bigger as you go.

When I first heard that you were working with Jason Blum, I thought that was interesting. Obviously, he’s become known for making these $2 million to $3 million movies that do very well. I always felt your movies needed more money to make them the way you want to, so was it harder to do something like The Visit compared to this?

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You know what? This is kind of a different approach for me, and I bring Jason onto these movies to be my big brother, advisor, and things like that, but I do them here in Philly, and I do them all kind of myself. Jason is my advisor to help out and say, “I was thinking about doing this. What do you think about that?”

further reading: The Best Modern Horror Movies

Strangely, it isn’t really about the low-budget thing that is why I’m with Jason. I like his taste. Whiplash is one of my favorite movies from that year, if not my favorite movie from that year. I like his taste as a producer, and I like his demeanor. He’s very calm. He just makes me feel calm through everything.

I got the impression you built a lot of the basement in a soundstage in Philly, so is that the case? Did you build it to be very much like what it looks like in the movie?

Parts of it, and parts of it are real kind of underneath a hospital when I was running around, so the combinations of real locations and sets.

Watch The Visit on Amazon

When I spoke to James, he said you guys met at Comic-Con and that you were intrigued by the fact that he was bald. He also said it was late in the game compared to other things he’s done. When you met him, what was the revelation that made you think he could pull off all the things required?

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I had never met James and been an admirer. Like Last King of Scotland, I love that movie. He’s an elegant actor, and I find him elegant in the roles that I’ve seen him in, just really bringing a certain value system to the table, and I know he’s been in a variety of films, from action movies with Angelina Jolie (Wanted) to period pieces. Atonement and those kind of things.

But he and I had never spoken or crossed paths, then as I was finishing writing Split, I literally ran into him, and we talked. His head had been shaved for X-Men, but it has grown back, and so it was like stubble.

I just thought he was just such a kind man, and I loved the way his hair looked, and I was like, “Huh.” I thought of him, but he was unavailable originally, and then he became available.

I offered it to him, and not only did he say “Yes,” not only did we get along so well, but I literally shaved his head back to the moment when I saw him. That’s how much it affected me. We found a picture of him at Comic-Con and then shaved it back to that length.

Oh, man. I was thinking maybe it was shot like right afterwards, so he didn’t have to grow his hair back and could keep it shaved, but he actually grew his hair back and you had him shave it again? That’s kind of mean.

Yeah, it was whatever it was, eight or nine months later, so I was like, “We got to cut it back. Let’s go.”

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The discussions Kevin has with Betty Buckley as his psychiatrist Dr. Fletcher seem very authentic and true. So how much research did you actually do into DID to make sure that it was accurate?

I obviously read a lot, but then I got to spend some time with some therapists and ask questions. My wife is actually a psychologist, so it’s definitely a field that I love. I love the psychology field and the whole idea of the mind, and how to work with someone, and the labyrinth of the mind, and all the things that are unknown. I asked a lot of questions: “What if your patient did this? What if your client did this? What happens with that? What do you do then? Do you have a feeling like do you ever feel scared?” Dah, dah, dah, dah. [It was] like a million questions so that I had some sort of grasp of what it would be like, you know?

It’s amazing to me that people still think that people with split personalities are faking it.

Yeah, they definitely think it’s a controversial condition. People still don’t 100 percent believe this disorder. I personally do believe it very strongly and think it’s a very powerful and poignant disorder, and it needs to be treated. I think a lot of it goes undiagnosed.

Hopefully that will be part of the conversation when people see the movie.

I hope so.

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When I was speaking to Betty Buckley yesterday, one of the things I realized is that one of the reasons why horror is such high-quality these days is because directors are hiring some of the top actors like Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga. But actually, you’ve been doing that from the very beginning by having Toni Collette in The Sixth Sense. Can you talk about casting around James?

Yes, she was. I don’t think of them as genre movies. I think of them as dramas that happen to be scary or thrilling or that have those aspects. But for me they’re all dramas, and I try to approach them that way: Who are the best dramatic actors for these parts? In this movie, I really wanted somebody who could go toe to toe with James in those therapy scenes. James is an accomplished stage actor, and I needed somebody who had that kind of chops to keep up with him and really dance with him as he was digging deep, which I knew he would do.

Betty Buckley, who I’d seen on Broadway, is an amazing stage actress, and obviously I’ve worked with her once before, but I thought the two of them would have a kind of a nice chemistry between them, and I was right. They were just so wonderful together. For me the movie was about getting those four therapy scenes to be really electric, and they were fantastic.

Then I wanted a totally different color for Casey, somebody that was you hadn’t really seen before, somebody that was totally different from everybody. Just in how she is different from everybody. Anya Taylor-Joy just came in and did this audition. I’d never heard of her. In my mind she’d never been in anything, and then I was like, “This girl is amazing.” Then she came in and she read again, and I was like, “You got the part.”

Then she was like, “Oh, I was in a movie called The Witch.” I was like, “Oh, that sounds interesting. Maybe I’ll go see that.” It hadn’t come out yet, and I went the first weekend to see it—this is after I hired her. I was like, “Wow, this is fantastic.” It was one of my three favorite horror movies of that year.

The Witch seems like something you might be into, so I’m surprised you hadn’t seen it before casting Anya. After the movie played at Sundance, she really blew up and was getting a lot of roles.

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Definitely. I don’t know if I saw her before or after the Sundance thing. but she won my part just as an actress. I didn’t even see or know anything about her, about anything, so she just came and won the part. I don’t know about Morgan and how that happened, but sometimes it just happens like that.

I’ve seen that before where an actor auditions and gets three roles and three leads in a row or something like that, and they have nothing to do with each other. They’re just in that headspace, that kind of magic headspace in which the camera just eats them up.

I loved her reactions to Kevin’s different identities. They’re just amazing. Was there any time when you and James kept the girls in the dark with what he was going to do? Were there any surprises, or did they always know what was going to happen?

No. Every time I rolled action, the whole room electrified, because we didn’t know what James was going to do, how he was going to portray Patricia or Hedwig. Obviously, he stayed to the script, but he was so electric that it was just fun to see him do his thing every single day.

I was curious about that. Last year, 10 Cloverfield Lane came out, which was a very different movie, but it also involved an abduction.  When that came out, were you at all concerned about similarities or did you know that it wouldn’t have anything to do with what you were doing, due to the DID angle?

Since I knew where I was going with the movie, I was like, “There’s no way they’re going there.” Really the movie is about James’ character. I knew I had that. I don’t remember if I felt that. I enjoyed that movie, and I knew the abduction part of it was literally 10 minutes of the movie. That’s not what it’s about; it’s really about their relationship to each other.

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You’ve been playing more in the TV realm with Wayward Pines, and you’re doing a new Tales from the Crypt show. What’s it been like working in that realm? I feel like TV is where all the money is these days. Have you found new ways to be creative in that realm?

I’ve really enjoyed my time in TV so far, and it’s been kind of invigorating. The best part for me is I get to work with lots of people, because making movies is a very isolated thing, especially the way I make them. I write them, so it takes two years to make, and I’m always in Philly, and I work with similar crews. I get to work with this actor or this actress once every two years, but in a TV show you get to cast and work with writers and different directors, and meet wonderful people, and so it has been very lucky for me.

I couldn’t tell you how many positive relationships I’ve had coming out of the TV experiences that I’ve had.

It’s kind of a lonely profession being a film writer/director, and this is the opposite of that. You interact with a lot of people. I enjoy being around people, so this is fulfilling another side of me, which is great. I do think it invigorates me.

I have spoken to many writer/directors who eventually get sick of waiting the three years to write something. You obviously have a lot of ideas and know exactly what you want to do, so I’m guessing you’d never direct something based on someone else’s script?

I would love if someone would hand me a script and I’m like, “I’m in. That’s it. I’ll direct it.” I would love it if that happened, but it’s such idiosyncratic taste. Sometimes it feels like only if you customize it. I do feel that kind of, “I wish I could write more. I wish I could tell more stories,” because I feel like even if it’s instead of two years, now it would be smaller movies, I’m kind of able to do in a year and three quarters. That’s helping, you know?

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But it makes it so you can move and be a certain type of person. Then by the end of the process, you’re a different type of person. You want to tell a different story.

How has Crypt been going and how far along are you? Have you started to find directors and actually shoot stuff?

We’re still figuring out the whole rights thing. It’s a very old property and a bazillion people involved with the rights, so working through all that, but I do have three or four different projects that I’m very excited about, so hopefully you’ll be reading about one or two coming up soon.

My editor wanted me to ask you about your planned sequel to Unbreakable. Is that something you’ve spent a lot of time considering?

I will say I don’t know how to answer that right now. Probably. I definitely have always thought about finishing that story, and so it’s top of my mind.

Related: Interview with James McAvoy

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