M. Night Shyamalan on 'Split' Controversy, His Enduring Love for 'Lady in the Water,' and Why 'The Village' Is So Relevant Today

SPLIT, l-r: Anya Taylor-Joy, Haley Lu Richardson, Jessica Sula, James McAvoy, 2016 (Photo: Everett)
Anya Taylor-Joy, Haley Lu Richardson, Jessica Sula, James McAvoy in ‘Split’ (Photo: Everett)

First things first: Yes, M. Night Shyamalan’s latest film, Split, does come equipped with a surprise ending. And no, the writer-director behind hits like The Sixth Sense, Signs, and The Village isn’t going to talk about it — yet. Speaking with Yahoo Movies prior to Split’s theatrical release on Jan. 20, Shyamalan skillfully talks around the final scene that is sure to upend audience expectations. “My idea was, ‘Can you watch one genre and then, at the end, realize you were watching another genre?’” the director asks.

For much of its runtime, Split fits squarely into the thriller genre, telling the story of a kidnapping that takes an even darker turn. When a trio of teenage girls — Claire (Haley Lu Richardson), Marcia (Jessica Sula), and Casey (The Witch’s Anya Taylor-Joy) — are taken captive by Kevin (James McAvoy), they discover that they’re not dealing with one kidnapper, but 23. It seems that Kevin has multiple personalities jockeying for space inside his brain, including a young boy and an older woman. And there’s one more personality yet to arrive, which is where the girls — as well as that genre-redefining ending — come in. We talked with Shyamalan about some of the protests surrounding Split, his return to smaller movies after big-budget flops like After Earth, and how he feels about Lady in the Water on its 10th anniversary.

M. Night Shyamalan and James McAvoy
M. Night Shyamalan and James McAvoy on the Split set (Photo: Everett)

Prior to our interview, I watched the trailers for The Sixth Sense and Split back to back, and it was interesting to see how differently your movies were marketed 18 years ago. You reveal so much more in the Split trailer than you did in the one for The Sixth Sense, while still not giving away the biggest twists.
If you got in a time machine and traveled back to that year, you’d see that the blockbusters for the studios were original movies: The Sixth Sense, The Matrix, The Blair Witch Project, and American Beauty. That was the norm back then, and you could almost say that’s the biggest change in Hollywood from 1999 to now. Flash-forward 18 years later, and it’s reboots of reboots of reboots. So the machinery for selling movies isn’t meant for original movies anymore, and the audience isn’t used to it anymore! You used to be able to say less, and they’d still come — you just needed some color and a hook. Now, I have to make it seem like, “You can’t miss this! And here’s 18 reasons why!” [Laughs] I was very careful about how we sold Split. We analyzed every shot to ask ourselves, “In this context, will this [shot] give it away?” I think when audiences see the movie, it will still feel fresh to them.

When the trailer was first released, it generated some concern about the film’s depiction of mental illness, as well as potential transphobia in terms of McAvoy’s character seen wearing a dress. Is that a byproduct of having to sell the movie in the way that you have?
Probably. We’ve had no issues from people that have seen the finished film, just zero. It’s all taken in the right light, and they feel moved and honored by the way James portrays the different [personalities]. There were a couple of transgender people at the very first screening that we had, and they loved it. The only way you can approach this subject matter is by bringing humanity to it and not demonizing [it]. Casting a kind man like James in the part brought a lot of empathy to it and told people that I love these characters. We also turn the premise from horror to the psychology of what the human brain is capable of — that’s the journey of the movie. So you come away with a feeling of benevolence and complication, the good and bad of everything.

James McAvoy in
James McAvoy in Split (Photo: Everett)

Split continues some of the stylistic experimentation with point of view that was present in your last film, The Visit.
With thrillers, I like to establish strong points of view. It adds to the suspense of it all; you’re learning about [the story] through the different characters. The one thing I try to avoid is the unreliable witness; I haven’t written a person like that, except maybe in The Sixth Sense. I’m making notes for my next movie, and I’m going to be trying something else with point of view. We’ll talk about it then!

The Visit was a found-footage film, which presented its own challenges in terms of playing with point of view. What lessons did you take away from making a movie in that style?
I learned that, with enough effort, you can stay in someone’s point of view for a long time. On The Visit, I stuck with two cameras, and they always had to be where the characters were looking in order to capture their reactions and what they felt. It pushed my muscles a bit! And I got away with it by making it clear that Rebecca was a pretty good filmmaker. [Her brother] Tyler was terrible, but Rebecca is going to be Sofia Coppola.

You’ve said how much you’ve enjoyed going back to smaller films like The Visit and Split after working on such massive productions as After Earth and The Last Airbender. Some directors like to say that the job is the same no matter the budget, but, for you, it does seem like there’s a difference in making a smaller movie.
All I can say is that it’s kind of like playing different offenses in basketball. If one player in an offense is running and gunning, that may not work for you and you may not do well on that team. Whereas a team that sets up and move and plays in the paint, that offense might work out great for you. I find this offense works for me. If you tell me, “The whole scene is in this hotel room — go!” I’m on it. As opposed to if you tell me, “OK, the whole city’s getting attacked! Which bridge do you want to blow up?” Then I’m like, “I don’t know which bridge to blow up!” That makes me panicky, whereas I’m OK with the hotel room. I aspire to be a specific filmmaker; like, I don’t want Wes Anderson doing a studio movie. I want to come and see Wes doing his [specific thing]. Same with Quentin [Tarantino] and all those other specific filmmaking voices. Movies like Split allow me to do that: be very specific and very original. The smaller it is, the more original it can be. Maybe that’s in my head, but that’s just what I feel.

M. Knight Shyamalan on the set of
M. Knight Shyamalan on the set of The Last Airbender with Dev Patel and Shaun Toub (Photo: Everett)

Was that realization you made in the process of making The Last Airbender? Were you hoping that your experience with After Earth would be different?
It’s learning where your strengths are. You have to learn how to make different types of movies to come to a realization of who you are. I made two movies before The Sixth Sense, and I just didn’t know what I was doing. So you have to learn what it is, and then it goes click. If you were to ask me what kinds of movies I watch, indie and foreign cinema is what fills my heart with inspiration. My favorite three genre films last year were The Witch, The Babadook, and It Follows. To me, those represent high-level genre filmmaking.

Split also allows you to play with different, more comedic tones, which you’ve tried to do in some of the previous films. There’s a strong comic streak in The Happening, for example, that maybe wasn’t interpreted correctly by the actors.
If I was making The Happening now, I would push that; I would push the comedy so it was overt. I love irreverent humor, and Mark Wahlberg is hilarious, too. So I’m really comfortable there now. When I was doing The Visit, some people who saw it early told me, “I don’t know whether to laugh or be scared.” And I was like, “Great!” I get to follow that voice, and I don’t know that I would have followed it if I was being responsible [to a budget]. I feel more comfortable being myself than conforming. And what does it look like when you’re left to your own devices? The Visit and Split are two of those movies.

Mark Wahlberg himself has publicly poked fun at The Happening. When he says things like that, do you understand where he’s coming from?
We’re still friends and all that. We had a ball making it. A B-horror movie was the goal. [Laughs]

I feel like The Village has taken on more relevance in the wake of real-world events. The idea of people isolating themselves to re-create a distant past feels very timely in the wake of the election.
There’s an article that somebody sent me about The Village and this election. The idea of demonizing what’s out there in the forest and banding together is similar to what’s going on right now. I guess the film is my way of empathizing with the idea of wanting things to be simpler, like they were in the old days. I’m not envious that my kids grew up with this. [Lifting his smartphone] I’m like, “You guys are screwed!” Here’s what my life was like [as a kid]: I would come home from school, go to my room, and that was that. There was no way to call my friends unless I used the house phone and got yelled at by my parents. So what do you do when there’s no social network? You find out who you are.

Paul Giamatti and Bryce Dallas Howard in
Paul Giamatti and Bryce Dallas Howard in Lady in the Water (Photo: Everett)

2017 is the 10th anniversary of Lady in the Water, which is a controversial entry in your filmography. Reflecting back on it, how do you feel about the film today?
I love that movie. If my house was burning down, and I had to grab a few movies, Lady would be one of them. I’d grab Unbreakable, Lady, and maybe Split and get the hell out! [Laughs] That movie was quirky, and I was doing the kind of stuff we’ve been talking about, but hadn’t settled on a genre yet. The genre of that movie was kind of a kids’ fantasy, but I was toying with ideas of tone and movement that, had I wrapped it inside of a thriller instead, would have been right on the money. That’s the one that causes the most religion of my movies. It’s my least-seen movie, but the people who saw it love it.

Speaking of religion, your films frequently come with a spiritual dimension, and some — like Signs — have been embraced as parables by faith-minded audiences. How do you feel about your own spirituality and how it’s evolved over the years?
I’ve been around religion a lot; I went to Catholic school for 10 years and my parents are fairly religious Hindus. I also live in a diverse area with people from all kinds of religions. Still, I’ve never been a big fan of organized religion, but I do like to talk about it because it’s important to me. So I use different subjects — ghosts, aliens, comic books — to have those conversations about faith. What do we believe about the unknown? I definitely believe in something, but it’s very tied to our own power. I don’t like what most religions, if not all of them, say, which is the thing that’s amazing and powerful is over here and you’re completely powerless. I actually feel the reverse: that each of us is super-powerful and we control a lot. My base feeling is the universe is benevolent. Even with this election!

Watch the ‘Split’ trailer: