Like the endings of several of his films, the trajectory of M. Night Shyamalan’s career contains a shocking twist.
After devoting the last decade of his career to big budget films like After Earth, The Happening and The Last Airbender, the writer-director of the blockbuster films Signs and The Sixth Sense has turned to making low-budget horror films. “The biggest advantage to making these low-budget films versus the big budget studio films is the creative control I have,” says Shyamalan. “I can make these films exactly as I envision them, as long as I stay within the budget and on schedule.”
The results so far have been encouraging. Shyamalan’s last film, 2015’s The Visit, brought Shyamalan his best reviews in more than a decade. Both The Visit and Shyamalan’s latest film, the multiple personality horror thriller Split, were made for less than $5 million, a far cry from the profligate resources Shayamalan was afforded during his halcyon period. “I think that Night was well-suited to make the transition to independent horror films,” says micro-horror specialist Jason Blum, who produced The Visit and Split. “Night’s always had an independent mentality. He’s a Hollywood outsider, who chooses to live outside of Hollywood. He likes to work with the same people, the same crew, which is ideal for these kinds of films. He storyboards everything. He draws the entire movie. He’s the most prepared filmmaker I’ve ever met.”
Split tells the story of Kevin, a man who has more than 20 different personalities, one of whom compels Kevin to kidnap and imprison three teenage girls. “I’ve worked with several writer-directors, and Night is right at the top of the list,” says James McAvoy, who plays Kevin. “What sets Night apart is how much he’s in control of his films—how he takes possession of the story and every element of the filmmaking process. He draws the entire film before he starts shooting. I’ve worked with other directors who’ve done that, and what usually happens is that they lose energy as they go along. They don’t end-up doing anything; they rely on close-ups and medium shots. Why did you bother drawing and planning all of these elaborate shots beforehand? Night has a plan, and he carries out his plan. He also lets you in on what he’s doing, which builds trust.”
Shyamalan’s colleagues believe he’s the same filmmaker he’s always been. “No, I don’t think he’s changed at all,” says Betty Buckley, who plays Kevin’s psychologist in the film, Dr. Fletcher, and previously worked with Shyamalan on 2008’s The Happening. “We shot The Happening in Philadelphia, mostly in a studio, and it was the same with Split. He works with the same crew, so it didn’t feel like there was a difference, despite the difference in the budget. I loved Night’s previous film, The Visit, which is one of the great scary movies. I saw a master filmmaker at work in that film, someone who could maintain interest and suspense while also inserting humor. I love watching Night work. When I look at Night, I see a gifted, shiny being.”
David Grove, MovieMaker Magazine (MM): What was the inspiration for Split?
M. Night Shyamalan (MNS): I’ve had the idea for a while—of making a thriller, a horror film, about a character who has multiple personalities. I keep journals, which contain scenes and tones for stories I might someday want to develop into film projects. I’ve always been fascinated with psychology, which is evident in my previous films, and I’ve always been intrigued by DID [dissociative identity disorder]. I’m very interested in why our brains work the way they do, and why we believe the things we believe. I was also influenced by The Silence of the Lambs, which is one of my favorite films.
MM: When people read the plot description for Split, they might immediately think of the influence of Psycho, and some of the films of Brian De Palma, specifically his multiple personality-based films, like Dressed to Kill, Sisters and Raising Cain. How much inspiration did you draw from these sources, and were there any other influences, in terms of character and style, that you brought to Split?
MNS: Of course I was influenced by Psycho. Alfred Hitchcock is one of my all-time favorite directors. However, I wanted to break genres with this film, and although this is a psychological horror film, I brought a World Cinema approach to the film, stylistically, visually. Stylistically, I was very influenced, in the making of Split, by the films of Robert Altman, as well as David Lynch, whom I’ve become a great admirer of in recent years, especially in terms of Blue Velvet, with the daring, disturbing approach Lynch brought to that film. I was influenced by World Cinema. In terms of frame, I was influenced by a film from Greece called Dogtooth, and by a French film called Cache, which is a great psychological thriller. Stylistically, I think Split has a French cinema feel and look.
MM: Kevin, played by James McAvoy, has over 20 personalities, nine of which are heavily featured in the film. How did you construct Kevin and the rest of his personalities?
MNS: Kevin’s multiple personalities are born out of his horrific childhood, which was full of abuse and trauma. Kevin became Dennis when he was very young, and when Dennis was conjured, Kevin started to shatter, and then more personalities entered Kevin. Kevin is, at heart, a sweet soul, and the personalities inside of him cover a wide range of personalities. Patricia entered Kevin when he was 10 or 11, and then there’s Barry and Hedwig, many others. All of these personalities are trapped in Kevin’s body, which serves as the host body for all of these personalities, all of whom, like Kevin himself, feel like they’re abnormal, feel like they have to stay underground. It is a community of personalities that exists inside Kevin.
MM: Material like this could be treated as black comedy, or straight horror, or a combination of both. How would you describe the tone of the film?
MNS: There is black comedy. I try to include black humor in all of my films, and, in trying to break genres with this film, I wanted to combine the elements of black comedy with the creation of suspense and tension. I want this to be a fun, scary viewing experience, and I want it to feel epic and intense. Ultimately, I want the audience to have a sense of understanding for what Kevin is going through, and to feel empathy for him.
MM: How is the Beast personality introduced in the film, and how does the Beast compel Kevin to kidnap and imprison three teenage girls in the film?
MNS: It is the personality of Dennis who becomes the Beast’s henchman, and he is commanded by the Beast to kidnap the girls. The Beast, this new, powerful personality that enters Kevin, takes over this community of personalities, and he teaches the personalities that they don’t have to live underground anymore, that they’re normal, that the outside world is impure and sick. The Beast is a godlike personality inside Kevin, and the Beast commands Kevin and his personalities to strike out against anyone who’s impure.
MM: How would you describe the dynamic that exists between these different personalities inside Kevin and the girls who have been kidnapped?
MNS: Some of the personalities are nice, and some aren’t so nice. Some of these characters are entertaining, fun people. Some of the personalities, especially the women, feel empathy toward the girls. The different personalities talk to the girls about this force, this power personality, whom they refer to as the Beast. The girls realize that when the Beast arrives, through Kevin’s body, that they’re going to be killed. All of the personalities have a tangential relationship with sexuality. One of the personalities has a juvenile crush on one of the girls.
MM: How would you describe the interior of Kevin’s basement?
MNS: It’s very utilitarian. Visually, it’s very schizophrenic, and it doesn’t look like a basement. There are flowers—there are shards of beauty and normalcy in the house, but there’s also chaos. You look at this place, and you ask: What kind of a person lives here? Who built this place?
MM: How did you decide on James McAvoy for this difficult role, and what did James bring to this role that is unique from other actors you might have chosen?
MNS: Finding an actor was hard, because it was an imposing role, and I needed an actor who possessed an incredible skill set. I met James, for the first time, at Comic-Con, last year, when James was promoting his X-Men film, when James had about half an inch of hair on his head. We chatted, said hello, and when I looked at James, at his hair, I saw that he could be transformed into many different characters, that he could be molded to suit all of the personalities I was going show in this film. There was no need to change anything about his appearance, and I knew how versatile an actor he was from his previous films.
MM: Kevin believes that he has the ability to change his body chemistry, to shape shift, through his various personalities, as does his psychologist, Dr. Fletcher, who has published papers on this subject. If this is true, does this mean that the film contains a supernatural element?
MNS: It might be supernatural. We sort of go down this rabbit hole with Kevin, in terms of his relationship with these personalities and how they might change him physically. It is documented that DID patients have the ability to change their body chemistry. A DID patient will, for example, believe that they’re a 250 pound bodybuilder, and they’ll be able to perform incredible feats of strength. This defies belief. After researching DID, I thought, ‘Okay, what if Kevin’s personalities believe they have supernatural powers?’”
MM: How would you describe the relationship between Kevin and Dr. Fletcher (Betty Buckley) in the film?
MNS: It’s an ongoing relationship. Dr. Fletcher is Kevin’s only link to reality. She tries to help Kevin develop a sense of who he really is, to combine all of these different personalities into one person, to cut them down. However, some of the personalities are not allowed to speak to Dr. Fletcher, while some are, and she’s not entirely sure of who she’s talking to at any given moment, just like the audience won’t be. They trick her. Sometimes one personality pretends to be another personality when Kevin is with Dr. Fletcher.
MM: With Split, and your previous film The Visit, you’ve made a transition from big budget studio moviemaking to the world of low budget horror moviemaking. How would you describe the journey you’ve taken in these past few years?
MNS: The pros definitely outweigh the cons. The biggest advantage to working with a low budget is the creative freedom I’m allowed. I have total creative freedom with these films, and there’s no financial pressure, because the films are made for a very low cost, which means that it’s very easy for them to succeed financially. I don’t have to round the same corners I did in the big budget arena, and I can pursue interesting ideas with these films, which would be considered offensive in the big budget space. I don’t have to get approval for any of the tonal aspects of these films.
MM: What was the biggest challenge you faced in making this film?
MNS: The biggest challenge was the limited resources I had. I’ve been prepared for every film I’ve made, but on these films, the low budget horror films, you have to be really prepared. It was stressful, and sometimes I just didn’t think we’d make it. With Split, it seemed like we were filming a crucial, iconic scene every day. Every day of shooting involved having to introduce a new personality—we’re introducing Dennis today, then Barry, Hedwig, one personality after the other. These are iconic moments in the film, and I knew they had to be done right. Again, there were no extra resources to fall back on. It was just me, the crew, and the actors.
MM: Of course, most low budget moviemakers don’t have the advantages that you have, not to mention your pedigree.
MNS: No, they don’t have to access to great actors like James, and they don’t have the great partners I have in making these films. Jason Blum produced Split, and he produced my last film, The Visit, which was very successful. He knows how to execute these films, and how to market them. On Split, I worked with most of the same crew members I had on my previous films. My casting director, Douglas Aibel, has worked with me for years. Universal distributed The Visit, and I know they’re going to do a great job of promoting Split, so I don’t have to worry about distribution or marketing. No, I don’t consider myself an independent filmmaker.
MM: Betty Buckley, who worked with you on The Happening, said that she doesn’t think you’ve changed between then and now, going from big budget projects like The Happening to low budget projects like this.
MNS: When making a low budget film, I think it’s often the actors who have the toughest job, and that was certainly the case with Split. I was lucky enough to have two world class film and stage actors in Betty and James. Their incredible talent was evident during the rehearsal for the film, in the way that they were able to navigate the intricacy of the material, like two great pros. It was breathtaking to watch Betty and James at work, to see two great performers at the top of their games, to watch them escalate into a zone.
The spine of the film is the four therapy sessions in the film, which unfold like a chess match between Betty and James. These are iconic moments in the film, and the entire film rests on these scenes, which isn’t something I wanted to say to the cast and crew, not wanting to put too much pressure on them. We did two of those scenes in one day, and James was absolutely transcendent. We shot one scene, and then I said “Cut,” and then there was applause from the crew, who were just mesmerized by what they’d seen. Then James took a bow. MM
Split opens in theaters January 20, 2017, courtesy of Universal Pictures.