M. Night Shyamalan on Split, Finding the Balance Between Fear and Sentiment, and Why Horror Is So Great Right Now

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Throughout the first half of M. Night Shyamalan’s career, the director had a penchant for casting himself in increasingly pivotal roles: He was a stone-faced drug dealer in Unbreakable, a man plagued by guilt in Signs, and, notoriously, an author whose prose would lift humanity to a higher sense of collective purpose in Lady in the Water. Shyamalan has always had a good sense of humor, but his characters, like his movies, tended toward the grave.

That changes in his new movie Split, which sees the director pop up as a dim-witted security guard who likes chicken wings and frequently patronizes Hooters. (He’s credited as “Jai, Hooters lover.”) It’s the kind of self-awareness that, even in his boom years, seemed absent in Shyamalan, and one of the many signs in the film that points to a new era for the director. To be sure, the film doubles down on the core elements of the Shyamalan brand – the Philadelphia location, a central character dealing with extraordinary trauma, emotional (and physical) metamorphosis, and, of course, a late-stage plot twist — but the author of dark fairy tales has sharpened his focus, too.

With 2015’s The Visit and now Split, Shyamalan looks like he’s having fun getting under your skin again. The humor is stronger, and the stakes are higher. Shyamalan went to space for a few movies, but now he’s landed back on Earth.With the director seemingly entering a new phase in his career, Vulture spoke with Shyamalan to talk about making original stories in the age of the sequel, art in the coming age of Donald Trump, and whether or not he’s scheming on a Shyamalan Cinematic Universe.

This felt like the darkest we’ve seen from you yet.
I guess it is, actually.

The thing that people might lose sight of as the movie goes on — as they get adapted to what they’re watching — is the central premise of three teenage girls being imprisoned in a musty basement. You handle it very well, but we’ve never seen violence against young girls in your movies. It even takes on a sexual tone at points. What brought you to that place?
What justified it in my head was that the movie is ultimately about trauma: What are the repercussions of trauma and how do we think of people that have gone through extreme trauma? They’re isolated. They feel marginalized. How does our thinking about that change, and how do they think about themselves? You really do have to reference the trauma in the piece, so its engine is very, very dark. But interestingly enough, it goes to this weird kind of spiritual place in a way. I’ve come to feel like if I want to do emotion, I need to do the equivalent darkness to bring balance to that storytelling world.

You’ve talked about your own kids in interviews over the years. Now your kids are at a place where they are more grown up, and the characters in this movie seem around 16. There’s so much in your movies about the wonder of young eyes seeing the world, but by putting youth at the center of your films, are you telling stories about protecting children, or about children being exposed to danger?
Wow. I guess in some primal way, they say that authors return to the same subject matter over and over and over and keep trying to work it out in some fashion. Perhaps there is this moment of a loss of innocence; there’s a moment you believe there’s magic in the world, and then there’s a sad moment there isn’t. Perhaps I’m always returning to that particular pivot moment in our lives, doing a “What if?” for those individuals in that moment to not lose the capability of seeing the world with those [innocent] lenses.

With so many geographical and thematic commonalities in your movies, have you ever thought of creating a Shyamalan Cinematic Universe?
Not in a ubiquitous manner, but because I do contemporary thrillers and I do place them in the same city every time, there is by nature a connective tissue there. But not in all the pictures.

You came out of the gate with movies like Sixth Sense and Signs, and I’d argue that you foreshadowed the kind of movies Hollywood would embrace in big theater settings years later. Then in the middle period of your career, with The Last Airbender and After Earth, the performance didn’t match up critically or financially to a bar that you had set for yourself. How do you look at that period in your career?
I think there are two sides of me. There is that Stuart Little side, and the darker side, and they coexist. So when you see a thriller [of mine], you’re still going to see the humanity and the emotion that one would normally associate with family films. Then when my kids were smaller, I went and did family films. That was a certain period of interest, because you have to do what’s connected to you. If you’re hoping to do this for a lifetime you have to be honest about where you are and who you’re doing them for. I’ve always had a side of myself that’s been more family-oriented. Now, clearly Split is not that!

Depends on your family!
It’s the nightmare version of what happens to families. It’s all your fears.

And you do something that very few people do, especially in today’s industry: You make original stories. That makes any movie you do a big swing.
It does, yeah. Am I terrified about that? [Laughs.]

Do you find that to be a healthy creative motivator, or is it mostly terrifying? It has to still feel like a gamble, right?
Yes! It does, but that is the engine — discovering something new, making something with a new tone. A lot of the product out there, it’s preexisting. The primary reason to go see it is the way you felt about the previous [movie], or something related to it. But I do believe that, now, hyperoriginal movies are a weapon. We’ll see how Split does; hopefully we can add it to the list of original movies that people went and got off their cell phones for. I know what motivates me is that feeling of Man, I’ve never seen that before! And I can’t dismiss that. I’m dying to go find out what that’s about, and I do feel like this is the beginning of a cycle that’s turning towards original cinema again. But I might be just reading it that way because I want to.

If you want to read it that way and it emboldens you, then please, embrace the placebo.
I will.

One space that’s really exciting right now for original content is horror films. They feel like an incredibly incisive storytelling medium right now, and a lot of independent horror movies are bringing strange, different horror stories into the conversation. I’m curious what you saw as the benefit of horror as a storytelling language, since it’s so prevalent in your movies.
It’s one of the most resilient genres, if you look at it over the decades and decades of cinema, because it is one of the most fun things to experience with a group. You can experience comedies as a group and that’s a positive thing, but this idea of going to a cinema and being thrilled and jumping and feeling that with strangers — it’s enticing. It’s not something you want to do by yourself. I’m sure there are some odd birds that do that, but …

I am one of those odd birds, but that’s how I know you’re right.
Yeah, because then it becomes trauma! When you watch with everyone together, you get to enjoy the fact that you’re jumping and all that stuff. But it’s been a great thing for cinema. This dark genre is one that draws people in a great deal. It also allows for great new voices. For me, the trio of The Babadook and The Witch and It Follows are excellent filmmaking. That is excellent filmmaking! Period.

And you brought the It Follows cinematographer into Split.
I put my money where my mouth is. And I took the lead actress from The Witch!

Yes, I did actually want to give my specific thanks for casting Anya Taylor-Joy.
Oh, well thank you.

There has obviously been a lot of conversation about art in the time of Trump. If you’re working on original stories, do you feel like your art will reflect the contentious climate? Do you feel like the dialogue will influence your creative process?
I definitely think so. This [election] profoundly affected me, so I can’t imagine it’s not going to have some tangible impact on that future stories. It’s a moment of some kind of awakening, between the majority and those that know how to manipulate power. It’s a really interesting moment in time for us, when something has happened that we never thought could ever possibly happen. Yeah, I’m excited because in my mind I always turn to a positive What can we do? kind of thing, and one thing it showed is the most passionate people decide who’s president. So we need to be passionate, and I do think it will come to affect [art]. I don’t know how yet, but I’m sure it will.

This interview has been edited and condensed. 

M. Night Shyamalan on Split and Why Horror Works