M. Night Shyamalan never went anywhere, but he’s back all the same. With his previous low budget thriller The Visit and this weekend’s high-concept shocker Split, the writer/director is once again making hit films that get audiences talking, and that make even his harshest critics – who by and large didn’t care for his mid-career films, like Lady in the Water, The Happening and The Last Airbender – appreciate just how distinctive and unusual this filmmaker can be.
I spoke to M. Night Shyamalan the morning after I saw Split last year, and now that you’ve seen the film for yourself you probably know exactly which part I want to ask about. The thriller stars James McAvoy as a kidnapper with multiple personalities, and Anya Taylor-Joy as one of the young women he has abducted for a very mysterious purpose. But although Split doesn’t have a conventional twist ending, of the sort that made M. Night Shyamalan a household name with The Sixth Sense and Unbreakable, it does have a surprise in there somewhere.
So I asked M. Night Shyamalan all about it, knowing damn well that we’d just have to sit on this part of our interview until the film was finally in theaters. Even though the cat’s out of the bag now, we’re still issuing a MASSIVE SPOILER WARNING to anyone who hasn’t seen Split yet and doesn’t want to know its secrets.
Seriously, you don’t have to read this if you haven’t seen Split yet. You can go ahead and read the spoiler-free half of the interview instead, where we talked about his plans for the Tales from the Crypt television reboot. That’s a fun conversation as well.
Seriously, go away.
Split ends with the revelation that… are you sure?
Ooookay, it turns out that the whole film takes place in the same universe as Unbreakable, and that Bruce Willis’s superhuman character David Dunn is still out there, and that M. Night Shyamalan may still have plans for that franchise. I talked to him about that plot point, and he told me all that he could about how it came about and what he wants to happen next.
Let’s check in…
Crave: This is an interesting film, and I think one of the things that unlocked it for me – because I wasn’t sure how I was supposed to be taking it – was when you were talking about how this was based on a character you created for Unbreakable.
M. Night Shyamalan: Mmm-hmm…
It occurs to me that there’s a lot of overlap between how we think of supervillains and how we think of horror movies. Was that on your mind, or were you thinking about Split purely on a thriller aspect?
Well no, I mean I always felt it was… We’re going to talk about this?
Anything spoiler-y we’ll save until it’s out.
You know, it was always an origin story for me. I just didn’t want you to know it was an origin story. Just slowly build it, mythologically, step-by-step, through the eyes of this girl, and what is the value system of this villain-slash-hero, you know? What is his value system? And then she would ultimately be the representation of his good side, his value system on his good side, which would/should confuse you. But it was always kind of a thriller on his face, but meant to be an origin story.
We look at horror as a literalization of our fears…
…and our anxieties, and one of the things that makes us very uncomfortable – often – is mental illness. A lot of our villains are locked up in Arkham Asylum. Is that a commentary on the way that we treat people with mental illness in the media, or are you more interested in the surface?
Yeah, for me it was kind of doing what Casey [Anya Taylor-Joy’s character] did, which was going through the process of… there’s so much complexity and poignancy and positivity in anyone that’s suffering from these things, that you have to unlock that. For me it starts out like a story that suggests “scary” and then it becomes something, and it becomes she’s having relationships with these different personalities. I’m very moved by, as I think you can tell, that I’m really connected to this group of people that have this disorder and feel an amazing admiration for them.
You feel connected to it. Is one of his personalities… maybe one of the ones that we don’t see… M. Night Shyamalan?
[Laughs.] You know, I came up with the the 23 that you see on the thing [the computer screen] and I wrote out about nine or ten of them that you see in the movie, that you saw last night. Who knows why I picked those names and the interests that came from it, but if I was going to do another story of this, it’s fun to think about. There’s still people to meet.
I can definitely see that. When it comes down to the ending, and we see that this is indeed within the… Shyama-verse?
You like that one? You can use that. But was that easy to wrangle? Because Unbreakable was with Buena Vista, Split is not…
Was that a complicated matter?
You know what? Everybody was super gracious, because I think it’s related to just one other entity and myself, and the rights belong between me and them, that it was kind of a simple conversation. They were very gracious.
It’s a simple conversation now but I think a lot of people are going to see that ending and get excited, and want to see Bruce Willis’s character from Unbreakable fight all the villains from the Blumhouse universe or something. Is it just for this film, because it helps contextualize what we just saw, or is this actually you saying you do finally want to do something more, and more overt with Unbreakable after this?
I can’t promise it but that is the intention, that there is one last movie.
Just one last movie?
I think so.
Would that be Dunn vs. The Horde, or…?
[Coyly.] I don’t know… [Laughs.]
Is the implication that Dunn has been fighting other supervillains this entire time, do you think? Or do you think it’s still pretty rare.
I can’t answer that either! [Laughs.]
For more, check out the rest of our M. Night Shyamalan interview, all about Tales from the Crypt!
Photo: Rosdiana Ciaravolo/WireImage
William Bibbiani (everyone calls him ‘Bibbs’) is Crave’s film content editor and critic. You can hear him every week on The B-Movies Podcast and Canceled Too Soon, and watch him on the weekly YouTube series Most Craved, Rapid Reviews and What the Flick. Follow his rantings on Twitter at @WilliamBibbiani.