M Night Shyamalan on Split personalities, film-making and the possibilities of VR

Yes there will be a sequel, Joaquin Phoenix might have played James McAvoy's role in an alternate dimension, and the twist is, the Last Airbender director's new film is actually really good

There will be spoilers. Go see the film first if you don't like that.

M Night Shyamalan leapt to prominence with The Sixth Sense and Unbreakable, two movies that expertly refracted the supernatural through the lens of Shyamalan's emotional, old school film-making sensibilities.

It's fair to say that some of his subsequent films were less warmly received, and that his habit of throwing Twilight Zone-style twists into his plots came to lose a certain freshness. And then there were The Last Airbender and After Earth, two bloated adaptations of other writers' works.

However, in a rather more agreeable twist, Shyamalan is now back on form. His last film The Visit was a nastily effective little horror film. 

New film Split is way better than The Visit, and a semi-sequel to Unbreakable, in that it puts fantastical, super-powered beings in a recognisably 'real' and grounded world. 

It stars James McAvoy as Kevin Wendell Crumb, a man with a split personality (or Dissociative Identity Disorder, to give it its medical name.) 

Despite being about a man with 23 personalities, of whom some are evil, some are children, some are women, and one is literally a monster ('The Beast'), Split manages to be both highly entertaining and also oddly moving and profound in places.

So T3.com sat down to talk with Mr Shyamalan about his new film, and his take on tech. It was exactly like the picture above, except that I'm not that good looking and he's not an elderly lady.

Please note the following Q&A with M Night Shyamalan contains spoilers galore.

What should I call you, M Night?

Just Night is fine.

Okay, so, great film. I really liked it!

Hey, thanks very much.

It’s set in the same filmic universe as Unbreakable, of course. Will there be a third film?

Yeah there will. I’ve outlined a final movie about this combo, so hopefully I’ll get to do that next.

You could call it the MCU. Was Split always intended as a sequel?

This plot was actually in drafts of the original Unbreakable. Kevin Wendell Crumb was the antagonist. He fits very easily in that world because his ‘condition’ is based on real-life psychological conditions. I thought, “Okay these conditions are extraordinary, and they imply incredible things for humanity. Is this what superhero comic books are based on?”  

Obviously, this is a very ‘comic book’ version of dissociative identity disorder. Are you worried about people taking offence because it’s, as they would see it, insensitive about mental illness?

Well, y’know, we’ve shown this film to like 20,000 people and I’d say that’s a rare reaction.

You know what social media is like, though.

I think some people who have said that haven’t actually seen the film… They’ve maybe just seen the trailer.

Yeah, that’s what social media is like…

I think viewers will be feeling great emotion for Kevin Wendell Crumb. They should be feeling great emotion, great empathy for Kevin. My favourite part of the movie is when Kevin comes into it. The movie is about trauma. I love talking about really difficult subjects, and tying it to the supernatural.

Did you see Filth before casting James McAvoy?

I actually didn’t. As I understand it, seeing it might have had the opposite effect because I thought he was a nice guy, and I wanted to cast someone where the audience’s connection to him was as a nice guy,

He does play someone totally unlike himself in Filth though, which he does several times over in Split…

No, it was based on his stage work, and his humanity. He’s someone who could play this character with benevolence and empathy and really make it complex.

The thing about the process is, you want an actor who understands that the details are so important. These characters

So why is, for instance, [alter ego] Patricia there? With this condition, each of these identities is there to help Kevin – even when they’re doing wrong, they’re doing it to help him. So why would it be beneficial to have a religious zealot woman in your life? 

Because she’s strong. Because sometimes in your life you need to believe in things SO strongly. She has a righteousness about her.

So we’d keep talking and talking it through until there’s a click and James says, ‘I can defend this person now.’  

James has this ability both to honour the character and to entertain. Normally that’s not the case.

I immediately pictured someone like Nicholas Cage in that role, and it would be a very different kind of film. Did you look at anyone else for the role?

Yeah, James was unavailable originally, and then the film gods moved things around and the person I was talking to became unavailable right as James became available. It was the universe saying, ‘This is who you should cast.’

Can you say who the original possible star was?

Yeah it was Joaquin Phoenix. I had a conversation with him about it, but it was very early on and then his movie slid…

Did James work out all 24 personae in rehearsals?

No, but we worked out how they would interact and the idea of one persona at a time being ‘given the light’. That’s where one persona is more skilled for a particular moment. So Jeremy is very articulate, so he would do an interview, that kind of thing.

Also from that is the idea that three characters can’t be trusted, so they’re kept out of the light and so they’ve staged a sort of coup.

So we know those three and some of the more dominant of the benevolent personas, like Barry and Orwell and Jade. But it’s fun to think about what the other characters that we don’t see might be like…

Is that something you’ll return to in any sequel?

Definitely, but I don’t know about every single one. What would Kevin Wendell Crumb need at any given time? Me, I’d immediately go, ‘I want the world’s best mixed martial artist… Someone very intellectual, someone who’s super diplomatic…’

Betty Buckley, who plays Kevin’s therapist, gives a very old school performance, very calm.

Betty and I have been friends for a long time… The first time I saw her was on Broadway, when she won the Tony for Sunset Boulevard. 

Again, her stage training, and James’ stage training, that’s what I leaned on for the scenes between them. Those four scenes are like plays, where they’re having the therapy sessions. That takes up, I think 25-30 minutes of the movie, and I wanted them to be the spine of the movie.

You don’t use a lot of CGI in this film, do you?

No, The Beast is about 90% James and a little bit of vein enhancement. That’s why you never see James’ body before then because he was working out like crazy and eating and doing all that stuff you have to do. 

Clothes can hide that but it became a real problem with Patricia because you don’t want her to look like this ripped muscle guy. 

That was the challenge, to make him like, he looks like a normal guy, then he takes off his shirt and it’s like, ‘woah!’

Do you see yourself as quite an old-fashioned director?

I do. I’m guilty for sure. My instincts are very old school. I see such beauty in the holding of the frame, I love to see old movies, before digital editing, where there were so many things that were limiting, like having to shoot on film…

How often now do you see a shot where actors are in frame and then after 30 seconds it moves and becomes something else? That used to be commonplace but you hardly ever see that now.

Do you see any use for VR in film-making?

You know, I storyboard every shot. I do it by hand. But there are these ways now to construct the sets in VR so I can put on the mask and literally be in the space and do the camera moves, block in the characters.

It’s mind-boggling that I can shoot the movie before I shoot the movie. I don’t know if that’s

‘The future’ for me, but it’s certainly interesting.

Tech-wise, I feel like digital editing is so fast that it’s too fast for us to be in touch with our humanity. In the old days, editing the Godfather, they’d say, ‘Okay let’s look at take 3 of Al Pacino’s line’ and then have to wind on the film, they’d have to talk it over, rewind and play it again, then hang it up, find take 4, wind it on… There’s so much thought. 

Today it’s, ‘Here’s take 3. Here’s take 5. You wanna see take 3 again?’

You couldn’t imagine releasing a movie in VR then, presumably.

Oh I can definitely see it, because it’s so immersive. The thing for me is how do you take technology and keep the sense of being ‘incomplete’? Because art is a collaboration between the artist and the audience, and together we make the art. 

Using VR to look at sets I did think, ‘Wow, if I could get my head around this, this could be a really powerful thing.’

Split is in cinemas now.