Split M. Night Shyamalan interview: Movie marketing teams struggle with originality

(L-R) M. Night Shyamalan, Anya Taylor-Joy and James McAvoy attend 'Multiple' ('Split') photocall on January 12, 2017 in Madrid, Spain. (Photo by Pablo Cuadra/Getty Images)
(L-R) M. Night Shyamalan, Anya Taylor-Joy and James McAvoy attend ‘Multiple’ (‘Split’) photocall on January 12, 2017 in Madrid, Spain. (Photo by Pablo Cuadra/Getty Images)

‘Split’, the new movie from writer-director M. Night Shyamalan, hits cinemas this Friday 20 January, and like all his films from ‘Sixth Sense’, ‘Unbreakable’, and ‘The Village’ to his more recent smaller efforts like ‘The Visit’, it’s sure to be divisive. However, after his mid-career lull that included the derisive ‘The Happening’, ‘The Last Airbender’, and ‘After Earth’, ‘Split’ definitely feels like a return to form of sorts, even if the director doesn’t think he ever went away.

“I’m the luckiest guy ever,” Shyamalan tells Yahoo Movies, “Dude, I’ve made movies since I was 21. Everything I’ve ever written has been offered to be made into a movie… This is technically my third decade of making movies all around the world that everyone’s really excited about. Who else can say that? C’mon man? What do I have to do?”

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‘Split’ tells the story of Kevin Wendle Crumb (James McAvoy in a tour de force performance), a man who suffers from dissociative identity disorder. His condition has fractured his psyche into 23 different and distinct personalities, each with their own traits and physical attributes, and not all of them are benevolent. At the start of the film we see Kevin kidnapping three teenage girls (including the superb Anya Taylor-Joy as outcast Casey), but Kevin’s mind begins to unravel as they plot their escape when a new dominant personality begins to emerge.

If it all sounds a bit grim, believe us, it’s not. It’s a jet-black horror comedy with as many nervous laughs as scares, and it feels completely different to anything else you’re likely to see in the cinema in 2017.

We were lucky enough to chat with the writer-director where we grilled him on his so-called comeback, his new direction, his struggles with the marketing machine, and how finding his leading man changed the character completely…

Yahoo Movies: Everyone’s calling this your big comeback, are you tired of that narrative?

M. Night Shyamalan: What the perception is, and what is actually what’s going on, are very different things. For me, if you were walking in my shoes during the entire run, it doesn’t feel like that. It doesn’t feel like that. This is what it feels like, these are some of the emotional memories that you have – and probably because you only choose to remember certain things, and you block out certain things – reading the New York Times review of ‘The Sixth Sense’ and it was terrible, and going ‘at least I got to make a movie with Bruce Willis’. That was the feeling then, and I kept writing.

Bruce Willis and M Night Shyamalan on the set of 'The Sixth Sense' (Credit: Buena Vista)
Bruce Willis and M Night Shyamalan on the set of ‘The Sixth Sense’ (Credit: Buena Vista)

Write as fast as you can, and maybe they’ll let you make this other movie, ‘Unbreakable’. Then ‘Unbreakable’ we lose to ‘The Grinch’. I’m sitting there and the audience didn’t like it, the audience reaction wasn’t good in the United States and I’m lying on the sofa, broken, like this.

The other reality, which I’ve become more cogniscent of with time, is that I’m the luckiest guy ever. Dude, I have made movies since I was 21. Everything I’ve ever written has been offered to be made into a movie. We’re here today and we’re going to open a movie in a week, and this is technically my third decade of making movies all around the world that everyone’s really excited about.

Who else can say that? C’mon man? What do I have to do? And I’m still young enough that my kids and I still have the same music taste.

You say everything you’ve written has been offered to be made – how many unmade scripts do you have?

There’s 3 other scripts from when I was 21 and on that I’ve written that have been offered that I didn’t make yet. But I’m not that person any more and I want to make current ideas, you know?

They don’t excite you any more?

You have to be connected to the script. Like a songwriter writes a song that represented something to them, and now it doesn’t represent them any more. But I’m loving this moment of ‘The Visit’ (2015) and ‘Split’, this kind of weird, quirky, genre-bending, “I don’t know why I’m laughing, this is supposed to be scary”, thing.

What other films inspired the sort of “humour tension” that we see in ‘Split’ and ‘The Visit’?

James McAvoy as one of Kevin's more childish personalities Hedwig (Credit: Universal)
James McAvoy as one of Kevin’s more childish personalities Hedwig (Credit: Universal)

I’ve always had that instinct and I’ve suppressed it. Now I’m letting it go. You know what it is? Tone is everything, man. Tone, for me, that’s it. Directors are… you look at them and decide their tone, and that decides whether they know what they’re doing or not.

You can have a hyperreality tone like a Tim Burton movie, or another person that does hyper reality is Wes Anderson, and everything is in one idiom of language. For me, those aren’t “farce”. Farce is like everyone is acting wacky, so it’s not real in that way. But not like Tim or Wes’s thing.

What I’m trying to do is that one of the characters is doing something crazy and the other characters are acknowledging that it’s crazy. They’re like ‘what are you doing grandma?’ What did she just do? So there is still someone who is us. That’s saying the world is still our world, it’s very normal, it’s just this is a wacky thing that’s going on right now.

James McAvoy as the prim and proper Patricia (Credit: Universal Pictures)
James McAvoy as the prim and proper Patricia (Credit: Universal Pictures)

I remember when we did the big scene [in ‘Split’] where James [McAvoy] comes in as Patricia and reveals himself. There’s a “horror” way to do that. There’s a straight horror way to do that, and we did it like 24 times, we did it so many times. When he leaned in to this humour and he came in like ‘what he did is wrong, and he’s not well’ [acts it out], like ‘we’re in together on this’. And the audience is like ‘WHAT?!’ and they start to giggle, that’s the moment that I’m telling them the tone of the movie and they’re discovering it and going ‘am I allowed to laugh here?’

Then I just hold and hold and hold on him saying ‘are we OK?’ and the way he did that one take when the looks shot between them back and forth as she’s closing the door, it’s saying: you’re allowed to laugh here. And it’s really weird. The girls are reacting like us. If you or I were in a room like that, they’re reacting like us. We thought we were just about to get chopped up with a saw, but that’s not what happening here. What the hell is happening here?

Did you ever think about holding that side of the film back from the marketing?

That’s a great question. I’m a big proponent, and I feel like I’ve gotten in trouble before when the marketing of the movie isn’t the tone of the movie. You need to market the dominant tone of the movie. So with ‘The Visit’ and ‘Split’ I’ve been very careful and Universal’s been amazing, that we’re selling the real tone of the movie. So we do have that scene in the trailer and it is scary but it is funny. And Hedwig’s in there and we really lean into this dark humour.

The cross stitched poster for 'The Visit' (Credit: Universal)
The cross stitched poster for ‘The Visit’ (Credit: Universal)

The whole campaign of ‘The Visit’ was the ‘can you get in the oven to clean it?’ moment. ‘Would you mind getting into grandma’s oven?’ and the audience is like ‘what did you say?’ It’s that weird humour and the poster was funny and it was playing on that. It preps the audience properly for the screening.

So you’ve struggled with mis-marketing in the past?

The machinery isn’t made for originality – the marketing machine. So you really need to have buy-in from the machinery. Say for example 20% of the movie is scary and 80% is something else, but they test materials and if the materials look 80% scary it tests through the roof. You have to have buy-in from the studio to say ‘don’t sell the wrong way’. Even if you’re going to be able to make double from opening weekend, don’t do it. That’s a hard conversation. That needs to be had before you begin. And I’ve realized that. That needs to be had from go.

Now, it’s much easier when I’m making thrillers. When I’m making family movies and things like that, it’s very difficult. To be fair to the marketing people, my name doesn’t mean that, so as soon as people see my name you’re already making associations that you have to undo. It’s almost like a triple problem. If they come away feeling they’ve got triple-A performances in a supernatural thriller, I’ll take that.

It certainly feels very different from anything I’ve seen in the last 12 months – that must be your touch right?

I love original. I want it to be feeling like a totally new piece. I love that. I think it’s a weapon in the market place. I do think it’s a weapon. Everything feels like something you’ve seen before. When I saw ‘La La Land’ I said to Damien Chazelle [the film’s director], ‘this is going to sound crazy, but I feel like these two movies, there’s something distinct about them that makes them brothers’ and that’s a weapon, in the marketplace – something that’s wholly different.

There’s few reasons now to go to the movie theatre. There’s CGI porn, that’s one of them, but there’s also hyper-originality and when you get it to work at the watercooler and two people have seen it, you’re left out because you haven’t seen it. That’s opposed to if it felt like a movie you’ve seen before, you’d be like ‘yeah, I’m not into that’. There’s no way to say ‘I’m not into that’ because there’s never been a feeling like this particular movie before.

How did you ensure you portrayed the mental health issues sympathetically?

Kevin in session with his therapist (Betty Buckley) (Credit: Universal Pictures)
Kevin in session with his therapist (Betty Buckley) (Credit: Universal Pictures)

For me, if you don’t feel for Kevin Wendle Crumb [James McAvoy’s character] at the end of the movie, if you’re not rooting for him then I did something wrong. This should go from a ‘wow this condition is scary’ to ‘wow this is an incredibly moving and complex and dark thing’ which it is. I feel tragedy for the person at the centre of this. It’s a tragedy at the centre, and all I’m doing is rooting for him at the end of the movie.

My favourite moment is when you meet Kevin Wendle Crumb in the movie, my favourite music is that cue, my favourite moment of James’ is that. That moment just breaks my heart.

Those final scenes are amazing and James completely transforms, he looks enormous, was that all him or was he CGI enhanced?

That’s all him. He looks so different now. I didn’t know him so I told to train, I told him to get bigger, and he did. He’s one of those actors who can really change his body. He’s actually much smaller now than he was when we shot. Now he’s so small. He used to come on set and we’d be like ‘wow, he’s a big dude’. So he was working out and when he came to Philly we got him a great trainer. We did enhance a little bit with the veining, but his size was all him.

On the Graham Norton show recently James said you’d found him at Comic Con?

They were all promoting X-Men and it was an event where they had all the different movies in booths at a party. So they gave me a booth for ‘The Visit’ and then next to me was the X-Men group. Their booth was much more fun and I was feeling really lonely and left out, then James came by and I was like ‘hey how are you?’ And we talked as I was just finishing this script and his hair was growing back from playing Professor X and I was like ‘this is the guy’. Not only is this the guy, but he should look exactly like this.

I had been thinking wigs and makeup and all this other stuff at the time, but I threw it all out when I saw him. I thought the actor should do it all with their expressions, there should be nothing else. James wanted to do that and luckily he was available. Did you audition a lot of people for the role? No, not at all. For that sort of thing you need a world-class actor, so you know everybody that could be considered. With a lesser actor that role wouldn’t have worked. It would have fallen apart. He came from two things. He came from incredible empathy and detail but he’s also comfortable entertaining. So just like all those things we talked about, he can do all the funny stuff too.

‘Split’ arrives in UK cinemas on Friday, 20 January.

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