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M Night Shyamalan talks Split, McAvoy and toying with the audience
Written by
Nick Dent

America has never seemed more like a sufferer of some kind of split personality disorder, so the new film from The Sixth Sense director M Night Shyamalan is curiously on point.  

In Split, three teenage girls are drugged and locked in a basement cell. They soon realise their abductor, Kevin (James McAvoy), has Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID), with 23 identities grappling for control of his mind, ranging from a strict matriarch to a mischievous eight-year-old boy. While Kevin’s psychiatrist, Dr Fletcher (Betty Buckley), gets increasingly suspicious, his captives await the appearance of Kevin’s shadowy 24th personality – known as the Beast.  

Shyamalan himself has worn different masks, from Oscar-nominated wunderkind (The Sixth Sense) to the derided peddler of flops The Happening and The Last Airbender. He even tried his hand with found footage with 2015’s The Visit and had an unexpected triumph. His follow-up film is another witty, well acted, quality piece of pulp. Time Out spoke to the filmmaker via phone to LA about McAvoy, directing horror, and keeping audiences on their toes.

Night, what was the origin of Split?
I've had this idea for a long time in my drawer. It’s a fascinating idea – realising that the person who has abducted them is many people, and they have to manipulate those personalities to get out. 

James McAvoy is great in this – which of his personalities was the most fun to direct?
[laughs] He was amazing at all of them. Probably Patricia – Patricia was really a joy to have on set, with how prim and proper she was and her British accent.

Did he stay in character between takes?
No, but I scheduled it so we wouldn't be doing multiple characters on the same day if we could help it. I would have him come in in the morning and be in one mindset the whole day and one outfit, so we could really focus.

This kind of technical acting is very much part of the UK tradition, but I noticed that you were thinking about Joaquin Phoenix for the main role, which would have been a very different movie.
Joaquin couldn’t do it ultimately because there was a conflict with another film, and then James became available. But for me, James's theatre training was critical. Without that technical handle, he wouldn't have been able to achieve what he did with the schedule that we had. What would be overwhelming for another actor was exciting for him.

Do you anticipate any kind of backlash from mental health advocates?
I hope not, because I find [Split] a great talking point for the disorder, which is a very controversial one. I feel it's done with empathy towards the character, and I hope it’s a conversation starter for everybody.

You seem to be exploring different styles of horror these days. Your last movie was a found-footage film, and this one seems to be verging on the torture porn thing.
[laughs] Well, it's supposed to seem like that at the beginning of the movie. It's like, 'Oh my god, are we in some kind of Saw-like movie?' Then when you meet [McAvoy in drag as] Patricia, you're laughing. You're like 'what the hell is going on?' You're supposed to go through the nightmares that the girls are going through, which is 'oh my god, we're gonna get chopped up' and then it's like 'wait, what's happening here?' 

"It's like, 'Oh my god, are we in some kind of Saw-like movie?' Then when you meet [McAvoy in drag as] Patricia, and you're laughing" 

Kevin’s different personalities are not just different mentally, but physically – especially in the instance of ‘the Beast’. I enjoyed that philosophical aspect of the movie, when Dr Fletcher says that the human mind might be able to shape the physical world and it might be where our sense of the supernatural comes from.
I'm very much fascinated by psychology and what the mind is capable of. I guess it's something that I really think about a lot. When we get stressed our blood pressure goes up. Even the placebo effect is a fascinating thing. We take that as scientific fact that a sugar pill can get the mind to cure the body, but we have no explanation about how the mind does all these things.

The movie has an obvious antecedent in Hitchcock's Psycho. What are some of the things that you take from Hitchcock as a director?
He's always been influential, as have all the masters like Kurosawa and Kubrick, who have used formalised framing to create tension. I'm very careful about what the frame looks like. And Psycho was the quintessential movie that changes genres in mid-storytelling.

[Split] seems like one movie, but then it turns and becomes another movie, and then it zigzags and becomes a final, different movie in the last second. I like playing with structure like that.

Do you tend to storyboard everything out, like Hitchcock?
Oh yeah, every single shot is drawn out. Once the screenplay is done that’s the very next thing: I spend every single day storyboarding and revising storyboards and keep on going and finally I give it to the crew. That's how we can really execute it at the highest level, very efficiently.

It was lovely to see an older woman, Betty Buckley, in such a meaty role in a thriller.
I love having all generations in movies: from the 18-19 year olds that are playing high school girls, to James, a 37-year old actor, and Betty, who’s nearly 70. Again, she's a theatre-trained actress. These guys can do long, six or seven-minute takes. A theatre-trained actor finds that kind of thing beautiful.

And your heroine, Anya Taylor-Joy, has those huge movie star eyes – all the better to look terrified with.  
[laughs]. Yeah, she's a very striking girl, and there's a powerful, unique energy she has about her.

Did you spot her in The Witch?
No, it hadn't come out yet. She just auditioned for me amongst all the other girls. She auditioned for The Witch, got that role, auditioned for Morgan, got that role, auditioned for me, got the role. I don't believe any of them had anything to do with any of the others. She just won the part because of her sensitivity.   

Did she remind of you of any other young actors that you've discovered and cast over the years?
Yeah – when I see someone like Haley [Joel Osment, The Sixth Sense] or Bryce [Dallas Howard, The Lady in the Water] or Abigail [Breslin, Signs], you're just seeing somebody who's electric and you're seeing them for the first time on screen doing this. It's really astonishing and revelatory. You feel very lucky.

Do you think you have a comedy in you?
I do actually. With The Visit and Split I have gotten to do some of that stuff. I'm tending to enjoy more and more having that kind of inappropriate humour in the movie.

The Sixth Sense changed your life. More specifically, the ending of The Sixth Sense changed your life. When you were sending the script to the studios and getting rejected, did you ever feel like they hadn't bothered to read to the end?
[Laughs] I don't know, I guess you might have to ask the people that rejected the script!

The ending of Split contains a big, big secret. Are we meant to expect from it that the film is going to have a sequel?
You would be... possibly right. [laughs]

Split opens Thu Jan 19.

M Night Shyamalan
Photograph: Gage Skidmore


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