AFI Fest: M.Night Shyamalan Talks SPLIT And Endures Goofy Take On AFTER EARTH

Breaking news: M. Night Shyamalan has not watched WESTWORLD yet.

Split doesn’t come out until January 20, but you should put it on your radar now because the film is a ton of campy fun thanks to its low budget and central performance by James McAvoy. I had an opportunity to discuss the film with M. Night Shyamalan himself.

You said last night at the AFI screening Q&A that this script has been developing for over a decade. Is there anything you can say without spoiling anything about how it evolved over that time?

I don’t know if I would call it evolving over time, but it was a character that I had written into another script, and I pulled him out. It was about fifteen or twenty pages that I’d written of Kevin and all the different personalities. I literally had them hand written, and I kept them aside in a file. I looked at them a few times and thought, this is super fun. I have to make a movie of this character. And I thought of doing it after The Visit.

That’s when it really clicked, thinking of making a confined movie. Those are the things that are really exciting to me. And so this idea of, you know, these three girls having to manipulate all the personalities to get out. It’s just really cool and was exciting to think about. And it felt really good in terms of the format of what’s interesting me now, these smaller movies that are super contained.

This is slightly off topic, but it was also cool to see you do found footage in The Visit. At this point in your career, to try something so different and nail it was exciting for a lot of us fans to see.

I love it. I’m so weird that way. The bigger the movie, the more money you spend, you just start to lose your… there are so many directors who are so good at that, like Spielberg and Cameron - obviously Cameron’s the king of that idea of “what can you do if you have more?”. But for me it’s always the reverse - what can you do when it’s just you and me in this hotel room and it turned out this is the opening scene of a movie and something goes on, and you and I figure it out.

Sure. What a fun adventure that would be!

(laughs) We barely know each other two minutes, but we have to experience this thing that’s happening. That’s really interesting to me.

People respond to that. Bigger doesn’t mean better a lot of times. Are there things you haven’t done yet that you’d like to try in the future?

Tons. There’re so many actors I’d love to work with. There are so many ideas. I’m a little behind on my ideas, which is good and bad. It’s good probably. There are two I’m definitely going to make, and then there are two that I might make, that I maybe might produce. And they’re all super contained. I think I kind of hit on a thing that really excites me, which is the insinuation of things. What aren’t you hearing, you know, using the room. What is that noise? What is that thing?

You mentioned actors. I was thinking about how you could write the most perfect version of this story possible, but it would still depend on the right actor to pull it off. How did James McAvoy come to Split?

The film gods have to be on your side. They just have to be. I know it sounds corny, but you just trust that the exact right person will come back at you, you know? It’s surprising. For example, when we first made a list of who could play this part, it’s a small list. And at first he was unavailable. He was doing another movie during that time period. And then suddenly he became available. And I was like “I’m emailing him right now.”

I met him at Comic-Con.

Where he was bald, right?

Yeah, with a shaved head, exactly. We literally took photos. We went on the internet and found photos of him from Comic-Con, and I shaved his head the same. It had grown back like three weeks. It’s not that he’s bald. I mean, we could get very metaphorical about it, but it’s that potential. A great actor can just do everything with this kind of blank slate, blank canvas.

We got super lucky. I just got that “I know he’s the guy” feeling. I remember I Skyped with him at my house after he read the script. We Skyped for like forty-five minutes just talking, and I came back to the office like “this is the guy; we have to get him”.

It was a short shoot, you know for a small movie. We had to fit him in between X-Men promotion, and he has a son, but I knew if we land [the shoot] right here, we can get him. I’m used to rehearsing a lot, but I knew he wouldn’t be available in Philly, so we did a lot of Skyping rehearsals, which was new for me but he’s such a brilliant actor that it was really a super popular experience.

A big part of his performance, and I would say a very big part of what makes this film entertaining is the performance and how funny it is, how much you allow it to go into that territory. Is that something you always wanted or something he brought?

Yeah, I mean you write the line “I have red sox too”, it’s supposed to be funny. You know, “Asian people’s music helps digestion”. He’s a natural. I’m a goofball, and he’s a goofball. We match in that irreverent way. If you were hanging out with the two of us, it would be equally irreverent. Our tendency is to make fun and be goofy. So when he sees “Asian people’s music aids digestion” he knows how to do it.

Do you think that sort of thing aids horror or does that make the horror element something you have to work harder at to overcome that tone?

I’m in this huge worshipping David Lynch mode right now. There’s something about laughing and being scared at the same time that’s weird. There needs to be another term. There needs to be a term for what we’re talking about where you’re like “I’m really on the edge of my seat, but I’m nervously laughing through it”.

Patricia [one of Kevin’s personalities] is a perfect example. She’s scary and funny at the same time. I love that, for lack of a better word, dark comedy. That black comedy vibe, the inappropriate humor, I like it a lot.

Most of your films are PG-13. Do you think that rating is actually good for horror?

I like it. I’m always right on the edge with the ratings board. If there’s five of them, there will always be a couple that say my movie’s an R and a couple that say it’s PG-13. I’m always like “don’t penalize me for execution. Tell me exactly what to do. Is it a sound effect? Is it this? Is it that?” Because I don’t really do that much. I don’t really use nudity, cursing or graphic gore. And those are the three things you’d have to cut.

Normally it’s sound effects that get me from an R to a PG-13. They create such a powerful thing. For example we had an R on The Village. I had to take out the stabbing noises as it pans away from Adrien Brody stabbing Joaquin Phoenix. It conjured blood and gore and all that stuff. It’s really fascinating. But to answer your question, until you asked me I didn’t realize it, but I think it creates a line for me, where I can’t rely on visuals that much because you’re going to get an R. So you can’t just shock.

It’s a limitation the same as being stuck in this room would be a limitation.

Yeah, exactly. So I don’t find it at all debilitating, or undercutting my storytelling. I naturally fall right on that line of PG-13 touching R.

While I have this opportunity, I wanted to ask you about After Earth. I really like that movie. We have Edge of Tomorrow and Westworld and these stories clearly inspired by video games and based around video game structures and tropes. I always thought After Earth was one of the first movies to do that. Was that deliberate or am I just crazy?

That was a story Will had for him and his son. And it’s funny you say that because it really might have come from that world. I don’t know how much of a gamer he is. But now that you say it, it does feel like that. Someone moving through a terrain, trying to save someone in that way. It’s interesting.

I actually haven’t seen Westworld yet, but I’m dying to.

It’s… it’s okay.