M. Night Shyamalan on ‘Split’ and the (Super) Power of Empathy
The Visit was a welcome, wonderfully kooky return to smaller, simpler genre-bending fare for M. Night Shyamalan, who’s back this year with yet another effective thriller: Split, in which James McAvoy gives a remarkable performance (or 23) as a man suffering from dissociative identity disorder. One of those identities kidnaps three young women, including one (played by Anya Taylor-Joy) whose ability to empathize with McAvoy puts her in a rather unique position.
Split is easily Shyamalan’s best film in years (read my full review) — both a throwback to cinema’s riskier (and less tasteful) ’70s heyday and an engaging, thoughtful thriller that deftly alternates between unnerving and strangely poignant. When offered 10 brief minutes to speak with Shyamalan (whose publicist refers to him simply as “Night”), I jumped at the chance, mostly so we could discuss the crucial ingredient in Split: Empathy. (Okay, fine, I also had to ask him about this weird internet urban legend.)
I saw Split in September at Fantastic Fest — which is, by the way, the best film festival in the world.
[Laughs] By the way, I agree.
You seemed genuinely thrilled to be there during your Q&A. I loved that.
Well essentially, it was the first festival I’ve been to since I was 21. The first time I ever did go to a film festival was the Toronto Film Festival when I was 21, with my first film [Praying With Anger] and I haven’t been back to one since — until Fantastic Fest, so, 25 years later. [Laughs]
I know your Fantastic Fest visit was brief, but was it enough to convince you to come back, maybe?
Oh, definitely. You know, I think there’s definitely a new place for it. What some festivals did before are very different from what they do know. For me in particular to orient the movie to the right audience first and make them the first people that see it, and then they have — they are the champions of it. That’s really important for me rather than the wrong people seeing it first. Festivals like that are critical and it just worked out really, really well for us. I was so happy. It was early, so it was a question of, hey, we should we do this? It was like four months before the movie. I literally had just finished it. It actually wasn’t completely finished when I showed it there, but it was very close to being done. Like, days — two days before. So it was tight. [Laughs]
It played really well there, which isn’t surprising because that’s a genre-loving crowd.
I know, that reaction at the end! Everyone was like — it was like an orgasm. It was so good.
It was a definite fist-pumping moment for me. I don’t want to spoil it — and I’m glad that I haven’t really seen it spoiled anywhere online, either.
I know, how amazing is that?! I mean, unbelievable.
There are very few filmmakers that can pull off something so…self-aware, and you’re one of them.
[Laughs] Thank you. It was always an interesting proposition while I was making the film. Can you make a satisfying movie in one genre and, at the end, just the very last moment, you realize you weren’t in that genre. You were in a different genre altogether. How would that feel? It was fascinating — we didn’t screen the movie when I was making the movie for test audiences with the ending. We just did it straight and made sure that the movie itself was fulfilling.
Thematically, Split has some things in common with other films you’ve made — aside from the usual spin on genre conventions, I admire how you explore the idea that certain qualities, like empathy, can be superpowers.
Say that one more time — just that last part.
Empathy as a superpower?
That’s what I thought you said! Obviously, I feel like empathy is the difference between a hero and a villain, a bad guy and a good guy in any script, and how fear is evoked in political arenas. Everything is lack of empathy or empathy. Power comes from manipulating lack of empathy, so the reverse is very powerful as well. How do you evoke empathy in each of us? When I was thinking of the story, just the barebones — not the thriller part, but the emotional skeleton of the piece is two girls are supposed to get abducted by this person, or by this group of people. They end up abducting three. The third person was there by chance and has a shared emotional history, or a connection to the abductor. What would happen in both of their minds, both the abductee and the abductor, when that started to become evident? Just as an emotional landscape, it feels very powerful and, as you know, the movie has this conversation about those who have been through trauma and darkness. They’re changed, for sure, whether that change necessarily is a weakness…
With James McAvoy’s character, not only do we see how trauma affects this individual person and his story, but within him you see a full spectrum of how it’s processed from person to person. It’s compelling.
It’s a fascinating condition where you — how the human mind defends itself, is astounding.
Before you go, I want to ask you about this strange urban legend from the internet…
The IMDb and Wikipedia pages for The Sixth Sense both contain the same bit of weird “trivia,” which claims that your inspiration for the film came from an episode of Are You Afraid of the Dark.
Hmm…Are You Afraid Of The Dark?
It was this Nickelodeon show that premiered the 90s. It first aired in Canada.
I’m afraid I don’t know that show! [Laughs]
There’s our answer!
These sites can be unreliable, but it was weird enough to make me hunt down the source. So I’m going through the Google news archives…
And I’m trying to find where this “fact” originated because it pops up on blogs and forums all the time when people talk about The Sixth Sense. And I couldn’t nail down where it came from — certainly not from you.
That’s really weird. I don’t think I’ve ever seen that show. I don’t want to ignore something that might have been an influence, but nothing rings a bell when you say that. I remember specifically the notebook I was writing in and it was about a little boy at a funeral. That was the first image that came to mind, and he was on the stairs talking to no one. Then, in my mind, I was wondering if he was talking to the person that had died at that funeral. That kind of stimulated the story.
Well, I know you’ve been working on a new horror series of your own (Tales From the Crypt), so you might be interested in checking out Are You Afraid of the Dark sometime…
Definitely. I’m curious now.
It was basically a horror anthology series for the YA crowd. Each week, a group of teens who call themselves The Midnight Society get together around a campfire and take turns telling spooky stories; each episode is a different scary story.
Whoa. Sounds cool.
Split hits theaters on January 20.