With so much weighing on everyone’s minds, M. Night Shyamalan’s worlds are colliding. At the AFI Fest in Los Angeles to present his upcoming film Split, a thriller starring the wholly committed James McAvoy as a volatile kidnapper with 23 different personalities, the Sixth Sense filmmaker flashed back to last week when the results of the U.S. presidential election proved just how divided America really is.
“It’s very much a metaphor for our country right now,” Shyamalan considered, rolling up his sleeves the morning after he held an audience of 1,100 Split moviegoers rapt into the wee hours of the night at Hollywood’s historic Chinese Theatre. “We definitely have multiple sides to us that have to co-exist in the same body, and we’re not going anywhere. Both sides have an entrenched point of view and aren’t really compatible right now.”
He paused. “We need to figure this out.”
Dissociative personality disorder (DID) is unsurprisingly fertile ground for Shyamalan to work his magic in, being the filmmaker of his generation who upends expectations like no other. But any real-world political parallels are purely coincidental, or circumstantial. He’s been living with the seed of Split for over a decade, after all, which is when the complex and shockingly sympathetic character of Kevin first took root in his brain.
He’s known for his twists and has rarely made a movie without dropping in at least a few of them. But Shyamalan says what butters his toast are characters, not how a film reveals itself to the audience. (“I’m trying to get better at seeing where my story structure errors are,” he noted. “That’s my Achilles heel.”) And in McAvoy’s many characters, Split allows Shyamalan to also dive into controversial philosophical debates over how society and modern psychiatry treat those who suffer from mental illness, abuse, and the invisibility of powerlessness.
“A lot of people don’t think it exists. It’s not accepted yet and everyone doesn’t believe this in the field. They don’t believe the things I [wrote into Split] are true, but they actually are—that one personality can have diabetes, that the physical manifestations can be real, that [one personality] can be fluent in Russian, all of these things,” he explained. “We 100 percent believe an autistic savant can sit down and hear Beethoven once and then play Beethoven. That is about hyper-concentration: the ability to block everything out and hear it and replicate it in such specificity.”
Our way into the story is Casey (The Witch’s Anya-Taylor Joy), an angsty teenager who proves uniquely resourceful when she and two classmates are kidnapped and held prisoner by several personalities inhabiting the body of one man. The film’s riveting focus, however, is McAvoy’s gonzo performance as Kevin—and Barry, and Dennis, and Patricia, and Hedwig, and many more identities of varying gender, sexuality, age, and temperament, who are all waging their own desperate civil war for power while the clock ticks for the poor souls they’ve got locked away in a labyrinthine prison somewhere in Philadelphia.
Split is, of course, a twisty tale. Shyamalan is still Shyamalan, and the signature table-turning he perfected in his best-known films—The Sixth Sense, Unbreakable, Signs—is still ingrained in his storytelling DNA. It’s also the latest modestly scaled film Shyamalan has made in recent years after 2015’s The Visit, a $5 million Universal-Blumhouse genre piece that took in $98.5 million, and brought him back into the game after a string of big-budget disappointments.
A lot has changed for movies since The Sixth Sense went viral the old-fashioned way, when analog word of mouth sent choruses of “I see dead people” rippling through the fabric of American pop culture. The two audiences that have seen Split, first in September at Austin’s Fantastic Fest and now this week in L.A., have so far helped Shyamalan and Universal pull off the near-impossible in the age of social media and quick-trigger spoiler culture: They’re keeping Split’s secrets secret.
Shyamalan smiles at the thought that those who’ve seen Split have agreed to preserve its surprises for everyone else ahead of its Jan. 20 release. There’s some relief, it seems, in letting go of the power, in sharing the responsibility for the reveal. “What you’re doing is empowering those individuals to be the stewards of the movie,” he shrugged. “It’s just the reality now. They frame it in a good way, bad way, whatever—it’s theirs to do that. You are really giving absolute trust to people to say, together we’re going to take the movie out to the world.”
At 46, Shyamalan says that not much fazes him these days. But he was unexpectedly drawn into the election chaos last week when distraught strangers questioned if a Donald Trump win wasn’t just an elaborate M. Night Shyamalan twist.
“On that night, my phone was going off because people were starting to tweet, ‘Please tell me this is an M. Night Shyamalan twist,’” he laughed. “And I was so depressed. I was like, ‘No, I’m afraid this one is not.’” He nonetheless couldn’t help Shyamalan-ing the course of American history. “My mind did keep going to all the ways this could be playing out differently,” he smiled bittersweetly.
Just a few days prior, he recalls, he gave a toast at a dinner in Philadelphia with at least one unnamed senator present. They were all hopeful about America’s future under Hillary Clinton. “I mean, there really wasn’t even a possibility [of a Trump victory], to show our arrogance and the bubble we live in,” he said. “And it was to their point—the people who voted for [Trump] saying ‘Hey, we’re still here.’”
“And they’re right. We’re not paying attention to them. We think this is it,” he said, gesturing around the room. “I only really hang out in Philly, New York, and Los Angeles, which is about as Democratic as cities can get. But that night I made a toast saying, ‘Literally seven blocks away from here is where they said, ‘The people are going to decide the government!’”
“I guess what I’m saddest about is that it’s good for [Trump voters] for showing up, but we didn’t show up? That’s crazy,” he said. “I can make an argument that if I had gotten 60,000 more people in Philadelphia to vote that state would have flipped, and then the presidency would have been decided by 11,000 votes in Wisconsin—and you’re telling me we couldn’t have flipped that? We all have to look in the mirror.”
Shyamalan considered the insulated bubble that liberal Hollywood has existed in, a bubble he and many Americans didn’t realize was so real until this week. “We have two countries; the country we live in, in the bubble, and then we have this other country that has been forgotten and demonized, whose value system has been associated with all negativity from the past that they have circled around,” he began.
“They say, ‘You can’t say everything about our history is crap.’ But we, our side, decides everything about storytelling other than Duck Dynasty and things like that. We’re doing 98 percent of the storytelling to the world and to our country, which is adding to us going, ‘How could this possibly be?’”
That bubble, says Shyamalan, is the same one that’s borne witness to the recent outcry for diversity and inclusion in Hollywood. “We are trying to figure out how to become more diversified, but the conversations and fights we’re having are with ourselves—they’re not with this group at all,” he said. “I’m super optimistic. You’re never going to get me down on this, although I am down. We are changing their perceptions of things, all of us.”
Shyamalan, of course, blazed a trail in pop culture just by putting his own stamp on his own movies that became huge international hits. Born in South India and raised in Philly—a city he’s repped hard his entire career—he made “M. Night Shyamalan” a household name to global audiences in 1999, and has remained one of the most famous non-white filmmakers to work in a Hollywood that is still glaringly and disproportionately lacking in color.
And yet Shyamalan tends to cast white dudes as the leads in his films and is frequently the only minority in his own films, seen in his trademark Hitchcockian cameos. His $150 million Paramount adaptation Avatar: The Last Airbender caught him in a racebending pickle when he cast Caucasian actors in lead roles despite the source series’ deliberate East Asian influence.
“I get frustrated by it sometimes,” he said of the lack of diversity in entertainment, “because I’m on both sides of it. I’m the minority person as well—but I have the freedom to cast who I want to cast.”
But Shyamalan somehow maintains his optimism in all things, and he says he sees social progress being made in the culture, through pop culture. “We are doing it in different ways that infiltrate and undermine,” he said. “They’re wearing our designs, our clothes, they’re listening to our stories, and they’re not fixating on your last name as much. We are gently moving the situation in that direction. And I do think that’s important.”