“I’m taking something you believe and pushing it into the fantastic realm.”
Writer/director/producer M. Night Shyamalan returns to the captivating grip of The Sixth Sense, Unbreakable and Signs with Split, an original film that delves into the mysterious recesses of one man’s fractured, gifted mind.
Following last year’s breakout hit The Visit, Shyamalan reunites with producer Jason Blum (The Purge and Insidious series, The Gift) for the thriller being hailed as “Shyamalan’s most terrifying film to date, ” and “a masterful blend of Hitchcock and horror.”
Though Kevin (James Mcavoy, X-Men series, Wanted) has evidenced 23 personalities—each with unique physical attributes—to his trusted psychiatrist, Dr. Fletcher (Tony Award winner Betty Buckley, The Happening, TV’s Oz), there remains one still submerged who is set to materialize and dominate all the others.
Compelled to abduct three teenage girls led by the willful, observant Casey (Anya Taylor-Joy, The Witch), Kevin reaches a war for survival among all of those contained within him—as well as everyone around him—as the walls between his compartments shatter apart.
The Root of Terror: Split Begins
Moviegoers were first introduced to the mysterious and intricate universe of M. Night Shyamalan in 1999 with the worldwide phenomenon The Sixth Sense, which was followed by such blockbusters as Unbreakable and Signs.
The filmmaker began a new chapter in 2015 with his terrifying The Visit, which grossed almost $100 million worldwide. Following the same model as that movie’s production—and to allow for complete creative freedom—Shyamalan made the decision to return to his independent roots by self-financing Split.
“I want to make something new with every single film by doing something that nobody’s ever done,” Shyamalan says. “That’s exciting for me, and it’s also dangerous and problematic, especially when selling it to the world.”
After the global success of The Visit, Shyamalan again teamed up with Blum and his Blumhouse Productions for Split.
Blum, known for his industry innovation in helping to shepherd small-budget films into worldwide blockbusters, discusses the partnership: “Night can tell these extraordinarily character-driven stories against a backdrop of a larger subject matter. Split isn’t a typical small-budget film; it’s a large vision on a limited budget. It is not CGI or hundreds of millions of dollars that makes Split feel so epic—it’s Night’s incredibly provocative story.”
With a more intimate setup, Shyamalan was able to primarily focus his energies on the story and character development by eliminating some of the noise and variables that come with a larger film. “It’s easy to knock me out of my comfort zone, which is a reason why I make smaller movies,” Shyamalan says. “That way I can turn down certain factors so I can hear that creative voice telling me if something we’re doing is off track.”
Shyamalan pitched the idea for Split over dinner with Rajan, his longtime collaborator and president of production for Shyamalan’s Blinding Edge Pictures. “I was immediately blown away. I thought it was the perfect film for Night; it’s a convergence of all the types of stories he tells,” Rajan says. “He scribbled some ideas and a couple of scenes on a piece of paper, and they were all just riveting.”
Blum immediately responded to the drama and complexities of Shyamalan’s new offering, and how the film didn’t follow typical thriller conventions. “Audiences will enjoy Split on both a visceral ‘popcorn’ level, and at the same time, it will force them to reflect on human nature, which is the real underlying theme and preoccupation of Night’s career.”
Shyamalan’s filmmaking style also goes beyond a single genre. “Each film is uniquely his own,” says executive producer Schneider. “He weaves together folktales, legends and other narratives, and blends them with his background and experience. All of his films cover complex themes and characters, and I was amazed by the depth of Split.”
Schneider believes audiences will not only be entertained by Split, but they will be challenged by it. “My hopes are as ambitious as Night’s that the film’s strength in storytelling will spark debate about the complexities of human identity,” he says.
Whether it was looking into clairvoyance for The Sixth Sense, superhuman strength for Unbreakable or sundowning for The Visit, Shyamalan starts his stories with ideas inspired by phenomena in the natural world. But that is simply a beginning point: Shyamalan then takes his characters’ journeys to an extraordinary realm, letting narrative arcs arise from the struggles of the characters themselves.
As a storyteller, Shyamalan pairs comprehensive research with pure imagination.
His films in the suspense and supernatural genres lead him to draw from the mysterious and fascinating, using those premises as building blocks for his imagination and ask, simply, “What if?”
Shyamalan explains: “I’m taking something you believe and pushing it into the fantastic realm. I wondered what would happen if, in Dissociative Identity Disorder, each individual personality believes they are who they are, 100 percent. If one personality believes they have diabetes or high cholesterol, can their body chemically change to that belief system? And what if one personality believed it had supernatural powers? What would that look like?”
During his time at NYU, Shyamalan took courses in which the subject of Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID) was discussed, and over the years, the filmmaker has remained fascinated by theories surrounding the diagnosis.
When Shyamalan started to craft the Split screenplay, he read a great deal about the most documented cases—and these stories of those involved made a huge impact on his imagination. To inform his supernatural tale, Shyamalan spoke with psychiatrists in the field and gained practical knowledge about how therapists would conduct themselves in sessions with patients in this population. That inquisitiveness fleshed out the characters who became Kevin and Dr. Fletcher.
“This film is a convergence of skillsets and storytelling that Night brings to this medium, and there’s an incredible ride at the center,” says Rajan. “The performances are stunning, and I think that will resonate with audiences.”
As a specific and precise director hailing from the school of Hitchcock, Shyamalan labors over every scene. “Night’s a perfectionist, and he obsessively storyboards each shot to make sure he’s following his original vision,” producer Bienstock says. “He wants every shot, every moment to be the very best, and that’s inspiring.”
Like everything Shyamalan does, the look of Split is also incredibly specific. “It’s a dark film but visually stunning with a beautiful color palette and use of shadows,” says Blum. “Night has an unparalleled talent for creating dread and fear in the seemingly mundane and commonplace, which makes the film quietly threatening instead of overt or in your face.”
Getting Into Characters: Nine Rolls in One
Shyamalan felt there were only a handful of actors who could play the demanding role of a man with 23 personalities in Split. It was paramount for the writer/director that Kevin’s personalities not be viewed as caricatures but as fleshed out personas that audiences would embrace with sympathy. To that end, Shyamalan sought out James McAvoy—a dynamic actor who handles blockbuster roles and small, intimate parts with equal aplomb—to play the lead character’s many roles.
Shyamalan saw James McAvoy as absolutely up for the challenge. “This is the most complex character I’ve ever written. I was thinking, ‘Does he understand what I’m asking him to do in this piece?’ And he did; I’ve never worked with an actor so fearless.”
Shyamalan intentionally sent the actor the script with little context, hoping to draw from his performer ideas about Kevin he could never have imagined. The filmmaker recalls: “James asked, ‘What’s the name of the character I’m playing so I know, just so I don’t get confused.” And I said, ‘I can’t tell you, just read the script.’”
McAvoy was immediately intrigued with the story’s many twists and turns. “I read the first 10 pages and thought, ‘Wow, what is this?’ Then I read the next 10 pages and thought, ‘What is that?’” he says. “It felt like I was being continually confronted with something completely different. That’s the joy of what Night does so well. He keeps an audience on their toes trying to figure out what the film is: Are we watching a thriller, a psychological drama, horror, sci-fi or something supernatural? And this film is all of those genres.”
Shyamalan’s commitment to creating and funding his project was an inspiration for McAvoy. “He’s brave and bold for bucking the trend that says, in order to tell a good story, you must spend $200 million,” he says. “Instead, he’s clearing away all the interference so he can tell a really quality story. It’s a privilege to work with a director who has that attitude and approach when it comes to storytelling.
Shyamalan and McAvoy worked closely to ensure the actor’s performance remained incredibly singular as he transformed into each role with authenticity.
“Night’s demanding and almost forensic in what he wants you to do,” McAvoy says. “He has a very specific idea of what he wants in his mind, yet he’s extremely collaborative and giving.”
Changing colors and characters—sometimes within the same shot—was particularly demanding. “You hope the audience will buy you as one character,” McAvoy explains. “Then you need them to buy you as this next persona and make that transition interesting without alienating viewers.”
Still, the role presented the seasoned stage and screen actor with an extraordinary opportunity. “To be honest, I quite enjoy playing each character, because as an actor you rarely get the chance at this type of performance,” he says. “It’s quite exciting to radically change what you’re thinking, who you are and what makes you in a moment.”
The duo worked diligently to ensure each personality had a distinct voice and presence. “James is Scottish, but most of his career he has performed with an American or British accent,” says Shyamalan. “I rifled through his encyclopedia of accents, and would throw out an idea like, ‘How about Hedwig has a lisp?’ And James was just brilliant at adapting.”
When embodying young Hedwig, McAvoy walked a fine line between playing a child versus a simplistic version of an adult. “That’s how most people play a child,” says Shyamalan. “Hedwig’s very smart—he just happens to be 10 years old. I would tell James, ‘You’re not playing a dumb adult; that’s not what we’re doing. Use your eyes; you’re very smart. But you’re 10, so you don’t know what that gesture means.’”
McAvoy and Shyamalan continued to delve into the flavors and motives of each of the alters. “James would ask why a character responded a certain way, and since I was so close to the story, I was able to walk him through my logic,” offers Shyamalan. “It was essential to discuss each character until this persona was real for both of us.”
While Shyamalan strictly sticks to his script, he encourages actors to add their own color between the lines. “One of the ways to achieve this authenticity is by ad-libbing, and that comes out, in a way,” he says. “But I treat the script like a play—that’s always how I refer to it—and I don’t alter lines.”
“I want actors to realize they’re much more pliable than they think they are..”
For Shyamalan, there are millions of ways to perform a scene without altering words. “I want actors to realize they’re much more pliable than they think they are,” he says.
McAvoy performed between the lines with incredible artistry and expertise. “He said the exact words in the script but ad-libbed with this face and physicality,” says Shyamalan. “James would bring these incredible new aspects to the table. We got into that wonderful rhythm where things that were sacred to me weren’t touched but only heightened.”
The performer’s athleticism also proved a huge asset. “He was doing very physical feats like jumping fences and climbing,” says Shyamalan. “We would have the stunt person there just in case, but James is so agile and his physicality was a definite strength.”
Beyond performing stunts, the actor seems to shrink three inches when playing Hedwig and stiffens as strong Dennis. “Whether he was playing a child or a severe woman, he approaches each character with great comfort in his physicality,” states Shyamalan. “He’d finish a scene and the crew would break into applause because we knew we were watching something extraordinary.”
“When you think about what James had to do in this film, it’s astonishing,” raves Blum. “Not only was he seemingly effortless as he switching between alters on certain shooting days, he switched between them during certain scenes. You’re seeing an actor at the top of his game, and we were all awe-struck by what he managed to do as an extraordinarily disciplined actor. I’ve never seen anything like it, and I hope his performance receives the critical acclaim it deserves at the hands of Night’s deft direction.”