“Power comes from writing.” M. Night Shyamalan on Split
M. Night Shyamalan on the importance of outlining, using dark humor, the four genres of Split, and writing for different budgets.
Few filmmakers have come from seemingly out of nowhere to make such an impact as M. Night Shyamalan.
After writing and directing two features that did not receive wide release, Shyamalan’s first triumph was 1999’s The Sixth Sense, a supernatural thriller that grossed an astounding $672 million worldwide and made “I see dead people” one of the most memorable movie lines of the 1990s. The Sixth Sense was nominated for six Academy Awards, including Best Picture, and Shyamalan was nominated for both Best Director and Best Original Screenplay.
The following year, Shyamalan released Unbreakable, another film shrouded in mystery about a seemingly ordinary man who is the sole survivor of a train crash that kills all other passengers but doesn’t leave a scratch on him. Unbreakable, along with Shyamalan’s 2002 and 2004 films Signs and The Village, were also box office successes.
In 2015, Shyamalan released The Visit, a $5 million found footage horror film that blended comedy with its thrills in a stripped-down approach that re-established Shyamalan’s cinematic voice.
And he has followed that with Split, a thriller about Kevin (James McAvoy), a man with twenty-three alternate personalities who kidnaps three teenage girls for mysterious reasons relating to the emergence of his vicious twenty-fourth personality known as “The Beast.”
Kevin’s personalities range from docile to dangerous, and he represents one of the most complex characters ever portrayed by a single actor.
Throughout his career, Shyamalan’s films have been marked by plot twists, and Split is no different. However, audiences expecting to figure out the twist in Split – which will not be spoiled here! – should be prepared for a surprise. Once again, Shyamalan has found new and exciting ways to surprise his audience.
Creative Screenwriting spoke to Shyamalan about the writing process for Split, writing low budget features, working on the television series Wayward Pines, and finding the right tone when balancing genres.
Can you first talk about the genesis of the Split screenplay?
It’s an unusual one. It’s a little complicated.
More and more I have ideas that gestate for a bit, partly because it just takes so long to make a movie. If I get an idea it goes into the notebook. Sometimes it’s a character, sometimes a scene, or even a more thought-out outline.
In this case I had written the character a while ago, and I had written out a few scenes of it, so I even had dialogue written out, which is really unusual for me. It sat there for a long time, and I really don’t have a clear reason why I didn’t pull the trigger earlier. But this felt like the perfect time to do it, with the type of movies I’m doing now, and the type of tones I am interested in – humor and suspense.
In an interview you did Creative Screenwriting with around the time of The Sixth Sense, you said you spend “months” outlining and re-outlining a screenplay. Is that still your method?
It is. I outline for a few months, from when I think, “Well, I think this is the movie idea that I want to do.” I never really outlined a full movie and then not made that movie, so it’s a pretty firm commitment at that point.
More and more I find that the issues that you discover later – when you’ve shot the movie, edited it, and shown it to an audience as you’re trying to figure out the pacing and feel – existed in the outline. If you can see it there, you can obviously make the changes and it takes minutes. That’s the place to do it rather than when you’re spending millions of dollars!
The outlining part is a powerful moment in the process, because you can train yourself to see the true structure that lies there, before you fall in love with dialogue and your execution.
After outlining, how many drafts of Split did you do?
I think it was a fairly quick screenplay. Of my films, Signs took the fewest number of drafts, and Split was probably the second fewest number of drafts. I would say from the beginning to the script that we shot it was probably seven drafts.
How did you go about developing a character like Kevin and finding his many voices?
It’s like anything else – what are the characters that the movie wants? Wouldn’t it be interesting if the abductors were a woman, an OCD guy who is drawn to young women and tries to keep fighting that off, and a mischievous boy? What if those were the three people who abducted you? Wouldn’t that be an interesting group to watch bicker, figure things out, and have their insecurities? Interesting conflicts could arise. The characters emerge from the needs of the situation.
What kind of research did you do on Dissociative Identity Disorder?
There are obviously some wonderful famous cases that have been documented in major books, like iconic ones like Sybil and The Minds of Billy Milligan. However, they are all similar in their architectures of the characters, with how the therapists worked with them. You start to see some pathways on how to talk about the character.
I was lucky enough to meet some therapists and ask them “What if?” questions, like, “What if your client did this?”, “What are you most nervous about?”, or “How are you physically in the room?”
As a writer and a director, you want to know the answers to all of those little questions.
Dr. Fletcher’s character plays a very important role in the film in helping the audience understand Kevin’s disorder. Can you talk about her role in the story?
In the screenplay she had an even bigger role than she does in the movie. Part of the things I could have noticed in the outlining process was how much of her was going to survive the pressure of the movie once the thriller started moving – how much character stuff I would be able to get in, in light of the God of Plot.
There were certainly a lot of wonderful things that I didn’t get to put in the final movie that were in the outline and in the screenplay, and that I shot. They were really important to me, and I was sad to lose them because she was such a weird and quirky character. A lot of that stuff went away in service of saving the girls, basically.
It was a writing error on my part. I fell in love with something and put a lot of time and effort into it, but I did not ask the initial question of “Will it survive?” when you’re only looking through the lens of stopping this guy, saving the girls, or the ticking clock of the movie.
There’s a lot of humor in Split, especially with Kevin’s identities, although often it is that uncomfortable kind of laughter. Did you sense that coming through as you were writing the screenplay?
Yes, I was giggling as I was writing it. I guess I have an irreverent sense of humor, and I really enjoyed writing the humor in both The Visit and Split. It’s definitely where my head’s at now, and I enjoy being mischievous in writing with this kind of uncomfortable or dark humor. [Laughs]
Both Split and The Visit cross a number of genres. What are your thoughts on how to effectively mix genres in a screenplay?
That’s definitely a deep interest of mine. It’s very tricky. Ultimately, these movies are thrillers, but there are so many different genres within that which dominate, then come back, and then ease off.
But I can’t say it’s easy – it’s something I love to do, but it is a balancing act. It’s something that I struggle with in the screenplay, but it’s much easier to balance in the screenplay, because the screenplay is more forgiving than when we get to the film and you execute everything exactly.
Drama can get undermined by a light comedic thing that happened right before or right after it, or tension get drained when you do the humor at the wrong moment. That’s why I’ve fallen into this uncomfortable humor place, where you don’t know how to react because what you’re seeing is so weird. That maintains both aspects for me – how to keep the stakes going in a screenplay when you’re laughing.
Speaking of genres, the opening of the film with the three girls being abducted is reminiscent of traditional horror films.
There are basically four genres Split moves through.
The first one is the tropes of horror movies with the Saw kind of set-up. But it immediately changes into a psychological thriller – Silence of the Lambs is one of my favorite movies of all time and it’s always influencing me. Split moves into that genre for a long time as a ticking clock.
Then it slowly transitions in front of your eyes into a movie about what the human mind and body is capable of, as with movies like Limitless or Lucy – that kind of science fiction wish fulfillment genre.
And then it goes into the final genre, which you and I won’t talk about!
[Note: Revealing the fourth genre could potentially spoil the ending]
So in my mind, it moves through those four genres.
One thread that appears in several of your movies is the idea that some people are “chosen” to be different, and that unlocks power within them. In the cases of Kevin and Casey, the power of both is rooted in their history of abuse. Could you talk about that?
I don’t know if I would use the word “chosen.” The word I would probably use is that they discover or uncover that the things which make them different are gifts. I’ve explored it multiple times – it’s kind of overt in The Visit and Split – this notion that you have to go through something very, very difficult, but on the other side of it is a new form of yourself, and the question of whether or not that journey through the pain made you something better.
That’s the philosophy which Dr. Fletcher and the Beast are querying, asking, “Wait a second, is normal so great? Why do you want us to be normal if we didn’t go through something normal? Who wants to be ordinary? We can do things that you can’t do!” That was a big theme for me in the piece.
Since you wrote a character with so many distinct personalities, were you ever concerned that you were not going to be able to find an actor who could pull it off effectively?
The more specifically you write, the more chance you’ll land somebody. It felt like the most complex character that I had ever written, and I was hopeful when I wrote it that an actor might find it an amazing opportunity to do something he could never do again. Luckily, James McAvoy felt that way when he read it.
In retrospect, I do feel like, “Wow, I don’t know how many people could have done this!” Seeing what James did in the movie, I’m realizing how far it could have fallen.
Is there any difference in how you write scripts for lower-budget features like The Visit or Split as opposed to the $50, $60, $70 million features you have done before?
Yes, you have to be really cognizant about how difficult something would be to execute. Let’s say you have a fight scene and it takes place in a storeroom, but then they smash through the window and now they’re outside in the rain. Would it be worth it to do that?
You have to make those decisions as you write that scene. You might say, “Okay, it’s really important to me to have that iconic rain moment with them, so I’m going to do that,” but it might not be.
I have a pretty good gut feeling now about how much something is going to cost when I’m writing a screenplay in a general way, and I feel like if I make that “smash through the glass into the rain” decision many times, we’re going to have a tough time because I know how difficult it is to light in nighttime, use rain machines, get a stunt replacement of glass, and the thirty minutes it will take to replace the window, the rehearsals…
That’s a lot of time. Just from this example, you’re probably adding four or five hours to your shooting day to do that, and I’m being conservative. That’s virtually a half-day of shooting. If you’re cognizant of those things, you can be in the ballpark.
Split was a very ambitious movie for the budget and the days that we had, so every day felt pushed to the very limit. As a director, I could normally do ten to twelve shots per day at my normal pace without killing myself. But we had to sometimes do thirteen, fourteen, fifteen, sixteen shots, and that’s incredibly taxing. You start to get diminishing returns when you push for that long.
Is the creative control you have over a lower-budget movie like Split similar to the creative control you had over The Sixth Sense?
More, because these are funded by me, so they’re all mine and then I sell them to the studio. It’s the highest form of that.
I always thought in those early movies that I had a lot of control, and I did because those were relatively cheap and I had a lot of autonomy. I never really felt the burden of the system that much. Now with these two it feels very similar, and even more so because there is so much pliability in the process.
You’ve recently been working on a television series, Wayward Pines. Do you find writing the process for television any different than writing for film?
My job on the television show is to create architecture for the seasons, and to outline each episode with the group of writers. We walk through everything by saying, “This is where we want to get to, and we want this to happen in Episode 3 and this to happen in Episode 7.”
I really like it. I like working with other writers, and I enjoy the back and forth and camaraderie of mutually moving toward one direction. Writing for film is a very isolated experience. But with Wayward Pines I got to work with so many wonderful people, like the Duffer Brothers. They went and did Stranger Things, and I was so lucky to have them write the episodes they wrote for Wayward Pines.
A different part of you comes out when you’re standing in front of a board and you’re asking, “How about this? How about that?” You’re pitching and coming up with ideas. It’s just a different form of you instead of being silent in front of a keyboard.
You are known for setting films in and around Philadelphia. What do you find about Philadelphia that is so inspiring cinematically?
It’s a fantastic city. Over the last fifteen years especially, I’ve felt it exploding into this young, artsy hip city now. The food scene, the hangout scene, the art scene, the music scene, the arts festivals – all of that stuff is exploding.
But beyond that social vibe, I think that architecturally it’s most beautiful city in the country. It’s an old city, and it was designed based upon several European cities. It has all that beautiful historical architecture, but also in the countryside is Amish country, and farms. And anything you could possibly want you can get within a very short distance from Philadelphia. I never feel hindered about ideas.
What are you working on now?
I’m outlining my next script. I could really land this outline and be done if just isolate myself at home for the next two or three weeks. I feel like it’s very far along, and is about nine and a half pages.
It’s not there yet, but I can feel that I’m on the doorstep of getting to that place where the beats are falling in line with each other, I’m not bumping, I have the right tones, and I’m juxtaposing things around the right way.
My true assessment is that I’m about sixty percent done on that. If I just had a few more weeks…but I don’t think I have that until Split opens.
I won’t be one hundred percent happy or feel joy when I’m asked what I’m doing next until I’ve cracked all those things. I want to feel like I’ve already won with the outline, and I don’t quite feel that yet.
What do you think it is about The Sixth Sense that has audiences talking about it almost twenty years later, even with the revelation at the end now being so well known?
It’s a great question. I’m really happy, because I feel like a bunch of my movies have stayed with people.
The greatest thing you can hear is, “When I got married we had the priest say the lines from The Village,” or “In our vows we said the lines from The Village to each other.”
Signs is one that has grown a lot, and obviously Unbreakable has been the movie I’ve probably been asked about most over the years.
I tell my daughters and anybody who asks me, that power comes from writing. That’s the craft that you own one hundred percent, and you can create something spectacular in your room. Once you get good at being honest with yourself, you can get to the place where you know whether it’s flawed, OK, or extraordinary. That feeling that you have something special is what drives you to get it made.
I’m thrilled and lucky to have the relationship I have with audiences.
Featured image: M. Night Shyamalan and James McAvoy on set of Split © 2016 – Universal Pictures