Once the maestro of dead people and unbreakable men, writer-director M. Night Shyamalan, 46, returns to his roots with Split (out Jan. 20).
DRAWING A CROWD
Though his recent output has included Fox’s sci-fi series Wayward Pines and 2015’s found-footage horror hit The Visit, M. Night Shyamalan fully returns to the form that made him famous with Split. The unnerving chamber thriller features X-Men‘s James McAvoy as a kidnapper afflicted with a homicidal case of DID (dissociative identity disorder). His brain is home to at least 23 different personalities, among them a swaggering Philly brute, a 9-year-old boy, a strict woman, and a mincing fashion designer. Shyamalan has been fascinated by the condition for decades. “I had heard that James Cameron was making a film about this subject,” he says. “As in, the director of Terminator! So cool!” Cameron’s project (A Crowded Room) never got off the ground, but Shyamalan remarks, “You could say I’m reliving that feeling of excitement I had back then.”
Split is movie No. 12 in Shyamalan’s career. The dozen titles (ranging from The Sixth Sense to Signs to After Earth) offer an insight into his own shifting identities: horrormeister, professional rug-puller, earnest spiritualist—and currently, economical auteur. Split is the second consecutive film he’s made for the no-frills horror factory Blumhouse Productions (Paranormal Activity, Insidious). And Shyamalan says he has never felt more comfortable: “Smaller crew, smaller budget, fewer sets. We’ll shoot for 30 days, then come back three weeks later for a few days of fine-tuning and fixing mistakes. There’s so much freedom that I feel like I’m cheating on a test.” Nowadays he’s grateful for what achieving success at a young age—he turned 29 the day The Sixth Sense opened in 1999—has taught him. “It was weird, but I got to do the cycle of fame early: ‘I’m great, I’m an idiot, I’m a success, I’m a failure,'” he says with a laugh. “I got to experience all that and then say, ‘Let’s just concentrate on making movies.'”
DO THE TWIST
After the whiplash conclusion of The Sixth Sense (Bruce Willis is dead?!), Shyamalan’s name became synonymous with plot twists—and by 2008’s The Happening (the plants did it?!), a punchline for them. But Split is a game changer. In movies like Psycho and Fight Club the multiple personalities are the twist, but here Shyamalan takes a bigger swing, ending with a whopper surprise—and a special cameo—that will bring all the haters back to the yard. “I’ve been with audiences when we’ve screened the film,” he says, “and when that moment comes, the place just goes insane. It feels great.”