One of the trickiest genres of film to bring to the big screen is the psychological thriller. While films like Silence Of The Lambs and Se7en have worked over the years there have also been a mountain of films that have failed so badly that audiences have found themselves laughing at times when the director was expecting they should have been cowering with fear – yes I am looking at you Taylor Lautner in Abduction.
One of the men over the past few years that has virtually made the genre his own has been director M. Night Shyamalan. Films like The Sixth Sense, Unbreakable, Signs and The Village have made him a king of the genre. Therefore there was little surprise that when it was announced his latest film would star James McAvoy, the actor that most people would now as Dr. Charles Xavier from the X-Men franchise, that film lovers right around the world marked down Split as one of the must see films of 2017.
The director now sits down to chat about the film which seems to have caused controversy in Australia. While some say the film is one of the best thrillers in years others have criticised the way the film handles mental illness.
While he didn’t want the film to be so controversial Shyamalan says he did want the movie to make people think. “I wanted to take something scientific and psychological proven and keep going with it. So the first two steps have been proven and the third step was not proven but instead was a question, the question is do you believe what I am suggesting. It’s almost like a question saying ‘if you believe that you get stressed and your blood pressure goes up , do you believe that? Do you believe if I give you a pill and it’s full of sugar but I tell you it’s a cure and a portion of the population cures themselves of all diseases, do you believe that? It’s true, it’s a fact, it’s in every scientific study where the medicine is pitted against the placebo effect, so if you buy me there then I’m going to introduce you to D.I.D. where every single person believes they are who they are one hundred per cent. One personality has diabetes, one has high cholosterial, one can’t see, with each one their body and chemicals change as they get to each one, and now I have you right there so that is being debated right around the world right now… what I just said. I believe that is a fact but it is still being debated. Now I’m going to ask one more question… one that hasn’t been asked before – what if somebody with D.I.D. thought that one of their personalities was supernatural? Would they have supernatural powers – that’s the question that I’m asking.”
One of the hardest decisions that Shyamalan had to make when putting Split together was to work out which actor could actually play a role that demanded almost ten different personalities and he is quick to admit that McAvoy had questions about the films as well. “I sent him the script and he said ‘well what is the name of the character that I am playing so I don’t get confused,’” he explains. “So I said I can’t tell you that, just read the script and he was like… WHAT??? He didn’t understand what I was saying because he was looking at the different characters in the script and saying ‘I’m playing this, I’m playing this.’ But I think in the script the first character is called The Neat Freak so I said you are The Neat Freak but just keep reading and so I think he was thinking that it would be a hoot and I don’t think he really concentrated on the possible pitfalls. I think he just thought it was so whacked and crazy, but he is up for anything so he was thinking this is great, it’s normal let’s just have some fun.”
“He was yes right away when he read it,” says Shyamalan nodding. “ He was reading it and saying this script is crazy and he was like ‘hell let’s do it.’ He was up to do something so exposing and so demanding that he was just like ‘yeah let’s do it.’ I was shocked and I was thinking does he understand what I’m going to ask him to do in this piece and he did but he is so fearless, I mean I have never worked with an actor that is so fearless. I ask him to do something and he is always asking to go further. So I would say to him there is a fine line when you are playing Hedwig, you are not playing a dumb adult, that’s not how most people would play the part, they wouldn’t play it as a child, you are playing a very smart child who just doesn’t have life experience. Hedwig is very smart, he is very smart he just happens to be ten…. he is a very smart ten year old. So whenever he was playing it I would so ‘no you are playing a dumb adult, that was a dumb adult and that is not what we are doing… super smart ten year old. Use your eyes you are a super smart ten year old, you don’t know what that gesture means that you just did, you don’t know what she just did, was that flirting? Is that what they call flirting? Just think through it, don’t be an idiot. Just walk to her because that creates humour and you aren’t equipped for these things. SO it’s great to be able to talk like that and be able to work through each character and make them each the hero of their own story.”
It is easy to see how proud of McAvoy’s work Shyamalan is and he continues to prasie his leading man. “We got into that wonderful rhythm where the things that were sacred to me weren’t touched and were only heightened and then he would bring this incredible new aspect to the table, which is what you dream of when you are a writer/director. When what you imagine is being honoured but enhanced. James’ physicality is the great X-factor of the movie you know – how he can carry himself as Patricia or how he literally thinks he has shrunk three inches when he is playing Hedwig or he gets very stiff and strong when he is playing Dennis.”
Split is now screening in cinemas.