EXCLUSIVE: The Honor and Pressure of Being M. Night Shyamalan

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“I see dead people.”

It was the plot twist heard around the world when writer-director-producer M. Night Shyamalan’s The Sixth Sense hit theaters in 1999 and surprised everyone with one of the most shocking reveals in cinematic history. The film, starring Bruce Willis and newcomer Haley Joel Osment, earned six Academy Award nominations, including Best Picture, Best Director and Best Original Screenplay for Shyamalan. It was also a monster success at the box office, grossing over $672 million worldwide on a $40 million budget, and turned Shyamalan into a household name.

Born in India, raised in Pennsylvania and a graduate of New York University’s prestigious Tisch School of the Arts, Shyamalan followed the success of The Sixth Sense with even more twists and turns over the next two decades. 2000’s Unbreakable -- also starring Willis -- 2002’s Signs with Mel Gibson and Joaquin Phoenix and 2004’s The Village -- also with Phoenix -- saw the director reach new heights at the box office, with Newsweek dubbing him the “next Steven Spielberg.” But the films that followed -- Lady in the Water and The Happening -- left some critics less satisfied than the previous offerings.

Then, after a seven-year break from the supernatural genre, taking time to direct some decidedly un-Shyamalan-like films -- The Last Airbender and After Earth starring Will Smith -- the filmmaker returned to form with 2015’s sleeper hit The Visit. In teaming up with horror producers Jason Blum and Ashwin Rajan, Shyamalan made a welcome return to his roots with the simple yet downright creepy film, which included an unexpected twist ending. “It was fun watching this with a gasping and screaming audience,” Wesley Morris wrote for Grantland, with New York magazine’s David Edelstein adding that it “actually works like a demonic charm.”

His return to form is all the more clear with his latest feature, Split (in theaters Jan. 20), in which James McAvoy plays Dennis, a man with 24 distinct personalities who has kidnapped three young girls (including The Witch breakout Anya Taylor-Joy). But this being a Shyamalan film, not everything is what it seems. And this thriller plays on the unexpected humor of Dennis’ many personalities, including the childlike Hedwig and Patricia. “The most fun character to be around is Patricia, for sure,” Shyamalan tells ET. “When James is playing Patricia, it’s hilarious and scary.”

The end result is a dark yet surprisingly funny film. “The fun of the film is [the audience] laughing out loud and then, as they are laughing, you terrify them,” McAvoy reveals. 

“That’s why I think Night is such an amazing storyteller,” Betty Buckley, who plays Dr. Karen Fletcher in Split and also starred in The Happening, adds. “He wants you to laugh. Night relieves you of that tension with the humor deliberately. It is so masterful.” 

Split also follows in the Shyamalan tradition, complete with an ending that will uproot the entire story. While the filmwasn’t written solely around a surprise twist (“I would say the answer is yes and no," Shyamalan says), writing and directing the film did fulfill a creative itch. 

“I had this idea: Can I tell a story where you think you’re watching one genre, but at the end, you realize you’re watching a different genre?” Shyamalan says. And yes, he knew the twist before he started. “I knew I was going to do that [no spoilers here] with Split.” 

“I wouldn’t want to ruin the movie experience for anybody,” Taylor-Joy says of the movie. “That is where Night is coming from; he wants to preserve the integrity of the art and allow each person to have their own experience unmarked by other people’s opinion.” 

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In Split and his other films, the director’s twists and turns boil down to Shyamalan’s joy of storytelling. It really is as simple as that. “I do enjoy surprising people,” he says, adding, “I don’t necessarily have to have [the twist] at the end. It can be in the middle, it can be anywhere.”

With Signs, a film that deals with faith and science when extraterrestrials start leaving crop circles in wheat fields that belong to a former priest, there wasn’t so much of a twist as a reveal of information. Fifteen-year-old spoiler warning: It’s discovered that water is harmful and can kill the aliens. “I don’t know why, I find it so spiritual,” the director says of the “moment where everything makes sense,” which just happens to be his favorite of his own twists. “The guy who lost faith and then remembers what his wife said. Then, he looks around the room and sees that his wife was talking about this moment. It always gives me chills when I see it.”

“I remember when I first saw it with an audience, there were gasps filling the room,” Shyamalan continues. “It was sweet.” 

Perhaps being called the next Steven Spielberg is less accurate than an heir to O. Henry, considering his admiration for mystery writers and other storytellers. One such person is J.K. Rowling, with whom he recently shared a starstruck moment. “I went on vacation and J.K. Rowling was there. I didn’t even know what to say to her,” Shyamalan says, revealing he wanted to make a joke about also being known by his initials. “She was very nice and very regal. And I was like, ‘I’m going to walk away now. I don’t know what to say.’” 

While others may succumb to the pressure of having to tell thought-provoking stories with shock endings or unexpected moments, it’s all very natural to Shyamalan. “Maybe one day I’ll be suffocated by it,” he admits. “But I have a couple of ideas in my head and I’m like, ‘Ooh, I can’t wait to show that.’” 

“Recently, I was having this good idea for a new movie and I was like, ‘Maybe I should keep driving, I’m in the right head space,’” he adds, teasing inspiration for the next spellbinding film. 

When it comes to Split in particular, McAvoy says, “This movie is exactly what you want it to do and I find that really admirable in this industry.” 

After 25 years in the business, Shyamalan has a very clear vision of what he hopes for his legacy. “When I think about what I want my career to be, it is often not the filmmakers that I look to as my heroes -- and I do have tons of cinematic heroes -- it is the Agatha Christies of the world. It is authors that were happy telling the same type of stories over and over again but with different feelings,” he says. 

“I think sitting here right now, I can see myself doing many of these,” Shyamalan continues. "But you never know, sometimes you need to do something different so you clean the palate, so you are like, ‘This is an honor to make these movies.’”