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M. Night Shyamalan On Why He’s Fascinated By The Human Mind

He belongs to a family of doctors, and he developed an interest in how the brain works while wooing his psychologist wife in college. The Split director talks to us about his filmmaking influences

Noel de SouzaNoel de Souza

March 2, 2017 | 01:03 AM

M. Night Shyamalan On Why He’s Fascinated By The Human Mind

The most surprising and good thing about the movie Split is that writer/director M. Night Shyamalan has regained his cinematic voice after a series of misfires. He is the master of creating suspense as he takes the viewer on a journey of twists and turns.

Split deals with dissociative identity disorder or what is commonly known as split personates - in this case twenty-four of them wrapped up in one human being. James McAvoy embodies these personates with an easy and frightening reality that keeps you guessing each time they manifest themselves.

Three teenagers are taken captive and kept in a bunker-like room from which they try to escape but each attempt is confronted with a different personality, some frightening and others friendly.

It is always thrilling to talk to a talented country man and figure out his or her process of thinking and work. It is with this thought in mind that I go to meet Mr. Shyamalan. He is dressed in a crisp white shirt and his hair is disheveled in a studied manner.

What piqued your interest in this subject matter?

Just talking to my kids and looking at life and thinking about experiences we have on a continuum of bad to good. You know, are people who have extreme experiences different from us and not necessarily less than us? Do they have abilities that we don’t have? do they have a point of view that just might be richer than ours, or more grounded in a way than ours isn’t so? That trauma and what happens to us after a trauma is a very powerful subject for me. It’s something that I think about a lot.

What made you decide on James McAvoy for the lead role?

James is very familiar with this disorder, so I already had somebody that was very cognizant of what it is, how the architecture works in the mind. Each person is there for a reason. These people are brought to the family for a reason, for their zeal, for their ability to believe in something. The various characters that dwell in Kevin (McAvoy) for instance - Patricia is there for belief, extreme belief. Dennis is there for his obsessive-compulsiveness to keep order when you need someone to be absolutely precise, he’s the person who comes to the light. Hedwig is a child and he brings playfulness and carefreeness. They are not villains, they are just protecting this one individual Kevin and that is a very noble thing that they are saying - not on our watch are you going to hurt this person. So James and I sat down and talked through each character, and James is so good at embodying all these characters that it was a no brainer casting him in the role.

You have a very strong signature style in all your movies. You are known for the twists in the plot. What is your process when you sit down to write?

I let the plot come out of the character and the format of telling the story of that character. So if you are a bad person I don’t necessarily have to reveal that right of the top. I can convey that you are the kindest person for 98 minutes and then we find out the reverse. That would be considered a twist but really, it’s just about character and a way of telling that character’s story. So I don’t really think of it as a dance move. Now I’m going to do the big dance move.

Both your parents are doctors. Does this impact your film choices?

Not my parents. But my wife is a psychologist and I had to chase her during our college days. I took all the psychology courses with her. Which is why now we watch movies about psychology. If she was a synchronized swimmer, they would all be synchronized swimmer movies, I really find the mind a very, very powerful thing and I am fascinated by it.

Talk a bit about your parents and family.

All my family - my uncle and aunts are all doctors. One of my aunts is a psychiatrist and my mom is an obstetrician. She is retired now. Another aunt of mine is a coroner, so we have everything from birth to death. And may be the films I make are a way of legitimizing myself as an artist to my older generation so they don’t think that I went down the wrong road.

But my wife is a psychologist and I had to chase her during our college days. I took all the psychology courses with her. Which is why now we watch movies about psychology

Do you believe that people with split personalities can be cured?

That is theoretically the goal of therapy for the disorder, but I’m conflicted about that, because if we believe that they are really human beings sharing the same body we’re going to extinguish them. I’m bittersweet about it. They are different for a reason fate has chosen and then we are going to make them a version of us where you only have one consciousness and one existence and can only do this one thing with one identity, I am as you can tell conflicted about the goal of therapy to make them function as normal human beings.