Although it has a few major selling points on its own—most notably James McAvoy’s fearless performance as a kidnapper with dissociative identity disorder—M. Night Shyamalan deliberately kept the most blatantly commercial aspect of his 2017 thriller Split a closely guarded secret, at least until the movie’s very final moments: The reveal, now widely publicized in trailers for the upcoming Glass, that it took place in the same universe as his previous superhero origin story Unbreakable.
In a new Vulture interview that ran this week, Shyamalan noted that he’s only able to get away with that kind of misdirection because of the low-budget movie-making niche into which he’s settled in recent years; under the auspices of horror wunderkind Jason Blum, The Sixth Sense director is able to do pretty much anything he wants, as long as he keeps it cheap. “The small budget allows me to follow an instinct,” Shyamalan noted. “Even if a million times someone would say, ‘That’s not going to work.’”
Shyamalan also revealed how well-buried the DNA for Split was in the basic skeleton of Unbreakable, noting that, in an earlier draft of the 2000 film, Bruce Willis’ David Dunn was supposed to run into the movie’s budding supervillain, dubbed “The Horde” by in-universe media. Shyamalan eventually cut the concept, mostly because the idea was too big to serve as a side plot in a larger film. “It’s a narrative issue,” he said. “Whenever you raise the stakes, you can’t unraise them. So once you introduce girls being abducted, there’s a ticking clock that doesn’t allow for the breadth of character development that I wanted to do in Unbreakable with David, his wife, and his kid.”
Of course, the real question is who Shyamalan would have gotten to play The Horde in 2000, when McAvoy was just a 21-year-old unknown. (Jude Law is the name that immediately jumps to mind, but who can really say? Shyamalan clearly believes he got the right man for the job: “Actually, I just had this conversation with someone, about how lucky I am to have James and be able to say, ‘No one in the world could have played it better.’ Because it’s true.”)
The Vulture interview ends up covering a pretty wide swathe of Shyamalan’s career, from big-budget failures like After Earth and The Happening, to the troubles encountered on projects like Lady In The Water, and the stony reception he got while trying to sell The Visit, the first film in the low-budget “Shyamalanaissance”:
“I’m going to sell the film six weeks out so that I know I’m not going to lose money, and my career isn’t over, and I don’t have to sell my house.” Because, obviously, who wouldn’t want a thriller done by me, right? Well, everyone. Everyone didn’t want a thriller done by me, apparently.