Spoiler alert: Get out of here — right now — if you don’t want to know anything about the final revelation of M. Night Shyamalan’s Split.
Over the last two decades, no filmmaker has established himself as more of a professional plot-twister, rug-puller, ending-upender than M. Night Shyamalan. Sometimes that’s been to his detriment, and after the release in 2008’s The Happening (in which a wave of mass suicide was caused by trees and plants), his name began to fall from favor in the public imagination.
That’s been changing lately, thanks to the success of Shyamalan’s creepy TV series Wayward Pines and his 2015 sleeper hit The Visit. Now, with Split, which stars James McAvoy as a man with at least 23 personalities, Shyamalan is continuing that hot streak.
Here is a trailer for Split, before we jump into the game-changing revelation that’s stitched brilliantly onto the film’s very last scene.
So you get the premise. A man with multiple personality disorder has kidnapped three girls, who fight him as his personalities wrestle each other for control. Here’s the twist: Split actually takes place in the same cinematic universe — in the same city of Philadelphia, in fact — as Shyamalan’s fantastic 2000 thriller Unbreakable. How do we know this? The movie concludes with McAvoy’s character, who has gained the ability to transform into a 24th personality with supernatural strength called the Beast, on the loose, having escaped capture by the authorities. We then join the action in a busy diner as patrons are watching a TV news report about this man, who the media has dubbed “The Horde” because of his multiple personalities. One woman says that the story reminds her of another case, from years ago, involving “a funny guy in a wheelchair, what was his name?”
The camera turns and we see Bruce Willis, wearing a security guard work shirt that says “Dunn,” as he utters while looking up at the TV screen, “Mr. Glass.” That’s the nickname, of course, of Samuel L. Jackson’s character in Unbreakable, who in that movie’s surprise finale revealed himself to be a supervillain — in contrast with Willis’ David Dunn, a superhero.
And before this final “tag” scene even beings, those with good memories and good ears will recognize composer James Newton Howard’s dark, lush score to Unbreakable playing in the last scene involving McAvoy, before we even get to the Philly diner.
And that raises the question: What’s next? Will there finally be a sequel to Unbreakable? In EW’s 2015 oral history of that film, the follow-up fantasies were discussed with aplomb by Shyamalan and Jackson.
“People have approached me about continuing the story,” Shyamalan said at the time, “but the idea of doing a traditional sequel doesn’t inspire me. It has to be organic and has to come from the right place — otherwise, it’ll smell of artificiality. But it’s fascinating how much it’s stuck around. I do think about it a lot.”
Jackson added, “Night’s still around. Bruce is still around. I’m still around. And I’d love to break out of the asylum.”
A representative from Blumhouse Productions, the studio run by Jason Blum that’s produced Shyamalan’s last two movies, told EW, “We love supporting Night and hope to be able to do it again soon.”
In the interview below, Shyamalan talks about his long history with the antagonist of Split and his ideas for tackling the character — or having Bruce Willis do so — in the future.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: When did you strike upon the idea to set Split in the same story universe as David Dunn (Bruce Willis) and Elijah Price (Samuel L. Jackson) and Unbreakable?
M. NIGHT SHYAMALAN: Oh, it was always there. Always. This character, Kevin from Split, was in the original script of Unbreakable. The original draft of Unbreakable focused on David Dunn and Elijah as his mentor. Elijah tells him, “You’re a comic book character, go try it.” And instead of bumping into the Orange Suit Man, David bumps into one of Kevin’s personalities and goes to save the girls. So you’d have been watching the girls side of it the whole time. That was the outline.
And how much of that screenplay had you written?
A lot. Some of the Kevin Wendell Crumb [James McAvoy’s character in Split] scenes were already completely written, all the way back then. One of the “Patricia” scenes, the Hedwig introduction scene, those were written over 15 years ago. I have them written by hand in my notebooks.
So when you began writing the full script for Split, you knew it was going to reference Unbreakable?
Yes, for sure.
It’s very effective where it comes in the film — all the way at the very end, after just the film’s title has been flashed on the screen. But did you toy with when to do it?
It was always at the end. But there was a question whether it would be one scene from the end, like within the pocket of the movie, and then have James’ scene in the mirror? Or run credits and put it at the end of the end credits? I tried all those variations but this was the best version.
Right, finding a sort of middle ground?
Yeah. The movie’s over, you all know that in the audience, but now I’m playing you Unbreakable music, James Newton Howard’s great score. A third of the audience is like, “Wait, what’s happening?” Their minds are kind of reeling. I screened it in Austin in September at Fantastic Fest and when the woman says the word “wheelchair,” the place freaked out. Some people in the audience were screaming out “Mr. Glass” before Bruce Willis even appeared.
So now hypothetically this seems like a perfect segue into a third film. That elusive Unbreakable sequel.
Yeah. I agree with that.
Will it be?
I hope so. The answer is yes. I’m just such a wimp sometimes. I don’t know what’s going to happen when I go off in my room, a week after this film opens, to write the script. But I’m going to start writing.
Do you have an outline?
Yeah, definitely. A really robust outline, which is pretty intricate. But now the standards for my outlines are higher. I need to know I’ve won already. I’m almost there but I’m not quite there.
What did James McAvoy say when you told him this? And did he knew when he signed on that this was going to be the ending?
Oh yeah, he knew from the beginning. And he was pumped. He was like, “Oh, man, I might get to do another movie with Bruce? My God!” He was excited, but again, this was well over a year ago. Our job was to make Split a great psychological thriller with supernatural overtones. We weren’t worrying about the tag [movie lingo for a short scene at the very end of a film].
Have you been worried about the news of the ending spilling out?
Yeah. Actually, in fact, I didn’t put the ending on when we first test screened the movie. I wouldn’t do it, somewhat out of fear that it would get out. But on top of that, I wanted it to win as its own movie. You like Split as its own movie? Well, guess what? You weren’t even watching what you thought you were.
You must be smiling a bit. This is a redefinition of the twist ending. This is something you’ve never done before.
No, that’s correct. But basically it’s similar to Unbreakable. Can you make an origins story that the audience doesn’t know is an origins story until the last image of the movie. In Split, you really thought you were watching a psychological thriller. And you were. But it’s actually a comic book movie. And when the moment comes, when you’re watching it with an audience, the place just goes insane. It’s pandemonium. It feels great.