M. Night Shyamalan, Director Of ‘The Visit’ And ‘Split,’ Revealed His ‘Sneaky’ Approach To Mixing Drama And Suspense

Over the years, M. Night Shyamalan has become synonymous with such words as “suspense,” “thriller,” and “plot twist.”

With such movies as Signs, Unbreakable, The Visit. and the highly-anticipated Split added to his growing list of films, M. Night Shyamalan has earned the respect of movie fans and critics around the world. It is clear that one of Shyamalan’s biggest influences in the film industry is none other than the late, great Alfred Hitchcock.

Watching movies that keep you on the edge of your seat from start to finish — such as The Visit or Signs — easily draw quite a few comparisons between M. Night Shyamalan and Alfred Hitchcock. The masterful artistry of both of those critically-acclaimed directors, though, originates with their uncanny abilities to blend drama with suspense in their films.

M. Night Shyamalan
[Photo by Charles Sykes/Invision/AP Images]

M. Night Shyamalan’s primary goal in his July 2015 interview with the Verge at San Diego Comic-Con may have been to promote his suspenseful thriller, The Visit. However, the scope of that conversation expanded to quite a few other topics, including the director’s “sneaky” approach to mixing drama with suspense in order to truly captivate his audience.

According to Shyamalan, the art of blending the two sides together started with the realization that there were two sides to him.

“I know myself now. Unconsciously, I have two sides of me. One’s kind of a dark, twisted side and then the other one’s kind of like an emotional, family side. Those have always existed.”

When many movie fans and critics think of M. Night Shyamalan’s earliest works, perhaps their minds might go to the 1999 film The Sixth Sense starring Bruce Willis and Haley Joel Osment. That particular film may have catapulted M. Night’s career in the film industry, but it was definitely not his earliest work. As stated during the interview, M. Night Shyamalan wrote and directed more dramas and family-oriented films before The Sixth Sense.

M. Night’s directorial debut was the 1992 film Praying with Anger in which he starred as an Indian-American named Dev Raman who left the United States to live in India for a year as part of a college exchange program.

Several years later, he wrote and directed the easily-forgotten 1998 film Wide Awake starring Denis Leary, Rosie O’Donnell, and Joseph Cross.

Those films weren’t suspenseful stories with nail-biting plot twists. Nearly four months after The Sixth Sense was released, the family film Stuart Little — which was co-written by M. Night Shyamalan — made its way into theaters and became a box-office hit as well.

M. Night Shyamalan stated in the interview that he has always “been out of the closet” when it came to his versatility as a storyteller and filmmaker, embracing those two separate sides. Perhaps there is a touch of irony, then, that his next film project, Split, seems to focus on a character named Kevin who deals with a number of separate “sides” and personalities of his own.

Shyamalan’s self-discovery also led him to him realizing that his baseline, when it comes to storytelling, is based on emotional involvement. He stated that his “baseline is more emotional than the general population” and admitted that he is prepared to be emotionally involved in anything when it comes to his stories.

Approaching the Sixth Sense stage of his career allowed him to balance everything, bringing his separate sides and instincts together to create a beautiful blend of suspense and drama.

“I took those instincts and gave them balance with other things so… that the emotionality was coming this way and not right at you. When it comes at you, everybody [blocks it] and goes, ‘Ah! I’m not going to go there!’ But if it sneaks up on you, it’s powerful and, really, we want to have a cathartic experience. That was the balance that I’ve learned. I don’t think that I’m not making dramas anymore.”

The Split director then used his 2015 film, The Visit, as an example of his ability to still focus on drama at the core of a story while allowing suspense and horrifying scares to surround it.

The Visit, for all of its scares…outrageousness…humor, there’s a core drama that’s going on at the center of it. For me, The Visit’s about forgiveness. Who knows if the audience will even know that? They’ll be screaming their heads off, but…at the center…it is a drama.”

Without giving away any spoilers, The Visit focused on two teenage siblings visiting their grandparents. There is an underlying theme of forgiveness that is prevalent within the plot once you take a moment to separate the suspenseful twists and turns that occur throughout the movie. However, at its surface, The Visit appears to be a movie that is simply about teenagers visiting their creepy grandparents.

That’s where the creative genius of M. Night Shyamalan comes into the picture, though. Once again, that is why many fans and critics agree that he deserves the comparisons made between himself and Alfred Hitchcock. You may start watching a suspenseful M. Night Shyamalan movie thinking that it is going to go in one direction, but then it takes an unexpected turn at some point during the film that surprises everyone.

M. Night Shyamalan
[Photo by Charles Sykes/Invision/AP Images]

The Visit is more than a movie about kids visiting their grandparents. Signs focused on a lot more than a widowed father raising children on a farm with mysterious crop circles. Unbreakable was a lot more than a film about a man unhappy with his life, his longtime marriage, and himself in general. Even though not very much has been revealed about the 2017 film Split, chances are that it will be about a lot more than just a man struggling with 23 different multiple personalities.

“The audience is saying to me, ‘If you make something too emotional, too soft…if the baseline is that, I’m not with you because that’s not my life experience, so I don’t find that valid.’… If I acknowledge their well-deserved cynicism of the world…and say, ‘I’m with you… I’m going to speak with you from this angle’… and we together might turn and find something emotional, they’ll go there… and I believe they even want to.”

There are not that many screenwriters and directors who have been able to master the art of the plot twist like classic storytellers of the past such as Alfred Hitchcock and Rod Serling.

However, M. Night Shyamalan has proven that his name belongs on that list as well. As he stated during the same July 2015 interview, at the end of the day, it’s all about respect.

“The simplest version of it is, You have not earned the right to go to that emotional place yet… You have to acknowledge where people are coming in… That’s respect… And if you can do that, you might…sometime in the two hours… earn your way there.”

Over the years, M. Night Shyamalan has managed to surprise and shock moviegoers time after time. Just like with any other movie director, there are some films that miss the mark such as Lady in the Water or The Village. However, when you focus on the times that he hit the bull’s eye such as with Signs, Unbreakable, and The Visit, it’s clear that M. Night Shyamalan is a master of blending drama and suspense.

There really is no reason to expect anything different from Split, especially when you pay close attention to the pattern that M. Night Shyamalan has already set with his other films.

[Photo Charles Sykes/Invision/AP Images]