M. Night Shyamalan and cast on shattering superhero expectations after Unbreakable and Split.
Nearly two decades after cult comic-book movie Unbreakable bemused the mainstream, and two years after that Split bombshell, crossover sequel Glass is now one of the most eagerly anticipated movies of recent years. Total Film tracks the ups and downs of the groundbreaking superhero saga about extraordinary individuals who live among us, with insight from series mastermind M. Night Shyamalan and his super-powered cast. Words
ince Unbreakable’s release 18 years ago, M. Night Shyamalan has had two especially memorable encounters with his Mr. Glass, Samuel L. Jackson. On both occasions, they were inside separate moving vehicles. And on both occasions, Jackson bellowed a single sentence at Shyamalan before speeding off into the LA sun: “When are we making that sequel, motherfucker?!”
It was a valid question in Jackson’s mind. “From the beginning, it was supposed to be a trio of films,” Jackson recalls, talking to Total Film in late October, his work on Glass already in the can. “I thought we did a pretty good job with Unbreakable, so I always wondered why we didn’t make the other instalments.” The “why” was simple economics. Made for $75m and grossing just shy of $250m, Unbreakable turned a profit, but underperformed at the box office compared to The Sixth Sense ($672m on a $40m budget). Even more damning was the “C” Cinemascore. By comparison, notorious 2004 stinker Catwoman skulked away with a “B”.
There’s little question now that Unbreakable was a film wildly ahead of its time. Asking “what if comic-book heroes were real?” and treating the subject with extraordinary intelligence, audiences weren’t ready for a grand deconstruction of superhero cinema before superhero cinema could take flight (for context, Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man wouldn’t release for another 18 months). Neither was what the film audiences were sold. Studio marketing framed Unbreakable as a thriller rather than the slow, sombre superhero drama it is – the irony being Disney was the distributor refusing to court the Comic-Con crowd. But a lot can change in 20 years. Comic-book cinema is now so mainstream that “summer blockbuster” is synonymous with “superhero movie”. It was finally time for Shyamalan to strike.
And he did. In total secrecy. When the sequel to Unbreakable released in cinemas worldwide last January, no-one outside the film’s inner circle had any idea that Blumhouse horror Split was in fact the secret second chapter in the Shyamalaverse, until a last-minute cameo by Bruce Willis set up a clash of the titans between David Dunn and The Horde. Even Split’s above-the-title star signed on oblivious to Shyamalan’s masterplan. “It wasn’t until we were three or four days into rehearsal that I picked up that this was part of a bigger
‘Everyone really had a feeling of wow, we're doing something that's never been done before’ anya taylor-Joy
world,” says James McAvoy, talking to TF from his trailer on the set of It: Chapter 2. “I thought, ‘Is this part of Unbreakable? That would be crazy.’” McAvoy’s co-star Anya Taylor-Joy didn’t find out until Shyamalan let her in on the surprise minutes before the film’s Fantastic Fest premiere. “Everyone really had a feeling,” says Taylor-Joy, eyes widening, “of wow, we’re doing something that’s never been done before, a secret trilogy that Night kept in his head.”
Incredibly, even Universal, the studio that bankrolled Split, didn’t find out they’d made a sequel to a Disney movie until Shyamalan screened the film for executives. “At the end it happens, and they lose their minds,” says Shyamalan, regaling TF during a trip to London in late October. “They’re like, ‘You can’t do that. You can’t use this character from Disney.’ And I’m like, ‘I already talked to Disney, they already said OK. We’re all good.’ They were just stunned.” Shyamalan’s gambit worked on one proviso: Disney and Universal would share the spoils of crossover sequel Glass, Universal releasing the film domestically, Disney globally. It put Shyamalan in a compromising position.
“I wasn’t sure that this was going to work,” Shyamalan admits, “I was like, ‘This is the one time I’m writing something that I need these actors to say yes, and I need the studio to say yes.’ I’m very, very lucky.”
Luck wasn’t part of the equation when it came to re-enlisting Bruce Willis. Shyamalan and his leading man “developed a friendship and high level of trust” during the making of The Sixth Sense, a relationship that has held fast for 20 years. “When [Night] told me that he had an idea for a script for me, which was Unbreakable, I immediately said ‘OK, I’m in’. I didn’t even know what the subject matter was going to be,” says Willis, who also agreed to cameo in Split as a favour to Shyamalan. “Similarly, when he approached me about Glass,
I agreed immediately, I didn’t have to read the script.”
Willis wasn’t the only one who signed on, script unseen. American Horror/Crime Story star Sarah Paulson agreed to play the film’s most significant new character – psychiatrist Dr. Ellie Staple – with “no idea” what she was signing up for. “That’s how willing I was to do it,” says an impassioned Paulson, who cites Unbreakable as one of her favourite films. “When he finally called me and said, ‘I want you to do the movie,’ I burst into tears. For all I knew, I was bursting into tears about a movie I was going to have one scene in!”
Secrecy is par for the course when it comes to Shyamalan, but today the staunchly cagey storyteller has flown into London to show TF the opening 22 minutes of Glass. It’s what he calls the film’s “James Bond prologue”, only his version of 007 “jumping out of a plane” is a countdown to a quartet of cheerleaders being devoured by a man who can take two point-blank shotgun blasts to the chest and survive. Across Philadelphia, David Dunn is still serving up vigilante justice in a raincoat, but now he owns a security business with his son Joseph (Spencer Treat Clarke), who serves as the tech-savvy Oracle to David’s luddite Batman. Joseph imparts two important bits of information: the press have taken to calling David’s heroic alter-ego ‘The Overseer’ (“Do not mention the ‘The Tip-Toe Man’ ever again,” asserts Dunn) and that he has a “tenuous theory” as to where The Horde has taken the missing girls. The next day, Dunn tracks the girls to an abandoned factory, but before he can get them out, The Beast makes his entrance…
By his own admission, Shyamalan is no action director (it’s no coincidence that The Last Airbender and After Earth are his biggest misfires), which is why he’s taking a different approach to the
‘THE WHOLE PREMISE OF THE MOVIE IS: WHAT IF MARVEL WAS REAL? WHAT ARE WE CAPABLE OF?’ M. NIGHT SHYAMALAN
super-powered punch-ups in Glass.
“I tend to look at it as dialogue,” Shyamalan explains. “It can’t be: ‘I hit you then you hit me.’ I don’t know how to begin to shoot that. But I can do: ‘I am stronger than you,’ and then, ‘You’re as strong as me? I didn’t know that you existed.’” Needless to say, you haven’t seen anything quite like the (first) fight between David Dunn and The Beast in a decade of Marvel dust-ups. With The Beast the unstoppable force to Dunn’s unbreakable object, the two reach a stalemate, one that’s broken with a flash of light. The Beast falls to his knees, but it’s Barry whose voice is heard next, another of the 24 personalities residing in the body of dissociative identity disorder sufferer Kevin Wendell Crumb. “Don’t shoot! We can work through this. What’s happening?!” Stationed behind giant floodlights are a dozen armed officers and Dr. Ellie Staple. She’s here to commit David and The Horde to her institution, and they’re not the only ones in her care…
Shyamalan first had the idea for Split during the making of Unbreakable, when he cut the character of Kevin Wendell Crumb from the unwieldy script, replacing Crumb with the Orange Suit Man. He also knew the planned third chapter of the ‘Eastrail 177 trilogy’ (named for the train crash caused by Elijah Price, that Dunn survived without a scratch) would involve bringing all three together for a final showdown, but it wasn’t until the writing of Split that he hit on the perfect setting for a story about “belief versus fate”.
“What you’re going to see after the 22 minutes is that basically the movie takes place in a contained One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest atmosphere where all of these things are talked about,” explains Shyamalan, who shot the film in a real abandoned asylum. “The whole premise of the movie is: ‘What if Marvel was real? What are we capable of?’ Kevin’s condition, DID, which I think is the craziest thing, is that an example of a superhero?”
But there’s a reason the film is named after Unbreakable’s enigmatic villain – a man whose mind is as sharp as his body is frail thanks to the osteogenesis imperfecta that has left his bones brittle. “The first one is the origin story of David, and the next one is the origin story of Kevin. This one, to some extent, is focused on Mr. Glass and: what does all this mean for Elijah, and his belief system?” reveals Shyamalan, who almost called the film The Theory Of Elijah Price, before settling on Glass for “metaphoric” reasons. “His beliefs are always called into question,” adds Jackson. “He’s been put in this particular place, and locked up for 18 years. He’s had time to refine his ideas, he just needed a way to implement them. And, all of a sudden, he’s given the opportunity.”
While Staple’s job is “essentially, to try to convince us that we’re in a defective mental state”, according to Jackson, Paulson claims that her character is no Nurse Ratched, but that she has an “enormous capacity for empathy”. Part of the therapy she