Don’t call it a comeback—M. Night Shyamalan is just doing what he does best. When The Last Airbender and After Earth struggled with critics and audiences, the Philadelphia-based director knew instinctively what to do. “I felt like I wanted to ignite the danger switch in me,” he recalls. “I wanted to tell myself, ‘You have no safety net.’” The result was The Visit, a found-footage horror in which two teenagers drop in on their folksy grandparents, only to find their lives in jeopardy. “I had the story of The Visit in my journal of ideas,” says Shyamalan. “I kind of guarded it as my creative secret weapon that I had. I was waiting to do it, because I knew I could do it very small. It was always burning a hole in my journal.”

As he worked out from his 1999 calling-card movie The Sixth Sense, Shyamalan’s strongest suit is surprise. “Part of what excites me as an artist is doing something different,” he says. “That’s what motivates me, but it’s also something that would draw someone to the movie theater. Their reasons are very distinct, and one of them is to see something they’ve never seen before. If they see the trailer, and they feel like, ‘I don’t know what this is, this is something new’—then that’s a weapon.”

After handling budgets north of $100 million, Shyamalan allowed himself just $5 million for The Visit. “I really didn’t ask anybody,” he says. “I just went and did it. There was no one to really dissuade me—I was already making the movie.” Would he recommend the DIY route to everyone? “Well,” he muses, “certainly it’s not wise to spend your own money. I wouldn’t recommend that to everybody—mortgaging your house—but it was done by my heroes. They put their money where their mouth was when they believed in something that was creatively outside the system.”

Universal

Shyamalan also believes that being comparatively broke was the palate-cleanser he needed. “When you’re paying for it yourself,” he says, “when you’ve left the system and you have very limited resources, the ideas and the solutions come from that. Your energy’s going exactly where it should be going. Let’s say you’re making a big studio movie. You need a location, so you decide to build a giant set, when really the answer was, ‘Don’t build it. Spend three more weeks location-scouting and find it.’ You would never take that option, because you had the resources to build it. The gun wasn’t to your head. But if it had been, you might have found something better.”

“When you fail,” he reasons, “you better be frickin’ honest with yourself that it didn’t work, figure out why, and fix it. It’s just that black and white.”

Working by himself, Shymalan was able to develop his own voice before taking the film to market. He explains, “What I’ve found is, because I like to do multiple genres in a movie, I need to experiment with them until I get the balance right—and until I do, you can’t see it. It feels clunky. When we first screened The Visit, the combination of humor and scares felt ridiculous. People would say, ‘What is this? Was I supposed to be scared or laughing?’ I was like, ‘Both.’ They were like, ‘Well, you can’t be laughing and be scared.’ But I think you can,” Shyamalan explains. “That feeling of— dark comedy terror? I don’t know what the word is for it. But I believed in it, and it took a while to get it right. I was very lucky that Universal saw it that way as well.”

Univesral

Luckily, Universal were also onside when Shyamalan delivered his follow-up, the multiple-personality thriller Split, starring James McAvoy. The film went on to make $275 million worldwide, which surprised even Shyamalan. “If I said to you, ‘I’m going to pitch you a movie, OK? It’s a movie about abduction, child molestation, there’s cannibalism, some very dark things happen,’ and then I said, ‘and it’s going to be a box-office phenomenon,’ you’d just be like, ‘What? That’s not possible.’ But taking that risk is what it’s about,” he says. “I’m saying, ‘I’m going to dig very deep, we’re going to go very dark, and then we’re going to come out of it. And after going that deep, and that dark, coming out again will feel like a rocket ship to people, emotionally.’”

As teased by the film’s playful coda, which saw the return of a familiar face from the director’s back catalogue, Shyamalan’s next film, Glass, will merge the world of Split with that of his 2000 hit Unbreakable. “I’m going to approach it the same way I approached The Visit and Split,” he promises, “with the same kind of philosophy—that this is the budget, I’m going to fund it, and we’re going to make it for that number. If we can’t afford it, then I can’t use that person, or I have to rewrite that scene. Just put those limits on myself, and for a reason—to come up with a type of film that, in its genetics, feels like it is ideas-driven and not money-driven.”