M. Night Shyamalan: “Servant’ has meant reinvention and revitalization in my career”

The worst drama imaginable and paranoia, sects and supernatural forces shape the psychological terror that resides in a Philadelphia single-family home in Servantthe Apple TV+ series that this Friday opens its third season (with three chapters followed by one each week until completing the 10 of the season). When the technology giant’s television platform had not been running for even a month, the first installment of a story that came with the filmmaker’s signature was released in 2019 M.Night Shyamalan (Mahé, India, 51 years old), executive producer and director of several of its episodes.

The tragedy of a couple is the starting point. After her baby died a few months old, the mother (Lauren Ambrose, two meters underground) took refuge in denial and in the belief that a doll was his son. The closest family decides not to deceive him to avoid suffering and they hire a babysitter (Nell Tiger Free, Game of Thrones). The arrival of the young woman at home is accompanied by a series of inexplicable events to which her husband (Toby Kebbell, Black Mirror) and the mother’s brother (Rupert Grint, Harry Potter) will try to find an increasingly convoluted explanation.

Terror, drama, suspense, black comedy and script twists go hand in hand in this proposal that with a setting —the couple’s house— and four characters —the married couple, her brother and the nanny— cooks up a disturbing and claustrophobic in which the plot is cooked at a slow pace. “The third season was the opportunity for the story to be more physical, more terrifying, to turn towards the genre. A lot of my movies have that format, they start out as a drama, then they turn into a mystery, then they turn into a thriller and then in a thriller supernatural”, he explains about the new installment M.Night Shyamalan in a video call interview from Philadelphia.

Lauren Ambrose, Rupert Grint, Nell Tiger Free and Toby Kebbell, in the third season of ‘Servant’.

The new chapters start three months after the end of the previous batch and focus on Leanne, the young nanny related to a disturbing sect (forgive the redundancy). When life seems to have returned to normal for the family, she becomes obsessed with a danger that seems more in her head than based on fact. She comes to be afraid to go out, an almost paranoid attitude that seems to connect with the current pandemic. “Actually, I am always paranoid and I always write stories about isolation and people who are trapped and are afraid of something or afraid of other people. Now it seems like all my movies and my stories have been written for the pandemic,” Shyamalan says.

the terror of Servant it’s claustrophobic. Almost all of the action takes place in the large but dark and almost sinister home of the Turners, which, far from being a complication for Shyamalan as a director, is an advantage. “The normal thing in my films has been to draw the storyboards [ilustraciones que recrean el guion] and then build the sets. Here it has been the opposite, we had the place and the directors could come, walk through the house and think about the plans and how they would shoot them. Everyone could preview the narration. The limitation of always being at home turns around and becomes a great asset”, the director details enthusiastically.

Toby Kebbell and Nell Tiger Free, in the second episode of the third season of 'Servant'.
Toby Kebbell and Nell Tiger Free, in the second episode of the third season of ‘Servant’.

This is Shyamalan’s second experience on television. From his first foray as a producer on the small screen, Wayward Pines (two seasons between 2015 and 2016 on Fox), does not seem to keep a great memory. “We never got to finish the series. It was being recorded in Vancouver, a long way from my home, and I couldn’t handle it like I would have liked. Servant, however, it is recorded literally 24 minutes from my house, so I am here for any question, I go to the set, I can be there for everyone who needs me and everyone knows where I am… That time, when I said ‘I love that person to do that’, it wasn’t enough to hire him. This time I say ‘she’s going to do this’ and she does it”.

After that initial contact with television, the director of The sixth Sense he preferred to stay away from the middle. “I’ve been saying no to everything, and the reason I said yes this time is because of the emotional drive behind this story of a mother whose son has died and even though she was the cause, she doesn’t remember what happened. That is so powerful and so sad that you could tell infinite stories from there with the fear that he will remember it. Another reason for accepting was the original script that Tony wrote. [Basgallop, creador de la serie]with that strange tone, that black humor, that strangeness that I love”.

On several occasions, Shyamalan had stated that he imagined Servant as a story told in 40 episodes, with four seasons of 10 chapters (half an hour) each. On December 14, the day before this interview, the filmmaker himself announced on social networks that, indeed, Apple had granted their wish to reach a fourth and final installment. That 40-episode plan was visualized when the pandemic forced them to stop in the middle of the second season. “I was able to take a breath and imagine where we were going. Random thoughts started popping into my head, ‘I’d love an episode about this, we need this character to do that, what if this happened to him or her?’ I wrote it down and it reached 40 episodes. You can’t know where you’re going from the beginning, because you learn with the movement, the cadence of the story and the characters. But at a given moment you can ask yourself where you are going. Other executive producers go season by season. That also works, but I want to make sure that everything makes sense, it can’t seem like we’re adding things as we go, ”he explains about his work system.

Lauren Ambrose and Nell Tiger Free, in the first episode of the third season of 'Servant'.
Lauren Ambrose and Nell Tiger Free, in the first episode of the third season of ‘Servant’.

For Shyamalan, one advantage of being just one of many directors on a series is that he can distance himself from the play. “In my films, there is no separation, it’s all me, probably in a slightly unhealthy way. [ríe]. With Servant I have been able to have more distance and say ‘this works’ or ‘this doesn’t work, be careful with that”. In addition, the series has helped him to hire directors, editors and screenwriters who have later repeated with him in the cinema. Among them are his daughter Ishana, writer and director of several episodes of the second and third season and who has collaborated with her father on the movie Time.

This possibility of meeting and hiring new artists is the main reason that Shyamalan assures that Servant It has been a point of “reinvention and revitalization” in his career, a journey that has moved so far in the field of suspense and fantasy with titles such as The protégé, Multiple either signs. But, can you imagine giving a twist to the script, one of those house brands, and doing, for example, a family comedy? “When I was younger, I was more resistant to that idea, I was like ‘hey, my name means this and the audience has expectations.’ But now I don’t have as much opposition to that. I think I can include comedy in what I do, if I want music I put on music, if I want romance I put on romance… My work is constantly expanding what it means to see my name on the screen so that each time you think of a range of more and more colors when seeing it”, he concludes.

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M. Night Shyamalan: “Servant’ has meant reinvention and revitalization in my career”