Everything You Need To Know About M. Night Shyamalan's "Servant"

Photo credit: Apple

M. Night Shyamalan is no stranger to Comic Cons. His first time attending one was for the tenth anniversary of "Unbreakable" and ever since, he has made several appearances at them to promote his various works. "We really embraced it. Whenever I do a film it's 'How do we show something at Comic Con?' It's always on my mind now. The irony of the Unbreakable story is, when I made Unbreakable I was like, 'Oh, I'm gonna make this movie about comic books.' The company that I made it for said, 'Well that's not a viable thing to do. That's just a small group of nerdy people.' This is literally a conversation [that happened]. 'So let's not say that there's anything to do with comic books when we sell the movie because it's so niche. No one's gonna see a movie about comic books heroes.' That was Disney."

The tides have turned significantly since then, as Disney now is the corporate overlord of the film industry and dominates the box office charts due in large part to their massive churn-out of superhero films. Shyamalan expresses an interest in genre material that dates back to his childhood, though he had to ensure that he didn't bring anything too graphic home since it would upset his conservative Indian parents. Even now as an adult, he will find himself shying away from including nudity in some of his films because he imagines how his mother would react to it.

Shyamalan has often been a misunderstood creator. The over-simplistic perception is that his works too often rely on plot twists or that they have a propensity for being esoteric. In actuality, he puts tremendous thought into creating works that respect the audience that will eventually consume it. "It's a big, big deal to me. Some of the things we're going to talk about [are] value systems, about story-telling, and what I've been able to use my position to do. I use it to leverage as much as I can to make sure that I am doing things that at least in my opinion are of the highest quality so that those individuals, there's an understanding that they're really getting something from me specifically and that I'm willing to take risks and I'm not chasing you. I'm respecting you guys. The big thing I say to the studios [is] 'The audience's EQ, their emotional intelligence, is off the charts. They're all together  and it's off the charts. They can feel that authenticity in a performance. They can feel it and that will translate to commerce on their sides so please trust me on that. You don't need to talk down to them.' I have that conversation all the time."

Shyamalan has previously forayed into television with his work on the FOX series "Wayward Pines" but is now set to return to it in an entirely way with the Apple TV+ series "Servant" (which he later reveals on this New York Comic Con panel will premiere on Thanksgiving, November 28).

"I've avoided this format. The great thing about the format is that it's a character-driven format. You come to watch week to week because you're connected to the characters and I love that. That's amazing, but the amount of content you have to deliver for the amount of time and amount of resources, the math, it just doesn't work. That's why on two hands you can count every show that has gone from beginning to end with the same quality. It's just a machine that keeps going. That was terrifying to me. Tony, who wrote the show, came up with an amazing premise which is [that] we're gonna do a half hour thriller. I went, 'That, we might be able to do at this level.' We were talking through [it] and in my head, we have a sense of the story, we know where it's gonna go. In my head, it's sixty episodes. That's where we're gonna get to here, and get you guys to this place, and finish this story. This is where everyone's coming from. For [the audience] that would be thirty episodes of Game of Thrones. That would be three seasons or less of Game of Thrones, that [would be] over six years. The other thing that's really important to me is I do a lot of contained stories. I do that for a lot of reasons I'd like to insinuate. It's very practical. It's something I can execute at a high level and not travel all over the world. The other thing that's really, really unique about the show is it never leaves one location. The entire show, all the time, is always in one location so it has this almost play-like quality to it. We got to concentrate on the performances, the writing, the cinematography and every shot is thought out. When our directors come in we talk about... my theory about cinema is, if you're gonna do a medium shot on a character you need to tell me why. Why is she feeling medium? Is he feeling medium? Is that what she's feeling? Then why is the other person, are they both feeling medium? Why do we even do this scene? Talk me through it. It's to evoke an understanding of, if the frame is dropping that makes you feel something. The frame rising has a different feeling. Which feeling are you going for? Are you thinking about that? Is that the right lens? Is it a twenty-seven? Is it a thirty-five or is it a fifty? They all have different senses, depth, and create different emotions. They say different things about what the characters are. What does this all mean? For me, I feel when you guys see an image from this show, you will sense all of that. That's what I was referencing, your EQ being off the charts, that you will go, 'That's ringing true to me. I'm seeing all the resonance in the choice of colours, the framing, the textures. I see her dress as this pattern and the wall has the opposite pattern. I see that without knowing it and I can feel that there's thought and depth there,' and that will cause a connection. At home, when someone's watching a show and they're typing on their computer and watching [without fully paying attention], I'm watching that happen and I'm wondering why that's happening. I want you unable to do something else because [of] that tension in every frame. [These are] the aspirations. I have to say when we finished the first season, it was really one of the most rewarding things I've ever done. It's just been a really beautiful thing. I hope when you guys get to see it, you'll appreciate it."

Shyamalan directed two of the episodes of the first season, all of which was shot in Philadelphia. The set was built in a warehouse near his office and the entire creative process was a collaborative one with his cast and crew. He even shares how much fun he had editing the show at his house. This commitment to authenticity is at the core of Shyamalan's process, believing that every artist will thrive when they are as specific as possible. Since Shyamalan grew up in Philadelphia, it's a natural choice to make the series be set there.

When casting for his projects, Shyamalan has a spiritual perspective about how he finds his actors. By concentrating on the specific vision he has for his characters, the right actors for the part seemingly appear exactly when he needs them. He cites James McAvoy as an example, sharing the story of McAvoy walking up to him at a Comic Con with a shaved head and Shyamalan immediately knowing this was who needed to play the lead in "Split". As for casting the four leads of "Servant," Shyamalan describes Lauren Ambrose's audition as a "lightning bolt" that set things on the right track for the rest of the casting process.

"Toby [Kebbell] auditioned and I was like, 'God, this guys feels like a revelation.' He's like the guy's guy but he's super sweet. This is exactly how we pictured him. Then Rupert from Harry Potter came in, literally guys, he is transcendent in the show. It's like a different human being. We've seen him as a child and when does that ever happen where you find yourself as an actor as an adult? We are so lucky. Everybody I just mentioned are incredible physical actors as you'll see when you watch this series because it's a contained piece, they're all very physical with the way they act. You'll see it in their language, the running up the stairs, and how they conduct themselves. Then of course, you're looking for a new colour that you haven't seen and then Nell walks in. Nell Tiger Free, again, I've gotten very lucky with Abigail Breslin, Bryce [Dallas Howard], and Haley [Joel Osment]. Nell walked in and against all this energy you have this very quiet kind of mysterious quality of someone who's discovering themselves in the world and that energy, the four of them, it's just unbelievable. I'm so lucky. Honestly, I feel like, I don't know how to express this enough, that's why I love filmmaking. I feel really, really grateful."

Shyamalan has always embraced a sense of mystery in not only the works of fiction he creates but also the way he approaches the marketing of his content. "I'm very much a scene-based marketeer in the sense that I want you to see the tones of the show. I don't want it to be commonised. I want you to see that it's different. That's what makes you stop tying. You look up because the rhythms are different. In this particular case, we were really, really lucky. A lot of places wanted to make this show. We decided to go with Apple and the reason we did is because I felt there was a connection between the aesthetics that we talked about and them as a company, their kind of minimalism, their pass at spirituality, all of that. Also, this was an opportunity to help define this, which was a really  exciting thing to me, to help define a place. This new movement in how you guys watch content, to me with the biggest company in the world, and there's 1.6 billion devices that Apple has, to have that kind of reach and to say, 'Hey, let's tell a long-form story with them,' that was really exciting. They really did give me the opportunity to just go make it."

Shyamalan premieres the complete "Servant" trailer he has put together with Apple, that won't be premiered to the public for a few more months, to the New York Comic Con audience. It confirms what the early teasers and taglines hinted at, which is that the married couple of Sean (Toby Kebbell) and Dorothy (Lauren Ambrose) have a doll infant as a form of therapy following the loss of their newborn son. Dorothy is the one that is in denial about the doll not being an actual baby, while Sean is simply trying to help his wife through this traumatic ordeal.

Following the trailer, the four actors and "Servant" writer Tony Basgallop join Shyamalan on stage to further discuss their work on the series. One of the unique facets of the show is that all of the episodes are written from a single writer, which ensures a greater consistency in the style and voice of the show's continuity and tone. For many of the actors, this trailer reveal is the first time they have seen any of the finished episodes.

"I watched some of the first episode just today," says Ambrose. "There was emotion and tribulation! It was super beautiful and lovely to see everyone's beautiful work. As actors we're so focused on the minute details of our characters it was so lovely to see the scope of the story and the masterful cinema that it was." Ambrose says that in approaching the project, there were many scripts to look at right from the onset. "It really felt like making a film." Ambrose plays a character she describes as "really tragic" but was excited about being able to work in a genre she had never done before and explore grief in general and the specific grief of her character. "She takes her grief and expresses it in the most bananas way. Of course, we're all denying death. This character, thanks to Tony, takes it to a whole other level."

Shyamalan elaborates on the premise being a couple that loses a child and embarks on using this fringe therapy to deal with the trauma and grief caused by this loss. This doll is an actual form of fringe therapy that exists in our world, but in the series Dorothy takes this therapy so far that she goes and hires a nanny for the doll. The premise is intended to be tragic while also being inappropriately funny. Shyamlan gives full credit to Basgallop for being able to infuse that dimension of humour into an otherwise serious, dramatic concept and to Toby Kebbell for being funny where it was appropriate.

"It was a lucky position I was put in cause I'm dealing with so a huge amount of grief and guilt," says Kebbell. "Then, I have this incredible partner-in-crime who's my brother-in-law, played by Rupert. I have these two great positions to play. I had this blessed opportunity. I'm sitting there learning all these practical things with Drew Turpine, who's a phenomenal cook who was cooking with us the whole time. I'm dealing with this beautiful performance with Lauren, then I get to crack lines with Rupert. Those days were like a breath of fresh air."

The food aspect is a key part of Kebbell's material, as his character Sean is a professional chef. "It's life. For Sean, it's everything, it's his entire life. He's become a head chef, he's opened restaurants, he's closed restaurants to start a family. Food is that thing where it brings families together, it keeps them bonded. The extravagance, the search for new fragrances... there's eating, then there's the gastronomic eating. For me, it's that bond."

Nell Tiger Free begins the series playing a mysterious, enigmatic character, Leanne the nanny. "I think for me it was definitely tough to work out when to retreat and give more. Naturally in front of the camera I tend to retreat quite a lot, which was useful in some aspects. She's quite closed, you can't quite figure her out for pretty much most of the series. She's always sort of a big question mark in the house. What is she? Who is she? Why is she here? That kind of lent itself to my acting in the start. Naturally, it was quite helpful to not do big stuff. It was very difficult for me, stepping into the new shoes and trying to figure her out."

Rupert Grint consistently gets a strong reaction from the New York Comic Con audience, due to the residual interest in him from spending the bulk of his childhood acting in the Harry Potter film series. Now he is set to unveil an entirely new character, Julian Pearce, whom Grint is full of praise for. "I love Julian. He's something I've never really played before. He's just so brash and outspoken. He's so much fun. He is someone who is quite good in a crisis. It always feels like he's one step ahead. It's really when he comes face to face with Leanne that you learn he's a quite wounded guy."

It's revealed that Shyamalan was previously in talks to direct one of the earlier Harry Potter films. He even visited the set and met Grint when he was still a child. Grint admits to having a vague memory of the encounter, while Shyamalan notes how remarkable it is to see him transformed into a man now acting in this series.

The "Servant" cast raves about the attention to detail of the set design and how immersive the filming experience felt as a result. "It felt like a film to me," says Ambrose. "The attention to detail, the wallpaper, the patterns, beautiful clothes, incredible apartment, the fact that we're all trapped in this one space. For me, the result as an actor is interesting because nothing is casual. Every single word is considered. Every single word has weight and matters. 'Pass the fork' doesn't mean 'pass the fork' at all, ever. That's one of the things he was constantly reminding us. It's easy to just think, 'Oh it really just says pass the fork, doesn't it?' We were always mining for what's underneath, what's happening, what's the tension, and what's the subtext. It was so fun to play."

"Servant" premieres on November 28 on Apple TV+.

Watch the full "Servant" panel from New York Comic Con here:


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