M. Night Shyamalan on Creating a Biblical Story for "Servant"

When promoting his new Apple TV+ series "Servant" at New York Comic Con, M. Night Shyamalan stated that this project has been the most creatively satisfying of his entire career. Shyamalan is also equal parts flattered and disappointed when joining our press session when the table full of reporters tells him that they enjoyed binge-watching the addictive series.

"Oh no, I didn't want you to binge it but I guess you had to. That's not how I wanted you guys to watch it. Take your time with it, take your time."

Indeed, interviewing him about the show would be far more difficult to do without having seen the rich material and story play out on screen. It's a series full of biblical motifts, including the baby being named Jericho and the new live-in Nanny Leanne being very religious in her upbringing, among other things.

"The idea of telling an almost biblical story but to[ do it in a contemporary setting in one location, and you're interpreting everything, I love that, that idea that we're in one home and we're telling a biblical story. Even when we think about that, I think about Exorcist and that story of humanity's soul versus the Devil's playing out in a bedroom in Georgetown. It's super powerful to me, big stories told in a very small canvas. I like that tension of it. It evokes in you as a viewer to participate in the storytelling, which is what I most want, because if you participate then it's very personalised and it stays with you. What we don't want is that kind of entertainment that is distracting, distracting, distracting, and numbing almost. You watch a lot of entertainment to be numbed. The thing I'm hesitant about [with] the format of what we used to call television, I don't know what we're calling it anymore, is that it was meant to distract you from your life and just kind of you numb you a little bit as opposed to it [becoming] a part of you. Those characters and that feeling become a part of you. The hope is that we can do that with this show."

"Servant" is the first time M. Night Shyamalan has worked extensively on content produced for television. His other works have been films, though he did make a cameo appearance on the NBC series "This Is Us". "Servant" however, was always made for television.

"Tony and Jason came with the pilot and the idea. The original thing had the premise of, a woman lost a child and was doing this therapy with a doll and you learn that in the pilot. That was the thing that stayed and we went from there. [There was] a super powerful conceit and I felt immediately like, 'I want to know how this story ends.' I felt very, very compelled for her and justified any and all the mania that the character was going through. It was super tragic, but yes, it was a long-form story."

Shyamalan continues on to share about the experience of how they shopped the series to different networks and platforms before deciding on Apple TV+. "We had three episodes, the first three written out. I wasn't quite there yet in terms of... the balance of this long-form storytelling as opposed to making movies is, I can completely map it out before I go to a buyer, but not in this case. I knew roughly where I wanted to go but I didn't really understand it yet so when we went out to the buyers we actually had more of an anthology idea for it. Each season would be slightly different and [that] immediately changed once we started writing four and five. As soon as we sold it, essentially, it switched into the format that it is now. Now we've spent a year and some, talking about it and really diving into it and we figured out the end, essentially. Now we know the movement of the entire piece. It's funny, you just reminded me of that. I didn't even remember that when we went out it was very different. I tried to convey that to the buyers that, 'Hey, just give me a beat here. This is our set-up and I'm gonna figure out the end. Just true me on this. We're gonna get an ending. I'm not gonna vamp here.' I said that to every buyer, that we'll find that ending. We went out and ultimately chose Apple for a bunch of reasons. One was, I wanted to be the thing that helps define a place the way David Fincher got to define Netflix. Even now when I think of Netflix I think of House of Cards. Even now, you start to think of Stranger Things a bit but still the base is House of Cards. 'Oh, that's what Netflix means. That's what it's aesthetics are. There were shows before House of Cards but that's what ended up being the definition for them."

Another unique trait of "Servant" is the half-hour running time for each episode. There's always a great element of creative freedom with streaming platform programming since the episodes don't have to make needless cuts or additions to be overly precise in chasing a particular length. Both on and off streaming platforms, dramas typically lean towards having hour-length episodes. With "Servant" keeping things at a half hour, there is no needless filler in the entire season.

"I don't think I would have done it if it was an hour. It's too much content. It doesn't go with the philosophy of what I do and want to do for the rest of my career. It allowed me to even consider doing this long-form, the half hour, we can do thirty minutes especially if it's very limited locations. That sounds like just a fun little tidbit but it's not. If it was ten locations like a normal show or something, it's impossible to do it at the quality [I want]. I have no idea how they did Game of Thrones for as long as they did. I have no idea how they could manage that. I think they almost thought of it as different movies. Each had their lane, each of their characters and their world had it, so you're making four shows essentially or five shows and then editing them together. [It's] super hard and you need that blueprint from the books to keep you steady and all of those things. It's a hard proposition. The half hour is what made this even possible. I'm really excited about that format and that play-like quality of half an hour allows it to be one location cause if it was an hour in one location every episode it would start to become like, 'Wow, I'm feeling this is small or tedious,' that kind of thing."

The most mysterious character is Leanne, whose actions and origins aren't often explained to the other characters or even the audience. Nell Tiger Free admitted to not always knowing what was going on when playing the role, and Shyamalan notes that some of the choices she made were ones he decided to direct her away from based on what he wanted the character to be.

"As she's performing it I'm going, 'That's not right,' and then me figuring out and talking to her and saying, 'That's not right because I believe she is coming from X.' Again, I had a blurry version of it. In fact, what now is definitively the end was, 'Hey, what do you think about this idea?' It was more like a suggestion. 'Maybe she's... [gestures hand], and this is what becomes of her,' and then I went, 'No, not maybe.' You put an idea out there, cause when you're writing or something, you put it out there and you go, 'I have a crazy idea,' and you usually do it like this, 'Oh this is a bad version of it,' and then you do the idea and they go, 'Wait, that's not so bad,' and you go, 'Oh yeah, it isn't so bad,' but in case it's bad you [can] go, 'I told you it was a bad idea!' You just put it out there, the idea, and it sits and it has resonance and you go, 'Oh wait a minute, this is strong.' As I became more confident in where I knew she was gonna go, I could guide her in that. We reshot a bunch as we were going so one of the great things about owning the show is I just reshot everything. I would call out in the morning and go, 'We didn't get it and this is why. Bring everybody in,' and go, 'I believe this is what happened.' There's no failure. There was, 'We didn't get it because of X,' and we learned something new because of it. For me, it's critical. The half hour, being in the same location, I would go, 'Hey, can you guys give me the set for an hour? I want to do something on that previous episode.' Having the ability to admit that we were blurry because we didn't know, and to keep on orienting it that way and learning, listening to it and learning is great. If we're constantly chasing content just to get it done as fast as you can, we're not doing the audience any service that way."

Though most shows pose many questions in that will be answered by the season finale, "Servant" leaves far more of its questions unanswered.

"It's a balancing act of how to end the season and let you wait one year to get to continue it. I wanted you to learn something really specific and orient you at the end of season one that made you understand Leanne's trajectory, at least as much as I want you to know right at that moment but 'Wow, I thought I was only going down this road,' but it actually starts aiming you in this new direction. Each season, we want to do that in terms of getting to this finish line here. What I love about the format is, it's a humbling format between, I'm trying to get better at negative capacity. Do you know what that means? That's a psychological term which means your ability to be okay with uncertainty. That muscle, the more you can grow that the happier you'll be in life. As an artist, that's where your strength comes from because what ends up happening is as an artist or an athlete or anything, you start to squeeze that, especially success starts squeezing that. You're not as comfortable with, 'Hey, the next one may fail, the next idea may fail.' You start to try to protect yourself. You want to keep widening that as much as possible. The great thing about this format is, you have to learn that muscle. The other part that I haven't seen enough in this format is to have a discipline about, 'Hey, this is our ending.' We have to do the work now to get a sense of where the ending is so that we're not taking audiences this way, that way, and then betraying them as you do that and finding unmotivated reasons for them to do that 180 to get you back to this. When you see shows like Breaking Bad, you see the architecture of the movement from beginning to end, it makes sense and there's integrity to it. There's not many shows like that where you can go from beginning to end. You're learning both muscles, to do the architecture and to be open in the moment. As we're learning ourselves, we're listening to the characters. The best writing and the best artistry is where you're listening. Don't jam it. Listen. Why is it saying that? It wants her to be this. It wants the characters to go this way, even though you want it to go that way. Listen to it for a second and see where it wants to go.

The lead character Sean Turner (Toby Kebbell) experiences a recurring set of splinters that dig into various parts of his body. The show plays with the perception of whether there's a very practical explanation, some secret he's hiding perhaps, or if there's a supernatural force at play inflicting some sort of penance on him for his sins.

"The idea is, everything could be explained away. Is he just getting splinters cause the house is full of wood or is he now interpreting that as something biblical? Is that a plague of some kind? Is that something that's happening to him? It should always be on that line of, 'I can interpret it either way.' Sometimes the show will say, 'Absolutely supernatural!' and then it goes 'Wait a minute!' [and] you could explain it this way."

Shyamalan is hopeful that the audience will lean into this more proactive form of viewing that entails reflecting on the mysteries and interpreting everything with theories of their own.

"It's a healthier conversation. They say in art and even when I talk to the actors I'm like, if you just ask the right questions as an artist, as an actor, that's what we want. Don't give an answer, cause then it rings untrue. I'm sad. I have a loss. I don't know how to deal with this. Is there a God? Ask the question, properly, and I think it will resonate with us. In that same way, I hope we can get that balance right cause it's tricky."

Shyamalan not only acted as a producer of the series, but directed two of the episodes (1.01 and 1.09) as well. Shyamalan hopes to direct even more episodes in future seasons. "I really enjoyed directing [episode] nine, directing nine. That one, I was so excited. Every shot had movement, this kind of ticking clock feeling the entire time. It was fun to do."

The first three episodes of "Servant" will be available for streaming on Apple TV+ November 28.

Watch the extended cut of our video interview with M. Night Shyamalan here:


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