Apple TV+’s Servant may not have arrived in early 2020 with the fanfare and saturation marketing campaign of new streaming service tentpoles like The Morning Show or The Mandalorian, but it quickly earned a reputation among both genre fans and peak TV aficionados as a creepily effective slow burn. The series’ hook was brilliantly bonkers, and felt vintage M. Night Shyamalan, the horror director who serves as executive producer: When well-to-do Philadelphia couple the Turners (Lauren Ambrose and Toby Kebbell) tragically lose their baby, Dorothy turns to an uncannily realistic therapy doll to cope, losing herself in the idea that her son never died. When the doll appears one day to mysteriously come to life, well, s—t gets weird.
And that’s not to mention mysterious young nanny, Leanne (Nell Tiger-Free), who arrives in the home armed with an unhealthy obsession with Jericho’s increasingly unhinged mommy.
This being a Shyamalan production, there were twists aplenty as the first season – entirely confined to the Turners’ lavishly and tastefully appointed Philly brownstone – unfolded, its world expanding and mystery deepening. And in season 2, the twists keep coming, as the focus moves from the mystery doll to a mystery cult, the search to find them and to understand why they seem so determined to destroy the Turners.
Ahead of the series’ return to Apple TV+, we spoke to Shyamalan about this darker – and surprisingly funnier – new season, how he recruited an Avengers-style roster of international horror directors to steer the series, and what drew him to his next hugely anticipated theatrical release, Old.
(Photo by © Apple TV+)
Joel Meares for Rotten Tomatoes: Congratulations on the series. I’ve seen the first seven episodes of the new season, and I think it’s just as gripping as the first season. It struck me while watching that season 1 had this incredible hook and this great visual of Jericho, this doll, which was just inherently creepy. But with this season, we see less of Jericho, so you can’t rely on him to unnerve us. What was your approach to keeping the tension and the creepiness at the same level for season 2 when we had less of that baby?
M. Night Shyamalan: Well, the first season was about what happened to Jericho and that was the mystery. And the second season is: What is this cult – and who are they? And when I’m talking to the writers and the directors, I’m trying to keep these movements in each season and this idea of the cult. There’s a kind of almost Strangers quality, of people outside the brownstone and coming in, [and that’s] the new threat. And it’s definitely threatening.
This brownstone is such a character. We don’t ever really leave, but we do see a bit more of it, including the attic, which is a setting for a lot of the action, and it appears increasingly to rot and be dilapidated. Are we going to keep seeing more and more of this house as the seasons go on? And is it going to continue to decay as time goes by?
Shyamalan: The answer is yes and yes, to both of those. This season, the idea was to keep expanding on the house. And in the second season, you get to see an area of the house that you never saw before. In the episode that I directed, episode four, Dorothy goes to a door that you didn’t even know what it was [before]. She unlocks it, opens it up, and you go into an area of the house that you’ve never seen before, [and which] becomes a very important part of the storytelling for the show.
The aspiration is that with each season I’ll keep expanding what we’re calling “the home,” and even the idea of, like, I will allow you to go out the front door and on the block of Spruce Street, to the corner, even, but you can’t lose sight of the house. I’ll have rules like that in my head, that you have to stay tethered to this location.
(Photo by © Apple TV+)
Are those instructions in the show bible, that you must stay connected to the house?
Shyamalan: Yeah, absolutely; in fact, one of the directors had story-boarded some shots without [the non-house location] being on the iPhone and said, “Hey, I’m going to do this whole scene from the character’s point of view in another location.” And I was like, “Can’t do that.” And they were like, “What?” And I was like, “Can’t do that.” And they were like, “What? Why?” And I said, “Can’t be in another location. Only through the device. So, you have to redo it through the device.”
You get very clever with the devices in this season. I loved the ep with what I’ll call Pizzagate, or the pizza heist [episode 3, “Pizza”]. Are you looking forward to exploring technology even further? I think you described the approach you take in the series as seeing the world through a straw, getting us out a little bit more and sort of bringing in that outside world, but limiting our perspective.
Shyamalan: Yeah. I mean, that episode, which my daughter directed, was one where we really went genre with the camera. And so, you kind of had, within this super-formalistic shooting of our brownstone, you had this kind of handheld horror movie inside the television. Besides that use of it, I try to encourage the directors to go to big vistas and shoot them through various … this straw-like thing, so that the audience feels this kind of peeking quality of the world outside. And I’m going to keep trying to encourage the directors and the writers to think of great cinematic places to go to that we can only see through these devices. Like stadiums and cemeteries and things like that.
(Photo by © Apple TV+)
That’s exciting to think about what’s coming up. The episode you directed this season, episode 4, is the most bats–t in many ways, because Dorothy goes up another level. You’re watching it and you’re sort of like, “Oh, I see Wes Craven, and oh, I see Rosemary’s Baby.” It feels like you were having a lot of fun with all of these genre influences. What was it like to shoot that episode and what was informing your approach there?
Shyamalan: Well, I knew I wanted to shoot one of the earlier episodes, because before COVID and everything, I was planning to go do the movie [Universal’s Old] right after the show, and I needed to prep for the movie. So I said, “I can do one of the first four or five episodes.” And then when we came up with this episode of kind of what … I don’t want to give it away, but this super-dark episode with Dorothy, and I was like, “Well, I definitely want to do that one. That one’s really shocking and dark and that’ll be super-fun for me to do.”
The fun part is I’m just cherry-picking the episodes with my schedule that I feel that I can do. And the first season, I mean, I was only supposed to do the pilot, but I’ve just enjoyed this so much that I keep jumping in and saying, “Can I direct another episode? I’ll direct that episode.” It’s been fun jumping in and Apple’s been excited when I’m like, “You know what? I’m dying. I want to do this other episode again.”
And in your episode, as mentioned, Dorothy comes more undone and Lauren gives an incredible performance, really takes it up another level. What was it like working with her in this season, where she got to explore an even more hysterical side of her character?
Shyamalan: In the episodes that I’ve directed I’ve tried to be there for her when she’s doing very, very challenging moments for her character. So, episode nine from first season and episode four from the second season, where they’re very, very challenging performances. She’s loves it, Lauren, you can ask her to do anything. I mean, Nell calls her the GOAT, because she’s so amazing every time she performs. And we feel we can write anything for her, and she can do it with veracity and uniqueness. She’s just an acrobat, so I love it. We were super-lucky to get her to be the lead.
(Photo by © Apple TV+)
One of the other great women you worked with this season is director Julia Ducournau, who made the acclaimed 2016 horror film Raw. Were you a big fan of Raw?
Shyamalan: I saw Raw before it was released. Universal got me a print of it and said, “You’re going to love this. You should check this movie out.” And I saw it, and I fell in love. And then when I went to France to promote whatever movie I was promoting that year, I called her and said, “Come to the premiere. I want to talk to you.” And she came, she was so sweet. And I said, “Look, I’m going to be doing the show. Would you come and direct an episode for me?” And she was sweet, and she said no at first. She said, “I have to do my movies” and this and that. And I came back again the following year, and I said, “Please, can you come and do a few episodes? Please, please, please.” And she finally said yes and came. And we were so lucky.
It’s been one of the great aspects of the show, for me, to go see movies around the world, bring international storytellers. It so happens that we have a lot of female directors on this show. Seven of the 10 episodes [in season 2] were directed by women, and that’s not an agenda. It’s just who I like, the storytelling. And so, it’s been great. And there are such strong female characters on the show. I’m glad they’re represented by these storytellers. Lisa Brühlmann came and has directed for us multiple times in multiple seasons; I saw her movie, Blue My Mind. And then Isabella Eklöf, whose movie Holiday I saw. She’ done a few episodes. And right now, I’m watching movies for season 3 and seeing what came out at this film festival, what came out of that film festival? And I’ve just been really lucky.
One aspect the series that gets a lot of attention is the food, and there’s some great food in this season – fans won’t be disappointed. There’s also some great wine. OK, a lot. What is the significance of everyone drinking so much and also drinking so well?
Shyamalan: I think the decadence is part of the joy of the show, that this is a very wealthy, posh family who wear certain clothes and have parties and drink great wine, and have these extravagant meals. And they’ll do anything but have the conversations that they should be having. They kind of hide in the decadence of everything, and it’s beautiful for cinema. It helps with the mania. They’re spinning and spinning and spinning in this world of materialism, but really, they’re missing something, and they’re not having the conversation about what they’re missing.
There’s a scene in which Sean, who’s a chef, would rather make some century eggs than talk things through.
That’s quite a funny moment – I laughed out loud when he presented this tomato soup-eating, sheltered young woman with these century eggs. But there is also a lot more humor generally in this season. There’s almost like a Weekend at Bernie’s scenario in one episode! Did you go in with an intention to elevate the humor?
Shyamalan: I just enjoy humor, and I’ve been [leaning into it] since I made The Visit. The Visit was kind of my, “Hey, look, I’m just going to have fun from here on out and just make people laugh and make myself laugh.” And so, I’ve incorporated humor, dark humor, into these thrillers that I’ve been making in the movie theaters. And I really wanted it to be a part of Servant‘s storytelling as well.
Right. So your next theatrical project, which you’ve mentioned you were shooting, and which the Rotten Tomatoes fans are super-excited about, is Old. And I know you’re probably not going to tell me too much about it, but you’ve said you were given the graphic novel on which it is based for Father’s Day, right? What was it that struck you about the source material and made you think this was that you wanted to tell or interpret?
Shyamalan: It’s the same as when I come up with an original idea that resonates. If I write an idea down in my notebook that keeps resonating and resonating, I’d say, “Oh, wow: Three girls get abducted by somebody with dissociative identity disorder, and they have to use the personalities against each other to get out.” That kept sitting with me and sitting with me in a really good way. This idea from the graphic novel sat with me in the same way. I finished it and my head was exploding with ideas for it. And so, I took that as, “Hey, man, that means I should tell this story.”
What genre does the film fall into for you, would you say?
Shyamalan: I would say … that’s a good question: science-fiction, thriller, horror.
(Photo by © Apple TV+)
That’s going to whet people’s appetites. You’re making that film with Universal, and they’re looking at new release strategies moving into the new year which could see theatrical release windows shrink for certain movies. That’s been a huge topic of industry conversation. Obviously, you’re making Servant for television, but you’re making films for theaters too. Do you hold to the idea that you want your theatrical films to be seen on the big screen?
Shyamalan: Oh, yeah. I mean, I’m as dogmatic about this as anyone on the planet. I make movies for movie theaters. That’s where they’re going to play. That’s where they’re going to be seen. That’s the art form that I do that in, and there’s no conversation about that.
When the theaters open back up, we’ll start telling stories to a collective group. I think it’s really important that we have art forms that we experience together — concerts and plays and movies — that we have our emotional experience affected by the people that are in the room with us. So, when you watch a movie with a group of teenage girls, you will have a different perspective about the humor and the movement and the pacing. You add somebody who’s 60 years old over there and then you’re having a slightly different perspective. Or a group of people that are Asian or African-American… everything is affecting me. And I’m now having a collective experience about those things that are universal, that are affecting all of us. And each of us is pulling at each other in this tapestry of emotion, and we’re giving a little bit of me to them and them to me. And we do it all like that unconsciously. And that’s the art form that you watch. So that for me is a non-starter.
When it’s safe to go back to the movie theaters, we’ll all tell stories that way. And we can tell stories for the streamers this way, which is a different type of art form that I’m enjoying as well.
Finally, you’ve previously mentioned you planned for Servant to be 60 episodes across six seasons. For now, with the just-announced third season, you’ve got 30 locked in. Is the vision still for 60 episodes?
Shyamalan: When I first started, I thought it was going to be six seasons. And I picked that number because it was an arbitrary number, where I thought, It’s not too long and it’s not too short. I can have a time and a commitment with the audience. But as I started to play it out, two things changed: One was the playing field changed a bit. There wasn’t that many streamers, there wasn’t that many places that were doing what we’re doing. Now there’s dozens. There’ll be more and more and more. And I think that the challenge for us to get everybody’s attention for that long has changed.
I also didn’t realize I was going to be so involved with this show. I thought I was going to write the pilot and kind of supervise things, but really, I’m putting every sound effect in myself. I’m talking to the composer. (Right after this, I’m going to go up and talk to the composer. I just came from the writer’s room before this to talk about season 3.) I mean, I’m doing everything. I don’t think I can do it at this level for six years.
Then what happened during the pandemic is I worked it all out. I just started writing out, “Well, how about an episode like this? How about this happens here? How about the end of this season, this happens here?” And it laid out to 40 episodes. So it ended up being a 40-chapter story, and we’re super-lucky that 30 of them are definitely going to get made. And I’m hoping if we do that at a super-high level, that we’ll get the chance to do the last 10.