With almost $3.5 billion in worldwide box office and two Oscar nominations to his name, M. Night Shyamalan has accomplished great things on the big screen, but rather than rest on his feature laurels, he decided to executive produce and serve as showrunner on the Apple TV+ series Servant, created by Tony Basgallop. Four seasons later, the series is still going strong, as Shyamalan has split his time between his TV duties and his two most recent films, 2021’s Old and the upcoming thriller Knock at the Cabin.
Servant began simply enough as a show about Nell Tiger Free‘s Leanne Grayson being invited into the home of Toby Kebbell and Lauren Ambrose’s Sean and Dorothy Turner to care for their baby son, Jericho, but that initial idea has led the show into a highly unexpected direction. Season 4 begins with everyone still dealing with the repercussions of the Season 3 finale, while others show up to retrieve Leanne from the Turner home. It leads to some spectacular set pieces, including an homage to Hitchcock‘s The Birds in the season opener.
Shyamalan has been tougher to talk to in recent years, given that he’s been so busy with Servant while continuing to make movies, but he’s been getting assistance from some familiar faces — his daughters Ishana Shyamalan, who has gone from directing a few episodes of Servant to writing episodes of her own and co-producing the overall series, and Saleka Shyamalan, who has contributed a number of songs to the show, as she did for Old, on which Ishana directed 2nd Unit.
Above the Line hopped on Zoom with Night a few weeks back to talk about how Servant has evolved as its final season prepares to unfold.
Above the Line: It’s been a little over three years since you debuted Servant at New York Comic-Con, and the show is now entering its fourth and final season. Did you and Tony have a long-term game plan for where this series could go once you started working on it?
M. Night Shyamalan: One of the things that was important to me, especially, was that we come to an end — that we know that this is not an open-ended thing [and] that we’re going to finish this story. Structure is the most important to me, and I can’t have a structure with the audience unless I know exactly where the ending is. Now, when we started, we didn’t really know where we were going. It was in that beautiful phase of almost the writing phase of, like, “I’m writing because I want to know what happens to the characters.”
That’s what I think motivated Tony a lot — what happens to the characters? Those early episodes in that first season were that, but as we turned in the second season, the conversations with the other writers and everyone involved turned into, ‘Alright, now that we know the characters so well, and we know the situation, where’s the end of this?’ and starting to imagine the end and then working backward to where we are. We had an interesting pause because of the pandemic, and in that pause, I was able to work out that architecture.
ATL: I’m really impressed by the evolution of Leanne as a character, and especially Nell’s performance. Leanne’s journey is going in so many unexpected directions, so how did you know that Nell could pull off everything that you had planned for Leanne down the line?
Shyamalan: That’s a great question, Ed. [Nell] was 19 — maybe even 18 — when I auditioned her, so this was a child, and [when] you’re meeting these 18-year-olds, you’re guessing. I’m looking for some [indescribable] quality. When I hired Anya [Taylor-Joy, for Split], I think she was also 19 at the time. You’re looking for a quality that may or may not grow into something formidable. With Nell, her depth of being able to deal with emotions, her dedication to her craft, and her openness as a human being, really brought who we wanted to the table. She’s such a lovely person, and hopefully, will always be a part of our family.
ATL: You’ve done television before [Wayward Pines], but you’re one of the pioneers when it comes to doing stuff for Apple TV+. How is it working in streaming where you don’t have to worry about the MPA or television ratings? I’m sure it gives you a lot more freedom, but are you still trying to make the show accessible to wider audiences?
Shyamalan: Oh, no, this has been the ideal experience. I own the show and Apple has been the most incredible partner. They’re so supportive and [have] really given me the freedom, and when they have some thoughts, they’re very respectful. It’s just been the ideal experience, and the audience has grown and grown and grown [with] each season because of that kind of ideal atmosphere for the artists.
[The] first time I did television was a very different experience, in that it was more of a traditional TV network situation that’s going season to season, and there are a lot of people involved, and a lot of opinions. “You can’t do this, you can’t hire [them],” and all of those things. I don’t want to say, ‘Hey, these guys would be great as the head writers,’ and get a “no” when I know that’s the wrong decision.
And now, with Servant, I’ve been able to hire everyone I want, give them freedom, [and] give them a chance to fail safely and then recover and find their strength and become these formidable storytellers. It has just been an ideal experience, and I think one that gives Servant just a little bit of specificity because the voices are so new and allowed to have their freedom.
ATL: One of my favorite things about the show is the fact that your daughter, Ishana, is now a writer, director, and producer, and you even have her doing 2nd unit on your movies. I remember meeting your daughters when you were showing them an early cut of Lady in the Water, and you allowed some press to sit in. She’s doing such great work and that third episode of the new season is so fantastic.
Shyamalan: I know. At the end of Servant, she is our main storyteller. She has directed the most episodes. She wrote the most episodes. She’s just something else. I don’t know how we would have done this. It morphed from me doing this alone to me doing this show with Ishana, and then my oldest daughter [Saleka] has done some of the songs in the show, so there’s been a real evolution of our family during the [Servant] experience of these [past] five years.
ATL: One thing I liked about the Season 4 episodes I’ve seen so far — and I’m not sure if it was intentional or not — but you seem to be going for some sort of Ten Commandments motif.
Shyamalan: You mean because of the 10 episodes?
ATL: Well, there are birds in the first episode, bedbugs in the second — I guess it’s kind of like the 10 plagues.
Shyamalan: Oh, yeah, that’s intentional. The idea is a biblical war is taking place on Spruce Street in Philadelphia, so how do you show that in a brownstone? I find that juxtaposition very funny.
ATL: I had a chance to talk with Trevor Gureickis, your composer, and with your production designer as well. I was quite impressed by how you barely stopped during the pandemic, to the point where you’ve done three full seasons since the pandemic began. How did you manage to create a strategy that has worked so well?
Shyamalan: It’s funny you bring that up because that is an astonishing fact — that we never stopped. We ended up delivering the show, year after year after year, and we didn’t stop. It was very, very tricky, as any production is in COVID, but to not miss a beat was, in retrospect, a little bit miraculous. It’s partly because we had a contained set and very [few] actors. The part that we needed to protect was very contained, and everyone abided by our rules here. Because I’m the studio on this, I think they took it very personally to protect themselves. We got very lucky; we threaded a needle.
ATL: And you made two movies in that time also, so your super-humanness is on full display. That’s a whole other thing as well.
Shyamalan: I do think because I tack towards contained material, it’s very COVID-friendly because it isn’t thousands of extras — that’s not what I do. It’s usually play-like.
ATL: Now that you’re finishing up with Servant, do you think you’ll do more television in the future? What’s your plan after finishing up your next theatrical release, Knock at the Cabin?
Shyamalan: I’ll be looking. It’s a very demanding format. I’m not sure how to do this again, where I’m making every single decision. That’s a hard one. But you never know. A story will come over my desk or I’ll get a story idea in my head, and off to the races we go. It’s been such a rewarding experience, Servant, from the beginning, and honestly, I’m not just saying that. As an artist [and] a human being, there are so many things I’m grateful for. Maybe there’ll be another opportunity like that in the future. I’m very careful to not make decisions based on opportunity alone. I’m very suspicious of that inside of me, and [I] say “no” a lot because of that. I also know [my] own cowardice can come up in that by saying, “No, no, no,” then I don’t have to [take any] risk myself, either. It’s a fine line of understanding why you’re making the decisions that you make.
ATL: I know from talking to Trevor that you also spot all the cues for the episodes yourself, and you’re not like an executive producer who disappears or just shows up every once in a while.
Shyamalan: No, I’m all in. In fact, it’s the reverse. The others that are working on the show have to keep up. They’ll be like, ‘You already spotted that? You did that? You did the mix and the edit, you recut it already?’ On and on and on constantly. No, working with Trevor, I love that guy. Where you know, “Hey, I wish the violin came in here. That theme, can you do it with a horn this time, as her character changes into this type of person? We can maybe revisit that melody that you had in episode blah-blah-blah…” This is all we do all day long.
Season 4 of Servant begins streaming on Friday, Jan. 13 on Apple TV+, where new episodes will be released every Friday. Look for our interview with the show’s star, Toby Kebbell, very soon.