In Conversation: M. Night Shyamalan on “Servant,” “Old,” and Adapting to Change
The Apple TV+ series and forthcoming feature prove that the director/writer still has many scary tricks up his sleeve.
Going back to his earliest successes, such as The Sixth Sense, Unbreakable, and Signs, producer, director, and writer M. Night Shyamalan has always used fear and suspense as his principle tools in which to tell hauntingly emotional—or emotionally haunting—stories of his own, and strictly his own, imagining. In the last decade, however, with productions such as Devil and more intimate/interior films like The Visit and Unbreakable sequels Split and Glass, Shyamalan has begun to work smaller and scarier.
Little, though, has been scarier and more intimate than the provocative, twisted family tale of Servant on Apple TV +. For his first-ever television series, Shyamalan has not only expanded his fearful vision into something serial-like and episodic, the auteur has also allowed other writers and directors to share and work within his furry field of vision. Season two of Servant unleashes its bleak, beyond-Lynchian vision on the world, starting January 15, with a third season already in the writing stages.
When catching up with him at his home office and studio facility outside of Philadelphia—the place where he’s lived for fifty years and filmed his most scintillating, thought-provoking spook-fests—Shyamalan has just arrived home from the Dominican Republic where he filmed his next-to-be-released big screen endeavor, Old.
Below, Shyamalan talks about adapting—not only to filmmaking in a post-COVID world, but also to working in TV, filming outside his native Philadelphia, and making room for others in his auteurist vision.
You’ve spent your personal and cinematic life in Philadelphia and the Penn Valley area you were raised in so as to maintain a sense of normalcy. You just came back from making your first film away from home—how was that?
It’s been a long time coming to shoot a film away from home. The source material is a graphic novel, I got it two years ago. After I decided to buy it, I sat my family down and had a conversation. “There’s this movie I want to make, but I can’t shoot it in Philadelphia, near home. It’s going to be a little bit of a new experience for us as a family.” I’ve really been unwilling to break some of the codes that we’ve had as a family before this. For my whole career, I’ve never left them for more than a week or so.
We’ve had a very normal life, even though my kids have seen their father on TV. I’m there for dinner. I’m there on the weekends. I’m there all the time. I’m very entwined with their life, so filming abroad for an extended period of time would be an unusual step. We talked about this way in advance, and were prepared. Even so, it was unmooring to not be home and sleeping in my own bed. The smallest things like coming back to my hotel room were weird—you felt unconnected to your source. That whole experience was different, too, because of the COVID atmosphere of it all. That added to the strangeness and intimacy of what we were doing. Especially considering the movie that we were making—it’s a very emotional movie.
“I’ve really been unwilling to break some of the codes that we’ve had as a family before this. For my whole career, I’ve never left them for more than a week or so.”
Sticking with Old for a sec, and knowing the auteur in you, what did you see in the graphic novel that you connected with immediately? How does this connect to your last decade’s worth of work—a period that seems to be darker and more emotional than much of your previous stuff?
In some ways The Visit was a line of demarcation as to how I approach my job, and what are the things that are burn-down-the-house values. So making smaller movies that I could have complete creative control over, following a very unusual and original thought process, and creating a world where I could fail safely, I found a rhythm that I liked. Living and working outside of Hollywood as I have done forever—this was the logical next step, the next version of that. The Visit, Split, Glass, Old, and Servant are done under those parameters. And scarier—definitely scarier. Much more risky, and deeply fulfilling.
So when I read the graphic novel behind Old, it had this powerful idea at its center that immediately gave me ideas about its implications. When I make a decision to make a movie, it’s often irrational—like falling in love with someone. Here’s an idea that you’ll spend at least two years with in your head, constantly. Echoing. This story behind Old gave me that feeling. Since taking these risks, I’ve been very inspired. It’s dangerous and freeing. When you’re having fun like this, it translates into what you’re making. The audience feels that.
Speaking of risk, you delayed shooting the rest of Servant season two, and had to film Old outside the country, due to the pandemic. Did that change anything about how those projects feel? Did you make the pandemic bend to you, or did you bend to it?
The best sign of strength is flexibility, I’ve always felt that. Your ability to adapt is key. What wound up happening was a little bit of both on both projects, actually. How the constraints of COVID ended up with us reacting in certain ways. We took each step with risk. You couldn’t know how all this would play out, so you took your best guess. We were some of the first productions, if not the first, out there. We were going by certain principles that I had in my head. If I’m paying for it, and we fail, I could live with that because we did it the right way, with the right principles. It’s like what I tell my daughters as they get older: know what the most important principles are, the values dearest to you that you know you must never break. Then it becomes easier to make the 10,000 decisions that you’ll always have to make.
For example, cinematically speaking?
This particular cast that I had for Old. An extraordinary cast. Because of the pandemic, and because I was one of the first productions to hold auditions, so many people came out and auditioned for us. Because I had this incredible wide berth of talent auditioning, I was able to put together a cast that was so special. I could make the same film next year, but not with this cast of actors. That meant, with the delays of COVID, this was going to be a very precarious weather situation in the Caribbean. We got pushed into the hurricane season. That’s a giant risk. But if we delayed or hesitated, we’d lose these actors—to other work, to family. So we went for it. I made those decisions—on Old and on Servant—because I was funding. This was burn-down-the-house important to me. We went for it. There were many moments that it was scary, but ultimately rewarding. If it had fallen apart, it would have fallen apart for the right reasons. My values.
“This was burn-down-the-house important to me. We went for it. There were many moments that it was scary, but ultimately rewarding. If it had fallen apart, it would have fallen apart for the right reasons. My values.”
You had problems with weather and location shooting Old, right?
Three days before shooting, the beach eroded because of the hurricanes. There was no location. That was the only time the actors saw me shift for a second. I had a “Oh wow, I feel foolish,” moment. Luckily, little by little, the beach came back, the weather calmed down, and we had 36 days of amazing weather in a row.
I won’t go into the synopsis, and know that you’re not giving away one inch of the story or the mysteries, but, Servant season two: the amber alert moment in the season one finale—what sort of foreshadowing are we walking into now with Dorothy and Shawn and the baby not being a real baby?
It’s been a fascinating process learning how to tell a longform story—I’m learning. And it’s exciting to see the different muscles that I have and am developing. I’m a filmmaker who needs to know the whole thing in a longform setting, so you can imagine how tricky this is to get comfort from. Season two, for me, is about learning about the cult and our knowledge of that. That concept of where Leanne is from comes into play in the last episode of season one, so, in my mind, season two was her relationship with that group.
Learning to trust the short form process has also meant veering from pure auteurism, and trusting other directors to apply your vision to their work while maintaining some sort of symmetry.
One of the things that has emerged during the course of Servant has been this kind of sliding over of my usual belief system regarding the singularity of a voice in cinema. How can it exist? I’m hiring directors that I truly truly respect. Maybe I saw a work of theirs that they released in Germany or Sweden, call them up, and ask them to direct an episode of Servant. To get them to be themselves, rather than trying to disappear or even be me, is what I’m trying to celebrate now. That isn’t typical for me, or my mantra in longform storytelling. In short form, however, the goal is to get them to be themselves—the thing that made them different in the first place to be why that particular episode is unique and specific.
My dream version of Servant is forty episodes. I want each to represent those additional storytellers, very specifically, each being little gems representing all of our flaws and brilliances and individual strengths; just how that alchemy works for each of them. I found that recently, too, in writing for Servant season three, that it’s been such an amazing experience. This is the first time I’ve worked with a larger group of writers—on Zoom due to the COVID situation—all with the same philosophy of “your voice, but with different writers.” “This is what the episode is about. How would you express that vision? How does that represent you and the story?” It’s just as if I was casting a film. And being inspired by such amazing, different directors and writers made it easier to transfer that auteur way of thinking to this format. I’m not just saying this—this has been exciting, inspiring, and fun.
“Cinema is an art form that will never go away. Telling a story in a group is still the most powerful thing since the beginning of man. And it’s different seeing something out than it is at home. Not better, not worse—different. ”
I know that you’re a fan of the big screen—you’re going to want to see Old in movie theaters in July. Considering you’re getting used to the smaller screen with Servant, would you consider Old for that same medium if it can’t get into megaplexes this summer?
I 100 percent think that movie theaters are going to be fine and booming. We just have to get on the other side of this pandemic, and whenever that happens, it will come back. Cinema is an art form that will never go away. Telling a story in a group is still the most powerful thing since the beginning of man. And it’s different seeing something out than it is at home. Not better, not worse—different.
You have a habit of announcing a film’s release date as you’re filming it—and you’ve never veered from that schedule. But if the studio says to you on July 20, the day before Old is scheduled to release, that they don’t trust that the world is ready to come back to movie theaters, what do you allow to happen?
The first option would be to move it. We’re still figuring this all out, living in this new world, but my filmmaking is a communal art form. We need to be together. I’m excited for us to continue to learn how to cherish it. FL