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M. Night Shyamalan on 'Servant' Season 2, Hiring His Daughter and Shooting During COVID

M Night Shyamalan
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The filmmaker also reflects on 'Unbreakable' and debunks a fan theory about one of its most memorable scenes.

By the time a TV show or movie wraps production, the cast and crew often feel like a family, but in the case of M. Night Shyamalan’s second season of Servant, he’s taken that notion a step further. The twisted family drama and dark comedy, which returns to Apple TV+ for its second season on Jan. 15, had not one but two Shyamalan filmmakers this go-round as Shyamalan’s daughter Ishana Night Shyamalan made her directorial debut. Besides helming two episodes, Ishana was also involved in the writing of four episodes, something she’s been preparing for since she was in diapers on the set of Unbreakable.

"She’s been training forever," Shyamalan tells The Hollywood Reporter. “From the time she was four, we’ve talked about cinema and writing. She also went to film school and did all that. So I said, ‘Hey, I think you’re ready. This format would be perfect for you, and this particular episode would be great for you to direct.’ And she did. She brought her humor and energy to it, and I treated her just like the other directors.”

In March, Servant was in the midst of shooting season two when the entire industry had to shut down due to the novel coronavirus pandemic. But, as luck would have it, the series was already tailor-made for Covid-era production since the show’s small cast of four series regulars are mostly tethered to one soundstage location.

“We shoot very fast, and the other thing is that it’s a half-hour show, not an hour. So it just suited itself to go back and resume shooting in a very, very safe way. So that’s what we did, and we were very lucky," Shyamalan explains. "We had a Covid-free production, completely, and everyone was super grateful and happy, while cherishing the opportunity to continue to work.”

In a recent conversation with THR, Shyamalan also discusses the hiring of Better Call Saul DP Marshall Adams, as well as the recent 20th anniversary of Unbreakable.

When you developed the world of the show, you tethered everything to the Turner home, creating a bubble of sorts. You also established a very small cast from the get-go. In light of what’s happened this year, was Servant perfectly suited for COVID-era production like it appears?

It was. I’m super lucky and grateful that the TV shows and movies that I’m interested in, drawn to and shooting right now are very, very contained. Given the world and the need to keep people safe, business must be conducted in a responsible way. So you can’t get any more custom-made for the situation than Servant with four main cast members in one location and one building. We shoot very fast, and the other thing is that it’s a half-hour show, not an hour. So it just suited itself to go back and resume shooting in a very, very safe way. So that’s what we did, and we were very lucky. We had a Covid-free production, completely, and everyone was super grateful and happy, while cherishing the opportunity to continue to work.

Sean’s (Toby Kebbell) loss of taste was also ahead of the curve.

(Laughs.) I didn’t think of that! A lot of people have been asking, “Hey, are you going to write something about Covid? It’s so in your wheelhouse.” And I’m like, “I’ve been writing these stories of families that get isolated, forever!” Everyone getting isolated from each other is the thing that scares me the most, and here we are, having just spent the year doing it.

Season two begins with some incredible work by [filmmaker] Julia Ducournau, and then she’s followed by a rather familiar name, who also did a stellar job. Can you talk about your daughter Ishana’s [Ishana Night Shyamalan] debut behind the camera and the circumstances that led to it?

(Laughs.) Well, first of all, it’s so funny you say that because my daughter was like, “You’re putting me between you and Julia!? What are you doing!?” And I’m like, “That’s gonna be perfect. You’re gonna be great!” Yeah, my daughter directed two episodes this season, and she wrote two by herself, co-wrote a third one and re-wrote a fourth one. So she was very involved in this second season, and she’s been training forever. From the time she was four, we’ve talked about cinema and writing. She also went to film school and did all that. So I said, “Hey, I think you’re ready. This format would be perfect for you, and this particular episode would be great for you to direct.” And she did. She brought her humor and energy to it, and I treated her just like the other directors. I gave her my advice. I also worked with the actors and told them what was important. I told her what was visually important and that she should prep every shot before she gets to set. It’s a very formalistic way of shooting, but I said, “You don’t have to do those shots, but you should’ve thought this through very carefully with your DP before you start.” Then I said, “Once you go and shoot, I’m going to tell you what I think as I watch the footage coming in.” I do that with all the filmmakers because I want them to be free. That way, they give me their very best stuff that’s them. This is not a journeyman show. This isn’t,"Hey, we want a hired gun,” or something like that. As a director, you have to come and take huge risks; don’t give me coverage. You might fail — and we’ll reshoot those things — but that’s what we want. We don’t want you near safety; we want you near the edge of your comfort zone.

I was pleasantly surprised to see that Marshall Adams photographed the phenomenal fourth episode, which you also directed. I’m a big fan of Marshall thanks to his work on Better Call Saul, as well as El Camino, and that high-angle shot of Toby and Rupert’s characters at the breakfast table was one of many impressive camera angles used in the episode. Can you talk a bit about hiring Marshall and how the two of you collaborated on set?

Marshall is the greatest. Our DPs are so phenomenal; we’ve had some amazing DPs. It’s the same thing that I do with the directors. If I find something that I love, like Better Call Saul or some other work, I’ll say, “Hey, would you be interested in doing this super-contained, film noir-style that we’re doing here?” Marshall also has the right temperament, and he loves working with edgy new filmmakers. Again, I stressed to the cinematographers, “We are not here to do conventional things. So, if you and the director decide to do a scene that is two mid-shots, you’re going to have to sit down and tell me why both the characters are feeling the same thing. I don’t understand it. So you’re going to have to explain to me why they’re feeling medium and why they’re both medium, because I don’t understand it.” So they make me laugh, and they’re so excited because they feel like they get this freedom. But Marshall has just been a joy for us. He’s done a wonderful job, and he’s such a sweet guy. Ishana and Marshall actually shot a music video together as well. All the directors just love him.

Servant is obviously quite creepy, but it’s also incredibly funny at times. When Toby and Rupert’s characters put their heads together, it creates a hilarious dynamic that sort of reminds me of Bryan Cranston and Aaron Paul on Breaking Bad, especially the bickering.

Yeah!

Did you always plan to walk this tonal tightrope, so to speak, or did you and your writers dial up more comedy once you saw how your actors handled the material?

Well, comedy has become a big deal for me in the last six or seven years, ever since I started writing The Visit. I made a commitment to having fun, laughing and doing irreverent, dark humor as part of everything I do. So this show gave me that opportunity to do that, and when we started casting, it was those actors that were comfortable with the humor that made me hire them. Lauren (Ambrose) made me laugh when she played Dorothy in her audition. Same with Toby. When Rupert came and started reading Julian, I just couldn’t believe it; I was laughing so much. I thought, “This is it.” They’re buoyant, physical actors that are comfortable with humor and have an instinct for it. They’re not trying to be funny; they’re just defending their characters in a very funny way.

The food on Servant is a character in and of itself, so it can be torturous to watch this show on an empty stomach. Are the food selections mostly rooted in story and character, or can it be as simple as a writer or director really liking wood-fired pizza?

(Laughs.) They’re usually something metaphorical. I’ve come to realize that because we’re tethered to the house and the rituals of a family, eating is the primary ritual that we experience in our home. When you repeat that with different angles and accents, it’s very exciting, but it’s also very metaphorical for life, death, creation and all the things that are actually going on in the show on a thematic level. So you get to see something chopped up, torn apart, killed, skin being ripped, diced and stuffed. You get to see the beauty out of something being created. It’s a very sensual thing. I wanted the show to have a sensuality about it, in its coloring, its textures, its fabrics and all of those things. It’s a decadent show, and it’s a part of that decadence.

When a character leaves the aforementioned bubble and communicates via a mobile device at another location, do you rely on a skeleton crew for those locations away from the Turner home? Or do you still need a full-scale production team for those scenes that are conveyed through a screen?

It varies depending on where it is. In general, it’s a scaled-down group that goes out to different locations. We tend to put those at the end and the beginning of the shooting of each episode. That way, the crew that’s going out is able to get the end of the previous episode and the beginning of the next episode, together, so that we’re not constantly going on and off the stage.

I recently celebrated Unbreakable, one of my favorite films, by doing a 20th-anniversary piece with Spencer Treat Clark.

Aww.

The film is often described as a superhero origin story, in which a superhero also meets his archvillain, but I’ve always contended that Unbreakable is just as much a marriage story as anything else. An unbreakable man in a broken marriage. Do you agree with that description to some extent?

I absolutely agree. In fact, its original screenplay was moreso. It was very much about a husband and wife that were reconnecting as he found himself. And as he discovered who he was, he started to reconnect with his marriage. It was always intended that David [Bruce Willis] couldn’t be the husband Audrey [Robin Wright] needed until he was okay with himself and found his place in the world.

Many people assume that Unbreakable’s famous kitchen scene was based on the George Reeves legend involving a young fan who pulled a gun on him in similar fashion, but I’ve never been able to find confirmation. Did that story involving the 1950s Superman actor actually serve as inspiration for your scene?

I swear I’ve never heard of that. That’s amazing. After we’re done with this, I’m going to go look that up.

It’s often misunderstood, but I think Glass is brilliant. Out of curiosity, did you ever consider including “an adult named Jeb” in any way, shape or form?

(Laughs.) That’s so funny! That’s so good. No, I didn’t consider it, but I should have. That’s a great idea.

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Servant season two premieres Jan. 15 on Apple TV+.

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