7:45am PT by Josh Wigler
'Servant': M. Night Shyamalan on Crafting an "Urban Nightmare" for Apple TV+
Thirty hours. If M. Night Shyamalan's ambitions are met, that's the approximate length of time one will spend inside the Philadelphia brownstone owned by Dorothy and Sean Turner, Lauren Ambrose and Toby Kebbell's tragedy-stricken characters at the heart of Apple TV+ thriller Servant.
Created by Tony Basgallop and executive produced and directed in part by Shyamalan, Servant follows Dorothy and Sean, a TV reporter and world-class chef, respectively. Despite their professional triumphs, Dorothy and Sean are living in an unending nightmare, following the death of their infant son. Not yet ready to accept his death, Dorothy chooses to believe her son is still alive in the form of a reborn doll. Not yet ready to shatter his wife's illusion, Sean plays along with Dorothy's fantasy, the two of them inviting a nanny into their home: Leanne, played by Game of Thrones veteran Nell Tiger Free. What follows is ten 30-minute episodes of stomach-churning dread, as Leanne's murky motivations collide with the horrifying reality at the heart of the Turner house — a house that both the Turners themselves as well as the show writ large can't quite escape.
Speaking with The Hollywood Reporter about his ambitions for the series, Shyamalan says he envisions 60 episodes total for the full Servant story — which means as of season one, viewers are only a fifth of the way through the Sixth Sense and Unbreakable filmmaker's overarching plan. Who knows about making it to a full 60 installments, but as it stands, Servant already stands to add 10 episodes to the roster, given an early second-season renewal from Apple.
With the first three episodes ready for feasting as of Thanksgiving day (Nov. 28), THR speaks with Shyamalan about what's on the menu when viewers tune in to Servant, why the series is so locked into a single setting, how Apple technology fits into the greater thematic structure, the importance of food to the narrative and more.
For people who aren't aware of Servant yet, what are they about to set foot into?
It's a half-hour thriller. Immediately, I think that puts it in an unusual category of storytelling, which interests me. You don't feel any fat [with a 30 run time]. You don't feel the need as a storyteller to vamp in anyway. It's essentially all set in one location — again, very unusual. There's a sense of containment as to what's outside the building. That, coupled with the 30-minute format, makes it a very specific, play-like, tense and suspenseful story.
You mention the contained space, and while this isn't quite a haunted house tale, it does have some of that feeling.
I like that. It's not a haunted house show, but there is that feeling. It's almost an urban nightmare, in a couple of ways. One, there's this thing that's happened to them, that they're not quite accepting, and it's clearly an urban nightmare. The other one is this idea of hiring someone to come into your house, into that intimate setting. It may be someone you don't realize is going to do harm, or is an otherwise unstable character.
The unsettling tone is clear from the very first episode. It's pouring outside. We're often at a remove, physically. What did you hope to create in the viewer with this opening hour?
What I try to do when I look at a script, even the ones I write, is figure out what are the images that first come to mind? That tells me something. You don't want to see a close-up of the title character as she comes in. You want to be in a wide shot. It'll force you to wonder, well, who is she? When do I get to meet her? When you finally do meet her, it's in a setting where you're almost revealing another thing, where it's her going to the baby's crib for the first time. That's where you get your first good look at her. Those choices at the beginning are heightened. You see Lauren is playing Dorothy as very manic. Toby as the husband is almost dry, down, like, "I can't believe we're doing this." She's so excited and he's just like, "Let's get this over." That's already a mystery. Their tones create a mystery. The rain and the storm and the thunder comes out of a feeling of dread. These horror tropes, when they play at their very best, they're playing at the internal lives of these characters. It's not that it's raining and storming and that's why it's scary; what should scare you is what's happening inside of these characters. The rain and the storm is how they're feeling.
What was the design process like for the baby doll? It's rather unsettling.
How about this: no design process! That is the doll they use for this kind of therapy. It's very real. It's an exact duplicate of a [specific] baby. The weight, the movement, all of it is exactly real. It feels like a baby of that weight, of that size. When you hold the baby, you immediately have a reaction. If we brought that baby in here right now and you started holding it, you would have a reaction. You could feel it on set. Everyone starts bobbing it a little bit as they're holding the baby. Even when we were shooting for the ad campaign, we would shoot the doll, but it didn't look like a doll. We had to make it look even more like a doll so you could tell what it was if you were driving by it. It presents some really interesting problems, because it lives in the uncanny valley. When my mom saw the first ad, I asked her, "Have you seen it yet, mom?" And she goes, "Yeah, the one with the baby in the stroller, right?" And I go, "Was it a baby, mom?" And she gasped.
Speaking of Apple, can you talk through the partnership with them in exploring this new streaming space? Certainly, there's some Apple integration, with several scenes featuring iPads and Facetime...what's that process like, fitting those elements into the story?
It's going to sound disingenuous, but zero thought went into the fact that in this show, you see the world through devices, and we're on Apple. That's always the way it was. That was part of the idea. Instead of selling this to Netflix or HBO or Showtime, we sold it to Apple. It ended up being an amazing fit. It's such a good fit that it feels like we did it intentionally, but we didn't do it intentionally. In my office, we kept talking about getting into the TV space. We tried it once with network, but we felt there was another way to do this where we could leverage our uniqueness. But I felt, you know, it's just not a format I'm so excited about. There's so much content. Eventually, the attrition of so much content will hurt it, almost like every other show ever made. Eventually, it all gets worn down. But I felt if I ever did it, I would love to help establish a company, the way David Fincher did for Netflix. I know there were shows before House of Cards, but when I think about Netflix, I think about House of Cards: "Oh, they're erudite, they're formalistic, they're edgy, they break format, he talks to the camera." Whatever I imbued onto them as a company came from that. I felt that opportunity would be amazing. I was just joking: "If Apple ever did a show, that would be of interest!" It took us time to get Servant into the right place. I was shooting one of these movies, Split or Glass, and we took our time and made three scripts. And then Apple was starting to think about buying shows. We went out, took the show to the town and a lot of people were very interested in it, luckily. But we had this opportunity with Apple, and so here we are, Thanksgiving day. We get to help definite [Apple's TV landscape].
Why devices? Why was that an important aspect of this story, seeing the world through a screen?
That's not the part that was important. What was important was this idea of seeing the world through a straw. You feel like their life is just this house. The rule for me as we go forward in the show is anything attached to that house is fair game. As we expand, we can only expand from that house. You'll see, as we do each season. I wanted to show other places and show big places — big vistas — but only through a straw, so you're just dying to see more. It feels very intentional in that we're holding you and making you look through one window pane. The technology is less interesting to me than a virtual window.
It creates the feeling that Sean and Dorothy are trapped in their house.
Exactly, and because you're only seeing [the world beyond] through devices, it makes me feel limited in a good way. It helps fill in the blanks.
Food is a big part of this show, through Sean's work as a chef. How did food become such a major part of the series?
We had an amazing, world-class chef on site. We got really lucky. We had one of the best chefs in the world in my opinion, Marc Vetri, helping us with the show. He came in and brought his guy as the consultants on everything. We're learning about textures, cultural reasons behind food…whether it's Scottish, or this, or that, it's always coming from this place of erudition.
I like the idea that Dorothy has a very visual, outside-the-house job. He's at home. It flips the gender dynamic. He cooks at home, he stays at home, she's more famous…we'll play with all of those tensions [as the series progresses]. Really, though, it's about being metaphorical with the struggles. As we started playing with the food, we were struck by how it's sometimes a violent act, cooking. Sometimes it's beautiful. It's also a sign of communion. Sometimes [our characters] end a scene eating together late at night, and there's something intimate about it. There's a connection, there are words and feelings you can only share over a meal. I also think it underlines how we as human beings incorporate food into meaning and culture and intimacy. All of that comes out in this. I don't know if we thought about cooking in this way when we first started, but it grew.
For animal-based cooking, we're talking about something that was alive once — which is once again very on the mind for Servant, echoing the central characters' struggle.
Absolutely. It's life and death. Sometimes, we explore it comedically. Sometimes, we explore what food represents, even biblically, like crickets. Do we eat those? Is that defiance? It's great, in terms of wanting to tell an almost biblical story in a brownstone in Philadelphia, through the language of an upper-class family.
What are your plans for Servant beyond season one? How much of the scope of the story have you planned out?
It's a little bit of a Catch-22. You need to learn it as it goes, but you need to have your endpoint. At least, that's how I approached this. I know the end point. We're moving through the episodes and thinking about them that way as we're going through. A dream version is we get 60 episodes, and I get to tell you the full story through 60.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.