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[The following story contains spoilers for Servant’s season three finale, “Mama.”]
M. Night Shyamalan certainly knows how to end a movie, but now he’s trying his hand at ending a TV series for the first time.
A couple years ago, the Servant showrunner outlined the quirky psychological thriller’s trajectory including its conclusion, so his creative team has been working towards that end point ever since. While his actors may have been in the dark about their individual characters’ fates, Shyamalan’s writers and directors needed to know the big picture, allowing them the flexibility to reshoot anytime something wasn’t working within an episode or the overall story. By being a contained series that mostly takes places within the Turner family home, the Servant brain trust had the unique advantage to adjust and fine tune as much as needed.
“[Our secret sauce] was the ability to know where we were going, giving each of the storytellers the opportunity to make mistakes and redo it again. It was not only safe to do that, but it was encouraged,” Shyamalan tells The Hollywood Reporter.
Besides Servant, most of Shyamalan’s films have been set in Philadelphia or its surrounding areas of Pennsylvania. The filmmaker grew up in a suburb of Philadelphia, so his imagination is often interlinked with his hometown. And with shared cinematic universes like the MCU emerging in the last 15 years, Shyamalan regrets not approaching the entirety of his Philly-based work as one big Shyamalan-verse. Currently, his Eastrail 177 Trilogy consisting of Unbreakable, Split and Glass are the only connected stories in his oeuvre.
However, he nearly added a fourth film to the mix as he almost tied 2015’s The Visit to 2019’s Glass. The former, which revitalized Shyamalan’s career at the time, revolved around two escaped psychiatric patients who posed as the grandparents of Kathryn Hahn’s character’s visiting children.
“There was one tie-in that I almost did. It was in Glass when they all got to the mental institution. I was going to tell a story about The Visit and how two people escaped from that same hospital. I was going to do it, but I chickened out,” Shyamalan reveals.
In a recent conversation with THR, Shyamalan also discusses his upcoming highly-anticipated feature film, Knock at the Cabin, and how he may have played a role in recruiting Everything Everywhere All at Once directors, the Daniels, to Universal.
Well, congrats on a stellar start to Servant‘s final season, Night.
Thank you so much. I can’t wait for you to see the rest. I’m giddy about it all.
You obviously know how to write an ending for the big screen, but Servant is your first time concluding a series. So how would you describe the experience of wrapping up Servant in comparison?
Well, there’s a lot of things I stacked in our favor. One is that we knew where we were going two years ago, and so we’ve been aiming towards that. We knew what the final season would be and what the movement of it would be. So we weren’t figuring it out as we went along; it was built into the architecture of the series. And for the actors, the writers and the directors coming in, knowing where they are in the story is so critical. It allows you the freedom to take huge risks and be bigger, not for the sake of excess, but because we are so close to the finish line. So you’re allowed to let go and really spread your wings, and that’s what we did in the final season.
So when we last saw Dorothy (Lauren Ambrose), she was looking a lot like Abbey Lee in Old.
(Shyamalan erupts with laughter.)
Was that a key story point from your outline that you came up with a few years ago?
Yeah, the end of three was definitely in the architecture. We knew it was going to happen, but we asked ourselves, “When should it happen? Should it be in the middle of the season? Should it be at the end?” And so we ended up saying, “Okay, it will be the end of season three.” So it creates a nice jump for us as we start the beginning of season four. [Writer’s Note: Season four begins three months after season three’s finale.] In a thriller format, time jumps are not your friend because you’re reducing the stakes. It’s always about keeping it contained and keeping the timeframe one to one. That’s how you keep the adrenaline really, really high. So in this case, it’s using the kind of movement from season three to season four, and then starting at a very high octane point in season four.
You designed an elaborate staircase from day one, so you might as well use it, right?
(Laughs.) Yeah, and every step of that staircase has been used.
In the season four premiere, there are several shots that go through windshields. Is a digital windshield added to one shot? Or is there some stitching of two separate shots?
There’s a little bit of both depending on the shot. [401 director] Dylan’s [Holmes Williams] style uses a lot of moving through fourth walls and breaking through surfaces, in that Barry Sonnenfeld kind of approach to lyrical and fantastical movement. It’s his great strength. So incorporating that into the language of the series was awesome.
When you eventually go on to make your next television series at some point, what lesson will you take with you from Servant?
Look, a lot of things went right for us, and to not forget that is important. Looking back, if we were making a list, I would say, “We were contained. We were in one location.” And why is that important, both physically and financially? It allowed us to go reshoot anytime we wanted to. Everything was right there. The same house and the same actors were right there. “Let’s do that scene again. Let’s try that thing again.” So that was an incredible advantage. We also had a half-hour format, which allowed us to put an intense amount of resources into a very short amount of storytelling. So that’s all super critical.
And we had the scripts ready before we shot the season. That’s so important because to cast the right directors, I have to know what the episodes are. So rather than a random voice telling a random story, we were able to say, “This woman from France [Julia Ducournau] is going to direct this episode of the season.” And so all of that was our secret sauce. It was the ability to know where we were going, giving each of the storytellers the opportunity to make mistakes and redo it again. It was not only safe to do that, but it was encouraged.
Perhaps this is the byproduct of all the shared cinematic universes we have now, but I’ve definitely imagined Dorothy (Ambrose) reporting from the zoo where Casey Cooke (Anya Taylor-Joy) was found in Split.
(Laughs.) That would’ve been so good.
Since most of your stories take place in or around Philadelphia, did you ever play with the idea of your characters all existing in the same Philadelphia?
If I was smart enough to have thought about it 20 some years ago, I would’ve done it, but I wasn’t smart enough to think about it. There was one tie-in that I almost did. It was in Glass when they all got to the mental institution. I was going to tell a story about The Visit and how two people escaped from that same hospital.
Oh my God. You just blew my mind.
(Laughs.) I was going to do it, but I chickened out. So I didn’t do it.
Speaking of Casey Cooke, I just spoke to Anya about a note you once gave her. It was something to the effect of, “Cry Casey’s tears instead of your own.” Do you recall that moment and how you were able to tell the difference?
Yeah. By the way, I miss her so much. I want to call her just hearing you say her name, but that moment could have been about anything. It could have been about laughter, it could have been about anger, it could have been about anything. But that particular conversation was about tears. Internally, as the performer, we can decide to do something personal, and it will be perceived as very similar to it. At least that’s what you think. But with a discerning eye, the audience can tell those aren’t the tears of the character. So I don’t know why she’s crying that way, but if you’re coming from the right thought process, they will be the right tears. If you’re crying about your dog that you lost versus what the character is crying about, you will feel that difference in the emotional architecture of what we’re seeing there. When I work with children, I’m always saying, “Don’t think about how your body is going to express it. Don’t try to aim at an expression. Just think the thoughts, and I promise you, your body will do what it’s supposed to do.”
So Knock at the Cabin looks incredible. How are you feeling at this stage in post?
Absolutely exhausted, but we’re almost done with Servant and with Knock at the Cabin. They’re ending at the same time, which is very, very tricky. But I’m loving it, and I can’t wait for you guys to see it. It’s a very, very special moment, and I always tell the actors and the crew that we should aspire to make something that is non-duplicatable, even by us. We should make something that we can’t go back and do again because it was only us in that specific moment that could have done and created those things in that way. So Knock at the Cabin is that kind of moment for this group of people.
When we spoke last year, it wasn’t known yet that it was an adaptation of Paul G. Tremblay’s The Cabin at the End of the World. With this being your second adaptation in a row, is there any rhyme or reason to that? Or do you just follow whatever is inspiring you at the time?
Yeah, I just go with what happens to enter my universe. The next three movies are three ideas I have in my head, so it’s just whatever I’m inspired by at that moment. And when this book came to me, it came to me in a producing capacity. “Hey, would you be interested?” And I was like, “Wow, what a great premise. I would do this idea this way. Maybe I should do my own take on this novel.” So I loved the immediacy of the feeling that I could see this. And because I wasn’t thinking of it as mine for a second, I was able to say, “Wow, the story would do this in my head if I were telling it.” So I did it as a thought experiment.
Jarin Blaschke (The Northman, The Lighthouse) and Lowell A. Meyer are both credited as DPs, so what’s the situation there?
They split duties. We had a kind of scheduling thing, and Lowell came from the Servant world. I also produced [Caddo] with Lowell as DP. It’s directed by Celine [Held] and Logan [George], who are directors of Servant as well. And then Jarin came in, and they’re both just the nicest guys. So one did one section of the schedule, and the other did another section of the schedule. It’s just beautiful, old-school filmmaking, and both DPs really brought it for me. I’ve been very lucky with my DPs. I really have worked with some of the best.
Is Topside what sold you on Logan George and Celine Held, as well as Lowell?
It was actually their short Caroline that did this. I don’t know if you’ve ever seen that short, but as soon as I saw that short … It was funny because Caroline was sent to me for [DP Lowell A. Meyer] and I said, “Well, who directed this short?” And they’re like, “This husband and wife team.” And I was like, “Well, let’s hire them, too. They’re amazing.” There was just a certain tension that was involved with Caroline, and they’ve now become super close friends. We’ve done a movie [Caddo] together. They’re an amazing example of the opportunity that Servant presented to me and to others to support the next generation of storytellers.
How’s Caddo looking right now?
Exciting. We’re finishing that as well. All of these projects are coming together and ending at the same time. Hopefully, you’ll see a lot of us in 2023.
Well, last year delivered some sad news about Bruce Willis, and I feel like it’s important to gather stories whenever possible. So do you remember the first time you felt the power of Bruce Willis in person?
He’s a true movie star. I’m not being self-deprecating here, but I’m a nerdy, boring dude most of the time. But when I first got to hang out with him, I felt the electric charm of this blue-collar, great-looking guy. He could take over a room with his humor and his charm, and that’s what he could imbue into his characters. When I was a kid, I had his posters up on my wall, and only he could play that character in Pulp Fiction or Die Hard. And for him to be so pivotal in my life and start my career means so much. Our families are also very close, and I will always think of him as a big brother and remember how much he protected me. So the things that are happening with him are happening to a family member.
So when’s Ishana [Night Shyamalan] making her first feature?
This year! She’s writing right now. In fact, I was just talking to her last night. I was like, “Where’s the new draft? Let’s go!” And she was like, “I just have to work on one scene.” And I was like, “I need to have it by this time.” So we’re already all over it.
Last year, we talked about all the auteurs Universal has been collecting, including you, Jordan Peele and Chris Nolan. They also just signed the Daniels to an exclusive deal. So in a manner that’s similar to a pro sports team wooing a free agent, did you put in a good word on Universal’s behalf or anything like that?
(Laughs.) I may have, I may have. I want the team to be strong. By the way, anytime a movie does well, it helps all of us, whether it’s from the same team, the same studio, or not. So there is a great rooting factor. Unlike sports, we don’t get a loss from someone else winning. We win when someone else wins. Our trailers are on these other movies, and they’re getting audiences excited to come to the movie theater. So we’re all helping each other, and I think that’s a wonderful way to look at it. But Universal has allowed us to really double down on auteur, large-audience storytelling. It’s something that they take pride in, and with all of us coming to this one place, it gives us each comfort that the other one is there.
Lastly, how was the return of Shyamaween?
That’s our charity event that we have every year for our foundation, the M. Night Shyamalan Foundation. So we raise money by having a Halloween party, and it’s the biggest party in Philadelphia. It’s just incredible. This year was particularly shocking because they never know where it is. I tell them on the day of; they get an email where they’re going. And in this case, they really didn’t know where they were going. It was just a warehouse. And when they arrived, they were on the set of Servant. So it was a big, amazing moment, and everybody could not believe where they were.
Servant season four premieres Jan. 13th on Apple TV+. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
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