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M. Night Shyamalan is relieved that he gets to finish Servant on his own terms. The Apple TV+ psychological thriller series was recently renewed for a fourth-and-final season, allowing the filmmaker to fulfill the vision he outlined years ago. For a writer-director whose career is defined by his memorable endings, it was always a bit of a risk to tackle a story on a medium that doesn’t guarantee anyone a proper conclusion, but risk-taking has always been a part of Shyamalan’s creative process, especially once he mortgaged his home to fund his 2015 thriller, The Visit. After that $5-million gamble paid off to the tune of $98.4 million, Shyamalan has followed suit for all his subsequent projects including Servant.
“It’s insane a lot of times to do this, and I wouldn’t recommend this to my friends,” Shyamalan tells The Hollywood Reporter. “As you can see, Covid hit, and when you’re paying for these projects like Servant and these movies, you never know what’s going to happen. You can’t guarantee everything. We’ve been extremely lucky with Servant, The Visit, Split, Glass and Old as everything has been successful, but as you know, there’s just no guarantee about that. So it’s a very high-risk situation, but I love that.”
Shyamalan is currently prepping his next film, a thriller known as Knock at the Cabin, and last month, he found his lead actor in Dave Bautista. The world discovered what a skilled comedic performer Bautista is by way of the Guardians of the Galaxy films, but it was his dramatic turn in Denis Villeneuve’s Blade Runner 2049 that turned heads across the industry, including Shyamalan’s.
“I was really taken by what Denis [Villeneuve] and Dave [Bautista] did in that scene in Blade Runner . He was still in a way that was powerful,” Shyamalan explains. “There’s a type of stillness where you’re not doing nothing; you’re doing everything and you’re still. Every cell in your body will do what it’s supposed to do if you’re thinking something correctly. And Dave was embodying all of this philosophy in that scene … I didn’t know who he was at that time, and he stuck in my head. So when this script came, I was like, ‘There seems to be one guy who can play this giant human being and do the stillness.’ So I asked Dave.”
Knock at the Cabin has also overtaken Signs as Shyamalan’s quickest writing process to date.
“I don’t know what this means, so it’ll be interesting to see at the end of it all, but it’s the fastest script I’ve ever written,” Shyamalan shares. “Signs was the fastest script that I wrote before this. I don’t know if that’s to do with the engine, the movement of it, but we’ll see. I’ve enjoyed it so much, and it’s very emotional.”
In a recent conversation with THR, Shyamalan also discusses the familial environment he creates for his cast and crew both on and off set. Then he goes on to explain why he thinks Christopher Nolan is going to be happy at Universal Pictures, which Shyamalan has called his home since 2015’s The Visit.
Well, first off, congratulations on the final season order.
Thank you so much. It’s a big relief and I’m super happy. There’s a fear with this format that you won’t get to finish telling the story, so it’s a lovely thing.
Whether it’s Julia Ducournau or Dan Sackheim, you always hire interesting directors for Servant, and Carlo Mirabella-Davis is one example of many this season. Did his brilliant film Swallow lead you to him?
Yeah, it was Swallow. When I saw that, I was very taken with his storytelling, the quietness, how unnerving it was and how beautiful it was. He has a formalism in the way he tells stories that matches mine, so I try to cast directors that are comfortable with the kind of vocabularies that we speak in, and Carlo is such a lovely man. Just a gentle, lovely man. We’re definitely going to try to get him back for the final season.
I’m amazed by all the different ways you’ve photographed the Turners’ house. Are there still plenty of options left that you haven’t explored yet, or are you running out of possibilities after three seasons?
It’s funny you should say that because it’s unending, and I’m astonished by that. I was just mixing the last episode of season three, and Ishana [Night Shyamalan] directed that. And she did this dinner-table scene that was unlike any other dinner-table scene. So I was marveling at how many times we’ve done dinner-table scenes and they’re all so different. Each one is amazingly specific. It’s as if we’ve never been in that room before. I’ve been referencing the show as the first “sit thriller” where you just keep coming back to the same place, and no, we haven’t felt that feeling at all. In fact, it keeps inspiring each director to come up with beautiful ways to use the house. The house is there, so when one director is working, there’s always another director on another stage, drawing with their cinematographer and thinking about how to shoot something.
In the season-three premiere which you directed, there’s an impressive overhead shot as Leanne (Nell Tiger Free) walks out of the front door. Did you stitch the soundstage house and the real location together for that?
That was all on the stage!
Wow, that exterior is extremely realistic.
Exactly! Yeah, we have an exterior inside.
Last year, I praised your episode [season two, episode four] with Marshall Adams as your DP, and he ended up getting an Emmy nomination. Was he stuck in the desert [shooting Better Call Saul] when you guys needed to go?
(Laughs.) Definitely! We’re always balancing his Better Call Saul obligations with Servant. I love that guy. He’s just the sweetest guy and so talented.
I’ve gotten this impression from your actors for a while, but I was reminded of it when I saw a picture of Anya [Taylor-Joy] at dinner with your family. It seems like your actors aren’t just working with M. Night Shyamalan; they’re entering into the Shyamalan family. Even Nell said that Ishana is one of her best friends. Am I on to something here?
Yeah, that’s the way we are. I’m very close with the actors. Of course, when there’s child actors like Nell, they kind of grow up in our family. Oftentimes, I’m casting characters that are the same ages as my daughters, so they grow up together. But it is a very close-knit thing. I find that the safety of having a family environment — where we’re very close — helps the things I’m asking them to do. The vulnerabilities, taking risks and being safe to fail. So that relationship is critical, and the actors allow you to protect them and push them beyond where they would normally be. When we shot Old, all the actors were always at my place, hanging out and raiding my fridge and all that stuff. So we were always together, rehearsing, and that’s the way I love it to be. Our crew is that way, too. We’re all very close. But when you come to my sets, I’m on it and I ask a lot. I’m very strict on the set, but when we’re off the set, it’s a family. We’re very close and we play together.
Ishana’s confidence seems to grow with each episode she directs. Can you talk about her rapid development as a director?
I often joke to her, “If you were an NBA player, you’d be the number-one draft pick coming out of the draft.” She’s been training since she was a baby, and I’m just so happy that she has found what she loves and what she’s excellent at and what challenges her. That it happens to be filmmaking is fantastic, but as a dad, I’m more thrilled that she found the thing that she loves. I think I’ve been an example of someone who has found their love, and even if I worked at a fast-food place, I’d still be writing and making a small little film as soon as I finished working. And I would do that for love because I love doing it. So she’s seen what joy I have and she knows that I love it. I’m always begging, “Who wants to watch a French black-and-white film about a donkey? It’s amazing.” So I’m always bugging family members to come and learn about cinema, and that’s contagious because I think she caught it. She’s different than I am. Her leans and her interests in storytelling. So her perspective of being a woman is going to be fantastic for her and for the world. I want many strong female storytellers to get out there.
Everyone is fascinated by the way you’ve bet on yourself these last eight years. You’ve funded pretty much everything you’ve made during that time. I hope you don’t mind me asking, but when you told your family way back when that you were going to mortgage the house to make The Visit, how did that conversation go?
Oh, no problem! My wife doesn’t care about any of that stuff. If we lived in a one-bedroom place over a garage because of it, no problem. That’s never been a thing, and I think the kids felt that as well. The only reason the things we have mean anything is because of the way the money was made to pay for them. It was made from my head and my creations; that’s why it’s special. But that shouldn’t become a trap to not make great art. In fact, you leverage it to make great art. It’s insane a lot of times to do this, and I wouldn’t recommend this to my friends. As you can see, Covid hit, and when you’re paying for these projects like Servant and these movies, you never know what’s going to happen. You can’t guarantee everything. We’ve been extremely lucky with Servant, The Visit, Split, Glass and Old as everything has been successful, but as you know, there’s just no guarantee about that. You’re going to have projects that don’t work for some reason and you have no control over it. Or you do have control over it and it still didn’t work. So it’s a very high-risk situation, but I love that. It makes it meaningful so that when you and I are sitting together, it’s not transactional. It’s not, “Hey, I don’t care and we’re moving on to the next thing.” This is a very important thing and no safety net is critical. It goes down to how I approach all of it. When I make my movies, I don’t have playback. I’m not going to go back and look. We’re going to use instinct and keep going forward on inspiration.
Speaking of risk, in season three’s fourth episode, there’s a baby-proofing character who can rattle off household accidents stats in a way that would make Gael Garcia Bernal’s Old character very proud.
Do these two characters suggest that you’re interested in risk calculation, or am I reading too far into this?
(Laughs.) I find it all very funny and fascinating and scary and terrifying. Whenever I would read these stats for both projects, especially for Old, I would find all this stuff about how many people die from slipping in their kitchen and falling on a knife that’s upside-down in their open dishwasher. That happens so often! You can die and get injured in so many ways, and if you think about it, it’s absurd because you can’t do anything. You’d be scared to death. So these [Servant] characters have gone through something already, and now this guy is delineating all these other ways. That’s the type of dark humor that you don’t believe can work until you actually do.
You recently made a new friend in Dave Bautista as he’s leading your next film, Knock at the Cabin. Was it Blade Runner 2049 that opened your eyes to him?
It was! I was really taken by what Denis [Villeneuve] and Dave did in that scene in Blade Runner. He was still in a way that was powerful. There’s a type of stillness where you’re not doing nothing; you’re doing everything and you’re still. Your essence of what you’re thinking is coming off your body. I always tell actors that I can definitely shoot the back of you. If you watch the back of Heath Ledger at the beginning of The Dark Knight, the second I saw his back, I thought, “I’m seeing one of the greatest performances ever.” I could see it just from the way he was standing. Every cell in your body will do what it’s supposed to do if you’re thinking something correctly. So don’t just be blank. You have to think it. So don’t show me anything because your body is going to show me. And Dave was embodying all of this philosophy in that scene, and I thought he was a really unusual person because he is who he is and he’s that big. I didn’t know who he was at that time, and he stuck in my head. So when this script came, I was like, “There seems to be one guy who can play this giant human being and do the stillness.” So I asked Dave.
Can you spare a couple adjectives in regard to Knock at the Cabin?
I don’t know what this means, so it’ll be interesting to see at the end of it all, but it’s the fastest script I’ve ever written. Signs was the fastest script that I wrote before this. I don’t know if that’s to do with the engine, the movement of it, but we’ll see. I’ve enjoyed it so much, and it’s very emotional.
Your friend Bryan Cranston told me that you guys have tried to work together a few times. He also said that you talked to him about Old, but he had a show to finish. Could the stars finally align for something in Knock at the Cabin?
I would love it, but there is no role that Bryan could play. He’s an amazing actor, but there is literally no role he could play in it. If he was a foot taller and weighed another 150 pounds, maybe he could’ve taken Dave’s part. Maybe he could’ve gained 150 pounds, but I don’t think he could grow another foot. (Laughs.) But Bryan is amazing. I would love to work with him. We crack each other up, and he is the funniest guy. He’s just a good man, too, so I would love to do something with him.
Is Chris Nolan going to enjoy Universal? You and Jordan Peele seem to be quite happy there.
Definitely, definitely. I conveyed how much I feel about Universal’s commitment to original storytelling and the movie theaters. And in an age where everybody is trying to sell the narrative that original movies and movie theaters are dying out, I don’t believe that at all! Not even a little bit. And Universal has doubled down — and continues to double down — that it’s their identity. So I’m hoping Jordan, Chris, myself and anybody else that will come over, or at other studios, can prove that everyone wants to see fresh, original ideas in a movie theater.
During Glass’ sequence on the battlefield, Elijah (Samuel L. Jackson) commented to Casey Cooke (Anya Taylor-Joy) that she was the sole survivor of the Beast’s (James McAvoy) zoo incident, and he ultimately showed the same interest in her that he did with David (Bruce Willis) and the Eastrail 177 accident years earlier. So did Casey Cooke have undefined superpowers?
(Laughs.) It did occur to me to go there, but I tacked towards keeping the series about those individuals that have powers. And then their family members were an extension of their powers, but more in a connected-to-the-real-world way. So the side characters are equally important, and that was kind of where my head was going. So I tried to keep her as the side character and not one of the superheroes.
After Split, I thought she had superpowered hunting senses since her trauma took place on hunting trips. And after Glass, I thought she had superpowered empathy given her effect on the Beast.
(Laughs.) That’s true, that’s true. But it’s funny you should say that because it did pop into my head.
Have you considered any other TV ideas for when you wrap Servant?
There’s always something. In the last year, I’d say we got really close on two different ideas that I was thinking about and almost did. So you never know. At this second, I don’t have one, but every day, we have a wonderful process that brings us amazing storytellers. So I have no doubt that one day, an incredible storyteller will come in and want to tell a long-form story that I can help them with.
Servant season three is now airing every Friday on Apple TV+.
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