Throughout his prolific filmmaking career, M. Night Shyamalan has become synonymous with precision filmmaking, daring premises, and unpredictable twists. As one of the flagship series on Apple TV+, “Servant” bears the unmistakable Shyamalan imprint, with a wry and outlandish sense of humor thrown in. While even Shyamalan’s most chilling horror films bear some humorous flourishes, the sensibility here is enhanced by the show’s creator and writer, Tony Basgallop (“Berlin Station”). Aided by a wildly unhinged and specific performance from Lauren Ambrose, who plays a mother in denial over the death of her infant son, “Servant” feels like a fresh take on the darkly comic genre thriller.
“Servant” is only Shyamalan’s second TV series as executive producer (he previously produced the Fox series “Wayward Pines”), but the exacting auteur has perfected the art of schooling his directors in his way of shooting and working with actors — and he has incredibly high standards.
“I’m not super prescriptive, but I definitely had a boot camp for everybody,” Shyamalan told IndieWire during a recent in-person interview. “[I said] — ‘You need to have a value system for what you’re shooting. Please do not come in here and just do coverage. If I want you to do that, I can get a computer to do that, I don’t need you to do that. If you’re gonna do this scene with two medium shots, you need to tell me why.'”
While Shyamalan directed the first and ninth episodes of the season himself, he had to let go of the reins a little if “Servant” was not going to take up all of his time. Demanding quality control led to some hard conversations, which he was not afraid to have.
“[I had to make sure] that they stop being company men or women,” the director said. “I’m demanding that you get involved. So whenever there was a moment that wasn’t in sync, I had hard conversations with some of them [after I saw a cut]. I would say, ‘Alright, I’m gonna ask you some things: What is she feeling? What is this scene about?’ And there’s silence and I go — ‘boom, right there.’ And I go — ‘why?’ And she or he would say — ‘I don’t know.’ Well, you’re dead, you’re absolutely dead, and you should be ashamed of yourself.”
As mortifying as it may sound to imagine M. Night Shyamalan telling you to be ashamed of yourself, there’s no denying that the filmmaker has boundless wisdom to share. “Don’t be passive. Don’t take yourself out of the artistic process. And just take no responsibility. You’re not allowed to live in the crevices.”
The format of “Servant” — half-hour episodes told in a single location within a Philadelphia townhouse — helped mitigate any fear the filmmaker might have felt around losing control.
“I have to create an equation that makes sense. Unless I stopped and dedicated my life and my company’s life to this for the next six years, like David Chase, I can’t feel super comfortable with this equation,” he said. “Half-hour thrillers, that feels good. I’m halving the amount of content, and I think it creates a beautiful form for this. All in one location…being confined, you can spend so much time on the performance, so much time on the lighting, everything can go to the right places. So it’s that equation.”
The other element was working with strong filmmakers. Despite those hard conversations, Shyamalan was very proud of the talent he found to direct “Servant.” He said he only chose filmmakers that he “love[d] and trust[ed] to execute properly.” Those include Daniel Sackheim (“The Americans,” “True Detective”) and Swiss filmmaker Lisa Brühlmann (“Killing Eve”).
In order to find the best directors, he put out a call for international talent, leaning into female filmmakers.
“I also want to lean into female filmmakers and international voices, because I find that just that slight bit of off-kilter is our weapon,” Shyamalan said. “It’s exciting voices [from] different cultures bringing their point of view. Especially ’cause I feel ultimately the story of Dorothy and Leeane is so critical to this. That balance, and this is about mother’s reaction to the unspeakable, and the delicacy of that.”
“Servant” premiered its first three episodes Thursday, November 28. Apple TV+ will release new episodes each Friday thereafter.