For nearly three decades, American film writer-director M Night Shyamalan has created films that make you pay attention. From The Sixth Sense (1999), The Visit (2015) and the Unbreakable trilogy — including Split (2016) and Glass (2019) — Shyamalan’s films, known for their twist endings and in-depth character development, have cumulatively grossed over $3 billion globally, making him one of the most celebrated American directors.
Shyamalan’s films don’t rely on gory effects or over-the-top CGI to draw in crowds. Instead, it’s the director’s masterfully timed plotting of suspense that have earned him the respect in the industry.
His newest project, Servant, however, shies away from his normal way of working. A different execution, that is. While it keeps in Shyamalan’s signature knack for creating tension, keeping its viewers on the edge of their seats, the narrative is dramatically prolonged as Servant is a 10 episode mini series hosted on Apple’s new subscription streaming service Apple+ that debuted in November. The series is entirely set inside of a Pennsylvania townhouse — Shyamalan’s home state — giving the audience the sense of familiarity with the show’s surroundings. The show and its audience become one.
Servant follows local newscaster Dorothy and famous chef Sean whose newborn baby Jericho died at 13 weeks, resulting in Dorothy to have a psychotic breakdown. As part of the wealthy couple’s “transitional object therapy” prescribed by her shrink, the two adopt a fake animatronic doll which they are meant to treat as the real Jericho. Dorothy goes as far as hiring a nanny, which is when events turn to the bizarre.
Apple has already commissioned a second season — shooting starts next month — with Shyamalan saying he will need about six series (over 30 hours) to properly tell the story.
We caught up with M Night in London, at Tom Sellers’ Michelin star restaurant, Story, where the director and the cast of Servant — including Rupert Grint and Nell Tiger Free — hosted an experimental dinner where each course was based on one of the show’s four characters, tying back to the importance of food in the series.
Over a three hour dinner, we spoke with M Night about the power of suspense, the importance of spirituality in narrative and how streaming services are disrupting the viewing experience for the next generation.
Christopher Morency: I was in the metro coming here and I saw this big poster for Servant on Apple and also a billboard for The Irishman on Netflix. It made me think of all these streaming platforms disrupting the viewing experience. You don’t get the same experience from viewing it on your phone than in a cinema. Do you think about this when you create something that’s not for the cinema first?
M Night Shyamalan: It’s a conversation I think about a lot. My first love is definitely to tell stories to 500 strangers in a darkened room. They become one and how we connect is something I love. The teenager informs the old guy in the back row without them knowing it. They’re connected by a string. She’s giggling by something and he becomes attuned to what she’s laughing about and he feels the tragedy and she feels it just a little bit more. Everyone is tugging at everyone and it’s very beautiful.
This, I approached in a very similar way. For the premiere in New York we played the first episode in front of 500 people and they were all gasping and screaming in that same rhythmic way so the question is, how does that work when I don’t ask from that same commitment back from that audience. The TV audience doesn’t require that same commitment. You’re not leaving the house, you’re not banned from multitasking, you’re not conducting your regular life, you’re on your phone and your sister comes in and asks you for your car keys. None of that’s going on in a movie theatre. The commitment is very low. You have to just go click. You can stop a streaming service at any second. And so that lack of commitment, it helps when you’re doing lower end stuff because the audience isn’t expecting that much and eating their taco.
Our attention spans have become so much shorter indeed. How do you captivate someone’s attention at a time when we’re shopping at the same time, on our phones, talking?
Well, I don’t give you any handles and I don’t generalize. So when a character is saying something, you don’t know if he or she’s angry, happy, upset, manipulating or being manipulated. So you can’t multitask. You have to engage because I’m requiring you to finish the sentence by making it incomplete. You can’t look down and then up because you’ll be lost. “What did she say, what happened.” The person next to you will call you an idiot and tell you to stop shopping. Then you’re participating and it doesn’t become this passive experience. It’s like a dance, in some form you watch a dance but in others you’re part of the dance. That’s the requirement, you keep it slightly incomplete. So the assumption is that you can’t do anything else. Let’s see if those principles still apply. I think they do because storytelling cuts through everything. There’s no correlation to budget, our show is the cheapest Apple show, and I’m taking a bet by thinking it will have the biggest impact around the world through just storytelling.
I didn’t know what to expect going into tonight. I knew that the dishes were created around the series’ four lead characters. Also food is a big part of the series. Talk to me about that connection between the food and entertainment aspect. There’s this interdisciplinary dialogue going on.
I didn’t know what to expect here too. It honored the show in its experience of precision and artistry of food, because the show has it at its centre. Hopefully it will make you feel the making of the show in the same way that we’re taking care of it. I like anything that makes you slow down and takes stock of what’s in front of you. Anything that makes you be present is a good thing.
It again comes back to this sense of paying attention.
Yes. This phone in front of us. This is the opposite of that. It keeps pulling you from where you are. The past, future, FOMO, whatever it is. Art can do that, it can anchor you back to the present. Even if it’s a painting of a flower. Done in the right way, it invokes something in you, you can smell it, you’re there.
You’ve been so known for creating suspense and that’s exactly the way to pull the viewer back in. What is the power in suspense today at a time when we’re so distracted?
It’s inherent to all storytelling. How we became dominant sapiens on the planet was because we got to storytelling first. I’m sure the very first stories started was about “do you see that thing in the sky? You know who that is?” That’s suspense. “That’s a god and he wants us to go into this valley and they’ll take us.” Or “What’s that noise upstairs? Nobody’s supposed to be home?”
All the stories still told by our world leaders are around “they’re going to hurt us, they’re taking our things. You know those people that don’t look like you, they’re the cause,” You’re creating the unknown and that’s part of suspense. Evoking the unknown is how you make somebody scared and create fear. It’s a very strong storytelling technique. It’s not much different than what they say around the campfire, or what Trump does. To buy people, you create a suspenseful unknown. And how do we overcome that? My stories are about regular people who are grappling with their faith.
I know that the narratives you create often explore spirituality without being too on the nose. Where once it was very distant to people, we’re seeing this new age spirituality play up around the world. We need something to hold onto. How has that impacted the way you think about narrative when this sense of spirituality all of a sudden is becoming very present in our daily lives? It’s not longer fiction, it’s real.
This phone, again, has created this emptiness. All kinds of mental illnesses from 18-25 are skyrocketing. We’re losing our place of sense and meaning, so a lot of people will turn to spirituality to find some meaning in whatever form that is. It’s a reaction to being not here. So what does it all mean? It makes us feel meaningless and spirituality gives that meaning. I like using tribulations and threatening situations to make us find a deeper, stronger version of ourselves. Often that’s the journey of spirituality. There’s a car wreck, a person dies, and we’re untethered. Our definition of life is shattered and from that something stronger, and more clear, comes from it.
You created four dozen home films by the age of 18. That passion for filmmaking was clearly there from the start. What are the key points the next generation need to know to be successful in film and that second part of that question is what are some of the young filmmakers you look to?
I just saw a movie called Queen & Slim, that I love, directed by Melina Matsoukas and written by Lena Waithe. It’s so daring and beautiful, a fusion of music video and drama and romance and social commentary. I found it very singular in a way only she could do it. And that’s what I want to hear. What is the only thing you can do? If you try to fit into the system, you’re telling everyone that’s watching, “we have no agency”. And we only have meaning by giving up the thing that’s unique about ourselves. Tell us the opposite story, tell us the thing that’s weird about us, the arrogance, the limitations, that’s you and what will make you so particular.