Maybe it shouldn’t be considered a twist that M. Night Shyamalan joined the great streaming revolution that we are currently living through as you read this. Just in the last few weeks, it feels like everything has changed: Netfix has four movies in the Oscar conversation, while both Disney+ and Apple TV+ have launched with a bevy of original programming, attracting big-name filmmakers with the promise of artistic freedom. Though, with Servant, Shyamalan feels he made a “bet” on Apple, which makes a lot of sense considering the service didn’t exist when he signed on. And a big part of that bet was the distribution model, which will release his show once a week, as opposed to all at once, a model Shyamalan makes clear he doesn’t like (which, when pitching his show, ruled out Netflix).
Servant (co-created with Tony Basgallop) stars Lauren Ambrose and Tony Kebbell as Dorothy and Sean, a married couple suffering through the recent loss of their baby. The couple hire a housekeeper, Leanne (Nell Tiger Free), whose mysterious past starts to become an obsession between both Sean and Dorothy’s brother, Julian (Rupert Grint). And soon after Leanne’s arrival, truly supernatural events start happening.
It’s a tense, moody show that keeps the viewer engaged, in 30-minutes snippets. And Shyamalan (who directs two episodes) has thought long and hard about why. And his theories on what keeps a viewer, in this crowded landscape, engaged is pretty fascinating. And he thinks a lot about why making each episode 30 minutes is so important for viewer interaction.
Before meeting with Shyamalan at his Manhattan hotel, I didn’t know much about Servant other than the ten episodes I had watched, and it did feel like a complete story. So I was pretty shocked when Shyamalan said he has this story plotted out for 60 episodes.
In the last few weeks it feels like the entire entertainment world has undergone a big change. Do you feel this way?
Well, I think in the end there’s so much content now, and so many things to take our attention, that when we think about what will actually cause a connection with the consumer — it’s, for me, still the same thing. In fact, it’s maybe more so, because of the amount of product out there for you as the consumer — and that would be the quality of the story, the storytelling. So the things that I cherish the most, which maybe you could have, at a time, tricked the audience into with marketability, or something like that, of a movie let’s say. And in this field with so much product out there, this is a bet I’m making.
What’s the bet?
The bet is that the quality will be the thing that will puncture it from the 500 shows a year. And that everyone will find their way to these shows.
Your last few movies have been quite successful. So how big of a bet was that? You’re betting on something that didn’t even exist then.
Well, we were really excited about this story. So when we went out to the marketplace to see who would be a good partner, the different opportunities had different pros and cons with it. For example, Netflix has established a system of distribution. There are all these wonderful pros and cons to every single place. And Apple was an unknown because it didn’t exist. And the value system of the company is something that I feel very connected to. So that’s where I first felt some peace about the decision. And then, secondly, I wanted to be a part of defining their first content to the world. And so that was a really exciting opportunity. So I felt like this show and their value systems were in alignment, in the sense that it was very minimalist: simple and clean. We were super contained, as you know, we never leave the location. We never will. It’s like a play.
I watched ten episodes, and I didn’t think about that. I realized it, but it’s not something that was on my mind the whole time, as opposed to other times that’s done. I mean, you do go outside…
Yeah, you do. My rules are anything that’s tethered to the house is fair game for the season.
And we see stuff on TV.
Yeah. And then anything beyond that has to be seen through TV or some visual portal.
Was this always thought of as a series, or was this ever thought of as a movie?
No, no. In the beginning, it was more of an arbitrary aspirational thing to say, hey, I want to do this in 60 parts. We’ll do it in half hours. And when I thought about the half-hour format as a thriller, it really went click for me: Hm, the things that I love to do in cinema, I could do in a half-hour format. But an hour format, there’s so much content that you start to vamp. You can’t help it. That’s what I have an issue with most of the time in this longer form format. With 30 minutes, you get that kind of high octane storytelling and you’re out. You know, that strong thriller line in each episode and you’re out. So, for example, if we were lucky enough to do all 60 pieces of this? Well, you saw ten already, that’s 30 hours of content, right? 30 hours of content! That’s about a season and a half of old network television.
So your goal is 60 episodes?
Wait, I honestly thought what I saw was the whole thing.
No! Oh boy, I have got so much to tell you.
There are 60 of them?
That’s my dream. That’s the dream.
So after the 10th episode, when will we see the 11th?
In one year. That’s the hope.
I have to admit, after the 10th episode, I was satisfied. I thought it was a great ending.
Oh, good! I love it. That makes me super happy. But, yeah, I know episode 60 in my head.
Obviously this show deals a lot with grief. It’s a great exploration of that subject and the ending, which I won’t reveal obviously, but it really hit me.
Oh, it is. The whole show, the whole span of the season for me is about a couple coming to terms. I’m really excited about it as a conversation about the thing that you went through for all of us. I think that’s what, underneath the kind of the weirdness and the fun of it all, is this engine of the thing that we all deal with. Is the kind of surrealism of the ephemeral nature of our life, and our loves, and our family and how do we accept that, you know? And how hard it is to accept that.
How did you decide which two episodes you wanted to direct?
Well, the pilot was the pilot. I needed to establish everything.
It makes sense for you to direct that one.
And then when we figured out episode nine, when we talked through nine, Tony pitched his version of nine and I said, I’m going to direct that. That’s the performance for Lauren and the weight of that piece, because it will be the anchor episode for the whole series. And you know, what the audience feels about her and this incident and do they relate to it. I had so much fun directing those two episodes and I was very hands on with the whole thing with the other eight. And hopefully you can feel that, that there’s a consistency, but directing nine was really, really special.
What do you get out of this that you don’t get out of doing a film?
It was similar because, where I am right now as a person, is really wanting for myself and for others to find their voices. It was kind of like school for all of us. I’m betting on the fact that if we have the highest integrity, we’re going to cut through the marketplace because there’s only one way to cut through the marketplace right now. I don’t believe it’s stars. I don’t believe it’s any of that stuff. I believe it’s the story with the best ingredients and it’ll cut though.
But you do have great actors in this.
Yeah, that’s craftsmen at the highest form. People that embodied those things.
Because you’re not used to seeing him play this kind of character.
Yeah. Rupert came in, and when he auditioned, I didn’t really think about his child performance stuff at all.
You forget it very quickly.
Yeah, really quickly. And man, we were so lucky to find him and he just so gets Julian — so funny and dark. And they’re each, the three of them — the husband, wife, and the brother — are all dealing with acceptance and grief in their own ways: denial, nihilism, humor, perfectionism and cooking. All of these things that they’re using to deal with what happened, except for acceptance.
You mentioned your theory on making this a half-hour versus an hour…
I think it’s a big thing.
I do think there is something psychologically that makes it easier to watch ten 30-minute episodes, as opposed to if I was told to watch your new five-hour movie.
Yeah. And this is a deeper conversation that I need to analyze more, about why an individual can sit down and binge eight hours of a show, but it’s inconceivable to watch a four-hour movie. Inconceivable! One in a million people could sit down and watch a four or four and a half hour movie and enjoy it, but almost everyone can sit down and binge-watch. Right? Because I think it’s the compartmentalization of the story. Their awareness of where the architecture is of the narrative — that you’re aware that it’s coming and moving and closing. Moving and closing like book chapters; small book chapters that make you move through the piece in a way you feel closure, you feel the resonance. This is deeper conversation.
I’ve thought about this a lot because I see this argument a lot. Basically, that a person can binge ten hours of TV, but can’t sit through The Irishman. I do think it’s in your head. It’s the choice of choosing to watch one more installment, as opposed to knowing you have two hours left and no choice in the matter.
It’s super fascinating. I even wonder this with regard to commercials. Why you can show me something about paper towels? I didn’t ask you to do it. You’re doing it for 30 seconds to me and then you do a Honda car sale right after that. And I’m not super angry at you. I’m kind of interested in watching, what is that? Why? Because it’s involuntary a little bit, the commercial part, but it’s not like we’re all there going, “Oh, these are boring car commercials.” We just watch it in little 15 to 30-second increments of storytelling. It’s fascinating. But you’re right. So you say, “Hey, The Irishman is three hours,” to the population.
Three and a half.
Ah. By the way, this same thing happens to me with books. I’m a voracious reader and if the book is 800 pages, it will take me much, much longer than two 400-page books. And so what is that? That’s such a fascinating thing because it exists in all storytelling forms. So this half-hour format, for a thriller, is powerful. And can you tell a suspenseful story in the format that traditionally has been reserved for comedy. Well, now I’m sad that you saw them binged.
Well, I didn’t have a choice. But you want the suspense to build up every week?
Yeah, I want you to think about it because we did do details. I want you to spend a few days thinking about episodes.
I prefer it to come out once a week. I know Netflix likes to release them all at once, but then they seem gone.
Then it’s gone. And, especially in suspense, especially when we’re doing the ingredients, I want you to really think about the ingredients rather than binge it.
‘Servant’ premieres on Apple TV on November 28th. You can contact Mike Ryan directly on Twitter.