M. Night Shyamalan On ‘Servant’ And Why He Drowned Bruce Willis In A Puddle

Admittedly, “What does M. Night Shyamalan think about everything going on right now?,” was actually something I was curious to know. This is a reason why, the day before our interview, I rewatched Shyamalan’s 2008 film The Happening, a film that did not go over very well at the time but, now, well … look, he gets a lot more right about how a pandemic will go than people give him credit for doing. It is pretty remarkable. For instance, a movie like Contagion has a kook like Jude Law’s character spouting conspiracy theories. In The Happening we all rolled are eyes at the final scene when a cable news anchor claims the whole thing is a hoax. Well, unfortunately, it turns out M. Night was right. And, yes, he has some critical opinions on how the U.S. government has handled the pandemic.

Shyamalan, who just turned 50 a few months ago (as he explains, a good portion of his family all had consequential, notable birthdays during the pandemic), is video chatting from his home in Philadelphia to talk about the second season of Servant. A married couple, played by Lauren Ambrose and Toby Kebbell, have their infant son come back to life after the arrival of a mysterious nanny – Servant, in its first season, set primarily inside a house, seemed like a stylistic choice, but now doesn’t seem all that strange.

(The first season of Servant also got some unwanted attention due to a lawsuit filed against it for copyright infringement, alleging similarities with a film. Not getting as much attention was that Shyamalan and Servant won that case, even recouping their legal fees. Shymalan, ahead, discusses his legal victory.)

We had a little time left over at the end, so after we delved into The Happening, and we got into a couple of other questions I had about some of his past movies. The first was why he drowned Bruce Willis’s character in a puddle at the end of Glass, which seems almost personal. And the second is if he ever thinks about what would have happened if Haley Joel Osment had been cast in The Phantom Menace instead of The Sixth Sense – and this was breaking news to Shyamalan that Osment had ever auditioned for Star Wars.

We are all going to have birthdays during the pandemic, but I feel some empathy for people with big birthdays and you just had a big birthday…

I know. And this was the big year for birthdays for our whole family. I turned 50. My mom turned 80. My daughter turned 21. My other daughter turned 16.

Oh my gosh.

Everybody ended up just having quiet dinner at home. That turned out to be, “All right, what’s your favorite meal? We’re just going to cook your favorite meal.” That’s what it turned out to be for all of us.

Those ages you just mentioned, those are all huge birthdays.

Yeah. I know. The sweet 16, I think, hurt the most.

I talked to you for the first season of Servant and it’s funny to reread that because the theme was basically, “Ah, this streaming thing, I think it might take off.” And here we are.

Yeah. Amazing. I don’t know how it’s all going to shake out. I wonder how it will be at the end of the day? Is everyone going to have 15 different streaming things that they’re going to pay for? Or is it all going to get bundled like a cable thing? How is this going to work out for the average person? I’m not sure.

Well, you had to have thought about it. You have a streaming show. What do you think is going to happen?

When I think about the landscape changing for streamers? As you know, everybody’s going to make good content. Everyone’s going to have, like, if you want to watch that movie, you have to go to this studio’s streaming service. I like being associated with Apple and their brand to separate us a little bit. And, hopefully, people will see us, because it’s going to be so hard to get people’s attention now that there are a thousand shows being made.

So I watched seven episodes of the new season. It hit me a lot different than watching the first season. Because a show set primarily in a house, yeah, that makes a lot of sense right now.

I know, that’s just my taste. Nothing to do with pandemics. That’s what I like. I like isolated, contained stories.

That’s how we all live now.

Yeah. It’s not strange at all now. It’s not unusual.

Your show went from, oh, this is really unusual that they spend so much time at home to, oh, they’re just like everyone else. They spend a lot of time in their homes.

That’s true. That’s true. You don’t even think about it anymore.

So you just got renewed for a third season. Last year you said you wanted to make 60 episodes?

I changed my mind on that over the pandemic. I outlined the whole series over the pandemic and figured out where I wanted it to go and how many episodes it would be. And it came out to 40.

Okay, so now 40.

Instead of 60. Yeah.

So the pandemic made you want to do less?

Well, it made me figure it all out. Two things happened. Well, three things. One was I just wrote out all my ideas and it just came out to that. That was one. Two, I didn’t expect to be as involved in the show as I am. I mean, I do everything. I put in every sound effect. Right now, when I finish here, I’m going to go and listen to a cue. I did the writers’ room right before all this, for season three. Every color timing I do upstairs. I do everything. And I like it! I’m enjoying it!

I just don’t know what my life will be like many, many years from now. So I felt like I can commit at this level through next year and get us to the finish line on this thing. So it’s a combination of that. And also what we just talked about: that the world has changed so much and the streamers are everywhere. And what used to be a long commitment of six seasons feels eternal in this world. Whereas now, you see the impact of Queen’s Gambit has on Netflix, right? It’s powerful – it’s a commitment for the audience – but not that long. And yet it’s what everyone wanted. I feel it. And it affected me and it helped Netflix. And it’s one of the most sticky things that’s happened for them in a long time. And I feel like if I can do something super high quality for a burst of time here, that’s probably the best for me and for them. So it just ended up kind of naturally looking at the playing field, shifting from 60 episodes to 40. So that’s where my head went.

So I don’t know if this is a touchy subject or not, but the show was sued for copyright infringement. I read the judge’s decision, that you won. Did you feel vindicated? The judge wrote, “many of the alleged similarities in the First Amended Complaint are mischaracterizations of one or both of the works at issue,” and you were awarded your legal fees back.

It’s so par for the course, too. I didn’t even really spend any on it. When it happened, I was like, whatever, here’s the mountain of stuff. Let’s figure it out. And actually, whenever somebody goes, “Hey, I thought of an alien movie first.” I’m like, “Please, I know you did, but here’s all my stuff. Please, please, please just look at it carefully. Look at the dates. I know you feel like somebody took something from you, but we all have so many similar pools of ideas and thoughts. Nobody took anything, that’s not how I run. In fact, if you want to do a game, I bet you I can come up with movie ideas right now. Right off the top of my head, ten of them right now.”

And, so, I sent these people that and said, “Please, please. I totally understand. Just, here’s all the information. Clearly, clearly, this was done way, way before anything that you were thinking of. And I wish you the best, I really do.” And they kept pursuing it anyway. It went exactly as you thought it would. But yet they never write about how it was ridiculous. They just write about the negative part of it.

So I rewatched The Happening. As far as the pandemic, you got a lot right. Have you thought about that recently? It starts in the Northeast. People are nonchalant at first. It hits the cities, then it hits the towns, then it goes to rural areas. There’s a weird MAGA-type gun guy. You can’t be around other people.

Well, you know what’s similar is I guess it’s an unseen enemy, right? It’s a conceptual enemy, which is hard to wrap your head around. And as you can see, by the way the country reacted to a conceptual enemy, the framing of the storytelling is everything. Do they give credence to the fear? Do they feel restricted? And because of the way the administration chose to be ambiguous about what was happening to all of us, you have all these bizarre reactions across the spectrum.

I remember when I first saw that movie I rolled my eyes at the final scene with the newscast calling it a hoax and a government conspiracy. And then that happened.

Dude, no one would believe what happened here in these last four years. No one would believe that any of this stuff could actually play out. No one would believe what we’ve witnessed in these last four years. No one. I have so many doctors in my family and their patients, as they’re being told they’re dying or what are they dying of, “You’re dying from the coronavirus.” They go, “No, that’s a hoax. What am I really dying from?” That’s being said to the doctor! “I don’t know what to tell you. You’re dying from the coronavirus.” And it’s incredible.

Well, that was my long way of saying I think you deserve more credit for that movie, because you got more right than anyone gave you credit for at the time.

That’s funny.

And you cast both Jeremy Strong and Alan Ruck. So you were ahead on the Succession craze, too.

Yeah, that’s true!

So, I’m curious, why did you drown Bruce Willis in a puddle at the end of Glass. Because it seemed almost personal.

[Laughs] Well, in the end, that the simplest thing can take the strongest person down. That it’s like more of Achilles’ heel that, in the mythos of it, you don’t need an army to take down the strongest man if you know their weakness.

It’s been reported Haley Joel Osment auditioned for the part of Anakin in The Phantom Menace. Do you think about that? Because chances are then he’s not in The Sixth Sense and everything would be different.

Oh, really? I didn’t, it’s funny, I never heard that! You’re the first one actually I’ve ever heard that from. That’s interesting.

I’m breaking news to you.

I mean, jeez. I mean, always I’m astonished by filmmaking. The kind of serendipity involved with filming who’s available at what time, what person comes to audition for me, all these things. The particular cinematographer, the sun on that day. That’s what I love about filmmaking. It is all this happenstance that comes together and becomes this alchemy of magic that’s caught. I’m astonished by it, but I’ve kind of learned to celebrate it and enjoy it. And even this last movie, that I’ve done so much of that came to the table.

Old, right?

Yeah. So much of that. Like, I couldn’t make that movie now if I wanted to with the same cast. It would be so hard to do all the things that we did and it’s just amazing. And that’s what makes it so precious for me.

You can contact Mike Ryan directly on Twitter.