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M. Night Shyamalan’s “Servant:” How to Master the Slow Burn in Storytelling

Single-location psychological thriller recently renewed for a second season on Apple TV+ explores trauma and loss.

Night Shyamalan’s new psychological thriller Servant, recently renewed for a second season on Apple’s TV+ streaming service, follows a Philadelphia couple in mourning after an unspeakable tragedy creates a rift in their marriage and opens the door for a mysterious force to enter their home. Produced by Blinding Edge Pictures, and starring Lauren Ambrose, Toby Kebbell, Rupert Grint and Nell Tiger Free, the 30-minute drama series takes place in a single location within a Philadelphia townhouse. The series is created by Tony Basgallop and executive produced by Shyamalan, who also directs two of the first season’s 10 half-hour episodes. Other episodic directors include Daniel Sackheim (The Americans, True Detective) and Swiss filmmaker Lisa Brühlmann (Killing Eve).

Servant follows Dorothy (Ambrose), a TV reporter, and Sean (Kebbell), a world-class chef. “Despite their professional triumphs, Dorothy and Sean are living in an unending nightmare, following the death of their infant son,” writes Josh Wigler for The Hollywood Reporter:

“Not yet ready to accept his death, Dorothy chooses to believe her son is still alive in the form of a reborn doll. Not yet ready to shatter his wife’s illusion, Sean plays along with Dorothy’s fantasy, the two of them inviting a nanny into their home: Leanne, played by Game of Thrones veteran Nell Tiger Free. What follows is ten 30-minute episodes of stomach-churning dread, as Leanne’s murky motivations collide with the horrifying reality at the heart of the Turner house — a house that both the Turners themselves as well as the show writ large can’t quite escape.”

“Centering on a slightly awful couple of young urban professionals and the slightly creepy Wisconsin teenager they hire as a live-in helper, the story feints in numerous well-tested directions,” writes Mike Hale in his review for the New York Times. “Is the nanny evil? Is the mom psycho? Is the baby demonic? Is the house possessed? All possibilities are kept in play, the various tropes employed less like the escalating steps of a horror tale than like the stock, rotating elements of a situation comedy.” The overall feel, Hale continues, “is knowingly low-key, deadpan comic and, perhaps intentionally, a little airless, as if the action were taking place inside one of the sous-vide bags employed by the husband, Sean.”

Read more: Servant: M. Night Shyamalan on Crafting an “Urban Nightmare” for Apple TV (The Hollywood Reporter)

In her review for Vanity Fair, Laura Bradley writes that Servant is “one of Apple’s most solid offerings” to date, noting: “From the first moments of its premiere, Servant is ominous and captivating. Leanne shows up at the Turner house ready to work — and before too long, viewers learn what’s afoot when Sean, in a moment of silent rage, grabs the plastic baby by its leg and smashes it against the crib. Needless to say, however, there’s a whole lot of mystery left to sort out in this twisty suspense story — questions designed to keep us hitting ‘play’ on episode after episode.”

In an interview with in Jennifer Maas for The Wrap, Basgallop noted that Servant combines urban legends with his own fears about parenting:

“Originally, the idea came from having children myself and someone placing that precious newborn right into your hands and the first thought for me was, ‘How can I drop this? How can I break this? Am I right for this? Am I ready to be a parent and all the changes that it’s going to bring into my life?’ So I was very interested to write about parenthood. But, being the sort of person that I am, I search for the dark side of things and I want to tell the story about parenthood gone wrong, in a sense. And a family who is seemingly perfect to the outside world, but once you get past the facade you realize that everything is broken.”

During their collaboration, Basgallop found that he and Shyamalan had a similar approaches to developing the script for the series, he tells Danielle Turchiano in an interview for Variety:

“When Night and I first met, I had two episodes already written and he reacted very strongly to those. He became a great sounding board. Pretty much with every episode, I dive in, I write what I believe in, I take the story where I think the next step is, and then he and I sit down to discuss that script — that step — looking to what we’re delivering. He and I have a similar sensibility in we’re contrarians, in a sense; we both want to deliver what people aren’t expecting. But that doesn’t always mean a big plot twist; it can just mean [not to] go down the usual path or scare people where they want to be scared. We put them on edge and then throw something in that’s going to knock them off-balance.”

Shyamalan “gets pushed up front here,” writes Jacob Oller for Paste magazine, “because while Basgallop’s script is solid and idea is spooky, it’s Shyamalan’s aesthetic, inventiveness, and tempo in the pilot that set the standard while cinematographer Mike Gioulakis (from various Shyamalan films and Us) creates a static, doll house-like artificiality to the house’s insides. They keep the show grooving through its introductory period at an upsetting, anxious pace.”

As executive producer, Shyamalan found himself involved with every aspect of production. “It’s really funny, I didn’t know I was going to do this much. I didn’t know what I was going to do but it ended up being a lot and I loved it!” he told Martin Carr in an interview for Flickering Myth:

“We shot it, we built it 20-something minutes from my house, and I was there all the time and hired everybody. It was a beautiful thing; I was just really interested. One thing I got a lot of satisfaction from was working with the other directors and with multiple editors. You know I make a movie every two years and its lonely. I don’t live in LA so this was like, ‘wow, I get to talk about cinema and this and that….’ What was really fun was to see how each director; they’re good at something or let’s say they have a lean towards something. So, one is frenetic so the episodes are frenetic, one is more intricate in performance and so that one’s more internal and one is more muscular and so that one has a lot of like movement and stuff like that and that’s really nice to see that. That’s when they’re directing well, I think.”

Speaking at a panel at New York Comic-Con, Shyamalan observed, “What’s really, really unique about this show is it never leaves one location,” David Crow writes for Den of Geek. “The show, the entire time, is always in one location. So it has this almost play-like quality to it. We got to concentrate on the performances and the writing, and the cinematography, and every shot.”

Read more: A Paean To the Female Gaze: The Stunning Visuals for “Portrait of a Lady on Fire”

Read more: Follow the Light, Follow the Mood: Making Terrence Malick’s “A Hidden Life”

“We could’ve faked everything, but we chose not to cut corners,” Shyamalan says of the fully-functioning set in an interview with Beth Webb for NME. “The toilets flushed, the kitchen worked, everything was real. When you take away that artifice, it really helped the actors, especially as this is only a one-location show.”

Watch Shyamalan discuss Servant in a video interview for NME in the player below:

Putting out a call for international talent, Shyamalan specifically sought female filmmakers for Servant, he tells IndieWire’s Jude Dry:

“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. 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.”

Shyamalan’s vision for the series spans a whopping 60 half-hour episodes, he tells Mike Ryan in an interview for Uproxx:

“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.”

In an interview with Associated Press, Shyamalan says Servant is about “loss, the different reactions to tragedy, and what can happen when trauma is not addressed.” Watch the interview in the player below:

In the video player below, watch the Collider interview with series creator Tony Basgallop, where he discusses the writing process with Shyamalan, what it was like to work with Apple, the idea behind the gruesome eel scene, and more:

Looking for more on Servant?

Read more: ‘Servant’ Boss Breaks Down Apple TV Plus Collaboration with M. Night Shyamalan (Variety)

Read more: M Night Shyamalan takes us through the real-life twists that surprise him (The Big Issue)