As Servant draws in rave reviews and reminds the world what M. Night Shyamalan has hidden in his wheelhouse, Martin Carr recently sat down with him to talk shop. Engaging, informed and truly passionate about every you could imagine Shyamalan opened up on casting, filming and where this sits amongst his back catalogue….
First of all I’d like to say congratulations on Season 2 and the renewal for that.
First why don’t you let me know what attracted you to the project to begin with?
I think it was a combination of the premise and the tone. The premise of the woman dealing with her grief in this manner and the tone which had this wit and dark humour that was masking pain. That kind of nomenclature to let us talk about something that’s difficult.
You’re an executive producer on this. Would you say that you were hands on during the production process itself?
You can’t be any more hands on than I was!
What did that entail for you?
I mean 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! 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….why are you doing 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.
What central qualities were you looking for when it came to the casting process the central characters?
This might be Monday morning quarterbacking a bit but I’m trying to erase now knowing who’s doing it so I can claim credit for all the things they do fantastically. Really, I think it was about who could bring a physicality and a buoyancy to the three parts and then a stillness to the fourth part, so that would be Nell’s part. That was how I thought about it. I thought there was a lot of humour and a lot of mania that was crackling there for them and so how it could be physical, and it turned out the three of them are incredible physical actors. So, they’re able to take this play like environment and you just don’t think about that: the dining room scene is hilarious and in the kitchen scene their conversation is amazing and they’re moving around the island in a certain way. So very, very lucky…so maybe now Monday morning quarterbacking…I can say that physicality and humour to express the humour through their bodies. You know, in the pilot, Toby leans in and looks down the hallway when she’s still talking to the doll and he’s like what?! You know like that. Like little touches of humour. So, they would get it – when I would say to him, I want you to lean over, he understands it in his body, he’s like I know how to do this.”
That brings to me the casting of Rupert Grint, it seems a really interesting choice and he’s really surprising in the role from the get-go.
What a revelation he is! He’s a real anomaly for me in my work with understanding of actors. It’s very, very hard to transition from child actor to adult actor. Period. Because most of the time a child actor just has this unusual quality and then they grow out of it and whatever that this is gone and they have to reinvent themselves, as we all do. But strangely, he’s found himself as an adult. I’ve talked to him about this and I said, wow I don’t think I’ve ever seen this kind of transformation.
Because the accent worked well, and the accent literally gets rid of who you consider him to be.
You know what you’re right. There’s just enough overlap between he’s a fun guy, he likes to drink, he likes to hang out, he’s these hedonistic, crazy Julian but he’s also very innocent at the centre of it all, like the brashness is covering something else. He just got the character from go and when he did the performance I was like wow, are we the luckiest show ever to have this guy. He steals every scene he’s in!
You mentioned the staging of it. In the initial episodes at least, it feels like a stage play. Was that a conscious decision?
Yes, that’s what I love about it, we never leave the house. That’s our great strength.
It keeps it compact within one central location.
I think any storytelling is valid as long as you’re consistent. So, a soap opera can be valid if they’re just really consistent in saying we’re going to do things of depth but we’re going to do them in this really over the top way. You know you can see it, Tim Burton does it, David Lynch does it. You can do it – you can make masterpieces in different tones as long as your consistent. The audience has to be able to master that language, almost from the first frame.”
There’s a tremendous amount of shorthand in there in terms of the storytelling, it’s very concise. As a filmmaker, you have a recognisable style and people sort of have an idea of what they’re going to get so how does this fit into your previous work?
I think hopefully when I’m choosing properly and I’m making the right choice, they’re each reflecting well on their siblings. You go, oh I see, the family resemblance is this. You know so if Lauren gives an amazing performance with great entertainment but coming from pain and stuff, you go, oh yea, James McAvoy’s performance in Split was like that and then another one and another one and then you go, oh right its these tragic characters that are making us laugh. That’s all part of it when you start to see the connective tissue.
The atmosphere within the house especially, it harks back to the Sixth Sense quite a bit in the way that it feels and also thematically some of the things that you deal with.
Yea, the Brownstone and the husband and wife having trouble, that kind of thing.
As you’re known primarily for writing and directing, and this is somebody else’s writing, how did that dynamic work between yourself and Tony?
You know it’s good. I’m still very much involved in what the story is, what we’re saying and how we’re saying it. I’m very much architectural in saying, hey in episode six or seven, this happens, we want to say that, we want to stress this, I’m not feeling this enough, make sure that we hit that, you know that kind of thing. There are three versions of the architecture: the entire show, the seasons and then the episodes so where does this episode’s architecture fit into that season, fit into the piece. I like thinking like that. So, when you’re watching a random episode, episode thirteen, where does that fit into the season…I should be crystal clear about that. So that when it’s done, the dream is, you’d love to watch it from beginning to end again and really enjoy it and you’ll show your child and they’ll show their child because it all fits in the right way. The danger with this format is that you just come up with another great idea, and another great, etc, and it’s just thing, no way could you ever make it come to a finish line. There’s a moment when you know that as a creator but we’re never going to get to a finish line, but we’ll be cancelled before that. (Laughs)
So, there’s one thing that I picked up on especially in the initial episode. It’s the one with social media. Obviously, the series deals with personal loss and personal identity to a degree so, how much do you believe social media influences our personal identity and our means of dealing with loss?
Well Lauren and I were talking about that, the idea that her character puts up a veneer and believes in that – that’s the way you’re supposed to do it You’re supposed to dress like this, talk like this, no matter what happened in your life, no matter what you’re going through. And it allows her to not be real and she revels in it. This is what you do – we’re gorgeous in front of the camera and this is how we handle things. It’s really a comment on a lot of what’s going on. She (Lauren) was saying, when she’s talking to her kids, about the way Dorothy is, is the way not to handle things. You want to be dealing with the reality of things.
As someone who has a rare degree of autonomy within their work working within a film industry which is very controlled, what do you think the benefits are of working within TV as opposed to film?
I think I’ve orchestrated both things now in a way that’s given me the most autonomy. So I construct the playing field in both of them: so I pay for them and we make the budget as low as possible and that creates a sense of being able to risk, both for them, the distributors, and for myself because for whatever reason, when you make it a lower number, the weirdness of like a bath tub scene when on lady is rubbing another lady’s breast and is it innocent, is it weird, is it sexual, is it beautiful, you’re not frightened of it because you’re like hey, we’re going to be unusual because of this price point and don’t panic. This hasn’t cost hundreds of millions of dollars. And yet, my belief is, and my bet is, and this has been my bet with the studios in the movies and with Apple, if you let me do that, we’re actually going to win on the commerce side more than the other ones because its very salient and specific. And even its just a trick for me to feel free, that hey I’m not risking my partners by doing this then it allows me to be a new version, a very daring version of myself so the budgets a big thing to keep the autonomy on.
And you have your creative freedom.
And we can go back until I feel like I got it.
I’ve got two more questions. One is quite contentious: so, where do you sit on cinematic universes and whether or not they are actually a cinematic product?
Well it falls more into a conversation about, well if we change those titles for a second and we call it commercial filmmaking and independent filmmaking, and you can change those titles as well, but the commercial filmmaking, the beauty of it is is that it fully acknowledges the audience and so it says I see you, I know why you’re here, I get your needs – you’re the doorman, the cab driver, I know you’re struggle, I know you want to escape. That’s beautiful – to acknowledge the audience like that, completely acknowledge them. And then independent cinema, is one person’s view of the world – this is my take on being poor in a Brazilian slum or whatever it is and this is what it’s like, right, but you’re not being acknowledged at all, you’re hearing that person’s view. When you come away from that, you’ve expanded, you’ve grown just a little bit. There’s beauty in both things. I try to do both – it’s a struggle – to see you and for you to see me. That’s the aspiration. There’s validity in both. You know we love to go to a lecture and learn something, I do, and be provoked.
One more question – I noticed in one of the episodes, I don’t know if its intentional or not, there’s a Withnail and I reference – it’s a Bruce Robinson film from ‘86 – and on the side of one of the packages of food there’s Here Hare Here – it’s a single line from the film….
You know, you’d have to ask Tony…I didn’t think that was what you were going to say. I thought you were going to say a shot from The Earrings of Madam De because there is a total homage shot to that movie…
So I’m going to ask you one question which is from Hot Fuzz, which is a Simon Pegg movie, and it is describe your perfect Sunday afternoon? Completely un-film related…
Wow…work out, lunch with the family, read in the library, watch an old movie, play a basketball game, watch a contemporary movie in the movie theatre…
Thank you very much.
It’s a pleasure.
Servant is available to stream now on Apple TV+. Read our review here.
Many thanks to M. Night Shyamalan for taking the time for this interview.