For the first time in six years, M. Night Shyamalan's back on television. The writer/director, best known for The Sixth Sense and the Unbreakable trilogy, acts as an executive producer on the Apple TV+ series Servant, a creepy horror story that centres on a couple who are dealing with the loss of their son. The twist? Their coping mechanism is to mollycoddle a terrifying baby doll, going as far as to get a nanny to look after the "child". And, as you would expect from Shyamalan, there's something even stranger at play.
GamesRadar+sat down with Shyamalan and Servant creator Tony Basgallop to talk about their new thriller, the pair discussing twists, binge watching, and how deliberately limiting yourself can help enhance your story. Oh, and that eel scene from the premiere. If you've seen the episode, then you'll know the one. The Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.
Warning: major spoilers for the first three episodes of Servant below.
GamesRadar+: The first thing that really struck me about Servant is how claustrophobic it is; we never really leave the Turner house. Almost like a play. As a writer and a director, what were your inspirations for that?
Tony Basgallop: From my point of view, there’s something interesting about storytelling when you give yourself those restrictions. You can’t approach things in traditional ways. If you limit yourself, you have to find creative ways to bring story through the door. And that’s challenging.
As a writer, I’m always looking for that type of a challenge; something… ‘Can I think differently?’ Also, my training ground was on [BBC soap] EastEnders. As you know, you get the Queen Vic and three standing sets. You choose your sets up front and that’s what you got for the week. So, I wanted to go back there as I felt that was a very creative period of my career to be restricted in that way – to have to find solutions to something.
That’s the half-an-hour format. I don’t think it quite would work in an hour. But half hour? With just a few sets? You’re right, it creates that play-like feeling where you just have to think different. That for me was the exciting bit of it.
M. Night Shyamalan: Well, I believe in the theory of incompleteness in storytelling. So, there’s obviously other ways to think about storytelling: to dazzle, to [gasp], your jaw drops with what you see. My brain doesn’t work that way. Mine does work with incompleteness. You make the audience finish the conversation. They picture the world outside that building, they picture what their work is like and where they came from. You keep just a window and they can only see through this window into this house and that’s it.
For me… I grew up with The Twilight Zone. Their minimalism and their lack of budget and everything worked greatly in their favour. If they had more money, and were more ambitious and tried all these other things – we wouldn’t be talking about them. They would have shown us too much, did too much. But they had to insinuate what was outside… that storytelling still to this day bothers us because we became a part of that storytelling. You’re a part of the art form when you tell it like that. You finish the story. It becomes a much more visceral thing for you. We’re saying it’s a restriction but really we’re limiting our palette.
M. Night, you directed the premiere. What was the most uncomfortable scene for you to direct?
MS: It’s not going to be the one that you’re thinking of. For me, it’s the two ladies in the bathtub when she’s rubbing her breast to release the tension. That’s what our show can offer that nobody has ever offered, in my opinion. You’ve never seen that scene before, right? It’s weird, it’s uncomfortable, it’s sexual, it’s innocent, it’s beautiful. It’s an aspect of being a woman that I have not even thought about as a guy. To watch these two women, for Leanne to cross the line like that… it tells you something about her character as well and where it’s going.
When we shot it, too, the actors said ‘Wow, that is insanely powerful.’ You can’t even put your finger on what genre that is… I’m amazed Apple let us do that scene! [laughs]
TB: That was the scene that, when I was writing, I thought this is the show I want to make. It was always like ‘Who is going to buy this?’ There were many, many networks that would never show that scene. It was always the challenge – I’m doing something that’s quite risky here, are we going to find the right people here? No one ever asked me to take it out…
Was there anything like that, where you had to rein yourself in?
MS: No, they left us alone. But if they say something, they might say… ‘Are you sure you need that?’ Yeah, we need it. But I didn’t even get that question on that scene, which is amazing.
TB: It’s a tender scene. It’s a beautiful moment. But if you view it in the wrong way, then it’s not. I think that’s kind of the point of the show.
MS: It’s very raw. And I hope we have more of those.
Talking of sensitive or taboo subject matters, as a writer, how do you approach a topic like losing a child, in terms of research and making sure it comes to the screen in a thoughtful way?
TB: Researching this, we are dealing with characters who do the wrong thing. So, research will always tell you what the correct thing will be. This is the quick fix, the paper it over version that these characters are going to search for. They want everything, and they want everything now. The same goes for healing.
It felt like researching too deeply into this would have been a huge mistake. I wanted to know what is your gut reaction to dealing with this kind of a loss. I’ve known people who have similar types of loss… I think the more uncomfortable it is, the more I want to write it. The point where it becomes ‘I don’t know how I’m going to do this’ is where it becomes a really interesting thing to write. The moment I can see it before sitting down – there’s no point writing it. It’s written itself.
Particularly with some of the stuff we did with [Servant] and what Night was directing, it was the most uncomfortable stuff I’ve written.
Thinking about uncomfortable scenes, the one that sticks out in my mind is the eel scene where it’s nailed to a chopping board. I was eating at the time, not the best idea! Talk us through that, from the initial idea to the execution.
TB: The idea for me: I went to catering college when I was young and I was going to be a chef. I was 17 years old and my first week in catering college they brought out a live eel and taught us how to skin and kill an eel. It stayed with me. So, when I was writing this, I was trying to draw on those experiences. Knowing I was writing a chef, what is my experience? It felt like I’ve got to show someone this.
Thematically, it fits in with the story where it’s both dead and alive at the same time. Again, it’s one of those scenes where it just hits so many different marks that I was looking for. Also, to reveal Leanne’s… you think this girl is impenetrable and you show herself that she cannot cope with. By that you see her innocence and naivety. It’s that real-life experience that you sometimes throw them in because they’re so great.
MS: That particular scene is fun and visceral, but very metaphoric. Something that’s passed away but still alive. It’s an illusion – is it still alive? All these things which is very much what the actual show is about. It’s a great extension of the hedonism of the house. It seems like garish indifference to important things. That they’re living in this ghoulish way.
TB: They’re so nonchalant. Dorothy is eating a croissant, drinking coffee and she’s asking questions about Leanne: “Have you eaten eel before?” No, because they do it every week. Because it’s not unusual.
MS: As the show progresses, you’ll see Leanne learning about his family and seeing some not-so-great aspects about them.
One of the big debates going on at the moment, especially with other streaming services, is weekly releases vs. the all-at-once binge model. Where do you stand on that side of the argument?
MS: I feel strongly that everyone wants to binge. So, you don’t do that. Especially with the mystery.
Are you not a binger?
MS: No. You should binge things that aren’t meant to be thought about. If it’s a Dorito’s bag, go ahead and have as many chips as you want. But if it’s The Sopranos, I want to wait until Sunday, I want to think about what it means and I want to yearn for it. It becomes a part of your life more.
In our particular case, ours is a mystery so at least for the first group of people that see it – the first 10 weeks or whatever it is – you’re forced to watch it at a certain pace. Those people will tell the world we loved it, we didn’t love it, or whatever. They’ll have the strongest connection to it. Some of the reporters have binged the whole thing in two days. You can do that, but did they really live with episode four and episode nine? Did you feel it? Or did you eat so much? Just like anything, if you eat a tonne of it, you’re going to forget.
I’m trying to think of a streaming service where you remember a particular episode. More to the point, that I can say ‘Hey, even shows you love, do you remember Stranger Things episode five of the first season?’ No, you don’t.
I want to be part of the conversation as long as possible. Because it’s a mystery, you want people to be at the watercooler going ‘I think it’s this. Or she’s crazy. Or it’s not true. Or the devil did it.’ Let them do that or talk about the eel before I show you the next eel.
The theory of how we landed on, we said give them three episodes over the holidays to really get the meat of it then force them to watch once a week. But we did talk about doing one episode a week, that kind of thing.
I want to talk about twists. Episode one has the end twist with Jericho coming back to life and replacing the doll – what makes a good twist?
MS: I never think of it like that – the word ‘twist.’ Because it sounds so much like our intention, our endgame. In the end, I guess it’s like it’s more of a realisation, when you’re inherently in the genre of thriller, which is essentially like a mystery… there’s going to be an answer to the mystery. There’s going to be more clues. It’s a drop of information essentially. So, the character is learning a certain amount of information that they didn’t expect. That’s the genre we’re in.
A twist is almost like, ‘gotcha!’ and it was intended in a way that feels very calculated. Especially when you’re doing point-of-view-driven storytelling. That makes it so you’re very limited about what’s going on outside this room, why we brought you here, that kind of thing. The audience is already on the edge. Why they are on the edge is because they don’t have enough information.
TB: Personally, when I see twists, when they work you realise the story works on two levels. The way you watched it initially is fantastic, then you reveal something and you could have seen it another way. This is very much with the show. For me, there’s always been two clear ways you can view the show. You can lean towards the miracle or you can lean towards the crime. You’re asking the audience to bring a part of themselves to that story. Do you want to see the good or do you want to see the bad here? It will work on both levels. That’s what we’ve worked very hard on. It’s never one thing. That doesn’t make it a twist. It just means it’s up to your interpretation.
Servant has already been picked up for a second season. While you can’t talk specifics, you’ve said you have 60 episodes already planned out – what can we expect? Will it be a continuation or an anthology?
MS: It’s not an anthology. That was originally something we were noodling way in its early stages, but we decided to do it as one story.
When we pick 60 [episodes] we’re just picking an arbitrary neighbourhood in terms of form… In the world of where we’re aiming, we’re just aiming in that ballpark structurally. So, if we pretend it’s six seasons, you know at the end of the second season it’s the end of that first act. So, the form of the show can shift.
It’s fun to see [the] landmarks to aim for. When you see shows where you know they don’t have their landmarks, you can feel it. You think you’re getting freedom by doing that but you’re unconsciously screwing yourself because you’re going to add this, and add that. You have to think of an answer after the fact, after all these things have been done and added.
TB: I don’t look at it in terms of how far can we push the story, I look at it in terms of how far can the characters grow. I can look at it through Leanne’s eyes: we meet an 18 year-old-girl moving into the big city. I want to take that character to the point where she makes all the mistakes that she needs to make, she grows to the point where she needs to grow.
A new episode of Servant releases every Friday on Apple TV+