M. Night Shyamalan likes the fact that’s it cold, dark, and rainy outside. “It’s atmospheric,” he says with a mischievous grin, laughing at his own cheekiness when he notices me frown out the window of the Manhattan hotel room where we meet.
Atmosphere is, of course, Shyamalan’s thing. Or it’s one of his things at least. Big creative swings, polarized fan reactions, and, of course, surprise twists are very much his thing, too. They’re all being employed in the latest project from the famed horror-thriller director (The Sixth Sense, Signs, Split).
The big swing here is Servant, a new series that Shyamalan is executive producing for Apple TV+. For a filmmaker who has made a studied practice of managing the release of his movies to be seen by as many people as possible, he admits that he’s not entirely sure what to make of the brand new streaming service and what the best strategy might be to launch a show on it. And so he landed on what some might think of as a peculiar release date for a moody series chock-full of M. Night Shyamalanisms: Thanksgiving Day.
“It’s such a culinary show in some ways and everybody will be food-oriented that weekend, so it’s kind of perfect for us,” he says, once again unable to resist a self-aware laugh about how, on the surface level, silly and macabre he sounds. If nothing else, Shyamalan has a great time creeping us out.
About that atmosphere. Servant begins on a dark and stormy night. A familiar kind of married couple—Type A wife Dorothy (Lauren Ambrose) and weary husband Sean (Toby Kebbell)—welcome a new live-in nanny into their home, an enigmatic and quiet young girl named Leanne (Nell Tiger Free), who is more religious and reserved than they maybe expected. Dorothy is a news reporter in Philadelphia heading back to work after giving birth and Sean is an influential chef, whose meals and constant cooking menacingly devolve from elegant and sumptuous imagery to unsettling and grotesque thrills.
There are two shocking twists that happen right off the bat, ones that we feel OK spoiling because they take place in the first of 10 episodes, and are essentially revealed in the show’s trailer. Shyamalan spoke pretty freely with us about them.
You see, Dorothy and Sean don’t technically have a baby. Well, they did. Their baby died. The infant that Dorothy cradles and which Leanne has been hired to care for is a therapy doll, meant to help Dorothy deal with the shock of losing a child. Sean is confused as to why, even when Dorothy is out of the house, Leanne carries on as if the baby is real.
Then, inexplicably and to the horror of Sean and his brother-in-law (played by Rupert Grint), one day the therapy doll is replaced by a real child. How did this happen? What role did Leanne, whose constant prayers and religious talismans around the nursery had already been making Sean uncomfortable, play in it? More, what do they do now?
Shyamalan nods emphatically at the suggestion that motherhood is a ripe area for horror to explore. It’s clearly something fans are endlessly curious about, and some of the best entries in the genre, from Rosemary’s Baby all the way to last year’s Hereditary, grapple with it.
“We almost think of the mother’s relationship with the child as supernatural,” he says.
If there’s something wrong with her child, a mother knows. She has intuition. But if something goes awry in that relationship, if a mother does not act according to expectations, it’s a nightmare. “There’s so much that’s scary in the world. We believe in the construct that mom will protect me no matter what. If that were broken in some kind of way, it’s the most terrifying thing imaginable.”
Truly, the fake baby is terrifying. Any time the doll was on set, Shyamalan says there was a disturbing energy, but one that was kind of invigorating, as touching as it was troubling, given the therapeutic purpose the doll was actually created for.
He remembers when his mother-in-law came to visit his office and the doll was in a box in the corner. She had no idea what project Shyamalan was working on and flipped out in hysterics when she spotted it. “Who left this baby!?”
Shyamalan saw the opportunity for a prank and feigned concern and confusion over how the baby ended up there. “I don’t know! Someone must have left it.” As things escalated and she started cradling the baby in a state of shock, he came clean. Even as she started to understand that it was a doll, she continued to shake it like it was a real baby.
“It's very hard to unwire those primal things in us,” he says. “I would be uncomfortable with somebody on the set treating that baby like a bag or something. It would bother me.” Suffice it to say when Sean starts manhandling his own doll on the show, it triggers a similar audience response.
For all the twists and mysteries of the series, which was created and written by Tony Basgallop, Shyamalan was drawn to it because of the ways in which it manages to deal with larger issues and tropes of the genre—be it parenthood, religion, or haunted houses—through elements meant to incite visceral reactions. “Most people find in genre a way to talk about things like faith, or lack of faith, that is more palatable,” he says. “If I put aliens or ghosts or whatever it is in it, it’s easier to have that conversation.”
Still, there is the business of twists and mysteries—at least, the expectation of them—when there is an M. Night Shyamalan project. Critics over the years have certainly wondered about the kind of burden that could place on someone, especially when projects on occasion don’t deliver on those expectations. But he says that it doesn’t weigh on him in the ways that some might assume.
“The only time it’s ever an unfortunate consideration is if I see something that’s a straight drama, or something in that vein is being offered to me,” he says.
If his name was attached to a project like that, the audience would think they were going to get a different kind of experience. In order to make a film like that, he thinks he would have to somehow reorient his entire relationship with audiences and fans. “If I ever did a movie like that, I wouldn’t use my name or use a different iteration of my name so that it’s signaling to them, ‘Hey, we’re going to do something different here.’”
Being “The Twist Guy,” however, has never bothered him. It’s the way his mind naturally works when he’s thinking of a story to tell. And it’s not like he adapted a book and suddenly was attached to that reputation. He wrote the movies that made his name. “So there’s a peace with that expectation.”
If he did have a sudden impulse to change genres, though, he suspects it would be to do something more family friendly. Before you snicker at that, remember that the same year Shyamalan wrote The Sixth Sense, he wrote Stuart Little, based on the E.B. White book about a family that adopts a charming young mouse, too.
“Now I’m too entrenched in this other stuff for it to be that simple,” he says. “Whereas when I wrote Stuart Little, I wasn’t known yet. So it could just be the one-to-one of me telling the story and people hearing it.”
It’s been 20 years since both those movies were first released, with The Sixth Sense scoring Shyamalan two Oscar nominations and catapulting him to superstardom. The key to the film’s success was that it came out a time when people could still see a movie months after its opening and not have the massive twist spoiled for them. Imagine if Twitter existed in 1999. Would anyone have been safe from learning The Sixth Sense’s jaw-dropping surprise?
“There was a period when it was a little lawless,” Shyamalan admits. “Not that it’s very lawful now, but there’s at least a code.” Yes, anyone who’s looking would have no problem finding what happened in Game of Thrones or in one of his movies. “But the 95 percent of people who don’t want to know, they can live their lives without an asshole or their friends saying something because there’s a code.”
He points to the example of Split, which grossed nearly $280 million in 2016 thanks to movie fans being shielded from its big twist. And that’s in spite of Shyamalan insisting on screening the film four months before its release date in order to generate buzz. None of the audiences spoiled it.
So does he think, then, that he could pull off something like The Sixth Sense in 2019? “Definitely. Definitely I do.”