Shyamalan's new series Servant on Apple TV+

AFP , Tuesday 26 Nov 2019

US filmmaker M. Night Shyamalan
US filmmaker M. Night Shyamalan arrives for Apple TV+ premiere of "Servant" at BAM Howard Gilman Opera House in Brooklyn, New York on November 19, 2019. (AFP)

M. Night Shyamalan -- who shot to fame with his supernatural hit film "The Sixth Sense" -- hasn't worked much in television, but he's bringing his uncanny aesthetic to the new Apple TV+ platform with the series "Servant."

The director of "Unbreakable," "Glass" and "The Village" is aiming high with the new series, the first three episodes of which will stream from Thursday.

Although only 10 episodes have so far been filmed -- the remaining seven will be released one by one until January 17 -- Shyamalan says he hopes to shoot 60 in total, and he's already worked out an ending.

"When we think of long-form shows, how many are great from the first episode to the last? Can we count 10? I'm not sure," the director told journalists in New York.

"It's because of so much content, so much speed and we don't know where the end is. 'Hey, if everybody's watching, we're going to go on forever!'" he said.

"Well, no, that's not how storytelling works. We have to know where we are."

As Apple TV+ tries to muscle into a crowded streaming market dominated by the abundant content of Netflix and Disney+, Shyamalan wants to set himself apart with his distinctive style of storytelling.

"There's now ubiquitous content. So how can you differentiate yourself? I'm banking on non-spectacle as the way to make the ingredients extremely excellent. I'm banking on the sushi," he said.

He presents himself as an artist of the onscreen image, capable of creating every aspect of an immediately identifiable universe, as he did with "The Sixth Sense," which made him a hot global property.

"That why I moved the camera at that speed, at that moment, at that lighting, at that angle -- it was thought through and you inherently feel that," he said.

"When you see 500 (series) but one has that kind of integrity, you'll stop."

- Buried trauma -

While Shyamalan usually writes his own screenplays, allowing him to imbue his work with his own distinctive character, "Servant" was scripted by British television writer Tony Basgallop.

The show is infused with the director's trademark anxiety-inducing music, dark lighting and suffocating atmosphere.

The story centers on a couple, Dorothy (Lauren Ambrose) and Sean (Toby Kebbell), who are struggling to cope with the death of their baby. The mother in particular slips into denial.

Enter Leanne, who had been hired as the baby's nanny but who now joins the mother in her new alternative reality -- and eventually starts to take it to new and unexpected levels.

The suspense builds slowly, but viewers are drawn in by the underlying tensions and unsettling characters who are sometimes reassuring, and sometimes disturbing.

Nell Tiger Free, who plays Leanne, said it was all about "finding the balance between being creepy and unnerving and also trying to be accessible. Because you want to be unnerved and you want to be freaked out by her, but you also want to care about her."

Co-star Rupert Grint -- Ron of "Harry Potter" fame -- chimed in: "It poses so many questions. It's so mysterious."

The series is set inside a house in Philadelphia, where the India-born Shyamalan was raised, creating a self-contained world that is reminiscent of the theater.

"This felt like a stage, rather than a set," said Kebbell.

Basgallop said that he and Shyamalan "both like to tell stories that are a little bit uncomfortable, that don't take the easy option all the time."

"We're entertained but there's something darker underneath it," said Shyamalan.

"We're really talking about some human trauma that's underneath it all."

More than any other series marking the debut of Apple TV+, "Servant" could help to define the new streaming platform with a kind of originality that the tech company has always prided itself on.

"I secretly wanted to be at Apple," said Shyamalan.

"Even before Apple was ready to stream, I said, if I can tell a long-form story for someone and help define them, that's really where the dream is."

The series has already been renewed for a second season, ahead of its premiere.

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