Servant Writer-Director Ishana Night Shyamalan Takes Us Behind The Scenes Of Season 3 [Interview]

"Servant" hits the right notes in season 3. Creator Tony Basgallop, showrunner M. Night Shyamalan, and all involved have delivered the most satisfying season to date. With more questions answered but many still remaining, the uneasy series is now more claustrophobic and tense than before, despite the fact the ensemble is now walking the streets of Philly. 

One of the key voices behind the series is Ishana Night Shyamalan. The NYU film school graduate has written and directed several episodes, including the latest one, titled "Hive." Strangers are in the house for a mommy-and-me group get-together, and it's another nightmare for Leanne. Shyamalan shoots every new character as a potential threat. 

Recently, the writer-director told us a bit about shooting the episode, as well as the creative process behind season 3.

No shot that's allowed to be generic.

What was different about working on season 3?

I think story wise, there's quite a bit that's different about it. I think we're coming off of this high stakes ending, so everything is a little bit elevated in this season. It's a little darker, it's a little more emotional, and it's a little more playful. Also, in our process, it was very different because we're coming off of this pandemic and we're very excited to be back. There was this alchemy about shooting season 3, where everyone was so grateful to be there and be doing what we love and creating our art again.

There's a lot more of the outside world this season. How did that decision come about?

We're expanding. I love this form of including one more element of the world each season. So this season, we obviously get to explore that new space and the new characters. With that comes an excitement of understanding what these different elements look like in the "Servant" world. 

With this show, you kind of accept it as is and don't create too many expectations as a viewer. It is doing its own thing, but do you consider audience expectations? 

I think that this form of streaming is interesting because you aren't really feeling the presence of the audience expectation as much as you might in another type of show, which I think is actually a huge blessing because we're just able to create the art for the art and not for what people are saying about us. And so, hopefully when we look at the series as a whole, it'll be a piece that is just what it is and not because of any social influence in any way. But obviously, we hope that people love it as much as we do and can stick with it until the end.

Both as a writer and director on "Servant," how do you try to turn up the show's anxiety? 

I mean, that to me is one of the most fun things to do. I think using the formal tools that we have. So shots and costumes and color and sound, all of these elements to create what it feels like to be afraid is so fun. And particularly for me in the episode that I shot, episode two for season 3, I got to play with surrealism to show you what it was feeling like for Leanne to be paranoid in a domestic space. I loved that, that I got to step out of the form and create these alternate versions of reality to show you what it feels like to be scared.

How do you approach the different characters' points of view? 

I think for our central four for Leanne, for Dorothy, for Sean, and for Julian, at this point now, me as well as the other writers, have gotten so entrenched in their characters. It becomes second nature to write all of them and just, it's like, I don't even know, it's crazy just jumping from one character to another and really being able to embody their voices. It's definitely because we've been in them for so long. But this, I think episode two was really cool because I got to include a lot of new bit characters. So all of the mommys in the mommy group and Mr. Smiley, all that fun stuff, which was so exciting for me to be able to bring these new voices into the world, but trying to match this tone of irony and just weirdness that you feel with our central four. 

What are some of the visual rules for the show, things you can do and not do?

It's really anything goes. I would say the only rule is if you are not making something in a particular perspective, that's wrong. So there is no shot that's allowed to be generic. My dad always talks about this. He'll say, "If you're shooting a scene with two people and you have two single shots on each of them and they're exactly the same, you're doing it wrong because no two perspectives are the same. If you're shooting two people the same exact way, you're stripping your experience of the true depth of it." With "Servant," we were  encouraged to just be bold and make choices. I think you feel that in all the episodes.

We're always expanding.

For the house, have we seen every part of it?

I cannot give you that answer, but perhaps. I think we're always expanding.

Claustrophobia is a big part of the show, of course, but is the space claustrophobic at all when shooting the interiors? 

It actually doesn't feel tight at all. So, it's all built on a sound stage except for some of the exteriors that we shoot, which they built for us to shoot. There are so many walls that you can pull out. So many wild walls. There's camera ports everywhere, there's the ability to move different parts of the set. It really is stage like when you go into the space, but on camera it reads as very precise and claustrophobic.

I always assumed it was a house. 

I know. It's so well-executed that it comes off very textural and real.

Since the show does leave the house more this season, what for you is very specific to Philly? 

I think a lot of that comes subconsciously in how my dad creates his worlds, just because those are his influences. So there is this quintessential sense of history and structure that you do feel when you're in Philly. But also a great part of our crew is Philly-based. And it's definitely a sense of family and Philly family that's coming together to create this world. So I don't think it's too intentional, but hopefully, you can feel that voice of Philadelphia in the creative hands on set.

How do you create the unease of the show in the editing room, especially with sound? 

Oh my gosh. I mean, I think definitely the sound is used as a means to elevate what you're feeling in it. But I think one thing to mention is the score. The composer creates these really uneasy and textural scores based in the character's emotions. We're always scoring to what the people in the house are feeling, which I think then as a viewer, you put yourself in the family and also feel like one of those people.

Your dad's work has running themes and obsessions, like the anxiety of having a family or creating your own world. In regards to "Servant," what characters, obsessions, or themes really speak to you? 

I think one thing that you can see throughout my episodes is I just love the weirdness of the world. That's one element that I really choose to lean into. But hoping this is answering your question, I think I really connected to Leanne as a character because she is my age. And so, that always helped me as I was writing the show and also directed to always tether to someone because the things that she was experiencing, although weird and genre, are a version of the things that I'm experiencing in the world as well. I think that always allowed me to find truth in this world. I think you'll find in my episode that I really do lean on her perspective.

When do you decide to go for a joke on "Servant"? This season, in particular, has a lot of uneasy laughs.

I think it's one of the assets of our show. One of the things that makes the "Servant" world very particular is that there is this coexistence of genre and darkness and then also this humor. I think a lot of that comes pretty naturally because my dad's pretty funny. A lot of the people in the writer's room are pretty funny. These jokes are just coming naturally. But I think more than that, there's no dark moment in life without a little humor. I think it's an attempt to describe what it feels like to be in loss, which sometimes it can be ironic and weird and you laugh and the laughs feel weird and all of those things are very present in the human experience.

We knew for a while where we wanted to end.

What's your creative process like? Are you a writer who writes everyday?

Right now, we're finishing up season four, so we're in another writer's room. We have six episodes written and then we're waiting on the last four, finishing those. And then I'll jump into directing on that season as well. I think my creative experience, my creative process is all over the place. I'm a young artist. In many ways, I'm still figuring it out. I think it's been a process of learning how to be disciplined, which I know a lot of other writers struggle with as well. When you feel that anxiety of a script and the blank page, how to overcome that. So the last year of my life, I think has been dedicated to figuring out how to overcome that.

How's it going?

It's going well. It's getting better.

How close does season 3 and where the show is going stick to the original plan? Is there much room to deviate?

We knew for a while where we wanted to end up. My dad, I think he knew from the first time that he wrote the first episode what he wanted the final episode to be. We've had this goal post of where we need to get in terms of our character development and storyline for the final episode. But within that, there's been quite a journey of discovery and learning as we go and reaching that end game.

Without spoiling anything, is every episode written with the ending of "Servant" in mind?

Absolutely. We have these very intense goals to reach in terms of where our characters land, and that's always really helpful as a writer to have some sense of direction. I think if you don't have a sense of direction where you're going to end up, you can feel that in the piece. Hopefully, you'll feel in the episodes that come to follow that there is this intentionality about how we approach the story.

When might we see a movie from you?

I am finishing up "Servant" and then right after that is when I plan to jump into a feature, so hopefully very soon.

"Servant" season 3 is now streaming on Apple TV+.