2019 NEW YORK COMIC CON: The Hammerstein Ballroom is shrouded in darkness, dead center on the stage, draped in an ethereal light sits a glorious dining room complete with a decadent bounty of fruit, breads, cheeses, and bottles of wine. This setting is not exactly what people are expecting at New York Comic Con. It does, however, serve as the perfect setting for Academy Award Nominated director M. Night Shyamalan to introduce his latest eerie undertaking, Servant.
Attendees were treated to the debut of the (still) unreleased trailer for the upcoming M. Night directed Apple TV+ series – a psychological thriller created and written by Tony Basgallop (“Berlin Station”). The trailer begins with what seems to be a normal day for a young couple caring for their newborn baby. ‘Seems’ being the keyword here. As often happens in a Shyamalan-involved world, things are not always what they seem. It turns out that this couple’s baby is not a baby at all, it’s a doll. After tragically losing their child, Dorothy (Lauren Ambrose, “Six Feet Under”) and Sean (Toby Kebbell, “Black Mirror”) now, as a form of therapy, care for a creepily realistic infant doll as if it was a real baby.
“The idea that a couple has lost a child and they’re doing this fringe therapy with a doll and it gets so extreme that the mother decides to hire a nanny to take care of the doll. That premise is so tragic and weird and scary, but it’s also, oddly, inappropriately funny,” explained M. Night during the one on one portion of the event. “You’re scared and laughing at the same time.”
Meanwhile, the unsettling premise only becomes more so by the revelation that Dorothy has hired a mysterious nanny, Leanne (Nell Tiger Free, “Game of Thrones”) to help care for the doll. This move starts to reveal the cracks in their relationship created by the loss of their child. It is uncertain exactly how the nanny factors into this family dynamic, but her presence will certainly lead to strange things moments that will ramp up an already tense situation.
The panel continued with the whole cast of “Servant,” including Rupert Grint (“Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire”) who plays Sean’s disruptive brother-in-law, Julian, sitting around the on-stage table laughing, talking and consuming glasses of red wine like they on-screen family that they are. To the dismay of the audience, the tight-lipped cast would not reveal much about the plot or characters.
They did speak about the shooting location, Shaymalan’s home town, Philadelphia. “The other thing that is really, really unique about the show is it never leaves one location,” said Shymalan. “So it almost has this play like quality to it. So we get to focus on the performances, the cinematography. Every shot is thought out.”
WHY TV? WHY NOW?
“Servant” marks M. Night’s return to television, his first show since 2015’s limited series, “Wayward Pines”. “The great thing about the format is it is a character-driven format. You come to watch week to week because you’re connected to the characters… and I love that. That’s amazing.” Shyamalan feels the format allows them to plan out the future of the series, “On this show, Tony, who wrote the show, came up with an amazing premise – a half-hour thriller. We know where it is going to go. In my head, it’s 60 episode series. That is where we’re going to get to, this place and then we finish this story.”
The decision to work with Apple was an easy one, Shyamalan stated. “We decided to go with Apple and the reason we did, I felt there was a connection between the aesthetics we talked about and them as a company, their kind of minimalism. And, with 1.6 billion devices, Apple has that kind of reach. To tell a long-form story with them is really exciting.”
“SERVANT” premieres on Thanksgiving 2019 (November 28th) only on AppleTV+.
A MOMENT WITH M. NIGHT
(I had the privilege to ask the Academy Award Nominated director a question. His answer provided such great insight into his career, I have included it here.)
AwardsCircuit: “Are there films that you feel that the general audience missed what you were trying to convey? And, if so have you ever found that you missed what the audience saw and that you actually prefer their interpretation of your work, they found something deeper, perhaps that you included subconsciously?”
MNS: “That’s a really cool question. I think the trick that has been in my career, I create original tone movies, stories now that we are doing this. And, each time, the marketeers from the studio has to learn that language and sell that language. Not a different version, but that language. And it’s a balance between drama and thriller right? And if they misrepresent that balance it’s not great, that’s lying to the audience. I learned over time to write in a way that I know what they are going to use and how to use it. “Unbreakable” will be an example, right. “Unbreakable was not sold for the reasons because they didn’t believe in you guys. As a company, they avoided anything that had to do with superhero and comic books and sold it as ‘Sixth Sense’ Part 2.”
IT’S JASMINE TEA
“It’s not scary, it has nothing to do with that. Chris and I were doing something completely different. And so it was like, ‘hey, I thought I was drinking Coke.’ ‘It’s Jasmine tea!’ ‘This is the worst Coke ever.’ ‘No, it’s jasmine tea.’ Then it’s too late. Because once the expectations are set like that it’s really hard. Now I’ve kind of learned to say to that person across the table, ‘hey, it’s a crop circle movie, it’s Hansel and Gretel… talking about ‘The Visit.’ That’s what this is, it’s for this audience in this way. I am okay with everything else being putting aside.’ You have to embrace that.”
Even with this (‘Servant’), I was talking with Apple, ‘This is a dark conversation, don’t shy away from it. A couple has lost their child. Right, that’s at the center. Oh, that’s how you sell that. They are being so resilient. They are trying to overcome this and that fight. All that is going to draw us in – that conflict. I’ve learned to be better at the framing part of it.”
“I’m not answering the second question properly when I say this. Sometimes when I do a movie I get the right idea too late – later like as I’m in the press junket or something. And I’m like ‘Oh No!’ I know what I should have done, the character should have gone that way not that way or that way. That’s just an awful moment. It feels, when the right idea comes to you, like you can see it as it drops down a well. You can hear the repercussions. That’s when as a writer you kind of go ‘oh man, that answered like ten problems in one answer like that. And sometimes I get this too late. Thanks for bringing that up man (sarcastically).”