With many of his feature films and now the three seasons of his critically-acclaimed Apple TV+ series “Servant” filmed in the City of Brotherly Love, one could certainly argue he helped put the city cinematically on the map. However, he’s not the only Shyamalan in town.
Ishana Shyamalan, his daughter, is bringing her own viewpoint on both filming and the city right onto our screens. Having had her directorial debut on “Servant” season 2 and on her father’s latest film, “Old,” the 22-year-old writer-director also provided her talents in the writers’ room for the third season of this horror-thriller series — and it shows.
For a show that centers on a family who’s learning to deal with a loss (Lauren Ambrose and Toby Kebbell reprise their roles as the married professionals, Dorothy and Sean Turner), and a complex presence lurking about (in the form of Nell Tiger Free playing the “servant” Leanne Grayson), this genre-bending show mixes the supernatural with unpredictability. Also featuring Rupert Grint as Dorothy’s brother, Julian Pearce, and another elusive character Baby Jericho, “Servant” was the perfect vehicle for Ishana to not follow just in her father’s footsteps, but pave her own way.
When did you know that you wanted to get into filmmaking professionally?
The assumption that a lot of people make is that I knew that from a young age — but, I definitely didn’t. Because my dad is a director I thought, eh that’s my dad’s career I’m not going to do that. But growing up, when I started to figure out what I wanted to do, I was always drawn to different art-forms. I was painting and doing ballet, doing photography and making my own clothes… so when it came time to decide what my career should be and what I should go to school for, film was the one thing that had synthesized everything that I had fallen in love with over those years. You really do have access to music, visuals and movement and all those different elements. So at that moment, it was like okay, this might be the thing that I could fall in love with. When I made my first short film, I knew there was no going back from there.
What led you to work on “Servant” itself?
“Servant” was the thing I did before “Old.” My dad had kind of pitched it to me a little bit before, and I didn’t know if I was ready or not. To me, when I watched the first season… it was executed at such a high level, I didn’t want to disappoint anyone and I just wasn’t sure that I was ready. I think as a young filmmaker you always have this gentle sense of imposter syndrome that comes. [But] the tone of the show is so in line with me, I think it being centered around a girl who is exactly my age also really helped me connect and bring truth to it, and that first episode all of those emotions were there.
Was there anything that surprised you when you were in the director’s chair?
I think coming along with that fear, I was definitely surprised with how supportive and loving everyone on the set was. I think that’s actually a testament to the Philadelphia film community where everyone has worked together and grown up together, it’s sort of a multigenerational film community, which is amazing. A lot of the older people working on the crew I actually knew from the time I was a child on my dad’s sets. Then, when I was stepping into this new role, they were my biggest vocal advocates and really sort of gave me space and trusted me. So, the sense of familial love that I found on that set was definitely overwhelming and surprising.
What have you learned about your own directing style?
I think “Servant” was sort of the perfect place to learn because they really do have a safety net built in. If you mess up, you can go in and do re-shoots and there’s an incredible team of people that are super talented that are backing you up. It’s really a safe place to fail and try things. Each episode, I’ve gotten a lot stronger and have been able to figure out what my stylistic means are and what my voice is… One of the things I was struggling to know, is how do you come on set as a female director and illicit a sense of respect and firmness without coming off mean? I had never really seen a female director work, so that was a learning process for me — finding that voice where I could be gentle and firm where I wanted to be.
What went into your specific episode for season 3 of “Servant?”
For season 3 I was involved with the writer’s room, so it was definitely a different experience because we were conceiving that season together as this big group of different voices. That was exciting. I was much more invested in the characters and the narrative arc because I had helped create it. I had a lot more confidence coming into season 3, so I think the episodes that you see that I’ve directed are more playful and experimental — which I love. The opportunity to bend form and play is present in the season.
Do you want to keep writing in your career as well?
Definitely. My dad has always taught me that writing is your power as an artist. If you can write your own material, then you can create whatever you want. At a young age, that’s been imbued in me: If you write, then you can create your own jobs. I really do feel that it empowers you to create whatever world you want and tell stories that you want to tell.
You work with both your dad on “Servant,” and also your sister who recorded music for the show. How does it feel to reach these monumental moments in your career working with your family?
It’s the craziest and most amazing thing ever — it’s hard to describe what the dynamic is like. Obviously, we’ve all grown up with my dad talking to us about art and how to think about the world. At a very young age these conversations have been at our dinner table, so I think that transition into the professional world was in some ways natural and easy because we had already been cultivating this shared creative voice. I’m continuously astounded when I’m working with my family because my dad and sister are both incredible artists on their own, we all have different tastes and skillsets. I think we’re continually inspiring and elevating each other’s crafts.
What would you tell fans to expect for season 3?
Season 3 takes a step deeper into [the] genre and wildness and we expand the world in terms of characters and space. It’s a step deeper into this “Servant” universe.
“Servant” like most of your father’s work is filmed in Philly. What do you like most about working in the city?
So many things. There is a sense of kindness that you feel in Philadelphia that you don’t feel in other film-dominated cities. Generally, people love each other there, which you don’t find everywhere. You can find that here. I still remember picking up camera equipment for my first short — everyone just loves you and supports each other. That’s a priceless element and it creates a wonderful working environment.
The 10-episode third season of ‘Servant’ will debut with the first episode on Friday, Jan. 21, on Apple TV+.