INTERVIEW: ‘Servant’ Production Designer Naaman Marshall
How’s this for a M. Night Shyamalan twist: The Philadelphia in Servant is not exactly Philadelphia. In the Apple TV+ series from Tony Basgallop and Shyamalan himself, the world is reduced to the four walls and four floors of the brownstone where the Turners (Lauren Ambrose and Toby Kebbell) reside and Leanne (Nell Tiger Free) plus Julian (Rupert Grint) frequent – all of which are located on a stage.
And just because the premise calls for smallness doesn’t mean stranger things and grand mysteries can’t make themselves at home. Production designer Naaman Marshall, continuing his role from Season 1, guarantees that.
So, the attic. Did you find one you like in a house, like you said for the front and for the back, and then “add” it to the overall set?
I have to admit: It has no bearing to any attic that I’ve been in. Which was the most fun for me because I was able to create the architecture true to how it would be built, but I have the ability to create my own space, and the sensations that we got there were from different researches of multiple attics. We were kind of able to pick and choose what works best for ours.
But it’s still consistent with the other sets in terms of how light is always out of reach? There is a skylight, but it just feels like part of a gilded cage for the Turners and Leanne rather than a portal.
You’re exactly right. The show takes place in the house entirely — it needs to feel just that, like a cage, without feeling creepy or ominous. It just needs to have the sense of being trapped. The vestibule with the double doors, and the backdoor has another door to get outside the backyard. The idea of a fortress is kind of the idea with the house, knowing that each floor as you went up became more and more untouchable, and Leanne being on the third floor was much more isolated from the real world more than the first floor.
A lot of activity happens at the highest point, the attic, and the lowest, the cellar, of the house. Were you aware of these absolutes in designing these spaces for Season 2?
Yep. You know, Season 1 I felt the emphasis was introducing the house as a character, meaning the first, second and third floors. The basement was more of a play set where you could tell secrets and you could go down, feel the quiet spot, and be able to communicate the idea that stuff could possibly be happening that might not be so.
But you also want it to feel like it’s a space that you’d want to go down to and not, “Oh, I just want to build a basement in my place so I can have a wine cellar.” It was playing with the utilitarian-ness of the space where Sean uses it as a prep kitchen down there as well as his wine cellar. Dorothy uses it as the laundry room. So you’re kind of confused as to what this space really is — is it meant to be scary? Meant to be utilitarian? Being able to merge all that stuff together until we need to utilise it, for as a character within itself.
And the attic was a whole new space that was introduced in Season 2. In my head I knew I had the ability to go into the attic because I had designed a door to get in there, but I didn’t know when I was designing the house that I needed an attic. I just knew the architecture of that home would have had an attic. So I have a door there on the third floor that led to nothing, so I could let Night know, “Hey, just so you know, this door for the future would go to an attic. When you’re writing and thinking about other spaces you can go, we could branch out and create these new characters.” I really do feel like the basement, the house and the attic are all now their own characters within the series.
How do you find establishing the interaction between the setting’s practical quality to the story’s more extraordinary, Shyamalan-approved elements?
Knowing how he shoots and knowing the story that we need to push toward, it was a challenge to take a house that you dream of living in and put in some sort of spin on it that you might question your wanting of being in a house like this once you start learning the bones of it, the ins-and-outs… You do kind of question whether or not that’s something for use. Being able to introduce the dark corners and the heightened spots within the house was fun — just to be able to introduce Night to some of those and say, “This is why I did this,” and then be able to pick and choose through some of the shots.
Mike G [Gioulakis], our d.p., and Marshall [Adams] — they utilized the house and framed every shot so particular, and being able to play off of different rooms and stacking up was a challenge in itself knowing how hard those guys are going to push me to get them those shots. It was really great for me to be able to push, get their input and then watch them actually utilize it as a piece of art.
And that’s what I really like about the show. The space it’s taking place in — I don’t expect it to be shifting or malleable, but then it does. Everything is now weird, but as intended.
“Infection” seems to be a running theme in Season 2. How do you embed it into the spaces?
One idea was that the house is fighting back. We noticed in Season 1 that the splinters, the garbage disposal, that kind of stuff, and it was really important to just keep — as a character — the house is somehow purging something. I honestly don’t know where this show goes. I have no idea what the rest of Season 3 or Season 4 is. For me, I’m just trying to take every character that I have control over, which is the house, the spaces, the rooms and the location, and I’m trying to design something that has personality itself.
I like how you describe that the house is a living organism with an immune system we can’t comprehend yet. It really reminds me of how people would say “This house has good bones” —
Or “This car is a lemon.”
Looking at the productions you’ve designed in the past, like The Visit, Don’t Breathe Underwater, do you have your own “one size fits all” approach to evoke claustrophobia? To make it appealing?
Yes. I think that one mistake that production designers in films make is that, “Bigger is always better.” I’ve always felt that when we’re doing these spaces, they start feeling like movie sets when you get too big. I’d always try to assume that I want a d.p. to shoot my stuff as if it’s a real location. I was taught by someone early on — a d.p. — who said, “I don’t really like ‘wild walls’ [pieces of the set that are removable to accommodate filming equipment] on a set because that means I’m putting the camera lens where it shouldn’t be, if you were in a real house.”
Some DPs they play very true to that and others are like, “Get this thing outta here — I want the camera lens 6 feet back and I want wide.” I’ve always been intrigued by the idea of creating claustrophobia through actual, real sets — spaces that are based in reality. I find myself actually going to the camera department more often saying, “How big is your camera?” because I just want to make sure… It could barely fit through here, you know? Like in Don’t Breathe, the crawlspace was like — inches! The dog, the poor thing, had to walk on its knees to get through!
I really do feel like the audience feels that claustrophobia through the way the lens shoots real architecture. The idea that I designed this house — I don’t want people to know the difference between the real house or my house, and I’d rather assume that it’s a location and all we did was dress it. I don’t get a whole lot of credit for that, but that is what I want the audience to believe. I think a lot of times guys will build a set that’s bigger, grander, and more opulent than something needs to be — and it actually looks like a set. I tend to build real ones and embellish where necessary, but I feel like the audience definitely won’t be taken out of the film as much under any circumstances.
Final question: Can we look forward to you running “Cheezus Crust” as a side job? That’s a brilliant wordplay, by the way.
(laughs) You know what, Drew [DiTomo] is our chef on the show and he’s the guru behind all the food, the expertise that we get for Sean. We all took pizza lessons from him. All of us through the pandemic went home and — I know I bought a little pizza oven and we were texting Drew for his recipes and all of that.
So it’s possible. If this movie thing doesn’t work out for me, I might start a little pizza job somewhere.
(laughs) Eagerly looking forward to it. I’m also eagerly looking forward to your works on Old and Mortal Kombat.
Oh, thank you, I really appreciate that.
Seasons 1 and 2 of Servant are now available on Apple TV+