When Splashing Horror Across the Screen Is in Your Genes: Ishana Night Shyamalan Chats 'The Watchers'

After first making an imprint as a director and writer on 'Servant', Ishana Night Shyamalan carries on the family tradition with her debut horror movie.
Sarah Ward
Published on June 11, 2024

In US, the middle of 2024 has been dubbed the "summer of Shyamalan". The seasons don't fit Down Under for such a catchy alliterative term to apply, but it's still a big time for the Shyamalan family on the big screen. In August, M Night Shyamalan's Trap, his 16th feature, has a date with cinemas. One of its stars: Saleka, aka M Night's eldest daughter, with the IRL R&B singer playing a musician in the serial-killer thriller. Cinephiles needn't wait until then for a Shyamalan-driven horror movie, though, with the Ireland-set and Dakota Fanning (Ripley)-led The Watchers marking the film directorial debut of Ishana Night Shyamalan.

Ishana isn't new to the genre that's clearly in her genes — she says that working in it "felt very inevitable", she tells Concrete Playground — after initially making an imprint as a director and writer on TV's Servant, which M Night was the showrunner on. But this is her first feature, and it both continues the family tradition and champions her own interpretation of eerie screen stories. Based on the novel by AM Shine, The Watchers embraces the gothic side of horror as it unfurls its story in an expansive forest that's a beacon for stray souls. Fanning's American-abroad Mina finds much among its trees, including Madeline (Olwen Fouéré, The Tourist), Ciara (Georgina Campbell, Barbarian) and Daniel (Oliver Finnegan, We Are Lady Parts); a bunker called The Coop that's their only form of shelter; and the titular creatures who observe their every movement each night. When the woodland won't let you leave, no one can escape it by daylight and danger lurks at night, however, Mina and her new roommates risk being consigned to remaining lost.

If Mina's moniker seems like a clue that there's a twist coming — another Shyamalan trait — it springs from Shine's pages. The character has a sister called Lucy, though, a change that Ishana did make in adapting the book for the screen. Yes, there is indeed a surprise at the film's core as it charts its characters attempting to work out why they're stranded, what's watching them and how to leave the remote thicket peppered with warning signs about points of no return, and also darkened burrows in the ground, but nods Bram Stoker's way are an illustration of how Ishana has taken her influences from far beyond her dad's filmography.

"It was actually a very unintentional thing," she explains of the names. "I didn't think about Dracula until much later, and I think it's one of those things where you're subliminally inspired by various things. I realised I had named the sister Lucy later, and I was like 'oh my god, those are the two names'," she notes. "But gothic literature and just gothic art in general was a big, big influence and driving factor of this particular movie. It's a style that I love, and I think it's just so, so wonderful and fun. So I very much structured the story to feel like a gothic piece — so I think it's all just intertwined in that way."

Marion Curtis / Starpix for Warner Bros.

Still, viewers can be forgiven for spying what Ishana has inherited from M Night on The Watchers, and where a lifetime of having a father making horror movies has shaped her as a filmmaker. The writer/director behind The Sixth Sense, UnbreakableSigns, The VillageThe VisitSplit and Glass is also one of the picture's producers. Supernatural horror movie? Tick. An inescapable sense of tension as suspense drips? Tick again. Audiences waiting for the pieces of the film's puzzle to fall into place? Tick once more. Narrative-changing revelations? A haunted feel to the feature's lead performance? A strong visual command? Just keep ticking.

One thing that Ishana, who was a second-unit director on her dad's Old and Knock at the Cabin, definitely hasn't continued is M Night's fondness for popping up on-screen in his own movies. "Absolutely not. I'm very afraid being in front of the camera. There was one thing I was thinking I could do as a joke, but then I was like 'that's not me — I can't, I can't cameo'," she says. She was keen to give her father a part, but it didn't pan out. "I wanted to put him in the movie actually, but I didn't get to do it."

What did Ishana learn from being surrounded by filmmaking from birth? From working on Servant, too? Was getting behind the lens always her path? Why did Shine's book strike a chord? Also, how was Studio Ghibli great Hayao Miyazaki an influence? With The Watchers opening in Australian cinemas on Thursday, June 6 and in New Zealand on Thursday, June 13, we spoke with Ishana about all of the above and more, including about this Shyamalan-heavy period at the flicks, telling original tales and the expectations that come with her surname.


On How Writing and Directing Episodes of Servant Prepared Ishana for Making Her First Feature

"It was such a wonderful, wonderful experience for me. I think coming right out of film school and going to Servant, I was very much able to treat that as a second film school. And I think just the style of the show, being so restrained and limited, gave all the filmmakers on that project the ability to play with form and technique as your main languages there.

So I really felt throughout each episode that I was able to think very specifically about those base elements of filmmaking, like shot-making and what specifically I wanted to get out of these performances. That was very much, I think, an archetypal film experience for me."


On Ishana's Initial Response to AM Shine's Book

"The book was brought to us by a producer to read it for consideration. I had no context to know what it was about, just had the cover and the synopsis on the back, and just started reading it — and it was just something that I felt incredibly locked in on.

I thought it was just such masterful storytelling within the book, and had all of these tonal elements that I was interested in playing with in my exploration of the genre space as well. And then by the end of the book, it becomes this really masterful depth-specific world. And I just fell in love with it, so it felt inevitable in that way."


On the Shared Feeling of Claustrophobia That Simmers in Both The Watchers and Servant

"I think the process has been very much about leaning into my own fears — which, yeah, I'm afraid of finding myself in situations like that. As a human being, your mind just goes to those places of 'what if I was trapped somewhere? What if I couldn't get out?'. So those ideas I think all felt very, very, quite real and and relatable to me.

I haven't thought too much about if that's something that's specific to me or just what I feel. Overall, I think I often have anxiety of being stuck in various forms of my life. One of my main fears as I navigate the world is being trapped in some feeling or with people that I'm scared of.

So that is definitely something that I feel quite personally in my life — always the feeling of needing to get out of a place and the ability to move."


On Ishana's Approach to Cultivating a Mood and Vibe in Horror

"To me, I think the guiding principle was always to just lean into the visuals and energies that I felt love for, that I felt seduced by. A lot of times, horror or survivalist pieces like this have a very similar aesthetic, which is bleak and stripped down. So I was really interested in exploring that same feeling, but in much more maximalist, grandiose visual language.

So that was one of the most-interesting things about it to me — how do you create a tone that feels completely fresh in this experience that we've seen a lot in film?"


On Playing with Shadows and Light Visually in The Watchers — and Using Imagery to Reflect the Film's Themes

"It became very clear to me early on that the movie hinges on daylight and darkness, and that contrast between between light and dark, which is obviously a very classical painterly technique to use — that chiaroscuro approach to the work.

But it very much was embedded into the concept of the movie. Even on the book, on the novel itself, the tagline is 'stay in the light' there. So I was really interested in playing with that element of it.

I had talked a lot with my DP [Eli Arenson, Lamb] and my production designer [Ferdia Murphy, The Last Girl] about creating this very classic, literal. stage-like approach to our hero space in the movie, which is The Coop, which you see as where they've been trapped. So that was very much something that we went in and wanted to do, where it was distinctive pools of light that our characters are moving in and out of, and it feels like they have that feeling when you don't really control the space that you're in."


On Considering Hayao Miyazaki a Source of Inspiration for The Watchers

"I grew up watching the Miyazaki films and they, throughout my life, have been a very spiritual thing for me. So I'm always aspiring to mimic that feeling that I feel when I watch them, which is one of wonder and innocence.

I felt when I read the book that it had exactly that thing, which is this sense of a character going on an adventure and experiencing a new world. That was very, very exciting for me and gave me a lot of peace to know that I could enter the filmmaking space with something that felt really wondrous to me — so more in the vibe of what I'm trying to achieve with the movie, which I think just carries you into other worlds and hopefully, hopefully has that same feeling."


On Deciding to Go Into the Family Business of Filmmaking

"It was something that came to me much later in life as I was about to go to school and deciding what I wanted to do as my future. I'd always move through different art forms and known that I had wanted to be an artist in some way — and then it was only later in my life when I was able to even visualise the possibility of myself being a filmmaker.

It came very much as a product of all the various things that I love doing going up. And so it felt very much like a surprise to me that this was the thing I was interested in."


On What You Learn When Making Movies Is All Around You From Birth

"My whole life has been a process of watching and listening to my dad as he's moved through his creative journey, and that's been just so wonderful, I think, to see the morals that he's built and the preciousness with which he regards the art form.

So I really think I could've come into filmmaking already with that emphasis on technique and approach to the art-making process. So it was really wonderful, I think.

I tried to honour his approach to filmmaking, which is respecting it as much as possible, and that it takes an incredible amount of emotional stability and persistence and work. I really am lucky that I have that visual to touch base with when I'm struggling with the experience myself."


Marion Curtis / Starpix for Warner Bros.

On The Watchers and Trap Forming a Season of Shyamalan

It's very interesting. He and I talk about it all the time because it is so anomalous, I think, that there's these two movies are coming out so close to each other. They're very, very different movies. They exist in completely different spaces, which I think is quite cool that they're not of the same world.

All things happen for a reason, so my hope is that they can both artistically speak to each other and can communicate. But overall it's just a wonderful thing that we have this space within a giant summer to put out two original movies — I think that's just a wonderful, wonderful thing."


On the Shyamalans Making Original Movies at a Time When Existing Intellectual Property and Long-Running Franchises Dominate

"It's a different world for sure, and I'm definitely pondering it all the time. I think both he and I value that classical experience of going into theatre with a bunch of people who are different than you and watching something very specific that you didn't know anything about, and feeling the same way about it.

I think we both believe that there is this power of a collective original experience where you're seeing some fresh cutting-edge stuff. It's definitely something that I will try to preserve that space as well.

And I see a lot of other young filmmakers doing the same, so it makes me quite hopeful for the future of movies, that we can have all different flavours of things."


On the Expectations That Come with Ishana Following in M Night's Footsteps — Especially in Horror

"The genre for me felt very inevitable. It's just always the art that I've been drawn to and that I've made has played in this slightly darker space. So that felt there was no other option for me than to enter a similar space to him.

There's definitely opinions and expectations — and I think I love that feeling. There's something to prove, and having to cut my own space into the creative spirit is a really intriguing challenge for me.

So I'm just trying to do the best I can and be as creatively honest as possible, and then I hope things things will go as they should."


The Watchers released in Australian cinemas on Thursday, June 6 and hits New Zealand cinemas on Thursday, June 13. Read our review.

Published on June 11, 2024 by Sarah Ward
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