Interview: Filmmaker Ishana Night Shyamalan on the Influences, Themes and Intentions of Self-Reflective Thriller The Watchers

Although filmmaker Ishana Night Shyamalan’s The Watchers is technically her feature filmmaking debut, she’s actually been working in the film industry since 19 (she’s about 24 or 25 presently), when she wrote and directed six episodes (including two season finales) of the popular Apple TV+ series Servant, on which father, acclaimed director M. Night Shyamalan was the showrunner. She also handled second-unit directing duties on her father’s features Old and Knock at the Cabin. A graduate of NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts, Ishana has also directed four music videos for R&B singer Saleka.

Based on a novel by A.M. Shine, The Watchers (which Ishana also adapted) follows 28-year-old artist Mina (Dakota Fanning), who gets stranded in a seemingly never-ending forest in western Ireland. She finds shelter at night, along with three strangers (Georgina Campbell, Oliver Finnegan, and Olwen Fouere) who lay out for her a scenario in these woods in which unseen creatures called Watchers observe them in their small concrete habitat; during the day, the humans can exit their box in safety but cannot leave the woods. But the mystery remains: what are the Watchers looking for in their human captives? 

Themes of identity, imposter syndrome, guilt and shame all factor into the film to varying degrees, along with a strong folk-horror vibe, and I spoke with Ishana about all of this in our recent conversation about The Watchers. The film is now playing in theaters. Please enjoy our conversation…

How did you cross paths with this book? Did you find it, or was it brought to you?

It had just come out in 2021, and a producer named Nimitt Mankad procured the material and loved it and brought it to Blinding Edge Pictures , and they said “You should read this.” And I just read it and fell in love with it. As I turned the pages, I started to feel more and more connected to it. From the cover, which is so mysterious and interesting, to the blurb on the back of the book, which was so restrained, and it turned out to be this epically drawn out mystery, in which I had no idea what world I was in, but I completely couldn’t put it down. It just unfolded and became bigger and bigger, and by 75 percent of the way through, when the author reveals what the story is really about, I was so in. It felt like a shock moment and it felt like this particular mythology was something that has always resonated with me so much, and to see it in this modern, edgy context was so cool.

Right at the beginning, you give us this bird that mimics Mina, giving us our first clue of what is to come, including ideas of how self reflection can lead to self-loathing. Was that also something you responded to?

Yes, hugely. Definitely, I was connected to her in the book. This is the guise of a character who pushes away everything and is feeling all of these intense things but is refusing to confront or talk about them. It felt a bit like what I was experiencing and any young person experiences, in general. Then I imbued it with all of those things as I was building a movie about facing yourself through these multiple symbols of self-reflection.

Why do you think staring at yourself in the mirror for too long can be so damaging to some people?

Oh my god! It’s so crazy. Why do we hate ourselves so much? That kind of self-consciousness is something that’s totally unnatural and something we should not be thinking about. Seeing ourselves as a thing from the outside, we have too much time for that.

If we look too hard at he outside, we start to see the inside, and that’s where the trouble begins.

Oh yeah!

But what’s really happening in this story is that these people are being observed, which is interesting because we live in a world in which people are being observed all of the time, quite voluntarily, for fun and money. So that idea is going to speak differently to different people. The idea of being watched like this freaks me out, but for younger people, they might get something different out of it.

I think that’s such a big piece of what it means to be young. You definitely have to curate your whole being to be successful. That’s just an innate part of life right now, which is horrifying. Yeah, the film explores those ideas and is ultimately about who we are when no one is looking, and how do you relate to other people, and how are you in a family dynamic, having all of those things put on display? It all seems very apt to what we experience now.

Working with someone like Dakota, who is only 30, but is a seasoned veteran, what do you learn about working with actors from someone like her?

Every actor is very different, and they each have incredibly unique processes that are tailored to them. Dakota is very much an intuitive, gut-first type of actress, and she’s very grounded. She doesn’t need much low key and gets in there and feels. I really enjoyed that process. Coming in as a young director, you feel like you need to have all the answers and have everything prepared and say “Let’s get this performance.” She is very much flowing all the time, and I loved that process of working with her, where I could say a very little thing, and she’s got it. We understood each other intuitively in that way.

Because your father has such a distinct style of storytelling, how important was it for you, your first time out making a film, to distinguish yourself from his work? As much as you want to honor his work, did you also want to say “This is what I’m about”?

A big part of this movie was knowing that that type of framing would be there. So I was interested in creating something that started with a similar tone and then becomes something very different and shows you what I’m interested in doing. We share a lot of tastes, but we differ in a lot of places. Our favorite movies would not be the same, but we respect each other’s favorite movies. I’m trying to be as truthful as I can to what my tastes are, and hopefully audiences can see the differences. To me, it feels very different than one of his movies—stylistically, it’s quite different. That’s the best I can do.

Were there certain films that informed The Watchers in terms of the atmosphere?

Yeah, so many. Early on, I watched this Japanese film Onibaba. That was a big tonal reference for me, it’s stunning and showed me how to play characters in nature, running through nature. I watched Antichrist as well; that was a big one. So many others. Miyazaki was a big reference for me as well on this one. I tried not to take too many literal references, but instead I was washed over by the storytelling and seeing how different filmmakers are doing that.

You’re shooting in this confined space. Did it feel claustrophobic to you and your actors? How did that impact the filmmaking?

I really enjoyed that part of it. I think the actors all felt some level of intensity and discomfort, because you’re in this space where it’s just the four of them and me and the camera. It became hard to maneuver and it’s a very consistent light that doesn’t change all day. And it brought us to this place of being a little weird and bringing this unnatural way of existing to the scenes, which is very much the intention. If you actually were aware that you’re being watched all the time, how would it shift your perspective? And that played nicely into ideas, making it very play-like in the way we did those things.

Parts of it did feel like a filmed play, yes. To that point, there’s a very specific emotional journey in those shelter scenes. Were you able to shoot those sequences more or less in chronological order?

To some extent. We started out with a schedule built to be chronological, and certain elements came about where we had to navigate those things. I was very intentional, shooting within our days, what things would come first and talking through what we needed to to get to certain performances, so it was very much something we thought about and talked to the actors about.

Can we talk about the creature design, while still keeping it vague? I’m guessing this is the first time you’ve gotten to be part of a process like that. What was that like for you? What were the things you wanted to get across in the look of the Watchers?

For me, it was very much about what would they look like if this particular mythology were real and originated with the imagery that does exist. There’s a bunch of imagery in stories that does exist that describes these specific creatures in great detail. So it was drawing from that and then wondering about them living underground for this many years and now have re-emerged, what would they be like? So we were drawling from other creatures that live underground, mixed with what I find just gutturally scary, certain shapes, stature—it was a difficult but cool process.

Do you think going forward, you’ll stick with genre films, or do hope to dabble in other areas that aren’t scary or weird?

I don’t think I have any choice .

Of course you have a choice.

I mean in terms of my own psyche. I don’t think I could ever make something that was somewhat darker or scarier. I’m really interested in pushing that boundary and see what the genre space could hold and using it more as a color than the approach of people just coming into the theater and the movie going “Boo!” Using it as a bit of a language and trying to go deeper into the fantasy-horror intersection.

I was going to say, this isn’t pure horror; it’s more the fantasy-horror approach that Guillermo del Toro does often, certainly more than your father.

That’s actually my dream genre.

What do you want people thinking about when they leave the theater?

In a meta way, the hope is that there’s this space carved out for original cinema. I think that’s a big aim and part of the storyline of this particular movie—how much room is there left for that? Do audiences still have the stomach for it? That’s a big piece of it. From the emotional sense, the journey is meant to be about the possibility that there could be things out here with us. That’s very much how I feel about the world. Hopefully as you’re leaving the theater, you’re looking at people slightly differently.

So much of Irish folklore is about nature—the sea and I guess the woods too. It all seems very grounded in reality.

Yes, definitely.

Thank you so much, and best of luck with this.

Thank you for talking.

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Steve Prokopy

Steve Prokopy is chief film critic for the Chicago-based arts outlet Third Coast Review. For nearly 20 years, he was the Chicago editor for Ain’t It Cool News, where he contributed film reviews and filmmaker/actor interviews under the name “Capone.” Currently, he’s a frequent contributor at /Film (SlashFilm.com) and Backstory Magazine. He is also the public relations director for Chicago's independently owned Music Box Theatre, and holds the position of Vice President for the Chicago Film Critics Association. In addition, he is a programmer for the Chicago Critics Film Festival, which has been one of the city's most anticipated festivals since 2013.