As The Watchers comes to cinemas, all eyes are on Ishana Night Shyamalan

As The Watchers comes to cinemas, all eyes are on Ishana Night Shyamalan
  • PublishedJune 5, 2024

A debut full-length feature is a daunting prospect for any new filmmaker, but when you’re the daughter of one of the most famous modern directors that scrutiny increases tenfold.

Let’s just say that Ishana Night Shyamalan knows what it’s like to feel watched.

Now she’s venturing out on her own for her first feature film (okay, dad’s still a producer) with The Watchers, a supernatural horror thriller based on the novel by A.M. Shine.

The Watchers follows Mina (Dakota Fanning), a 28-year-old with mummy issues stuck in a dead-end pet store job. Her mission to deliver a rare parrot to its new owners leads her through the dark and terrifying forests of Ireland. After her car clunks out in the spookiest part, Mina is herded into a glassed-walled structure. It’s inhabited by three trapped people who require the coop to live through the night, as dangerous but invisible creatures watch from afar.

“The idea that you’re sort of playing with the anxiety of being watched and judged, is something that I feel very much in my life, that felt like something that resonated with me right away,” Ishana says of choosing to adapt The Watchers.

“I definitely have felt like I’m making this movie and putting it out into the world, [and] that fear is heightened for me. Suddenly there I am putting myself in a position to be kind of judged by people.

“It’s just an interesting fear to kind of play with and explore in my own thing.”

Four people stand inside a dimly lit concrete and glass room.
Mina and the other captives must be inside by nightfall in order to avoid The Watchers.(Supplied: Warner Bros.)

A life lived on set

As the 23-year-old daughter of M.Night Shyamalan (The Sixth Sense; Glass), Ishana has trained under her father her whole life, in environments most aspiring filmmakers could only dream of accessing.

She’s directed music videos for her sister, written and directed episodes of Servant (her father’s Apple TV+ show), before graduating to his feature films, where she documented her time as second unit director on Old (2021) and Knock at the Cabin (2023).

“It was very much, I think, a sort of classical training process, I look at all those experiences like an internship where I got as much firsthand knowledge as possible,” she says.

“I learned so many different lessons on each of those sets, how to work with people and how to shoot things and light things.”

There are familiar overtones of the elder Shyamalan in The Watchers, namely the endlessly foreboding atmosphere, red herrings in plain sight, exposition hiding in the background and a third act plot twist.

As such, inevitable comparisons to her name-brand father are at the forefront of Ishana’s mind.

“It’s something that I think about every day in the creative process. I try to honour the fact that I am privileged in this way and I’m very conscious about what the implications are as well,” she says.

“For me, the best way that I feel I can go about it is just holding myself to a certain standard of both work ethic and kindness. It’s my belief that those two things will lead me in the right direction and everything around it doesn’t really matter.”

It doesn’t help that M.Night has a film of his own, Trap – starring Josh Hartnett and his other daughter Saleka – coming out just months after The Watchers. But Ishana laughs away any suggestion of a competition between the two.

“It was definitely chaos with us trying to do these two movies side by side … When we were cutting it, it was literally like his editing room across the hall from my editing room,” she says.

“But it’s really cool to kind of have that dynamic where we’re moving through our creative journeys together.”

Who watches The Watchers?

Mirrors are a common sight throughout the film, adding to the unease. At times it is almost impossible to tell if you’re looking at a human or a reflection of one.

“I think the film is very much about this young woman’s reflection on herself. It’s in the movie in many different forms, that idea of a moment in your life when you’re being faced with what you are,” Ishana says.

It’s why Dakota Fanning — who has spent her whole life in the public eye — was the perfect casting choice for Mina.

“To me she is both an icon of our younger generation [and] she also very much is representative of what it feels like to be a young person,” Ishana told The Screen Show’s Jason Di Rosso.

“I felt that she had all of those qualities where she could give a really universal performance, as the basis of this kind of more surrealist world.”

Inside the glass structure are some items from the outside world: a bed, a record player and a TV. Except there’s only one DVD to watch, and it’s a gaudy reality show called Lair of Love — a version of every reality show that puts horny young people in a house with alcohol to watch the carnage unfold.

Mina consumes it incessantly while stuck in the box, its hot pink and sunny vibes at odds with the reality of her situation. It’s a tongue-in-cheek reminder that we’re guilty of many of the same impulses as the monsters who torment our protagonist.

“I’m a huge reality show girl and I just happened to be watching Love Island when I was writing the script,” Ishana says.

“I’m watching these people flirt for like hours and hours and hours. We do have these situations in our lives right now where we’re just observing people’s behaviours.

“And so it felt like a really wonderful way to juxtapose what’s happening to the characters, and have a symbolic statement on this feeling of observation.”


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