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The Language of Horror: Ishana Night Shyamalan on The Watchers

After helping as the second unit director on her father M. Night Shyamalan’s films “Old” and “Knock at the Cabin,” it’s only fitting that Ishana Night Shyamalan’s directorial debut, “The Watchers,” continues the family tradition of mining the horrors of single-setting locations.

“The Watchers” focuses on Mina (Dakota Fanning) who gets stranded in a forest in Western Ireland while en route to deliver a parrot to a customer. She encounters three other strangers, played by Georgina Campbell, Oliver Finnegan as Daniel, and Olwen Fouéré, who have all been trying to escape the woods but have had no success. Seeing no easy exit (and warned profusely that there are dire consequences if she stays out past dawn), Mina joins them in their refuge: a one-room lodge called “The Coop.” There, she’s informed that they are being watched and observed by unknown creatures that only come out at night, and the group plots their escape from their unseen captors. 

For Shyamalan, the claustrophobic setting of the Coop and her uncomfortable close-up shots of the characters all fed into the ambiance of perpetual unease she hoped to cultivate. “We were trying to find the most uncomfortable way we could frame something, which often meant having more negative space with a frame and having things either too close or too far,” she shared.

Shyamalan spoke with about the importance of prep when filming in a location as unwieldy as the Irish woods, how her family’s views on art’s sacredness influence her work, and why horror is her preferred “language” for grappling with and speaking with life's big questions.

This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

In honor of a film you were a second unit director on, I have to ask: did you ever consider calling this film “Knock at the Coop”?

[Laughs] No, that’s pretty smart. I should have thought of that. 

One of the common critiques I’ve heard from people who watch any movie adaptations of their favorite books is that what’s on-screen doesn’t match how they envisioned something. You had the rare privilege of reading A.M. Shine’s book and having the opportunity to bring that to life on your terms. 

I was very nervous at the beginning. I didn’t want to disappoint any lovers of the book and it was very important to me that [Shine] was happy with the product. I was very much open with him from the beginning. I showed him the very first draft of my script and the finalized version to ask him what he thought and it was very clear that he was supportive of anything. He loved the script, and we talked about it at length. One aspect that was freeing was that he told me “I don’t see my book and your film as the same art piece. You’re making your own art piece, so do whatever you want there.” From then on, I felt free to bring the things I loved in his book and then put them on-screen. 

Were there any scenes in particular that you could bring to life exactly as you imagined them? 

I don’t want to spoil too much, but I would say it was when the characters were discovering the various spaces beyond the Coop. There’s the bunker location that you see later in the movie, and that was exactly how I envisioned it. The way everyone moves in that space is shot for shot how I remember reading and experiencing that in the book. The circular nature of the space, the copious tunnels, and the high ceilings … were all part of what I imagined. 

That’s always a gift when you can bring a vision to life like that. 

Exactly. There’s a scene where Mina is in an office, and that room was also how I envisioned it… lots of wood panels. 

Speaking more on locations, you’ve shared that a lesson you took away from directing episodes of “Servant” and, of course, acting as second unit directors on “Old” and “Knock at the Cabin” was the importance of prep before a shoot. With something like “The Watchers,” the setting is hauntingly beautiful, but you’re also at the mercy of nature. Can you talk about how you had to adapt and work with the environment and what flexibility looked like on the day?

Prep allows you to be a bit freer when things get crazy. I experienced that where I had all of my shots and very quickly found out that it was going to be hard to accomplish the things I wanted to as I had planned due to the difficulties of getting equipment to the location and the number of hours we had in the day. My team and I did everything we could beforehand to make it as achievable as possible and talked through each day of the shooting. 

At the beginning of every one of my days, I always block out the exact schedule for the day. I’m very exact so I have mapped out how long a shot will take to the last minute. Having that structure for me allowed me to think of an alternate plan when, for example, it started raining. Those moments of setback forced me to think, “Okay, what is important to me about this scene that I can do in an alternate way or with these present restrictions?” That kind of prep allows you to just flow in the moment. I also love the chaos of it all… it’s so fun. 

I have to ask about working with the parrot (named Darwin in the film). I’ve spoken with directors Matt Vesely and Jim Cummings who worked with animals on their sets, and they’ve joked that they’re the biggest divas.   

The bird was a female bird called Sunshine, and she was amazing. It was wild. I was nervous about working with her, but when she came on set … she could almost feel the presence of the camera and would start performing. There were so many moments where I literally would kind of have imagined her walking or hanging on her cage, and without any prompting, she would do exactly that. It was just wild that she was just in it. 

I’m struck by something both you and your father have shared on several occasions where in the Shyamalan family, the arts are considered sacred. I’m wondering how you view your own work, from working on music videos with your sister to working on this feature film.

For sure … for me, art-making is a religious process. In my life, making art has been a means of survival. It’s so easy to feel dark and cynical, and I don’t want to ever feel like that. So, I’ll always turn to some form of art to avoid feeling like that. I think that’s because when you enter and engage with a piece of art, you’re humbled by it. There is this presence that the art form itself has; it's a living, breathing thing that works alongside you, and you're just sort of channeling it. 

That may sound too abstract, but yeah, when I’m making something, there’s this moment when I realize the power of the universe and that there are all these things that come together; there are these moments of harmony and disharmony … it’s a beautiful thing to move through all of that. 

Your talk about how art helps you grapple with darkness and hardship made me think of another time you shared how horror is a language you feel most comfortable speaking. What makes it easier for you to “communicate” in the language of horror versus other genres?

I’m sure we all feel this way, but I do think as an artist and just as a human being, I have this sort of darker instinct within. There are moments for me when I realize the depth of my dark thoughts and how terrifying I can be. I enjoy the thrill of tapping into that and creating with that voice a little bit. Working within the horror genre helps me be more truthful and touch base with how I perceive the world. 

It is a great genre for disruption. I’m thinking about some of the most eerie shots in the film, such as when Mina’s car breaks down in the forest. The way we see her car, it’s as if the trees around her are like prison bars. Can you talk more about the visual language of crafting some of those scares? I’m curious if those were scenes you had in mind and then shot or maybe were found in the edit. 

I had this one director friend on Servant who gave me some amazing advice. He said, “If you can't see the scene play out in your head while you're writing the script, it's not right. There's something wrong with it.” I heeded that thought intensely when going into shooting, I needed to see every shot beforehand. I’m the type of director where I know the cut points for my shots. I was trying to play a bit, though. There were so many graphic angles, and with my crew, we were trying to find the most uncomfortable way we could frame something, which often meant more headroom, more negative space in a frame, and shooting through things … we wanted that feeling of discomfort in every frame where nothing is exactly what you want to see or hear. Things are either too close, or they’re too far. 

We also used these vintage rehoused lenses, which give the whole film this weird vignette and this expansive feel. 

You’ve stated that while your father’s filming style is very grounded in history and reality, you’re embracing an element of maximalism. The film is also very restrained in many elements, though, particularly when you choose to reveal the titular Watchers. What went into crafting those moments of restraint and then cathartic release? 

Much of that is tied to who I am as a person. I like to be restrained and mysterious and keep everything closed in. Then I’ll have these emotional bursts. Inevitably, the movie structure became that as well, where it’s very pinned up and holding back, and then there are these pops of information, fear, and emotion. Some of that structure also came through test screenings. I’d watch it also to see where people began to slump in the film. A lot of creating that dance was through trial and error. 

Speaking of your creative process, I find it hilarious that you’ve name-checked Lars von Trier’s “Antichrist” and Studio Ghibli films as creative inspirations for you. I don’t think those two have been uttered in the same sentence until now. Did those elements have a role for “The Watchers” in any way? 

The Miyazaki influence is just something that is probably not specific to this movie. He is the god of all gods, and I will just spend my life trying to emulate what I feel when I watch his movies. That kind of playfulness, adventure, magical realism, and stuff embedded in the work I hope to make. As for “Antichrist”, that was more of a tonal reference since that film also takes place in a sort of living, breathing forest. I also looked at Tarkovsky as well. I wanted to create this feeling of the forest having this drawn-out presence. The framing and atmosphere that we imbued our film with for my DP and me was very much from "Antichrist."

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