"Darkness is where the most beautiful things emerge." Ishana Night Shyamalan on The Watched

“Darkness is where the most beautiful things emerge.” Ishana Night Shyamalan on The Watched

We exclusively speak to writer and director Ishana Night Shyamalan about her first feature film, The Watched.

the watched

Directed by Ishana Night Shyamalan and produced by her father, M. Night Shyamalan, new supernatural thriller, The Watched (named The Watchers in the US), is based on the novel by A.M. Shine and follows Mina (Dakota Fanning), a 28-year-old artist, who gets stranded in an expansive, untouched forest in western Ireland.

When Mina finds shelter in a mysterious box called the Coop, she unknowingly becomes trapped alongside three strangers (played by Georgina Campbell, Oliver Finnegan and Olwen Fouere) who are watched and stalked by mysterious creatures each night.

We sat down with Ishana to talk creepy creatures, filming in the forest, her love of genre and working with her dad…

So, take us all the way back to the beginning. How did everything start with you for The Watched?

It was something I was aiming for; a form of art making and filmmaking that I really admire – the feature, the kind of classical approach of making something for the cinemas. So I was aiming towards that and honing in on what genres and themes I wanted to play with, and right at the right moment when I was open, I read A.M. Shine’s book, and was just obsessed with the story. I felt like it was brilliant and totally fresh, and had this beautiful, vibrant, cool world.

The moment I finished the book, I wanted to start writing it as a script!

What was it about A.M. Shine’s book that hooked you?

It was really the richness and reveal of the folklore behind the story that was incredibly compelling. I felt it was so new, and it was something I was dying to see on screen. When I read it, it played out already as a movie. So a lot of that took the pressure off of me, where I felt AM had already done this cinematic structure that was working.

Did much change from the writing phrase to actually shooting the movie?

Definitely! I had a pretty locked script when we were shooting, but there are always things like that come into play. Half the job is being fluid and being open to what actors are thinking and how much you can actually accomplish within a day.

I love that piece of it; the exact moment when you’re shooting and the people that you’re shooting it with will create something that can never be replicated. So the movie that exists now is very much a product of those things.

Ishana Night Shyamalan worked with those on set to bring the version of The Watched we see today.

The movie is set in Ireland, was the movie shot there as well?

We shot fully in Ireland, most of it in Wicklow County, and then we did a week in Galway.

A lot of The Watched is set in the forest, what are the challenges when shooting in those conditions?

A lot of it was just how to accomplish the shots that we wanted to accomplish. There was a lot of movement in our shot list and storyboards. And just physically – how do you get the camera from A to B in a very dense forest where there are a lot of dead trees and uneven ground?! So those kinds of mathematical equations became a big part of the conversation.

Then shooting outside, you’re waiting for the perfect type of light, and if you have too much sunlight, the image looks ugly. So it’s a lot of waiting for those magic moments in the forest where we got the perfect ambiance for these shots.

A challenge when shooting in the forest is waiting for those magic moments when the light is perfect.

The characters in the movie are trapped in the ‘Coop’ – basically a big box in the middle of the forest – what was the process of designing and building that?

It was awesome. We had such a fantastic production designer, Ferdia Murphy, on this movie, and we did build that.

It was very much something we started concepting and thinking about way, way early on. It was one of the first conversations I had for the creative process of the movie. We did two builds – we did the inside of the Coop on a soundstage, so we could control the lighting and have that beautiful golden thing going on. Then we built an outside shell in the actual place in the forest where we wanted the Coop to be. So it was a combination of those two sets, and playing with when we were shooting in each. It was very, very fun.

The Coop has a number of items in it including a videotape of a 90s dating show. What was your thinking behind including that?

It was an interesting thing. I was really enjoying putting this classical fairy tale story into a very modern world that we could relate to. So that felt interesting to me, that there was this early 90s dating show that might have been put in there as a representation of what humankind is interested in.

It was such a great juxtaposition to what the characters were going through, and such a weird phenomenon that we as human beings, love watching shows like that. I love watching shows like that. So it was just a very fun little cheeky thing we got to embed in the world.

The Coop was physically built in the forest and houses a few – sometimes odd – objects in it.

Dakota plays Mina in the movie, what was the thinking behind casting her in this role?

She is a brilliant actress. She’s someone who has that intangible ‘it’ quality about her. I think she’s very representative of the experience of young people today, and that was what I wanted to have at the centre of this film. Someone who has carried all of that emotion and all the things we deal with within her. She does that in such a deft way as an actress that it just felt like a very grounded base through which to play with this more surreal universe.

Mina is a very complex character, did you and Dakota work together to bring her to the screen?

We did work together. We had a lot of conversations about what the intentions were and what the themes were, but it was very much instinctual as well.

She’s a very kind of go-from-the-gut kind of actress and just lets herself be moved, and then go from that place.

So it was really about us getting to know each other. That was really the prep process; conversations of us relating and understanding what we could bring out in the story together. We very much worked to find this character as one unit.

Ishana Night Shyamalan and Dakota Fanning (both pictured) worked together to bring the complex Mina to life on screen in The Watched.

Mina isn’t alone in the Coop – how would you describe this group of strangers that Mina finds herself trapped with?

It’s such a brilliant ensemble of actors. They’re so talented, each of them. They’re all just complete blow-away actors. Incredible.

I was trying to strike this odd family dynamic that you are seeing very human things that we deal with in a domestic space play out in this odd, off-kilter way.

Casting them was based on that idea and how we could have these different elements of human attributes through these four characters.

We won’t give away any spoilers on the creatures who are watching them, but what feel and vibe did you want them to have in the movie?

It’s so interesting with a movie like this, where it’s structured in a way that makes you want to see something so bad. There’s a lot of weight on what you see (if you do see anything).

I just felt that mystery was the way to go – showing as little as possible and just using, in essence, silhouettes and structures that are visceral and that cause some kind of reaction and make me feel a little uneasy.

So it was very much a process of going into the deep detail of how these things looked, and then framing them and curating the experience of them to be very, very minimal.

There is a constant feeling of dread in the movie, was that intentional, and how do you go about creating that?

Yeah, that was the intent. That’s what I find scary; that fear can be so persistent. So it was really a means of how do we keep you guessing and never giving you the gratification of a win, in any way?

The shot-making is about that. Pushing how long you can look at the shot of the scary woods and what are you going to think during that shot? So it was very much about that, drawing it out as much as possible.

Ishana Night Shyamalan (pictured, with actors – from left to right – Olwen Fouere, Oliver Finnegan and Georgina Campbell) worked hard to invoke a constant feeling of dread in The Watched.

You’ve worked on a number of sci-fi/horror projects, what is it about genre that pulls you in as a filmmaker?

So many things! It’s just something I find really beautiful. I think darkness is where the most beautiful things emerge. I always find a sense of peace and understanding in those kinds of genre worlds, whether it be books or movies.

It’s a way to create a collective feeling that always works. I think we’re seeing that a lot in the cinemas now, where people are able to connect and feel together within this one genre.

Your dad is also no stranger to genre! Did he give you any tips when filming The Watched?

He definitely tried to prepare me. I think he was maybe worried about how I would feel during the experience. He gave me many words of advice before I embarked on the journey of how to create a stable base in my body and mind to be able to be equipped to make a movie.

So that was very helpful, to know that it takes a certain level of practicality to be able to make good art and finish art.

He’s been throughout the process and is someone I obviously look up to hugely. I so admire both his creative choices and the way he lives his life. So I try to honour that and ask him and bounce things off of him whenever I can!

The Watched will be released in the UK on 7  June, 2024 by Warner Bros. Pictures.

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