Shyamalan Horror The Watchers Finds New Terror in Ireland’s Folklore

Ishana and M. Night Shyamalan bring sinister meaning to an “enchanted forest” in The Watchers, a film that could only be made in Ireland.

Dakota Fanning in The Watchers
Photo: Warner Bros. Pictures

Ishana Shyamalan has long been transfixed by the spell of folklore and the stories we leave only half-remembered. This was true of her work as a director on Servant, the cryptic Apple TV+  series executive produced by her father M. Night Shyamalan, and it’s true of her new horror film The Watchers, a movie set in the most menacing “enchanted forest” you’ll ever see. But for Ishana, it goes back even further than that.

“I think this particular mythology is something I connected very strongly to as a child,” Shyamalan says when we sit down with her ahead of The Watchers’ release this weekend, “in particular this darker take on it.” It is why she directly sought out material like A.M. Shine’s novel of the same name as the kind of source material she wanted for her directorial debut. It is why she found herself in search of Ireland.

Like Shine’s The Watchers novel, the new horror-thriller hybrid follows a young woman named Mina (Dakota Fanning) who during a low point in her life see things go from bad to catastrophic after her car breaks down the edge of a woods she never should have entered. But enter Mina does into this dark space where there is no apparent exit, and the only other people are deeply disturbed and traumatized souls like Ciara (Georgina Campbell), a woman who lost her husband to the same forest, and Madeline (Olwen Fouéré), a matriarchal figure who’s been trapped here longer than she cares to admit. However, none of them know much more than this: If you are out in the forest after sundown, you’re never seen again. And if you do seek shelter in a nearby cottage, you are expected to offer yourself up to be watched by supernatural creatures out there in the blackness.

“I was lucky to be in close contact with the author of the book, and he became one of my good friends throughout the process,” Shyamalan explains of how she immersed herself in the mythological mystery at the center of The Watchers. “He was steeped in this kind of history, so he gave me an oral history and some texts to read, and then we talked about it at length—what was written and what he invented, and what the questions might be that still exist, and then I bought a few books on my own and looked at a bunch of imagery to understand exactly what it was that we were talking about.”

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Shyamalan even inadvertently tapped into the same half-forgotten folk horrors that inspired Irish writers of the past. For example, in a departure from Shine’s book, before Mina’s sojourn into the woods in The Watchers film, we’re also introduced to her sister… Lucy. It’s an ominous name for readers versed in the work of another Irish author who grew up obsessed with his native folklore and fairytales: Bram Stoker.

“It was a totally random subliminal thing that happened, but I was like ‘obviously!’ [after the fact],” Shyamalan says with a laugh while thinking about The Watchers’ connection to Dracula. “I was listening to the Dracula score [by Wojciech Kilar] the whole time, and it was such a funny thing to discover that happened.”

Shyamalan remains a bit more cryptic about what horrors await her Mina in the woods, but she does confirm that the story has a universality to it (who hasn’t felt like they are being watched or the need to perform, especially these days?) Even so, she sought to preserve an Irish specificity to the tale by filming in the country from which its lore springs.

Says Shyamalan, “I wanted to learn as much as I could about what life actually felt like in Ireland, and the answer for me was shooting it in as many authentic environments as we could. There is a lot of realness in it, and a lot of the experience you have as filmmakers and a crew and a cast, that kind of translate into the cinema space.” After scouting many forests across the emerald isle, they even settled on a fairly remote and untouched patch of wilderness in County Wicklow.

“My hope is that you can kind of see in the movie that there is a very specific feeling to this particular forest,” Shyamalan explains. “We searched at length for the right place that I felt would be just cinematically graphic and memorable, and feel like it had its own character to it. So we kind of stumbled across this set of woods pretty late in the process, and it just had this incredibly eerie feeling about it. It was very homogenous, very dead feeling, the ground was all quite so soft, so you can’t even hear when anyone’s walking up to you.”

As she filmed there, the director even heard whispers of superstitions about how one should never venture into that area, or how this site is associated with that legend. “I actually talked a lot with the actress Olwen about folklore. We kind of ideated on some things together. She was very, very enamored by it in the same way that I was.”

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While Ishana’s famous father acted as a producer on the project and did visit the set on multiple occasions, he also knew when it was time to let Ishana carve her own path and step away In addition to Night simultaneously prepping work on Trap (another original thriller out at the end of the summer), he’d seen his daughter’s work already diverge from his own sensibilities on Servant, and this time Ishana was in the authorial seat. 

“For Servant and all the other projects I did before, it was very much fitting in a pre-established vision,” says Ishana, “But this was very much something I loved and I saw very clearly from the moment that I read the book. So it was important to me to follow that instinct and be very truthful about what I liked and I didn’t like, and keep pushing myself. [Night] was wonderfully supportive in that process and kind of felt surprised by a lot of the decisions that I made, and felt like he saw the difference in our artistic palettes.”

Like her father, Ishana finds herself drawn to genre in her storytelling, albeit with her tastes leaning more toward the fantastical and surreal. She credits her tastes as being squarely located in the Gothic and macabre, and it’s an aesthetic she intends to explore beyond just a gloomy Irish wood that the world forgot.

“All ancient things, I feel, still exist with us,” Shyamalan says, “so it’s wonderful to be able to connect with those things that have been forgotten or dusted over. So I’m quite obsessed with that feeling of tapping into history.”

The Watchers is in theaters on Friday, June 7.