June 20, 2024

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With ‘The Watchers’ and ‘Trap,’ the Shyamalan Family Scares Together

The Shyamalan family is very close. How close? During a video interview with the sisters Saleka, 27, and Ishana Night Shyamalan, 24, their dad, the “Sixth Sense” director M. Night Shyamalan, called Ishana on the phone. The sound interrupted Ishana speaking about the differences between her and her father’s filmmaking process.

“I’m like, you know we’re on this call right now,” she said with a laugh, ignoring the ring.

Given this familial bond, it makes sense that the Shyamalan siblings are both on the cusp of major career moments this summer made in collaboration with their father. Ishana’s feature directing debut “The Watchers,” with Night as one of the producers, releases June 7, while Saleka, a musician, portrays a pop star in and wrote original songs for Night’s latest, “Trap,” due Aug. 9. The fact that both projects are emerging around the same time is coincidental, Ishana and Saleka said, but they are happy to share in the celebration.

“I feel like in some ways we’ve always done that, since we were growing up, experience things together,” Saleka said. “So it feels right even though it was unplanned.”

In an era where discourse over nepotism in Hollywood runs hot, the Shyamalans wear their name proudly. (Their mom, Bhavna Shyamalan, is the owner of a fitness studio and the vice president of the M. Night Shyamalan Foundation.) Fans noticed that there was a poster for “The Watchers” in the “Trap” trailer. The sisters did acknowledge the advantages that come with their lineage, but they have tried to make up for that with discipline. “It’s really about meeting that privilege and honoring that with as hard a work ethic as we can, by being as kind people as we can and holding ourselves to the highest standard possible,” Ishana said.

But no matter what they chose as professions, Saleka said, their dad was probably going to be nearby. “He’s just a super involved parent,” she said.

In a separate interview, Night said that the Shyamalans are traditional in many ways even as they chart their own paths. “We’re a classic Asian Indian family, but maybe the difference slightly that’s interesting is rather than aiming it toward medicine, or engineering, or law — your only three options — we aimed toward the arts,” he said. “Codifying a process is the difficult part because in those fields those steps are already predestined and laid out for you, whereas this is amorphous.”

To that end, Night involved them in his process at a young age. Saleka and Ishana’s formative memories — they also have a younger sister, Shivani — were on the sets of Night’s films. His 2006 feature “Lady in the Water” was born out of a bedtime story that their father told them when they were sleeping in adjacent twin beds. During filming, they watched it become real. (The film, which was panned upon release, also became an early lesson in criticism, and how not everyone will feel the same way about your work that you do.)

In the Shyamalan household, art was a “sacred thing,” Ishana said, and creative pursuits were taken extremely seriously. Saleka started piano lessons when she was 4, and Night said she would practice three hours a day even when the family was on vacation.

When Saleka, who sings emotionally rich R&B songs and has opened for Boyz II Men, decided she wanted to compose her own material rather than go to a conservatory, Night initially dismissed the idea. “In a classic immigrant Indian dad process I was like, ‘Well, that’s ridiculous,’” he said. He later admitted he was wrong not to trust her desires.

“I think once he saw that I had passion for it in the same way that he had a passion for film, he understood it and was like, all right, I’m with you, let’s make this happen,” Saleka said.

Inspired by their shared love of Prince’s “Purple Rain,” Saleka and Night came up with “Trap,” a thriller about a father who takes his daughter to see her favorite artist, Lady Raven, played by Saleka. She wrote 14 songs for the project, which had to both fit in diegetically with the action onscreen and be appropriate for her character.

Ishana’s chosen profession, which she gravitated toward in her teens, was much more familiar to dad. After graduating from Night’s alma mater, the Tisch School of the Arts at New York University, she finished her work writing and directing on the TV show “Servant.” (Night was an executive producer on “Servant,” which was also a training ground for Saleka, who wrote songs for the show.) Ishana then set about adapting A.M. Shine’s novel “The Watchers,” writing as quickly as she could. The mysterious thriller stars Dakota Fanning as a woman who becomes trapped inside a creepy structure in an Irish forest where creatures known as the “watchers” view humans as entertainment.

According to Fanning, Ishana was both inventive and incredibly prepared when shooting scenes. “She told me that she would map out the day in her mind every morning,” Fanning said by phone, adding, “She’s very detailed and microscopic in that way.”

Ishana had to distinguish her way of directing from her father’s while on set. “He’s very grounded in his tone and his style, and I really enjoy pushing that a little and going maybe a little bit more experimental,” she said.

When the family came to visit the set, Fanning said she could feel the camaraderie. “They are really the definition of proud parents and proud sister on the sidelines cheering her on,” Fanning said.

Night has a professional role in his daughters’ careers, and maintains it whenever he is in producer or director mode. But Dad mode does enter the equation when he’s worried about whether they are eating and sleeping enough. “As a dad you, don’t want them to get hurt ever,” he said. “So watching them push themselves to the limit and past it for both of these projects it was hard.”

Ishana and Saleka don’t live at home all the time — when we spoke, Ishana was in New York and Saleka in Philadelphia — but they did cohabitate when they were working on “The Watchers” and “Trap.” They would meet at 11 p.m. to check in on each other after Saleka would spend her days in the recording studio and Ishana would be mixing her movie next door on their family’s property in Pennsylvania.

Ishana said that having these facilities in-house are part of a “genius” method their dad has for keeping his artist children close.

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