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The Last Airbender - M Night Shyamalan interview

M Night Shyamalan

Interview by Rob Carnevale

M NIGHT Shyamalan talks about bringing The Last Airbender to the big screen, why he was such a fan of the Nickelodeon animated series and why he’s hoping for a trilogy.

He also talks about the ‘pressure’ of past successes and some of his future projects (including Devil)… though not necessarily as director.

Q. The film is very, very different from what we’ve seen from you in the past – no scary bits for grown-ups and no twists in the end So what was the attraction for you? Has it got anything to do with reaching out to your inner child?
M Night Shyamalan: Um… yes. I think that’s probably something to do with most of them. Most of the movies are connected to some childhood point of view: the moment we let go of belief systems and things like that and become adults. This particular movie, there’s so many things that drew me to this.

There’s the [Hayao] Miyazaki influence, which was huge for me; there’s the martial arts. The two types of movies that were my guilty pleasures as a kid were horror movies and martial arts movies. So, I’ve got to do my version of scarier movies and I’ve been starting to think about martial arts again as an interesting art – something that you learn so you never have to use it. The philosophies that are involved with every movement and thought and how you discipline yourself. It’s a great medium for entertaining but also talking about deeper things. So, it’s something I’m interested in. I’ve kind of started to sketch a couple of martial arts ideas, actually.

But I love thrillers and I will always write those and make those. The opera of it is something that really interested me. I think you can feel that in the third act it becomes more operatic. I touched on something like that in the action in Unbreakable at the end. It really felt… like wow, this is the way to think about action in terms of one emotional movement and using it as more of a backdrop behind you as you are watching the character struggling with the emotions of a moment.

Any amount of things can be going on in that action moment, so David Dunn fighting with the bad guy, the Orange Man, in Unbreakable, kind of fed into the third act of this movie. If we get the opportunity to make [Last Airbender] 2 and 3 that’s what I want the language to be for the movie. When you look on the set you’ll feel like the story was told with a new language.

Q. The Last Airbender obviously has a very strong fan-base, some of whom will react positively and others who will react negatively. How do you react to negative reviews?
M Night Shyamalan: Oh, those are two separate things you just said. You talked about fan-base and then you jumped into reviews. Did you mean fan reviews?

Q. There can be a lot of strong reviews, whether it’s fan reviews online or things like that. How do you respond to those?
M Night Shyamalan: Well, ultimately it was a source material that really spoke to me. I was a fan of the show, so it’s not like I was hired to do it. I was the fan who set out to make this movie. The influences – the Miyazaki, the martial arts, even the Shakespearean back story for the royal family – all these things that became a part of the language as the show progressed over the three years. You know, when they first started it was very young and had a completely different tonality. They evolved as they went. In many ways, it didn’t quite fit the network. It was successful but [programmes like] Dora The Explorer blow it away in terms of their ratings and all. This is not a blow away ratings show; it was a cult following. It wasn’t quite fit for where it was; it was acknowledged, but it wasn’t quite the right fit.

I talked to the creators and there was stuff they wanted to do – they wanted to be darker and this and that. We were making a grounded movie and 85% of the audience that’s going to see the movie is going to be fresh and new. I’d love them to watch the movie and then go back and see the source material and see how we evolved from that, but making grounded choices is part of the aesthetic that I’m trying to bring to the movie, rather than making the straight, one to one commercial thing.

One of the things I wanted to do which we never did get to do… because I was watching, anything with source material like X-Men or Wolverine or something like that, immediately there’s the reaction: “How can they cut that character? Why did they bring in the villain this way?” And all that other stuff. What I wanted to do was just go right up front and say: “These are the 10 things I changed and this is why.” Not that they were changed capriciously or that the studio had a gun to my head: it wasn’t that at all. It was all for specific artistic reasons that are defendable and come from somebody who honours the subject matter; not from some kind of commercial or callous thing, or from people that don’t care. It comes from caring… from a super, super amount of attention to the details. I would have loved to have done that somehow.

Maybe if we do 2, it’s not about an apology; it’s like a key guide for the movie and saying: “Hey look, this is why I did these things… I’m changing the mythology just slightly this way.”

Overall, we screened it many times before and the fan-base really dug it. We were always going to have the vocals and the first ones are going to be like: “Wham!” But the fan-base really dig it. Our screenings for the fans were off the charts. The kids really got… you know. There must be a reason for changing the pronunciation of Aang to Ung – there must be a reason that he did that. I don’t understand it yet, but I get it. But oh, all the names are feeling in this mode: Iroh [pronounced ee-roh] instead of Iroh [pronounced ‘iroh’] and all this stuff, and wow, it’s feeling more authentic.

I mean, the only thing I didn’t do was change Appa. When I got with ILM I was like: “How does this thing fly?” That was the only thing I was like: “It’s the show; I can’t reinvent this thing to make it physically possible that it could fly.” But besides that, we made every decision… I told everybody: “We’re going to ground it.” 95% of the show is identical. But it’s a tricky thing, you have the obligation to the fans and you have an obligation to cinema.

Q. You said before you were a fan of martial arts, so would you consider this movie to be an homage to the Bruce Lee type of heroes? And how do you envisage the evolution and possible trilogy?
M Night Shyamalan: That’s a great question and with regard to the first one, I don’t know if you know this, but in my office I have a statue of Michael Jordan and I have a statue of Bruce Lee. He’s like a God to me. He brought philosophy, he changed the game. He learned different forms and then blended them and caused a lot of reactions. I like to think of my movies as very blending of genres and I like learning each thing and then finding a new form of it. The philosophy he brought was incredible. I did reference it a bunch… definitely to Noah [Ringer] a lot about how Bruce would listen and show intelligence in his movements. He can hear movements and footsteps behind him. You could tell he was aware of seven or eight people there. Some of the action sequences like [Master] Pakku with the water whips… that was straight from Enter The Dragon with him whipping people from behind with the nun chucks. So, there’s a couple of little moments there.

The Last Airbender

But as it evolves, I definitely want to get more operatic. In the second season, which is my favourite season, it gets darker, things go wrong, he [Prince Zuko] makes a lot of bad choices and things fall apart. I love that as the second act of this story. The third season, which was all over the place for me… there’s a line in the third season that’s very dark – like almost horror. That would be an awesome movement as it gets older and darker. I mean, they’re getting older – look at Nicola, she’s 5 inches taller than she was when we shot it [laughs]. It would be wonderful to get into that darker, more operatic style from beginning to end. We kind of started with the country bumpkins and these two [Jackson Rathbone and Nicola Peltz] taking us through and getting involved in a larger scale thing. But now that they’re in it, and are aware of it, and we’re in the heat of the struggle for this world, we can be darker.

Q. You mentioned having to change certain things, but was there anything you liked and thought was so cool that they had to stay in because you wanted people to see that?
M Night Shyamalan: Yes. When we were watching the series, we knew the format was going to be that they find this boy and then they have to get him to the Northern Water Tribe to study water. So, we knew it had to be that journey and we’d end up at the Northern Water Tribe. But the two scenes that had to be in the movie were The Blue Spirit sequence, which is episode 13 of the first season. As soon as I saw it I called Mike [Dante DiMartino] and Bryan [Konietzko] and said: “That’s going in the movie like that…. just like we’re lifting it and putting it in the movie.” That’s lone of their favourite episodes because it’s the most filmic, so it made a lot of sense to all of us.

And then the last one was Azula with her dad… you know, the way the first season ended was so kind of sweet and soft, and then all of a sudden she looks up in close-up and says: “I will father…” I was like: “Oh man, I couldn’t wait to see the second season!” We couldn’t wait to see what happened next. It was like: “Oh my God, his sister’s coming!” So those had to be in the movie. And, of course, the Northern Water Tribe means that [Master] Pakku is in the movie, and Princess Yue, and all that stuff, but when you said your question those were the two that popped into my mind as two that had to be there.

Q. You had such huge successes very early on in your careers. Does that put you under extra pressure to relive that success with everything you do subsequently?
M Night Shyamalan: For me, I’m so isolated out there making movies. It’s really similar; I close the door of the farm and write and come out with something. There’s a story that wants to be told about context about an artist’s work and you want to… this is related to this and this is in the shadow of that and all that stuff. Buy my career began with Unbreakable. I’m good, you know. I’m good. That represents me in a huge way. So, immediately they were like: “Do you think it’s a shadow of this [The Sixth Sense]?”

For me, only me, Unbreakable was a better movie. So, it’s interesting the storyline that’s being told, or whatever. But I’m so incredibly lucky to make these original movies. When we made The Sixth Sense in ’99, the industry was all original material, so we had Being John Malkovich the same year, American Beauty the same year, Magnolia the same year, The Matrix the same year, Blair Witch the same year. So, every single movie that was dominating cinema was an original filmmaker with an original point of view, and clearly that’s not the case today.

I’m really lucky to be able to write… I was writing a screenplay for my new idea for a thriller and two studios want to make it. I mean, I can’t imagine. I’m closing a door and then writing a story and they want to make it. I’m super, super, super lucky. There’s no scenario where you don’t feel pressure. I feel much more pressure than you would imagine based on the mythology of what you just said. But it’s much more like every movie needs to be beautiful and fantastic for me. I hope the audience will see the beauty in it.

So, say a movie does really well, do you feel less pressure the second time? Say if the movie failed? Do you feel less pressure the second time? When do you feel no pressure? What scenario don’t you ask that question, right? ‘With such an incredible failure to start your career, do you feel the pressure that you’re going to fail again’? So, there’s always ways of thinking and I think as an artist it’s so foreign to think like that… like from the outside. To my detriment, probably, I don’t think about it hardly at all. I enjoy telling very specific stories. So, as long as I get to do that as part of it, but that may not happen forever. And I’ve definitely talked to the family about that and said there is a line where I won’t go. I’ll make shoes with Daniel Day-Lewis or something… we’ll figure out something else to do as long as everybody’s happy and taken care of.

There’s a great beauty that comes from having an idea of a character… this man sitting before me with a tie, for instance- what happened to him this day? There’s a colour that comes from it that he’s struggling… his head’s not here because of what happened 20 minutes before, which he’s still trying to get his head around. There was a note at his house and it said something that he can’t believe. That’s a colour I can sit down and write for six months about. I don’t go: “Hmm, I wonder if the success of The Sixth Sense is going to cause me to feel pressure on this!” This dude excites me… what did the note say and what did it have to do with… you know? Maybe somebody he met a long time ago, some scrape that they got into like Jackson… what happened?

The Last Airbender

Q. Night, your next project, Devil, is based on a story of yours but it’s not written or directed by you. How do you feel about relinquishing total control and why have you done that?
M Night Shyamalan: You know what happened is that I read a lot of stories. My hero, for my career, is Agatha Christie. I want to make 40 or 50 stories out of my head. She wrote 80 books and that’s impossible. But I want to make these stories out of my head and have people say: “Wow, this guy wrote all these stories.” So, when I come up with a movie idea, sometimes it comes with another idea, and they’re competing to be the movie I’m going to direct and I’ll flesh them all out and I’ll have two journals full of notes. Eventually, one will represent me more at that moment. And so, I kept putting that story and saying: “I’m definitely going to direct that… not now, I’m definitely going to direct it next.” And then another idea would come on the train, or the plane, and I’d write it and do that next.

So, I decided that I didn’t think I’d be able to direct these. That was the real moment, so I basically came up with an idea. I think I told my wife: “What if we do a series of movies like Twilight Zones – the criteria is that I was going to direct them.” That had to be the criteria. It couldn’t be just an idea. It has to be that close to have been mine. I’d do the treatments, I’ll write it all out and we’ll hire great filmmakers and I’ll produce it. I’ll get to work with incredible new talent on all levels – crew, cast… We’ll make them for lower budgets and we’ll put them out, usually in the Fall was my thinking.

The first one is called Devil. It was such a great experience. I did it simultaneously with Airbender and it did exactly that: it refreshed me. The Dowdle brothers [Drew and John Erick] who produced and directed it… you know, they’re coming at it from a different point of view, from an edgier point of view. It reminds me and gets me excited about filmmaking again and they challenge you. Literally, I had the greatest time making that movie. When you see it in September, it’ll feel like one my movies but with a slightly different language to it, which is exciting.

I’m finishing a script for the second one and I’m working with great writers too, to kind of flesh it out. I’ll jump in and write some stuff, but it’s meant for others to kind of give me their interpretation of my idea. I give them a really fleshed out thing… a 14-page thing that says this happens here and this character does this. But it’s really exciting – we’re doing three and we’ll see how it goes. I’m sad to see Devil made and that it’s not me. But that was the gig.

We actually screened it on the opening day of Airbender, in a New York screening room just like this and the audience was screaming and jerking around. I was like: “Damn, I should have made this myself!” But that’s the way I want to feel every single time we finish one. If I’m like: “[Whistles], good thing I didn’t make that movie!” That would be it.

Read our review of The Last Airbender

Read our interview with Dev Patel