Exclusive: M. Night Shyamalan on The Last Airbender

A lot of things immediately come to mind when moviegoers hear the name "M. Night Shyamalan," and whatever you think of him, there’s no denying that as a filmmaker, he is constantly trying to break through new boundaries. That’s something that’s never been truer than with his latest, The Last Airbender, based on the Nickelodeon cartoon "Avatar: The Last Airbender." Besides being Shyamalan’s first movie not based on one of his own original ideas, it’s his first fantasy movie not set in our world as well his first full-on action and effects movie, complete with some brilliant work from visual FX supervisor Pablo Helman and Industrial Light & Magic.

The story takes place in a world separated into four elemental nations: Fire, Water, Earth and Air, each tribe having mastered their particular element to the point of being able to manipulate it to their ends. The Fire Nation has started a war by invading the other territories with their machines, and the only one that can bring this world back to its previous peaceful state is the mythic Avatar, a being who can control all four elements. That happens to be a young boy named Aang, played by newcomer Noah Ringer, who has yet to master that control, but along with the young waterbender Katara (Nicola Peltz) and her brother Sokka (Jackson Rathbone from the "Twilight" movies), he begins looking for those who can help him learn. Unfortunately, the Fire Nation doesn’t want their imperial rule ended, so the exiled Prince Zukko (Dev Patel from Slumdog Millionaire) and the leader of the Fire Nation navy, Commander Zhao (Aasiv Mandvi of "The Daily Show") race to capture Aang and his friends before they can do so.

ComingSoon.net/SuperHeroHype has talked to Night quite a few times over the years, and we’re always surprised that as a filmmaker, he seems to constantly be misunderstood or his words misconstrued. We’ve always found him to be quite a smart and insightful interview subject, rarely stumped by a question and always having a candid answer ready, so we always look forward to sitting down with him and trying to straighten out any misconceptions. We decided not to ask him the obvious questions about the casting of non-Asian actors in certain roles, because in our opinion, that has already been over-discussed far too much.

CS/SHH: Having talked to you a couple times since you started this, I kind of know why you wanted to do this movie and we can skip right past that.
M. Night Shyamalan:
Okay, great.

CS/SHH: I wanted to talk about the casting because there’s obviously been a lot of talk about that, but I’m really curious about the decision to cast new and rather inexperienced actors. When you went into this, was that a very conscious decision?
Shyamalan: Yes, absolutely. That was an agenda to kind of have a cast you didn’t associate with other movies so you could kind of let yourself go and believe the fantasy. I mean, let’s say if Luke Skywalker was Robert Redford at the time, I don’t know if I’d have been able to let myself go in that way and say, "That’s what ‘Star Wars’ is. That’s what ‘Lord of the Rings’ is," you know? You want to create a new vocabulary of clothing, of look, of textures and of actors.

CS/SHH: You’ve done movies with Bruce Willis and a movie with Mel Gibson. For this one, you don’t have the names, so there’s the pressure of having your name sell the movie in some ways. Was that a consideration or was it more important to have audiences get lost in the movie and not worry about that stuff?
Shyamalan: Yeah, what was interesting is that the studio–and they did feel this way, which was lucky–thought that the idea of me doing an epic fantasy would be an interesting combination for audiences to kinda go, "Oh wow, is this gonna be more of an unusual take on this subject, it might make it more grounded." For people that are like, "Oh, fantasies aren’t my thing," because they can’t relate to it in their daily lives go, "Well, Night tends to talk about human things that are important to me, so maybe that will be in there." That unexpectedness of that combination of stuff, I was hoping that people would find it interesting.

CS/SHH: Also, I wanted to ask about the Asian and Middle Eastern actors. I assume you have fairly varied tastes in movies, so were you familiar with many of these actors beforehand?
Shyamalan: It’s funny. Obviously now it’s all mixed together ’cause I’ve seen all their movies since, but like, Dev (Patel), I didn’t know who he was and he had auditioned in London for me. I pulled him aside and I gave him to the studio with a couple other guys and I said, "This is a totally different way to go for Zuko and I’m not sure I’m saying I want this." Also, since he was Indian I was feeling a little bit like, "Oh, don’t jam your own peeps down everybody’s throat." I wanted to make sure everybody was on board, but in my opinion, he gave the best audition, then when "Slumdog" came out I was literally screaming, "There’s that kid that I love!" That helped for all of us to kind of have the courage to go a different way with Zuko, which I was really excited about. Then, Shaun (Toub), he did such a beautiful audition for Uncle Iroh who’s my favorite character. The two favorite characters are Zuko and Uncle Iroh for me in the movie. Uncle Iroh is the kind of the Yoda or the Ben Kenobi of it. Shaun gave a beautiful performance and I did remember him from "Iron Man" ’cause when I saw the first "Iron Man" I was like, "That’s a beautiful performance, who is that actor? Keep an eye on him." Then when he came in and read for Iroh, I was pumped. Then Cliff – the only time I’d seen Cliff Curtis was in my favorite scene in "Training Day," and I was like, "Oh my god, that dude, he’s scary!" (laughs)

CS/SHH: There are a lot of firsts in this movie for you. Besides being an adaptation and as you say, being a fantasy as opposed to a genre movie based in reality, and then the amount of FX and action. Going into this, did you feel like, "Okay, there’s going to be a lot of things I’m doing for the first time" and was there a desire to get some of that stuff out of your system? Or did you want to see how it worked out to move that way in the future?
Shyamalan: Well, it wasn’t so agenda-driven like that, but more of kind of subject-driven, that I wanted to make the movie and I think my initial instincts of always holding back everything till the last possible second, to tell somebody or show something, wasn’t the instinct that I needed to nurture here. I needed to nurture kind of a poetic beauty to the fighting and the balancing act of the momentum and the character stuff that I wanted, which is a different balance than if you’re having so much action in a movie, it creates a certain speed. So if you were going 75 miles an hour and I went back to 55, you’d think I was going slow, right? But, if you’re going 45 and accelerated to 55 you’d be like, "Slow down man." You know, it’s all your perception, and so they have different requirements. So that was an interesting challenge.

CS/SHH: For a movie like this to have so much going on in just 100 minutes is just unheard of, since these kinds of movies tend to be two and a half hours long. Was that something you did consciously while writing to keep it at a shorter length?
Shyamalan: Yeah, super, super tight. What I wanted was for it to feel rich visually and the cleanest possible story. In a mythology like this, you can bifurcate so many times the storylines. There were other storylines that we had shot that I felt were pulling away from the clarity of what I was doing, so I brought some of my minimalist philosophies. My movies are generally like 107 minutes long. That pacing is still there in my head. I can’t not think with that pace.

CS/SHH: Which is good, because audiences tend to get annoyed when a movie is over two hours.
Shyamalan: Yeah, I mean, I’m dying to make a two-hour movie. I just haven’t earned it yet.

CS/SHH: I also wondered about how much extra stuff you filmed because obviously when you have the ILM guys working on adding so much FX, you can’t have them doing stuff and then cutting it out of the movie. Were you able to cut stuff out before they started working on it?
Shyamalan: Yeah, I would give myself a B+ on that scale of being able to anticipate and not waste their energy and time. It’s a tricky balance because you can knee jerk too quickly, so for example, if something’s not working… what happens is, you’re cutting for three, four months with nothing in your movie, right? So let’s say it’s the scene with you and I fighting, right? I’m like, "Wow, this is not the greatest fight sequence." I know there’s all the CGI with you and I in it doing our fighting, but just every time I get to this scene in the movie it’s not working, let’s trim it down. We trim it down and it’s now feeling like it’s just not working, so I’m like, "You know, let’s cut it out. Let’s stop them working on it." Well, what happens is, you’ve made a mistake, because until I see the first ILM stuff and then I put that in and now you see this and go, "Wait a second, this is making a huge difference in this area of the movie because now we’re seeing like earth versus water in a way we’ve never seen before, and it’s escalating the conversation when two scenes from now, someone says something about earth, you’re thinking about what the guy just did. So it’s a little chicken and egg the whole time of making sure you’re not knee jerking too quickly. I definitely, a couple of times, knee jerked quickly and then I had ILM show me what they had done even if it wasn’t ready and put it back in the movie.

CS/SHH: I was curious about working with ILM because obviously there’s so much effects involved with this and you’ve done some before but not on this scale? Can you talk about working with ILM? I’ve heard that you really pushed them to their limits to make the best-looking fire they possibly could for instance.
Shyamalan: Yeah, I pushed them like crazy and just treated them like the actors and held it to a certain level of integrity and say, "Look, we’re gonna go by one language which is the vocabulary of what I think is real and what’s not real and what I think is poetic and not poetic, and we’re just gonna go every shot and every frame and make sure that it’s at that level." They were fantastic. I mean, they brought on the greatest people to help me and it was challenging, and there were moments where I didn’t think it was gonna happen and I didn’t think we were gonna get there and that’s all part of the process too of doubt and then pushing, but they came through.

CS/SHH: I think they did an awesome job and that Pablo Helman will earn another Oscar nomination for this.
Shyamalan: Yeah, they’re the best.

CS/SHH: You’re obviously a big fan of "Star Wars" and wanted to make that kind of movie, so do you ever have going through your mind, "What would George Lucas do in this case?" or not really?
Shyamalan: (Laughs) No, I probably wouldn’t say it like that, although I finished the movie at Skywalker Ranch which was fantastic and I got to meet George again and he’s like, "Oh, I’m really excited to see the movie." I was like, "Uh…" (Laughs) You’re like, "Oh, no." But, you have your teachers… George Lucas and Steven Spielberg for me are the teachers and you approach it humbly. The best part about it is I approach it like I didn’t know and that helps you in every way as an artist.

CS/SHH: What about working with Frank Marshall, because obviously Frank had worked with Steven Spielberg on all those amazing movies.
Shyamalan: It’s true.

CS/SHH: So what does he bring to the mix and what are some of the things he threw in there to make this movie different?
Shyamalan: Well, Frank, his job is to keep everything calm, and keep me from freaking out (Laughs) or melting down and keeping everyone involved, the studio and ILM, on point and making sure that if I feel like, "Hey, we’re falling behind with CGI," that he’ll have the difficult conversation with them, or if the studio feels like, "Hey, we have to see something." He’ll say, "Well, let Night have a few more weeks because he wants to get it just right," those kind of things. He was comforting in that they’ve done so many great movies, that when he says it’s looking great you feel like that means something, you know?

CS/SHH: Obviously, this is meant as the first of three movies…
Shyamalan:
Yeah, my hope is that very soon someone will say to me, "You can make the next movie." That’s my first goal, and I’m emotionally preparing myself if that’s not the case. You’ve gotta be ready as an artist that your dream may not happen, but if it does, and I hope it will and everyone thinks it will, I hope so, that would be awesome. Then I could think about taking it to another level, plus because now I feel comfortable and versed with all of this and…

CS/SHH: And all the research is done in terms of how to create the elemental bending effects.
Shyamalan: Not even… yeah that, but my development as an artist that has to do this now. I don’t know if Chris (Nolan) felt this on "Batman Begins" going into "The Dark Knight," but a certain kind of feeling of like I’m comfortable. I have the tools ready to play this position now. Less learning on the job and perhaps now striving for a new level kinda thing, so I would love that opportunity. That would be great. But I don’t want to stop my supernatural thriller, so I’m trying to figure it out.

CS/SHH: I’m also really curious about this new "Night Chronicles" thing you’re doing. I know you have a ton of ideas all the time and there’s no way as a filmmaker you can actually make all those movies. Can you talk about that a little bit and why you decided to have other filmmakers do those?
Shyamalan: Yeah, you know, here’s my thing. I think I have a weird relationship with the audience. It’s not a director-to-audience relationship. It’s an author relationship, like an author in the literary world has with their audience. That’s the relationship I have with my audience. It’s something I cherish. So it would be more akin to Stephen King’s relationship… or pick your author. That makes more sense, so in that paradigm, who I aspire to be in my career is Agatha Christie, that’s who I aspire to be. When you say, "Who is your career patterned after?" It’s Agatha Christie. I’d love at the end of the day for you to see 60 stories which came outta my head. So I said, "I can’t direct 60 movies. I can’t even direct the ones that have come into my head, the outline. I’d love them to be made, and they maybe not right for me at this second." I used to hoard them like, "I’ll do it one day. I’m gonna do it one day, no way I’m giving it up." I decided, "You know what? I’m gonna take the first three of these that are so dear to my heart." The criteria for "The Night Chronicles" is it has to cause me pain to let them go. If there’s no pain involved, they’re not going in "The Night Chronicles." So the first one’s "Devil" and it’s actually coming out I think September 17th now.

CS/SHH: Oh, it’s coming out this year?
Shyamalan: Yeah, we moved it up.

CS/SHH: That’s pretty cool. As far as being able to let things go, how does that work? Do you pick directors who you’ve seen movies you like and let them do their thing?
Shyamalan: Yes, yes, that I think their thing, the color they’re bringing, will compliment me in our point of views, and then the combination will be the correct balancing act for that particular story. The great thing about these movies is just like my movies I’m directing, I can tell you the emotional target we’re trying to hit. So I can keep conveying that in the casting and any input I give to these guys or girls, you know, how to hit that, "Hey, we’re moving, we’re moving, get it closer." Hopefully, that will create an unusual thing. I mean, it’s kind of an unusual thing. The kind of the approach was kind of Rod Serling of the "Twilight Zones" but for movies, and "The Night Chronicles" will be that, coming from the same guy’s mind, all of this tonality. So we’ll see.

CS/SHH: Are these lower budget than you would normally do as well?
Shyamalan: Oh, yeah. They definitely are and that’s a new kind of approach, but that’s also exciting for me, getting to meet and work with a whole crop of new artists and crew and cast. I’ve already been very interested in working with some of the people from the first "Night Chronicles" on my movies, so it’s a great farm system for me to pull up the next great people.

CS/SHH: Before, you talked about your relationship with your audience and I’m curious how that’s changed since "The Sixth Sense" especially with the internet having changed so much? You’ve always been very secretive with your plots and with your new movie, the plot was out there within a week. How do you see that relationship with your audience evolving in the future?
Shyamalan: Yeah, I think "Airbender" is a great one to transition here into this time period because it is a known storyline, so that’s very, very freeing for me. It will be interesting to see in the future how to do it and keep some kind of… innocence about the process and keep it fresh for them when they open on opening day. I think it’s a good thing for us, because I like when people discuss my movies and I think that’s a good forum for that.

The Last Airbender is out in regular and 3D theaters everywhere on Thursday, July 1.