M. Night Shyamalan Talks The Last Airbender

M. Night Shyamalan brings his latest project to the big screen just in time for the 4th of July holiday

With 2008's The Happening, acclaimed director M. Night Shyamalan brought a summer thriller that confused and confounded his most ardent fans. Was it supposed to be a schlocky drive-in B-movie delivering one wacky scene after the next on purpose? Or had the man once referred to as "the next Steven Spielberg" taken a giant misstep in creating one of the worst films of the past decade? As the movie stands now, it's a striking piece of cult genius. One of those truly rare gifts that is so wrong-sided in its gloriously off depiction of a man literally running away from the wind, you can't help but enjoy it.

Still, some people weren't in on the joke. Even though M. Night insisted that his intentions were to make an over-the-top "second feature on a double bill" type sci-fi exploitation flick in the style and essence of Edward D. Wood Jr., most critics failed to see this and guessed that Shyamalan had lost the creative energy responsible for making such big hits out of The Sixth Sense, Unbreakable, and Signs. Topped with the critical deriding of his previous film Lady In the Water, The Happening came off as a slight lapse in judgment for the once and future box office champ.

Instead of rallying with another project that he would both write and direct, Shyamalan, on the advice of his daughter, decided that he would instead conquer the world of tween entertainment with a big screen adaptation of Nickelodeon's mega-huge hit show, the animated Avatar: The Last Airbender. Changing the name slightly to The Last Airbender, as to not confuse it with James Cameron's sci-fi behemoth, Night dove head first into the mythology behind this unique franchise, carefully constructing a modern day fairytale for children and adults alike.

The story centers on four nations tied together by destiny until the Fire Nation launches a brutal war against the Air, Water, and Earth tribes. A century has passed with no hope in sight to change the path of the Fire Nation's destruction. Caught between combat and courage, Aang (Noah Ringer) discovers he is the lone Avatar with the power to manipulate all four elements. Aang teams with Katara (Nicola Peltz), a Waterbender, and her brother, Sokka (Jackson Rathbone), to restore balance to their war-torn world.

We recently caught up with M. Night Shyamalan to talk with him about his latest film and what it means to his catalogue of work. Here is our conversation:

How is that junket treating you over there in New York?

M. Night Shyamalan: You know what? This is the beginning of a three-week...I don't know? Is "ordeal" the right word? (Laughs) It's been a really good day so far. It's been great. Everyone has a little twinkle in their eye. I guess that is a good thing. I think. (laughs) I like it. I like having fun.

This is a fun movie. People are enjoying it quite a bit from what I heard.

M. Night Shyamalan: Yeah, they are having a lot of fun with it. Gosh, I love that. I guess my movies are taken too seriously. It's nice to see everyone having fun.

Not since Rosie O'Donnell and Stewart Little have you worked with material that has overshadowed your own name as a director. What does it mean for you to take on a project like this at this point in your career. And, if anything, what did you hope to accomplish or prove with The Last Airbender?

M. Night Shyamalan: There was nothing to prove. I think I'd lose if I had an agenda other than a creative one. This is a natural extension. I sit and ask myself what kind of stories I want to tell next. There are a bunch of things that come to mind when I say that. This is one of them. "Can I tell my version of an epic fantasy movie? One that is unusual, and Eastern, and represents me?" I was lucky to find this material.

You mention people taking you a little too seriously. In reading some of the reactions to your decision to take on The Last Airbender, people seemed really skeptical about you directing a project more aimed at children than adults. But in looking at your entire film career, especially your own projects, it seems that you've always worked at making even your most adult films kid-accessible. Do you feel that The Last Airbender is just an extension of films like Lady in the Water, which was a storybook-based idea meant for children, and The Sixth Sense, which had a child protagonist that kids his own age could certainly relate too?

M. Night Shyamalan: Yeah. Absolutely. When people try to quickly summarize your life's work, they do a really poor job of it. There is plenty of stuff in there that people don't consider. My first film before The Sixth Sense was a kids' film from Miramax that nobody saw. Then after The Sixth Sense...Well, it was the same year that I made that movie, I also wrote Stuart Little. If you stop the train right there, you'd say, "Oh, he is a family filmmaker. The Sixth Sense is the unusual beat in there." Then you could go forward a little bit more. And you find Lady In the Water. Now you have this. If I am lucky enough to make three of these, you could then argue that half of my filmography is family movies.

Even Signs has the little girl in it, and she is one of the main characters. Kids can watch her, and relate to her, and they aren't as scared as they might be had there only been adults in the film.

M. Night Shyamalan: You are absolutely right. There is always a broad audience in my head when I think about the target. The thing that critics may irk at me sometimes is that I do have an innocence that could be conceived as naïveté. That just inherently comes out when you talk to me, or you see my stuff. That language? It fits perfectly into the family genre.

I'm a forty year old adult, and looking at Nickelodeon, and seeing this cartoon before I knew you were going to be involved in it as a director, I instinctively knew that it didn't interest me. Was that the same feeling you got when you first saw images from it? Or just pictures from the cartoon? Before you got so deeply involved with it, and knew what was going on as far as the mythology of it?

M. Night Shyamalan: I was definitely resistant. My daughter was totally annoyed. It was probably a good year before I even paid attention to it. I know that makes me a bad father. But I had to decide to sit down and watch it. It was like a joke. Hearing her talk about it all the time. I didn't take it seriously in any form. This was just not for me. I would watch SpongeBob SquarePants before that. But then finally, I kind of watched it. You could tell as the series was progressing that it was getting older and more mature. The ideas that the stories were about, where they were pretending this was a story for little kids, was getting really interesting and deep. It was very well thought out. It dealt with religion, and important ideas and themes. I was like, "Wow! If I bring all of that to the forefront, this could be amazing.

Was it a luxury to have your daughter available in watching the film as you are putting it together. Did you ever show it to her just to get her reactions. And does a lot of stuff get changed as you are allowed to see it through the eyes of your children?

M. Night Shyamalan: It wasn't so much a luxury as she became a part of my point of view. Now, you can almost hear your wife say what ever it is she's going to say. Before you even have to ask, you know. It's the same thing with kids. They are in my head as I am writing. And as I am editing. So, apparently, the piece is coming out, and its very pleasing to kids their age.

I don't want to dwell on the 3D aspects of the film, because it has become such a hotbed for conversation and controversy...

M. Night Shyamalan: No, we can talk about the 3D. I would love to talk about it.

Well, out of all the elements, Fire was very important for you to perfect. Can you talk about the process you went through in getting that particular effect to look so realistic. And also what it meant to have all those elements you worked on so hard suddenly have to be in 3D? How did that change the way the elements, as well as all the other effects, were being represented on film?

M. Night Shyamalan: First a couple of things. I never found out that this was going to be in 3D. It was my call from the start. We had thought about shooting it in 3D. Then we were doing tests in post. It was really, completely my call to go 3D or 2D. It was only during these tests that I got turned around. I was very skeptical about it all. Here's the misnomer, and I had this misnomer as well...This misconception, I will say, about doing 3D. It's not about things coming out over the screen. It's about depth. The primary purpose and tool of this thing. You have to consider the screen's plain. You know that you have two places you can go. You can go out towards us, or you can go in deep. Right? That is where the most effective use of 3D is. Basically, what I did was make everything go back. You feel as though you can put your arm through the screen. It's a window. You step inside it. Only occasionally does something come out at you. What it does is make you feel more immersed in the experience. That is what James Cameron did with Avatar. It was almost always away from us. It was pulled away from the screen. That is the first misconception about 3D. It's primarily about immersion. When it's used the other way, its really terrible. And it's cheesy. For me, it's like using too much of a gimmick. Once I understood the language, and how to use it, and communicate with a company that had all of this beautiful new software that no one had ever used before, I one-by-one went through ever shot until I said, "I do like this shot better in 3D than in 2D." I said, "This is our goal. Not one shot should be worse. And every shot should be better."

I hear a lot of filmmakers talk about depth. Which this film does achieve. It goes back into the screen, and its beautiful, and I don't want to talk about the other film that people have been complaining about since it came out last spring. There are different 3D post-conversion processes. But I was in Best Buy last week. They have the 3D TVs on display, and they are selling them with this idea that all of these things are going to come screaming out of your TV screen at you. They're going to be in your face and flying around the room. There's a guy shaking beads of sweat at you in the demo, and its certainly gross. It literally floats in front of your face. Do you think there is a misconnect there between the people who are selling 3D and the artists that are trying to use it as a storytelling tool?

M. Night Shyamalan: Oh, yeah! Absolutely. It's a complete misunderstanding of what 3D is. There is this one tool, which allows things to come out at you. But I would use that completely sparingly. It's like utilizing an extreme close-up. You want to do that very carefully, and delicately. Otherwise it overwhelms the storytelling. Its really about depth, and believing in what you are seeing, "Oh, look at that city. And that village. It is so vast." Its like you are looking down from a helicopter. It's so amazingly real. You want to get that feeling. There is definitely a misunderstanding about it. 3D is meant to lend itself to the richness of everything that surrounds it. Especially a CGI heavy movie. That really lends itself to 3D. Here is the thing. It's a tool. The reason I said yes about this being in 3D was from the test. Then I saw Alice in Wonderland. That really showed me that a 3D converted movie in the hands of a really talented filmmaker could be an incredible asset. If we had the time, and I had the people I believed in, and I approached it as a tool, just like anything else...There are good scores and bad scores. There is good CGI and bad CGI. That was the approach. I was so happy that I did it. It was risky. Because it might not have turned out that way. I might have been stuck asking them to do something, and they wouldn't have been able to do it. In the end, they found the exact language for me that felt right. That made it feel comfortable. 3D is not for every movie. It's for movies where you want to go into an alternative experience. So obviously Alice in Wonderland and Avatar, and The Last Airbender are all great examples.

And Unbreakable 2 is going to be an example?

M. Night Shyamalan: (Laughs) I have to write something first. (Laughs)

We recently spoke to some of the effects guys about the film, and they seemed to be quite familiar with the TV show themselves. They were a little bit confused as to why you changed the way the Fire Nation wields fire. Can you talk about your reasons for changing this aspect of the Cartoon? And do you think kids are at all going to care about that?

M. Night Shyamalan: Look, the reason you hire me, and the reason you come to see my films is that you know I am doing things based on integrity. And not on anything else. You can agree or disagree. But for me, I don't understand how everyone else is limited to a source, and they are not. It seems too convenient. It seems like a skill set that is very, very high. In doing what they claim they can do. Changing this was the immediate thing that caught me when I saw the show. The first day I watched the show, I said to myself, "This doesn't make any sense to me." I immediately started writing notes about the fact that maybe they have friction things on their costumes that make sparks. Something like that. I started studying fire. And thinking about fire. What is it? Oh, it's a chemical reaction. It's very limited. And it's very hard to control. I loved all of that stuff about it. Being militaristic, they have to bring all of these sources in. I really love it. We are moving towards where the cartoon was. In the comic, everyone will have the power, for that one day, to use their key. Like, the highest fire bender. So, I am very excited about that being grounded in reality. I didn't think about this in terms of changing or not changing something. I was making the grounded version of this movie. Sorry.

That's a great answer. It's so funny, because some of the effects guys were quite protective of the show.

M. Night Shyamalan: You have to understand. That show was made for a specific audience, at a specific time, within specific perimeters. We have different ones. I want to make the more fleshed out version of it.

I want to change the tune just a little bit. I'm a big fan of The Happening. Now that sometime has passed, can you reflect on The Happening, and what it has come to mean to people who truly love schlock cinema? Is it an accidental schlock masterpiece? Or was it carefully constructed to be quote-unquote "bad"?

M. Night Shyamalan: It was always meant to be an homage to B movies. It was always a fun conceit of watching people commit suicide. It was always a fun idea. When I saw the picture of it. Night of the Living Dead was always such a great B movie. It told a more important story about racism, and other ideas such as that. At the end, it struck me. It kind of hit me. I think movies, especially The Last Airbender as well, seem like they fulfill themselves in one way. But when you leave the theater, there is still something crawling inside you that you felt, and that still resonates. I've gotten really use to the pattern now on my thrillers. There is a reaction. And then six months later, there is a different reaction. Then a year later, there is a different reaction. That has become the standard. (Laughs)

I didn't get to see The Happening in the theater. I only saw it later. And I thought it was genius how it was a B movie, yet it was built into something else before people saw it, and their idea and concept and thoughts about it changed upon watching it. Did it surprise you at all that so much negative press came out about it at the time?

M. Night Shyamalan: There are films that are developed in the studio system. People are saying, "Well, this worked, and that worked. Audiences don't like this. And they won't like that." They think about it in that way. I don't approach it at all like that. I go into a room, and I write a story that I love. I go at it, and I try to get it so that the audience gets what I was going for, as best I can. It's a very different process. Trying to make audiences understand what my story is. As opposed to giving them a story that the audience wants to hear. It's a totally different process. What is interesting is, when The Last Airbender teaser came out around the country, and they just had the Paramount logo, then my name came up, people everywhere cheered. As soon as it came up. What they are reacting to is someone telling his stories. They may not like every single one. But they are definitely feeling the fact that I am not chasing them. You can't sell me out. I won't sell out. There is no amount of money, nothing that will make me sell out. Hopefully that relationship will continue. That relationship of integrity.

I appreciate that integrity, especially with so much unoriginal content at the theaters this summer. Last question. Did you see the It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia M. Night episode? And what are your thoughts, if any?

M. Night Shyamalan: No! I didn't get to see that. I heard something about it. But I didn't see it. I heard it was pretty funny.