In an era of tent-pole franchises, it seems Hollywood has diluted itself of all its auteur directors. However, M. Night Shyamalan has proven that there are still a few visionaries left out there.
Born in India, Shyamalan quickly shook up Hollywood conventions and brought atmosphere back to thrillers with films like The Sixth Sense, Signs, The Village, Lady In The Water, and The Happening. Now, the 39 year-old hopes to bring his talents to a potential tent-pole franchise with a film adaptation of the beloved Nickelodeon animated TV series, The Last Airbender.
While it’s the first time Night has written and directed a preexisting property into a film, he says that he was blessed up to pick up one seemingly tailor-made for his creative interests.
“The good news was it was a little bit rigged because it’s a property that’s genetically engineered for me,” Shyamalan believes, “It’s about Hindu things and Buddhist philosophies and empowerment of kids and supernatural in the form of manipulation of elements and subject and connection of man and nature, it’s about martial arts, which I have studied forever.”
“I love and I’m a total martial arts freak,” he adds, “Enter The Dragon is like my favorite movie and I’m dying to do that one day. I’m a Shakespeare nut as well and the whole backstory with Zuko and his family and the whole kind of usurping the crowd and betrayals and banishments and I love everything, everything about it was my interest, like all in one thing. If we had just worked in basketball, everything would be in one movie.”
Shyamalan says though that it wasn’t until he filmed a battle scene with thousands of extras that he had trouble comprehending just how massive his latest film really was compared to the ones he’s done previously.
“In Greenland, we prepped really well, so I didn’t feel it there,” Night recalls, “I did feel it, but it wasn’t in Greenland. It was in when we were doing battle with the Northern Water Tribe and we had thousands of extras and we’re on this gigantic set and I just lost it for a week. I just didn’t know what I was doing.”
However, Night found a way to overcome any feeling of being green about the big-budget spectacle he was about to helm by seeking out Andrew Lesnie, who previously worked on the Lord Of The Rings trilogy as director of photography..
“He has more information than anybody on this planet on how to make one of these movies,” he says of Lesnie, “And when to, what you need, what you don’t need, he comes in with a confidence. Again, you make your life whatever signs you want it to be, serendipity. Literally, he was in my backyard. I was writing and like, you know, they are shooting Lovely Bones down the street. And I was like, Andrew Lesnie’s down the street? I was like, we’re getting in the car right now. So I like got in the car, drove down the street, and I was like, ‘Andrew, what’s up, man!’ And I was like, ‘Hey, Peter, hey, Peter, what happened.’ And I was like, ‘Hey, Andrew, what’s up!’ And I was like, ‘Hey, let’s talk! When’s you’re break?'”
“We sat down and I was like, hey, I’m making this movie and he was like, ‘Oh, I don’t know,” Shyamalan continues, “I don’t know if I want to make another Lord Of The Rings and he was like, ‘I kind of did that. I don’t want to be stuck there.’ And I was like, ‘Yeah, I understand, but anyway, are you going to do it?’ I was like, ‘Dude, you’re here in my backyard. This has got to mean something. I mean, literally, I can see my place from right here.’ And so, we sat on that porch that day and then he called me later after they had done Lovely Bones and he was like, ‘Yeah, I’ll read it, I’ll read it.’ And then, I sent it to him and luckily, he said yes.”
Shyamalan also says he welcomed the opportunity to do a giant special effects bonanza because it gave him the opportunity to indulge in his childhood nostalgia for films like Star Wars.
“Oh, yeah, I mean Star Wars is like it, man,” he believes, “I mean, there’s no Star Wars and I’m an unhappy intern in some hospital and I’m angry and bitter. No, Star Wars was there, man, seven years old, Star Wars, getting in the station wagon. I sat in the front seat back then. You didn’t have to wear a seatbelt back then. You can sit in the front seat, the dashboard ready to slam in your head, and my sister’s likeâ€¦I can literally remember the feeling, the moment, everything, in the car.”
“And I was like trying to hold this feeling and I could tell that my parents didn’t have this feeling and my sister was like, ‘Oh, can we put on the radio?'” Night adds, “I was like,
‘Shh, don’t put on the radio. Everyone, quiet! I’m trying to remember this!’ And she’s like, ‘You’re so weird!’ and that whole thing, my older sister. And, man, to try to tell the story with those mythologies and dreams and hopes was awesome. Then, we finished the movie with Skywalker and it was quite a beautiful thing to do.”
Inspired by his nostalgia for Star Wars, Night said it emboldened him to take chances with casting unknowns as the main characters for The Last Airbender.
“That was definitely an agenda, again, from the Star Wars model,” Shyamalan claims, “Like if it was Robert Redford as Luke Skywalker, that would have been a whole different thing for me. I believed he was Luke Skywalker. I believed that those people who were they were, enough that I can let go and I wanted that for our movie. I wanted to go so far.”
“I said to the studio, ‘How about we never show the cast till the movie opens, never use them,’ and they’re like no,” he continues, “I was like, ‘We don’t show them and nobody sees them and we’ll never let them do an interview and only let the movie open by itself so they think they’re the real characters.’ They’re like, ‘That’s a great idea. No, no, we’re not going to do that.'”
We asked Shyamalan if he felt pressure during the casting process for a film which is based on something that has an immense cult following.
“That process is not so hard,” Night replies, “The hard part is that there’s a pre-existing color that I’m trying to hit. The heart of Katara, I’m trying to find this person that has this particular heart, whereas when I write an original, I’m willing to amend the heart of the person with the actor that I can find and I can create a third entity, whereas this one, I had specific targets.”
“I need to find people that had this heart,” he adds, “I didn’t want to feel like I compromised. And I didn’t care about anything else other than that they matched that, so I was lucky to find those people.”
Finally, Night shared a little of how much goes into such a massive production like The Last Airbender.
“It is crazy,” Shyamalan remembers, “I got to tell you one funny story. They give the safety briefing the first day. They got all the crew, the cast, and we’re on this hotel, we’re all crowded, we’re all excited and they give the safety briefing. You can’t do this, sub-zero things, and they start listing all the things that can go wrong and you’re like, ‘What?'”