A few weeks before the release of M Night Shyamalan's The Last Airbender, the filmmaker made himself available for a roundtable conference call with a number of media outlets. Kimberly Gadette was invited to join in.
Based on the Nickelodeon animated television series, The Last Airbender is a live-action feature, the first of a three-part story integrating martial arts, mythology and Eastern religions with a hero's quest to save the world. In a land where the elements of Water, Earth, Fire, and Air can be controlled by those known as "benders," the Fire Nation has waged a 100-year war on the other three nations. The last chance for peace rests with young Aang, the lone Avatar with the power to manipulate and unite all four elements.
Q: What's easier, directing a film that you've written, or, as with The Last Airbender, working from an adaptation?
M. Night Shyamalan: I think that's always been the big question for me, at the core of my decision-making is the lingering fear of working on something that's not mine. Like one day I'm going to wake up and not know how to direct or how to tell the story because it wasn't something that came out of my own head. But then I wrote Stuart Little and that was really fun, a creatively satisfying experience. I felt like I made it my own, which led me to be comfortable with the process here.
And there's so many things inherently in Airbender that are close to me in terms of my interests: the martial arts, the Hinduism, the Buddhism, and the empowerment of children. That being said, it's still terrifying to take someone else's story and bring it to life because the question remains: can you love it the same way?
Q: Children always seem to figure predominantly in your films. Could you address why?
M. Night Shyamalan: I grew up with Steven Spielberg telling me all his stories; he came from the pivot point of a 12-year-old boy and how that boy saw the world: E.T., Poltergeist, you name it. It's always from that narrative point of view and so it spoke to me because I happened to be between 10 and 12 years old when he was making these movies and I was his target audience. And so he hit me right between the eyes with his storytelling.
Also, I think that there is some natural moment of changing as a human being from a kid whose world can be anything , where anything is possible. From a kid believing in that unknown magic ... and then becoming a grown-up and letting go of all those beliefs, well, there's something really sad about that moment. I guess I keep telling stories about the people who don't let go of that moment.
Q: What was it about this film that made you decide to take it on?
M. Night Shyamalan: I'd been wanting to make a more epic movie than my thrillers just for the experience; I'd wanted to tell a larger canvas story. And so, I had conversations with a bunch of studios about some of these larger movies that have these epic qualities; I was waiting for the right moment when it all kind of felt right, and this is that moment.
Q: What was the casting process like?
M. Night Shyamalan: This time the casting process was different because I was aiming at a target that was pre-existing from the cartoon series. I had specific parameters to work within and it was kind of scary and fun trying to see if each and every one of these animated people existed in the world. And I'm not just talking about physicality. A lot of times people will say something like, "Hey, you know, Uncle Iroh in the movie isn't fat like he is in the cartoon." But what I was looking for was the spirit of the character. And so I cast to basically match their heart.
As opposed to my original stories in which as I'm creating characters, they evolve. As the scripts start changing, I'll just keep thinking of different people until the screenplay is done. And then I'll go find somebody who will add their colors and I'll say, "Wow, their colors plus these colors ... that makes an interesting new person who emerges."
Q: There's been a lot of controversy regarding the casting and how all the heroes are being portrayed by Caucasian actors, while all the villains are all being portrayed by non-Caucasians. How do you respond to those who are saying that The Last Airbender is racist?
M. Night Shyamalan: Well, you caught me. I'm the face of racism. I'm always surprised at the level of misunderstanding, the sensitivities that exist. As an Asian-American, it bothers me when people take all of their passion and rightful indignation about the subject and then misplace it. Here's the reality: first of all, the Uncle Iroh character is the Yoda character in the movie, and it would be like saying that Yoda was a villain. So he's Persian.
And Dev Patel is the actual hero of the series, and he's Indian, OK? The whole point of the movie is that there isn't any bad or good. The irony is that I'm playing on the exact prejudices that the people who are claiming I'm racist are doing. They immediately assume that everyone with dark skin is a villain. That was an incredibly racist assumption which as it turns out is completely incorrect.
There are four nations, and I had to eventually make a decision about what nationality each of them are. What happened was, Noah Ringer walked in the door – and there was no other human being on the planet that could play Aang except for this kid. To me, he felt mixed race with an Asian quality to him. I made all the Air Nomads mixed race – some of them are Hispanic, some of them are Korean. Every monk you see in a flashback, in that world, are all mixed race because they're nomadic. I felt that really worked as a culture. OK, so that's one-quarter of our world population. The second group is the Fire Nation; when Dev was cast as Zuko, I said, OK, I have to cast an Uncle Iroh who looks like his uncle. We're going to go from Indian/Persian to Mediterranean, all that group with all its darker colors including Italians.
So now we're at one-half of the film's population which is not white.
Moving on to the third group, which is the Earth Kingdom (which is the biggest kingdom in this fictional world): I liked a bunch of the people who happened to be Japanese, Korean, Philippine, so I decided to make the Earth Kingdom Asians. Now we're at three-quarters of the world. Now I have the brother and sister left. If you don't have an edict of "don't put white people in the movie" then the Water Tribe can be European/Caucasian. So that's how it ended up.
Here's the irony of the conversation: The Last Airbender is the most culturally diverse movie series of all time. I'm not talking about maybe one Jedi, maybe one person of a different color – no one's even close. That's a great pride to me. The irony of these accusations enrages me to the point of ... not even the accusation, but the misplacement of it. You're coming at me, the one Asian filmmaker who has the right to cast anybody I want, and I'm casting this entire movie in this color blind way where everyone is represented. I even had one section of the Earth Kingdom as African American, which obviously isn't in the show, but I wanted to represent them, too!
And I fought like crazy to have the pronunciation of the names to go back to the Asian pronunciation. So you say "Ahng" instead of "Aaang" because it's correct. It's not "I-rack," it's "ee-Rock." I'm literally fighting for all this. And who's getting blamed? ME! This is incredible. And so it's infuriating, this stigmatization, that the first word about the most culturally-diverse movie of all time is this accusation. And here's the irony of it, this has nothing to do with the studio system. I had complete say in casting. So if you need to point the racist finger, point it at me, and if it doesn't stick, then be quiet.
Whenever we're on set, it's crazy, I love it. We're in our cafeteria, it looks like the United Nations in there! And you're not supposed to be thinking about this because it's so diverse. And again, this is what really frustrates me, when we get to the second movie (hopefully), since its based in the Earth Kingdom, suddenly the movie will seem entirely politically correct Asian, and the accusers will feel like they won. YOU DID NOT WIN! YOU DID NOT WIN! That's not what happened, you were wrong. As you can tell, it's a frustrating thing. Look at the movie poster with Dev Patel in it. I'm not understanding ... he's not politically correct?
I could go on for half an hour on that subject ... in the end it's like that saying, "The road to hell is paved with good intentions."
At the basis of this, a fascinating thing, it didn't even occur to me until the first mention of this came up: The art form of Anime in and of itself is what's causing the confusion. The Anime artists intentionally put ambiguous features on the characters so that you see who you want to see in it. It's part of the art form. My daughter looks identical to Katara; I saw my family in that series when I was watching it, I saw them in the faces. I'm sure that every household feels the same way in that they see their own families in them. It's a fascinating thing about how people perceive it. If there's an issue with why Anime does not put particularly specific Asian features from the PC Asian types that people think should be there ... take it up with Anime animators. It has nothing to do with me.
Q: Rumor has it you're not going to make your usual cameo appearance in the film this time around?
M. Night Shyamalan: I have my eye on a tiny little part coming up, but you won't see me in the first film. Maybe the second or third.
Q: Of the four elements that make up the nations in the film – Air, Water, Earth, Fire – what element would you control if you could?
M. Night Shyamalan: That's our classic dinner table conversation. I would go with Air, but that's just because I'm a minimalist. It's elegant, you know? And it's everywhere.
Q: Harkening back to Nickelodeon series, did you always envision live action rather than continuing to work within an animation framework?
M. Night Shyamalan: The show on Nickelodeon was a cartoon based on the Anime style of animation. But immediately, when I saw it, I felt like wow, this should translate really well into a live action epic. And we could achieve a lot of these effects with the elements with CGI capabilities that exist now.
Q: Could you address your decision to apply the 3D in post-production?
M. Night Shyamalan: There's two ways to make a 3D movie. One is to actually shoot it that way with two cameras. And we explored that in pre-production. And at the time – and I still feel that way – it was too cumbersome for what I was trying to do with the kid actors and the long shots, etc. And you really need to accept the 3D process, knowing it's going to take longer and be very, very difficult. Definitely hats off to James Cameron for his incredible achievement on Avatar, and the amount of work that he put into it.
My only option for the 3D technology was to do it in the post-process, after the movie was done. And I was hesitant about both issues. Even though I really considered doing this movie in 3D because it felt just a slam dunk for it, in terms of its style, the fantasy, the epic and the elements.
And so as I was editing, they were showing me tests of 3D. But what put me over the top, strangely enough, was seeing Tim Burton's Alice In Wonderland, which had done this process in post. I thoroughly enjoyed the film, really felt like Tim's specific point of view came out beautifully. Since he used the 3D tool as another story-telling device that enhanced the experience of Alice – well, it was Tim who made the decision for me.
3D is a tool not to be feared, it's just like any other tool. It can be done poorly or skillfully. And hopefully, the company that we're using is a bunch of really conscientious guys. I'm hoping that fans of the movie see it in both 3D and 2D and then tell me which one works best for them. 3D is new to all of us in the movie industry. And it's a fascinating moment, a pivot point in the history of cinema and so we're all looking for information.
Q: Can you talk about making a movie balancing the darker elements with a film that will still be appropriate for a younger crowd?
M. Night Shyamalan: You know, there are two sides to me. One is the dark scary thriller guy and then the other one is the Stuart Little, The Last Airbender guy. The great news is that this film incorporates both. It's the cartoon that my child watched at the age of seven, and the things that she fell in love with watching that show are in this movie. Yet it also deals with unexpectedly moving and complicated issues as the show did, garnering a much older population of fans.
Q: Are there definite plans for sequels?
M. Night Shyamalan: Just like the three-part Nickelodeon series, it's about Aang learning these three elements before time runs out, before the comet comes and gives the Firebenders their final advantage. And so the first movie is him trying to learn water, the second one is him trying to learn earth and third one is him trying to learn fire. It's not a movie with two sequels, but rather a three-part story. And like the first season of the TV series, this film is Book One, Water.
[This interview was edited and condensed]