It’s been a rough few years in theaters for M. Night Shyamalan. After exploding onto the scene back in ’99 as the writer/director of the classic creeper The Sixth Sense, Night made a reputation for himself (for better or worse) as “that twist director.” That title that was all well and good until 2004’s the Village, which launched big, and then fell even bigger at the box office based on its tenuous last-act twist. His subsequent films – The Lady in the Water and The Happening – also underperformed and got excoriated by audiences and critics.
So what’s an auteur to do?
Taking a page from the George Lucas handbook (one of Night’s biggest cinematic influences), Night decided it was high time to make his epic. Startling yes, but perhaps even more surprising is that Night ventured outside of his notebook of ideas and perused the potential of others’ imaginations.
“I was trying to do a long-form movie, one that you could do over two or three movies with a long mythology,” Night says of his search, “I was toying with a lot of the franchises and thinking about them. I never found the one that was the perfect match, where I could say something about myself. I’m not good at disappearing into a movie. That’s not my thing, but I would love to find out where my accent is complementary to the piece so it feels like its true and it’s told with this thick accent that I have. The best thing that happened was that it wasn’t an agenda or anything like that. I had been looking, agents were looking, and I was offered these other franchises but this one came from my own family in the kitchen.”
“This one” is The Last Airbender, based on Nickelodeon’s successful anime series Avatar: The Last Airbender created by Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko. In a series of three books (seasons), the series told the story of a fantastical world separated into nations to represent the four elements: Air, Water, Earth, and Fire. After existing peacefully for ages, the Fire Nation decides to overthrow the other nations with a brutal campaign of genocide. Over the of a century, the entire world is nearly decimated by war. But hope is revived with the discovery of Aang, the ancient Avatar, who is destined to unite all the tribes once more. Frozen in ice for a century, Aang looks like a little bald 12-year-old, but in reality he is the last Airbender from the Air Nation. He is the only human that can harness the powers of each element to restore balance to the ravaged world. So he bands together with the brother and sister that found him – Katara, a waterbender, and light hearted Sokka – and embark on a journey to save their world.
Night explains that it was his two children who actually brought the property to his attention. “We saw the cartoon, and the mythology was so well thought out. It had Buddhism, martial arts, and CGI, but the kind that is character based and that’s coming from emotions. It’s very entertaining… but underneath there is something serious that talks about the genocide and balance and connection to the planet – all those things that interest me in other movies that I have made. It felt like an important movie.
Night says he’s gone to his kids a lot for some key decision making. He laughs, “In my whole career my family has been on set maybe four hours total. On this movie, they piratically live here. They really dig it. Once I asked them if we really needed Momo [Aang's winged-lemur pal] and they practically killed me when I suggested that at the dinner table. And I’ll ask if things are too scary, but my kids are the wrong ones to ask about scary because they always want scary, scary, scary. But they set in at dailies sometimes and laugh or ooh and ahh over stunt like Aang taking off.”
He continues, “But otherwise, I kept the idea that one of the cultures is in an industrial revolution and they are losing their way from their believe system. The Fire Nation decided they don’t need to follow the old theories and it’s primitive thinking to think about God that way – we don’t use the word God in the movie – but to think about higher powers that way and they can make their own machines and their own gods. It’s subtle in the piece but that is the conflict of our movie – a moment where everyone decided to forget the truths.”
It also met the emotional and thematic criteria of what Night considers the seminal cinematic series, Star Wars. With an unapologetic grin, Night says, “Basically Star Wars was like religion to me. That’s the only way I can relate to people who are totally into religion is when I think about Star Wars. I remember how I felt about that… that shit is real! The Force is real! It was significant. It was like if you had some seminal event in your life; that was it for me at seven years old. I just got it on every level it was intended. Those archetypes are stuck in my head, as they are in so many people’s heads. Obviously, the creators of Airbender were very influenced as well. It has that kind of journey inside of it so it reminded me of it.
Passionate about a mythology that he could seek his teeth into, Night then set about creating Aang’s world in the dilapidated warehouses of suburban Philadelphia. In the brick confines of a decaying automotive factory about 10 miles outside of the city, the production enlisted more than 600 craftsman, techies, and designers to fill literally every corner of the massive warehouse with lush sets that look plucked from the best museums of the world.
Last June, in a very unexpected move, the usually secretive Shyamalan invited a small group of journalists to see how his epic was shaping up. Obviously proud of the work going on around him inside the warehouse draped in green screen, the director references the impressive gigantic bow of a Fire Nation war ship built behind us and then the live set of the intricate Northern Air Temple, where he’s blocking a fight scene with the star (and Night’s discovery), Noah Ringer.
An utterly charming 12-year-old from Texas, Ringer was selected from an open casting call for both his martial arts powess and striking resemblance to Aang. Both sport bald heads, unusual for pre-teens, but Ringer says he’s had his for three years. “Since I have been shaving my head everybody has been calling me Aang,” he laughs, “And then everyone said, ‘You have to watching this cartoon. You look just like him!'”
A black belt in Taekwondo, Ringer does all of his own fight scenes and choreography in the film which he loves. “In this movie the martial arts are more about performance; because of the bending I don’t actually have to make contact with anybody.” But he says the sequences have been extremly intricate and he’s had to shift from his Taekwondo practice to Wushu for Aang’s Airbender style, “Wushu is a lot of fluidity and then pow,” he explains. “Taekwondo is force against force. Wushu is using your opponent’s energy against them. But once you know the technique it’s just learning how to put those techniques into a different order. The hardest sequence it took about 15 to 20 minutes to learn.
While Ringer even teaches a bit back at his Texas dojo, he admits acting is brand new to him. However, he’s remarkably unfazed about the whole movie riding on his shoulders. “After I got the party they said I would go to an acting school for a month and then I would come and start filming,” he says matter-of-factly. “I learned how to focus and move your emotions around and show your emotions.”
Ringer runs back on set and Night gets asked how much is changed from the cartoon series to the film, “I took away a little bit of the slap-sticky stuff that was there for the little, little kids like the fart jokes and things like that,” the director explains. “We weeded that stuff away and then the other stuff came out. I grounded Katara’s brother [Sokka], who was the comedy relief, so I grounded him more, which did wonderful things for the whole tone of the movie.
As Ringer works through his choreography by himself near the camera, his co-star Dev Patel (who plays Fire Nation Prince Zuko) appears from behind him with a big hug. The two smile and laugh like real brothers even though they play mortal enemies in the film
Observing the pair, Night says he was looking for an actor like Patel who could play against his innate warmth. “Vulnerability is Zuko’s strong suit. He’s supposed to be a tough, mean guy and he does not do great things in the movie but he’s coming from a really vulnerable place. Dev’s sweet spot is his vulnerability. He showed me that in his first audition, a powerful speech talking to a little kid. At the time I was like, ‘Who is this kid in England’ I saw him as really vulnerable in that he’s too soft and that’s why his father [Fire Lord Ozai] doesn’t like him. It’s his softness at the end of the day that will be his strength at the end of the three movies. He doesn’t realize yet so he keeps trying to squash that side of him. And that’s Dev. He’s this man-child right now”
Straight off his success in Slumdog Millionaire, Patel walks over with a huge smile and explains that he was looking to tweak people’s perceptions of his just being the nice Indian kid. “I wanted to do something as distant to Slumdog as possible. I think Slumdog was an amazing role… but I didn’t want it to define me. I wanted to do something completely different and what’s more different than playing a prince of a fairy tale nation who can control fire? I wanted to stretch myself as an actor. This guy, in a nutshell, is a villain with a heart. He’s not just evil for the sake of being evil. He’s sent on this mission to capture this young boy (Aang) but the backstory is that it’s because he wants to regain his honor with his father. He’s just a child looking for love, really.”
In his blinded pursuit of acceptance, Zuko has to do some dark things over the course of the story. Patel admits, “It’s a real departure from how I am as a human being. I try to think of myself as a happy go lucky sort of guy who just loves joking around and not taking things too seriously. But then I’m playing a guy who is full of all this anger and aggression. It’s actually been a real stretch for me to get that intensity constantly.” But Patel says Zuko’s journey in particular allows the film to explore some moral ethical questions that kids can relate to and learn from. “Even thought it’s a fantastical film, I think there are some really good messages that come through in the characters. Night once said that the thing that holds these characters together and makes each person special is family, and the ones that hold family strong for themselves prevail and the ones who stand alone fail. Zuko’s a boy, and especially in his situation he’s struggling to impress his father and get his honor back and his love. But then he has his uncle Iroh [Shaun Toub] who treats him like a son. Almost like in live, you take your anger out on the people you love the most, and he sort of neglects his uncle as he’s just on this one-track mission to find this Aang. It makes it really interesting.”
As we walk through more and more impressive sets, from a monastery with columns of bronze prayer wheels waiting to be spun to an ice chasm with a beautiful cherry blossom tree at its heart, its settles in that The Last Airbender is perhaps teaching more in its production to both cast and crew than ever expected.
Night all but confirms when he admits, “It’s been such a great growing experience for me as a director and a human being because I am a complete control freak. I feel like a little bit of pain when I look at a frame and it’s not right and I have to correct it. This has taught me there are just so many factors going on; it’s doing two and a half times a [normal] movie of mine so it made me go back a little bit and become a student. Any time you can become a student again, that’s the way to do it. You learn again and you are open about everything, I feel like I’ve become a much better filmmaker because I have had to go through this process. It’s overwhelming.” With a dangerous smile he adds with glee, “I am scared to death.”