The writer-director of The Sixth Sense is back, though this time around no one sees dead people. Instead, M. Night Shyamalan is taking on something perhaps riskier: a live-action retelling of a beloved animated series. If he has his way, The Last Airbender will be the first of an epic trilogy that follows Aang, a young avatar who can control the elements, as he tries to unite Air, Water and Earth against Fire. Sound like deep stuff? That's because it is. It may be a family-friendly film, but it's clear that Night doesn't take his moviemaking responsibilities any less seriously just because this isn't a thriller. In fact, when young viewers are involved, the stakes just might be higher.
Rachel Bertsche: The Last Airbender is based on an animated series that's beloved in its own right. Did you feel a lot of pressure to please the fans of the original series? Did you try to stay true to the original story or to put your own spin on it?
Oprah.com caught up with the director about staying true to the original series, his spiritual side and the controversies of casting a culturally diverse film.
M. Night Shyamalan: Both, actually. I'm a fan of the original series. I wasn't hired to do this, you know? It was as if one of the fans petitioned Paramount Pictures to make the movie. So I didn't have to go, 'Well what do the fans want?' I'm the fan. I wasn't brought into someone else's world; it's my world. I have as much ownership as they do. So it was exciting from that point of view because I know what I love about the series and I'm going to protect it. One hundred percent of the fans who see the movie will say the spirit of the movie and the show are identical.
However, I now have the opportunity to make a live-action movie, and I have the resources and the ability to do things that Mike [DiMartino] and Bryan [Konietzko, the original creators] were unable to do. So I'm going to try to raise it up, to make it more realistic. That was a great opportunity for me. Even the smallest of things—like that instead of pronouncing Aang "Ang," it's "Ong." You know, pronouncing it correctly, small little things like that I literally fought for like bloodshed. That is symbolic of what we're doing here. For the cartoon, it's "Ang" mispronounced. For the movie, I can't do that. I'm Asian! I'm not going to mispronounce the name! It's like that times a thousand. If you approach the film like that, it's like looking at a painting and knowing it has integrity. You can smell it. And fans can smell it as soon as they see the marketing materials. They'll go: "Wow, this was not catered. This is someone's point of view."
RB: So much of the previous writing work you've done is not based on preexisting material. Was it hard for you to work from that?
MNS: What really made me feel okay about it was that I wrote Stuart Little, and I so enjoyed that. In Stuart Little, there was a line where one of the characters says in E.B. White's book, "My, he looks somewhat like a mouse." I understood the movie right then, and I was like: "Okay, I got it. This is a world where it's strange that their child looks like a mouse, but it's not totally unusual." I was like, "That's how everyone's going to talk." Then I said: "What's the movie about? It's about family." I made it my own, and I felt really excited and rewarded by that process. So I was hoping it would be that way on this one, and it really has turned out that way.
RB: In its summer movie preview, Entertainment Weekly credits you with having a "a supernatural knack for casting kids." How do you coax such real and affecting performances out of young actors?
MNS: It's really simple. I don't look for Daniel Day-Lewis at 12 years old. That's not what I'm doing. I'm looking for a perfect human being to cast. One that matches my character and someone that I like. I can't tell you how many actors and actresses I have met with who are incredibly talented—now I'm talking about adults—but when I sit down with them, the energy they're giving off of who they are, I walk away and I think, "I can't do it with them because, ultimately, I'm going to keep peeling away and peeling away and there won't be the person that I want there." So no matter how good their acting chops are, it's going to be a futile exercise. But this is reverse. There's no acting chops with these kids. Basically it's just letting their essence come out, their humanity. With Noah [Ringer, who plays Aang] I thought his personality and who he was as a human being was so unique. He's home-schooled, he didn't really watch TV at all in his whole life—I don't even think they had a TV—he was an unusual individual. He would be timeless, and he's such a good kid. And he's a martial arts expert. I just promised, we will talk about Aang until Noah understands him, and we will respect Aang. I talk to the kids as if the fictional character we're trying to create is real. We respect that person until he comes to life. And I never talk down to kids. Never ever talk down to them.
RB: Almost all of your movies have a spiritual aspect to them, even if they're not necessarily a spiritual movie. Why is spirituality so important to you?
MNS: You know, I can't think of a movie as just a movie. It's got to be more than that, more than a job, more than a factory line. It's got to be something meaningful, something that's revelatory about the world and life for me to get up in the morning and feel I'm doing something important. It isn't important because there's a lot of money involved or because you can become famous. So you wake up and you go: "What is it about? What is it Aang's learning? He's learning about the elements. And what do they teach us as human beings and how does that relate to the American-Indian culture? How does that relate to Buddhism? What have we been talking about for thousands of years? What do we see when people look at the wind and the trees?" Those are great things to spend your day thinking about.
RB: There's a lot of talk that this is going to be a trilogy. Is that for sure? Do you have anything in mind for the next two films?
MNS: That's the intention. But it's not that it will be the same characters going on another adventure. It's not that. This is an entire story, and this movie is the first third of the story. It's very much in the spirit of The Lord of the Rings in that it's a larger story at work here. There are two different things: There are continuations of a story, and then there's a sequel. One of the primary things that drew me to this was to tell a long-form story. It's a gamble because you may not get a chance to make the other parts of the story, but that's an exciting gamble. It's an exciting challenge to put your heart and soul into the first part of a story and hope I get to tell the second and final part.
RB: You are Asian, and there is obviously a lot of Asian culture in this film. How did your own heritage work into your vision for this film? There was a bit of backlash from some fans as to some of the casting decisions—that more Asian-Americans weren't cast in certain roles. What do you think about that?
MNS: I get in trouble a lot for never thinking about agendas. I have no agenda. I go on just pure emotion, and it didn't even occur to me that there was a "correct" type of Asian to cast in this. The misunderstanding is that anime is an art form where the facial features are ambiguous. That's a fact. I didn't invent the art form; that's just what it is. And so, as it turns out, Aang looks just like Noah Ringer. As it turns out, Sokka looks just like Jackson Rathbone. What can I do? This is what it is. These are facts. I just cast the best people that came in.
The irony of this is that I'm really proud of being an Asian filmmaker, and I'm really proud of the diversity in this movie. I can say this is the most culturally diverse movie ever made without an even close second. By the time we're done with the three movies, it'll be so rich, every culture in the world will have been represented fully without agenda, with just love. Every single one of them. So it's ironic that even one human being would say this is an issue about the movie when this is its single greatest asset: We're bringing all the cultures of the world together in one story to talk to everyone. People in the Midwest are going to see a movie about a character named Aang, an avatar, which is about Hinduism and reincarnation and Buddhism and Taoism and Shintoism and you name it, and they don't even know it! They don't care. It's just the universality of the story. So it's an incredible thing. The only people not represented in our movie are blonde people. So those are the people that should be really complaining! Everybody else is all good. They're going to get a full nation to their credit and heroes and amazing storylines. Everyone will be happy.
I love looking at the movie poster and seeing Noah and Dev [Patel] back-to-back and my name up top. It just makes me think, "When else could this have happened in the world?"
Printed from Oprah.com on Sunday, March 9, 2014
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