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Exclusive interview: M Night Shyamalan


The Last Airbender director M. Night Shyamalan discusses martial arts, changing a beloved source and the pressure of early success...

M. Knight Shyamalan, director of The Last Airbender

The film's very different from your previous work, without twists or horror - what was the attraction to adapting The Last Airbender?

Most of my movies are connected to some childhood point of view and the moment we let go of some kind of belief system and become adults. What drew me to this particular movie was the Hayao Miyazaki influence, which was huge for me, and martial arts. There are two types of movie that were my guilty pleasures when I was a kid - horror movies and martial arts movies. I got to do my version of scarier movies and I've started to think about martial arts again. It's interesting, as it's something you learn so that you never have to use it and the philosophies that are involved mean it's a great medium for entertaining but also talking about deeper things. The opera of The Last Airbender was something that interested me too, I think you can feel it become more operatic in the third act. If we get the opportunity to make 2 and 3, that's what I want the language to be.

With your love of martial arts movies, could The Last Airbender be seen as an homage to Bruce Lee heroes?

In my office, I have a statue of Michael Jordan and a statue of Bruce Lee, in an action pose. Bruce Lee is like a god to me. He brought philosophy, he changed the game, he learned different forms and blended them and caused a lot of reactions. I like to think of my movies as blending genres and I like learning each thing and finding a new form of it, his philosophies were incredible. I referenced it with [lead actor] Noah [Ringer] a lot about how Bruce would show intelligence in his movements and listen to what was behind him - you could tell he was aware of seven or eight people behind him. One scene, with [Waterbender] Pakku with the water-whips was a straight homage to Enter the Dragon.

The Last Airbender has a strong fan-base from its TV success so you're going to get lots of strong reactions to the film, some positive, some negative - how do you react to negative opinions?

Ultimately, it was the source material that really spoke to me - I was a fan of the show, it's not like I was hired to do it. The influences - the Miyazaki, the martial arts, the Shakespearean back story for the royal family - all these things that became part of the language as the show progressed over the three years. When it started it was very young and had a completely different tonality but it evolved and in many ways, it didn't quite fit the network. It was successful but shows like Dora the Explorer blow it away in terms of ratings - this is not a runaway ratings show, it was a cult following. With the movie, 85 per cent of the audience that's going to see are going to be fresh [to The Last Airbender] and I'd love them to see the movie and then go back and watch the show and see how we evolved from that.

But making grounded choices is part of the aesthetic that I'm trying to bring to the movie. One of the things I wanted to do - and I was watching anything with source material, like X-Men, and immediately there's the reaction like 'How could they cut that?', 'Why did they bring in the villain that way?' - was to go right up front and say 'These are the ten things I changed, and here's why'. Not that they were changed capriciously or because the studio had a gun to my head but for artistic reasons that are defensible and come from someone who honours the subject matter. It's not about an apology, it's like a key guide - here's what I changed and here’s why. You're always going to get the vocal negative opinions but the fanbase digs it, the kids really got it.

"When we made The Sixth Sense in '99, the industry was all original material. We had Being John Malkovich, American Beauty, Magnolia, The Matrix, Blair Witch - every single movie that was dominating cinema was an original filmmaker with an original point of view and clearly that's not the case today"

Was there anything from the show you knew couldn't consider changing?

Appa, [the Sky Bison]. I got with Industrial Light and Magic and I was like 'How does this thing fly?' That was the only thing where I was like 'sigh… it's the show'. It was the only thing where I knew I couldn't reinvent it to make it physically possible for it to fly. It's a tricky thing, you have the obligation to fans and you have the obligation to cinema.

Were there aspects of the show that were so cool and exciting that you knew yourself wanted to see them in the final movie?

Well, we knew the format would be that Katara [Peltz] and Sokka [Jackson Rathbone] were going to find this boy and take him to the Northern Water Tribe, it had to be that journey. But the two scenes where I said 'This has to be in the movie' were the Blue Spirit sequence, which is episode 13 of the first season of the show, and that's one of the creators' favourite episodes because it's so filmic. And the second was Azula [Summer Ringer] with her dad, at the end of the first season, which is so sweet and sad and then she looks up and says 'I will, father' and agrees to fight her brother [Patel].

"People asked if it was in the shadow of The Sixth Sense but for me, only me, Unbreakable is a better movie."

Does having had huge success in your earlier career put you under greater pressure for everything that follows?

I'm so isolated out there, I close the door on the farm and write and come out with a story that wants to be told. For me, my career began with Unbreakable; that represents me in a huge way. People asked if it was in the shadow of The Sixth Sense but for me, only me, Unbreakable is a better movie. I'm so incredibly lucky to make these original movies - when we made The Sixth Sense in '99, the industry was all original material. We had Being John Malkovich, American Beauty, Magnolia, The Matrix, Blair Witch - every single movie that was dominating cinema was an original filmmaker with an original point of view and clearly that's not the case today.

But there's no scenario where you don't feel pressure. I feel much more pressure than you would imagine, based on the mythology of the question. For me, every movie needs to be beautiful and fantastic and I hope that the audience will see the beauty in it. If a movie does really well, do you feel less pressure the second time? Say the movie fails, do you feel less pressure? When do you feel no pressure?!? What scenario? 'With such an incredible failure to start your career, do you feel the pressure that you're going to fail again?' [laughs] There's always ways of thinking and as an artist, it's so foreign to think like that.

Your next project Devil is based on a story by you but you're not directing it - what's the thinking behind relinquishing the reins?

Well, my hero for my career is Agatha Christie. I want to make 40, 50 stories out of my head - she wrote 80 books, it's impossible. And when I come up with a movie idea, sometimes it comes with another idea and they're competing. So I'll flesh them all out and I'll write pages in two journals full of notes and eventually one'll represent me more at that moment. So I kept putting that story [Devil] aside saying 'I'm definitely going to direct that, not now, I'll direct it next'. And then I'll think of another idea on a train or a plane and decide I'm going to do that next.

So I decided I wasn't going to be able to direct some of them, eventually. So I told my wife 'How about we do a series of movies like The Twilight Zone'? The criterion was that I was going to direct the story, it had to be that close to being mine. So I'll do the treatments, we'll hire great filmmakers, I'll produce it and get to work with incredible new talent on all levels, crew and cast, and we'll make them for lower budgets. So the first one is called Devil. It was such a great experience, I did it simultaneously with Airbender and it refreshed me - the Dowdle brothers who have directed and produced it have come at it from a different point of view, an edgier take. When you see the movie in September, it'll feel like one of my movies but with slightly different language to it. I'm finishing up the script for the second currently, but it's meant for others to give me their interpretation of my ideas. We're doing three and we'll see how it goes.

The Last Airbender is released on August 13th.

Lewis Bazley at Twitter


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