Talking with director M. Night Shyamalan about 'Last Airbender,' race and more
M. Night Shyamalan has built his directing career on thrillers, ones that often involve supernatural elements and almost always promise a twist ending. But with "The Last Airbender" -- his big-screen adaptation of "Avatar: The Last Airbender," the Nickelodeon animated series with a devoted fan following -- he's finally going in a direction that doesn't involve seeing dead people or crop-circle signs.
Shyamalan took a few minutes to speak via telephone about the film, which opens in theaters today, how he deals with box office performance pressure and, of course, the controversy over whether enough Asian actors have been cast in a film based on a series with an anime aesthetic. And yes, Shyamalan has some very strong opinions on that last subject.
Jen Chaney: Obviously “Last Airbender” is a departure from the thrillers that have defined your career until now. Why did you decide that this was the right project to take on in order to move your work in a new direction?
M. Night Shyamalan: It’s been always bubbling, this idea of doing some kind of epic, a larger scale story that’s not contemporary and doesn’t stay in the thriller genre. And it kind of fell into place by chance with my daughter watching this mythology and getting kind of hooked, and then me getting hooked as well and feeling like somebody had taken all of my interests and put them into one movie.
JC: So your daughter helped in this department a little bit.
MNS: Oh my God, huge. Yeah.
JC: To what degree do you pay attention to: a. reviews or b. the box office? Do you feel any kind of – especially on that last point – sense of pressure as far as how much revenue the movie brings in?
MNS: Generally I’m pretty good about both of those things. I don’t really chase them. It’ll be what it’s going to be. I have kind of a belief in the movies, in my approach, in the integrity of my approach to making movies, and hope that that will win the day in a long-term way on the first point. And in the second point, that inherently the things that interest me generally interest people, you know, on a broader scale And they’re not as specific, let’s say. Those same interests – whether it’s aliens, the supernatural, however you want to put it -- they tend to interest a large group of people.
Everybody has an accent to the way – well, the true filmmakers have an accent, right? Sometimes that accent, it could be for a specific group and they love it, you know. So I know one thing. I’m not good at chasing. I don’t like to chase an audience. You can smell when someone is chasing an audience and it’s not good.
JC: I hear your point, but at the same time the studios want their films to make money. Everybody looks at a director’s track record and analyzes it and says he or she did really well with this film, but the next one didn’t do as well. Even if you know that your interests have an audience, it can potentially get tougher to convince a studio of that if they feel like this filmmaker isn’t bringing in the money that they want him or her to bring in.
MNS: Oh yeah, no, for sure. I take it very seriously that they make a profit, that every movie that the studio does makes a profit. The thing that’s protected me creatively is that the movies have made profits. Basically all of them except one have made a lot of profit. That’s been a great source of protection for my creative side, which then protects the commerce. So that cycle is a healthy cycle. It can go in the reverse way for sure, as you’re suggesting.
JC: So you feel comfortable that that isn’t happening at this point? That you’re still able to make the creative decisions you want to make and get the support you need without having to compromise those?
MNS: Yeah, no, I’ve been very, very lucky.
JC: I know you’ve gotten this question quite a bit, but I have to ask it because -- I’m sure other members of the press have told you this, too – I’ve been getting a lot of e-mails from the members of the Racebending group, especially in the days leading up to the release of this film. And again, they’re expressing their concerns about the lack of Asian or Asian-American actors cast in the film. What is your response to that at this point? Do you have anything further to say on that issue?
MNS: They’re misguided.
MNS: They’re aware I’m Asian, right?
JC: I would think so.
MNS: And that Dev [Patel]’s Asian, and Assif [Mandvi]’s Asian, and everybody’s, I mean – it’s incredible to think that there’s a correct Asian here. They don’t own this series. They don’t own all these cultures. The word Avatar is a Sanskrit word. So it’s all cultures that are put together. There’s no correct background here. They should ask: why does Noah Ringer look like a duplicate – a duplicate – of the cartoon guy? Why? He’s a dupe.
Anime is based on ambiguous facial features. It’s meant to be interpretive. It’s meant to be inclusive of all races, and you can see yourself in all these characters. My daughter saw herself as Kitara and now her friend who’s Hispanic sees herself as Kitara, and that’s totally valid. This is a multicultural movie and I’m going to make it even more multicultural in my approach to its casting. There’s African-Americans in the movie … so it’s a source of pride for me. The irony that they would label this with anything but the greatest pride, that the movie poster has Noah and Dev on it and my name on it. I don’t know what else to do.
JC: Does it offend you that they’re defining Asian in what you perceive as a limited way when you consider yourself Asian?
MNS: I think it’s convenient for their argument. Their issue isn’t with me. Their issue is with the artists that invented anime. The story of "The Last Airbender" is an ambiguous story. These cultures are not defined. There is no Inuit woman who looks like Kitara. That’s not the reality of things. That’s not the way they’re drawn. Talk to the people who drew them. So you’re talking to the wrong person. I’m actually doing a very culturally diverse movie. In fact, I believe it’s the most culturally diverse tent pole movie ever made. And the series will be, if we’re lucky enough to make all three, without a peer -- without a peer -- one of the most culturally diverse movies ever made. It doesn’t have, like, a token person. The entire landscape will be ethnically diverse. That’s the entire point of the series.
I just can’t even believe that having achieved this – I’m the one that fought to get this movie made – having to do all of this and the opportunities I’m getting to do this in this way, and bring all these cultures to the table and all these ideas to a mass audience. 85 percent of the audience will have not seen the show. Right? Around the world. And I’m going to introduce them to all of this. Like the Uncle Iroh character is literally the wisest person in the movie and I believe Shaun Toub [the actor who plays him] is Persian. I forget where he’s from, but he’s clearly not white. On and on.
And Dev is what the movie’s about, his character, where he goes is what the movie’s about. Just that I have to defend this is -- it’s outrageous.
JC: I want to ask you about Noah Ringer, who plays Aang, the Last Airbender. I know you found him via a casting call. What spoke to you about him?
MNS: My secret to all casting, and specifically kids, is cast good human beings. And if as a human being they match the colors that I want in the morning, then we’re going to be fine. With kids especially, I’m not casting Daniel Day Lewis. I’m not casting a chameleon who can become a million different things. I just want them to be them. And I want them to put themselves in these circumstances but I want their humanity to come out.
This kid is just a good human being. And literally I would give him my life, I think so much of him. And his parents, who are just amazing. That’s who you want there. He’s a homeschooled kid and he’s very pure, incredibly dedicated and thoughtful and loyal. Gosh, he’s everything we’d want. We wouldn’t want a kid pretending to do that, we want a kid who is that.
JC: You said something earlier about the sequels. The film is set up for the possibility of a sequel and obviously there is more to the “Last Airbender” story. How close are you to knowing whether there will be the opportunity to do the sequels, or does it really depend on how things go with the film?
MNS: It definitely depends. We’re all hoping and it’s meant to be one part of a three-part story. That was what drew me to it, was telling a long-form story. And I pray it all works out for us and it’s a successful venture for Paramount and they call me and say, “Go ahead. Do it up.”
JC: I know you’re getting asked this a lot, too, and I know you’re probably not going to tell me a darn thing. But is there anything you can say about the next project you’re working on? There are rumors that Bradley Cooper is attached, and Gwyneth Paltrow is attached, and that the movie will be a thriller about a man whose son gets kidnapped. Is there anything at all that you can say further about that?
JC: Even if it’s just to tell me that what I’ve said is completely false?
MNS: I wrote another supernatural thriller and I’m trying to see, once I’m done this tour here for this movie, to see how everything is going to lay ou schedule-wise. Because of these movies being so long in prep, the "Airbenders" -- to do it properly you can’t just jam it to a date, you’ve got to really work it carefully. So I’m trying to be as responsible as I can to every flip. My dream would be to do the thriller and then go and do the second part of the series. That would be my perfect scenario. I don’t know if physically I will have the time to do all that. Hopefully in the next six weeks to two months I will figure all of that out.
| July 1, 2010; 9:25 AM ET
Categories: Movies, Pop Culture | Tags: Q&As, Summer Movies
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