Known for his intriguing stories and shocking endings, M. Night Shyamalan has become one of the more popular and recognized writers and directors in Hollywood. His hits include The Sixth Sense, Unbreakable and Signs.
In a departure from his more adult-toned movies, Shyamalan has taken the directorial reigns of a popular cartoon turned motion picture with The Last Airbender. This movie is a departure for him as it marks the first time he has directed a film from existing material. However, Lad and I are both confident the movie will be filled with his signature tone.
We had a chance to talk to Shyamalan about this upcoming film and some other topics.
Dad and Lad: What’s easier for you, directing a film where you’ve already come up with the original concept or directing a film like “The Last Airbender” where someone else has come up with the concept?
M. Night: You know, I think that’s always been the big question for me. One that has been at the core of decision-making. I think the fear of working on something that’s not mine, like one day I’m going to wake up and not know how to direct it or how to tell the story because it wasn’t something that came out of my own head, has lingered for a while.
And there’s so many things inherently in “Airbender” that are me, the martial arts which are studied for forever and the kind of Asian influences – the Hinduism, the Buddhism, all that stuff is, you know, close to me in terms of my interests. And the empowerment of children, all of that comes very naturally as a sweet spot, so all of these things gave me comfort.
That being said, it’s still terrifying to take someone else’s story and bring it to life because a little bit of it is, you know, can you love it the same way?
Dad and Lad: Children always seem to figure predominantly in your films, could you address why that is?
M. Night: I grew up with Spielberg telling me all his stories and I think he kind of came from the pivot point of a 12-year-old boy and how that boy saw the world and saw “E.T.” and “Poltergeist” and I mean, you name it.
It’s always kind of from that narrative point of view and so it spoke to me because I happen to be 12 when he was making these movies – 10, 11, 12, I mean, I was his target audience as he was making films. And so he hit me right between the eyes with his story telling.
Dad and Lad: From a casting perspective, I don’t recognize any really around the block names? How did all that come about? What was the process like?
M. Night: This time the casting process was different because unlike in all my other movies where I’m making up the characters in my room here. And then I go and try to find the person that most embodies the essence of those people. This is different. This was – there was no flexibility. I was aiming at a target that was pre-existing from the cartoon series.
And so, I’m not 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, does the spirit of the character that was pre-created, existed in any individuals that come in to audition for me. And so I cast – kind of basically match their heart.
Dad and Lad: Is this a movie that a parent can take their 7 or 8-year-old too? And if so, can you talk about the challenge of making a movie with some darker elements?
M. Night: Yes. I mean, you know, look the great news is the sweet spot of the movie is, you know, ultimately it’s for kids. It was from a cartoon that my child watched at seven and the things that she fell in love with watching that show are in this movie.
And so, whole-heartedly you should bring your 7 or 8-year-old kid to the movie. It was who it was made for. And it’s just very cool and interesting and it deals with very unexpectedly moving and complicated issues as the show did. And so it’s garnering a much older population of fans and interested parties.
Dad and Lad: What element would you control if you could?
M. Night: Oh, man. That’s our classic dinner table conversation. I definitely – I think I would go air but that’s just because I’m a minimalist. I just think it’s elegant, you know. And it’s everywhere. In terms of the accessibility of an element, I got you beat.
Dad and Lad: The movie looks like it sets up for a trilogy, following the three seasons of the cartoon and you mentioned the opportunity could exist for a second if things go well. Does the first film stick to year one of the series or does it crossover into some of other seasons?
M. Night: No, it doesn’t. It’s very strict. In fact, I was, you know, I was lucky enough to be involved as they were finishing the third season and told them what my intentions was and how I was seeing this and – it was – it’s definitely – it’s identical.
It’s a three-part series about these characters and this guy has to learn these three elements before time runs out, before the comet comes and gives the firebenders their final advantage. And 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.
And the three masters that teach him and it’s definitely – I always say, “You know, this is kind of different. It’s not movie with two sequels, it’s a three-part story and – yes, this Book One, Water, for sure.