Is This The Last Airbender? M. Night Shyamalan Hopes Not

In adapting beloved animated series Avatar: The Last Airbender into a dark, desperate feature film, director M. Night Shyamalan faced a daunting task.

He had to bring strange creatures and supernatural powers to life onscreen: The Last Airbender‘s tribes can manipulate elements like fire, water, earth and air by “bending” these elements, which is easier to pull off in a cartoon than in a live-action film. He had to shorten the film’s title after James Cameron released a little 3-D flick called simply Avatar. And he had to craft a mainstream movie that would appeal to children while dealing with very adult subjects.

“The Last Airbender‘s themes of genocide, cultural loss and intolerance particularly resonate for me,” Shyamalan told me by phone before the PG-rated film’s Thursday release. “I love this idea that there would be a mythical leader in our world who is equally learned in all religions, one person whose job is to constantly remind everybody that they are all the same.”

Along the way, Shyamalan, one of the most polarizing directors since Michael Moore or Michael Bay, has encountered complaints from fans of the original series over his supposed “whitewashing” of the movie’s Asian characters and even for changing the way certain names get pronounced.

His movie — the first of a proposed Airbender trilogy about the young Avatar known as Aang, who must master the various bending disciplines and save the world — succeeds on some fronts and fails on others. But throughout, the India-born director who’s delivered successful thrillers like The Sixth Sense as well as box-office bombs like Lady in the Water stuck to his persistent creative vision for the film.

“I pray I get the opportunity to finish the story” with two more Airbender movies, Shyamalan said. “Because those films aren’t like sequels to me. They’re parts of a whole, and I want to finish their story.”

Shyamalan holds forth on the making of The Last Airbender, environmental spirituality, Industrial Light & Magic’s convincing visual effects and the physics of flying sky bison in the interview below.

What were the challenges in compressing the first season of Avatar: The Last Airbender, which fans have more or less memorized, into a film that lasts barely 100 minutes?

M. Night Shyamalan: It’s really about texture. In an episodic series, you really have a lot of latitude. But out of the 20 episodes of the first season, six or so of them were really just one-offs. They were adventures that simply ended, although they did have some details that were drawn into the greater narrative. But overall, those episodes weren’t important to the big strokes, which are there in the film: Aang the Avatar ran away, but now he’s found, hasn’t mastered the other elements, and has to learn them one at a time, in order. He has to go to the Northern Water tribe to learn water first. These were critical, and establishing the main characters was vital. But it was tricky to balance it all into one movie.

Those one-off episodes were critical to establishing character, but your film seems most interested in establishing plot.

Shyamalan: Yeah, but they also hit the same notes multiple times in one episode. Remember the episode “Great Divide” — where Aang takes two arguing groups through that canyon? It’s to show that the Avatar has to be the peacemaker, that kind of thing. The Kyoshi Warriors were a big part from the first season that I actually shot, and I almost put them into the movie. But then I ended up deciding to put them into the second movie, because they didn’t exist in the third act, or at the end of season one. So I almost felt that the audience would fall in love with them, and it would go nowhere. I wanted to introduce them and give them a real purpose, have them become an intricate part of the plot.

Let’s talk about the spiritual nature of the series and the film. The characters’ spirituality is specifically connected to the elements, and the planet, rather than any predominant theology.

Shyamalan: I’m a big believer in our connection to nature. I made The Happening before this, so I’ve been thinking about how we’ve lost our connection to the environment. So The Last Airbender‘s philosophy and culture feels like a beautiful idea to me: That we inherently have connections to the elements and what they teach us, and to each other. We as people embody those spirits. I like how tai chi is used to represent the flowing nature of water, and acceptance. The film was a real opportunity to layer a summer tent-pole action movie with deeper thoughts.

Criticism has been levied against the racial component of the villainous Fire Nation, the most industrialized of Airbender‘s four nations. The Fire Nation actors seem mostly Indian, but I think the complaints come from a misunderstanding of what firebending is about in the series and film.

Shyamalan: Right. Well, Shaun Toub’s Uncle Iroh is the Yoda or Obi-Wan of the movie, and is going to be the hero of the whole series. He’s my favorite character. In many ways I did the movie because of Dev’s character, Prince Zuko. I mean, [criticism about the actors’ races is] ridiculous. The whole thing is ridiculous. For me, the cultural diversity of the film is one of its greatest aspects, beyond any discussion about what is appropriate. It’s a very diverse world, and will continue to be that way as we move forward, if we get the chance to make the other two. The Earth Kingdom is entirely diverse, and obviously the Fire Nation has a whole different look as well.

Do you think criticism of whitewashing is grounded in a similar misunderstanding, that Avatar: The Last Airbender is an American creation and not necessarily a traditional Japanese anime?

Shyamalan: Well, first of all, anime is an art form in and of itself, where facial features are ambiguous and mixed. It’s not a coincidence that Noah Ringer looks identical to Aang. The reason he even knew about the animated series is because people would tell him that he was the character. Literally, he would walk around and they would grab him. That’s not his friends being racist, that is the way he was drawn! There is no Inuit woman in the world that looks like Katara. No one. But Katara looks identical to my daughter.

They’re bringing a lot of baggage to the film, a very small group that has gotten a lot of attention for no reason whatsoever. Because it’s an angle; there’s always some angle. It’s a very small group, and this world is so diverse. By the time we’re done with the trilogy, every culture in the world will have been a part of it. And that is the point of the series, and the movie: How do we all get along? I mean, the poster has Noah and Dev and my name on it. And this is the movie that’s racist? Unbelievable.

The representational politics of cinema is a cultural pressure that has been building up for more than a century. It’s a minefield, really. You can’t win for losing.

Shyamalan: Exactly. In the end, you can definitely accuse me of Indian-washing. [Laughs] Definitely. There are more Indians in this movie than any American movie ever made. I’ll definitely give you that. You come to the tent and there are a lot of Indians walking around! [Laughs]

What’s behind the changed pronunciation of the some of the main characters’ names, and even the term avatar?

Shyamalan: For me, the whole point of making the adaptation was to ground it deeper in reality. So I pronounced the names as Asians would. It’s just impossible to pronounce Aang the way it is used in the series. It’s incorrect! I can’t do it. So I just pronounced it correctly.

Shyamalan: Aang isn’t “Ayng,” it’s “Ahng.” Iraq isn’t “Ee-rack,” it’s “Ee-rock.” It’s an opportunity. I don’t have to make the film for little kids on Cartoon Network; I’m making it for the world. And 85 percent of the people who are going to see this movie have probably never seen the show, and I want it to be legitimate. I’m Asian. What can I do?

How did that decision come about?

Shyamalan: As soon as everyone came to rehearsal. Shaun Toub said, “Why are we pronouncing Iroh like ‘Eye-roh?’” And I said I didn’t know! [Laughs] What am I supposed to say, you know? I had an opportunity, so I said, “Look, we’re going to introduce people to this mythology. It should make sense. We should be expanding it to give it more depth.” That’s the opportunity, and I fought hard for it. I knew it was going to be nothing but trouble for me, but it was important. It represented to me the integrity of the movie.

What did the series creators Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko, who also executive-produced the film, think of it?

Shyamalan: They were pretty supportive. I often called to ask why they did certain things, and if the answers made sense to me, I did it too. If it didn’t equate, I didn’t. For example, ILM and I were talking about the physics of how Aang’s sky bison Appa flies and finally I said, “You know what? We’re just going to go with the show.” Appa can just fly. It was too much to change the entire structure of that creature to make it appropriate to physics.

So looking forward, what’s the status of the next two films? Are they dependent on how this one performs?

Shyamalan: Absolutely. So I’m praying to get a call from Paramount in the near future saying, “Let’s make ’em.”

Finally, a curveball: Does M. Night Shyamalan have a thing for Pixies? “I’ve Been Tired” was utterly creepy in your movie Unbreakable. “The Happening” is one of the band’s most rocking tunes, and it’s about close encounters, so to speak.

Shyamalan: [Laughs] I like them! I can’t say they’re a huge influence, but you never know. Sometimes I’ll listen to their songs and realize that they did influence me a great deal. But you never know. I can’t say I’m a rabid fan, but I definitely love them. That’s a good question. I’ve never been asked that one before.

This article appeared at Wired

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