Adapting the hugely popular anime-influenced Nickelodeon cartoon, ”Avatar: The Last Airbender”, was destined to be a risky move for director M. Night Shyamalan of the ”Sixth Sense” and ”Signs” fame. The television show had loyal fans, was a shift of genre for the director and was following from a growing list of poorly received Shyamalan films (namely ”The Village” and ”The Happening”). While initial reviews slammed M. Night’s adaptation, early box office takings in the US show that fans are at least willing to give it a shot.
Moviehole’s Tim Johnson caught up with the writer/producer/director in New York to find out the motives behind cutting key storylines from the cartoon, how he felt about casting the lead character from an online search and the differences in shooting a thriller, to a family-adventure.
You kept some M. Night signature elements in your filming, even in such a fast-paced adventure film; didn’t you even shoot one scene in a long four minute continuous shot?
M: The prison break, yeah.
How do you go about doing that?
M: First, you argue with your crew that it’s physically possible. That’s the first conversation that always happens. I’m like, ‘Guys, we’re going to do a four minute take with all these extras,’ and they’re like, ‘It can’t be done,’ and I’m like, ‘OK. Why can’t it be done? … And you work down, it’s like a mathematics problem and we’ll map it out on a piece of paper. It took forever to map out … Then we spent a full day just with stunt guys and extras in a warehouse with tape marks on the ground and a video camera and saying, ‘OK, we start here, now the kids run in… Slow down, slow down! It was like that. How are we going to figure this out? And then the camera comes here and the steady cam operator while I’m over his shoulder I’m like (whispering), ‘What are you doing? Why are you so far away?’ And he’s just like, ‘Do you want to do this?’ And I’m like, ‘Take it easy buddy.’ It’s constant, constant like that all day long and then we went out for the day and did it in the location with the wires, the practical effects and everything and you do takes all day long. and we did a day of takes until we got it to where the speed and everything it worked and then we handed it over to ILM (Industrial Light and Magic, visual effects company) and eight months later you have what you saw.
Were you skeptical about casting from the internet?
M: You mean Noah?
M: Oh yeah. No, I thought it was a joke. It was like, you know they put up the website? And I was like, ‘Yeah, do whatever you want.’
It wasn’t your idea?
M: No. That was like one of those, ‘Hey, I got a great idea! How about we do this?’ ‘That sounds great!’ And I’m casting and like, ‘This is a joke,’ and then even when they sent me the tape, you know they had thousands and thousands, but they narrowed it down to like a hundred, or two hundred of them. Some of them were just freaks. A hundred reasonable choices to look at and even then I was like, OK and I stopped on a couple and was like, ‘This is interesting,’ and Noah was one of the three I stopped on. And then there was three actor kids that I was interested in after doing the whole worldwide search … And then I was like, ‘Really, there’s only two actor kids that are serious contenders.’ And then I was like, there’s only this kid in the basement that really is anything.
But he’s just a kid in a basement.
M: Yeah, he’s just a kid in a basement. And he shaved his head, and I’m rolling my eyes. And he’s wearing this robe and the costume and I’m like, ‘Any time actors come in, in costume, I roll my eyes, like, ‘Why don’t you try acting? How about that?’ And the funny thing is, I cast TWO people who came in, in costume. Nicola (Katara) came in too! She came in, and she came in, in a like, I always call it a bathrobe, she came in, in like a kimono, and I was like, ‘Oh, isn’t that sweet?’ and I was like, ‘Alright, let’s get this over with quick!’ And so she got up and I’m like: ‘OK honey,’ and I’m like, ‘Let’s go to the next one,’ and then she started speaking and I was like: ‘Wow.’ And then I made her do another scene and another scene and then I was like, ‘Wow, you’re amazing.’ So, maybe costumes do work, I don’t know?!
What was the freakiest tape you came across from the web?
M: Oh, I blocked them from my mind. I mean, like people standing on their heads and, ‘I’m the Avatar!’
Like Idol rejects?
M: Exactly, we probably have a whole CD of that if we wanted.
Did your daughters prompting you to watch the television show influence your writing and directing?
M: You know, you’ve got to be careful, I have found that as a father, as a parent you can get overwhelmed by that emotion and you lose your way a little bit. It’s always like, be wary of the labor of love project. You get blinded; you know you can’t be empirical. And I think I had a healthy balance of it on this movie. They brought me to the show, but then I became a fan of the show and then I could put the kids aside and say, “Alright, I think we can make this movie but there’s a lot of issues. And these are the issues and this is how I’m going to feel comfortable doing it.’ So I was able to disassociate a little bit from that personal part of it.
How do you transition from the typical M Night film to one of this kind?
M: Yeah. You know, I kind of changed my philosophy that, ‘I’m this filmmaker and technology is not who I am.’ But really, the type of filmmaker I am, is design the shots, I’m old school, I don’t believe of making the movie in the editing room, you make the movie in your head and you shoot that movie. That’s the way the old school guys used to do it, I believe in long takes, I believe in performance based movies, I believe tone is what the director’s job is, to create tone, atmosphere and attention to detail and I realized that technology is just two more tools. In this case, CGI and 3-D are just two more tools. That’s all it is, for me to bring those same aesthetics to the table. And so those two tools allowed me to do another genre but I did bring exactly the same aesthetics to the table.
It’s a very long series, and you decided to cut a lot of the story for the love interest for Jackson Rathbone, what was your reasoning for that?
M: The boys wrote, basically the last two episodes of the first season was like a whole season. They slammed everything, and I remember when I saw it and I was telling the boys, ‘God, you are killing me in those two episodes.’ They have every back story and every single thing you could think of. And even in our third act there’s a ton jammed in there! There’s as much as an audience can take in those thirty minutes is jammed in there. You would need to turn the third act in to half the movie to do justice to the back stories and all that stuff. And a character like Suki was one at the last second that I had to lose, which was totally upsetting to me….
Do you film any of it?
M: Suki? Yeah, no. I have all of it.
Directors cut maybe?
M: No, this is my director’s cut! What I found was sometimes it isn’t the bad things that get taken out of the movie, it’s the things that are so good, they are distracting. What happens is, you introduce these characters in the beginning of the middle of the movie and you let them stay for the middle of the movie and then you pull them out of the movie, the audience is like, ‘Wait, wait, wait. We love them, where are they going? Finish them! Bring them in to the third act somehow.’ And that’s not what the story is. They have nothing to do with the Northern Water Tribe, but they have everything to do with the next movie. So, I just at the last second, decided I’m just going to introduce them and bring them in and make them a part of Earth Kingdom in the second movie.
What did your daughters think?
M: The first time I showed them was with green screen only, and they didn’t know what the hell they were looking at, so they were shocked. And then next time they saw it was with CGI but not much sound effects, and that was the first time they were like, ‘Wow, this is the greatest thing!’ And then we showed it to them at Skywalker with the finished sound effects and the finished score, and they literally couldn’t move out of their seat when it was done. They were like, ‘This is the greatest movie of all time!’ And then tomorrow they get to see it in 3-D for the first time, so the four evolutions of it.
Thanks M Night!
M: Thank you so much!