iF MAGAZINE: What was the plan with this film and what were you trying to achieve, to re-invent yourself?
M. NIGHT SHYAMALAN: I have always wanted to develop a long mythology based franchise like THE LORD OF THE RINGS. I always thought about it, but I had, until now, never found a good one where I could also add a little bit of my personal vision. I really wanted to find a franchise where my accent could be complementary to the piece. So this was the best thing that could have happened is that I didn’t have a real agenda, but I was on the look for it and waited for the perfect situation.
I was offered other franchises, but passed. And then this one came from my own family – it was suggested by my children who loved the TV animated series. When I saw the cartoon I thought it was so well thought out in term of mythology. It had Buddhism, and martial Arts, and CGI [and it was] character based. And so I thought we could do a great job by using ILM and do something with lots of emotions and texture. I knew we could do something that wasn’t going to be just a great treat for the eyes, but also for the mind and the soul. This is my approach when it comes to getting into this type of material, to approach it through the characters and keep it grounded. It has also deeper issues at its core, it talks about Genocide and Balance, and the connection to the Planet. And you know from my other movies that I’m interested with these subject matters — it’s an important movie, not just a blockbuster summer movie.
iF: Are you going to push for the political tone in this film as we’ve seen in your other films?
SHYAMALAN: Well, there is a lot in the mythology. What I did was remove anything that was too slap-sticky and cheesy — the stuff that was there for the very little kids, but wouldn’t work in a live action feature like the fart jokes. I grounded the thing a little more. I grounded Katara’s brother for example [played by Jackson Rathbone] and it brought a great new overall tone to the whole movie. But the political tone is for sure intact and the one about a culture who is in an industrial revolution and use their way in their belief system and then decide “we don’t need to follow the old way of thinking, the old way of seeing God”. And the movie focuses on a higher power and the spirit world.
iF: The movie feels a little bit like it was inspired by the art of Hayao Miyazaki?
SHYAMALAN: Well, I’m a huge and giant fan of his work and I had the chance to meet him and go to his studio when I did my last promotional tour for THE HAPPENING. My favorite is SPIRITED AWAY. He is amazing, but to be honest, the film was more influenced by martial arts movies in general. What is funny is that you can see so many influences in the cartoon with scenes almost copied entirely from martial art movies, but I wanted the live action film to be truly original with action scenes you had never seen before. I’m a huge martial art freak. I even have a Bruce Lee statue in my office!
iF: What was the biggest challenge for you before and during the making of this film?
SHYAMALAN: It’s been a great on-going experience both as a director and a human being. You know, I’m a complete control freak. I love the idea of controlling everything that is in the composition of every single frame and I feel pain if I look at a frame and it’s not perfect. But with this movie, where there are so much factors going on, it taught me to let go and not be in such a control freak mode. It’s two and half times compared to my other movies. It feels like I’m a student again and I’m learning new things, new tricks and for me this is the way to get a great movie, when you’re a student again. You learn again and you’re open to everything again. I think I have become a much better director with the process of filming THE LAST AIRBENDER and not controlling 400 extras and all the action scenes. But in a way I’m scared to death because it’s such a huge endeavor. I hope this film will find its own personality and that the whole world will appreciate it.
iF: When did you realize, “wow, this is an insane film!”?
SHYAMALAN: Right away when we were filming in Greenland. It was great filming over there and if I had the all money in the world I would have filmed this movie on location around the world — but that would be so expensive. It was great shooting in Greenland, in the tundra and to see the actors moving. It felt so real. This is when I realized this was an amazing movie. Also, when I saw the army coming in the village I was overwhelmed by the size and the scope of this film.
iF: Can you talk about casting for this film?
SHYAMALAN: It was a real trick to find the perfect cast, because not only did I need excellent actors, but also great action driven fighters. There are so many fight scenes in this film, that this was a cruel experience to locate and find the right team of actors and actresses. I was so lucky to have this young actor Dev Patel [who plays Prince Zuko]. He is now known worldwide due to the success and Oscars for SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE. He is so vulnerable and so strong at the same time and this was the perfect mix to play Zuko. I had auditioned him for the role before the Oscar success and I wasn’t sure if I could get him after, but he wanted to be part of this film and I’m blessed. He is like a man-child and this is perfect. Another blessing was to find Noah Ringer who plays Aang, the Avatar, the principal hero of our movie. He is a young 12-year-old and a true martial arts expert with several titles. He teacher encouraged him to send us a demo tape and we were blown away by his presence, his grace and his technique. And after we sent him to be trained a little bit as an actor we knew we had found the perfect Aang. He is so similar to the Aang in the cartoons and with this great cast I was then able to build a natural structure for the movie itself. When you look at the whole TV series, you can see clearly the three movies I want to create as live action adaptations. Also this is great to be able to incorporate all along the clear philosophy that lies at the core of this mythology and how each element, Air, Earth, Water and Fire are so important as a balance for yourself.