I’ve actually gone on record a number of times saying that I don’t really think The Last Airbender is that bad a movie. The effects in it are beautiful, and it makes me sad that it could have been better. A lot better, infact. There’s a legend about a cut of the movie that is about 40 minutes longer than the theatrical cut, which itself was far superior to what the rest of us got to see.
Last week a member of an Avatar forum, by the name of Kyatto, posted a story about what happened behind the scenes (it has since been removed by the forum owner), and by the looks of it, Night is owed an apology. Night was thrown under the bus many times by many people. I’m really happy to be able to show a bit of what actually happened, behind the scenes on The Last Airbender. Prepare yourselves, this is rather long.
Production wrapped 5 years ago so I don’t think Paramount is going to care. They know it bombed.
What it came down to was M. Night really was the only one who knew the show and what he was doing (the first draft of the screenplay? gorgeous. hence Bryke giving him the okay). The producers, who are actually in charge of at least 80% of production including casting…. not so much. They clearly never bothered to watch the show, nor had the ghostwriter who did the final screenplay.
This sort of thing happens more than you’d think on many movies. Sometimes a studio will hire an awesome screenwriter like Frank Darabont as a ‘script doctor.’ Darabont himself was script doctor on such films as Saving Private Ryan, Minority Report and 2014’s Godzilla (in which he wrote the scenes that convinced Bryan Cranston and Juliette Binoche to sign). We weren’t so fortunate on Airbender, and whomever it is that was the script doctor / ghostwriter to do the final screenplay will probably never come forward. Afterall, they’re actually the writer(s) that wrote the now infamous line: “We have to show the Fire Nation that we believe in our beliefs as much as they believe in theirs.”
Nicola [Peltz] was hired because she’s the daughter of someone one of the producers owed a favor to as Hollywood loves its nepotism. (Her audition tape was subpar at best). In having to cast her they had to cast a guy who could pass as her brother – hence Jackson [Rathbone]. His audition was actually pretty good. He’s a funny guy and had clearly seen the show. Too bad the producers felt the movie didn’t have time for intentional humor and cut all that out of the script. Noah [Ringer] was the only one who honestly openly auditioned and was chosen based on talent. He just needed extra help acting because with a lot of it being green screened he was talking to air a lot of the time. Experienced adults have a hard time doing that let alone a kid.
Just to cut in here a second… we also need to remember that Noah Ringer was also a newcomer to acting. After this he went on to play a small role in Cowboys & Aliens alongside Harrison Ford, Daniel Craig and Olivia Wilde, with director John Favreau.
If you recall they initially signed on Jesse McCartney as Zuko. Why? Because otherwise the lead actor roster would be “starring: two unknown kids you never heard of and that guy who played a minor character in Twilight!” And then someone with a brain realized “wait a minute this show is kind of anime-esque and we’re hiring a bunch of white kids. Um…” So what did they do? Because they couldn’t can Nicola without someone being really ticked, Jesse willingly bowed out and went with another project offered at the time. Even still, they still needed a big name to draw people in but it couldn’t be another white kid. Dev Patel just gave an Oscar-winning performance and was willing to sign on. And in getting him they had to make the rest of the Fire Nation match. Which is why it turned into heroic white kids VS evil brown people (which was intentionally unintentional).
And then it was horribly budgeted. The opening at the [Southern Water Tribe (SWT)] all nice and pretty in Greenland? Cost big bucks. And then they realized with a story about people manipulating elements that couldn’t be believably done with in camera practical effects. So they had to rebudget and gave most of the money to ILM for post production. You go from the beautiful SWT to everything looking dingy because everything else was shot in Pennsylvania. The Fire Nation Royal Palace? An old high school in Philadelphia. Parts of the Earth Kingdom (including Kyoshi Island which got cut)? Reading, PA. And everything that was the NWT…. some sets built in front of giant green screens in an old emptied aircraft hangar in the outskirts of Philadelphia. Yeah.
And ILM was rushed despite most of the movie’s look being left up to them. And you had novice directors hired by producers to oversee that process. That’s how come the pebble dance happened. Sadly at that point M Night was just tired of arguing with the overheads, gave up, and collected his paycheck. If you look at the movie’s premiere and red carpet footage you can tell his excitement and happiness is fake. Bryke had little say in the film despite being listed as executive producers. That title was a fancy way of saying that they created the show it was based on and they’re still alive so they need some kind of nice credit. The actual producers didn’t know what they were dealing with and were only interested in a quick buck. Bryke and M. Night gave up on the film around the same time for same reasons. The other people working on the film were a pain to deal with and Nickelodeon themselves only wanted the final product as quickly as possible and the money it would presumably make them.
At least they hired good caterers. The food was great on that set.
But that wasn’t where it ended. He went on in further posts to bring more clarity to the story, which also further vindicates both Night and the creators of Avatar. Though I’m still kind of upset at them, because they continue to blame Night publicly, probably because they’d like to keep their own struggling (in the ratings, at least) Airbender sequel going until it is complete.
M. Night’s a great guy. He really is. He knows how to write family films, and when allowed to have free reign does a decent job. Sixth Sense and Unbreakable are classics. Many people are also fans of Signs and The Village. Lady in the Water, when watched without any marketing to give you an idea about what it could be – is a clever artistic piece that deviates heavily from his previous work (I really do blame its failure on being marketed wrong).
But at that point he became kind of a joke and typecast itself. So whenever he tried to make a film happen he was put under more and more restrictions. “No, M Night you can’t make that movie you can only make this movie.” The Happening is intentionally hilarious because he was making fun of himself and previous works with it, not so subtly giving it to the corporate execs.
He’s written for family films before, and himself as well as his kids are fans of [Avater: The Last Airbender]. He really wanted to make a decent film. So he was hoping if by some miracle the corporate destruction of what could’ve been a real masterpiece that fans would love turned out to make enough of a profit, he’d be given more reign to do sequels. Or in enough time, make the movie over again how he actually wanted it to happen. Sadly, though, that’s not the case.
After Earth? You got Will Smith and Jaden Smith wanting to do an awesome father-son movie together. No director could’ve saved that. It would’ve been exactly the same if J.J. Abrams or Michael Bay did it. Though I suppose with J.J. there’d have been more lens flare and Bay more explosions.
He’s kind of given up at this point. The work he’s doing now is no longer so much his love for film like his earlier pieces than he needs to collect some cash for his kids’ college funds and to invest in retirement given the economy. It’s a little sad. M Night’s a surprisingly modest, down to earth guy. His main home is in Pennsylvania which is a huge part of why he does try to film his movies there. He wants to get work for local film enthusiasts and try to give them the same opportunities he got when he was starting out. Which is rare since most just use the go to places – LA, New York City, or Vancouver.
A bit later he wrote further about the screenplays that Night wrote, and what happened to those scripts:
The initial script equated to about a 9 hour film, and his second draft that he wrote almost 3 hours. Those were his copies. Then a ghostwriter or two attacked.
This is corroborated by the creators of the tv series, who said that Night originally had everything from the show in his script, and would have to cut out a lot of it.
So yeah no he didn’t write it in 90 minutes, but he’s still a man who is proud of his work and feels himself to be an artist. With every project he wants to make art out of it. With Lady in the Water he wanted to prove he could do more than suspense thrillers so in response to the reception I can imagine it didn’t sit well with him. Yeah, he’s arrogant to the press but 90% of Hollywood is. You kind of have to be if you want people motivated to see your work. […] 90% of what you see said to the press is a persona. Whether it’s an actor, writer, director, etc. That’s why I ignore gossip columns where people get up in arms over who said what in a press release, or on the red carpet, or on a TV show and they’re a horrible/amazing person because of it because it’s not actually them. M Night’s always given off the air of “misunderstood artistic genius” to the press since day one. And in some cases, like Sixth Sense, it’s valid. Others, not so much. But he’s got to maintain that image. Who he is on the job or home with friends and family isn’t who is answering interviewers’ questions. Let’s just say I’d rather work for him again than Spielberg.
I’m not saying M. Night’s perfect but a majority of the film’s screwups were not his fault at all. And in response to the 9 hour screenplay thing? That’s actually typical. Most original drafts for films are way, way, way longer than the final piece. They write out everything they want to get out and then go back in and weed out what’s not needed and rewrite things to take things like montages and other editing processes into consideration, etc. Screenplays are very interesting.
His ego persona didn’t help any nor his previous reputation on his recent films, and he went about justifying the executives’ decisions the wrong way (though he may or may not have been coerced to – I have no idea). Just keep in mind when the film was in its earliest stages Mike and Bryan were very excited, loved working with M Night, and eager to get things going. If it was M Night’s fault entirely the movie would not have gotten off the ground at all.
You might be wondering a bit about the pronunciation of names and the changing of the Chinese characters to an alien/fantasy world script were all Night’s doing as well. Personally, I believed that the show itself was set in a fantasy world (turtle ducks?), but I know that many believe that it was a version of our world. So what happened here is going to satisfy half of you and the other half will continue to be a bit upset.
He felt his pronunciations of the names were more “authentic” to where they originated. The Chinese being changed to gibberish [re: alien/fantasy world script] was a decision by Paramount. They didn’t want to risk any potential offensive screwups that have happened in other films. There are way more people working on a live action film than an animated one and it’s difficult to keep tabs on every last detail.
A lot of people, especially those with an anime background when the show first came out used “ee-roh” for “Iroh”, “ahng” for “Aang”, “soh-ka” for “Sokka”, etc. Until the show was watched enough and the westernized names heard enough that most people stopped. But if you come to the show hearing Asian names pronounced differently it does throw you off. And M Night is a man of Asian descent. This is a toss up because to some asians the pronunciations of the names are offensive in the cartoon, and to fans of the show the pronunciations in the movie are offensive because they’re not show accurate.
And so… if you didn’t like The Last Airbender, you now know that it wasn’t entirely Night’s fault. In fact, it was more the studio than anyone else. And this is a very complex issue where one domino lead to another and another, and the result was something of a mess of a production. Someone once said that when a movie comes together, it’s incredible, and for a movie to be great takes a small miracle. With the involvement of so many people on the outcome of a movie, you can see where things started to fall apart for this movie. It all started with getting someone a role in what could have been Night’s Lord of the Rings. I have to wonder what an independently produced film would have been like, if Night had the same freedoms that, say, George Lucas had on his Star Wars films.