There’s never been anything small about M. Night Shyamalan’s career. As a mostly unknown 27-year-old filmmaker, his first studio film, Wide Awake, received a splashy March 15, 1998 premiere at New York’s Ziegfeld Theater with an introduction by sitting Vice-President Al Gore. At age 29, his next film, The Sixth Sense stunned audiences around the world and reaped global grosses of $672 million along with two personal Oscar nominations for Shyamalan. Later that year, his first screenplay for a studio film that he didn’t direct, Stuart Little, took in $300 million, worldwide. Shyamalan’s next five films grossed $1.1 billion, worldwide. The critical reception may have cooled over his past few films, but it served to shoot the stakes even higher for his new film, The Last Airbender, which opens today. However, Shyamalan gives off the sense that he wouldn’t be happy with anything less than a monumental challenge.
Collider caught up with Shyamalan and some of his cast this week. Hit the jump for the highlights from roundtable interviews with Shyamalan, Dev Patel, Jackson Rathbone and Nicola Peltz, including Shyamalan on his long, strange trip to 3D, Patel on Bollywood’s “God-awful” yet bankable movies, Rathbone on scoring his perfect Girlfriend and Shyamalan on why he doesn’t want “two feet tall Daniel Day-Lewises.”
The Last Airbender is a big-screen adaptation of the popular animated Nickelodeon series Avatar: The Last Airbender. The story takes place during a brutal campaign by The Fire Nation against the nations of Air, Water and Earth. A young waterbender (someone who has complete control of the element of water and can shape, raise, throw and freeze water with their power) named Katara (played by Nicola Peltz) and her brother Sokka (the Twilight film series’ Jackson Rathbone) find a young boy named Aang (Noah Ringer). Just as Katara can “bend” water, Aang can do so with air. They quickly realize though, that Aang may be the Avatar (who can bend all four elements of air, water, fire and earth) that is the world’s last hope in the war against the Fire Nation. A furious search ensues for the boy by the Fire Nation, including a hunt by the dark character of Prince Zuko (Slumdog Millionaire’s Dev Patel) who wants to find the boy so he can regain the love and respect of his father, Fire Lord Ozai (Cliff Curtis).
The film rests on the 12-year-old shoulders of Noah Ringer in the title role. Shyamalan, who has a proven track record with child actors, calls the boy “a special human being.” The director’s work with children has featured: an Oscar-nominated performance by Haley Joel Osment in The Sixth Sense, the discovery of future Oscar nominee Abigail Breslin who made her feature film debut in Signs and very early performances from Joseph Cross (Wide Awake), Julia Stiles (Wide Awake) and Mischa Barton (The Sixth Sense). While she wasn’t a child, Bryce Dallas Howard also got her first starring role in a Shyamalan film, The Village, as a 23-year-old. Ringer’s already making the most of his opportunity, as he is shooting the Jon Favreau sci-fi western Cowboys & Aliens with Harrison Ford and Daniel Craig.
Ringer couldn’t get away from that set for the press day, but click here for the audio from M. Night Shyamalan’s roundtable interview, here for Dev Patel and here for Jackson Rathbone and Nicola Peltz’s joint interview. Otherwise, here are the highlights:
-Shyamalan’s move from thrillers to a big budget fantasy didn’t come “out of nowhere.” He said that he “had early conversations about Harry Potter and a lot of franchises and so I imagined doing something on this scale” for some time, but “maybe I was too chicken and my wife would tell you I was too chicken” and that he agreed to the film “just to spite her because she would always say (adopting a jokingly mocking tone) ‘You’re never going to do anything that you haven’t written.” And, and I was like, ‘Oh yeah? I said yes to Airbender!’ (Laughs)”
-Shyamalan took the project on because he felt a strong connection to the material. He explained, “It’s about kids’ empowerment, the connection to nature, Hindu and Buddhist philosophies, martial arts (which he’s studied for years), there’s a big, great Shakespearean back story to [the film’s] Royal family and [I am] a Shakespeare freak, so all my loves” were present. Another factor was the series’ heavy influences of Star Wars and Anime director Hayao Miyazaki (who won the 2003 Best Animated Feature Oscar for Spirited Away and was nominated in the category for Howl’s Moving Castle in 2006).
-Shyamalan laughed that he was “scared to death whether it would make any sense doing this kind of old school design storytelling” on an epic scale. He was inspired by Akira Kurosawa’s 1985 Oscar-winning film Ran and Stanley Kubrick’s 1960 multiple Oscar-winning epic Spartacus, in their “quiet, contemplative” approach to films of such a broad scope. He said, “I tend to think of things as, as opera once it gets that big.” He also admitted that he almost scored Unbreakable with opera, “but we couldn’t pull it off.”
-With the film’s opening upon him after several years of hard work, Shyamalan feels “like a bride on the wedding day.” He’s concerned that all the bases were covered and “you just have too much [responsibility] to even enjoy” it. He had the complicated emotion of being “the guest of honor and the one responsible.” He revealed, “I want to think back on my life and not have me not be there in every moment.” The director has had that same feeling for all of his films and remembers “feeling depressed on the opening weekend of Signs for some frickin’ reason. I don’t know! I’m just not there!” He says with every film, there’s a reason he’s “somewhere else emotionally and I’m trying not to be that way, but I’m, I’m still not here. (Laughs)”
- When asked about casting the unknown Noah Ringer to star in The Last Airbender, Shyamalan says, “In retrospect, it seems obvious, but it’s not obvious. Like I remember looking at two little girls and I couldn’t tell which one should play the little girl in Signs and one was me finding (future Oscar nominee) Abigail Breslin. You know, and the other girl- they looked so close.” While he said they “weren’t close,” Shyamalan admitted that he “couldn’t tell in the moment. It’s very hard to tell.” Similarly, he says he “struggled over Noah a little bit” because he didn’t have the acting experience of other contenders, but in retrospect, ”he’s a martial arts expert, a staff (type of martial arts weapon) expert, which is what the character is. He’s home-schooled, which is as close a thing we have to a monk today. You know, he has no TV, he has no cultural influences from anything, [he has] never seen reality TV in his life … This kid is as pure as they come. This is a rare, rare kid.” He also admired Ringer’s intelligence, work ethic, and integrity and compared his intense “around the clock” focus and dedication to that of Haley Joel Osment.
- Still, Shyamalan was “unable to see” casting Ringer initially. He recalled thinking “‘well, maybe you should go with the actor kid who we can teach martial arts to’” but immediately exclaimed, “Terrible decision that would’ve been! Terrible! Right? But, at the time, you’re just like, ‘Maybe, you know, maybe we can cut to a short stunt guy!’ (Laughs)” Speaking more generally on casting, he said, “I’ve had meetings with, like, the greatest actors that have the greatest chops, but [if] I don’t see the humanity in them that I wanted to get for the character [then] I go ‘it’s not gonna work’ … I’m always trying to cast human beings. I’m not trying to find two feet tall Daniel Day-Lewises. I’m trying to get, you know, human beings that I love. Like Abigail [Breslin] I love. Haley [Joel Osment] I love. Bryce [Dallas Howard] I love. These people are special, unique human beings.”
-Shyamalan said he never speaks condescendingly to child actors and treats them
like any other actor on set. Additionally, he always speaks of the characters
as if they are a real person. He recalled showing Ringer dailies at a monitor and speaking very bluntly, though supportively to him because there were moments that weren’t working. Ringer took the talk very seriously and from that point on, greatly improved.
-Shyamalan said he was adamantly opposed to 3D for the film, at first. He initially refused shooting in 3D because “it’s too cumbersome. I’m already overwhelmed.” In post-production, he relented slightly, saying, “I will look at tests” of various shots that had been converted to 3D, but “I’m saying no.” He recalled an initial screening of about 30 shots where he “eviscerated everybody in the room. I was like, ‘Are you kidding me? You kidding me [with] these 30 shots? One shot is good. One shot and the other 29, you’ve hurt the movie.’ And I go, ‘[Is] this what you’re presenting to me to give you an answer? Do you want to hear my answer? The answer is no! What would your answer be? What would your answer be?’ [There was] silence in the room and I said, ‘I’ll give you my full set of notes.’” His tongue-lashing continued, “’This is ridiculous. My eye is hurting, you know, why would you do this? This is making it cardboard, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. The scene is about this person, why am I staring at the background person? Because you made him too prominent!’ Blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, on and on and on and just eviscerated every shot and I said, ‘I’m happy for you to do the work for free and show me another test. I’m gonna keep working on my movie.” In subsequent screenings, the ratio of good shots to bad went from one good and 29 bad to 6:24 and ultimately 18:12. He recalls with a laugh, “My voice got calm again.” Considering the staff’s dedication, openness to his notes, the new software and the time allotted, he began to waver. He continued, “I went to see Alice (In Wonderland) and I, I thought Tim (Burton) did a great job” with the 3D. “I felt like it was appropriate and correct “ and he asked the Airbender team for one more test screening, which resulted in an increased ratio of good shots to bad at 22:8. Shyamalan said he had to make a decision that day to give them enough time for the 3D conversion and he agreed to the risk because the whole film had been a leap of faith. Ultimately, he “was so happy with what they did.” He joked, “I drank the Kool-Aid.”
- Shyamalan thinks, “3D is a misnomer.” He doesn’t feel it should be about effects that are “in your face” although “everybody sells it that way. It’s about depth. It’s about making it feel like a window [that] you could put your hand in it and that’s what we’ve been trying to do is make it feel like an alternate world that’s in [the screen] and occasionally it comes back (when an object seems to leap out of the screen), but that’s very obtrusive” and “pulls you out of the movie. So very very sparingly, you do that, but it’s about depth and you kind of take your breath away with how far it goes in.”
-Dev Patel replaced Jesse McCartney in the pivotal role of Prince Zuko. Patel joked that Shyamalan ‘forced me” to do the film. Patel actually took it because he was looking for something to show his versatility as an actor after his big screen debut in Slumdog Millionaire. The involvement of Shyamalan, cinematographer Andrew Lesnie (The Lord Of The Rings trilogy) and 5-time Oscar nominated producer Frank Marshall (who handled the Indiana Jones, Back To The Future and Jason Bourne film series) locked him in. He reasoned, “because it’s my second [film] project, all I want to do is just learn from people that have been around for a long time and I was like, this would be, you know, an amazing opportunity.” He actually put himself on tape in London before Slumdog became a hit and got the job when McCartney fell out.
-Patel said he enjoyed the diversity on set. He recalled looking at the supporting cast and thinking “it was like walking through Heathrow Airport in London. There are so many different people everywhere” and “I’m just so proud that I could be a part of it.”
-When asked why there’s a dearth of Indian stars in Hollywood, despite the massive popularity of Bollywood, Patel said Shahrukh Khan is “the most bankable star in the world. And they, you know, you’ve probably seen, they do God-awful films, but they’re always gonna make their money back. Always. Because every Indian anywhere in the world is gonna watch Shahrukh Khan in whatever film he does. And that’s just [the] amazing star power they have. But in Hollywood? Is brown skin bankable right now? I don’t know … It’s just a process that we’ve got to go through. [The] time will come. Slumdog was a real big, a groundbreaker in that way … I feel myself as a real privileged position to come off that.” He acknowledged the “pressure on my shoulders to not go into falling into that really typecast sort of role. But there’s a time and place for everything.” He added that he’s “trying to maintain some longevity in this industry and, and trying to stretch myself as an actor. You know, when I was in school, you know, I was in a Shakespeare play to this play to that play and there was no (big deal), you know what I mean? So, it’s just about being stretched” as an actor.
-Given the choice between big budget and independent films, Patel said, “I love indie [films]. Like, not even having a trailer half the time in Slumdog and that was as independent as independent films can get. Trust me. I know. Shooting in [the slums of] Mumbai, in those conditions,” but “I love it.” He never saw himself doing a big budget film like The Last Airbender, but “this was the film that came to me with some sort of substance and opportunity so I went straight with it” and he was thrilled to learn about the CGI involved. The acting work in Slumdog “was so subtle and I was sitting in this game show seat (Who Wants To Be A Millionaire) for hours, you know, and all this emotion had to be so internalized” but he enjoyed the physical change of pace provided by Airbender.
-The cast underwent intense martial arts training, which helped them bond early. Patel had an advantage, given eight years of experience in Taekwondo (he holds a black belt). Peltz studied Kung Fu and Tai Chi. She and Rathbone said the “boot camp” was held in a Philadelphia training center dubbed “The Fridge” because it was kept at a frigid temperature, which prepared them for filming in Greenland. One of the toughest parts for Rathbone was starting in the morning. He admitted that he’s “not a morning person. I’m a night person.”
-While Patel sustained “a couple of pulled muscles here and there” on The Last Airbender, his worst injury on a set came in Slumdog when he was doing the dance at the end of the film. He suffered soft tissue damage in his foot followed by three days of shooting the closing dance sequence and it swelled to look “like an elephant foot.” In comparison, the physical strain of Airbender was “nothing.”
-Patel is thrilled about Slumdog director Danny Boyle’s appointment to be the Artistic Director of the 2012 Olympics’ opening ceremony in London. Patel admired, “That’s brilliant on him! I love the guy! Give him more!” Asked whether he’d press Boyle to take part in the ceremony, Patel joked, “I don’t know. I’m not Olympian standard. That’s for sure.” He continued, “I’m really happy for him and I don’t know what he’s gonna do” because you never “quite know with Danny, what he’s gonna pull out of the bag.”
- Patel doesn’t have a new project listed on his IMDB page, but he says “It’s not clear” to him, either. Then he smiled about IMDB posting a false resume entry, “They have some weird True Jackson VP thing and I was like ‘What the hell is that?’ I never did that. What’s that? Some cartoon or something? It’s like, I was not in that. I mean, this is me talking about being selective and that’s there.” When asked what he’d like to do, Patel said “I’d love to do a little independent film, now. It just depends if there’s any good characters I can audition for. It’s just getting my foot in the door right now, which is the tricky stuff.”
-Despite his lead role in Slumdog, which won eight Oscars, including best picture, with a worldwide gross of more than $377 million and his position as the biggest star in the big budget summer tent pole Airbender, Patel said he still has “to audition. I mean, I prefer it that way, if that makes sense. It, it feels awkward just getting a role” because he wants to earn the job.
- Patel voiced the Airbender video game, which he says took about 6 hours in a booth where he was asked to do “lots of grunting.” He said he’s “a little bit” of a gamer and “I’ve got a Nintendo Wii. I can’t do [games where you use] too many buttons, like [Halo]. I can just do, you know, Wii Sport.”
-Patel said he really enjoyed the camaraderie on set with the young cast. He said, “It was genuinely just a fun, goofy atmosphere.” He also tried to make Nicola Peltz laugh during takes. It differed from Slumdog where he self-deprecatingly joked about the pressure he felt that, “I’m the only guy from England and I’m playing the lead guy! In the slums! I’ve never been to a slum before! This is awful! Or done a proper Indian accent,” which made him very nervous.
- Patel reflected on his long awards campaign experience for Slumdog, saying the cast was “the craziest lot in every awards ceremony. We were just so unprofessional screaming and whooping ‘cause everything was so exciting.” He continued, “Every day, it was just like, ‘you’re serious. I’m going to be on David Letterman?’” Are you sure about this? And then he goes on to just tear me to shreds … Everything was new. (Pretending to be on a red carpet) ‘Is that Angelina Jolie? Wow! I had the hots for her for the longest-’ I still do. Wow. And it’s just everything was just like humongously stupid. Baffling.”
-Jackson Rathbone and Nicola Peltz play a brother and sister onscreen and it was natural for them, as they have similarly aged siblings in real life. The dynamic clearly carried off-screen. They teased each other throughout the roundtable interview and talked of Jackson shoving Nicola in a snowdrift, headfirst, once they got to Greenland for the shoot, though she got her revenge by sliming him at Nickelodeon’s Kids’ Choice Awards. Jackson remarked, “It’s called karma.”
-The Last Airbender opens opposite The Twilight Saga: Eclipse. Jackson plays Jasper Hale in the massive vampire series, but “I never thought I’d be a part of a franchise, let alone two at once and they’re back to back which is kind of unheard of and really kind of odd, but what I do like about it is, you know, I’ve always kind of, tried to match my career as a character actor and not so much a leading man.” He was excited about having “two completely different characters that couldn’t be more dissimilar” with the exception of action scenes. “To play a 200-year-old vampire fighting his instincts (in Eclipse) and then a 17-year-old wannabe warrior [who] becomes a rebel leader over the course of [Airbender]” excited him.
-Rathbone recently co-starred with Bryce Dallas Howard in Eclipse and she had worked with Shyamalan on The Village and Lady In The Water (the two remain very close) and they traded stories about working with the director. Rathbone remarked how show business “is a really small world.”
-While Rathbone is a “huge Buster Keaton fan, Charlie Chaplin fan,” he understood Shyamalan would have to strip the slapstick humor from the Nickelodeon show that it’s based on because “it didn’t serve the story as well as making it more realistic. Trying to, you know, kind of mature the character up a little bit.” He further explained that “in a cartoon, you can have a fireball, like, race at you and your eyebrows are singed” and a comedic response fits, but laughed, “it doesn’t work in a live action version. It would seem like a parody of itself.” Though, he did do some slapstick takes that he hopes will make it onto the DVD in a bonus feature.
-Rathbone talked about saying goodbye to Twilight after they film Breaking Dawn. He said every Twilight shoot is “like a family reunion. It honestly is.” He continued, “I just see such bright futures for all my co-stars and they’re all such sweet people and [their] careers are all taking off and, and they deserve it. [They’re] great actors, and they’re great people and they’re great individuals at [their] core” and “I can say the same for my” Airbender co-stars. “I don’t know how I got so damn lucky to, to work with people that I respect and I admire, as much as I do. And I can say that with all sincerity.” He further explained that earlier in his career, “I used to try to do the bar scene in LA, which, screw that.” He thought, “This is the most boring thing in the world” with young actors “stroking each other’s egos the entire time, but, you know, I’ve been lucky enough to work on [high-profile] projects” with people who are more focused on the work than fame.
-Rathbone recently made his producing debut with his 100 Monkeys band mate, Jerad Anderson on a film called Girlfriend about a small-town man with Down’s Syndrome who romantically pursues a single mom who’s still involved with a troubled ex-boyfriend (played by Rathbone). The band composed the score and he hopes to showcase the film at festivals.
- Vampire fans’ hopes of a Twilight-True Blood onscreen pairing with Rathbone and Ryan Kwanten may be disappointed, as their potential project Truck Stop is “not definite.” They’re waiting on financing. Rathbone declined more details because he’s not producing it. He said he’s working on securing a lead actress and financing for The Amazing Mr. Jones about “an older woman who’s, kind of, seeking to change her life and finds it through [placing a want] ad to find her first orgasm and finds this young man to satisfy it.” When asked if he would play that man, Rathbone took on a very sheepish grin. Sounds like irresistible box office bait for Twi-hards.