We sat down with The Last Airbender's twist-obsessed director, M. Night Shyamalan, and grilled him about everything you wanted to know about. The comedy, the characters, whether Momo's in it — and most importantly, the controversial casting decisions. Spoilers ahead...
At a private breakfast with Shyamalan, we joined a group of select journalists who spent the morning quizzing the director about everything we could think of. Here are his responses.
If I were to guess, one of the most difficult parts for you to fit into the movie would be the comedy. Was that a challenge for you?
Yeah, you know, I think it's the single thing I'm struggling with, with the movie. Partly because the show is so schizophrenic in the best way, right? In the best way. It developed the tone as it went on in the series. So the opening scene, and the opening episode of the movie, is the youngest episode of the entire series. Mike and Bryan [the show creators] started out making the show and went towards a particular tone thinking it's Nickelodeon!? Going literally against their instincts a little bit. Going young.
Then as the show went on, they just started being more and more themselves, and it got older and older and older. Then it became cooler and edgier. But in the beginning they had lines like, "Wanna go penguin sliding?" That was the appropriate line in episode one, but would not be in, let's say, episode 27. That would not be that appropriate dialogue. And that — kind of, its origins as it was finding itself — is the balancing act of the movie. I wanted to honor that part of it. Because it would be like taking away my seven year old's [connection to it], and why we're all here, because my seven year old connected with it. I don't want to take that away.
You know, I have a very dark and edgy sensibility, but I'm trying to balance the two. But the humor is definitely the trickiest part of the piece. Even on Nickelodeon, the comedy's broad at times, really broad at times. And then you have episodes like the "Blue Spirit" episode — I think it was episode 13 from the first season — which is just all edgy. Like straight up, I literally just took episode 13 and put it in the movie. I just picked it out and put it in the movie. But the first season, the first episode, you're really picking and choosing delicately how to maintain the thing.
I've actually written a second draft of the second movie, and it's so much older. It's so much edgier and older. And that's what they're naturally having, because kids are 12 and 14 in the beginning and they just keep on growing and getting more mature, it just naturally moves that way. Then you have all the cool ladies they're fighting off. The Kyoshi warriors Vs. Azula's crew [is] in the second movie. It just gets darker and edgier, in the greatest way, more Shakespearean for me, as the seasons progress. So yeah, I like goofy humor, so I have a higher tolerance than most.
Is Momo in the movie, and will it be fun?
I don't know if I can answer the second one, I hope so. But there was a moment where — I have my focus group at home with my kids — and there was a moment when I was like, "So what's Momo do exactly?" I always ask the question like "What does he represent, what is his thing." And they're like, "well he's just kinda fun." And we put him in, like we were finishing an episode and put him in somewhere. In a way, when I was early in the movie, I was thinking, "I need to have a reason for everything." Maybe I was over-thinking it, but I would say to the kids "what would you think if Momo wasn't in the movie?" They literally attacked me. The stopped speaking to me. I had to say, "All right, all right, all right. We'll put him in. Relax. Everybody relax, he'll be in the movie." And so he's in there. I love him, he seems so real. Being so not versed in animal biology, I would believe that that exists. I think he's just really fun and cool in the movie. I would love to kinda have a moment for him somewhere in the three movies, [in which] I give him a purpose. That's my dream, give Momo a purpose.
A lot of people look at the trailer and they assume the film is the entire first season. But it can't possibly be because there wouldn't be enough time for everything. There's a lot of really fun, smaller moments like King Bumi and things of that nature. What was cut?
The first outline I made of the movie I bought Mike and Bryan to my house and said, "I have an outline of the movie, what do you think?" And they said, "This is like 10 hours long. You have to cut stuff." And I thought, "I can't. I love everything." The first outline was so long that — you know, I'll give you an example. You know the bounty hunter? I love that! I thought, "I'm getting her in here I have to." And I just couldn't fit her in. In an episodic series, the nature is that it's episodic. You need to have a beginning, middle and end in each episode. It needs to go "right, left, right, left," like that. But there's a through-line that's present in most of the episodes — like he has to master all the elements, those kind of things. Someone's chasing him. Katara and her brother are becoming like a family and they're protecting him, and they're moving to the Northern Border Tribe. Broad things like that, that represent the story of the first season. So there's a bunch of things that had to get jettisoned for this movie.
But my hope is that [The Bounty Hunter] will end up somewhere in one of these movies. I moved some things, like the deserter. The deserter character, which I love, and I think is a huge moment, I moved him to the third movie when he's going to learn fire. And so, those kind of things, I'm trying to think of what other things will be... well, King Bumi's not in the first movie. But my hope is again that as we get to Earth, all those Earth-related things will come in handy. It really is a kind of distillation of just getting the story correct. And how much can I lay in with a line. I have a line which I hope stays, about grandma saying something about "my friend Hama." Like my favorite episode of the series is the blood-bender episode from the third season. So I wanted to just lay the groundwork for that. It's really sad, you know, to lose something that was fun and exciting in the first season.
What do you think people will be surprised that you kept?
Surpised that I kept, let's see...
No, you know, I didn't keep him. See, all of the broad comedy stuff that has so much life in the movie, the movie can only handle a certain amount for you to believe the stakes of the movie, right? So what I've found is, I had a certain amount of broad comedy in it. And if the characters aren't honoring the milieu of, the setting of what the movie's supposed to be, that it's a time of war. It's not a great time. You can have humor but it has to be situation-appropriate humor.
Whereas in an episodic series, you can really go broad and come back again, and it's not such a big deal. I think this has been the most challenging thing about the process, and I believe it's primarily the first season's thing, because they were finding the balance as well. So in the genetics of the movie I'm finding the balance as well. What is the balance between the edgier Lord of the Rings part of it and all of this stuff, the Cabage guy which doesn't exist in Lord of the Rings. You know that kinda "No, my cabbages!", all that stuff. And then the second season really for me just kinda laid right out. There's much less struggle, with even the first draft. And you go "I get it, this is the Shakespearean background." I still have stuff that I've shot that I'm holding onto until last second. So we'll see what ends up in the final movie.
Or the director's cut.
You've talked on the broader scale about how you were envisioning the Last Airbender and everything here, with multiple movies and all that. How far ahead are you, in scripting and planning out this entire story? Is that affecting it all? I don't know if you normally approach things with sequels in mind.
Yeah, see again I think sequel is a misnomer for this, and I keep telling the studio that. "Is there any way we can talk about this in not sequel terms?" Because it's not like, "We love these characters, let's go on another adventure." This is a story that has a beginning, a middle and an end, and I'm telling you the beginning. And Lord of the Rings did that so beautifully.
But the fact is that you know when they made up another story, just because. And you can tell that. This isn't that. And of course George Lucas did that as well — he had the whole story, and now I'm going to tell you the next one, and the next one. It's one of three parts. And hopefully they'll like the first part enough that I'll be able to make the other two parts. But, you know, sequel — it has in its sense like a revisiting in a way that... This isn't that. Which is what's so exciting. I completely got into this to make a long-form movie.
So the first thing we did was, when I met Mike and Bryan, they hadn't finished season three. And really the first conversation was in my hotel room and I said, "Dudes, I gotta know this. You gotta give me this. This is critical. This has to end. If it doesn't end, I'm not on board. If you don't want to end it, it's all good. But it has to end." And they said they saw it as three seasons and the three elements he has to learn. And at that time, they didn't even know where the movie was going to end, even who Katara was going to end up with. But we all agreed and shook hands on that it was over, it ends, we're going to finish the tale.
And the last thing I said to Paramount during the close of the contract was "three [movies]." That way, I can put a lot of integrity into it. And know how to press the accelerator on a storyline, or pull back. Already I've pulled out a couple things from the first movie, that I thought were going to be in the first movie. And that's going to affect the draft of the second film. Like, I need to do an introductory scene for this character because we pulled her out of the first....
I have an idea for three. The only thing I would do different — I don't even know if I should say this, as it's so far into the future, but I want to know what happens to Zuko's mom...
Will you be directing all three films?
If it's successful, and there's enough feeling and momentum from the audience, I'm going to film my thriller while prepping for movie two.
One of the biggest questions we get on a regular basis whenever we write about this movie, besides tone questions and mythos inquiries, is about the casting. There are a lot of fans that have casting issues with Sokka, Katara and the Fire Nation. Can you address the fan concerns about the casting?
Here's the thing. The great thing about anime is that it's ambiguous. The features of the characters are an intentional mix of all features. It's intended to be ambiguous. That is completely its point. So when we watch Katara, my oldest daughter is literally a photo double of Katara in the cartoon. So that means that Katara is Indian, correct? No that's just in our house. And her friends who watch it, they see themselves in it. And that's what's so beautiful about anime.
When we were casting, I was like, "I don't care who walks through my door, whoever is best for the part. I'm going to figure it out like a chessgame." Ideally we separate the nations ethnically — ideally. I didn't know how or what it was going to be. And it was so fluid. For example if you found a great brother, [but] he didn't go with my favorite Katara, then we couldn't use him. Theoretical things like that. There was an Ang that we really loved, but he was like 5'10." There's all kinds of issues that come to the table physically. And I had a board of all the people that I was considering, the seven or eight. There was, at one time, a Chinese Sokka and Katara, and they were over here. One of them was a better actor than the other, and so I was gathering my pros and cons.
I was without an agenda, and just letting it come to the table. Noah is a photo double from the cartoon. He is spot on. I didn't know their backgrounds, and to me Noah had a slightly mixed quality to him. So I cast the Airbenders as all mixed-race. So when you see the monks, they are all mixed. And it kind of goes with the nomadic culture and the idea that over the years, all nationalities came together.
The Fire Nation was the most complicated. I kept switching who was playing Zuko. It was such a complicated and drawn out thing, about practical matters. But the first person that I was considering casting for Zuko was Ecuadorian. So I started thinking that way. Then when that person couldn't do it, the next person who came in was much more Caucasian. And then we had to switch everything around.
The Earth Nation was always the issue as well, because the second movie is so dominated by that group, and it will represent most of the movie. But it has a small, small part in the first movie. So that was important in thinking about it in the long term. Then Dev [Patel] came into the picture, he was really early on. He had auditioned for me in London. He was a sweet guy, but he did such a great reading...I always go for the actor.
When I was doing Sixth Sense, if you literally read the script he [Cole Sear] has dark, hair black eyes. I always pictured the kid from Searching For Bobby Fisher as the lead for Sixth Sense. And I said, "We are not hiring any blonde LA kids, ok? Don't even bring them in." Then Haley [Joel Osment] came in and I said, "You've got the part." How can you not have him play this part?
That's always been my lean. I have hopes of what I want them to be, my hope was that the movie would be incredibly diverse. That when we look back on all three movies that it is one of the most diverse movies of all times. And that is the case when you watch the movies. And it's not an agenda, like when you see a picture of a kid's school and they have everybody on the swings. It's not like that. This nation has this ethnicity and when we go deep into that culture, we will see more there. Dev ended up being my choice for Zuko, and I looked for an Uncle that could be in that realm, for a moment I thought about Ben Kingsley. But Shaun Toub, I just loved him in Iron Man. I thought this takes us into a Mediterranean kind of Arab and Indian world, and I can go as far as that, that will be the breadth of the Fire Nation, that kind of look.
For me, Nicola [Peltz, who plays Katara] had a lot of Russian qualities, European and Russian qualities. So that was the direction we went there. Whoever I ended up with, I went that was their nationality. Suki was Jessica [Andres] who is a mix of Filipino. And now the Earth Kingdom is all Asian so Toph will have to be Asian. Suddenly I was looking at the board and I thought, this works for me, because everything was represented.
And there's a section of the Earth Kingdom that's African American. Because it's such a big country and land I thought you could have some diversity in there as they travel through the cities. So more so than the show, it will have a much more diverse ethnic backgrounds to it. It's not an agenda for me, but it's something I'm super proud of. That when my kids or any kids look at it they will see themselves.
As someone who's typically created your own stories really, was it difficult, because obviously you're a fan of the show but still, the guy who wrote the Sixth Sense working on this...what was that like?
Liberating. Because I think the problem with being auteurish is that you struggle so much to hold onto your vision. And that's a great thing, and a bad thing right? Because you can't see it from perspective and be able to judge it honestly. Like, maybe I wouldn't be able to have the conversation about the tonality, because I'm so like "It has to be this way." I love the show and I love almost everything in the series. So I know why I would put it in, but I have the perspective to go "by pulling out one line here, it actually makes it more meaningful."
So I think it's been a good thing. I really enjoyed working on the movie which is the main thing — I think you'll feel that. It's not work to me. Analyzing it and getting the balance right and you know, the Miyazaki influence, oh that's the other thing, the Miyazaki influence of the show. Do you guys know who Miyazaki is? Yeah, he's like my God, so... that's it, he's Michael Jordan to me. You know, I met him last year. Luckily for me, he hasn't seen any of my movies.
Shyamalan: And he was just animating and I was like, "Man, this is the greatest." And just that Mike and Bryan were so influenced by Miyazaki, and I'm so influenced by Miyazaki, that's just, trying to get that tonality to reach the American audience that kind of... water doesn't just mean water, it has meaning and something behind it, it's metaphorical. And I think in different cultures, it's easier to accept that.
Like when my movies go around the world, the spirituality in them, it's like Spain? That's it, done. And then other countries and other places, it's much more, "I'm not getting this. What is this?" And the United States and the UK fall into a brother/sister category in that reaction. So I know when I come up with an idea that's more spiritually oriented, that these are the territories I have to be aware of, and think in that way. So in Last Airbender, it's a spiritual movie — there's just no way around it. I mean it's really cool, but it's so meaningful in so many ways. And to make sure that comes through is something that really motivates me. So there's a lot of things that really excite me and make me want to be the guardian angel of the movie, so I feel really protective of it, and so there's a great connective tissue. So the way I feel as a parent to my other movies, I feel here as well.
Special thanks to David Daw and Marc Loos.