ShowBizCafe: How important was it for you to stay true to the series, furthermore how important was it in casting that it is an Asian cultural creation?
M. Night Shyamalan: Yeah well, the great news is I’m Asian so that worked out really well and I felt excited because this would be different. If someone, you know, Paramount called me and said, “hey would you look at this series called Last Airbender and see if you would be interested,” then I would approach it very differently.
What happened is one of the fans of the show asked to make the movie. I just became obsessed with the show, as everyone in our family was, it was like a cultural thing in our family. And I asked to make it, I begged them to make it, I gave them a million reasons, had a million meetings that this is why we should make it. Nickelodeon, Paramount, Viacom, everything, campaign, and we got to make it. And so I was coming from the fan and then I got to know Mike and Bryn really well and what their limitations were.
They were making for Nickelodeon, for a certain demographic, and they were going for a certain thing; but it was the wrong fit for me. The story was bigger and darker; it was talking about reincarnation and genocide and all kinds of cool stuff that you couldn’t dwell on too much cause it is supposed to be for a six-year old/seven year old to enjoy, and I wanted to bring all those flavors to the forefront. I felt really good about the balance. You know, the people we have shown the movie to, fans of the movie, 100% feel the spirit of the show and the spirit of the movie are identical.
The details are, for me, to make the grounded realistic version of the movie. So I felt like I can’t, with the exception of on thing which we can talk about, I really went through it methodically, made everything grounded for me. And so I cant say Ang, I am going to say Aang; that is going to be symbolically what the difference is between the movie and the show, that the Asian pronunciation of Aang, you know, it’s not Ang Lee. And that is ok when you, it’s not even ok; but lets say it’s acceptable if it was for a particular medium, but it’s not acceptable for me to do it, it’s just not acceptable… That all the way across grounded everything, you know, everything for me.
A mythology, like the Fire Nation, I wanted to have the same limitations as everyone else and they were limited by their source, but at the highest, highest level you could turn your chi into fire. Iroh can do it and like when the comet comes they will all do it for that day, and that’s the day you don’t want to be anywhere near a firebender. Like that was a really cool tweak to the mythology. I made slight choices, changes like that, but generally it was exactly the same.
There are some practical ones, like in the end of the first movie they had a giant. Ang became a giant, I don’t know if you have seen the show, he becomes a giant water fish and stands up. That’s a direct pull from Princess Mononoke, the Miyazaki movie, it is directly pulled; so I can’t then put it into a movie that was pulled from a movie to put it in a cartoon. Those are some practical issues. They were very inspired by movies, and I had to make it a new original movie.
And also physically… I am getting of tangent… Ok we will go to casting…
The casting of the movie was a really wonderful opportunity for me to make a world of nationalities that I was excited about and diverse. It’s one of the great assets of the movie and the subject matter, that it is barring from all cultures: Indian, Thai, Japanese, anything you know. Every single culture was barrowed from in the backgrounds of this show so I was really excited by it.
I think that there is this small group that is vocal here about the fact that I didn’t cast the correct Asians in it, and, five to seven thousand people are very very vocal. Here is the thing; Anime is an art form based on ambiguous facial features. It’s part of the art form. You got a problem with that, talk to the dudes who invented Anime, it’s not my issue, ok. That girl looks like my daughter. That boy looks like Noah. There is no intuit that looks like Katara. It’s just not true; she looks like my daughter. My daughter is a dupe of Katara, right. So our family saw ourselves in it, so another, a Hispanic family saw themselves in it. My daughter’s best friend is Hispanic, she saw, their whole family thinks, and they are all Hispanic, and that is true and that is the beauty of Anime. We all see ourselves as incredibly ambiguous and wonderful. I wanted to be diverse I wanted to be more diverse so I had to deal with the cultures that came in. This wasn’t an agenda for me it is just very open to me.
Dev was really the kind of crux, who was going to be Zuko was the issue and there were a lot of people that were the finalists. There is this kid in London who tried out and I was like this goofy kid he killed this audition and I was like but there is no way I can cast this guy and I was like could I? Then suddenly Slumdog came out and I was like man; I called Paramount and I was like is this crazy but this kid should play this prince that is completely too sweet and too soft for his dad who thinks he should be ruthless and is a totally different way to go but I would love it. We had him come in and I was like this is the guy and so that decided the Fire Nation for me. I thought it was Mediterranean, Indian, Persian and I was lucky enough to find Shaun Toub, who I loved from Iron Man, to play my favorite character, Uncle Iroh, who is like the sage of the part, so that was that.
So Noah came in, and for me Noah, I didn’t know Noah’s background, felt mixed. I never met his Dad and I saw his mom and I thought he was mixed, so I made all the Air Nomads mixed. So everyone is, no one isn’t mixed in the monks; Gyatso is African American and Spanish, and everybody is mixed and that made sense as Nomads. So that is how that country went, and that nation went.
And then Jessica, who is cut from the movie, auditioned and became Suki, who was the big character in the movie for the Kyoshi warriors, who were big characters. Super sad, this was the character that I had to cut last minute. The Earth Kingdom, which is the largest kingdom, became for me the broadest. I mean a lot of it got cut down because the Earth Kingdom part got cut down, cause the second movie is all based on the Earth Kingdom. But there is a Mongolian town and a Korean town and then I made a whole area of the Earth Kingdom, and it is huge, an African American town, that they actually came to. There was a whole sequence there that got cut.
That became the three nations there and then Nicola came in and so I said well the Water Tribe is going to be the Anglo-European look, I just don’t want blond people, sorry about that, in the movie. It just pulls me for some reason and so only they aren’t represented in the movie.
It moved around then finally it came to this world; and I said that’s going to work well, cause the second movie is entirely in the Earth Kingdom and the third movie is entirely in the Fire Nation and I think when we are done these three movies will be, without even a second place, the most culturally diverse movies ever made by Hollywood. And so the irony, for me, is if you look at me and say I am a problem, that I am the poster child for Racism in Hollywood, you look at the movie poster and you have Noah and Dev on the movie poster back to back and my name over it and this is your issue with the state of Hollywood I am saddened by it.
ShowBizCafe: You have had this increasing criticism amongst the critics over the last several years, you are known as a recognized filmmaker, a very exceptional filmmaker, but over the years criticism had increased; do you feel like another filmmaker in your position wouldn’t have gotten as much criticism?
M Night Shyamalan: No, I think they would have. I mean it’s a compliment when everybody is up my ass all the time, it really is. You gotta look at it as if they dismissed you, they weren’t paying attention. They are either trying to dissect you to show you why you aren’t that great, which is a wonderful thing for them to try to do for my entire life. My job is to just keep making movies, and it will go away or I will prove them right or wrong, right? And so time will tell, and so I am fine with that. In the end your critics are your hard teachers. You want them to tell you you are no good because of this and this, even if they secretly believe the opposite. It’s good to be tough on yourself.
ShowBizCafe: How big of a decision was it to do something like this, because after your last film, you were so overexposed, this one is not exactly an Indie film; did you give any thought to doing something smaller, so that maybe there was less pressure, less focus on you?
Dev Patel: Yeah, I mean that is what I wanted to do. I see myself as a, especially after Slumdog, I just love the feel of the shoot of a baby film, of an Idie film. There is so much heart involved and you feel so much more connected to the character, you know, there is no other, it is just you and you have got a lot more say in the process. But what I was getting offered wasn’t satisfactory, wasn’t stretching me, and … yeah, it was a dead patch and then this came along and I was like he is called Zuko. And Andrew Lesnie, the cinematographer from Lord of the Rings is shooting it, M. Night Shyamalan is directing, Frank Marshall is producing, you’d be stupid not to want to be a part of it. It just moved away from the whole, you know; for someone that looks like me it’s a lot easier to get typecast so I have to be a lot more careful about falling into that trap and not being able to get out again. So I have really, and it is a responsibility as well, I have been given a great platform from Slumdog to open doors for actors like me. So I try my best, there is a certain point where you have to be like you can’t just bat away everything, you need to get in front of a camera and just get working because you want to be in front of a camera because you are an actor.
ShowBizCafe: Night is very much known for a specific kind of storytelling, were you confident from the beginning that he would be able to handle a huge production like this and an adaptation?
Dev Patel: Yeah, Yeah, Yeah. I mean the way he spoke of it was um… you know, when you are using your imagination a lot you need a director that is going to be a great storyteller and put you in that place and in that moment, and he really did that. He actually did that physically as well. I mean you actually go and see the sets we didn’t have to imagine too much. I think he built one of the biggest sets on the east coast; and your walking in there and you feel like you are in an Ice Palace or something and then obviously to Greenland, which was freezing.
ShowBizCafe: Talking about the bigger arc of the character, did you lay some of the seeds for that in this performance?
Dev Patel: Um, yes and no. I mean everyone says have you seen the entire series, and I have only seen the first season, and I got a bit tempted so I have seen a few more episodes here and there; but, um, I want to stay as innocent as possible and unclouded, untainted by any of what the character goes through in the cartoon so that when I am shooting I am just in that moment. And it is kind of hard because you are going to read the whole script and then do it, but it really does help to a certain extent. You know when you watch cartoons, it’s like he has got this… it is a lot more black and white in the cartoon. He is a lot more erratic and angry all the time and him and his uncle are constantly bickering and he is like, “Shut Up Uncle. Go away. I can do this.” And when you watch it and you know that you are going to do a live action film you know that you have to make this human and you need to bring some sort of a sense of depthiness to the character, grittiness. So I remember thinking what would make me special in this character that no other guy can do, and I remember thinking about it and I was like imagine if I was a boy with so much pressure on my shoulders, you know, I am the Prince of a nation and I have been banished by my father, all I want to do is just get his love back and it just sends me into this mine of confusion because I know this mission he is sending me on is wrong, it’s quite, it’s morally wrong to capture this boy when I know, in subconsciously, he is doing something good. And so that, I play this whole other sense of vulnerability to the character, whereas lots of fans of the cartoon think he is so badass, and you see a bit of that when he fights. I tried to find this sort of confusion and vulnerability in him.