M. Night Shyamalan returns to theaters today with The Last Airbender, his live-action adaptation of the beloved Nickelodeon cartoon, about a magic 12-year-old named Aang and his dealings with the evil Fire Lord. Vulture spoke with Shyamalan by phone this morning about making his first epic, the chances of a sequel, and the film's conversion to 3-D. We also discussed the reviews.
This is your biggest-ever movie in terms of scope, budget, effects, and just about everything else. How much more work was it than your other films?
It’s so much more stress. I didn’t realize quite how much a toll this was all going to take. My normal cycle for movies is eighteen months and each part is separate. But with this movie, everything was overlapped. While I’m writing, we’re doing preproduction — looks, locations, costumes, CGI. And then preproduction, the amount of things that had to be decided made it more like production. And of course the production is insane. What would be a 40-day shoot [on a smaller movie] — and I would be out dead at the end of that — is like 75 days of intensity and you’re just overwhelmed. And then when post starts, you have an incredible time clock of pressure to hand over shots. It’s nonstop and it goes on for three years. I think I really underestimated what I would feel like today.
I met Chris Nolan once, and he knew I was doing this, and he just said, “Pace yourself” and it was a sweet thing for him to give me the advice. I fully understand what he’s talking about. I’m surprised Peter Jackson is alive at this point. I don’t know how he did those three [Lord of the Rings] movies and spent seven years like that.
Were you scared of the time commitment required for a franchise with the potential to turn into a trilogy?
I always tell my kid, “You should spend your life mastering something.” It doesn’t matter what it is. I chose film to spend my life learning. There’s something about when every eighteen months it's something different — it’s wonderful in some capacities. But sometimes you want to just study something. Instead of a bachelor's, you want a PhD.
How far into planning the sequels are you?
I wrote the first draft of the second movie, and I was really happy with it. Usually the first drafts I hate, I want to just kill myself, but it came out really strong. That’s as far as I’ve gone. I haven’t really thought about how I would construct the third [movie] too much.
When will we know if a second Airbender movie is happening?
In the next few months we’ll be able to know whether we have that opportunity or not. It should be an awesome moment.
The movie was shot in two dimensions and converted to 3-D later, like Clash of the Titans was. Some have said that it dims the image and doesn't add much to the experience. What would you say to that?
Really, it’s impossible to separate the effect of the CGI and the effect of 3-D in our movie. Every CGI thing is placed at a certain depth in 3-D and has a combination of effects, so when they say the CGI in the movie is amazing, they’re actually talking about a combination of the two. It’s really just got a bad rap for no reason. It makes the movie more immersive and it has to be handled with great delicacy so that it is invisible. A lot of music is invisible and then sometimes it stands on top of the movie and you really feel the emotion of the music. The combination of the CGI, 3-D, and sound effects, it’s just impossible to separate them. It gives you a more immersive experience, and I prefer that.
Airbender's running time is only 104 minutes, which isn't very long considering that it's an adaptation of the twenty-episode first season of the cartoon. Was it hard to pack everything in there?
I'm dying to make a two-hour movie, I just haven’t earned it yet. I’m really tough in cutting and I have a style that creates a certain pace, and a way of writing where I try to get nuances in one scene that help other scenes; it creates a very similar pacing in every movie. Sixth Sense, Unbreakable, Signs, and I believe The Village were all the exact same length. So it’s very bizarre. I guess also when I’m constructing the story in the script form, it must be that there’s just an inherent kind of "I need to be at this place in the story" driving me. So maybe that’s where it’s coming from.
Have you read the reviews for Last Airbender?
No, I haven’t.
Well, are you aware of the reviews?
Well, for the most part, critics have not been kind. Are you just ignoring them? Will you read them this weekend? Have you just not had time?
Are you saying that in general they didn't dig it?
In general, no. Roger Ebert, who liked The Happening, did not. The first line of his review is, "The Last Airbender is an agonizing experience in every category that I can think of and others still waiting to be invented." How do you react to something like that?
I don’t know what to say to that stuff. I bring as much integrity to the table as humanly possible. It must be a language thing, in terms of a particular accent, a storytelling accent. I can only see it this certain way and I don’t know how to think in another language. I think these are exactly the visions that are in my head, so I don’t know how to adjust it without being me. It would be like asking a painter to change to a completely different style. I don’t know.
Critics haven't been kind to your last couple of films. Do you still worry about reviews?
I think of it as an art form. So it’s something I approach as sort of immovable integrity within each of the stages. So if you walk through the process with me, there’s not a moment where I won’t treat with great respect. So it’s sacred to me, the whole process of making a movie. I would hope that some people see that I approach this field with that kind of respect, and that it’s not a job.
Were you trying to please critics with this film? Did you have an audience in mind while you were making it?
For everybody, actually. It’s just a very cool, spiritual, action-y, family film — a family adventure.
Do you know what your next movie will be?
I don’t know right now. I’m still trying to figure it all out, excited about a little bit not knowing. Just seeing how the world lays out for the next couple of years. There'll be a lot of exciting things, I’m sure.