M. Night Shyamalan Shines On Bright
by Una Lamarche
photographs by jennifer s. altman
“I was reading about The Godfather,” he begins, invoking what many consider to be the greatest fi lm trilogy (well... excepting part three) ever made. “And about what [Francis Ford] Coppola went through [adapting] a best seller. The Godfather is my favorite movie, and I thought it would be a good experience for me as an artist to make a film that didn’t come directly from my own head.” He has always wanted to do a story told over more than one movie, he says, but “not a sequel. The Lord of the Rings movies aren’t sequels—that’s one story.” Shyamalan knew that he wouldn’t be able to create an original story of that magnitude unless he took years off to write it (and the fact that he barely has time even to use the bathroom these days doesn’t bode well for the kind of concentration required for such an endeavor). “It didn’t seem realistic to me to drop off the map and do that,” he concedes. “But I was looking for it. I was looking for a Harry Potter or a Star Wars in the back of my mind.”
Enter The Last Airbender, the creation of Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko, who also executive-produced the Nickelodeon series. The tale, set in an Asian-inspired universe in which the Air and Fire nations are at war, follows a boy named Aang (the last “Airbender” and last surviving member of his mystical tribe, the Air Nomads), who must fi ght and defeat the Fire Lord. While he took creative liberties, Shyamalan shared the script with DiMartino and Konietzko at various stages in the writing process, welcoming their feedback. “When we got to the fi nal version, they loved it,” he says. “So that was a great endorsement.” Other, perhaps less fawning, endorsements came from Shyamalan’s children. “I would say, ‘I’m thinking of changing this,’” he remembers, “and if they started screaming, I would know that it probably wasn’t the best idea.” While he is confi dent that fans of the series will love the film, Shyamalan was insistent on making the story his own. “The show exists and it had its time,” he explains. “On Nickelodeon [the creators] were working under certain parameters. I don’t have those limitations.” The result, in his words, is the “edgiest, coolest, most philosophical” version of the story that he could conceive.
In addition to being something of a maiden voyage for the director, The Last Airbender marks the cinematic debut of 12-year-old Noah Ringer, a total unknown whom Shyamalan tapped to play Aang. (The movie also stars Dev Patel of Slumdog Millionaire.) “The character [of Aang] is a sweet, innocent, martial arts monk kid,” Shyamalan says. “And that’s who we found! We found a home-schooled martial arts expert—he’s the equivalent of a modern-day monk. It’s unbelievable. He is literally the cartoon.” As for Ringer’s acting chops, the director says he was a natural. “This kid was so in tune,” he raves. “He’d never acted before, so this was like going from scratch. By the end of the movie, he was really doing some wonderful things.”
The Last Airbender filmed in Greenland as well as at various locations in Pennsylvania, largely in Reading and Ontelaunee Township. Shyamalan has a vast production studio in Berwyn and has shot parts of every film he’s made (apart from Praying With Anger) in the Philadelphia area. This allows him to stay close to his family while working, but it’s clear that he’s also committed to bringing industry and revenue to his hometown. “I think we could turn Philadelphia into the other fi lm capital of the United States, next to Los Angeles,” he says. “With our versatility of locations and our seasons, we can accommodate almost anything. I would love it if one day you came down Broad Street and there were just studios up and down the block and people were shooting multiple movies. People would move to Philly to be in the film industry; that’s where you would want to get to. I hope that’s going to start happening in the next five to 10 years.”