The pressure is on this weekend for M. Night Shyamalan and the cast of The Last Airbender not just because they're hoping the film is a financial success, but because they're eager to please the longtime fans of the show, hope to attract crowds unfamiliar with the source material, have become engrossed in their characters and are hoping to make two more films. Factor in the $150 million production budget and the $130 million spent on marketing and a little anxiety at this point is understandable, so it's a good thing Shyamalan and his stars, Dev Patel, Nicola Peltz and Jackson Rathbone are in particularly high spirits.
All four participated in a series of roundtables during which the gang was eager to fawn over the subject matter, each other and the final product. The film was adapted from the popular Nickelodeon animated series and focuses on a young boy named Aang (Noah Ringer), a member of the Air Nomads and the one believed to be the Avatar, the only person capable of manipulating all four elements. Peltz's character, Katara, is a water bender and with her older brother Sokka (Rathbone) by her side, accompanies Aang on his journey to protect the Water Tribes and Earth Kingdom from the oppressive Fire Nation. That's where Patel comes in. He plays Prince Zuko, the son of Fire Lord Ozai (Cliff Curtis), who was banished by his father and only permitted to return if he captures the Avatar.
And that's just the least of it. The Last Airbender is packed with back story, character development, action sequences, unusual animals and a whole lot of element bending. Like the film, the director and cast members were bursting at the seams with information about the project. So, like Shyamalan's effort to include the most pivotal parts of the television show in his film, I'm going to bring you the best of the interviews in a format that permits you to soak in all of the details in as organized a fashion as possible.
For fans of the show ...
When it comes to adapting a television show, particularly one with such a massive fan base, you're going to have the diehards who are desperate to see their favorite program practically mirrored on the big screen. When you consider that season one consists of about eight hours of material, cramming all that into a 103-minute film is impossible and Patel is well aware of it. "Lots of fans are really demanding. They want a photocopy on to screen from cartoon to live action and it's never going to work like that," explained Patel. "We need to whittle things down and give it a direction, a single story with just a few branches coming out of it." "Basically the last two episodes of the first season were like a whole season. They slammed everything," said Shyamalan. "They have every back story and every single thing you can think of in them and even in our third act there's a ton jammed in there. It's as much as an audience can take in those 30 minutes."
The time restriction meant some pieces had to go and while the trimming was necessary, some are holding onto the possibility that they can be revisited in subsequent films. Rathbone revealed, "I do miss a lot of the slapstick comedy." He continued, "It's one of those elements to the character that I really loved and I did showcase a lot during the audition process, but once we started getting the meetings going, once the script was really finalized it was what serves best the story is the be all end all, especially setting up the first film." Another element of Sokka's story that can feel as though it's been cut short is his relationship with Yue, the princess of the Northern Water Tribe (Seychelle Gabriel). However, Rathbone explained that's actually how their relationship plays out in the show, "There's no courting scene, if you will. It's not like there's a time where it's like, 'And then they go on a date ...'" Rathbone even got a little sentimental to prove his point, "In life, sometimes you meet somebody and there's a spark and there's just something in someone's eyes that you see that you just really identify with."
For those searching for something family friendly ...
Yes this is a Nickelodeon show we're talking about here, but that doesn't mean Airbender can't appeal to the little ones as well as their parents, older siblings or anyone for that matter. "The most important thing in this film is friendships and family," Patel said and that's something anyone of any age can relate to. Coincidentally, this is a concept that affects Patel's character more than anyone. Rathbone explained, "[Zuko's] fighting for his honor and the heart of the film is family, he's fighting to get back to his family." Patel added, "He has this uncle with him that's forever his Yoda character, his shining light and there is hope for these characters because they have support."
Sokka and Katara find themselves in a far less volatile relationship. "We adopt Aang, if you will, into our family and give him a family because everyone he knows is dead," said Rathbone. As Patel explained, "He's on this impossible mission, but through the help of Katara and Sokka who actually believe in him, he's going to hopefully fulfill his destiny as the Avatar."
With so many familial values to be conveyed, Shyamalan found that he actually had to contain his fatherly instincts to properly assemble the story especially when it came to making the material appealing to moviegoers of all ages. "I have found as a father, as a parent, you can get overwhelmed by that emotion and you lose your way a little bit." He continued, "[My kids] brought me to the show but then I became a fan of the show and then I could put the kids aside and say, 'Alright, I think we can make this into a movie, but there's a lot of issues and these are the issues and this is how I'm going to feel comfortable doing it.' So I was able to disassociate a little bit from that personal part of it."
Even with that disconnect, Shyamalan always sought his kids' approval. "The first time I showed it to them was with green screen only and they didn't know what the hell they were looking at," he recalled. "The next time they saw it was with CGI, but not much sound effects and that was the first time they were like, 'Oh my god, this is the greatest thing.' And then we showed it to them at Skywalker with the finished score and sound effects and they literally were – they couldn't move out of their seat when it was done. They were like, 'This is the greatest movie of all time!'"
For the Night watchers ...
His children and the Airbender fans are one thing, but Shyamalan also has a massive fan base of his own to deal with and there's no denying that he's let a lot of them down in recent years. On the other hand, there's also no denying that Shyamalan has delivered a handful of fantastically inventive pieces, which is part of the reason he's attracted talent like Rathbone and Patel. "One of the reasons I've admired Night's work is he's kind of like an old school, cinema style that isn't American-centric," Rathbone said. Of one moment in the film consisting of a single four-minute long shot Rathbone explained, "One of the reasons I loved it is because you keep your attention on it and a lot of modern action films you see cut, cut, cut, cut and I feel like I'm going to have an epileptic seizure just by watching it." He added, "I like that old school sensibility because it allows the audience to fill in the cracks at certain points and also just be right there, like you're moving with the camera."
Patel had a more playful attitude about working with Shyamalan, "Best thing about him is he's got a wicked sense of humor and you can have a good joke with him." On a more serious note he added, "I was just as nervous as Noah and everyone else." Peltz appreciated Shyamalan's guidance and tolerance particularly when it came to working with green screen, "When we would sit on [Appa's] saddle he would explain to us or talk us through, 'Okay, well, this is what you're seeing then you're going to wave to these people.'" Even more helpful than Shyamalan himself? His iPhone. Peltz explained, "On his iPhone he had all these storyboards and all this stuff drawn out which really helped."
As for the man behind the lens himself, he's just trying to approach this film the same way he'd approach any project. "I design the shots, I'm old school, I don't believe in making the movie in the editing room. You make the movie in your head and you shoot that movie and that's the way the old school guys used to do it. I believe in long takes, I believe in performance based movies." He added, "The director's job is to create tone, atmosphere and attention to detail and I realize that technology is just tools. In this case, CGI and 3D are just two more tools." He may say those elements are just two more tools, but it was those tools that helped him move from darker, twist-packed thrillers to a family-friendly blockbuster. "Those two tools allowed me to do another genre, but I did bring exactly the same aesthetics to the table."
For those looking for a laugh ...
Shyamalan and his stars were all business when it came to making this film the best it could be, but that doesn't mean the gang didn't have some funny stories to share. Casting for the role of Aang was approached in an unconventional manner. Some professional actors were considered, but online applicants were also in the running. Shyamalan joked, "It was one of those like, 'Hey, I've got a great idea. How about we do this?'" Similar to American Idol and other widespread searchea, "Some of them are just freaks." However, Shyamalan did end up with about 100 reasonable options and while sorting through them, stopped on a few, one of which was Noah Ringer. "I was like, 'it's only this kid in the basement that really is anything.'" With a hint of sarcasm he continued, "He shaved his head, I'm rolling my eyes and he's wearing this robe and the costume – anytime actors come in in costume I roll my eyes like, 'Why don't you try acting? How about that?' The funny thing is I cast two people who came in in costume! Nicola came in too!" He remembered, "She came in in, I always call it a bathrobe, but it wasn't a bathrobe, she came in in like a kimono kind of thing and I was like, 'Aw, that's sweet.'" Shyamalan was ready to skip her entirely and move on when "she started speaking and I was like, 'Wow.'" He added, "Maybe costumes do work. I don't know!"
The main source of comedy during the interviews was certainly Patel. He was packed with amusing stories the best of which you can find in the gaming section. If you've seen images of his character Zuko, you know his hair sticks up far taller than Patel's natural locks, which means he had a massive amount of product in his fair. Prince of the Fire Nation and hair gel? Not a good combination. "That fire around my feet was actually there," he recalled. "The worst was my hair gel, I kept on getting worried because there's so much hair gel to get this thing to poof out like that and I was like, 'If my eyebrows get caught I'm gone.'"
Patel held on to his eyebrows, but he still ended up with a nasty scar. No, not because of an on set accident, because his character is struck by his father. Patel could rub the marking away at the end of the day, but one of Shyamalan's daughters wasn't aware of that. "Every time she saw me in my scar I'd make her cry." Perhaps she would have taken a liking to Patel if she'd seen him hanging out with Peltz's little Chihuahua more often. "People would be taking pictures of me in [the] Zuko outfit with all the scars and the sword and I had this little Chihuahua in my hand."
For the gamers ...
Nowadays a big budget action film always comes with a videogame accompaniment. Rathbone admitted, "I'm not a gamer," but Peltz was eager to chime in on the subject, "I am very excited and I cannot wait to play!" She remembered asking one of her younger brothers, "Will you play Katara in the videogame?" As a very honest kid, she explained he had no problem admitting, "No. I want to play Aang." After a little pleading he came up with a compromise, "Well, maybe if it's your birthday I'll play you."
Patel had a naughtier tale to tell about his making-of-the-game experience. "I was in the booth for like six hours doing grunting sounds," he began. "I was in the booth and like five hours into it – and they have a live connection to California and all the execs that are involved in this, Nickelodeon – and all I'm doing is [grunting and yelling] and they're like, 'More,' and I'm like [louder noises] and then I let out this little fart like midway." He continued, "Okay, this is awful. And then the worst thing was everyone just started laughing and I could hear everyone in different countries in the room through the speakers and I was like, 'No!' And then they played it back to me." When asked if the sound effect made it into the game, Patel said with a smile, "It better not."
For the Twihards ...
I know this is an article about Airbender, but we're in the days of Twilight and considering this film has a vampire on its roster and is hitting theaters the same weekend as the franchise's third installment, Eclipse, there's no getting around its inclusion. Tying the two projects together even more closely for Rathbone who plays Jasper Hale in the Saga, is that he had to bounce from Twilight to Airbender and back again when shooting. "It was interesting going from a 200-year-old vampire to 17-year-old young rebel leader warrior. [Laughs]" He explained, "It was nice I just felt bad [leaving]. This one [points to Peltz] was pretty mad at me." With a mix of humor and seriousness she recalled, "He just left for three weeks and didn't even say bye and then when he came back he was like, 'Aren't you happy to see me?' I was like, 'Don't talk to me.'"
With Peltz's grudge a thing of the past, so is the production process and now both films are hitting theaters. Rathbone said, "It is kind of a trip. I've got to say, it's surreal." He continued, "It's definitely a far cry from when I was 18 and begging for work and I was playing on Venice Beach Boulevard with my guitar and tambourine and harmonica," and tossed in, "It's definitely different, but it's a dream come true."
For those interested in checking out the action, The Last Airbender hits theaters on July 1st.