After The Sixth Sense, he was hailed as the next Spielberg, but M. Night Shyamalan hasn’t gotten anywhere near critical acclaim since. Paul Byrne counsels the director of The Last Airbender.
The one thing Manoj Neilliyattu Shyamalan ain’t lacking in is confidence.
Despite the fact that pretty much every movie he’s made since his 1996 breakthrough with The Sixth Sense has been laughed off the screen, the man clearly reckons he’s merely a misunderstood genius. His films say otherwise.
From Unbreakable and Signs to The Village, Lady In The Water and The Happening, as M. Night Shyamalan’s plots became ever more ridiculous, the critics, the studios and cinema-goers became less and less enamoured. To the point now that the man once hailed by Newsweek magazine as the next Steven Spielberg has been reduced to being a mere director-for-hire on the big-screen adaptation of a Nickelodeon cartoon series. And it’s a doozy but that didn’t stop it from hitting the no.1 spot though, thanks, no doubt, to all those dedicated Nickelodeon kids, and to the adults who found themselves hooked on the manga-lite madness that originally ran on TV from 2005 to 2008.
Making the $100m mark after ten days on release means that Shyamalan will no doubt be going ahead with at least the second part of his planned trilogy. So, you know, thanks, kids.
PAUL BYRNE: For any filmmaker, taking on someone else’s much-loved creation can be difficult. Determined her to make The Last Airbender your own?
M. NIGHT SHYAMALAN: Yeah, I see it in a very clear way. I don’t think people think of me in movies as a hired gun. They’re going to get a very specific tonality. I, for sure, think of myself as an independent filmmaker. I know I don’t make independent films, but in the approach I feel much more akin to Woody Allen and Spike Lee than someone making more broader movies. I see things this way.
This came to your attention when your daughter wanted to dress up as Katara, one of the main characters, for Halloween, and you then went back and looked at the 61 episodes of the original TV series. What was it that grabbed you?
It was almost everything about it. The only thing that didn’t grab me about it was the very young tonality; it was inherently for little kids. What was really interesting about the TV show is that it seemed like it was a misplaced show on that network. It started having a kind of cult following on the internet, and again, they had older guys, and people who never watched that network were starting to get involved in it. And what they thought they were making wasn’t what they got, and it just evolved into this cooler, Asian martial arts, Shakespearean story that they were like, ‘Huh, we’re used to kinda having Dora The Explorer on here’. And so I came and I said, ‘I don’t think it one-hundred percent fits your network, but I think it will be a slamdunk, epic family movie’.
I know the creators, Mike DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko, were happy to have you write, direct and produce this adaptation, but there were some hardcore fans, and some critics, who clearly weren’t so happy. A case of keeping your blinkers on?
Yeah. Most of them, as is so often the case, it’s all before the movie comes out that they get all lathered up, and every issue comes out. Then, basically, when they see it, all that disappears. Those issues just went ‘whish’, and were never brought up again. Like, even in interviews, you’re the first person to ask me about it in four hundred interviews, because it’s an old thing that happened, and it hasn’t happened since. It’s ironic, because it’s the most culturally diverse movie that I’ve ever seen, and when we’ve done all three, they’ll be a landscape of nationalities that… there isn’t even a second place. This isn’t like, ‘Oh, one of the Jedis is black’. This is intended to be every nationality of every kind in the movie. And that’s the point.
It’s just not going to stick, those kind of things. I was really frustrated a little, because I thought it would be something they would be psyched about – you know, the different nationalities that were represented in the movie – so, it’s good.
And what about the critics – they rarely give you a break. Water off a duck’s back?
It’s an interesting thing – I’m a bit like someone who has a baby and then they forget the pain. ‘Oh, let’s have another baby’. And then, during the birth, I’m like, ‘God, this hurts!’. It’s a little bit like that with everyone of my movies that open. My first movie, at 21, was savaged. My next movie, at 23, was savaged. And then The Sixth Sense, not so much savaged but definitely not good reviews. And I remember thinking, is this ever going to end? It’s never going to end. I think only time will take care of this.
I can’t say it’s water off my back, but it’s something I’m accepting. The really happy thing for me is that, worldwide, that’s not the case at all. It’s the reverse. Even in America, if I walk down the street, they think I’ve been nominated, like, seven times. They think that. They think The Village was universally praised, and Unbreakable was universally praised, and I think that’s good. The artistry wins the day, over time. I’d rather have a strong shelf life.
Words – Paul Byrne
The Last Airbender hits Irish cinemas August 13th