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Based on a hit animated series which began in 2005, “The Last Airbender” is wildly successful director M. Night Shyamalan’s first foray into epic fantasy-adventure, as well as his first adapted screenplay taken from other material. It tells of a world where the oppressive fire nation, who can wield the element of fire, are waging war against those who can command the other elements of air, earth, and water. Before they can dominate the planet, someone only spoken of as legend appears… the Avatar, a boy prophesized to master ALL FOUR elements and unite the peoples of the world. Joined by several other young friends, he goes on a journey to bring hope and master his powers. The film, which can be described as a wild cross between the magical mythmaking of “Lord of the Rings” and the Dalai Llama biography “Kundun”, is filled with special effects and martial arts, as well as a hero bent on maintaining his pacifist principles even while conquering his enemies.

We sat down with the director of such hits as “The Sixth Sense” and “Signs” to discuss his own epic journey in bringing a pop culture phenomenon to life on the big screen.

What was the challenge of writing an adaptation of something so popular?

SHYAMALAN: The good news is it was a little bit rigged because it’s a property that’s genetically engineered for me. It’s about Hindu things and Buddhist philosophies and empowerment of kids, the supernatural in the form of manipulation of elements, connection of man and nature, martial arts, which I’ve studied forever and I love… total martial arts freak, “Enter the Dragon” is my favorite movie… I’m a Shakespeare nut as well, the whole backstory with Zuko and his family, usurping the crown, betrayals, banishments… everything about it was my interests! If you worked in basketball you would have had all my interests in one movie! (laughs)

A lot of your movies are small, but this one is friggin’ HUGE! Were you freaking out when you were in Greenland at the scope of it all?

SHYAMALAN: Greenland we prepped really well. I didn’t feel it there. I felt it when we were doing the battle with the Northern Water Tribe and we had thousands of extras on this gigantic set I just lost it. (laughs) I didn’t know what I was doing for a week.

You had Andrew Lesnie, who shot “Lord of the Rings” as your director of photography. Did he help acclimate you into this style of massive special effects blockbuster?

SHYAMALAN: Absolutely. He has more information than anybody on this planet on how to make one of these movies. What you need, what you don’t need. He comes with a confidence. You make your life whatever signs you want it to have, serendipity, and he literally was in my backyard. I was writing, they’re like, “You know they’re shooting ‘Lovely Bones’ down the street?” I was like, “Andrew Lesnie’s down the street? Let’s go, right now!” So I got in the car, drove down the street, and I was like, “Hey Peter whatever,” Then I was like, “HEY ANDREW! WHAT’S UP? Hey let’s talk, when’s your break?” We sat down, I was like, “I’m making this movie,” and he was like, “Oh, I dunno, I don’t know if I wanna make another ‘Lord of the Rings’, I kinda did that, I don’t wanna be stuck there.” I was like, “Yeah, I understand that, but anyway… are you gonna do it?” (laughs) I was like, “Dude, you’re in my backyard, this has gotta mean something, you can literally see my place from right here!” We sat on my porch that day and then he called me after they finished “Lovely Bones” and said he’d read it. I sent it to him and luckily he said ‘yes’.

Was there anything from your childhood that led to a fascination with these themes?

SHYAMALAN: “Star Wars” is, like, it, man. There’s no “Star Wars” I’m an unhappy intern at some hospital, being angry and bitter. (laughs) 7-Years-Old. Getting in the station wagon. I sat in the front seat, you didn’t have to wear a seatbelt back then. You could sit in the front seat, the dashboard ready to smash into your head. I can remember feeling the moment in the car, and I could tell my parents didn’t have that feeling. I’m holding it, and my sister’s like, “Can we put on the radio?” I’m like, “Shhhhh! Don’t put on the radio. Just everyone quiet!” Trying to hold onto this moment, she’s like, “You’re so weird.” (laughs) That whole thing, my older sister. To try to tell a story with those mythologies, dreams and hopes. We finished the movie at Skywalker, and it was quite a beautiful thing to do.

Can you talk about your decision to cast mostly unknowns?

SHYAMALAN: That was definitely an agenda, again, from the “Star Wars” model. If it was Robert Redford as Luke Skywalker that would have been a whole different thing, for me. I believed Mark Hammil was Luke Skywalker, I believed those people were who they were enough to let go. I wanted that for our movie. In fact, I wanted to go so far. I told the studio, “How about we never show the cast, we never use them, nobody sees them, never let them do any interviews, only let the movie open by itself so everyone thinks they’re the real characters.” The studio said, “That’s a great idea… no, we’re not going to do that.” (laughs) The harder part is there’s a pre-existing color I’m trying to hit, like the heart of Katara. I’m trying to find a person that has this particular heart. Whereas when I’m writing an original I’m willing to amend the heart of the person with an actor I find and create a third entity. With this one I had specific targets, find people that had THIS heart. I didn’t want to feel like I compromised, I didn’t care about anything else but that they matched that. I was glad to find those people.

Tell us about the logistics of trying to film on a real glacier?

SHYAMALAN: It’s crazy. They gather the crew and the cast. They give the safety briefing, “you can’t do this, subzero things.” Listing all these things that can go wrong. “We have tents on the glaciers in the event of a helicopter that can’t start or if there’s a storm and you’re stranded there, you’ll be fine for three days.” What’d he say? “Be careful when you’re getting out of the helicopters, you can’t stand up, you gotta bend over, don’t touch any of the instrument panels. We had an incident a couple years ago where a dude got out too quickly, his camera touched a handle…” Then, straight out of “Jaws” you hear this voice, “And he’s still down there…” Everyone parts and you see this grizzled guy sitting there, “His body’s still down there.” The kids are all looking at each other like, “What?” That was our first day of shooting.

Special thanks to  Paramount Pictures for the interview.

“The Last Airbender” is now playing in theaters everywhere.

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