M. Night Shyamalan's future is riding on the success of 'The Last Airbender'

Ringer (left) stars with Nicola Peltz (center) and Jackson Rathbone.
Ringer (left) stars with Nicola Peltz (center) and Jackson Rathbone.
Posted: July 02, 2010

M. NIGHT Shyamalan has no idea what he's doing.

Next, that is.

Oh, he still has a wealth of ideas, and a slew of potential projects, but everything is up in the air, as Shyamalan and the rest of the movie world await the box office results for his new epic, "The Last Airbender."

The $150 million story of a young martial artist destined, perhaps, to save the world is envisioned as the first part of a trilogy, and if it scores - against the intimidating competition of "Toy Story 3" and "The Twilight Saga: Eclipse" - the big-budget franchise will go forward almost immediately.

Right now, there are no guarantees.

"A trilogy, that's the intention, and the hope, but it has to do well. So we have to wait and see. I have to get the call that says, go ahead and do it," said Shyamalan.

He's waiting anxiously, because he also has one of his famous Shyamalan-ish thrillers in the works - he's been shopping another hot script around Hollywood, with the usual air of secrecy and showmanship (his personal assistant witnesses each reading, and retrieves the script immediately). Bradley Cooper, Bruce Willis and Gwyneth Paltrow have expressed interest, although Cooper is probably out.

" 'Hangover 2,' " lamented Shyamalan. "I don't think Bradley can do it because of that."

Cooper is from Abington, Willis from South Jersey and Paltrow has extended family ties to the area. Is the Chesco-based Shyamalan up to something?

"It does sound like regional theater. But that's all coincidence. Bradley is a Philly boy, we see each other a lot, and we've become friends, and obviously I've worked with Bruce a lot. But Gwyneth, she's just a great actress, that's why I'd be interested."

His ideal scenario would be to sandwich a thriller between each of the "Airbender" sequels, but nothing can be scheduled until the "Airbender" drama plays itself out.

"Right now, to be honest, I'm just really tired. I'm excited to see how the movie does, but it's been a huge project, and I'm really tired," he said.

The movie was tough to make (shot in part in Greenland), and has been tough to promote. Shyamalan admits to feeling blindsided by some of the criticism that's come his way from Asians, who see the lead character in "Airbender" (based on a Nickelodeon anime-influenced cartoon) as Asian and object to the casting of Texan Noah Ringer.

Shyamalan sees the TV show as being set in a nonspecific realm of imagination, and though the culture of Aang, the title character, is clearly drawn from Tibetan Buddhism, his anime-inspired features are racially ambiguous. And Shyamalan didn't go looking for a kid like Ringer. Ringer found him.

"Noah is a talented martial artist, very talented, who posted a video of himself on the Paramount Web site. That's where I saw him. And I was astonished, because he looks exactly like Aang. Exactly. That's why I cast him," he said.

The criticism stings Shyamalan, an Indian-American who fell in love with the series (turned on to it by his daughter) because of its relatively sophisticated interest in Buddhism.

"The word 'avatar' is a Sikh word, and the Buddhist themes were very personal to me, very close to me. And we worked very hard to make this the most racially diverse movie we could," he said.

Part two would take place in a part of the "Airbender" world that requires Korean, Chinese and Japanese actors, and Shyamalan already anticipates I-told-you-so's from his critics.

"That was always part of the plan, and it's part of what makes this so frustrating," he said.

The 3-D special effects epic "Airbender" was a huge change for Shyamalan, used to working on intimate sets with smaller casts. But it flows from his innate desire to tell stories, all kinds, in as many ways as he can.

"I want to be Agatha Christie," he said. "I want there to be a huge bunch of stories that come out of my head, as different as they can be, and at the end of the day produce a body of work that feels of one piece."

|
|
|
|
|