Although this is an old news, it still is essential I think to be aware of the true story behind the failure of Paramount Pictures’ The Last Airbender (2010) directed by M. Night Shyamalan. The writer/director/producer does not need any introduction here. The filmmaker, his filmography, since the blockbuster success of The Sixth Sense (1999) and moving on with few more riveting titles for Disney made the respective studio over $3 billion. However, the filmmaker’s writing and directorial prowess are still being questioned.
M.Night Shyamalan is an original thinker. His oeuvre speaks for itself; he is a filmmaker, who isn’t simply fond of making the same film twice. As a screenwriter, I still look up to him and will continue to do so, for his writing (The Sixth Sense and Unbreakable) truly moved me. They opened the door between my mind and heart that screenwriting can be done by myself as well. However, his decision (an important one for him) to make The Last Airbender based on the hit Nickelodeon series was a mistake. I still haven’t seen the respective show, though for Shyamalan, an original storyteller, to tackle a hit series that’s not at all based on his ideas was the factor I was afraid of.
When the film was completed and later converted to 3D, also one of the biggest errors, it released to be only loathed by the fans and critics. I remember reading eight to ten reviews the same day all bashing the filmmaker. Today, it has been almost six years since its release, and whenever someone brings the subject of The Last Airbender it is Shyamalan to blame. Yesterday, a piece by GeekTyrant attacked the filmmaker, whom recently defended The Last Airbender. The filmmaker told IGN, "My child was nine-years-old. So you could make it one of two ways: you could make it for that same audience, which is what I did, for nine and 10-year-olds, or you could do the 'Transformers' version and have Megan Fox."
Defending his film, there’s nothing that we can do, for as the director, and also as a fan of the show, Shyamalan has all the rights. But, the question is, is he really the person to blame for the failure of The Last Airbender?
The answer to the question above is a “no.” Shyamalan is not to blame for the failure of the film. In fact, he is owed an apology. Here is why. There is a story that not many are aware of. Last summer, Joblo penned a piece spreading the word, the story behind the making of The Last Airbender, divulged passionately on the AvatarSpirit.net forums. The story, however, is no longer available on the forum. It was published by someone who worked on the production of the film and the increased attention got her concerned as her career was going to be in jeopardy. In her writing, she said:
Production wrapped 5 years ago so I don't think Paramount is going to care. They know it bombed.
What it came down to was M Night really was the only one who knew the show and what he was doing (the first draft of the screenplay? gorgeous. hence Bryke giving him the okay). The producers, who are actually in charge of at least 80% of production including casting.... not so much. They clearly never bothered to watch the show, nor had the ghostwriter who did the final screenplay.
Nicola was hired because she's the daughter of someone one of the producers owed a favor to as Hollywood loves its nepotism. (Her audition tape was subpar at best). In having to cast her they had to cast a guy who could pass as her brother - hence Jackson. His audition was actually pretty good. He's a funny guy and had clearly seen the show. Too bad the producers felt the movie didn't have time for intentional humor and cut all that out of the script. Noah was the only one who honestly openly auditioned and was chosen based on talent. He just needed extra help acting because with a lot of it being green screened he was talking to air a lot of the time. Experienced adults have a hard time doing that let alone a kid.
If you recall they initially signed on Jesse McCartney as Zuko. Why? Because otherwise the lead actor roster would be "starring: two unknown kids you never heard of and that guy who played a minor character in Twilight!". And then someone with a brain realized "wait a minute this show is kind of anime-esque and we're hiring a bunch of white kids. Um.". So what did they do? Because they couldn't can Nicola without someone being really ticked, Jesse willingly bowed out and went with another project offered at the time. Even still, they still needed a big name to draw people in but it couldn't be another white kid. Dev Patel just gave an Oscar-winning performance and was willing to sign on. And in getting him they had to make the rest of the Fire Nation match. Which is why it turned into heroic white kids VS evil brown people (which was intentionally unintentional).
And then it was horribly budgeted. The opening at the SWT all nice and pretty in Greenland? Cost big bucks. And then they realized with a story about people manipulating elements that couldn't be believably done with in camera practical effects. So they had to rebudget and gave most of the money to ILM for post production. You go from the beautiful SWT to everything looking dingy because everything else was shot in Pennsylvania. The Fire Nation Royal Palace? An old high school in Philadelphia. Parts of the Earth Kingdom (including Kyoshi Island which got cut)? Reading, PA. And everything that was the NWT.... some sets built in front of giant green screens in an old emptied aircraft hangar in the outskirts of Philadelphia. Yeah.
And ILM was rushed despite most of the movie's look being left up to them. And you had novice directors hired by producers to oversee that process. That's how come the pebble dance happened. Sadly at that point M Night was just tired of arguing with the overheads, gave up, and collected his paycheck. If you look at the movie's premiere and red carpet footage you can tell his excitement and happiness is fake. Bryke had little say in the film despite being listed as executive producers. That title was a fancy way of saying that they created the show it was based on and they're still alive so they need some kind of nice credit. The actual producers didn't know what they were dealing with and were only interested in a quick buck. Bryke and M Night gave up on the film around the same time for same reasons. The other people working on the film were a pain to deal with and Nickelodeon themselves only wanted the final product as quickly as possible and the money it would presumably make them.
At least they hired good caterers. The food was great on that set.
Not only Joblo was able to cover the story. MNightfans.com, one of the longest running sites dedicated to the work of the filmmaker picked up the story in not one, but two pieces discussing the chaos in its entirety (here and here).
Now that some of us know the real story of the film’s failure and that Shyamalan is not to blame, you may wonder why is Shyamalan staying quiet. That’s because Shyamalan is a classy fellow. He’s a professional, a gentleman, a filmmaker who loves cinema. He’s willing to take the blame for everything and also ready to be bashed and disrespected over and over, since he’s M.Night Shyamalan, who is into all things original, but wanted to also make a fun and entertaining film for the kids.