“ derived from my taste for Hayao Miyazaki and for martial arts and spirituality and all that stuff”
With every new film, the reviews get ever more negative, and personal. But mercurial director M Night Shyamalan is determined to ignore the critics and keep up his relationship with his audience, he tells Donald Clarke
MNIGHT SHYAMALAN has food poisoning. Having encountered some ambivalent sushi, he has spent his first few interviews in a state of sweaty, chundering unease. On several occasions he felt he might have to bolt for the door, but now seems to have achieved tolerable internal equilibrium.
“It’s pretty poetic that this should happen on the junket for this movie,” he says.
My ears prick up. I wouldn’t have dared say so myself, but, considering the critical pummelling he has received for The Last Airbender, a morning of vomiting does seem an appropriate overture to the film’s press junket.
It turns out that he is not being quite as satirical as I had hoped.
“It was overwhelming on all levels,” he says. “I did not anticipate the toll a movie of this scale would take. I know my comfort zone. I am the kind of guy who has trouble staying in a house if it’s not well designed.”
If Shyamalan is to be believed, the director, now a trim 40, has been carrying on a battle with the press since his third film, the spiffing The Sixth Sense, overpowered all comers at the box-office in 1999. It’s certainly true that his last few movies have received an extraordinary hammering. Lady in the Water mermaids in the swimming pool) was decried as pretentious and confusing. The Happening (neurotoxins whistle through the underbrush) was regarded as ludicrous. The notices for those films seem like raves, however, when set beside the eviscerations of The Last Airbender.
Still, despite the rumbling innards and the bad word, Shyamalan seems in surprisingly friendly mood. The Last Airbender – an epic fantasy involving sacred children and elemen- tal conflicts – is based on a popular animated series. It is, thus, the first film he has directed that is not entirely his own creation. The picture is also very different in tone to his earlier work: contemporary suspense is replaced by wide-screen depictions of alternative realities.
It looks as if he was making a conscious effort to frustrate expectations.
“It was not so agenda-driven,” he says mildly. “It derived from my taste for Hayao Miyazaki and for martial arts and spirituality and all that stuff. Also, I ama father and I amvery sentimental about that. That makes me do things I would never expect.”
But he does admit that the film feels like a departure? When you say “M Night Shyamalan” people think: spooky set-up, murky surroundings, final twist. They don’t think: imaginationland, magic child with arrow on head, huge flying badger.
“I actually think that, since The Sixth Sense, I have made a very diverse series of films. I made Unbreakable after that, which was very different. Around the time of The Sixth Sense, I wrote Stuart Little. So, I think I had a diverse approach. I think, maybe, people will see The Last Airbender as the ‘operatic’ aspect of my style, as opposed to the minimalist thriller aspect.”
He goes on to explain how he genuinely intended to make Unbreakable – his fascinating 2000 film concerning the dynamics of the comic book – into an opera with composer James Newton Howard. As you will have gathered, M Night Shyamalan is not short on self-belief. Mind you, he could not have achieved his considerable success without be-