More than a decade later, it still stings.
He’s in a suite at the Waldorf-Astoria hotel promoting his new film, the post-processed 3D adventure “The Last Airbender,” but it’s an innocuous question about a 10-year-old movie that elicits the most honest response from filmmaker M. Night Shyamalan.
The subject was the status of the much speculated-about sequel to Shyamalan’s film “Unbreakable.” The hurt registers immediately across his face as Shyamalan revisits the critical indifference he encountered with the 2000 release.
Fresh off the audacious success of “The Sixth Sense,” Shyamalan was understandably feeling
about as indestructible as David Dunn. That confidence was reinforced by the home run he felt he had just connected on with “Unbreakable.”
“When we finished it, I really felt that something definitive had happened,” Shyamalan recalled. “Not one scene, not one moment wasn’t a giant risk. We really went for it.”
He was right then, and he's right now. “Unbreakable” is in many ways, a perfect super hero movie. Reverence for the film continues to grow as time passes, and when Shyamalan is told this, you can tell the praise provides a sort of affirmation.
It’s not like “Unbreakable” was critically panned; It has a 68% collective rating on Rotten Tomatoes. But Shyamalan is blessed and cursed with a great, if selective, memory. What he remembers most are the negative reviews, which mainly zeroed on in on the movie not having as good an ending as his previous release.
“I was hurt by …the ambivalence from everybody,” the filmmaker admitted. “Like they couldn’t accept it. Like all they were looking for was a “Sixth Sense 2” or something. And I was like, ‘nah, I’m doing a whole different thing.”
Something else he recalls with little fondness is his reaction to the criticism.
“I think that emotional feeling of like…it was petty on my part. Like a feeling that, ‘oh, you hurt me.’”
The whole experience, he offered, soured him on returning to the Unbreakable universe, something he said he had already had a plan for. Which is why the sequel he gets asked about constantly remains in limbo. It simply dredges up too many bad vibes.
“I didn’t want to go back to that world. When I was ready to tell the next story…I haven’t shaken it [the criticism]. It was a little too early for its time,” Shyamalan offers, punctuating the statement with a nervous laugh.
That's about as frank a self-assessment as you'll ever hear from a name-brand director. Can anyone imagine Spielberg, the guy who “Newsweek” said in that infamous cover story that M. Night was the second coming of, ever admitting to being stung by bad reviews?
A Constant Target
The perceived thin skin, combined with the incredible success he experienced so quickly, made Shyamalan a popular target for critics once his magic touch seemed to abandon him.
Entertainment Weekly’s Senior Editor Thom Geier points out that the incredible hype surrounding Shyamalan’s initial success, along with the fact he often cast himself in lengthy cameos in his movies, all but put a target on his back. “All of that fueled his critics and naysayers to pounce at the first whiff of box office disappointment,” said Geier.
His newest, “The Last Airbender,” is faring even worse.
The story of a world engulfed in war among elemental tribal nations – Fire, Air, Water and Earth – and the young Avatar who may be able to bring peace to the planet, the film is intended to be the first in a franchise of kid-friendly summer blockbusters. Based on the mega-popular Nickelodeon animated series “Avatar: The Last Airbender,” there were high hopes for it coming into the summer popcorn movie season.
But critics have savaged the picture, giving it lower marks than the sublimely terrible “Jonah Hex.” That distinction would seem to confirm that there is no filmmaker critics like to dump on more than M. Night Shyamalan.
“Hollywood can be a pretty cruel place, and schadenfreude soon follows anyone who's achieved any sort of success,” Geier observed.
“The Last Airbender” is viewed by some as Shyamalan's last chance to maintain his place in Hollywood’s upper echelon of directors. Costly flops like “The Happening” and “Lady in the Water” can kill your mojo as quickly as a pair of Oscar
nominations and four consecutive hits that collectively earn over $700 million, can cultivate it.
Straying From The Norm
To break out of his slump, the multi-hyphenate filmmaker (he writes, directs, produces and occasionally acts) stepped out of his comfort zone - spooky thrillers with a twist ending – to make this mega-budget cartoon adaptation.
He learned about it from his daughters, who were obsessed with the show. Shyamalan soon found himself watching it with his girls, fascinated by the familiar images he saw in many episodes.
“The creators of the show…Mike (Michael Dante DiMartino) and Bryan (Konietzko) were complete film buffs. They just kind of drew from all kinds of movie sources to create their show. It was very cinematic in its conception,” Shyamalan said.
The director was forced to wade into uncharted territory. Long an outspoken opponent of CGI, Shyamalan accepted that he had to embrace and learn the technology that had upended special effects in the movies, to meet the project’s demanding water, air, earth, and fire-bending visuals.
The Philly native is a big sports fan, so he used a sports analogy where he compared Michael Jordan’s continual evolution as a basketball player. Jordan, Shyamalan pointed out, transformed himself from an above-the-rim highlight reel into a complete player, replete with an unstoppable jumper and peerless defensive skills, through hard work and practice.
“What that was, was the lesson of a master learning their craft. You cannot just say, ‘I’m not good at this. I’m not good at CGI technology. That’s not my thing.’ Which is what I had been saying,” he admitted. “Because it will limit you.”
“I wanted to tell this story. And to tell it properly, I had to learn…how to shoot a jump shot,” he said with a laugh.
Adding to his list of challenges: Keeping it kid-friendly.
Outside of his screenplay for “Stuart Little”, Shyamalan’s filmography doesn't exactly scream 'Saturday afternoon movie outing with the
kids.' But when you sink some $280 million into adapting a Nickelodeon animated series as Paramount did, PG-13 isn't really an option, and Shyamalan was fine with that.
“I didn’t want to take it away from the kids. I didn’t want to take it away from them, and I didn’t want it inappropriate for them, because I knew they were gonna come,” he said.
“So I was OK with [the PG rating], because the fighting, a lot of it isn’t hand-to-hand, it’s forms against forms. So that inherently allowed us to [sidestep the violence issue].”
A Casting Controversy
Casting was tricky on many levels.
After casting a wide net to find an actor to play Aang, the young Avatar who is the key to the entire story, Shyamalan knew he had found the right person when he came across an audition DVD from Dallas resident Noah Ringer.
The director then came under fire for his casting choices. Fans were upset that white actors were cast for key roles, such as the siblings Katara and Sokka, played by Nicola Peltz and “Twilight’s” Jackson Rathbone, respectively, which perhaps should have been filled with Asian performers. Dante Bosco, a voice actor on the Nickelodeon series, even criticized the casting choices in his blog.
Shyamalan defended his choices, saying he cast the best actors for each part, regardless of skin color.
Up next for Shyamalan is “Devil,” a September release he wrote and produced for a proposed anthology series he’ll oversee called the “Night
It spun out from a desire to bring to life the ‘dozens of film ideas’ he has that he knows he'll never get around to making. Shyamalan likens his situation to that of a filmmaker he’s been often compared to.
““Poltergeist,” for me, is a very Spielberg movie [he produced the movie]. It’s an important part of his body of work for me. Imagine if there were 20 [other films like that] that he made up in his head and they were all from him?”
Comparisons aside, Shyamalan views himself less as Spielberg than as his literary hero, Agatha Christie.
“I feel like I have a really different relationship with the audience than other people,” Shyamalan said. “My relationship, I feel, is more like an author, where the audience is interested in [my] point of view…and the way the story is told.”
The question is whether that relationship between fan and filmmaker is still on solid footing.
People in and around the film industry are watching the box-office receipts for “The Last Airbender” before making a final determination. As of this writing, “The Last Airbender” earned about $52 million during its Fourth of July debut weekend. But with an enormous overhead to cover, word-of-mouth from the target kids audience will have to drown out the critical carping for the dollar totals to keep rising.
Shyamalan, who ends the film with a clear eye towards a sequel, is keenly aware the future of his first potential franchise is out of his hands now.
“Everyone is aiming and hoping that that will happen, but you never know. We have to see how the world plays out, and I’m very very hopeful,” he said.
If “The Last Airbender” proves to be an unfortunately accurate title, you can bet M. Night Shyamalan won't forget those reviews.
He can't help himself.
Is Shyamalan still a marquee director?