M. Night Shyamalan, Dev Patel Go Big With ‘Last Airbender’

The director and star are learning as they go on the set of their first fantasy franchise movie.

PHILADELPHIA — The lavish ice palace had gone silent. The Fire and Water nations were no longer waging acrobatic battle between its frosty walls, and from the snow covered steps to the blown-glass chandeliers hanging above the balconies, a beautiful tranquility had descended. Meanwhile, the production was in full, hectic swing across town, where another massive hangar housed another set for M. Night Shyamalan’s gargantuan, fantastical adventure story, [movie id="334326"]“The Last Airbender.”[/movie] Packs of extras wearing Samurai-like battle gear wandered here and there. Workers drilled and sawed and hammered. And Shyamalan and his star, Dev Patel of “Slumdog Millionaire” fame , were in the middle of it all, filming a pivotal fight scene.

Take after take, they kept at it, kept pushing to get it perfect, until the director decided to move on. “We’ll live with it,” Shyamalan said with a smile as MTV News watched from the sidelines.

Could this really be the same director who earlier in the day called himself a “complete control freak”? Or might Shyamalan — at the tail-end of a four-month production that is two-and-a half-times the size of any of his other movies, including hits (“The Sixth Sense”) and busts (“Lady in the Water”) — be growing as a filmmaker, concentrating on what he can control and trusting that his vision will deliver on the rest?

“I’m scared to death,” he admitted. At the same time, though, he professed to savor the opportunity to become a student of film again, to learn what it takes to make such a big movie.

In that respect, he has something in common with the 19-year-old Patel. “It’s crazy — I’ve just been thrown into the deep end,” he told MTV News during some downtime on set. “It’s a real stretch for me. At the start going into it, I was a bit naive, and I thought, ‘This is just going to be a big laugh. I’m playing a cartoon character.’ Then I got on set with everyone and read the script and M. Night’s in front of me and there’s a lot of soul-searching to be done.”

“Airbender” is based on the hit Nickelodeon animated series. Set in a wholly imagined world, the film follows the Air, Water, Earth and Fire nations, each of which can manipulate one of the four elements. The Fire tribe — along with its Prince Zuko (Patel) — has been waging a century-long war against the other tribes, when a boy named Aang (12-year-old newcomer Noah Ringer) discovers he is the last person on the planet who has the power to control all four elements and thus bring about peace.

Other than the conversion to live-action, Shyamalan said the only significant change he made to the original story was to strip away the cartoon’s more slapstick humor — “fart jokes,” he laughed — that had been written into the TV show for the very youngest viewers. The director noted that his “Airbender” has similarities to franchises like “The Lord of the Rings,” “Harry Potter” and “The Matrix” — plus, he declared, “me smothered all over it!”

That Shyamalan has even stepped behind the camera on this movie — if all goes according to Paramount’s plan, “Airbender” will be the first in a trilogy — is something of a reversal for the director, as he’s turned down numerous opportunities to helm big-budget franchises.

“I’ve been toying with a lot of the franchises and thinking about them and just never found that one with the perfect match that I could say something about myself,” Shyamalan said.

Such an explanation jibes with what “Airbender” producer Frank Marshall told MTV News: Shyamalan preferred to enter into a franchise at the beginning to make an original mark, as opposed to picking up where another director’s vision had left off.

Early Tuesday morning (June 23), MTV News debuted online the first video of that vision — an “Airbender” teaser trailer that Shyamalan conceived and shot himself, in which Aang shows off his martial arts skills and we get a glimpse of the epic scale of the film.

“Airbender” itself won’t hit theaters until next summer. And Shyamalan and Patel still have a few weeks left before shooting wraps and they’ll both have no choice but to “live with it.”

“I’m not good at disappearing into a movie,” the director confessed. “But I would love to find it where my accent is complementary to the piece.”

Check out everything we’ve got on “The Last Airbender.”

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