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Old March 30 2010, 11:49 PM   #1
Christopher
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Shyamalan talks about AIRBENDER's "racebending" issues

The Last Airbender director M. Night Shyamalan gave an interview to io9 that included a discussion of the controversy of the film's casting choices, with all three main protagonists, who are essentially Asian and Inuit in the animated series, being portrayed by Caucasian actors in the film. This has been the main thing upsetting me about the film, and Shyamalan's comments, assuming they're truthful, are very reassuring:

When we were casting, I was like, "I don't care who walks through my door, whoever is best for the part. I'm going to figure it out like a chessgame." Ideally we separate the nations ethnically — ideally. I didn't know how or what it was going to be. And it was so fluid. For example if you found a great brother, [but] he didn't go with my favorite Katara, then we couldn't use him. Theoretical things like that. There was an Ang that we really loved, but he was like 5'10." There's all kinds of issues that come to the table physically. And I had a board of all the people that I was considering, the seven or eight. There was, at one time, a Chinese Sokka and Katara, and they were over here. One of them was a better actor than the other, and so I was gathering my pros and cons.

I was without an agenda, and just letting it come to the table. Noah is a photo double from the cartoon. He is spot on. I didn't know their backgrounds, and to me Noah had a slightly mixed quality to him. So I cast the Airbenders as all mixed-race. So when you see the monks, they are all mixed. And it kind of goes with the nomadic culture and the idea that over the years, all nationalities came together.

The Fire Nation was the most complicated. I kept switching who was playing Zuko. It was such a complicated and drawn out thing, about practical matters. But the first person that I was considering casting for Zuko was Ecuadorian. So I started thinking that way. Then when that person couldn't do it, the next person who came in was much more Caucasian. And then we had to switch everything around.

The Earth Nation was always the issue as well, because the second movie is so dominated by that group, and it will represent most of the movie. But it has a small, small part in the first movie. So that was important in thinking about it in the long term. Then Dev [Patel] came into the picture, he was really early on. He had auditioned for me in London. He was a sweet guy, but he did such a great reading...I always go for the actor.

...

That's always been my lean. I have hopes of what I want them to be, my hope was that the movie would be incredibly diverse. That when we look back on all three movies that it is one of the most diverse movies of all times. And that is the case when you watch the movies. And it's not an agenda, like when you see a picture of a kid's school and they have everybody on the swings. It's not like that. This nation has this ethnicity and when we go deep into that culture, we will see more there. Dev ended up being my choice for Zuko, and I looked for an Uncle that could be in that realm, for a moment I thought about Ben Kingsley. But Shaun Toub, I just loved him in Iron Man. I thought this takes us into a Mediterranean kind of Arab and Indian world, and I can go as far as that, that will be the breadth of the Fire Nation, that kind of look.

For me, Nicola [Peltz, who plays Katara] had a lot of Russian qualities, European and Russian qualities. So that was the direction we went there. Whoever I ended up with, I went that was their nationality. Suki was Jessica [Andres] who is a mix of Filipino. And now the Earth Kingdom is all Asian so Toph will have to be Asian. Suddenly I was looking at the board and I thought, this works for me, because everything was represented.

And there's a section of the Earth Kingdom that's African American. Because it's such a big country and land I thought you could have some diversity in there as they travel through the cities. So more so than the show, it will have a much more diverse ethnic backgrounds to it. It's not an agenda for me, but it's something I'm super proud of. That when my kids or any kids look at it they will see themselves.
The one thing that still has me unsure, and the thing I considered a "smoking gun" of sorts before, was that the casting call for the four leads (including Zuko) didn't say "Seeking all ethnicities," as is usually the case when casting is colorblind, but reportedly said "Caucasian or other ethnicities." So it seems like there were at least some people involved in the process who favored Caucasian actors over the alternatives. But given that Shyamalan is Indian himself, it does seem unlikely that he'd be one of those people. And at least they did look at actors of all types. And I guess it is better to start with finding the best actors and let the ethnicities of the nations follow.

So I guess I can learn to live with this. Noah Ringer does have a "mixed" look to him, as MNS said, and if the rest of the Airbenders (in flashbacks, I assume) are cast accordingly, that's good. If we've got mixed-ethnic Air Nomads, South/Southwest Asian Fire Nation, and East Asian (and sometimes African) Earth Kingdom, I guess I can live with the Water Tribe being based on Russians or Northern Europeans. And while the first movie does unfortunately come off being dominated by white heroes going up against nonwhite villains, that will balance out in the sequels, with Toph joining the team, Suki having an increased role, and Zuko and Iroh shifting allegiances.


Shyamalan says some other things that are reassuring:
The first outline I made of the movie I bought Mike and Bryan to my house and said, "I have an outline of the movie, what do you think?" And they said, "This is like 10 hours long. You have to cut stuff." And I thought, "I can't. I love everything."
I really enjoyed working on the movie which is the main thing — I think you'll feel that. It's not work to me. Analyzing it and getting the balance right and you know, the Miyazaki influence, oh that's the other thing, the Miyazaki influence of the show. Do you guys know who Miyazaki is? Yeah, he's like my God, so... that's it, he's Michael Jordan to me. You know, I met him last year. Luckily for me, he hasn't seen any of my movies.

*laughter*

Shyamalan: And he was just animating and I was like, "Man, this is the greatest." And just that Mike and Bryan were so influenced by Miyazaki, and I'm so influenced by Miyazaki, that's just, trying to get that tonality to reach the American audience that kind of... water doesn't just mean water, it has meaning and something behind it, it's metaphorical. And I think in different cultures, it's easier to accept that.
It sounds like he really is a fan of the show, that his kids love it and he's trying to make it worthy of them. And if he's trying to make it feel like a Miyazaki film, that's very encouraging (anything but making it feel like a Shyamalan film).

I'm still not entirely convinced Shyamalan has the chops to pull off something so different from his usual oeuvre. But I'm more reassured that he gets it and is trying to do right by it. And I'm a lot more willing now to accept the casting choices, at least in principle. (Though I'm wondering why it took MNS so long to make these statements, given how much of a storm the casting has stirred up in the fan community over the past few months.)
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Old March 31 2010, 12:44 AM   #2
SG-17
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Re: Shyamalan talks about AIRBENDER's "racebending" issues

This article angered me.

Not for the race issues, but for the fact that he is messing with the timeline.

Aang needs the experience with burning Katara early on as it significantly changes his attitude. I am also upset at the move of Bumi, but his first appearance isn't as critical to the story as Jeong Jeong's.
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Old March 31 2010, 01:06 AM   #3
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Re: Shyamalan talks about AIRBENDER's "racebending" issues

SG-17 wrote: View Post
This article angered me.

Not for the race issues, but for the fact that he is messing with the timeline.
Why would that anger you? It's necessary to adapt the structure of the story to fit the different medium. This isn't a 3-year animated series with 20-plus episodes per season. It's three 2-hour movies. Naturally the storytelling has to be compressed. The pacing of the series where you introduce something early on and then pay it off a year later isn't something that would work in a movie trilogy.

Besides, the timeline is going to have to be radically changed, because it's going to take years to complete production on all three movies. The series' timeline where the whole thing took under a year isn't going to work in live action; the storyline's going to have to be rejiggered to span several years of story time to be commensurate with Noah Ringer's maturation. So with that being inevitably changed, a few more tweaks to the timeline don't seem so big a deal.


By the way, I just want to add... what a shame it is that Shyamalan didn't go with Ben Kingsley for Iroh. That would've been awesome.
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Old March 31 2010, 01:20 AM   #4
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Re: Shyamalan talks about AIRBENDER's "racebending" issues

Just wanted to say thanks to Christopher for bringing this article to my attention.

I've been eagerly anticipating this film, but attempting to also keep my expectations low considering both my like and dislike of Shyamalan's previous films.

These comments have really helped lay many of my fears about where these films were going to rest, at least for the moment.

I too was concerned about Hollywood's tendency to White-Wash certain stories and based on what he's saying here, I at least can understand the casting choices a bit better now.

As far as moving things around goes... As long as the series hits all the right story and character high-points in the end, I'll be okay with it. Translating a story to the Screen always involves cuts and alterations to make it work as a film and as long as he doesn't change Aang's motivations, fears, etc. and doesn't rewrite the ending. I think I'll be okay with the story.

I'm also jazzed by his goal to make the world serious within the setting, and not go for a direct translation of the silly moments to the larger story.

Although, I would like to see a guy with a cabbage cart lose his cabbage bounty through some crazy quirk of fate, if no less in the background...


Also... I'd like to see the fate of Mama Zuko as well.
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Old March 31 2010, 02:07 AM   #5
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Re: Shyamalan talks about AIRBENDER's "racebending" issues

Christopher wrote: View Post
SG-17 wrote: View Post
This article angered me.

Not for the race issues, but for the fact that he is messing with the timeline.
Why would that anger you? It's necessary to adapt the structure of the story to fit the different medium. This isn't a 3-year animated series with 20-plus episodes per season. It's three 2-hour movies. Naturally the storytelling has to be compressed. The pacing of the series where you introduce something early on and then pay it off a year later isn't something that would work in a movie trilogy.

Besides, the timeline is going to have to be radically changed, because it's going to take years to complete production on all three movies. The series' timeline where the whole thing took under a year isn't going to work in live action; the storyline's going to have to be rejiggered to span several years of story time to be commensurate with Noah Ringer's maturation. So with that being inevitably changed, a few more tweaks to the timeline don't seem so big a deal.
I see your point, but the incident with Jeong Jeong brings to light Katara's healing abilities, Zhao's motivations and tendencies, and Aang's aversion to firebending. Each of these has an impact on the ending of each season.

I just do not like it. I am still going to see the movie and I probably will enjoy it, but being a living Avatar encyclopedia it annoys me that such an important event in the journey is moved to the last film.
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Old March 31 2010, 02:47 AM   #6
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Re: Shyamalan talks about AIRBENDER's "racebending" issues

SG-17 wrote: View Post
I see your point, but the incident with Jeong Jeong brings to light Katara's healing abilities, Zhao's motivations and tendencies, and Aang's aversion to firebending. Each of these has an impact on the ending of each season.
That doesn't mean those points will be missing; it just means the films will find different ways of establishing them. That's just part of how adaptation works.

I just do not like it. I am still going to see the movie and I probably will enjoy it, but being a living Avatar encyclopedia it annoys me that such an important event in the journey is moved to the last film.
As a rule, the best way to think of an adaptation is as a separate creation that's inspired by the original, rather than demanding that it be a copy of the original. If you want something that's just like the original, then watch the original. The whole point of an adaptation is to find a different take on the subject matter. That doesn't take anything away from the original version of the story, because that version still exists. And if done well, the changes and different approaches taken by an adaptation can enhance the original work by offering new angles on its ideas and characters.

Mind you, I'm very far from convinced at this point that Shyamalan has the ability to pull this off or to make the right creative choices. But the mere fact that things are being done differently is not wrong in and of itself. The specific changes being made here could turn out badly or they could turn out very well. We'll just have to wait and see.
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Old March 31 2010, 05:56 AM   #7
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Re: Shyamalan talks about AIRBENDER's "racebending" issues

Christopher wrote: View Post

I'm still not entirely convinced Shyamalan has the chops to pull off something so different from his usual oeuvre.
Judging by his last few attempts at film making, perhaps his "usual oeuvre" is the thing that isn't working for him. TLA's amazing characters, setting and story are being handed to him, he merely has to edit and frame it and do what he's done well most of the time even when he made a bad movie: make it look good. The trailers are certainly promising on that front.

It's quite unlike any other project he's worked on, maybe it will be good for him to play in someone else's world for a change.
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Old March 31 2010, 12:39 PM   #8
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Re: Shyamalan talks about AIRBENDER's "racebending" issues

The main concern I have with MNS's interpretation, and it sounds like this is true from what I've read, is that he's going to suck all the humor out of it and make the entire thing pretentiously stoic and serious. If you watch the trailer, Aang is all depressed and deadly serious "how can they believe in me? *sob*". What I love about Aang is that he's a total goofball while at the same time being a responsible badass warrior.
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Old March 31 2010, 01:05 PM   #9
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Re: Shyamalan talks about AIRBENDER's "racebending" issues

I am pretty happy with what I have seen so far. But I do have my worries about the film . I have a wait and see attitude with this film. I know it can be great but will it?
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Old March 31 2010, 01:17 PM   #10
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Re: Shyamalan talks about AIRBENDER's "racebending" issues

SG-17 wrote: View Post
This article angered me.

Not for the race issues, but for the fact that he is messing with the timeline.

Aang needs the experience with burning Katara early on as it significantly changes his attitude. I am also upset at the move of Bumi, but his first appearance isn't as critical to the story as Jeong Jeong's.
Last week I was going through the lobby of federal government building, here in Canada. Security guards and cameras all over the place.

A woman, roughly late twenties and well dressed, is walking through with a little girl about 6. The girl is crying. The woman, presumably her mother, hauls off and smacks the girl across the back of the head, hard enough to send her flying forward, and she lands face first on the floor.

The woman then KICKS her as she's on on the ground.

There was a crowd of about 40 people milling around between me and this woman, plus security etc, and no one did anything. I was 30 feet away and outraged and couldn't even get close enough yell at her.

My friend, in the grand scheme of things, there are a lot of things worth getting angry over. The live action movie of The Last Airbender isn't one of them.
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Old March 31 2010, 02:26 PM   #11
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Re: Shyamalan talks about AIRBENDER's "racebending" issues

I thought we had already put this issue to bed when a poster in the last post on this subject pointed how it's not really based on real Asian culture but rather White American fanboy interpretitation of it? Especially when he/she addressed Inuits don't practice Ti-Chi, Inuit men can't grow facial hair and the representation of the Monks is wrong.
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Old March 31 2010, 02:30 PM   #12
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Re: Shyamalan talks about AIRBENDER's "racebending" issues

I am amazed he thinks all three movies will make it to the theater.
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Old March 31 2010, 02:32 PM   #13
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Re: Shyamalan talks about AIRBENDER's "racebending" issues

Can't wait to see this movie bomb and this arrogant one-trick pony put out to pasture.
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Old March 31 2010, 04:06 PM   #14
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Re: Shyamalan talks about AIRBENDER's "racebending" issues

Look, folks, I'm as skeptical about this movie as anyone, but I don't actually want it to turn out badly. Obviously it will be far preferable if Shyamalan manages to surprise us and do a good job with this. And this interview is the most promising news I've heard about this movie yet. Try a little optimism, people. You may find you like it.
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Old March 31 2010, 08:53 PM   #15
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Re: Shyamalan talks about AIRBENDER's "racebending" issues

exodus wrote: View Post
I thought we had already put this issue to bed when a poster in the last post on this subject pointed how it's not really based on real Asian culture but rather White American fanboy interpretitation of it?
Because that isn't true.

Anyway, that issue aside, Shyamalan's take still doesn't sound right to me (of course, the few advance reviews of this that I've read aren't enthusiastic about it at all).
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