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Q & A with Executive Producer Scott Aversano


 

Scott Aversano — Executive Producer of “The Last Airbender&dquo;

Scott Aversano — Executive Producer of “The Last Airbender”

As part of ZAMM.com’s continuing conversations with leading filmmakers Martin Grove talks Scott Aversano, an executive producer of Paramount Pictures and Nickelodeon Movies’ action adventure fantasy “The Last Airbender,” written, produced and directed by M. Night Shyamalan, opening July 1.

Based on the hit Nickelodeon animated series “Avatar: The Last Airbender,” the film was produced by M. Night Shyamalan, Sam Mercer and Frank Marshall. It was executive produced by Kathleen Kennedy and Scott Aversano and by Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko, who created the TV show.

The Story (official synopsis – no spoilers): Air, Water, Earth, Fire. Four nations tied by destiny when the Fire Nation launches a brutal war against the others. A century has passed with no hope in sight to change the path of this destruction. Caught between combat and courage, Aang (Noah Ringer) discovers he’s the lone Avatar with the power to manipulate all four elements. Aang teams with Katara (Nicola Peltz), a Waterbender, and her brother, Sokka (Jackson Rathbone), to restore balance to their war–torn world.

Scott Aversano most recently was a producer of the romantic action comedy “Killers,” directed by Robert Luketic and staring Katherine Heigl and Ashton Kutcher, which opened June 1 via Lionsgate.

Aversano’s earlier credits include producing the “Ghosts/Aliens” pilot for Comedy Central and executive produced “Angus, Thongs, And Perfect Snogging” for Paramount Pictures International and Nickelodeon Movies.

Formerly President of MTV Films and Nickelodeon Movies, Aversano was responsible for overseeing the label’s annual slate of films including the acquisition of literary properties, development and motion picture production. Before that, he spent seven years working with independent producer Scott Rudin, most recently as President of Production.

While with Rudin, Aversano produced or executive produced a variety of films including “Failure To Launch” (producer), “Team America” (executive producer), “Lemony Snicket’s: A Series of Unfortunate Events” (co-producer), “The Manchurian Candidate” (executive producer), “The School of Rock” (executive producer), “Changing Lanes” (co–producer) and “Orange County” (producer).

Prior to joining Rudin, Aversano was Director of Development at Paramount Pictures from 1997–99, where he served as an executive on 12 films, including “Wonder Boys,” “South Park: Bigger, Longer, Uncut,” “Bringing Out The Dead” and “Runaway Bride.”

Aversano started his entertainment industry career in 1996 at Sid Ganis’ Out of the Blue Entertainment. He graduated from Brown University and has an M.A. in English Literature from the University of Michigan.

Q: Your movie is based on the Nickelodeon series “Avatar: The Last Airbender” that ran from 2005–08.
A: I saw the show when I was on vacation and came back to Los Angeles and went to what at the time was Nickelodeon’s movie producing company as opposed to a movie studio. I said, “This is a really interesting property. I think it would make a fantastic film.” It was so new that I don’t believe they were comfortable yet saying, “Let's try and expand this into a feature film.”

Shortly thereafter, about six months later, I was named the head of the Nickelodeon MTV brand movie division at Paramount and suddenly I was the one who was deciding whether or not it would make a good movie. It was a much easier conversation with myself. It was absolutely emblematic of the kind of things that Nickelodeon as a family movie brand could bring to a movie production.
Q: So you saw it immediately as a theatrical movie?
A: Absolutely. One of the things that Mike DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko, who created the show, did that I think is exceptional and made it possible for a conversation about the movie even to begin is the core idea of their central character, the Avatar, and that the Avatar was a figure who had a fully elaborated mythology that had some religious components, some philosophical components and some Kung Fu martial arts components to it. It had all the things that I thought would lend themselves to an expansive movie presentation. And those guys had done such an exceptional job of filling out the sort of TV bible of that world that it lent enormous possibilities, I thought, to a feature film.
Q: Since then, of course, the success of James Cameron’s movie “Avatar” has made the word avatar something that people would associate with that movie rather than with the Nickelodeon show even though the show preceded Cameron’s movie. Is that why the word avatar is not in your movie’s title?
A: It is, unfortunately. You know, there are some things that are simply accidents of timing and that was one. Certainly when the show debuted, no one anywhere had heard of the word avatar in connection with anything other than the Nickelodeon television show. But to Fox and James Cameron’s credit, they were fully six months ahead of us and they made it very clear that that was going to be the terrain they staked out.

It just became very clear that (it wasn’t a good idea) to try to release two movies within a very tight window and where they both featured the title “Avatar.” Trying to explain the differences between Jim Cameron’s version of what an avatar is, which is very different than the version of what the avatar is in our movie, I think posed real problems. I think we have a title that’s actually emblematic of what the film is. I don’t think it’s in any way a cheapening or a compromise. But it was a strange coincidence of timing that there would be two movies or two properties titled “Avatar.” that existed in the same time.
Q: How did things move along for the series to become a movie?
A: During the time I was running that division of the studio we were enormously enthusiastic about the film. (Paramount Pictures chairman and CEO) Brad Grey thought this was an ideal way to bring the Nickelodeon movie brand to the forefront of his media strategy for Paramount and this felt like a great property with which to do it. We had a conversation with Night Shyamalan, who was himself a fan of the show through his daughters, who were enormously excited about the show. He tells a story about searching for avatar costumes for his daughters for Halloween. My enthusiasm for him doing this was motivated not only by my affection for his films, but (also because) this is the first time he’s ever elected to write and direct something that he didn’t create whole cloth.

We brought Night into the process. Brad Grey was enormously helpful and supportive of that. And then it became clear that we were going to need someone (as a producer) who was going to be able to deliver the highest possible caliber film and who had a relationship with Night. Because Kathy Kennedy and Frank Marshall had done “Signs” and “The Sixth Sense” with Night they seemed like a very natural fit. And I don’t know of more capable producers who’ve accomplished more in their careers across a variety of films and scales and appetites for movie fare. They are people I admire greatly.
The greatest thing about Kathy and Frank is that they have probably forgotten more about making movies than I will ever know. (And it’s great) when you have people whose experience is so vast and so accomplished and who have a shorthand and a confidence to talk to both the filmmaker and the studio. Kathy and Frank had just come off making the latest “Indiana Jones” movie and “The Spiderwick Chronicles” and “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” with Paramount so they were very familiar both with the Paramount apparatus and also had a great relationship with Night. So they became the people I felt would make the greatest producers for the project.
Noah Ringer as Aang in “The Last Airbender”

Noah Ringer as Aang in “The Last Airbender”

Q: What happened then?
A: Night is a supremely talented writer and wrote a script that he felt confident about. The thing that makes Viacom such an exciting proposition is that it has brands that communicate to (a range of) audiences — like the Nickelodeon brand. The confluence (was there) of having Night prepared to direct a film he’d written and that everybody seemed very excited about and that Kathy Kennedy and Frank Marshall and Sam Mercer, who has worked with Night on all of Night’s films, were all prepared to go and make the film. And (it came at) this moment in the Viacom family where they were profoundly interested in finding a way to support the relationship between the Nickelodeon brand and Paramount Pictures, the film division.

This became a great example of how to take content the Nickelodeon channel had nurtured and created and turned into a real and meaningful hit. When it was on air, the new episodes were being aired at 8 o’clock on Friday nights and were often winning their time slots. This suggested that the show had finally reached a kind of maturity with its Nickelodeon audience because it was clearly leaking out into a broader community. And so it felt like the confluence of those circumstances and those talented people offered up an opportunity to go make this movie.
Q: With its Nickelodeon roots, the picture should play well to a young audience.
A: When you say young, the Nickelodeon audience actually extends much higher than you would think. Before “Pirates of the Caribbean,” everybody assumed that a Disney movie meant it was playing to children under the age of 10. I think that the youth audience has shifted slightly. I think it’s less about children (now) and it’s more about family viewing. And I really feel that “The Last Airbender” is meant to deliver to a family audience as opposed to children.

And to that end there’s content in the movie that’s meant to be emotional and expansive and heroic and I don’t think childish. The movie will definitely deliver to a wider audience than what I think the expectation is. Nickelodeon’s audience is a much wider one than I think people realize and that audience has been shifting pretty dramatically over the last couple of years.

For example, look at “Shrek.” (DreamWorks Animation CEO) Jeffrey Katzenberg has done an extraordinary job communicating with the assistance of Paramount’s marketing department, who also has done this very well. But those movies which I think one might have historically suspected were for “children” have clearly reached beyond the children audience to include a family moviegoing experience. Pixar movies have done it well. Jeffrey Katzenberg has done it well with DreamWorks Animation projects. I really believe the secret to entertainment that people seem to be enjoying now is movies that are meant to be a family entertainment experience and not a children (experience).

We used to joke at Nickelodeon about “drop off” movies — that is to say, the movie where the parent shows up at the mall or the movie theater and drops their children off and waits outside so they don’t have to watch the movie. Once upon a time you could make those movies and they could be profitable. I don’t think that’s the objective for movies today. I think the objective for a movie today is to deliver a satisfying cinematic experience for the entire family audience.
Q: You shot most of “The Last Airbender” in Philadelphia and nearby parts of Pennsylvania, where Night always prefers to shoot his movies.
A: There were huge soundstages that were built and featured a bunch of the sets there and in Greenland. The landscape you'll see in the movie is majestic, extraordinary and there’s no part of you that would suspect that there was a warehouse in Philadelphia where it was shot. It is a fantastical landscape. It’s an imagined place, an alternate landscape. It could be anywhere.
Q: How was it working with Night?
A: Night is an unbelievable visionary filmmaker. He’s a guy who takes pains at every step as a writer, as a producer on the film, as a director. His attention to detail and his commitment to his vision is extraordinary. I believe that will be evident in the film.
Dev Patel as Zuko in “The Last Airbender”

Dev Patel as Zuko in “The Last Airbender”

Q: Looking back at production, can you share with us any stories about the challenges Night and his team faced?
A: I will confess to you that a chunk of the time they were shooting I was shooting a different movie (“Killers”) so I am not as rich with stories of production as others would be.
Q: There are media people who have written that Night is difficult to work with and there are others who have written that Katharine Heigl is difficult to work with. What can you tell us having worked with both?
A: Here’s what I would say about the “difficult to work with” question. That’s a question of personality and that’s a TMZ style (question) — like, “Who’s mean on set?” or “Who’s tough on this?” That hasn’t been my experience with the artists I’ve worked with. But I also feel like when you hire an artist of any caliber — a writer or a director or an actor — your job as the producer is to create an environment in which that actor or visionary filmmaker can do what they do best. You want to support them and you sign on to have them do their best thing.

And when people are like, “Oh, they’re challenging,” sometimes that’s the artist trying to do their best work in a situation (where things are happening). Suddenly there’s rain. Suddenly there are practical things that interfere with somebody’s best work. I don’t find that difficult. If you walked into a painter’s studio and said, “Ah, sorry, lunch time” when the painter was in the middle of something that would be challenging for the painter, I think. I just don’t subscribe to the idea of, “Oh, this person is difficult.” I’m not really comfortable with that as a question. I think you ask artists to do the thing they do and try and create a stage for them to do it. And that’s really what the struggle is for everyone — for the artists, for the producers, for the studio. Everybody’s trying to achieve something.
Q: Where were you making “Killers” while “Airbender” was shooting?
A: I was in the south of France while Frank Marshall, Sam Mercer and Night were in Greenland. So, yes, I got the better of the deals!