‘Legend of Korra’ creators, star talk about show’s Eastern morality

Sept. 16, 2013 | 3:43 p.m.

korra janetvarney Legend of Korra creators, star talk about shows Eastern morality

Janet Varney voices waterbender Korra, the Avatar and title character in "The Legend of Korra." (Paul Smith; Nickelodeon)

korra pjbyrne bolin Legend of Korra creators, star talk about shows Eastern morality

P.J. Byrne voices Bolin, an earthbender and friend to Korra, in "The Legend of Korra." (Nickelodeon; Bjoern Kommerell)

korra davidfaustino mako Legend of Korra creators, star talk about shows Eastern morality

David Faustino voices Mako, a firebender who is friends with Korra in "The Legend of Korra." (Nickelodeon; Brad Buckman)

korra jksimmons tenzin Legend of Korra creators, star talk about shows Eastern morality

J.K. Simmons voices Tenzin, an airbender who is one of Aang's children, in "The Legend of Korra." Tenzin serves as a mentor to Korra. (Nickelodeon)

korra creators Legend of Korra creators, star talk about shows Eastern morality

Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko, co-creators of "The Last Airbender: The Legend of Korra." (Robert Voets/Nickelodeon)

Korra and the rest of Team Avatar returned to television Friday with the second season premiere of “The Legend of Korra.”

Back on Nickelodeon after a 15-month hiatus, the animated series picks up with “Book 2: Spirits” — a new season that offers a look into the mysterious world of spirits first introduced in the show’s predecessor, the Emmy-winning “Avatar: The Last Airbender.”

The premiere revealed an uneasy relationship between Korra’s father Tonraq (James Remar), leader of the Southern Water Tribe, and his brother Unalaq (Adrian LaTourelle), chief of the Northern Water Tribe. Unalaq’s offer to become Avatar Korra’s new trainer in spiritual techniques results in conflict between the brothers, between Korra and her family, and, it would seem, between the tribes.

Hero Complex sat down with “Legend of Korra” and “Avatar” co-creators Michael DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko, as well as actress Janet Varney, who voices Korra, to chat about the upcoming season, the similarities between Korra and “Avatar” hero Aang and the morality that guides the series.

HC: Book 2 is just starting, but I understand you’re already working on Book 4?

MDM: We’re just in various stages of production on all three books.

BK: Yeah, a complete overlap. That’s TV animation. That’s why it’s so hard. Because it takes so long to make each episode, that you have to do them all at one time, just staggered.

In this early concept art for "The Legend of Korra," the show's heroine looks out over Republic City. (Nickelodeon)

In this early concept art for “The Legend of Korra,” the show’s heroine looks out over Republic City. (Nickelodeon)

HC: It seems like “Korra” really boasts a high caliber of artistry. Is that important to you?

BK: Yeah, and that’s what takes so long. I mean, the show is stupidly hard to make, and really hard to keep consistent, and Mike and I, we’re there just trying to make sure it’s as good as can be. We look around and we go, “No one’s making us. This is our fault. We set it up to be this hard.” So we kind of have only ourselves and our co-workers to blame.

MDM: When we’re in the middle of it, there’s definitely days where it’s like, “Man, is it worth it?” But then when it’s done and we get to share it with everyone, seeing all the clips from the whole season, it’s like, “Man this is gonna be awesome!”

JV: That’s how I feel anytime I see a little sliver of anything from the show. That’s how I feel every time I’m with these guys. Like when we were doing a DVD commentary, I was joking that I forgot to ever say anything, because I was like “Ah, it’s so cool!”

HC: So Book 2 is “Spirits” — a world you briefly touched on in “Airbender.” Why did you decide to focus on this world?

MDM: We brought in two writers from the old series, Josh Hamilton and Tim Hedrick, to help us write Book 2 and Book 3 and Book 4, and you know, when we started throwing around ideas early on, spirits was something we had always enjoyed and we knew that fans really wanted to know more about the spirit world.

BK: It kind of caught their imagination.

MDM: So we were like, “If we’re gonna do it, let’s go full spirit world.”

"The Legend of Korra" Comic-Con 2013 poster. (Nickelodeon)

“The Legend of Korra” Comic-Con 2013 poster. (Nickelodeon)

BK: Mike and I had a different idea for Book 2, well, not different, but we had an idea for Book 2 that was even something we were kicking around for Book 1, and we realized it was too much story, and we said, “Well, if we get to do another book, then that will be the idea.” And that’s still there, and then the whole spirit thing kind of grew out of that. So it’s cool, it’s like two storylines rolled into it.

HC: You said “if” you ever get to do another book — was there ever a question?

BK: On “Avatar,” we did a pitch and a series bible and a pilot, and then we got picked up for scripts, and then we got picked up. The crazy thing about “Korra,” they just showed up and said, “Hey guys, we picked up 12 episodes. You can do whatever you want.”

MDM: Which never happens.

BK: And they were like, “This time, we’d like ‘em to be kind of a self-contained 12 episodes, and not like a big, over-arching thing.” And Mike and I actually thought that was cool. We were excited about that idea. Even on “Avatar,” we didn’t know if we were going to get to Book 3. It’s not like Nickelodeon picked it up for three. They picked it up for six episodes, and then 13, and then 20 and then another 20 and then we finished it, and then we just made an extra episode without asking, and that’s why there’s 61. But yeah, on “Korra,” they were like, “We’ll just try this, and we’ll do 12 at a time,” and that turned into 14 for Book 2 and 13 for Book 3 and 13 for Book 4.

HC: One of the things that set “Avatar” apart from many other shows was that it was a deliberate, three-season story. It didn’t keep going and going until people got tired of it. Sounds like “Korra” is a different beast, with each season being its own thing?

MDM: Yeah, we designed “Korra” differently for that reason. I think part of it was the network’s needs and part of it was like, yeah, we might only get to tell 12 stories, and it would be a shame if it was like we barely got started, and it’s ending halfway in. So it was like, if there was only ever Book 1, it still was a contained, satisfying story.

BK: And as a result — I was just talking to Mike about this the other day — I mean, “Avatar,” the different books had a little bit of different flavor, but in “Korra”, because we are working on Books 2, 3, and 4, when I think about each season, it’s so distinct from the other ones.

"Avatar: The Last Airbender"

Aang, top, is the title character in “Avatar: The Last Airbender.” He is helped in his quest by Katara, a young water-bender, and her warrior brother Sokka. (Nickelodeon)

JV: I think that’s what so cool about the way television is being made in a lot of ways too. Now, when you look at BBC shows, and I think more American shows are kind of taking a page from that, there is a sort of beginning, middle and end to a series. You can now gobble up a bunch of episodes at once — people watch things on demand, people watch things on DVD — and it holds up. You don’t necessarily have to wait week to week, and you can kind of feel like you watched one big glorious film, and each book of the “Korra” adventures is sort of like that. It’s almost like you’re seeing a film, and its sequel, and the next, and they’re just these totally separate arcs.

BK: And they’ve got this distinct flavor, and each one has its focus. Mike and I, we just liked that challenge when Nickelodeon came to us with that, a more self-contained arc for each season. I think it’s forced us to write a little bit differently but still stay true to the structure that we like.

HC: Korra is a unique heroine. Are there any characters that paved the way for her or served as an inspiration?

BK: There’s no one thing, because Mike and I create together, and even if one person has an idea for a character, other people add to it, and then you know, the voice actors bring a whole new dimension to it. But it did dawn on me that one of my sisters — I have three sisters — but one of them in particular is like Korra.

JV: Really? That’s so cool!!

BK: ‘Cause my sister, she’s a tough cookie. Mike knows her. She doesn’t really take poop from anybody.

JV: That’s so interesting! I want to meet her.

BK: She is kind of similar. But I mean, it was also professional athletes, female MMA fighters. I’m really into mixed martial arts. Aang was such a cool character, but he was so specific in his personality, and I’d be watching a fight and thinking, “Man, it would be cool to have a character like her.” These kinds of characters are pretty natural to us.

MDM: I always don’t exactly know how to answer that, because it’s like, “I don’t know. It’s just a cool character. Whether it’s a boy or a girl. I mean, we specifically wanted to make it a girl, because it was different than Aang. And we wanted to make her more headstrong and not the reluctant hero. Part of that was just to differentiate it from the old series so we weren’t retreading the same types of stories, and we knew with a character like that, you open up a whole new area of stories that you can tell. And having her already have learned all the elements, or three of the four, when the story started, it’s like we didn’t want to do just the same, “Oh then she’s going to go learn fire-bending, and then she’s going to learn earth-bending…” So we kind of jumped ahead a little bit in her maturation process.

Korra and her friends Mako and Bolin. (Nickelodeon)

Korra and her friends Mako and Bolin. (Nickelodeon)

HC: What about you, Janet? Any particular influences?

JV: Well, it’s so funny. Buffy makes sense to me for sure. I think the difference is that Buffy was kind of reluctant to take upon her responsibilities, and Korra is very much the opposite. Korra is very much like, “Oh this is going to be my identity.” So there’s a big difference there, right? That sort of reluctance and a desire to be a regular teenager that a character like Buffy had, and Korra’s more like, “What do I do?! When do I start?!”

HC: Do you relate to Korra?

Janet Varney voices the title character in "The Legend of Korra." (Nickelodeon)

Janet Varney voices the title character in “The Legend of Korra.” (Nickelodeon)

JV: I talk about this a lot because it really is honestly true. I don’t have any of the amazing powers that Korra has, but I really relate to a lot of her character defects, ha-ha! And I’ve been amazed at the way that the scripts and the storylines unfold. Obviously things are happening to her that are completely unlike anything I go through in my own life, except that there are constantly things that come up for me when I’m reading the scripts and recording that then do play a role for me. I always talk about how in Book 1, when she’s learning how to air-bend, and she’s so impatient, and it takes a child to say, “Be the leaf!” and to sort of take those breaths. That is something I think about in my own life because I am very headstrong and I am very impatient. I do feel like I have a big heart, and I’m very enthusiastic, but I can get that sort of, “Ugh, come on!”

MDM: That’s why she does it so well. Do you hear that? That’s Korra.

JV: I couldn’t have known that that was going to be that kind of journey when I auditioned for it, but I really, really relate to the stories, and I think that that’s just been such a huge benefit for me. We just recorded something yesterday that’s for an episode way down the line with Eva Marie Saint [who voices the character Katara in the series], and I felt like she was talking to me, Janet Varney. There is stuff she says in that script that I was like, “Oh my gosh, I gotta remember this. This is so true. This is how life is. Life is really hard.” I think that’s something that makes people love the show too. If I’m sitting there feeling like I’m being spoken to personally, then I can’t imagine that that’s not true for fans out there. For young women and young men and everybody who just needs to be reminded of those things.

BK: We created Korra as a character, and it wasn’t a calculated thing. I mean, we were like, “Oh let’s make her different than Aang.” But once you set that up, then you just run with the character, like, “No, I don’t think she would do that…” And they become very real to you. I love Korra as a character. I relate to her, and I’m a 37-year-old dude in our day and age. But she’s somewhat real to me, and it’s not a stretch for me and Mike to be like, “Yeah, I relate to a female superhero teenage character.” It’s not like, “Oh, but I’m a guy, and I’m not supposed to.” We just don’t think that way.

JV: Thank God, because that’s what makes the show so great.

MDM: All the stuff we do, even though she’s fighting spirits, and all the crazy stuff that happens in the world, we always ground it in real emotions and real feelings, like not feeling adequate and low self-worth.

JV: And being really conflicted about what one part of you wants and the other part of you knows is good for you, and how those conflicting voices exist in all of us, no matter what our circumstances.

MDM: Even with P.J. [Byrne’s] character Bolin, in Book 2, he’s awesome, and he does the wackiest stuff we’ve ever done with him, but we grounded it in, he’s a little bit lost, and he’s just trying to figure out what the hell to do with his life. And he kind of gets sucked into a certain job that leads to a lot of laughs and fun.

JV: It’s so good, it’s so good!

BK: That’s the only thing we haven’t revealed. It’s so funny, because I think from Book 1, we were so used to episodes leaking and all this stuff leaking. With Book 2, we were like, “Ugh, it was delayed, so there’s just more chance things are gonna get leaked.” But there’s one thing we’ve kept quiet, and I’m not telling anybody until they see it.

P.J. Byrne, right, voices Bolin in "The Legend of Korra." (Nickelodeon; Alberto E. Rodriguez / Getty Images)

P.J. Byrne voices Bolin in “The Legend of Korra.” (Nickelodeon; Alberto E. Rodriguez / Getty Images)

HC: You’ve been working in this world for over a decade now…

BK: Yeah, 11 years. Over 11 years.

HC: Do you ever get tired of it?

MDM: Not really, ’cause we just try to keep it fresh. I don’t feel like we’re doing the same thing over and over.

BK: If we were still telling Aang’s story that would be tiring. I mean for one thing, the kid who played Aang is like 20 now, so he probably has a deeper voice than me.

MDM: Yeah, and I just feel like the parameters of the world, about finding balance, there’s never an answer to it. There’s always issues that come up in my life and stuff where it’s like, “Oh, I can apply that to the stories,” or “I’m going though this, and I really want to write a story about dealing with that.”

HC: If there’s one message “Korra” has for kids, or people of any age who watch the show, what do you think that message is?

A poster for "The Legend of Korra." (Nickelodeon)

A poster for “The Legend of Korra.” (Nickelodeon)

BK: The theme that we’ve always come back to from the very first episode of “Avatar” all the way through everything we’re doing — it’s always about balance. And that’s balance within yourself. We try to stay away from good versus evil. It’s more about can you find balance within yourself, balance between you and the outside world. And then it was always about trying to balance these four cultures, and not like, “Oh the answer is that everybody’s the same, and it’s all locked down.” There’s always going to be conflict, there’s always going to be different identities. Whether they’re cultural identities, or personal, human identities, or different creature identities, how do you find balance? And I think that is the question of the world, and you can dress it up in a lot of different ways, but that is what it all comes down to. That is what we’ve always been attracted to in Eastern philosophy. And yeah, it is that Zen thing — there is no answer, and so you just have to keep trying.

And I would say empathy. That’s like the one answer. You may not ever fully understand someone on the other side of that line of a nation or an enemy or something. But if you just try to empathize…. I think Aang was a great hero in that way. He never thought of Zuko as an enemy. Ever. He remembered his friends from the Fire Nation and stuff, and we always loved that about Aang. He wasn’t going to think about people as evil. But we also loved making him not perfect. Aang had this rage in him, and this untapped grief that he couldn’t control. And it would just happen to the Avatar state. He could do really horrible things, and he could hurt people, and that’s the thing. There’s no perfect character, and we don’t believe anyone’s like that. It’s just about balancing those energies.

MDM: A story that deals with their flaws is better than making them perfect and shiny. What is that gonna show? Some unattainable ideal?

JV: Even what you were talking about with the first book, you can identify with the Equalists. It makes sense. It just makes sense. You can understand why it would be very difficult to exist in a world where certain people could do things that you simply couldn’t, and that you could feel taken advantage of by that, by people who are using it for ill, so you know, you set out initially with Book 1, this conflict where a lot of people were talking right away, about like “I don’t know. There’s kind of a point.” And then the second book, we were talking about the spirits, and this idea that if that’s a threat, is it a threat because the human world has done something to create a situation in which it is now threatened by these spirits. Would they have been left alone had they been more balanced? And that’s sort of what we explore in Book 2.

– Noelene Clark | @NoeleneClark | Google+


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One Response to ‘Legend of Korra’ creators, star talk about show’s Eastern morality

  1. Kyla says:

    Makorra all the way! xD

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