PART TWO of the interview with Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko earlier in April
RM: Is the Avatar world flat or round?
BK: (spooky voice) It's round.
RM: It's round! Darn it!
BK: I don't see how it could be flat. Why are you even thinking about that?
RM: Well, it's the seasons. The kids fly from one pole to the other in a short amount of time and the season doesn't change.
BK: Um...let's not talk about that.
MDD: (laughter) It's one of those continuity things where you'll just have to go with it.
RM: Seriously, though, it's a testament to your show that so many scientifically-minded, left-brained people are such really big fans of it. We even have a physics doctoral candidate who specializes in researching black holes and she and I are always going back and forth on the cosmology of your universe.
MDD: She's gonna find a lot of mistakes. Plenty of 'black holes' for sure. Lots of suspension of disbelief right there.
RM: Okay, if the world is round, is there stuff on the other side, the opposite side of the map?
BK: Five years ago Mike and I talked about that. A lot of what you see wraps around to the other side of the round globe. The map you see is one of those distorted maps to make round appear flat. I think we had talked that a lot of the other hemisphere is water...is ocean. What else might be over there...who knows...
RM: Okay, next I know I'm going really left brained and you can call me a geek because I am, but in "The Fortuneteller" you have a pair of twins...kids...one is an earthbender and one isn't. So is bending genetic, or is it some sort of spiritual thing? How does it work?
BK: Mike and I just got new puppies. They're brothers. They have the same mother and father. Same litter. Mike's dog can just sit in a crate and be happy as a clam. My dog just loses all control...everything. Who knows why these things happen? They're beyond our full understanding.
MDD: Yeah, Katara's mom and dad weren't benders. Maybe it's a recessive gene. I've always seen it as more spiritual connections, though. A little bit mysterious...
BK: I mean we've definitely talked about it. I think, again, sometimes we might not know...it's more of what we don't want it to be. We didn't want it to be like there is a lineage...a royal family or something...and these people can bend and then there's everyone else as non-bending, people who never will. Some sort of caste system. Mike and I are more attracted to more of the flux type universe. The only constant is change, variation, that sorta thing. I'm sure it's a bunch of factors.
***Interviewers note: About 20 mins after the interview, Bryan came back to me and we spoke a little more about the basis of bending off recorder. He described bending as more of a talent. You have some genetic basis for potential, but you could go your whole life without developing the talent into ability. Some people have more inherent talent than others, while others with minimal inherent talent can still develop it through hard work and practice. He reiterated a connection to the spiritual energies is the underlying basis. How it manifests is based on upbringing and experience.
RM: So could Teo's people perhaps grow into the airbenders of the future?
BK: I think Teo's people are more refugees. They probably came together because they're not benders and really had no way to defend themselves. Then fell under this nutty guy who has his own skill and aura of authority. I don't think it's an ethnic group of non-benders, rather they were all just escaping the disasters of war.
MDD: Yeah, I think if you've gone through puberty and not found any bending abilities, you're probably not going to find them. I think it manifests early.
BK: Although that would make a pretty outrageous story. Some 80 year old guy...
MDD: "Wow, I never knew!"
BK: ...fire starts shooting out...
RM: I was just curious if the airbenders could just come back from the general population rather than necessarily having to come back through Aang or anyone else who came from the airbending lineage.
MDD: Aang is the last Airbender, so I don't think it's possible for Airbending to spontaneously develop in the general population.
RM: It seems like all the Air Nomads were benders. Did they exile everyone who didn't manifest the trait, or did they really have such a high percentage of born benders?
BK: We always have liked the idea of who will be a bender and who won't be to be kind of an ambiguous mystery, even to the people in the Avatar world. From early on we thought the Air Nomads would be all benders. Again it's like Mike was saying, it's more of a spiritual connection. But they have...they had...the smallest population. Earth Kingdom has the biggest population but the smallest percentage of benders. So yeah, there were these notions we kicked around that is wasn't going to be regimented or ruled through specific lineages. We liked the idea that each of the cultures have a different spiritual vantage point...coming at it from a different angle.
MDD: Then the Air Nomads would have been the most spiritual...the most connected to the spiritual energy of the Earth.
BK: But the most detached from society. More monastic.
RM: Did the Avatar pre-date other bending, or did bending predate the Avatar?
BK: We've definitely talked about that. But, in the event we ever did something with that, we'd rather not go into that. Mike and I for years have talked about that...over many a ping-pong game. We both find it really interesting, so we really don't want to just throw away something so integral to a story we might be telling.
RM: Can you talk about the origins of Ba Sing Se at all? It seems like it's been there a long time off in its own little world. General Chin had the choice of Ba Sing Se or Kyoshi's Peninsula. A city with big walls or The Avatar. Something about Ba Sing Se scared him more than Kyoshi. (shivers)
MDD: It's an ancient city and it's definitely been very cut off from the rest of the Earth Kingdom throughout the ages. It's kinda based on Chinese History. How the Forbidden City was off on its own and the Emperor wouldn't leave there...the safety of their kingdom...very often. It was also an interesting idea that a kid could be raised in this super confined area and never have seen the outside world. So yeah, Ba Sing Se's isolation is a tradition that's gone back for a looong time.
BK: In 220 you get the sense that maybe as an effect of Omashu and the origins of earthbending, all the tunneling, that the original Ba Sing Se was underground. Even at the start it was the epitome of being removed and protected. That's been in Ba Sing Se's DNA from the start. Even when it surfaced it was still walling everything off...like a shell.
RM: If you add up years, with Ozai ruling perhaps 10 years and Azulon around 23, that means Sozin ruled for 70 years after he started the war. How old was he when the war started?
BK: We do have a timeline we made quite a while ago.
MDD: Actually we have figured it all out. I can't quote it all off the top of my head right now, but there is an episode of season three where a lot of your questions about Roku and Sozin will be addressed. All about the war starting, stuff like that. Something to look forward to, so we don't want to speak publicly on that. Really, folks'll be happier if we don't.
***Post Interview note from Bryan*** "I checked the timeline, and without giving too much away, here's a breakdown: Sozin actually ruled for about 20 years after he started the war, so he was about 82 when he started the war. Azulon (born shortly after the comet came) ruled for about 75 years and died at the age of 95. Ozai has ruled for only 5 years. Those are the main milestones.)"
RM: Iroh said Zuko's father, grandfather, and great-grandfather had searched for the Avatar and failed. This suggests Ozai hasn't been sheltered in the palace all his life. Did Iroh join the military and then Ozai by default go search for the Avatar, or did Ozai actually want to go on the wild goose chase?
BK: Another good question. It may come from a misconception though. I always imagined that Sozin wasn't actually on the ship floating around looking for Aang. Rather he was sending his fleet out on the search.
MDD: The others weren't like Zuko.
RM: It was more metaphorically 'looking for the Avatar'.
BK: Yeah, all through the ages that was part of what they did. They'd always be sending out missions.
MDD: Part of the war budget.
BK: Yeah, it was like, "Sir, why are you spending so much on Avatar search? This is like the Holy Grail, you'll never find anything."
MDD: And anyway, by the time it came to Ozai, he realized, although he didn't know what happened, there was no way anyone was ever going to find him. That's why he sent Zuko off...
BK: A bit of a 'fool's errand'.
MDD: Yeah. The expectation was that he never would find anything.
RM: So Ozai may never have left the Fire Nation capitol?
BK: Ozai is not like some kind of palace dweller. We will say that. I'm not sure how much he's ventured out into the world, but he's not like the Earth King where he's isolated. The Fire Nation is a little more 'hands on'. It's not uncommon that you will have to fight or duel for political or military positions or purposes. There's a big difference. I think in the Fire Nation, unlike in Ba Sing Se, if there's a prince who's 30 years old, he's probably fought pretty intensely a few times. Had to prove his worth. Not unlike Japanese Samurai in their day. They had to make a name for themselves, they had to have some fame. Fire Nation, like a lot of other militaristic cultures throughout history, has warriors who have to prove themselves either through some battle, test of martial skill, or duel. Fire Nation's a little more aggressive like that. Ozai's not sitting around eating Bon Bon's in the palace, he's working out.
RM: Well it seems pretty clear he was making sure he was in the palace to take advantage of when Azulon wasn't there anymore.
BK: Yeah...one thing that is genetic is he and Azula. Manipulative, plotting genes swimming around.
RM: Did Ursa and Ozai choose each other or were they an arranged marriage?
MDD: I imagine they are arranged, but we have not talked about it. We have talked in general about the Fire Nation and that arranged marriages would be more common, especially in the royalty.
BK: Also, there was a time when it probably wasn't such a bad marriage. I think they probably started okay. Certainly better than it ended up.
RM: What about Zuko or Azula? Do they have arrangements?
BK: We had talked about some ideas we never ended up doing for season three where Azula had an arranged marriage. It's not something we followed through with, though.
RM: Can Zuko see out of his scarred eye?
BK: He can. He just can't open it very wide, the skin's not soft.
RM: It doesn't appear he can cry out of it, though, Schooltime Shipping notwithstanding, but that doesn't count.
BK: Yeah, the tear ducts also got burned up pretty good, but yeah, he can see.
RM: Ty Lee fascinates a lot of people. Where did you get the idea of her chi blocking?
BK: It's a very common notion in traditional Chinese martial arts...actually throughout all martial arts. It's very real, not some 'hocus pocus'. Kids don't try this at home, but there are nerve clusters in the body which can be used for healing using certain techniques or you can use them to interrupt body cycles and systems. I'm not an expert, but from what I've been taught most martial arts spend a fair amount of their curriculum regarding striking pressure points. They talk about interrupting the flow of chi. Benders are only as strong as their chi flow, they need this chi to flow from the breath, and then extend it past their body and manipulate or manifest the element. So as the chi is going from the breath and to the muscles, someone can interrupt that flow and they then can't bend. But it would work on a non-bender too because everybody needs chi. Chi can be translated as 'breath', the energy you get from breathing and oxygenation. So yeah, we thought it would be cool. We're always looking for some variety in skills and style. We thought it would make a cool character.
MDD: When we were coming up with Azula, we decided we wanted to have these two friends with her. We didn't want them to be firebenders . They wouldn't be as good as her, so why would she keep these other, lesser, firebenders around? So we decided that she would have basically picked out two people who had certain skills that she did not have. Ty Lee with her acrobatics and Mai with her super pin-point accuracy and quick draw skills.
BK: Azula, even as a child in the playground, was able to recognize people who were better than her in certain areas and keep them close until she either became as good as them or had need of them. She's always manipulating, always playing an angle.
RM: Is it accurate to refer to Mai as an assassin?
BK: Not exactly.
MDD: I don't think she's been hired for any assassin's duties yet.
RM: I mean her training...
BK: In my mind, her training came from boredom. It's more or less self-taught. She's our interpretation of a stereotypical goth teenager or something and I just imagined her in her dark bedroom throwing stuff into the wall. It just grew out of this boredom. As we mentioned at PMX, you have to use the term ninja carefully. Same with assassin. An assassin is someone hired to eliminate someone without a fight, or at least not a fair fight. That's pretty intense. So Mai's not an assassin.
BK: She's so accurate that she can just pin people without even touching flesh.
RM: Was Toph blinded by Ty Lee when she was chi blocked?
BK: Would she not have been able to see? Probably not.
MDD: Yeah it would have inhibited her ability to 'see'. But it wouldn't have lasted too long.
BK: I've been struck in pressure points. It's like a funny bone, but more intense. Your whole body, tension and awareness, just goes to one point. All your systems are interrupted. When you come out of it, it's kinda like pins and needles.
MDD: I think she would have been temporarily stunned. Kinda like the Star Trek stun setting on the phaser.
RM: I have to ask. Anything you can say about Iroh's experiences after Lu Ten's death and before he returned home to the Fire Nation capitol?
MDD: He definitely had a 'walkabout', if you will, where he left the battlefield and had some sort of journey throughout the world after Lu Ten's death and before he returned to the Fire Nation.
BK: We're seeing Iroh in his golden years, when he's been softened by loss which has changed his perspective on what's important to him and what's important in life. As we've shown and had talked about, he was once a serious military giant, a very capable general, and he was very fierce. To me he's such an interesting character because a lot of times people find themselves in situations which they happen to be very good at. He was born into this very powerful, aggressive family and just so happened to have a gift and the strength for it. But not all people are just one way, and he certainly had this gentle, kind side which appreciated life, all forms of life, and he could appreciate all cultures. If you look back on the great swordmasters of Asian history, a lot of them were artists, poets, masters of tea ceremony, actors, and the like. So I think when he lost something really near and dear, he went on a spiritual journey. He was lost and that other part of him was calmed. It's not gone, it's just not the most important thing to him anymore.
RM: So he was a very different man before the death of Lu Ten.
BK: Yeah. He was never a cruel man. But he was very good at what he did, and it was the role he was supposed to play. He went along with it, very successfully.
RM: So he would have been ready to use his grandfather's comet, Sozin's Comet, to wipe out the Earth Kingdom if he hadn't already done it the old fashioned way?
MDD: My impression is that he would be more strategic. Maybe a little more 'inventive'.
BK: Even back in the day he may have been into conquering, but...
MDD: He was more the pragmatic military guy.
BK: It was a job someone had to do. He didn't take pleasure in it, at least not in hurting people, but it had to be done. Now it's behind him. It's really important to Mike and I on the show that these aren't black and white characters. We love stories of redemption. That it's possible for people to elevate to something better than they started out with, or maybe that they fell into. That's really paramount to Mike and I.
RM: Have you thought about what was going through Iroh's mind when he got back home and his brother was on the throne?
BK: Yeah, we've thought about that. He was tired. He'd lost his appetite for power struggles and military might. He was like, "You want it, have it."
MDD: He wasn't going to put up a fight for it. He'd figured out during the journey what was really important. Being the Fire Lord was no longer on the top of that list.
BK: He'd scaled down his perspective. He'd always dealt with the world, continents, and armies and navies. Now he was just honed in on Zuko as a sort of adopted son. If he could just help this poor boy whose father had kinda abandoned him.
In the third and last installment, we discover what Sokka really saw in "The Swamp" and what motivated Zuko to join his sister in "The Crossroads of Destiny"!
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