Why Netflix’s ‘Avatar’ Added Lyrics to ‘Secret Tunnel,’ Made ‘Leaves From the Vine’ Instrumental and Revamped the End Credits Song

Rexa Vella

Why Netflix’s ‘Avatar’ Added Lyrics to ‘Secret Tunnel,’ Made ‘Leaves From the Vine’ Instrumental and Revamped the End Credits Song

Two of the most memorable songs from Nickelodeon’s “Avatar: The Last Airbender” made their way into Netflix’s new adaptation of the series. Instead of making viewers wait for a second season to hear “Secret Tunnel” and “Leaves From the Vine,” the live-action version moves both to the fourth episode of Season 1.

In “The Cave of Two Lovers,” the second episode of the original series’ second season, Aang and his friends meet a band of musical nomads who lead them through an underground cave network into the earthbending city of Omashu. Along they way, they sing “Secret Tunnel,” an infectiously simple and upbeat earworm that became a fan-favorite.

“The Tales of Ba Sing Se,” Episode 15 of Season 2, is regarded as one of “Avatar’s” best episodes, eschewing the show’s usual format to instead present six vignettes about different characters. One of the most poignant moments in the entire series comes during Uncle Iroh’s vignette, which features the retired general memorializing his late son, Lu Ten. Iroh sings “Leaves From the Vine (Little Soldier Boy”), a touching eulogy to his son, followed by a title card dedicating the episode to Iroh’s voice actor Mako Iwamatsu, who died of cancer before it aired.

Netflix’s live-action “Avatar” puts both songs in slightly different contexts. In Episode 4, Katara (Kiawentiio) and Sokka (Ian Ousley) encounter the same “Secret Tunnel” singers without Aang (Gordon Cormier), and the song is preceded by new lyrics: “When you find yourself in darkness / And all you see are rocks and stones / Remember that a precious gift must bury deep inside / So dig a bit and you will find / Jewel of my heart.”

Later, an orchestral rendition of “Leaves From the Vine” plays during a flashback scene, where a younger Zuko (Dallas James Liu) comforts Iroh (Paul Sun-Hyung Lee) during Lu Ten’s funeral.

Composer Takeshi Furukawa, who was a fan of the Nickelodeon show before joining Netflix’s version, spoke with Variety about writing an new song to pair with “Secret Tunnel,” working with a massive orchestra in Vienna to record “Leaves From the Vine” and a fateful phone call with the composer of the original series.

COURTESY OF NETFLIX

This version of “Secret Tunnel” has more lyrics than the original. How did you expand it for the Netflix adaptation?

There are two songs. There’s the original song that I wrote, which is called “Jewel of My Heart,” and they’re singing that when Sokka picks up the shaker. Then as they’re entering the tunnel, you will hear the minstrels start singing “Secret Tunnel.” It was a collaboration with showrunner Albert Kim. The original lyrics were something like, “Far atop the Kolau Mountains, lies a city called Omashu.” But then Albert wanted to stay away from the Omashu reference so directly, so we changed it to “Jewel of My Heart,” which I think is better.

Were the actors the ones who actually sang the song for the recording?

A lot of the minstrel actors are musically trained. We recorded the music first so that we would have onset playback. There are digital magics that could be done for singing — we could tune them and make sure that they’re perfectly in pitch — but we didn’t, because they’re these kooky minstrels with that pseudo-janky vibe. We didn’t need to make them sound like Celine Dion.

“Leaves From the Vine” is such a moving song. How did you approach adapting it to appear so much earlier in the series?

Albert told me that “Leaves From the Vine” was an important theme for him because it’s emotional in the original. He always knew in our version he wanted to somehow bring it. It’s the soul and part of the big identity of the show. We talked about where the music was going to go, and that Lu Ten funeral moment. We decided to put “Leaves From the Vine” there. It’s so epic. It needed to be a very intimate sound: Whereas the rest of the score is this huge orchestra just going at it most of the time, we really stripped it down to that solo piano and the strings. Every time I hear string sections when I’m conducting, it makes my hair stand up. That was the exact color that scene needed. It’s one of the highlights for the season for me, because I love that kind of musical writing. It’s as close to my musical lexicon as it gets; it’s just my voice.

Along with the string orchestra, was there anything else you did to amp up the song?

Netflix really supported us both financially and logistically. We had a 98-piece orchestra and a 72-piece choir, which is massive. I’ve never seen an orchestra this huge for a TV series. It rivals and beats some of the big blockbuster films. It’s not everyday that you get 98 highly qualified, world-class musicians. We recorded in Vienna, one of the most musical cities in the world. When you do that, automatically, the scope gets elevated because you have that many people pouring their hearts out.

Did you ever discuss incorporating some of the original lyrics?

No, I think we always knew that this was going to be an instrumental rendition. There’s just something about the orchestra, and particularly the strings, which gives you goosebumps.

Do you imagine it as a one-off song for Iroh, or perhaps a recurring theme we’d hear again? I need to hear more of it in the future!

You and me both. I love what we were able to accomplish emotionally in that scene. Iroh has his theme and a signature instrument that I was able to craft and put my stamp on for this score. I don’t see a reason why not. I mean, if the opportunity arises for more “Leaves From the Vine,” one could use more of that.

What other musical moments are you proud of?

For me, the interesting arc is Katara, and also Zuko. The end of Episode 6 is really where Zuko’s theme culminates. We actually scored it out of order; I asked the producers if I could write Episode 6 much earlier than they had planned it. I wanted to make sure that Zuko’s theme was solidified, because it culminates at the end of Episode 6, and we would be able to see that earlier on throughout his appearances. And I love Katara’s theme, which is also the water theme. We had to make sure that Katara’s theme was going to work at the Northern Water Tribe and when she’s still fumbling as a young waterbender trying to make things work. Then the theme gets bolder and bolder.

I hope we’ve upped the end credits as well. We were able to bring that back from the original series, and I just did my take on it. It was a really cool moment because that vocal percussion is so distinct — I couldn’t reverse engineer it. I was having trouble, and I told Netflix. They put me in touch with [original “Avatar” composer] Jeremy Zuckerman. He was so kind; we connected and I was able to pick his brain. He would start beat-boxing on the phone, telling me there’s this layer, and that one is going underneath it. He would just do it and you could hear it on the phone. I was taking copious notes. We went and recorded it, and we were able to make our version of the end credits and it was really fun.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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