Into the Badlands
" Into the Badlands is on Netflix and was an AMC TV series that was deeply rooted in Wuxia storytelling. It was a post-apocalyptic fantasy that mashed up many genres which ran from 2015 to 2019, and opened the door to several other Wuxia-derivative TV shows like YouTube's Cobra Kai, Netflix's Wu Assassins, Cinemax's Warrior, and the upcoming CW reboot of Kung Fu.
I participated in two set visits to Into the Badlands for Season 2 and 3 when they were filming near Dublin, Ireland and reported on it extensively. "
- Gene Ching, Immortal Studios' Associate Editor & Action Choreographer
If you don’t know the name Daniel Wu by now, he’s the martial artist to watch. Starring in AMC’s new series, Into the Badlands, Wu is an American-born Wushu champion and a founder of collegiate Wushu in the United States. He is also an award-winning Hong Kong leading man with over sixty films to his credit. With Into the Badlands, Wu ventures into something completely original, an unprecedented martial arts-laden television series from the same network that brought critically-acclaimed shows like Mad Men, Breaking Bad and The Walking Dead. “I’m so proud to be amongst those shows on the AMC roster,” says Wu. “They have a lot riding on this show. They’ve decided to go with something totally different, which is not like a formulaic list of things that they’ve gone through. Mad Men and Breaking Bad are two totally different shows and Into the Badlands is a totally ‘other’ different kind of show. They are willing to try and explore something completely different and try something fresh for television. I think that’s amazing. A lot of studios don’t have the balls to do that.”
And Now for Something Completely Different
“The show is martial arts drama but also has elements of Westerns, as well as steampunk, as well as all these other things mashed together,” explains Wu. Early press releases describe Into the Badlands as being loosely based on the Chinese classic Journey to the West. “I think it’s very, very, very, very loosely based on Journey to the West,” admits Wu. “We’re not really trying to emulate the story exactly, because the story of Journey to the West on the surface is basically how the Buddhist scriptures got from India to China, how Buddhism arrived in China. But all these sort of little challenges that the Monkey King sees along the way are actually the story of his enlightenment and his development as a character, because in the beginning he is a very rebellious, crazy, out-of-control monkey. And then through his journey with the monk as they go to the west and come back, he becomes an enlightened figure and he changes completely along the way. So we took that idea of a journey of enlightenment, a journey of transformation, for the main character of Badlands, Sunny. There are some tributes, like Sunny’s name is actually Sun Wukong (孫悟空) the Monkey King’s name. And then M.K. kind of stands for ‘monk’ but it’s not meant to be a literal translation of that story in any way.”
The production reunites Wu with his longtime associate, Hong Kong film maverick Stephen Fung. The two co-starred in Wu’s debut film Bishonen (1998) and continued to work together on many projects, such as Fung’s second directorial effort, the hilarious Kung Fu comedy, House of Fury (2005). “As soon as Stacey Sher [Executive Producer for Badlands] approached me to bring me on board, I brought him on board with me. We are already partners in our production company, Diversion Pictures, and we had produced Tai Chi Zero (2012), Control (2013), a couple of other films already. We’ve also worked with each other on Stephen’s directorial films for the past several years, so we’re very close in terms of creative thinking. Stephen became not only an Executive Producer, but he became the Fight Unit Director, and responsible for the whole look of all the martial arts of the show. Working with him, it was great because it was someone I could trust with all the technical side of making the martial arts of it. And having him direct all the action, we definitely got a certain level of quality out of all of it. That was an important thing – we wanted to bring that Hong Kong style to television and the only way to do that is to work with Hong Kong people. So we brought the Hong Kong action team, Master Dee Dee Ku’s action team as well, and then Stephen. Combined together, it was the three of us were responsible for the authenticity of the martial arts.”
Dee Dee Ku, also known as Ku Huen Chu (谷軒昭), is a veteran fight choreographer who has worked on both sides of the Pacific to bring Kung Fu action to such notable films as Once Upon a Time in China (1991), Fist of Legend (1994), Kill Bill 1 & 2 (2003, 2004), Kung Fu Hustle (2004), Expendables 2 (2012) and dozens more. “Dee Dee, I’ve worked with him for a long time. On a couple of Yuen Woo Ping’s projects, he was Yuen Woo Ping’s right hand man. Going all the way back to The Banquet (2006), or the Curse of the Black Scorpion as they called it in the United States, I worked with him on that. I think the most recent was That Demon Within (2014). When we were thinking of choreographers that we could work with on Badlands, Dee Dee was the first one because of his experience with American projects, with the Matrix series, Crouching Tiger and all that stuff. So his English speaking communication was adequate enough to get along with American crews and he’s also experienced with working with American crews and working with unions and that kind of stuff that a lot of Hong Kong people don’t have to deal with. He ended up being one of the greatest parts of the show, I think, because his ability, his working crew, the people he brought on, they’re amazing.”
Wu credits Ku as being able to transform the rest of the cast into martial artists. “We had a six-week fight camp and brought them in for intensive training.” Ku managed to get Aramis Knight (who plays M.K.) to do aerial cartwheels in that short period. “Emily Beecham (who plays Widow) had a lot of progress as well in her fight scenes. She has one fight scene that was pretty incredible. It’s mostly her on her own. This is all due to Dee Dee’s really great ability in picking what people are really good at and making that shine. He didn’t try to get her to do stuff that she wasn’t good at, or that she could do very well. He picked out stuff during the training sessions that he saw potential in and worked on moves that she could use.”
Unlike the overdone Superhero genre, Into the Badlands made an effort to avoid relying too heavily on computer-generated image special effects. “There’s a little bit, you’ll see as the story develops, there’s a martial arts power that the kid develops. There’s a little bit of CGI there, but not much at all. Most of it is done with in-camera tricks and anything CGI is simple stuff like wiping away wires, things like that. We wanted to keep it as analog as possible so people could enjoy the action for the action’s sake.” The intention was to showcase the martial arts. “In several of our fight scenes, we have long shots, like a 20- or 30-second shot with 10 to 20 moves. We do try to keep it like Hong Kong action. If the performer is able to perform a long shot, we use them as long as we possibly can. If we can get them to do 20 or 30 moves in a row without cutting away, we let that happen. That’s always an amazing thing to see – a straight fight without any cuts in it.”
For Wu, he had to dust off his old Wushu skills to make Sunny as authentic as possible, but he is quick to say he didn’t do all of his own stunts. “All the dangerous stuff the studio doesn’t allow me to do, stuff that looks like I might get hurt on, stuff like that. Most of the stuff I’m doing myself.” But the martial stuff was mostly him, especially the sword fighting. “At first, I hadn’t done sword-fighting in a long time so it was like, ‘Aw, this is going to be tough…on me’ – especially double sword because my left hand has always been my weaker point when I did double weapons in the past. So in the six-week fight camp I just focused on working on double weapon fighting the whole time. I actually got pretty good at it and got my old skills back. I ended up actually having more fun with that than with the fist and kick stuff.”
What’s more, Wu was able to design his own swords. He got to work with Weta Workshops in New Zealand, the preeminent weapon designers for film today that came to prominence with the Lord of the Rings films. “There was a lot of thought about sword design. I really got excited about that because we wanted to make a sword that you could not necessarily pick out culturally. So it’s not really a traditional katana. It looks like double katanas. They’re single edged like the katana but they’re straight like the jian. But they actually work like a dao. But they look like katanas. They’re lighter like katanas. We actually gone through several renditions. This had been a dream of mine having done martial arts my whole life, being able to design your own sword based on experiences you had in the past, right?”
Keeping that high production value of the fights is more difficult than it sounds. Television works much faster than film. “One thing we realized, why no one has done this before, it’s extremely difficult in terms of just scheduling. Trying to get all the fights and drama shot in the time we have allotted. It’s an average of 8 to 10 days per episode so we had very little time to do two major fight scenes per block of time. The way we did it is we had a fight unit and a main unit. The main unit is shooting all the drama. The fight unit is only shooting action stuff. And we’re shooting at the same time, so Monday through Friday is the drama unit and then Tuesday through Saturday is the action unit. In a lot of cases, I’d go to the drama unit for a couple hours and then rush over to the fight unit and fight all day long. A lot of times, what they had to do because I can’t be there for the fight, because I’m shooting drama, if they’re shooting say me and Emily fighting, they’ll put in my double while the shooting occurs for her side of the fight. She’s fighting my double not because I can’t fight it. It’s because I can’t be there physically. So she’s fighting with somebody else, and if I can get there in time, I’ll slip in and replace that person. But that’s strictly a time thing. It’s not about skills. It’s about being efficient and shooting as much as possible.
“You need time. For example, we have a rain fight scene which you’ve probably seen in the trailer. It’s equivalent of The Grandmaster (2013) rain fight scene. We were going for that level. That Grandmaster rain fight scene took a month to film. We did it in six days. And so we’re doing incredible things that we’re jamming through very short amount of time. First of all, they can only be done with a Hong Kong crew. They can work that fast. And then secondly, the way we’re doing it splitting up the drama unit and the fight unit, splitting up the people like that. Otherwise it would be almost impossible to get it done.”
From Wushu Pioneer to Asian American Pioneer
With Into the Badlands, Wu is the first Asian male in the lead role of a non-comedic American TV show. Fresh Off the Boat is an ensemble cast and a comedy. John Cho’s failed Selfie and Ken Jeong’s failing Dr. Ken are also both comedies. Even Pat Morita’s short-lived 1976 show Mr. T and Tina (a derivation of the Karate Kid films) and even Sammo Hung’s two-season millennial show Martial Law (a derivation of Rush Hour films) were also comedies. Into the Badlands is all about action and drama, and Wu’s character Sunny even has a non-Asian romantic interest in Dr. Veil (Madeleine Mantock). However, Wu initially balked at taking the lead. “I was brought on board by Stacey Sher to bring authenticity to the martial arts side of the show. And the whole time I was thinking that we should be casting somebody in their late 20s early 30s, so I never really put myself into the equation. And then once the casting process started, which was like a year-and-a-half later after working on the project, we put our feelers out. I think they tested over a 100-something people, and we looked at all the tapes that they liked a lot. And everyone turned to me in the end and said, ‘Okay…can you do it?’
“And my major concern was that the proportion of fights per show is about two per episode – two major fights per episode. And I was thinking, first of all, I haven’t done martial arts action in a long time. I took a few years of time off from doing it. And secondly, I was already 40 at that point. Can I be able to do that for the next 5 or 6 years if the show does well? I’m not sure if I can do that, so let’s cast someone younger, someone who can last that 5 or 6 years. So we sent our feelers out there and they turned back to me because of multiple requirements. The studio definitely wanted the lead to be Asian. They wanted the person to be able to speak perfect English. And they had to know how to act already, to not be a new person, to have martial arts experience, and also have some name. So the number of people you can go to for that is very slim already. In the end, for them the acting was the most important. To me, the martial arts side was really more important, but to them, the acting was much more important. And so we had gone through a lot of martial artists that had no acting experience and they realized that person could not carry a show. And so eventually then, they turned back to me and said, ‘Well, can you do it?’ I’m like, ‘Okay, let me give it a shot.’ So when we were auditioning the kid, I read with the kid and the studio saw that and they said, ‘Daniel, just do it.’”
Wu has already amassed a very eclectic filmography, even for an Asian star. He’s done drama, thrillers, rom-coms, quirky roles, and a wide range of diverse characters. “If you live in Asia, you understand that that’s the way things are. To be a successful actor here, you have to be able to do everything. But in the States, it’s not like that. Basically, if you do one thing, you do that your whole career. And so I’m out to show that I can do more than just one genre.”
The only typical Asian star thing Wu doesn’t do is sing and dance. “That’s one thing I’ve avoided my whole career, except for when I made that film The Heavenly Kings. That was poking fun at that whole pop idol thing that happens here in Asia where almost every actor does sing and dance.” Wu directed that film and won the 2006 Best New Director at the prestigious Hong Kong Film Awards for it. He has also racked up two nominations in both the Hong Kong Film Awards and Taiwan’s coveted Golden Horse Film Awards. In 2001, he won the Golden Horse Best Supporting Actor for his role in Jackie’s New Police Story.
However, it’s been hard for Asian male actors to break into Hollywood. Martial artists are the only ones who have really succeeded, but even that has been fraught with challenges and typecasting. Bruce Lee died young. Despite his iconic status today, he didn’t live to see the release of his only Hollywood effort, the now classic Enter the Dragon (1973). Jackie’s Hollywood debut came in 1980 with The Big Brawl (a.k.a. Battle Creek Brawl). His film career actually started in 1962 as a child actor; he was credited in over two dozen films and uncredited in dozens more. Jet’s Hollywood debut was as a villain in Lethal Weapon 4 (1998). He had already been the lead in two dozen films. Donnie Yen had supporting roles in the Highlander and Blade franchises near the flip of the millennium, but he’s still not recognized outside the martial arts film genre. After over five dozen films, Donnie might finally catch Hollywood’s attention next year with Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon 2 and Star Wars: Rogue One.
Unlike Jackie’s and Jet’s struggle to be taken seriously as dramatic actors, Wu has already played many dramatic roles – with more to come – so he’s not worried about being typecast in Hollywood. “The reason why I haven’t done martial arts films in a while is because I’ve seen – you talk about Jackie and a lot of people who wanted to be taken seriously in drama – and I had already opened the path for myself doing drama, as my first film was a big dramatic challenge. I went that way rather than becoming the action star. Being more versatile. If you can play dramatic roles and also fight, then you have a much broader spectrum of things you can go to versus if you start off just doing action and you’re only perceived as an action star, it’s hard to go back. I ended up doing it that way, being taken more seriously as an actor that can also fight. And also making conscious choices making sure I do dramatic roles versus action ability or action skill, developing a career that way, so I’m not so worried about it. I know I have that talent and that ability behind me, so I can totally turn down roles. I can be stereotyped through Badlands, but I can always turn down the other offers that come after that and look for things that are more dramatically challenging. And that’s why I’m glad that Warcraft is going to come after Badlands because that character is really a dramatic role, a motion-capture role. It’s not an action-based role at all. So it shows more diversity in terms of my ability skills-wise. And then I go on to another movie, Geostorm, which is going to come out after Warcraft, which I finished already. It’s a big Gerard Butler end-of-the-world type of movie. I play another role that is very, very different than the Badlands character. So I’m coming out of the gates consciously choosing a wide range of roles to let people know that I have that ability and I’m not just an action guy.”
Wu confidently looks forward to breaking into a brighter Hollywood spotlight. “It’s kind of awesome. I’ve made a couple attempts before in the past to try to come back home and work in the States. And I think at that time, maybe ten years ago, most people in Hollywood were not aware of the Asian market at all in general. In the past few years, you see movies like Transformers 4 make more money in China than it did in the States or anywhere else in the world. Then you have Hollywood paying attention and now that’s driven the catalyst of bringing Asian actors to the States. And I started seeing that happening with other actors, and I’m like, ‘Wait, that guy or that girl, she speaks no English and she’s doing American product. Maybe I should give this another chance.’ And being American-born Chinese, I’m like, ‘Wait a minute, I speak English fluently. America is my home. I really should be doing this. I should really be making an effort to come back home and work back home.’ I started seriously doing it maybe two years ago, Warcraft being one of the first projects. I think Badlands is a more amazing project because it kind of highlights everything that I’ve been trained to be good at in Asia, that I’ve spent almost twenty years building a career at. As well as being the lead in the project? That’s amazing too. AMC is willing to put an Asian-American in the lead of a big huge American show. It shows that their mentality shift has changed a lot. We’ve moved a long way since Sixteen Candles (1984) Long Duk Dong, I guess. So I’m proud to be part of that movement in the American media landscape. Let’s see if it works.”
The Journey to the West
Into the Badlands is a groundbreaking crossover project for AMC, not just for the West but for the East too. “I know it’s definitely being shown in Hong Kong for sure because they’ve already started asking me for interviews. In China, I’m not sure on what television platform but I know that through their internet portals, Walking Dead and all that stuff is all available over internet through subscription services there. It’s definitely one of AMC’s goals is to spread further into the Asian region.” Wu says that they’ve already begun work on Season Two, although AMC hasn’t yet green-lit that at this writing.
What’s more, back here in America, AMC has launched Kung Fu Fridays as a warm-up for Into the Badlands. “That was kind of our idea, actually. When we pitched the show, they immediately asked us what would help audiences understand this genre a little better. Well, when I was a kid growing up [in the San Francisco Bay Area], we had Kung Fu Theater, on KTSF, with Tat Mau Wong. Remember that? I grew up watching that and that’s how I got my vocabulary of Kung Fu film. They said, ‘Yeah, we should do something like that.’ So then we suggested a whole bunch of titles for them to acquire and they started playing the Kung Fu Friday thing.”
Despite Wu’s extensive dramatic background, ultimately Into the Badlands comes down to the martial arts. He is coming home, home to America and home to the martial arts that he loves. “At the highest level, we are definitely making the show for people who are enthused by this genre of filmmaking. We really hope that we are pleasing those people. We’re really making it for them. A lot of AMC executives had no idea of what martial arts is about so we went and took carte blanche and tried to do what we thought was right and what martial artists will think is cool. We’re trying to please the higher echelon of the audience – the people who know martial arts and have been watching this stuff since they were kids. If we can impress them, that’s our ultimate goal.”
By Gene Ching