When was the last time you saw a martial arts show on your telly? That’s all changed with Into the Badlands, AMC’s kick-ass (literally) new series, which sees a warrior – Sunny (Daniel Wu) – and a young boy – M.K. (Aramis Knight) – search for enlightenment in a ruthless world controlled by feudal barons.
Visually stunning and violently brutal, it’s unlike anything else on the TV at the moment (you can read our review of Episode 1 here). That’s even truer in the UK, as the six-episode first season premieres exclusively on Amazon Prime Video every Tuesday, within 48 hours of the US broadcast.
We caught up with Daniel Wu, who Exec Produces the show as well as stars in it – not bad for a guy going on 41. The martial arts veteran certainly has the bumps to show for it, juggling acting, producing and fighting on a daily basis to put the show together. We chat ti him about the rise of VOD, the challenges of shooting fight sequences on a tight TV schedule, and the fun of making moves up as you go along…
We’re trying to remember the last time there was a martial arts show on TV…
Yeah! I think it’s Martial Law, which was… 15 years ago. And then… Kung Fu 40 years ago. And Walker Texas Ranger.
So how on earth did Into the Badlands happen?
I was brought on board early on and [fellow Executive Producer] Stacey Sher had just started getting into television and I think she was at the premiere of The Man with the Iron Fists and ran into Joel Stillerman [President of Original Programming] at AMC and they wound up having a conversation about why no one was doing martial arts on television, basically. And all of a sudden, it was like “Wait, we should be doing this”. And that’s how this idea started.
How did you get involved?
Then about a week later, Stacy called me and said we want to do this, can you help me construct a team? Strictly as an EP, I brought on Stephen Fung, who became our Fight Director, but is also an EP, and eventually Master Dee Dee [Huan-Chiu Ku] and his stunt team to help with the filming. But originally, the four of us – me, Stephen, Stacey and Michael Shamberg – we went searching for script writers and showrunners and we found Alfred [Gough] and Miles [Millar] and it just os happened they wanted to do a martial arts TV show as well and they had the experience of doing stuff like Shanghai Noon and Shanghai Knights so they know the martial arts genre pretty well and seemed to be a perfect fit. So they went off and wrote the pilot, we loved it, and then we started to work on the pitch.
Was it hard to convince AMC to give it the go-ahead?
Actually, that was the easiest part of it all! It was like a two-hour pitch and we were expecting a two or three-week wait, but they called us back an hour later and said “Let’s do it”. And so we spent the next year putting our deal together and fleshing out the whole project to get ready to shoot.
Did you always plan to star in it?
No! Not right away. Two reasons. I mentioned The Man with the Iron Fists. Even though I”m in that movie, I like it a lot, but it is very camp and kitsch and I couldn’t imagine doing that for five or six years, in that tone, you know? It gets old after a while. So I was a little bit reserved and waited until the script came out. Then when the script came out, it was great and wasn’t like that at all: very serious. It’s what you see now, basically.
The other issue was the age factor! I felt like, if this show’s a success and goes for five or six years, then that means this person is going to be fighting five or six years straight. The first season is only six episodes, but there are 12 major fights and Sunny is involved in 11 of those. So we shot those fights over a four-month period and it was extremely difficult. I knew that was going to be tough, so I figured we need to find an athlete in their prime. It’s like being a manager of a sports team trying to choose the future star of your team.
I didn’t put myself, because I’m like a Kobe Bryant. I went into retirement and even though I kept martial arts up as a hobby, I didn’t do it as a profession… I mean, it’s taxing on your body. I knew to sustain my future as an actor it may not be necessarily martial arts stuff. So it was like Kobe Bryant coming out of retirement at 38 years old trying to perform like he did when he won the championships! I expressed my issue and said we need to find somebody younger because of that and we got either great martial artists who couldn’t act or good actors that didn’t know any martial arts, but that didn’t work for us. We needed someone who was authentically able to fight – it couldn’t be doubles all the way through.
How different is that fighting process for TV, compared to film?
In a movie, for example – you know, in a typical Jackie Chan movie – there are three or four major fight sequences shot over a six-month period, so there’s a lot of time for downtime to rest your body and all that kind of stuff. Plus you’re only going one unit all the way through, so you don’t have to jump back and forth between units and you’re not short for time. But the TV schedule, we’re shooting eight days per episode and that includes the fighting in those days on top of all the drama! And for Sunny, because I’m in like 70 per cent of the drama and all of the fight scenes, I’m honestly jumping back between two units once or twice a day. It’s very physically challenging – I basically had to be in two places at the same time!
And then you had to juggle that with the Exec Producer role as well!
I had a trailer that I never went to! Because I’d get there in the morning and be on set all day long until the end of the day because there was no time to rest!
“We’re not really sure what the next move is! So there’s this element of danger…”
How much input did you have with the fight sequences?
Stephen and I, we’ve known each other for 18 years. We’ve worked together as producers for five years. Master Dee Dee I’ve worked with on four or five projects and Stephen used him on his first film. So there’s kind of a shorthand between the three of us and we just bounce ideas off each other and just figure out what works and what looks good. What wins out in the end is the visual. When we were doing the fight camps, Stephen was already starting to choreograph the fights with Dee Dee and shooting them on a small, like, DV camera. So we would pre-visualise some of the stuff and review that – that looks cool, that doesn’t look cool, let’s switch this out for this, you know – and we would do that on the day as well, while we were shooting. We know the beginning and end points, but while we’re filming stuff might change and we’ll just have to re-learn something right there on the spot and just do it.
That’s surprising to a lot of Western filmmakers. Because, for example, The Matrix, they spent months training beforehand, pre-choreographed all the fights, learned them like the back of their hands. We don’t really work that way! We kind of rough it out and on set just shoot it. The Matrix, the Laurence Fishburne and Keanu Reeves fight, it’s a great fight, but you can see anticipation, you can see they already know what the next move is. But we’re not really sure what the next move is! So there’s this element of danger there. It makes the film slightly more, just milliseconds different, when you’re a little bit late on a block than if you pre-block before a punch comes out. So that adds a bit of tension to the fight. Most of the time when we filming, I would let them work it out and I would see if I could do it or not – if I could do it, we’d work it out. If I couldn’t, we’d try something else! We would rehearse it four or five times just to see if it was physically possible!
I’m already training for next season, even though we haven’t been green-lit, because I need to get my body ready for it… For me, especially at my age, it’s not just speed and power I need to work on, but also getting my body to recover faster and also not getting hurt – protecting all my joints and that stuff. Whereas in my twenties I didn’t think about that at all, I just went and did it.
Did that shift away from just going and doing it towards more serious acting happen naturally as you’ve grown older?
I think that comes with experience as well. I often said to myself “I wish this role came to me 10 years ago”, but I don’t think I was necessarily ready, craft-wise, 10 years ago. Sunny’s relations with M.K. is, in some ways, a father-son relationship. I’ve had a kid in the past few years, I’ve got married, all these things inform your acting and help me create the role of Sunny, I think. Having a bit more experience helped me be a bit more solid with him.
Into the Badlands premieres directly on Amazon Prime Video in the UK. What’s your view of online TV?
I think that’s the sort of trend that TV is heading towards. People are getting busier and busier these days and no one has the time to watch a show at the scheduled time. Sunday night at 10 o’clock, some people have got work in the morning at 7, so it’s not a good time for them. It just makes it harder for us to calculate how many people are watching! But I think it’s great for people to have many different ways to access TV now and I think that’s why TV has had a resurgence and the quality has gotten better in the past 10 years. Movies have gotten a little bit boring, in fact, because it’s all superhero movies. Remember the 1990s, when all the cool indie movies were coming out all the time? That’s kind of died out and that’s now transferred to television and all those actors have gone to TV now. The more interesting characters are on TV rather than film – at least, commercially.
Do you use any subscription VOD services?
I have Netflix, I have Amazon. Because I was an Amazon Prime member from ordering stuff, they gave me the TV stuff, so it’s great. I also have the Amazon Prime box in my house too. It’s really cool. Someone gifted it to me at first and I started to use and was like: “Oh wow, this is actually good!” I’m watching right now Fresh Off the Boat, the ABC Asian-American sitcom, because the kid Hudson Yang came to our premiere in LA and I’m supporting that kid: me and him are the only Chinese-Americans leading TV shows in the US right now! I’m watching The Walking Dead, of course. Orange Is the New Black. And Game of Thrones is actually my number one show, but I’m still waiting for March to come round to watch it…
Into the Badlands Episodes 1 and 2 are now available to watch on Amazon Prime Video in the UK, as part of a £5.99 monthly subscription – or, if you want free next-day delivery for Amazon products, as part of a full £79 annual Amazon Prime membership. New episodes of Into the Badlands arrive every Tuesday.
Photos: James Dimmock / AMC