Daniel Wu Talks INTO THE BADLANDS Season Two
Season 2 of AMC’s “Into The Badlands” premiered on March 19th, and if the first three episodes are any indication, viewers are in store for the same stellar martial arts action, mythical characters (with the addition of Nick Frost’s “Bajie”) and dramatic, near Shakespearean-like storylines of the first season, but taken to an unprecedented new level of badassery. I got the chance to sit down and chat with the show’s star and Executive Producer, Daniel Wu, about a number of different topics, including the direction Season 2 is headed in, his contributions to the writer’s room, Iron Fist, how the fact that the cast is now well-trained in martial arts leads to a greater variety of fight scenes (e.g. Krav Maga, Jiu-Jitsu, Jackie-Chan-esque fights), how an abandoned spa resort in Dublin, Ireland served as the perfect, anachronistic sound stage for multiple interior sets, the Ghost in the Shell casting controversy, Sunny’s seven different wardrobe changes this season, Mr. Wu’s upcoming roles in the new Tomb Raider and Geostorm films, and much more.
Tau: First of all, congrats on Season 2! I saw the first three episodes, and to me, the series is probably the best show on AMC. The most action-packed and thrilling one at least.
Wu: Cool, thanks man. I’m proud of this season because I feel we’ve stepped it up from last season.
Tau: Definitely, I really got that sense too. As far as the genre of martial arts shows, or shows involving fighting, you’re show is probably the only one out there right now: there is Iron Fist, however, but I saw that several critics were saying that Into The Badlands is a cure for how bad Iron Fist is.
Wu: (laughing) yeah, at first I was nervous about the competition. But now I kind of feel bad for them, because they are getting slammed so hard. It’s one thing to be bad or whatever about the martial arts, it is still something that a lot of people put a lot of effort into, so to get slammed like that – I’ve definitely worked on projects where I’ve been on that end of the stick before and so it kind of sucks. I’m happy for us but at the same time kind of feel bad for them, but [simultaneously] it’s like if you’re going to do a martial arts show, then you’ve got to step the fuck up.
Tau: And also the controversy or cultural appropriation issue of how they could have went with an Asian American lead –
Wu: Yeah but you know what, I think that’s people going a little too precocious on that because originally the character was written white – it wasn’t like it was a whitewashing thing. It’s not like you are talking about a “Ghost in the Shell issue,” right? And I still don’t actually buy the Ghost in the Shell whitewashing issue either, and I certainly don’t buy into the cultural appropriation bullshit because that’s saying [for Iron Fist] that “only Asians are allowed to do martial arts” then that means only black people can play basketball and rap? That means Jeremy Lin shouldn’t be playing basketball? And Eminem shouldn’t be rapping? That’s bullshit, you know. So I know Asian Americans are angry, but they should calm down and choose the correct fight in that case – I agree that Marvel missed the chance of doing something interesting and casting against the race – they could have done that – and that would have given them some credit, but they didn’t, so what are you going to do about it? I think the important thing is that everyone learned a lesson from that – including people that weren’t involved, so I think we just need to move forward, that’s all.
Tau: That’s one great aspect about your show – that its centered by an Asian American lead and just historically, there probably hasn’t been too many action/drama shows like that – I’m just thinking of Russell Wong in Vanishing Son and that’s the only example I can think of off the top of my head. So I think that’s really exciting I’m sure to many Asian American viewers.
Wu: What I’m most proud about is that we’re not waving the Asian American flag around – we’re not going “this is an Asian American show” – it’s just a cool show, that just so happens to have an Asian American lead, you know? And I think that is kind of more interesting to me than [saying] “we’re going to make a show that puts Asian Americans out there.” I’m not sure if I really want to be involved in [something like] that. Going back to when I was in college, I was part of the Asian American Student Union, I remember that there was a lecture one day about Asian American art, there were a couple of artists and a couple of gallery people and they were talking about how they needed to create an Asian American community for Asian American artists and blah, blah, blah and I actually raised my hand and I go – I was studying architecture at the time – “look, I’m studying architecture, I want to be known as a good architect, not just a good Chinese American architect,” you know what I mean? So that puts us in a corner. To be able to be truly successful Asian American [artists] I feel that you have to be successful to the mainstream audience and not just a niche. Of course we want the Asian American audience to back us up on this, but we also want a larger audience, we want Black America, we want Latin America, we want White America, we want everybody to like this show.
Tau: It’s clear that it’s a high-quality show first and foremost, that doesn’t necessarily have a cultural or political agenda – and that’s part of its success.
Wu: Yeah, there’s no agenda. Our agenda is just to create a show that kicks a lot of ass on TV and I think we’re doing that.
Tau: I think the same goes for a lot of shows like Fresh Off the Boat, Dr. Ken, etc. – they are funny and well-written and it just so happens that they portray this aspect of America, from the different perspectives of these characters.
Wu: It’s interesting to see on ABC that they have Blackish (about an African American family), The Goldbergs (a Jewish American family) and Fresh Off The Boat (about a Taiwanese American family) because all three are pretty similar shows, the premises are similar, just about different types of families in the white suburbs. I think all three are successful because whatever race you are, you’ve felt that experience before, being a fish out of water.
Tau: I feel one of the reasons why your show is so successful is the quality of the writing – there are so many things going on with Season 2, and reviewing Season 1 – I thought that there was a lot of overarching, almost Shakespearean themes with the family of Quinn [Martin Csokas] and Lydia [Orla Brady] and Ryder [Oliver Stark] as well as Jade [Sarah Bolger] and how Lydia went back to her father – and an interesting arc with MK [Aramis Knight] where he is confronting his dark side which reminded me of an arc in the Naruto manga/anime, a similar trope.
Wu: Actually that idea came from somewhere else, these books I read when I was learning martial arts – written by Carlos Castaneda, called The Teachings of Don Juan: A Yaqui Way of Knowledge and its actually about (laughing) hallucinogenic drugs and spiritual awakening, using mescaline and peyote and all those things – so the character was led by a Shaman and he would take these drugs and go into a trance and he would meet his darker side. And peyote and all these drugs were meant for the warrior class of Native Americans, and what they would do is at 13 or 14 they would make [boys] take this stuff and they would get high, and they would go into this other trance state and they would fight their darker selves, and when they won that self, they became a man. And once you were able to battle [and beat] that demon, you finally were a real man, and a true warrior. So I gave that idea to the writer’s room in the beginning.
Tau: That’s actually my question – to the extent that you are an EP, the writing is really strong, what can we look forward to Season 2 for the writing and how much are you involved in that?
Wu: This season we are going to get back to what we really wanted to write the story about – that it’s a spiritual journey for all the characters, especially Sunny, especially MK, it’s all about a spiritual transformation – so everyone is going through something different in their lives but they are all going through a change. And so Sunny’s transformation is that in Season 1, his backstory is that he’s only killed his whole life, he’s killed all these people, 444 people, and suddenly, with the realization that he’s created a life, everything changed for him at that point – and it almost threw him into a whirlwind where he couldn’t function, saying he really did not want to kill anymore, I don’t understand that this is the right thing, etc., and he is realizing that he has been brainwashed. So suddenly, he’s trying to get out of that situation. Now, he’s focused on how his girl (Veil [Madeleine Mantock]) is pregnant, she probably had the baby, and he’s dead-set on trying to find her, so he’s on a quest to reunite with his family and get revenge on Quinn. Whereas last season he wasn’t sure if he was going to take out Quinn or not because he owed him loyalty, I mean this guy raised him, provided his life and gave him everything that he has – so it wasn’t easy for Sunny to stab him, so a lot of people are saying with that stab (at Season 1’s end) why didn’t Sunny really kill Quinn and it is like Sunny just couldn’t do it. Now, Sunny wishes he fucking did it. This whole season he is in a regret not doing it, so he’s on a rampage to get his girl and the baby back.
Tau: Yeah, that cliffhanger at the end of S02E01 where Quinn is revealed to be still alive and helping Veil give birth to Sunny’s son was a nice touch.
Wu: That gives Sunny his motivation this season. To rid himself of his past. The tattoos also become even more symbolic this season because he can’t shake them off. So he’s trying to get past that – and can he, can he even, can you even erase your past? It’s a big moral question for him – in Episode 3, he runs into an ex-clipper, a legendary clipper that everyone thought disappeared, someone that Sunny can look up to as a former regent, and this guy challenges him metaphorically and spiritually. So they get into a fight later – it’s not a real fight about who wins, it’s an actual symbolic fight about their spiritual journey – it’s really cool, it’s interesting, it’s not just a plot device, it’s something that changes him.
Tau: Is that character a reference to the Sandy character in the Journey to the West mythology?
Wu: Not really.
Tau: Because my next question is about Nick Frost, who plays the “Bajie” character – I guess a reference to Zhu Bajie or “Piggy”/”Pigsy” from the Journey to the West.
Wu: Yeah, the name [or reference] is obvious – about who he is.
Tau: When I first saw the trailer for Season 2, I was like “Oh man, that is Nick Frost.” Just blown away by how cool and awesome that was. How did he get involved in the project? That’s just such a great casting choice.
Wu: Miles our show runner and producer reached out to him, and he was interested, and I wasn’t sure if he wanted to do a show like this and didn’t know if he would – but he did it and he was such a great add to the show because I think what we lacked last season was a bit of levity. So his scenes are a lot of fun, and we need to loosen points here and there otherwise it just becomes too heavy, you know? So I think his character is great. Plus, we don’t know who the fuck he is. Right now he has betrayed me and befriended me in the same episode. And now I’m physically stuck with him and have to rely on him to get me back into the Badlands. So for better or worse I’m stuck with him, so it’s an interesting character. He’s mysterious and funny. And he has some hidden skills there that we eventually discover. So he was a great add and it was awesome to work with him. Like laughing every day on set. I love that guy, it was a perfect add for the show. Both the actor and the character.
Tau: And I saw Stephen Lang, who plays your former mentor Waldo; it seems like his role is more like an advisor to the Widow, and part of the Season 2 trailer there were like other members – like the Widow is putting together this cabinet of advisors. Her “daughter” Tilda [Ally Ioannides] is the new Regent as well.
Wu: She is creating her own team now. She has taken back her property and her baronship. And now she has to convince the other barons that she deserves that position. So we get to see the other barons this time at the Conclave, where they all meet up, which is going to happen. So you will see the other barons. We talked about them last season. You only saw Jacoby last season. So in this season we get to see the rest of them – again, we are expanding upon what we started last season – and we are really showing the world that we talked about. The world-building continues – you get to see the rest of the barons, you are seeing the Outlying Territories that really shows the world inside the Badlands wasn’t so bad after all, because the Outlying Territories is pretty nasty out there – it’s killed or be killed.
Tau: That’s what Nick Frost’s character says, that “the Outlying Territories makes the Badlands look like Greatlands.”
Wu: Yeah, exactly. So that’s relatively true. You see that there was slavery and a lot of stuff happening in the Badlands but at least there was peace there. People weren’t getting slaughtered left and right. Whereas in the Outlying Territories, you never know when you might die – it could be in the next minute.
Tau: And speaking of slaughter – every time the Widow’s [Emily Beecham] fight scenes come on – Emily Beecham is such a badass – they are the most incredible to witness, for example the one that took place in Episode 1 at the factory. That was the highlight – being able to see that. And I saw a video on the AMC Youtube channel, which said that as cast members, every day you guys train or have a pretty strict training regime.
Wu: We had a five week fight camp before filming: 5 weeks of training, 5 days a week from 9-6 every day. So it was quite intense.
Tau: Is there anything you are doing different for this season compared to Season 1 as far as the fight choreography or the training?
Wu: Well we were able to elevate the training because in Season 1 all the other actors didn’t know any martial arts. So we had to start from zero. And then in the interim [between Season 1 and 2] we had a 15 month break, and during that break the actors kept working, kept training, and they actually got better – so when we got into fight camp, most people were at a different level compared to where they were the first time. So we were able to expand on that; that was great. And we were able to work on different things – adding new weapons, adding things like that. In terms of the fight choreography, and the design for the fights in the Season, we are trying to do different things almost every fight, there are so many fights – so you have to have a lot of different variety so you look at Episode 2’s “Lydia” fight, when she kills those two nomads, that wasn’t really a martial arts fight, it was more of a visceral, raw thing where it transformed her character – and probably she never really killed anyone before, and this is the first time she killed someone, and you saw how it affected her through her acting. And so that was a different fight than most of the other fights. Then we have the Bajie/Sunny fight chained together, which was very Jackie Chan-esque, it had a bit of comedy in it, we had the bit where I tried to punch Mouse but I couldn’t get to him because of the chain, Bajie is making funny remarks – and I eventually use the chain to flip him over me and smash that Mouse character – and then finally at the end, that double kick through the fan, blood and guts spraying everywhere.
Tau: Right, I was expecting someone to get kicked into that fan.
Wu: Yeah (laughing). We are just trying to do different things, and in the MK vs. MK fight, which is more of a traditional wuxia movie type of fight, with the wirework, etc.
Tau: A lot of the angles reminded me of that.
Wu: It was in a forest and very reminiscent of something from House of Flying Daggers or something like that. So we are constantly trying to change it up, because this show is all about the fights, and if you do it all the same, it will be really boring – but eventually no matter how cool they are, if you do them the same way every time, then they become predictable, they become boring, so we wanted to change that all up. So every fight this season we kind of changed the game and upped it a bit. And we do different things every time. And I think that’s our M.O. for the whole series. And that’s the biggest challenge in choreographing these fights – it is to make it different. In the first episode, where I had to fight in that wooden stock-thing. In the original script, the chain comes out then I attack, right? In the original script we actually get unlocked out of those things and then I start to attack. But Master Didi was like, you know it would be much cooler if Sunny stayed in that thing. It would be much cooler, right? And we were like yeah, yeah totally. And everyone was surprised to hear that. And I actually agreed on it too, but I regretted it afterwards.
Tau: (Laughing) yeah, because you had to do the actual work.
Wu: That fucking thing was [heavy] – we had a light version made out of balsa wood, on the first strike I did the whole thing broke apart – and we didn’t have any spares so I had to use the real one for the rest of the fight. So it was like a 15 pound thing. And then, to get in and out of it, it was a pain in the ass. So a lot of times between takes I just stayed in it. I would be in that thing for like an hour or two at a time. And it really felt horrible to be in that thing, so after the 4 days with shooting in that thing, that was the end of it.
Tau: Well your efforts really paid off because that made for the greatest first fight scene in the intro – including that song “Only Human” from Rag N’ Bone Man that plays as we see a crane shot of the mine Sunny is relegated to. The whole opening sequence was just phenomenal.
Wu: It’s interesting to me because we chose that song a long time ago – and then it became a hit – so now that it’s a hit it became really appropriate for the show, and for the situation at that moment.
Tau: Where are most of the shooting locations? Are the Outlying Territories, the mine, and the forest all the same location?
Wu: They pretty much are. Season 2 was all shot in Ireland. That totally opened up the show for us because New Orleans was great for that Southern antebellum vibe [in Season 1], but it’s really flat – it’s just swamp, swamp and more swamp – everything you look around New Orleans is just flat – so there is really nothing to see there. But Ireland is completely the opposite. Like within a half-an-hour of our main production facility, you’ve got mountains, you’ve got ocean, you’ve got waterfalls – all those locations are within half-an-hour from our basecamp. So it was extremely convenient and you get so many great looks within a really close proximity. Which makes the show much more epic visually and much more cinematic.
Tau: Yeah, it felt that Season 2 has an enhanced look cinematically and just everything has gotten an upgrade: also in terms of the wardrobe as well, the colors seem to just pop more, I was also wondering if you could comment on the wardrobe – you see Sunny at the beginning of Season 2 in miner’s rags but later on in preview shots you see him wearing a cool non-clipper suit or costume.
Wu: I go through seven outfit changes this season. Six or seven. Which is a big contrast to last season because I think I only had two outfits last season. Sunny goes through a lot this season because he is pretending to be different characters, and he’s getting back into the Badlands. So he’s taking on different roles and goes through a lot of different costume changes and has a lot of different great costumes. Our costume department knocked it out of the park – Giovanni [Lipari], an Italian designer, who worked on Penny Dreadful and things like that, did a really great job – not just for the main characters but like for all those pickers, and all the background actors, you should see our costume room – it’s a big, giant locker room full of clothes. And our Art Department really kicked ass, Stephen Daly our Production Designer – and Philip Murphy – our Props Designer – those guys knocked it out of the park. They did a really amazing job. Some of the sets are absolutely amazing. Our main production facility was at an abandoned spa resort that didn’t get finished due to the financial crisis in 2008, so we took it over and used it for our offices, but we were able to use all the derelict buildings on the site to build our sets.
Tau: That must have been a perfect fit. Like Quinn’s new hideout –
Wu: The Quinn hideout was supposed to be an indoor tennis court for the resort, so that got turned into a closed set. And the mines are actually in the parking structure. So in the spirit of the show, we were able to turn this ruin of a resort into what the show is about, which is kinda cool actually because it reflects on the show because [the sets] are [part of] an incomplete, run-down resort and we were able to make it look even messier and raw – a dozen or more sets were at that location.
Tau: The set design was amazing. Where was the set for that temple that MK is training at?
Wu: The interior of it was actually in one of the hotel buildings on that [resort] property. And the exterior was a location near us, about ten minutes away, called Powerscourt Waterfall. And obviously the temple for the waterfall is CGI.
Tau: And that old resort building, that was also all in Ireland as well?
Wu: Yeah, everything was in Dublin.
Tau: Those sets and locales really added another dimension to the show.
Wu: I think that [the sets/locales], combined with the deeper character development, the script writing, and the visuals, all that stuff, completely upped the game for our show, as well as the music, which is better this season as well [the show has an opening theme composed by Mike Shinoda].
Tau: Are there any upcoming projects that you can talk about, maybe in film?
Wu: I have a movie called Geostorm coming out in October, which stars Gerard Butler, Jim Sturgess, Andy Garcia, Abbie Cornish. It’s set in the near future where a satellite system controls the world’s weather patterns so there are no more natural disasters. As the movie starts, a natural disaster starts happening so there is a glitch in the system – and my character works for the company that designed the system and I figure out what the problem is and that someone has been messing with it. Right now I am also in the middle of filming Tomb Raider.
Tau: Oh yeah, I think I read that somewhere – the reboot starring Alicia Vikander as Lara Croft?
Wu: Yeah, she’s the lead. It’s a reboot based off of the game reboot that was like 2013, the origin story of Lara Croft. I play a ship captain that helps her get her on the journey and help her along the way.
Tau: I have to also commend you on your performance in Go Away Mr. Tumor. I saw that on a flight to Taiwan and was very impressed by your performance – it was very moving, a very sad movie but it had its humorous parts. I think it did really well in the Chinese/Asia box office.
Wu: It broke some records, it did really well. It was a cool movie because we didn’t think it would be that huge and everyone believed in it. And it’s based on a true story that actually happened.
Tau: Right, that comic book artist?
Wu: Yeah she was a manga blogger. And she then started thinking about her situation with this rare form of brain cancer that she had, and she passed away. But like in the movie, she was just really optimistic and positive all the way through. And that was a really good example – because months before I did that movie, my Mom passed away from cancer. Which was a terrible experience for me – and to read that script and to see that perspective on cancer was kind of refreshing, and made me feel better about my Mom’s situation. That’s why I wanted to do the movie. And to get the kind of box office success it got was nice, and a grateful reward.
Tau: It was really a great film. Are you collaborating on any future Hong Kong projects with Stephen Fung?
Wu: We’re in talks on a few things right now, haven’t decided on anything yet. I have a break between Tomb Raider and Badlands but I’m not sure if I want to be working, because I’ve been working non-stop since July. If I don’t [take a break] that means I’ll go a year and a half without stopping, and I kind of need a break.
Tau: Certainly! Did Stephen also work on Into The Badlands?
Wu: Yeah, Stephen was on it this year. He wasn’t the fight director all the way through. He actually directed two episodes. Episodes 7 and 8 – he directed the drama – they are drama episodes. So 7 and 8 are his, and he did the fight direction for 9 and 10. And he also has a movie that he shot right before Badlands, that’s coming out soon, next year actually, starring Andy Lau and Jean Reno and Shu Qi, called “The Adventurers” but not sure what the English name is. But that is coming out and he is working on the post for it now. But he has been quite busy as well.
Tau: And did I hear you are working on something else TV-wise? Or is Badlands taking up most of your time?
Wu: Nah, I think Badlands consumes a lot of energy.
Tau: Are there any plans to do any film versions of Badlands? It might be rare since TV is where it might be “at” now.
Wu: Not at the moment. We are trying to focus on the show and trying to make each episode better and better. And I also like this long format because going into the show I wasn’t sure what I felt about working on a long TV serial. Just because I’ve done movies my whole career and wasn’t sure if I would have the attention span for it. So I would not get bored with the character over time. But you know it changes so much, this season the journey for Sunny is so different than last season that it has kept me interested – and that’s what has kept me attracted to the project as a whole – because it is about a journey of transformation. We talk about the martial arts, the badassness and everything else, but it’s about this transformation for all the characters, and that includes Sunny. And that is really what is really keeping me interested. Because what Sunny is going through with now was very different from what he was dealing with last season. Other shows, especially like network shows, that go on for 30 episodes – the characters are the same every single episode – every single year, every single season – I don’t think I could do that. I need to be able to take the character somewhere. And the fact that these characters change after every fight that they’ve been in, especially this season, because Sunny sort of loses his mojo and has to get it back – and he’s fighting for a reason now, instead of just killing for his boss. It’s a different thing – you’ll see that Sunny looks different now when he fights than last season. I think last season, there was more of a balletic smoothness and coldness to the way he fought: like very little facial expression, but now Sunny is fucking mad, right? So he is fighting with emotion this season.
Tau: I was wondering about the foundational martial art(s) underlying Sunny’s technique? Is it kung-fu based or a mix of different styles?
Wu: Yeah, my base is Wushu. So it will always fall back on that. We use techniques from all kinds of martial arts. Basically because we have to make it a lot of variety of fights, we have to be adaptable, so we try to incorporate all different types of techniques – so last season we did a little bit of Jiu Jitsu, this season there is some Krav Maga, even this season – you’ll see Sunny’s new sword – after Episode 3 he gets a new sword, it’s not a Chinese sword at all, it’s a completely weird, two-handed crazy sword, and so I have to fight differently because it is very different than any other type of Wushu weapon I have ever used. So that’s one thing, but [the sword] has some Chinese elements to it: it has got these rings on it, it’s got these nine rings on it. All the different props and weapons bring out different styles and types of fights.
Tau: Like that scene in the final episode of Season 1 with MMA Champion Cung Le.
Wu: Yeah, did you see him in Season 2 Episode 1? He made an appearance. There may be another fight with him coming up this Season.
Tau: Awesome. Are you interested in directing any future episodes yourself?
Wu: I thought about it but I don’t think I would be able to direct, act and fight at the same time. I would probably just kill myself doing that, and [keep wanting to do takes again and again by saying] “let me just go for one more take” [over and over again]. I just need someone to tell me to stop. If there was an episode which I wasn’t in, I might consider directing it but right now I have my hands full.
Tau: Did you guys shoot digitally?
Wu: Yeah, last season we shot on the RED, and this season we shot on the Arri Alexa.
Tau: So how many episodes are in store for Season 2?
Wu: There will be 10 episodes this season, versus just 6 in Season 1. 7 and 8 are Stephen’s. Episode 10 is my favorite, it pushes to that final crescendo at the end. Episode 10 is just an amazing episode. My second favorite episode is episode 7, I don’t like to give too many spoilers: it’s very existential – not within the tone of the show but still within parameters of the show.