Into The Badlands is an incredibly ambitious new series premiering on AMC tonight. It tells the story of Sunny, an assassin working for one of the feudal barons of the future who begins to reexamine his place in the world.
Badlands is full of incredible kung fu choreography and that is thanks mostly to two men, Executive Producer/Star Daniel Wu and Executive Producer/Fight Director Stephen Fung. Both are legends on the Chinese kung fu scene, having appeared in a combined 100 films. American audiences may remember Daniel from his role in the RZA’s Man with the Iron Fists, where he played the villainous Poison Dagger and are sure to notice him in the near future as Gul’Dan in the upcoming Warcraft film. Stephen is known for directing six kung fu films, including House of Fury, which starred Daniel Wu. We got a chance to sit down with Daniel and Stephen at New York Comic Con to talk about the stunts and the story behind Badlands.
On Choosing to work on Badlands
Daniel: I wanted to avoid the one dimensionality of a cold hearted killer, so I waited until the script came out until I finally committed in the end because I wanted to see what his arc was going to be. What I like about Sunny is that all he’s known his whole life is about killing and trying to be successful under the eyes of Quinn because this is the guy that was a father to him. Raised him. Saved him from death. He almost felt like he owed something to Quinn and he became a victim of Quinn’s cult of personality. You could say Quinn’s running this whole fort as a cult leader. In this first episode basically, he realizes that might not be right. It opens up emotions to him that he never even felt before. It really drove me to want to do this character because there is an arc there. There is something for me as an actor do dig into and see this change that happens. The whole spiritual side of the show is this character trying to find his spiritual enlightenment or his good side. Because all he’s been trained to do is to think that he’s a bad guy and I think that’s what really drove me to dig into this character and what I really liked about him.
On Sunny’s Influences
Daniel: I don’t think it was really any other film references. it was a lot of discussion with David Dobkin. Actually, he was a key factor in me finally committing to the role as well because it was vision of how he wanted Sunny to be played out and have him be a flushed out three dimensional character, a human, and not this robot assassin that made me really attracted to it. I think it was through all those discussions and us kind of sculpting Sunny that really gave him this three dimensionality.
On the Construction of the Fight Sequences
Stephen: How we envisioned the world is how I started envisioning the action. First of all, it’s a mixed bag. We didn’t want to have one specific style or one specific kung fu style. It’s everything. It’s krav Maga. There’s Ju Jitsu. There is Wing Chun. There are tons of weapons that we use. So it’s one of the first things that we did. We got the script. We separated all of the character’s personality. Then we determined what weapons they should use and what style they should use. Generally speaking, the clippers are mixed martial artists.
Daniel: We also are very conscious of each fight affecting the character and telling you something about the character. That’s the way that you can meld the action with the drama and the character development. So after every fight, there’s something as the audience member that you’ve learned about Sunny or the Widow or whatever that’s informed you about who they are as a person and that was a very conscious effort on Al and Miles’ part as writers and as the creator of the fights to make sure that that happens. The fights are transformative in some way. It’s not just, a fight and we forget about it and it doesn’t affect Sunny.
The fact that he has these four hundred and four tattoo’s on his back is reflective of that as well. It’s to show that yes he’s killed hundreds of those people, but he’s bearing the weight of those deaths on his back. When Veil tells him that she thinks there’s something good in him and he thinks there’s not. It’’s because he’s carrying that weight on him the whole time, of all this death and killing that he’s done. One thing that David make me do before the show is that he had me get on a notebook and draw four hundred and four marks and make me think about each single kill. I got dark. I got real dark. it really helped me get into this character because it made me think about all this stuff that he had done and what emotional weigh it put on him as a person. As a human.
On the Stunts and Working with Master Dee Dee
Stephen: I’ve worked with him before. I did a film called House of Fury and actually back then he was Master Yuen Woo-Ping’s right hand man. For me it’s not something new. Is this your first time?
Daniel: No it’s my fourth of fifth time or something like that. So we all have a shorthand. We joke around. It doesn’t seem like we’re doing serious work but we’re grinding it out. It’s fucking hard work. To have this rapport between the three of us is important. Watching them work, Dee Dee and him (Stephen), it’s a very organic process. They just throw ideas out back and forth and they judge whether this is good or not or maybe Dee Dee will show Stephen something and Stephen will say “Oh that’s cool, but let’s add this to it” or Stephen’s like “I’ve been thinking about this shot to be like this” and Dee Dee will think about how to make it better. There’s this whole chemistry that they have that just works like two brothers talking about something, and that’s really a huge factor in what made all these fights very successful.
On the Improvised Nature of the Fight Scenes
Daniel: That would be preferable if we had time to actually do it that way, but the speed we need to work at it is unfortunate that we had to do it that way. But that said, I think that ‘s also part of the Hong Kong style as well because in Hong Kong we never rehearsed fights way in advance and then go to shoot them. We learned the moves right there. You practiced them three of four times and we go shoot it. And that adds a sense of danger to it.
For example, I love Matrix, but in that scene between Keanu and Lawrence Fishburne, I know they rehearsed it millions and millions of times before they went to film it. You can see there’s already an anticipation of what the next move’s going to be. He’s almost blocking before that punch comes out. And you could say “That’s Neo. He’s got that sense” or whatever but I really think that there’s a sense of danger when you just learned it and you go film it and it adds to the sense that somebody could actually get hurt here and you need to move fast because you really need to block it otherwise that sword’s going to hit you in the face. That sense of danger adds a whole nother layer to our fights as well because they are dangerous. That block came just in time. And it’s really kind of fun to do it that way actually. Obviously in a more ideal world, we’d have more time to rehearse before hand, but I almost think it’s better that we didn’t.
Stephen: We put a lot of pressure on the set decorators and the art director because we like to actually be on that set and see what’s there and we like to have a fight with the environment.
Daniel: Incorporate the environment.
Stephen: And that’s how we do it in Hong Kong.
Daniel: Some days we look at a window and go “We’re gonna crash through that” so then prop department has to go right away and make the fake window. And they have to figure out a way to do it right away. Luckily they are willing to roll with us. A lot of American production’s unions “No, that wasn’t in the plan and we can’t do it” and they were willing to roll with us and so we were able to do that stuff very quickly.
Stephen: A lot of the breakaway stuff that you see are not really breakaways. They would go “You can’t break this table” so we went and got saws and hammer and cut up the real table and it looks better that way.
On the Originality of Badlands
Stephen: I didn’t think too much about that in specific but obviously that’s something that’s bringing Chinese Kung Fu cinema to American audiences at home but it’s not a very conscious thing.
Daniel: What we felt like it’s that if we make the action to our standards, what we think is cool, someone who doesn’t know anything about it is going to drop their jaw. Especially if they’ve never seen any kind of kung fu stuff before, They’re gonna be like “What the fuck is that? That’s not an action scene that I’m used to seeing” and we’re kind of smiling the whole time while we’re making it because we want that reaction. We want people to go “Holy shit! What is that?” and for the people that already watch that to be impressed as well. We’re trying to reach that whole gamut of people and impress all of them.
On the cinematic nature of Badlands
Daniel: It made it easier to be able to cross border like that so we can go back and forth between different scenes. The whole thing felt like making a movie to me. it didn’t feel like making TV at all. most of our team were all from the film world. Visually, when you look at it if you put it up on a big screen, I think it will hold up because visually it’s amazingly beautiful. Even the lighting and all the time that we took to make it perfect was all to movie standards. it didn’t feel like TV. It didn’t feel like we were adjusting anything really in particular to TV other than the schedule. That was the most challenging thing, getting everything done in a short amount of time.
On working with AMC
Stephen: In terms of the martial arts, the network was very free hand.
Daniel: They would tell us about the network rules. When someone gets stabbed, I think you can either only show it going in but you can’t show it going out or you can show going out, but you can’t going in. There all these weird things they would tell us. You have to know that stuff because it will waste a lot of time for us to film that and have it cut out. I think one thing did get cut. One of my favorite shots is the head that gets cut off and bounces on the ground. That stuff hand to get cut out. But they were relatively hands off about it. I mean they were there to inform us about those little rules here and there, but they didn’t bet all on top of us at all.
Stephen: One thing they are very stringent about is the time. The episode has to be exactly forty two minutes.
Daniel: Not a minute more. Not a minute less.
Matthew Nando Kelly is an incredibly cool and handsome staff writer for Pop-Break who was allowed to write his own bio. Besides weekly Flash recaps, he focuses on film, television, music, and video games. Matthew also has a podcast called Mad Bracket Status where he discusses pop culture related brackets with fellow Pop-Break writer DJ Chapman. He has an unshakable love for U2, cats, and the New Orleans Saints. His twitter handle is @NationofNando. Did we mention how handsome he was?