The 10-episode gritty, action-packed drama series Warrior, which debuts on Cinemax on April 5th, is based on writings from martial arts legend Bruce Lee and is set during the brutal Tong Wars of San Francisco’s Chinatown in the second half of the 19th century. The story follows Ah Sahm (Andrew Koji), whose martial arts expertise will come in handy, as he realizes just how challenging leaving China behind for San Francisco can be, especially under mysterious circumstances that lead him to become a hatchet man for one of Chinatown’s most powerful Chinese organized crime families. The series also stars Kieran Bew, Olivia Cheng, Dianne Doan, Dean Jagger, Langley Kirkwood, Hoon Lee, Christian McKay, Joe Taslim, Jason Tobin, Joanna Vanderham, Tom Weston-Jones and Perry Yung.
Following a preview of the first episode of this new series, showrunner Jonathan Tropper (Banshee) and executive producers Justin Lin (Star Trek Beyond, Fast & Furious 6, Fast Five) and Shannon Lee (who’s also the daughter of Bruce Lee) spoke at a Q&A about the story’s 50-year development period, their own relationships with Bruce Lee’s work, why the time period and location are important, recreating 1878 San Francisco in South Africa, assembling this ensemble of actors, the incredible fight sequences, the role of the women in the story, pushing the envelope, and what they’re most excited about with the season.
Question: This TV series has a development story that spans nearly 50 years. Shannon, how did this finally go from Bruce Lee’s writings that were stored in the garage to what we will see now, with Warrior?
SHANNON LEE: Justin literally just called me, out of the blue. We knew each other. We had met, but we weren’t super close friends. He called me up and said, “Is this true? Does this exist?” And I said, “Yes.” He came over, a week later.
Justin, what’s your relationship with Bruce Lee’s work, and what made you want to do this?
JUSTIN LIN: I was a latch-key kid. I grew up in the ‘80s, so my relationship with Bruce Lee didn’t actually start off with Bruce Lee. I watched a lot of Saturday afternoon Kung Fu Theater, and it would have all of the fake Bruce Lees. The really good Bruce Lee movies didn’t make it onto local channels. So, my relationship with Bruce Lee started the first time I saw The Chinese Connection. My brother got this video tape and brought it home and was like, “This is the guy that they’re all trying to be.” I became obsessed with Bruce. Growing up Asian American, he had this gravitas and strength about him, and I’ve always wanted to explore that.
After Finishing The Game, (executive producer) Danielle Woodrow called me and said, “I read this thing about Kung Fu and Bruce Lee.” I remember watching Kung Fu, for the first time, and I was totally confused about why this white guy (David Carradine) was Chinese, and then I heard the backstory. So, when Danielle mentioned this story, I said, “I don’t know if it’s true or not, but I’ve heard about it.” Then, I called Shannon, and we got together. She brought over the eight-page treatment that Bruce Lee had typed on a typewriter. We read it, and there was something very magical about it. You could feel that, though it was almost 50 years old, it was so fresh and contemporary. That’s when we decided, “Let’s try to complete this. Let’s do this.” And it took us a little time, until we found Jonathan [Tropper] and Cinemax.
A lot of times, in film and TV, development projects die. You try, and if it dies, you just go for the next one. But, we weren’t going to let that happen with this. Also, Shannon trusted me with this material, and Danielle and I thought it was not only important to get it on screen, but with the right people. We met with a lot of people, and in that journey, it was very clear to us that we needed to embrace the essence of what Bruce Lee was trying to do, and part of that was finding someone to come play with us who could elevate the genre, and not just do something that’s in genre.
Jonathan, you have a previous relationship with Cinemax, having done Banshee with them, but don’t you also have a relationship with Bruce Lee’s work and martial arts?
JONATHAN TROPPER: I’ve been doing Chinese martial arts since about 5th or 6th grade, but I had never really seen any martial arts on TV. The first thing I saw was Way of the Dragon. There used to be this thing on Channel 5 in New York, where I grew up, called The Big Apple Movie, and I was just flipping through when they were showing what they called Return of the Dragon, but it was really Way of the Dragon, and I saw Bruce Lee, for the first time. I had been doing martial arts for a few years, at that point, but it didn’t look like that. I became obsessed with Bruce Lee, but there was nowhere to find it. I would watch The Big Apple Movie every weekend, and I’d see every horrible Kung Fu Theater movie that was made, waiting for Bruce Lee to come back, but he never did. And then, I went to Blockbuster, and they had one worn-out copy of Enter the Dragon, which I eventually got my hands on. I did martial arts through my entire childhood and into adulthood, and I always idolized Bruce Lee. There were not a lot of Jewish Kung Fu heroes. We’re very poorly represented, in that way. So, we had made the decision to finish up Banshee, and the guys at Cinemax knew I was a huge Bruce Lee fan, so they introduced me to Justin and Shannon, as they were talking about this, and I got really excited about being able to be the vessel to help them get that vision through the system and onto the screen at Cinemax.
Setting this story in San Francisco in 1878 brings a lot of social and political context that feels very current to today. Why did you want to set this in that time period and location?
LIN: For me, growing up, American history class doesn’t even have half a paragraph about the Chinese American experience, so I’ve always been fascinated by that. It was actually in the treatment from Bruce. When I read that, I felt that it was such an American story and that we had to do everything we could to bring it to life.
LEE: It was my father’s vision to portray an authentic Asian experience, so he set this in this time, in his treatment. He was really masterful at being able to touch on those significant moments, but it was Jonathan who really brought it all to life.
TROPPER: There wasn’t a lot of record-keeping done, and then there was also the big fire in San Francisco, a decade and a half later, that destroyed all of the records. Essentially, it became this story, coming in through the eyes of somebody who looks different and is different. You see, first hand, the institutionalized racism that’s woven into the fabric of a country that’s built by immigrants. It just became really fascinating to me. The big selling point, based on what the treatment had said, was how the Chinese, in 1882, became the only nationality ever to have a law on the books against their immigration, until now. Weirdly, it became incredibly timely, by the time we’ve gotten it to air. It’s also interesting just to look at the fact that, in over 100 years, the country really hasn’t changed.
To shoot this series, you recreated 1878 San Francisco in South Africa. How did you end up choosing that location?
LIN: I felt like it was important for us to really feel the texture of San Francisco. I’ve shot all over the world, so we went to Eastern Europe and the UK, but when we landed in Cape Town, it was very clear to us that there’s an amazing group there. Out of all of my movies, this is probably the biggest set that we’ve built. The level of pride and care that the crew has was important, in how we were going to be able to bring this to life. The next challenge was to hope that we could find people from around the world to move there.
You have a really great cast of international talent. How did you put this ensemble together?
LIN: It was really funny because we would look at the casting tapes and I kept saying, “I wish he was more like Jason Tobin,” to the point where finally I said, “I should just call Jason.” We tracked him down in Hong Kong.
TROPPER: Hoon Lee did four seasons of Banshee, and while we were casting all of this, it was always my intention, when I wrote the character of Wang Chao, that I was picturing Hoon playing him. That was something that was predetermined. That was one less person we had to look for, which was nice.