Dystopia is so in. Why do people have such a predilection for “the end of times”? Is it a means to feel important, the thought of being there when it all fell apart, of living through ‘interesting times’? Is it a passive-aggressive means to be freed of the drudgery of daily minutiae, of repeating the same ol’ schedule day after day? Do people dream of how they would fare when the gloves of civility are off and all that remains is base amoral instinct? Sometimes it feels like every young adult novel written in the past ten years is set in some not-so-far-off version of dystopia. Film and television have quickly followed suit, The Walking Dead is the biggest show on television and Mad Max: Fury Road reignited the once dormant Ozploitation franchise.
Now entering into this dystopia-saturated media landscape, Into the Badlands, mixes martial arts and samurai film aesthetics into this gritty & bleak genre. Created by Al Gough & Miles Millar (Smallvile), the story focuses on Sunny (Daniel Wu), a fearsome martial artist, who rescues a teenage boy (Aramis Knight) from a group of murderous nomads. The world has now regressed into a feudal state, ruled by cruel Barons – the most fearsome of whom, Quinn (Marton Csokas) enslaves and trains young boys into killing machines. His most prized pupil, of course, is Sunny. But when Sunny begins to question Quinn’s motives and saves the young boy, it puts the two men on a path towards inevitable conflict.
- What’s the story for the first season of Into the Badlands? Per EP Miles Millar “Into the Badlands is set sometime in the future of America after a mass extinction event. The world has gone through a new dark age and emerged as a feudal society divided into seven territories. Each territory is run by a baron. The baron has an army of fighters – Clippers – who keep the peace. The story focuses on the most powerful baron Quinn, his family and the most badass Clipper in the lands – Sunny. The story is Sunny’s journey when he meets a young boy named MK who has a special power and a connection to his past.”
- The show is heavily inspired by Hong Kong and Japanese cinema. Per Millar: “It’s is a giant mash-up. A homage to Hong Kong cinema, Kurosawa… To the classic westerns of John Ford. I think if you’re a martial arts fan, you’ll see references in fights to classic movies that are very deliberate.”
- What films served as the basis for these fight scenes? “Growing up in Hong Kong, everything I saw had some Kung Fu element”, fight director Stephen Fung joked, “Martial arts to us is like ice hockey to Canadians. You see it everywhere.” When pressed Fung cited IP Man as one of the major influences.
- On staging these action sequences: Stephen Fung – “It’s like improvising jazz music. We need to be on location to do our best work. We can’t just sit home and dream up the place and scene. We need to be there in the environment to incorporate that into our fighting. Once we go to a location, we see what’s it’s like and then we go back and talk about how we want do it. And then we shoot previz and I pass it to [director] David Dobkin. If he likes it, we go ahead and add more stuff.”
- On the correcting the wrongs of the David Carradine starring Kung Fu: “That show was forty years ago. It starred a white guy. It’s completely inauthentic,” Millar ranted “Bruce Lee was very brutally dumped from that show. And it’s actually a scar on American culture. Hopefully we can right that wrong. Even though it’s beloved — its history, in terms of its creation, is a very dark one. In the real martial arts community, it’s not thought of fondly. Because it should’ve starred Bruce.” Star and martial artist Daniel Wu added “I’ve been a Bruce Lee fan my whole life — and I’m very aware how Kung Fu was Bruce Lee’s idea and he presented it to the network and they felt America wasn’t ready for a Chinese lead in a TV show — so he had to walk away from that project. And they hired David Carradine who played the role in yellow face basically… It took a whole forty years for us to rectify that.”
Why set the show in a dystopian future? Per EP Al Gough “We wanted to do a show with authentic martial arts. To set that present day, we’ve all seen it. A Hong Kong cop comes to America. Everybody has guns. He somehow kicks the guns out of their hands and everybody magically knows martial arts. In order to have something with pure martial arts, you look to the past and we didn’t want to do a period show. We wanted the freedom to do a lot of different things. Ethnicities. Male and female empowerment. If you go to the past, you have to play by those rules. The future is more [open].”
- As per the norm in science fiction, Into the Badlands will comment on the social issues of today. “You have brutality and inequality,” Millar stated “The barons are the one-percent and everybody else is the ninety-nine percent… The reason to do science fiction is so that it reflects our present times. So the show has a lot of big themes. One is power and what that means in this world of have and have-nots. But it’s about spiritual emptiness. It’s a guy who’s basically sick of doing what he’s doing which is killing. What’s my point in life? Is there more to it than this? The idea of people escaping from what they’re doing feels like a universal theme. We have elements that reflect the brutality of ISIS. People who are misled in life, who believe things they shouldn’t believe…”
- On adapting martial arts to the small screen: Per Gough, “The level of martial arts is like nothing you’ve ever seen. We have sequences that go on for three minutes. We have the best choreographers of martial arts in the world. When you see a three-minute fight sequence, it’ll be like nothing you’ve ever seen on television before. There’s no question about that. It’s unarguable.”
- Per Millar: “Everybody in the show’s universe is ambiguous in terms of their morality. There are no clear-cut heroes. “The ‘hero’ of the show has killed over four hundred people. In the pilot he kills fifteen people. In the second – he kills thirty. The show doesn’t deal with black and white…”
- Drama vs. Fighting? “We want the drama to be of equal importance to the martial arts. The drama should be just as compelling as the martial arts. They should all tie in together.” Director David Dobkin compared the mix to conducting a symphony. There needs to be ebbs and flows between the action and story beats. Lead Daniel Wu added if the show was just action all the time, it would become “white noise.”
- How does the limited number of episodes (six total) affect how they approach the series? “We look at the six episodes as a mini season or super pilot, where you’re able to set up the world, meet the characters [as they begin their] journey and hopefully leave the audience coming back for more,” Gough stated. Millar added: “The aim is for people to watch this week to week on AMC. If they hear word of mouth, people can then go and watch this — the four and half hours — in one night. It will be a very satisfying meal. Though in the end, there will be loose ends that will be wrapped up in future seasons… There’s very much a cliffhanger at the end of the season…
Into the Badlands premieres on AMC in November. Check out the first trailer below: