Daniel Wu’s Journey Into The Badlands
Born in California and made a name for himself in Hong Kong, Daniel Wu returns with very cool martial arts SF series that blends the martial arts of The Matrix and post apocalypse sensibilty of The Walking Dead (Minus Walkers). He spoke to us reporters in a phone press conference.
What does it mean for you to breakthrough as the lead and executive producer of a show on a major broadcast channel, in front of a very worldwide audience in the stage, what does it mean?
Daniel Wu: Yes it’s interesting because I didn’t really think much about that until we were done making it. Because the process, it was very organic from me. To start off, I was just the executive producer developing a project for AMC, and that was exciting in itself.
And then when we went through the audition process and it became clear that I was going to be playing the lead role, because it didn’t start off that way. We wanted, originally my idea, I thought we would get somebody in their late 20s or early 30s because physically it’s a very, very demanding role.
But eventually that didn’t work out and all eyes turned me and I ended up playing the role and so then I just focus in on like you know maintaining the stamina just like through the whole season as well as portray the character and all that stuff.
And so I didn’t really think about the impact of you know what the show is and the type of Asian American male playing a lead role in the show in AMC until much, much later.
And so, I think we’re doing a first round of promoting in people, they start to say hey this is kind of groundbreaking. And I say yes right that is true. and I think I mentioned at a comic con in July, that it was a great feeling to be able to do this show, knowing the history of let’s Kung Fu the TV series, that Bruce Lee tried to get going but then was stolen from him because studios were not ready to put a Chinese in the lead. And that felt really great 40s on to be able to right that wrong.
And so the impact of this, you know it starts slowly, starting to seep in, but again at the same time, I don’t think it will be ground-breaking until the show becomes a success.
So I don’t really feel like talking about it too much until the show becomes really successful, then we can say it was groundbreaking. But up until to that point, you know it’s not – gotten there yet.
But I really respect AMC for being adamant that the role was an Asian American role. An Asian American actor to play that role, because if it wasn’t for that support we wouldn’t have had that.
And the role is not designed for an Asian necessarily, it could be a white guy, it could be a black guy, it could be a Latino guy, it could be anybody. But AMC was adamant at making sure that that role was reserve for in Asian male and so that’s pretty ground breaking on their part.
And I don’t know if it was intentional or not but I think the world of TV is changing now. You’re seeing a lot more Asian especially in males up here in TV media nowadays so it’s cool to be part of that way.
I’ve seen the first 2 episodes and I enjoy the show. It’s really pretty great and you’re really wonderful in it. I want to reference back to something you just mentioned earlier, you seriously couldn’t find a (Sunny) until you stepped up?
Daniel Wu: Here’s the thing is, there were a lot of requirements. They wanted the role to be Asian, they wanted the guy to have a good acting ability and experience, they wanted the guy to be a good martial artist and they wanted the person to have some named right?
And so we went to all those people it was either, a balance of strong actor but no martial arts experience or a really great martial artist but not very good acting experience. And so that was kind of what was frustrating the other producers for a long time.
And at the end of the day, they’re like you are that package, you know that right?
Well yes, but I’m 40 and like I don’t know if I can handle this physical side for 5 or 6 years if the show is successful.
Which does it more for you as an actor, the elaborate fight scenes or some emotionally charged scene involving your acting muscles?
Daniel Wu: I think it was equally challenging on both sides. I think there were some – there were very stressful and challenging as an actor the dramatic scenes but the fight scenes were also physically really demanding.
You know, to be able to do, you know these basically two sides per episode. We then (unintelligible) in those 12 fights. So to do 11 fights in 4 months is pretty crazy. Because normally like in some shows we do in Asia, you know their movie there are about 3 or 4 fights and you do over a 6-month period.
So you have time to recover and gain your stamina. But we were literally going back to back to back on all the fights. So there’s no downtime, no time to rest or anything. And I knew that as an executive producer and that’s why I was reserved about actually playing the role because I felt like three’s a possibility that I could get injured and if I get injured then its end of school.
Luckily that didn’t happen. I didn’t get into – I broke a rib on one stunt but I was able to keep filming so luckily nothing else like a thorn hamstring or anything like that happened.
Can you tell us about the location where it was shot?
Daniel Wu: Yes we shot in New Orleans and you know, a lot of productions go to New Orleans because of the huge tax credit there. You go film in Vancouver or New Orleans but a lot of people shoot in New Orleans and try to make it look like somewhere else. Like for example, to me it Genesis, they made it look like San Francisco.
But we decided to embrace the sort of history and the sort of a potential fabric of the region, to really make that a character in the show, because we felt like it has – there was a vibe there that was kind of dark, that gothic south vibe, you know, with the Spanish mosque and the trees and all that stuff that we felt like could add a lot to the show and then we decided okay, excuse me, but this doesn’t make the story happen here. Make it happen in the south somewhere.
Tony Tellado: Hi Daniel, Good to talk to you. I was at the round tables with you guys in New York so it’s great ((Crosstalk)) I just wanted to kind of get into your head a little bit and find out about (Sunny). Mentally where is he at, when the series begin?
Daniel Wu: Mentally where he’s at when the series begin, you know in the first team, he still what he has been for life. He’s a ruthless killer, very smart and quick with his wit and efficient and very fiercely loyal to Quinn.
But as the first episode starts, you know and he runs into MK, he finds about (Veil) and his girl being pregnant, things start to change for him because all his life, he’s been kind of conditioned to follow this one sort of cult leader and then once his world starts to change, he’s created a life in killing people, and he sees the purity of MK and his innocence and his reminded of what he once was.
That side of him starts to come back out. And that’s what really attracted me to the character and wanting to play it, is because I could see that this character is going to change over time and that was what was interesting and that he’s not just a stoic cold hearted killer all the way through the series.
For me as an actor I think that would be kind of really boring. And for him to have a real spiritual transformation it was kind something that was cool and I thought I could get into.
So is there anybody or either character person that maybe you were inspired by for this role that informed your portrayal or was it all just kind of from the script?
Daniel Wu: I think it was all mostly from the script but I think the script is influenced by a lot of stuff that we like. I think (Allen Miles) are very familiar with the martial arts genre. (Steve) and I are obviously been fans of the genre for many, many years.
So I think by osmosis like of us being fans of the genre and understanding the sort of tropes of this kind of genre, and what we thought was cool to put in to the character and not to put in, influenced our decision making process.
But I wouldn’t say we really took it from anything in particular except for the reference of the Journey to the West, which is a classic Chinese fable about – basically the character is enlightening. The monkey king given the responsibility to take the Buddhist scriptures from India to China and it’s really the fable of how Buddhist came to China.
But really the transformation of this character is the monkey king who starts off as a rebellious, naughty kind of character and becomes an enlightened Buddha at the end because of all the fights and challenges in the way are actually the allegories for life.
And so we took that kind of concept and that sub-text and put it into kind of development of the character.
In 2010 you said that America haven’t progressed very far from the London Dusk era, and that you had wanted to advocate for better roles for Asian actors but then feel like you had the power to act change as an actor. How that did affect your career to producing?
Daniel Wu: Yes, like you know I didn’t definitely – you know over the years I’ve been you know auditioning for roles in the states but as well as offered to roles in the states and a lot of them did fall into that one stereotype and so I didn’t feel the need to actually do that.
But then you know, things have changed over time. I think you know obviously there’s a huge interest in the China market and Hollywood has a huge interest in the China market nowadays with films like transformers making money – more money over there than here.
And so they’re realizing by injecting Chinese actors into their films now, that kind of give them extra bonuses in that territory. But with that, they would also get to put them in the right role. And still I feel like that that haven’t been done properly yet.
Badly, when I first started working on it, I was only playing on it as a producer not as the main actor in it, mainly because I wanted to see where this role is going.
I knew that you know putting an Asian in the martial arts genre show is very stereotype but I wanted to see what the character was like. And if it was type of Asian character that we’ve seen before in Asian films before, and so yes, the martial arts and stuff is very stereotype but what we’re seeing is a strong Asian male lead who you know, has a girl, who resist and not just the part of the team and it’s leading this whole story, it’s something that we haven’t seen before and he’s a nerdy character.
And he’s stoic yes, but then he opens up and you see his emotional side and all that. And it wasn’t intentional, it just happened that way and then that’s how I sort of fall in love with the character and why I decided to do it.
It’s because it didn’t have all the kind of stereotype that you normally see. It started with a stereotype and kind of blossomed in, into something else and that’s what really attracted me to want to do this role.
So I think it was unconsciously trying to do that. we weren’t consciously trying to change the phase of Hollywood by creating more diverse roles for Asian, but it just happened to be that way because the team I work with, are people who less close minded than the executives in Hollywood and so they were pretty adamant at making sure the character was a grab. The character is just not a stereotype one.
There are a lot of characters introduced in the first two episodes and a lot of back stories. Can you tell us a little bit about the balance between bring in all these new characters and telling the stories to keep people interested but not confuse people with too many back stories at the same time?
(Daniel Wu): Yes I mean that’s a difficult balance to try to achieve that and I think our main goal is that we wanted to create a martial arts drama for television; it’s never been done before.
But in order to be successful you can’t just have great martial arts and shitty story. You know it becomes like porn, if that if you do that. People fast forward to the story just to get to the fight scene and then watch the fight scene and dump the show.
So we didn’t want to have that. That’s very kind of D level film making. And I think what’s successful about you know our sister show on AMC the Walking Dead is that it took these zombie genre and elevate it to be really – it’s a human drama about what human will do to each other or what is the basic of human nature when you’re thrown into that kind of basic role of (Chris trying to survive and I think that’s why people are into that story because it’s about these people and not about the zombies.
And so the same thing we’re trying to do with Badlands is to create this story about these people and not just about the Martial arts. I mean the martial arts are a bonus. It’s something that like the people that are fan of that genre will totally gravitate to.
But we want a much broader audience to make this show successful. And so to do that, you have to have compelling story and compelling characters. And it’s a balance; you have to make it complex enough that people are intrigued but you can’t make it so confusing that people don’t know what’s going on. And there’s a lot of shows out there that are very successful of where – we won’t be doing that.
I think obviously game of thrones is really successful in doing that. I mean first I remember falling into first two seasons of being very confused at who’s who but by 3rd season, you’re pretty clear on what’s going on.
In some ways, you know we’re also trying to a create a world that is rich in characters that is not just one solo like warrior walking through the desert on its own which Kung Fu is like.
But a show that has many characters that many different audience members can get behind I think like some female audiences for example will love the widow and hate (Sunny) or some Asian American kids will love (Sunny) and not like the other characters so there’s a lot there we’re trying to put in for different audience members to gravitate towards.
(Tony Tellado) I want to ask you about (Steven Fung) I know he came over with you – you worked together in the past, you know for us here in America, can you tell us a little bit about him and what he’s going to into the Badlands.
Daniel Wu: Yes, so here’s a funny anecdote is that he was an actor in the first film that I was in, so we’ve known each other that long. And my first – that was a gay film and our first onscreen kiss was with each other. So that’s a little fun fact for everyone.
And then now 20 years later, we’re making like extremely violent bro films like man stuff. So yes we’ve been great friends for a long time. We’ve started out acting pretty much at the same time and then in over time we worked on several projects together, Gen X Cops, things like that where we were acting together and we became great friends that way.
And then on the side, you know (Steven) was always shooting these little short films on the DV camera and I tried to participate in them and I worked on some of them with him.
And at that time, I was like man you’re really good at this stuff. Like he was – we were doing in camera edit. He was starting the stuff in Camera and then shoots the other side of the actor and it would work right?
I’m like wow he’s really technical proficient I think he has the talent to do this. And like obviously that’s the direction he was heading and I really encourage him to do that.
And so when he directed his first film, Enter the Phoenix, I was the lead in his film, I was like totally dude I’m going to support you. And then I was in every film that we’ve done subsequently since.
So we have like not only a great working relationship but a great personal relationship and the working relationship is one of like you know great chemistry where everything is in short hand, you don’t have to explain anything.
We don’t really fight that much over anything. And so when Badlands came along and (Stacy Sharon) invited me to participate, I immediately thought of (Steven) because technically he’s really talented. Ideas wise, we could work really well together and create ideas for the show.
And I knew he would be the perfect person to be a part of the show. And at that time, I brought him on as the executive producer to brain storm not to be the fight director.
But then once we start developing it, it became clear that he should be the fight director because of his great directing skills and that’s how it had happened basically.
(Tony Tellado): Well that’s cool, that’s cool. I mean I saw the fight where you’re encircled around with those guys, that was just amazing fight and the fact that you put your sword down was even cooler. That was just…
Daniel Wu: Yes that was sort of established (Sunny’s) bad ass is that you can take out these guys without a sword you know.
(Tony Tellado): Well consider it done, he is.
Special Thanks To AMC