When you want to watch a martial arts epic on television, where do you go nowadays? This was the problem that producers Alfred Gough and Miles Millar — the team behind “Smallville” — were looking to solve. The answer they’ve found will soon air on AMC, the home for their new TV program “Into the Badlands” — a show full of kung fu and katana battles set in an apocalyptic future.
To explain more about the Badlands and introduce us to its characters, the producers sat down with the press at Comic-Con International in San Diego. Joining Gough and Millar were several members of the cast and crew, including actors Daniel Wu, Marton Csokas, Aramis Knight, Emily Beecham, Orla Brady, fight director Stephen Fung and director David Dobkin.
Millar started things off by telling us about the premise of the program. “The show is set sometime in America’s future after a massive extinction-level event,” said Millar. “The world has gone through a new Dark Age and emerged as a feudal society, which is divided into seven territories. Each territory is run by a baron, and each baron has an army of fighters known as Clippers, who fight and keep the peace — such as it is. Our story focuses on the most powerful baron in the Badlands named Quinn (played by Csokas) and his family: his wife Lydia (Brady), his son Ryder, and his most bad-ass Clipper in all the Badlands, whose name is Sunny (Wu). The story really begins when Sunny meets a young boy on his journey named M.K. (Knight) who has a special power and a special connection to Sunny’s past.”
Much of the press material for the show indicated that the show’s story is based on the 16th century Chinese novel “Journey to the West.” Gough, however, said that this tale is just one of many inspirations. They also looked to Hong Kong cinema, Japanese films, Kurosawa movies and stories about the Japanese feudal society while creating this program.
“We wanted to do a show that had authentic martial arts, but to set that in present day?” asked Millar. “We’ve all seen that story before: Hong Kong cop comes to America, he partners with somebody, everybody has guns, they somehow kick the guns out of their hands, and everybody magically knows martial arts. So in order to do something where we could have pure martial arts, we looked to the past. But we didn’t want to do a period show; we wanted to have the freedom to do a lot of different things — different ethnicities, female empowerment, etc. But if you go to the past, you have to play by those rules, so we went to the future.
“Will the world come out of this second Dark Age and find enlightenment? That’s kind of Sunny’s quest as a character: will he lead this world to a better place?”
Since shifting its focus to original programming nearly a decade ago, AMC has continually had an interesting mix of genres in its programming, including everything from period-piece dramas to zombie-fueled horror. So how did an apocalyptic martial arts extravaganza end up at AMC? Gough was happy to explain.
“Miles and I had been kicking around the idea of doing a martial arts show for quite some time,” said Gough. “We wanted audiences to see something that isn’t currently on TV, and we were put together with these other producers — Stacy Sher and Michael Shamberg — and they told us AMC was looking for a martial arts show. And then we met Daniel Wu and Stephen Fung, which brought everything together.”
Dobkin was brought in to direct — and executive produce — as he was familiar with both the genre and the producers, as he had previously directed their film “Shanghai Knights.” He explained that making martial arts films takes a special kind of cooperation between the show director and the fight director. He compared it thusly: “Fung is like a jazz musician and I’m like an orchestra conductor.”
Next, Beecham spoke about her character, the Widow, saying that she holds a rather unique position in this dangerous world. “The Widow is the only female baron in the Badlands, which is a male-dominated environment,” said Beecham. “She’s not very well-liked by the other barons because she’s a female and is constantly challenging the system. She doesn’t agree with the way Quinn runs the land. She’s the great disruptor of this world.”
Brady, who plays another prominent woman in the show, echoed this sentiment, saying, “I’m personally very jealous of Emily, because she got to be in these fantastic fights. And there’s something about the stage Emily’s character is at, which is that she’s made a decision to change things — to rail against the brutality towards women that is there in these lands and take the power into her own hands, whereas [my character] Lydia is still stuck in the power structure that is the baron’s and is still engaging in it as a very traditional-type woman. She’s kind of the ‘woman behind the man.'”
Considering Gough and Millar are most known for making a show about a boy with super-abilities, some may wonder if audience members should expect any characters in the Badlands to suddenly gain powers. Gough clarified the difference between knowing kung fu and cracking a steel safe in half. “The thing is, Sunny has incredible martial arts skills, but they’re skills anyone could have,” said Gough. “He doesn’t have superpowers, he’s just incredibly skilled at what he does.”
And regarding M.K.’s “special power” that Millar mentioned previously, Gough said, “He has a sort of special ability… it’s like the equivalent of finding a Jedi when you think they’re all dead and all gone. He’s someone who has this latent ability that’s untapped. This also ties into martial arts philosophy — like chi.”
After this, Wu explained more about his character and the difficulties he faces. Naturally, he goes through many physical trials throughout the show, but Sunny’s biggest challenge will likely be the one he experiences in his mind. “Sunny starts with this undying loyalty and belief in Quinn, like a father-figure of sorts. He goes through life thinking a certain way, and then one day he realizes this ‘dad’ is a horrible person.”
This realization is due to the journey Sunny takes with M.K. in the story. To better understand how this teenager affects others, Knight said, “He’s the only person in the show who isn’t brainwashed by a baron. All the other characters have had their beliefs ingrained in them by their barons. M.K. is the first person who comes in with his own idea on things, and he’s defiant. He’s going to stand up for what he believes in.”
“There’s a purity about him — a truth,” Wu added.
For martial arts fans who wish to know more about this “truth,” and see some amazing fight sequences), the producers encouraged everyone to tune in for the six hour-long episodes of “Into the Badlands,” premiering on AMC this November.
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