AMC’s new series Into the Badlands brings true martial arts to television. The show stars Daniel Wu, who has starred in numerous high-profile Hong Kong movies including Jackie Chan’s New Police Story, Rob-B-Hood, and Chinese Zodiac, and Stephen Fung’s House of Fury, Tai Chi Zero, and Tai Chi Hero. Fung is a producer and action director on the series too.
We spoke with Mr. Wu by phone to preview the Into the Badlands season finale, which airs on Sunday, December 20th. Wu plays Sunny, a warrior in a future with no guns, trying to train a young pupil (Aramis Knight) to control his powers. Wu also has a role in the upcoming Warcraft film which he was happy to discuss with us.
What were your favorite Hong Kong movies before you were in them?
Oh wow, before I was in them, I think the most influential one was a Chinese/Hong Kong co-production. It was Shaolin Temple, Jet Li’s first movie. That was the movie that got me to want to learn martial arts. Then I became a huge Jet Li/Jackie Chan fan after that.
One of my favorite ones is Once Upon a Time in China, Jet Li’s movie directed by Tsui Hark. I think the action sequences and the storyline worked well together. I think that was the most impressionable one on me in the ���90s. I think I’ve seen that one over 50 times.
What was it about Shaolin Temple that made you want to take up martial arts yourself?
I remember going to the theater, and I’d watched a lot of Kung Fu Theater movies before, the old Shaw Brothers stuff. My grandfather took me to the theater to see Shaolin Temple and he goes, “You know all those other Kung Fu movies you’ve been watching? That’s all fake. This is real Chinese Kung Fu.”
And it was very different than the Shaw Brothers stuff where the rhythm was one, two, three, four. That’s how they were fighting.
I noticed that about the Shaw Brothers movies. I’ve never heard it articulated like that, but that’s it.
There was definitely a 4-4 rhythm to all that stuff and the Jet Li style was much more fluid. His form was just so beautiful. If you compare Jackie and Jet and Bruce, I would say Jet is the more traditionalist. As someone who liked Kung Fu, I thought his form was so beautiful.
In Shaolin Temple, they showcased a whole bunch of different styles. They showcased praying mantis style. They showcased the chain whip weapon. All these things were flashing in one movie and I was like, “I gotta learn that.”
What theater showed Shaolin Temple?
In Chinatown, San Francisco, a great theater that’s unfortunately closed now. Great Star Theater.
You tweeted recently that you like to keep 12% body fat because ripped and lean isn’t very functional. We see so many actors in action movies with that look. Is that more impractical than we think?
Yeah, like when you’re filming a martial arts series like this and you have that many fights, you need some stored energy. If you’re down to 6% body fat, which I’ve done before, you burn out really quickly. Like in a couple hours, you’re pretty much done and then you’re useless. In fact, you can probably ask some of those Hollywood stars that do that for movies and they’ll tell you that they burn out quite quickly because of that.
What big fights can we expect in the season finale of Into the Badlands?
The season finale is going to be a really cool fight. Cung Le from MMA is going to be in it. He’s a good friend of mine hat I’ve known for over 20 years. I brought him on board. He has a really pivotal role, him and two other fighters, because they’re searching for the Dark One which is M.K., Aramis’ character. So I have to try to protect him from them.
I don’t want to reveal too much. They fight in a very special way that’s very different than what you’ve seen throughout the rest of the season.
It’s four way fight?
It’s actually three on one. Three of them versus me. Cung is one of the three.
Was the chase on the balconies of the dollhouse a tough fight scene?
I think that was one of the easier fights comparatively to the other ones because it was one on one. Yeah, there’s a lot of wirework, jumping around and stuff like that, but I think it was relatively less taxing on me than the other fights. I would say the most difficult one was the warehouse fight for me.
Actually, the Widow fight, this last one with The Widow was hard because it was near the end of the shoot. It was deep in this New Orleans summer and we’re in those underground barracks there. So it was extremely hot and humid in there and hard to breathe.
How high up is the wall where you’re training M.K.?
I think I remember it being four stories, about 40 feet.
So it’s real?
Yeah, yeah, that’s real.
Do those throwing stars actually throw well?
They get bent up pretty easily. We did mess around with them a lot. They were basically laser cut pieces of steel. The sharp ends of the butterfly, they get bent up really easily.
Was the fight in the cemetery tough?
That was a very, very crazy fight. That was the last thing we filmed actually and it was again, New Orleans heat, very hot and there was no coverage. All these people, we had to make sure everyone stayed hydrated, did not pass out.
It was a very, very challenging fight scene but it was also just complicated because in that location, it’s basically a maze-like location. So there’s a lot of places to shoot in there.
Is your costume more elastic for fighting in?
The black pants that I wear have an elastic crotch in them, but I would basically on a daily basis bust through those crotches, like probably two a day. Because any time you kick high with that stuff, it would just rip open.
How restrictive is the red coat and vest?
It was not that restrictive but it’s extremely hot. It’s a leather trenchcoat again in 90 degree weather, 90% humidity. So it was not friendly to wear that thing. You might be able to see it in some of the scenes. You actually can see my sweat coming through the weather. Like a tiger striped pattern.
They took a page from the Hong Kong production book to have 8 days of a fight unit on top of the 8 days of shooting for the episode. Can they really replicate that on television or are there still limitations?
I think it felt like a movie. It’s just that we had to work at breakneck speeds to get it done. So there was no downtime or even time to mess around at all. You had to be really efficient in the shooting. Most of the shots we did were within four or five takes at the most because there was no time to go beyond that. If it didn’t work, then we just gave it up and tried something different because of the time crunch.
I think the most we ever did, you know in the rain fight, that flip onto the car? That one was 25 takes. It was crazy. We know why it’s not been done on television before because it’s extremely challenging, but we were able to do it and get it through. It seems like we have a formula how to do it for television now.
If you get a second season, would it run more efficiently? Could you do more than six episodes?
Yeah, if we do a second season, I think definitely it would be in the 10 episode range, 10-12. I don’t think we can do any more than that because it’s just too physically demanding. Especially if Sunny’s going to be involved in most of those fights, it’ll be a lot.
Most of the Hong Kong movies that you watch, there’s probably three, four, five fight scenes per movie and they’re done over a six month period, so there’s time to rest and recover while you’re doing all the drama stuff. Because we’re doing two units at the same time, there is no down time. So I did 11 fight scenes of the 12 in three and a half months. That was very, very physically challenging. I’m not a kid anymore. I’m 41 this year, so we have to figure out a way to do it not only efficiently for scheduling, but also efficiently so I don’t get hurt or injured. Once I pull something, I’m out for a while. Luckily that didn’t happen.
Working with Stephen Fung again, is it like the movies you made with him, and how different is that from the movies you made with Jackie Chan?
I think we’re definitely heavily influenced by Jackie just because I was managed by him for 11 years. Stephen was managed by him as well. We both worked on his projects so we learned a lot from him as well. Also Stephen has his own unique style and visual sense that’s a lot different than Jackie. We tend to be a little more violent than Jackie. Jackie doesn’t like blood and gore but we like that stuff.
Working on projects in China now, they censor a lot of that stuff so we feel like we’ve had our hands tied. With Badlands we’re happy that we can go back to the gore and have blood spurting and bones breaking. We really got into that.
The colors are so vibrant on TV. What does it look like when you’re on location?
It is pretty brilliant looking. The lighting is done by Shane Hurlbut our cinematographer. He’s just amazing. You walk onto some of those sets and it’s just gorgeous. That golden light that comes through, the poppies were there. I would say 1/5 of them were there and then the rest are CG’ed in. And then the colors of the clothing, that’s how they are, that crimson red color.
Most of it you can see while we’re making it. Most of it is done through lighting but not much is done through color correction.
I don’t think we saw you in the Warcraft trailer, or did we and you’re there not looking like yourself?
Well, you definitely won’t see my face in it because I play a motion capture orc, but my character is not in this trailer yet.
Do you fight in motion capture?
Yeah, I fight in motion capture but very different than how I fight in Badlands. He’s an orc monster so I had to learn how to fight like that, as well as learn how to move and walk and breathe and talk like an orc. That was a major part of the training for that movie.
Was performance capture a big adaptation for you?
It was pretty awesome. One of the main driving forces for me to accept that movie was because I got to work in motion capture and I wanted to explore it. It seems like I came in at the right time because the technology’s gotten to the point where it’s really advanced now. I’ve seen a 95% completed version of the movie and just looking at the level of detail that they can render now, the orc I play or any of the orcs in fact, you can see the pores in their skin and you can see the moisture in their eyes. Especially when there’s an emotional scene, all those emotions come through now.
Whereas before, even in Avatar, the characters had very glassy eyes and glassy skin. It’s hard to 100% buy into the characters because you felt a little bit removed from it. These seem real and 10 minutes into the movie I forget that they’re all CG characters completely.
Orcs are one of the most famous creatures in Warcraft. Did you play the game and did it help you at all with research?
I don’t play the game but my wife plays and she’s probably the major reason why I ended up doing the movie, because she forced me to. [Laughs]
Originally the plan was I was supposed to take a year off because we just had a baby and I was going to take some time off and spend time with the baby. This audition came up, so I told my wife, “Look, there’s an audition.” She goes, “But you promised me you wouldn’t work for a year.” And I go, “But it’s for Warcraft.” She said, “Oh my God, you’ve got to do it!” Because of her, I auditioned for it and got the role. I referred to her most of the time for all the reference.
I tried to go through a lot of the lore online which there’s a ton of it. It was very informative, but Duncan eventually at the end of the day was like, “Really, you shouldn’t confuse yourself with all that stuff. Just look at what I’ve written, look at my notes and go based off of that.” That’s really how we did it.
The character really came to fruition once we did the Orc class to learn how to move like Orcs. It was an interesting process because the physicality of the character really informed me how he was going to be. It helped me develop the character in a massive way.
Did (director) Duncan’s [Jones] conception fall somewhere within the wide range of Orcs in the game? He didn’t invent something totally new.
Yeah, but I think what he brought to it was in Warcraft, you can be Alliance, you can be an Orc, you can be anybody you want. I think what he manages to do in the movie is to tell the story from multiple perspectives. So it’s not just Orcs vs. humans. There’s good Orcs, there’s good humans, there’s bad Orcs and there’s bad humans.
I think him being a player of Warcraft, he totally understood that. He captured that essence of it and I think that’s what gamers are going to be most impressed by.
It seems like they’ve been shooting Warcraft for years. How long did you work on it?
It was actually done over a year ago and it’s actually completed now. It’s just they didn’t want to compete with Star Wars for the December release so they’re waiting until summer of 2016 to release it.
Of course, and that’s a great time for it, and all the post work takes time too.
But it’s actually done already. They’re just sitting there waiting to have a spot.