AMC has become a bona fide hit maker. The network has gained a reputation for delivering the goods, and Into the Badlands is no exception, nicely filling a niche that has been left unsatisfied on the genre-indulging station.
Al Gough and Miles Millar have been creating something different and significant here. The stylized series not only has a look that is so unlike the rest of what’s currently on television, but also the series is also a tremendous step forward in regards to getting a legit piece of authentic martial arts on American television. As the series prepares to conclude its debut season, we had the luxury of talking shop with showrunners, Al Gough and Miles Millar, about Badlands’ distinct point of view, the cyclical nature of superheroes, and everything kung fu.
DEN OF GEEK: The past few years have seen a real increase in martial arts love, between the stunt work done on stuff like Daredevil, Banshee, and films like Only God Forgives and The Raid, and even properties like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon are returning. What’s it feel like to be contributing to all of that in a big way?
MILES MILLAR: It’s always great. I feel like with Smallville we were certainly out in front of the superhero resurgence what happened. I think for us we always loved the genre–the first two films we wrote were Shanghai Noon and Lethal Weapon 4. It’s been a real passion project of ours. It’s clearly something that’s in the zeitgeist, and again it’s kind of great to be ahead of the curve there as well.
DEN OF GEEK: You talked about the movies you had worked on, and in this sense do you kind of like to be taking the grandiose action of a martial arts epic and expanding it into a serialized show? It must allow you much more freedom to let this material breathe as well as increase your ability to make something that’s pretty binge-worthy, too.
AL GOUGH: Absolutely, and it’s sort of a mash-up of all the things that we love, which are martial arts films, science fiction, Japanese samurai movies, and also how you do a show where the drama and the martial arts are serving each other. This is not some formulaic show. It’s not Rush Hour or something where the cops come, they kick the guns out of their hands, and they fight. It feels very arbitrary. We wanted the martial arts to be really integral to the story and the storytelling.
DEN OF GEEK: I was even going to mention that there’s an almost video game mentality to it all. You establish how many Barons there are, the boundaries to everything, and just to have this larger structure to fall back on to accentuate the more specific stuff must be comforting.
AL GOUGH: Oh for sure. It’s interesting because obviously people that love the genre do love video games. There is certainly that aspect of it to the story because you’re right, you have Barons, Clippers, and Colts, and everybody has distinctive outfits or fighting styles. So that’s something that we definitely wanted to do. And also I think it helps the viewer settle into this world. You’re asking a lot when you jump into this world.
There are so many things coming at you! We wanted the world and the characters in it to be very clear, to understand what the rules are, but also understanding that in these six episodes you’re really just getting a glimpse of the Badlands. Then, in season two, you’ll be able to go out and see much more of it.
DEN OF GEEK: Okay, because I was going to ask about that. So much of the series is spent on trying to get out of the Badlands, so in future seasons you see yourselves expanding your universe and we’ll be getting out of there?
MILES MILLAR: We really see this as almost a giant pilot–a giant first episode. You get to dive into the world, you get a sense of it, but then we’ll get to explore this world outside of the Fort and really get into the Badlands.
DEN OF GEEK: The choreography of the fight scenes in your show is just breathtaking. It doesn’t hurt that you have veteran Hong Kong stunt coordinator, Ku Huen-chiu (the Black Mask series, 14 Blades), on board. But between the weapons work and the way in which you’ll use slow motion at times, how did you decide on the look that the show’s fights would have?
AL GOUGH: Well it was something that we worked very closely with Stephen Fung, who’s our fight director, and Ku Huen-chiu, who’s our fight choreographer, and of course Daniel [Wu]. Also David Dobkin who directed the first three episodes, who we worked with on Shanghai Knights.
We really wanted to establish what the fight–it’s one of those things where you want the drama to come from one place and the fighting to come from some place else. We wanted the fights to be integrated into the storytelling, but also allow us in future seasons to introduce different types of fighting styles.
And also we wanted a real variety of fights, so when you watch an episode you can go, “Okay, that’s the ‘Rain Fight’, that’s the ‘Cemetery Fight’, that’s Sunny Vs. The Widow, that’s the ‘Wheelchair Fight’. We also wanted to see a variety of locales, people fighting–
MILES MILLAR: We wanted to do the classics! Martial arts fans would know classic martial arts movies, like The Grandmaster, Enter the Dragon, Flash Point, and you can see all the styles of fighting that we reference and blend in. We wanted our fights to pay homage to specific movies and it’s all very deliberate. What sets this show apart is that we have authentic Hong Kong style martial arts because we actually have a full-time dedicated fight unit, which is a luxury that most shows can’t afford and really makes this show distinctive. So we have fights that take seven days to shoot sometimes. That’s why our fights can be two or three minutes long because most shows have to shoot their fights in two days. We’re really rebelling here. From the inception that was what this show was going to be about. It was going to be about really bringing authentic style Hong Kong martial arts to American television. Obviously this was a genre that people love and enjoy, but we love being able to introduce a new group of people to these movies and this kind of filmmaking.
DEN OF GEEK: No, and it’s absolutely necessary. You can feel it right from the moment the show begins, too. While we’re talking about the variety of fight scenes that your show has, you do great work with weapons, but also have some incredible unarmed battles. Do you have a preference between the two?
AL GOUGH: Well I think one of the hallmarks of Hong Kong martial arts–and you see this with Jackie, or with Jet–there’s sort of a jazz quality to what they do. So when we come to a location they can turn anything into a weapon. We also just wanted to see the variety of the show–not only in swordplay, but also hand-to-hand–and then obviously we got into the armory in episode five which let us show off a lot of weapons. But I think for us it’s a matter of how do we keep changing up the fights so it doesn’t feel like you’re watching the same fight over and over again? And that requires switching out the weapons as well as the styles.
DEN OF GEEK: I know you have your own fight unit that allows you certain luxuries, but has there ever been a fight scene that you had to scale back; some Holy Grail set piece that you haven’t been able to crack yet?
AL GOUGH: The one we did want to do–in episode three when Sunny is chasing Angelica along the balconies–there was going to be this big sort of fight involving clotheslines between the buildings.
DEN OF GEEK: Oh very cool.
AL GOUGH: Yeah, but it was so complex that it wasn’t something that Stephen–
MILES MILLAR: It would have taken four weeks to do.
AL GOUGH: Yeah, it would have taken so many weeks to actually shoot it that we couldn’t do it within the time. But that’s something we definitely want to do. That was one that we had to put back on the shelf for season two. But the rest of them we very much wanted to do–the ‘Rain Fight’ was a big one for us to pull off, the fight in the armory was a big fight, the 20-to-1 fight in the warehouse–I mean, they really exceeded our expectations. That was an amazing fight because once they got in that location there was so much that they could do. That fight was probably two minutes longer than what we have, but we had to cut it back because of the length of time of the episode.
DEN OF GEEK: I just wanted to single out the foley work on your show in particular. It’s stunning stuff and you could seriously watch this show with your eyes closed and the sound turned up and it’d be just as visceral of an experience. Was this something you were very particular about going into the series?
MILES MILLAR: Yes. The sound design is critical to a good martial arts film and we wanted to ensure that the soundscape was cinematic in that way. We knew that an unbelievable sound team that really went to every length. When you see the DVD version of this show it’s just unbelievable in the depth and complexity of the sound effects work that’s been done. It’s remarkable in terms of the sword strikes, weaponry, the blows… It adds a whole other texture to the show and when you see it without it it’s a completely different experience. It really is such an additive and so important.
DEN OF GEEK: So true. I’ve never seen something so intense before on TV. It’s one of the first things I noticed about it and it truly sets it apart. You guys are also developing the Shannara series, which premieres in January. What are you hoping to say with this show and why do you think it’s an important property? It feels almost like the opposite of Badlands in tone, but will any of Badlands’ rugged, brutal nature make it over to Shannara Chronicles, too?
MILES MILLAR: Well Shannara is not for the faint of heart either. It’s not at the level of brutality or bloodshed that Badlands is at–
AL GOUGH: But it doesn’t shy away either.
MILES MILLAR: It doesn’t shy away. It’s not a PG world. People die in that world. They die very brutally and we wanted to make sure that our fantasy world feels real. We fell in love with Terry Brooks’ Shannara series and thought it would make for an amazing season of television. At its core are these three young heroes who we thought would really be dynamic television characters. So it was something that was actually much more similar to our experience on Smallville in terms of a tone that we really felt comfortable with. I mean Game of Thrones is obviously a very big fantasy book, but this is a lot more akin to Lord of the Rings or The Hunger Games and we thought it was just quite unique. The story was very compelling to us.
DEN OF GEEK: Back to Badlands, you’ve created such a rich society with a real set of rules and laws to it that you convey quite capably. While action is such an integral part of this show, you must have a great deal of respect for the politics and feudal system that this world is so heavily steeped in, too?
MILES MILLAR: Oh absolutely, and we sort of based it on pre-feudal Japanese societies. For us, the inspiration for the society really sprung from Japanese samurai movies. We looked at the research from feudal Japanese societies; the Barons, the shoguns, the samurai, the nomads, the Ronin, and we liked the idea that outside the gates of the shogun palace there’s always a street of crop people and tea shops. It’s really very much modeled off of that Japanese samurai feudal society that you see in Kurosawa movies and The Samurai Trilogy. Movies that we love, and have re-watched and re-watched. That was our model but we really wanted to make sure that the show felt distinctively American. That it was set in America. That it wasn’t pseudo Asia. That it was about America’s change, and how martial arts have eclipsed weaponry in terms of firearms and guns. It’s a world that’s been reconfigured and remade in this medieval Japanese mode.
DEN OF GEEK: We touched upon it pretty early on here, but there’s been an extreme push lately towards comic book adaptations obviously, and even on television the CW has gradually turned into a huge crossover event network, between The Flash, Arrow, and now Legends of Tomorrow. This strategy is printing money now and this long-game vision is becoming the norm. You guys tried to do this forever ago with Smallville and then eventually your proposed Aquaman series (Mercy Reef), yet people were not going for it. Would you mind elaborating a bit on just how much things have changed since then?
AL GOUGH: It’s interesting. Again, it was at a time where Smallville was the biggest show on the WB, and the biggest show on the CW. But at the time the CW wasn’t interested in the genre. Even though it was their biggest show [Smallville], they were interested in being the Gossip Girl network, which quite frankly put them in the toilet. It wasn’t until Mark Pedowitz came in and rightfully realized, “Oh, Supernatural, The Vampire Diaries—
MILES MILLAR: Smallville…
AL GOUGH: —Smallville. These are the shows that our audience loves, and why don’t we double down on that?” And at that point Marvel had kind of proven that you can do these things and cross-pollinate them. It’s sort of amusing that we had the Flash first on Smallville.
DEN OF GEEK: I know!
MILES MILLAR: The Arrow…
AL GOUGH: We had the Arrow. We had Supergirl. We did the Justice League episode [“Justice’]!
DEN OF GEEK: You did!
AL GOUGH: That was fantastic.
MILES MILLAR: And we were very proud of our Aquaman pilot. We thought it would have been an awesome series, and I think a big hit. It was even kind of proven when they managed to put it up on iTunes and it was in their Top 10 for like 25 weeks. I think it was just a period that was giving people a new service and we were eventually pushed into a corner. Luckily fans, and people, and audiences have embraced it again with their dollars and their eyeballs. I think for us that we always thought that Smallville was at the forefront of that, and a leader, and a trailblazer. I think if you look at Smallville you’ll see–
AL GOUGH: The DNA of a lot of these shows is definitely pulling from Smallville.
DEN OF GEEK: Finally, any thought towards trying to get some big martial artist guest stars to appear in the series, or even guest directors to come in and put their stamp on this material? If you had your dream picks who would they be?
MILES MILLAR: We’d absolutely love to do that. There are so many people we’d love to have on the show but it just comes down to actual reality. But I mean, we’d love to see Jackie Chan, Sammo Huang, Jet Li, Donnie Yen. Michelle Yeoh would be really incredible. What we love about this show are its really strong female characters. Even someone like Rhonda Rousey–
AL GOUGH: Yeah, AMA fighters would be great. And we’ve had discussions–believe me these are discussions that Miles and I have had with Stephen and Daniel about who we can get, who’s available, what could the schedule be, how could it work? It’s definitely something we’re always talking about–we’ve shut the door on no one. Even if some are long shots, we still want to see what we could do.
MILES MILLAR: We’d love to do that, yeah. With success that’s something that we could really explore and make happen.
Into the Badlands first season concludes this Sunday at 10pm EST on AMC, with the rest of the first season being available on their website