Alfred Gough and Miles Millar have been bringing martial arts into the American mainstream for nearly twenty years. Their ongoing list of screenplays include Lethal Weapon 4, Shanghai Noon, Spider-Man 2, I Am Number 4, Smallville, and now, Into the Badlands.
Starring Daniel Wu as Sunny, AMC’s Into the Badlands is the first American martial arts television series. The story follows a warrior who searches for enlightenment in a colorful yet dystopian future, where the sword is king and feudal barons rule the land.
Creative Screenwriting spoke with Alfred Gough and Miles Millar about keeping the martials arts authentic, why a fight scene is like jazz, news of a third Shanghai Noon film, and writing for Jackie Chan.
As the writers of Smallville, you really shaped the view of Superman as a character before the influx of superhero movies. How did you come to write martial arts films?
Alfred Gough: We actually started with martial arts before superheroes. Our first two features were Lethal Weapon 4 and Shanghai Noon, so we worked with Jet Li and Jackie Chan. We started with that for a number of years, then moved onto Smallville, but martial arts is a genre we’ve always loved.
We’ve always been looking for a way to do authentic martial arts on television. Obviously it’s not something easy to pull off because you need a full-time, Hong Kong martial arts team to do it.
When we came up with Into the Badlands, that’s how we pitched it. We said up front to AMC that that was what was needed in order to make it authentic. To their credit, they were very committed to doing it that way.
How do you make Badlands and the Shanghai Noon films for both Chinese and Western audiences?
Miles Millar: The most important factor is that the martial arts is authentic. We do that by ensuring that we have the best people from China to choreograph and direct the action.
That’s how we get the legitimacy on the show. We’re aiming for a universal appeal rather than aiming to appease both Chinese and Western audiences. So we’re aiming to please both but it’s not exclusive.
We’re not saying American audiences wouldn’t respond to martial arts the way Asian audiences would, but when you see what martial arts is, all audiences can appreciate the differences in Asian and Western-style action. The authenticity is what’s important for us, both in action style and how it’s directed.
How do you take a character like Sunny (Daniel Wu), who is a cold-blooded killer, and make him someone who is likeable after the first season?
Alfred: That was really the goal. It’s a martial arts-drama, so the drama component had to be as good as the martial arts. That was something that we worked very hard to do.
Obviously being fans of AMC and their shows, knowing that they take those kinds of risk, that was very important to us. They have a willingness to let the story and the characters play out. They don’t impose a lot of restrictions on you, in the way a traditional television network would. The way they are able to tell stories combined with martial arts. That is unique.
Miles: It is odd that all of the killers in the show are mass killers. They are all dark. They are all blood-splattered, and yet Sunny, who has killed the most, is probably the most heroic too. It’s a strange juxtaposition, and AMC likes that level of complexity within a character.
On paper, it is certainly a huge risk to create a network character who kills a lot of people. But the network was brave enough to go with us on this journey and audiences embraced it.
We were also lucky that we got a huge Asian movie star in Daniel Wu to play the role. So you have that cinematic quality of your lead that people respond to—it’s that star quality that he has. That has allowed for people to empathize with him, even though he has killed hundreds of people.
What are the specific cinematic influences of the show, either in the overall series or within the character of Sunny?
Miles: Some of the obvious character influences are the spaghetti western, such as Sergio Leone’s “The Man with No Name”. Then there is also the mash-up of Asian movies, such as the Akira Kurosawa (Seven Samurai) movies and the Samurai trilogy. Lone Wolf and Cub was also influential. They’re sort of the iconic movies of Asian cinema and spaghetti westerns.
Visually, it’s mainly Kurosawa and also Wong Kar Wai’s In the Mood for Love. There’s House of Flying Daggers in terms of the saturated colors to make sure the world is not bleak, and that even though it’s violent and beautiful it’s still a celebration of color.
This goes against the norm of American or Western ideas of the future, which are bleak. With that in mind, we went with a more Asian tradition, which is more colorful and saturated.
Did you grow up watching these films, and if not, what made you move into the martial arts genre as writers?
Alfred: I had a friend who was very much into martial arts films when we were kids. They were on UHF channel on Saturday afternoons, so you would see a lot of those.
We met at film school at UFC, and we would go to a lot of Jackie Chan retrospectives and film festivals back in the early 90s. So we would indulge that way as well.
Miles: There was a festival in LA that went on for a week, and they showed twenty of Jackie Chan’s films. But I certainly didn’t grow up watching martial arts movies or reading comic books. That wasn’t something I was in to.
But what’s good for us is to approach the genre as storytellers rather than fans. That’s why Smallville was good for us, because we weren’t slave-ish to thirty years of Superman law. We approached the characters as characters, which made them fresh and original, emotional beings rather than cut-outs.
In a recent interview, Daniel Wu mentioned that the rain fight took about six days to shoot. What does something like that look like on paper? How much detail goes into writing a fight, or is that all up to the choreographer?
Alfred: When you’re working with a Hong Kong fight team, it’s like working with a jazz band.
What we’ve always done, as in Shanghai Noon and Shanghai Knights, is to write out sequences. You do need to know the story points and where the characters are, so it does have structure. In the rain fight, it took place on a certain street and it was Sunny versus the Widow’s Clippers.
Then what happens is that fight is what the Hong Kong team brings to it. They read what’s on the page, but the when they get on set, in that environment, that’s where the jazz starts.
They know the notes that they have to hit, but between that, they’ll come up with these amazing things. Some of that is riffing off of what was written, or they may include something such as the Widow’s car, and how that can be the focal point of the fight. It’s the centerpiece and they’re fighting around it.
As storytellers, we need to give them the arena and the story beats. You build the box, but then they should have free range to do what they do. That’s how it really happens, and it’s been a great collaboration.
We had the great fortune of seeing Jackie’s team and how that worked, so we could not only explain it to the network, but work with Daniel Wu and Stephen Fund, who are the executive producers and who knew how it worked.
So it’s the collaboration of a lot of experience working together. We call it the one degree of Jackie Chan. Daniel and Stephen were both signed by Jackie Chan, so he put them in some of their early movies. Everybody had sort of came out of the same can.
What elements are important when making a martial arts film?
Miles: The key ingredient to any good drama is characters that you can root for. You can have a fight, but if you don’t know the characters or have a nameless character, you lose interest. When you are rooting for the fighter and have a point of view on each side, then you’re intrigued.
The other thing a fight needs is the dramatic thrust. The fight needs to move the story forward. It needs to change things for the characters. The story doesn’t stop for the fight to take place. The fight has to move the story forward. It has to change the events of the story.
The fights are a structural element in the story. It’s pivotal for where the characters go next. Some people mistake them as intervals, but they need to be a progression of the story. That’s what we look for: the fights are fundamental and complicate the character’s lives.
Into the Badlands explores a futuristic world that doesn’t exist. How do you create that world, and make the real-life shooting locations such as New Orleans fit?
Alfred: That’s certainly the hardest thing when you’re doing any show that’s not set in the present. The world-building is something that we take very seriously. Frankly, the devil is always in the details.
We didn’t want to set up the usual trope, which is that the Hong Kong cop comes over and hooks up with an American in present day. Then every time they get into trouble, somehow the guns have gotten kicked out of people’s hands and then they fight.
That doesn’t feel real, so we wanted to achieve a couple of things. We needed a world with a certain social structure. Our world does reflect Feudal Japan with the Baron, but we didn’t want to be tied down by history, so we set it in America in the future.
It’s also a world of no guns, so its post-apocalyptic, but as Miles said, the world still has color. It doesn’t look like Mad Max or Book of Eli or something like that. It has color, and what New Orleans gave us in Season 1 was a very specific look. It did have a lot of color and we were able to take advantage of that.
In Season 2, we’ve moved the show to Ireland to expand the scope of the world. That has also provided a lot of dramatic landscapes, so we can build out the world.
Season 1 is only six episodes so it’s more of a super pilot, where you only get a glimpse but you know there are more world to come. With Season 2, we get to deliver on that promise.
You’ve mentioned the Shanghai Noon films. There are reports of a third film to complete the trilogy. Can you share any details on the next Jackie Chan film?
Alfred: There is a third one called Shanghai Dawn. It’s Jackie and Owen, and it will start shooting in China early next year. So there will be a third one.
What’s it like writing for Jackie Chan?
Alfred: Jackie has an incredibly strong persona. What’s interesting in the Shanghai Noon movies is that while he plays the straight man, he’s still more of the emotional core of the movie. Owen has more of the verbal humor.
As Jackie has gotten older, his dramatic chops have gotten better. If you look at The Karate Kid reboot in 2010, that was very much a dramatic role for him. He used to just be about crazy stunts, and the outtakes were about all the bones he broken, but he’s moved on in his career. He still does those things, but he’s not a young man anymore, even though he’s in better shape than any of us are.
So now, when we go in and pitch the story, describing the arc and where the characters are going, he always has really good ideas about emotional things that he wants to play. Though he will also include his own ideas about the fight sequences, and things that he hasn’t done before that haven’t been seen.
The third film has been set in China, and he wants to showcase China in the way that the first film showcased the old West.
So he’s got great ideas about settings and things like that. With those films, the collaboration of Jackie and Owen comes out on screen as they get along very well. With that in mind, you want to get their input in the story phase, so that when we got to script, it’s based into the DNA of the story.
Those films contain some historical fiction, such as Charlie Chaplin and the Sherlock Holmes reference. How do you go about including these types of threads in your films?
Miles: It depends on the story, but it’s certainly a fun wink for audiences who enjoy it. For us, in terms of writing, it helps us to figure out the timeline of the story and how our characters fit into that timeline.
It resonates well with audiences today, but it’s not significant, just fun winks.
Is there anything you would like to add about Into the Badlands?
Miles: There is a uniqueness in the opportunity of the fact that we have Chinese fight units who can create action sequences that are five minutes long. It’s somewhat unprecedented in American television, so the fact that we get to do it every week is amazing.
Outside of our offices, we get to see them setting up these elaborate wire sequences that may take seven days to film. You get to see it unfolding before your eyes. That’s the fun part.
Television writing has become sort of procedural, where you are either in a hospital or following a detective solving a case, but we have an uncharted map where we can follow it on any route we want.
Sometimes it’s an insane level of production that is like three-dimensional chess. We have to figure out how to get Daniel to the fighting unit, or to the drama unit, and manage it all.
It’s an incredibly difficult production to manage and sometimes we take risk within the world building, so hopefully we will succeed. Occasionally you don’t. And if it was a bold choice at the time, you can look at it later and think it was a mistake. But the most important thing is to always challenge ourselves and be bold. That’s what’s important about the show.
We can’t play it safe. We have a network that doesn’t want to play it safe. We have a series that doesn’t want to play it safe, and for us as writers, that allows us to not play safe. It’s a rare freedom for writers to get this chance. We have to go on and embrace everything as we did the first season. If problems arise, it’s not for lack of trying.