Into the Badlands: An Underrated Trailblazer (WonderCon 2019 Interview)

The tides are shifting in Hollywood, with more executives taking note that diversity and inclusivity are indeed financially profitable and adored by wider audiences. From Jordan Peele's horror films that put black actors in the lead roles, to the box office hit Crazy Rich Asians that boasted a large ensemble of Asian actors being the most profitable romantic comedy in years, some may presume that these changes are a recent development. In moving focus from big studio films to television series, one AMC show has made significant strides in representing and resonating with members of various socially ostracised groups in a fusion of drama, comedy, and action. Ahead of the series finale, the cast and executive producers of AMC's Into the Badlands paid a visit to WonderCon to preview the show's final episodes and offer a greater insight to the show's run.

The prolific writing and producing team Al Gough and Miles Millar (Smallville, The Shannara Chronicles) created the show's story and concept from scratch, and brought together a diverse group of characters that was in no way accidental.

"It's something that we very much wanted to do. To us, the idea of diversity is that you see everybody. There's a lot of shows where it's mostly white but then there are show that are kind of considered 'African-American shows' whereas what we wanted to do is have that diversity. It's something you actually have to do. If you go into any studio or television network in Hollywood and say, 'We want to have a diverse cast', they're going to be like, 'Great, absolutely.' No one is against it philosophically. It's when you have to actually put it into practice and that's where it gets hard. We had it on Shannara as well. I remember the first season, we had Maori, which is the Native New Zealanders. In season two we were bringing in this royal family and we said 'They're African-American, that's all we're looking at.' Sometimes you just have to declare and do it that way. Sometimes casting directors will say, 'It's colour-blind, it's fine,' which it is a lot of times but then inevitably... you have to go [further]. That goes with extras as well. Then once you have them you have to train the assistant directors to put them in the shot. It's not conscious, it's just institutional. One article very nicely said, 'The diversity seems effortless.' It was a lot of effort. You have to do it and you have to mandate it, so to speak, or else it doesn't happen. People just fall into their routines. People don't think about it enough so you have to make a conscious effort."

Daniel Wu had never acted on television before, having spent his career moving from film to film, but in working as both an actor and producer for five years on Into the Badlands he never lost the excitement and passion for the project.

"I've produced a couple films before but never for such a long period of time. The first season I'd help set things up but when we moved to Ireland, I had to explain how to do the show. There's a whole new crew and I had to explain how there's a fight unit, there's a drama unit. They didn't understand it, they wanted to cut that out. I had to tell them this is the only way to do the show. Eventually I basically became the fight unit executive producer. I was making sure all the fight team got what they needed, that we had the right stuntmen for the right job, all that kind of stuff, and doing all the research. I was going on YouTube, finding these guys, it was very difficult to find this kind of level of stuntmen in Europe. We have a lot of people in Asia and the States but in Europe martial arts action is not very common. My job was to do all of that."

The action is a central component of making the show stand out, as the artistry and style is unlike much of what is produced in the action genre of Hollywood's produced content. Recently, Lewis Tan joined the series. Tan rose to prominence following a short appearance in the Marvel/Netflix show Iron Fist and the consequent media storm when it was revealed that he had originally auditioned for the show's lead and lost out in favour of a white actor with no significant martial arts experience. His extensive background and training as a martial artist serve him well as Gaius Chau.

"There are certain scenes in Into the Badlands where Nathan Barress did some stunts for me. There's one of the scenes when they raid the Iron Rabbit camp and he gets kicked into a cabinet and a canopy and onto a table. That's something I wouldn't do because if I get injured, how am I going to continue? But when it comes to fighting and telling the story I will do everything that I can do. I would say 95% of the fights, I do. Even if it's risky, anything that I can do I will do. If it's just like crashing into a wall, anything like that, it's dangerous for me to do and there's no point for me to do it. For me as an actor and a martial artist, they're one in the same to me. It's just expression. It's expression with my body and expression with my emotions. If I can do the fights you're going to see a different dynamic of my character than if a stunt double does it. That's how I look at it and that's how I approach all my work."

It's unclear why Into the Badlands spent much of it's run being overlooked and ignored by so many mainstream outlets and consumers. It's a show that offered so many exciting aspects, compelling character content, and visually stunning presentation in things like the fight sequences and the costumes. Executive producer Miles Millar isn't holding back any longer, now that the series is about to finish airing the last few episodes.

"I think the legacy of the show has just begun. The great thing about streaming is that the show will live on. We are incredible proud of the episodes. When you see all the seasons together, there are other questions to be answered but the viewing experience will be complete. We set out to do something, we did it. It has without a doubt the best action on television and the fact that it hasn't been recognised by the Academy is a disgrace, and it's something that I think in future years will be talked about. The fact that we have the only Asian-American male lead in decades and was not something that was ever written about, the show has been ignored by the press. The racial diversity has been ignored by the press. It's a disgrace, particularly the lack of recognition for our stunt team, there is no other show on television save Game of Thrones which has fives times the budget that even attempted to do what we did and we pulled it off week in, week out. We have fights which are cinema-worthy week in, week out. This season alone we had forty fights which I've not seen better in a movie. We've had some of the most empowered women of agency on television, from Orla to Emily Beecham as the Widow, and we created our own world in terms of the cinematography. We wanted it to be cinematic and world-class, it is, the sets, the costume design, there's so many things that I think are unlike anything else on television."

The remaining episodes of Into the Badlands are set to air on Mondays on AMC at 10/9c.


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