Berkeley-born Daniel Wu, who studied Kung Fu and Wushu growing up, majored in architecture at the University of Oregon. But after graduation, he pined for something different. Enter the dragon of destiny, as he was tapped for an acting gig while on a soul-searching trip to Hong Kong.
Sixty-plus action movies later, Wu, 41, now executive produces and stars in AMC’s stupendously stylish new Into the Badlands. The first martial arts TV series since Kung Fu, Badlands co-stars Lord of the Rings’ Marton Csokas and a slew of beautiful ladies kicking serious butt.
With the show kicking off this Sunday at 10/9c, we asked him for the secrets to martial arts and cinematic success.
“Sunny’s style is graceful but he’s also extremely brutal. It’s poetry ending with a hard period. His finishing moves are like sledgehammers—bone-breaking, neck-breaking, slicing people in half stuff.”
1. Be ready for anything.
I fell into the movie business. I’d just graduated in architecture but I was looking for a more creative outlet. So I went to Hong Kong to be part of the hand-over back to China in 1997. My plan was to backpack for three months and do some soul-searching. I was hanging in a bar and someone cast me in a TV commercial, and I did it frankly because I needed the money. Movie director Yonfan saw it and asked me to play the lead role in Bishonen (1998). Hello? Really? I said, ‘Okay, if you don’t blame me if it screws up, let’s do it.’ I had three months to prep, trying to learn what acting was all about. But the first day on set, I fell in love with the whole process. Wow, this is the creative environment I’ve been yearning to be in, where everyone is busting their asses for one thing, to make a good movie. I was bitten by the bug. Luckily Yonfan recommended me to another director, and then in my first year, I did like six movies. Now it’s over 60! Who knew?!?
2. No matter the setting, be conscious of the real world.
With most dystopian or even sci-fi stories, they’re really a comment about today’s society. In our scenario, there are echoes of the past. There’s this irony of having white slaves working on a plantation [harvesting opium] whereas two hundred years ago it was run by white landowners with black slaves. Now we have a modern “slave” owner, a baron, who has multi-ethnic workers, turning things on its head. My character Sunny works for Baron Quinn [Csokas] as head clipper, a merciless killer. It’s also interesting that there are no guns, where in present day America, guns are out of control. Ours is not an overt political commentary but these little subtle things we put into the show are a reflection of society today, more than of the past.
3. Make the acting equal to the action.
To make a show successful, you can’t just have great martial arts and a crappy story and characters, or it becomes typical B-genre stuff. We wanted to take our show to another level, so the acting had to be high level and convincing and drive the story, rather than just the martial arts driving it, [because then] it becomes like porn, where you fast-forward through the story to get to the cool action payoff. We were adamant that [the cast members] were good actors first.
4. Learn how to fight.
My fellow executive producer Stephen Fung and I hoped we could cast actors with some martial arts background. But at the end of the day, all our actors had zero experience, so that became the big challenge. We had a six-week fight camp where we tried to make them look like martial artists. It’s impossible for anyone to master something in six weeks. But our great choreographer, Dee Dee Ku, who had worked on Crouching Tiger, Kill Bill and The Matrix, had experience taking untrained actors and turning them into martial artists for the screen. With Emily Beecham, she had some dance experience so she had a graceful way of moving, and we incorporated that into the way she fought. Same thing with Ally Ioannides, who also had dance experience and was flexible, that was a bonus.
5. Think big screen for the small screen.
Most previous TV shows haven’t executed the martial arts in a very good way. We understand that TV schedules are very challenging. Trying to shoot an episode over a few days, it’s hard to get into the fight. Whereas, in Hong Kong film, we spend a lot of time on the action scenes. For instance, in The Grandmaster, that awesome rain fight scene [Tony Leung vs Cung Le]—which we paid homage to in our second episode—took 30 days to film. And we had six days to film ours. But everyone who’s worked on our project comes from the film world. Cinematographer Shane Hurlbut is very accomplished, and we were looking to achieve a movie level look for the small screen. Whether it’s the fighting or drama or visuals, we wanted to elevate the genre, so that it’s something you haven’t seen on TV before.
6. From grace to bone-cracking, mix up your martial arts style.
We tried to make my character Sunny as dynamic as possible. My own foundation is in Kung Fu and Wushu. But we also wanted to use other influences to make the choreography more dynamic, including Krav Maga, Jujitsu, Muay Thai—styles that fans would recognize. In the future, there may not be one style anymore, so you use what’s effective for you. Sunny’s style is graceful but he’s also extremely brutal. It’s poetry ending with a hard period. His finishing moves are like sledgehammers—bone-breaking, neck-breaking, slicing people in half stuff.
7. Send in the shadow stars.
We had an incredible stunt team. You can be the best fighter in the world but if you don’t have good stuntmen doing great reactions to your punches and kicks, it’ll just be wasted. Stunt people are so important to the process. We had five guys that Dee Dee Ku brought from China, and four others we found in the States, and this team was constantly working as stuntmen or side characters, and even playing some important characters later in the series, and doubling for people when we needed because there were some acrobatic moves that our actors couldn’t pull off in the fight scenes.
8. When in doubt, YouTube it.
We had a really great girl who doubled almost every female in the show, just incredible. I found Mickey Facchinello on YouTube. A lot of American stunt people are used to American style action. It’s like one punch, cut! Two punches, cut! Slower-paced action. But we needed someone who was dynamic, acrobatic and could really do martial arts. Mickey and her partner, who’s also a martial artist, recreated a fight scene from a Jackie Chan movie called Wheels on Meals between Jackie and Benny the Jet. She played Benny and he played Jackie, and they recreated that iconic scene shot for shot, move for move, which looked amazing. And the YouTube video had her contact, and we’re going, ‘Get her over here now!’ She was incredible as part of the team.
9. Study the greats.
In Hero’s “chess courtyard” fight, there’s incredible weapons work. It’s a dynamic fight with two masters of the genre—Donnie Yen uses a spear and Jet Li uses a sword. It’s sheer poetry the way it’s set up with the music, drops of water, and (black and white and color) brilliant cinematography. Jet is a classicist, with a lot of respect for traditional Chinese Kung Fu. Donnie is all speed and power, which is similar to the way Bruce Lee fought—raw, unchained power.
10. But have fun with it.
Jackie Chan is one of my heroes. In The Legend of Drunken Master, he’s just a physical specimen and his fights incorporate more than just Kung Fu. He brings his crazy acrobatics to the choreography—diving through a tiny little hole, or jumping across buildings, and then doing these crazy fights on top of that. Then he incorporates his own brand of comedy. He’d say ‘when I throw a punch it’s going to hurt my hand,’ and he’d express ‘Ow,’ to make the character’s vulnerability apparent through comedy and action. He says he was influenced by comedic giants Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton.
11. And don’t forget the ladies.
Uma Thurman as The Bride and Lucy Liu as O-Ren battle with swords at the House of Blue Leaves in Tarantino’s classic Kill Bill. Dee Dee, our Badlands’ choreography master, worked on it with legendary Woo-Ping. Quentin deserves credit for re-introducing the fact that women can be cast, too. The outdoor fight is an homage to the classic Akira Kurosawa samurai or Yojimbo type of fights—very classic, simple movement but effective and deadly. In Crouching Tiger, there’s also an incredible weapons fight between two women [Ziyi Zhang and Michelle Yeoh], with great wire work. Watching it in the theatre, that scene literally got me on the edge of my seat, thinking, ‘Wow, this is amazing.’ The accompanying beats spurred on this dynamic fight. It’s an interesting metaphor for their relationship—two women fighting for this guy who they’re both in love with, their master.
12. Above all, stay true to your roots.
We eventually get into the idea of Chi [energy force] and how that is an important part of martial arts. And our young character MK’s secret is deeply tied to that, to his power. Chi is the foundation of most martial arts, unfortunately, nowadays when we’ve turned it more into a sport, that idea has fallen away or not really practiced anymore. But we wanted to incorporate that back into the show.