If you watched last night’s premiere of Into the Badlands — AMC’s post-apocalyptic martial arts epic starring Daniel Wu and Aramis Knight — chances are, you were impressed by the cinematic-worthy fight scenes. And while the stars can make the act of flipping onto a wet car look effortless, you can be sure that a lot of prep went into getting that one take.
Rotten Tomatoes chatted with Wu and Knight about what it’s like to star in a series that requires such a high level of athleticism and training, including a six-week boot camp for the actors.
“The biggest challenge was getting all the actors who didn’t know how to fight to learn how to fight in order to get ready for the show. It was a huge challenge; six weeks is not a lot of time to turn someone into an expert,” explained executive producer Wu, who plays the head “clipper” Sunny — and who is something of a martial arts expert himself. Starting at ten years old, Wu began kung-fu and wushu, and then later took up boxing, Muay Thai, and tai chi.
“It’s always been a lifestyle thing for me and a hobby and I always kept it up,” said Wu, “but filming martial arts action is totally different because you’re working 12 hours a day, fighting constantly throughout the day — and it’s a ten-week period. It’s not even what a fighter goes through. A fighter goes through six weeks of training and they fight one fight that lasts maybe 40 minutes. We have to keep that up for ten weeks.”
For Knight, jumping into a martial arts series was a big change-up from his existing experience. “I really had no martial arts background, but I’ve always been somewhat of an athlete,” explained the 15-year-old actor who plays M.K., the boy Sunny discovers in a trunk and takes under his wing. “Growing up, I played… mostly basketball. I’m a huge basketball fan. So the strength has always been there for me and the agility and the speed. But the issue was flexibility. And going in, Daniel and Stephen [Fung] and [Huan-Chiu Ku] — our fight director and fight choreographer — they really helped me in that six-week boot-camp.”
The training clearly pays off in the early episodes of Into the Badlands — especially in last night’s main fight scene, in which Sunny is ambushed by a group of the Widow’s [Emily Beecham] henchmen. “That flip [onto the car] took over twenty takes to even land one of them,” Wu told Rotten Tomatoes, laughing. “And that was the one that was good. It was impossible because the car’s completely wet so as soon as your foot hits you could slip.”
Wu admits that the aim for Into the Badlands has been ambitious. “Our main goal was really to try and bring that level of [martial arts movie] action to American television, which has never been done before. Now we know why. Because it’s very, very difficult.” admitted Wu.
One of the restrictions is the truncated production schedule. A film might allow for two or three week for an action scene, but for Into the Badlands, the schedule gives the cast and crew about a week. “A lot of these actions scenes were much more complex than the ones we’ve done in the past, so to cram that into seven days was a big, big challenge.”
Challenges aside, it seemed to Wu and the others involved in making Into the Badlands that the time was right to bring the genre to TV. Producer Stacey Sher had attended the premiere of kung-fu movie The Man With the Iron Fists in 2012 and was inspired to do martial arts on TV. She called Wu and he offered to produce the series on the condition that he could hire a Hong Kong action team to bring it to life.
“There was a goal in mind — to try and bring that kind of exciting action to television — and I think there’s a need for it now,” Wu said. “People want to see it. We’ve seen it in the movies with Matrix and Crouching Tiger, but we haven’t quite seen it on television. I think some shows like Arrow and Daredevil are getting close to that, but it’s still a different kind of action.”
Part of what’s unique to the action of Into the Badlands is the use of long takes. “In sequences in American action films, they do one or two punches and cut, and then you go to another sequence,” Wu explained. “We do 20 to 30 moves in one take so that you can see that it’s the actor doing all that action himself. That way, as the audience, you’re way more invested in the action because you know they’re doing it and there’s a dangerous element in that.”
Another difference is that the action in Into the Badlands doesn’t feel overly-rehearsed — because it’s not. “I’m not sure if a block is really going to work… and I think that’s what’s different than the way it’s been done in the West in the past,” said Wu, to which Knight added, “My favorite was doing fights with Daniel because you know he’s a ninja, so he’s gonna block my shots anyway. So I just go for it.”
Into the Badlands airs on AMC on Sunday nights at 10 p.m. Check the schedule for encore presentations of last night’s premiere here.