One of the biggest and riskiest bets of the fall 2015 season premiered this week in possibly the safest possible position — the hour following the most-watched drama on television.
But the AMC martial arts series “Into the Badlands” wasn’t just coasting on “Walking Dead’s” popularity. With an eye-catching visual style and wholly original premise, the post-apocalyptic action series inspired by classic Japanese and Hong Kong cinema launched its first season to the fall’s best ratings for a new show. If viewers stick around, they’ll be treated to more kick-ass action as the six-episode first season rolls out.
At this summer’s TCA press tour, creators Al Gough and Miles Millar (who previously came together to create the CW’s “Smallville” as well as write for plenty of action-loving series) sat down with Indiewire to reveal the rules they created to build this new universe and how they were able to get away with creating something original in a franchise-obsessed industry. An edited transcript can be found below.
So, I want to know how the pitch came together for this because it’s such a unique concept.
GOUGH: It was actually an interesting story. Miles and I had been looking to do a martial arts show for some time. Our first two movies that we wrote were “Lethal Weapon 4” and “Shanghai Noon” with Jackie Chan. Then we sort of got pulled into the superhero world, but then you look around at what’s not on television and there wasn’t really a martial arts shows. There are shows that do martial arts to a degree, but there’s not a martial arts show.
So we were kicking around some ideas and then Stacey Sher and Michael Shamberg, who produced “Pulp Fiction” and “Django Unchained,” had been talking to AMC about doing a martial arts show. So, it was definitely one of those things that was in the water. We’d known Stacey for awhile, we actually went to the same program in film school that she did. She had been talking to Daniel Wu and Stephen Fung, who’d she met when she was doing “Contagion” in Hong Kong. What’s interesting is that we had written “Shanghai Noon” for Jackie Chan — Daniel was discovered by Jackie Chan and he and Stephen were managed by him. We all knew that in order to make this work we need a full-time Hong Kong fight unit.
MILLAR: It wasn’t going to be two days of a splinter unit at the end of the shoot. The action and the martial arts had to be integral to the show. That’s what makes it unique, that’s what makes it special and different and ground-breaking. No one has attempted this before on American television.
GOUGH: Most fight sequences on a television show, probably any action adventure show that you know of, if you asked them how long they probably spend, [it’s] one or two days doing the fight. Where we were spending eight days concurrently with an episode doing our fight sequences.
MILLAR: There are a couple of specific things about the show. We didn’t want to do a contemporary show, which is always “Chinese cop comes to New York, teams up with racist cop, together they fight crime…”
GOUGH: …and kick the guns out of people’s hands.
MILLAR: There’s always someone kicking guns. We wanted [“Badlands”] to be a world without guns and bullets, where martial arts was the form of fighting and defense and attack. Martial arts is king in this world. That was the first thing. We didn’t want it to be a period piece either. We felt those are overdone and stuffy. That was what lead us to explore that area of science fiction and future, a world we can create and control.
Then we looked at things that we loved. We love Japanese cinema — love Kurosawa, the Samurai Trilogy, “Shogun Assassin” from the 1970s, that world. The world of Hong Kong cinema, Wong Kar Wai’s visual aesthetic, “Hero,” “House of Flying Daggers” — extremely colorful. Then we blended that together. And of course, the classic Spaghetti westerns, “The Man With No Name” and all those sort of things all as a giant deliberate mashup to a great authentically unique world. That was our goal. I guess you’ll tell us if it succeeded. We wanted it to be distinctly different and, like all good science fiction, to have a point-of-view about today’s world. That was our goal.
When I saw that the show was post-apocalyptic, I was really excited, but what I’m curious about is, from what I’ve read, we’re so far in the future that we’re not even really talking about the present. There’s no driving by the destroyed icons of civilization gone by. What’s key in terms of creating that sort of world?
GOUGH: Some of the key components, as Miles said, we wanted it to be so far into the future that you weren’t talking about our time. I was joking that the AMC cinematic universe is after the zombie apocalypse by hundreds and hundreds of years.
MILLAR: Also, having grown up in England, you walk around London, you’re passing relics that are a thousand years old — the wall of London is a thousand years old. You don’t talk about it, it’s part of your everyday life. The idea that people are in these environments and talking about the past and what happened, it’s irrelevant. It’s all about living and in this world it was about surviving.
GOUGH: So the idea was that, some catastrophic event had happened. There was a long dark age and then out of that, 100 years ago in this world, seven barons — these men and women — rose up and formed the new society. It’s a feudal world, a part feudal barons and part warlord and part mob boss and they each control a huge resource so that there’s an uneasy alliance, but they all need each other.
MILLAR: In that way, it’s very much more along the lines of a medieval, Japanese feudal society. We had barons, they had shoguns, they had samurai, we had Clippers, they had ronin, we had nomads. So, it’s very much parallel with that in terms of the structure of society.
GOUGH: And they had banned guns because they knew guns in the hands of those that were in servitude could turn-up very badly for them. So then they trained these armies of what we call Clippers in martial arts. Those are the armies that keep the peace and force their will.
It’s such a unique thing to see this completely new world. Was it fun to build it?
GOUGH: It was fun to build it.
MILLAR: It was very challenging in terms of making sure that everyone is distinct. Also, we wanted to have some Asian influences as well, so that it really is a mashup. We want evidence of our presence in this world, so you’ll see there’s an interest in technology, that there are not complex electronics. There’s electricity in this world, but computers, circuits don’t work.
GOUGH: There’s no cloud in the Badlands. [laughs]
MILLAR: Yeah, no cloud. But they do have gramophones, record players, they have light bulbs. It’s very basic.
GOUGH: Sort of Industrial Revolution. You think of what they had technologically in the industrial revolution.
MILLAR: A bit more as well, cars have survived. Anything pre-1970s. After 1970, cars became computerized, so anything that’s computerized doesn’t exist or is irrelevant.
Does a lot of this come down to you guys sitting around the writer’s room going, “Yeah, no computers, keep the computers out of this.”
GOUGH: Well, I think it was actually Miles and I sitting at the Farmer’s Market. Part of it was you just want the world to have rules and the world building of it. We liked the idea that it was a low-tech future. But everything always repeats the past. If you look today and look at something in the middle east where you got people getting beheaded it’s like the crusades with Twitter. It’s crazy, human nature does the same thing. In a way, even though you’re in the future people wanted order so this sort of system rose up.
MILLAR: And the idea of the barons in selecting their fashion sense from the past, it’s very eclectic, but it all blends. For example, there are two very strong female characters who live with the Baron. Polygamy is accepted in this world and their fashion sense is very strong, but their silhouettes are all based on the 1970s fashion and 1950s. But it all feels very streamlined, has a futuristic edge, the pallet’s very strong.
Another thing we wanted to do, a lot of shows or movies that are in the future or the post-apocalyptic are very bleached, desaturated desert environments and we wanted to do the opposite of that. There’s always talk about Chernobyl and the world that environment has recovered has become this idyllic, bizarrely refuge for wildlife.
GOUGH: And that’s only 30 years. That’s 30 years after the meltdown.
MILLAR: We got the idea of nature almost encroaching. It’s incredibly lush, incredibly green, we really popped the colors, lots of deep reds and the greens. It really has a sense of color which is unsettling actually and people are like, “It’s so colorful.”
When you took it to AMC and you laid all this out for them, was there ever a question of, “What book is it based on? What previously established property can you point to?”
GOUGH: That was certainly something that was brought up. We now live in a world both in film and television where everything is based on something. You point out, “Star Wars” was an original screenplay, “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” an original screenplay, “Ghostbusters” an original screenplay, “Back to the Future.” All these things that people love were original ideas 35, 40 years ago. To AMC’s credit, I think what they saw was the show doesn’t exist in the marketplace. They knew that there was a hunger for a martial arts show. They also knew that you have this strong tradition of martial arts cinema, so even though it’s not branded by a novel or a comic book or an old movie or something, we do have the genre itself, which people love.
The reason to set it in the future — we can build the world and take pieces of things we like, as well as race doesn’t matter. There’s black barons, there’s white barons, female barons. Basically, women are as lethal, you’ll see in the clip today with the widow, she’s as lethal as anybody. And I think that martial arts have always been that great equalizer.
MILLAR: It’s always balletic. There’s a clip you’ll see today that gives a sense of what it is in terms of the show, in terms of the tone. I don’t think you’ve seen anything like it before in terms of television.
In terms of the violence level, how far do you feel you were able to take it?
MILLAR: It’s one of the things– We are actually not TV-MA. We’re TV-14 so there are limitations. In the future, we would love to be TV-MA, but we’re not at the moment. We want to push it as far as we can push it — that rating — because we want it to feel real. It has to feel that this is a very, very brutal world.
GOUGH: In a world where people are using martial arts knives, swords and stuff, people are going to bleed, people are going to die, people get hurt and it’s also the idea that when they have a fight, like when Daniel, who plays Sunny, has a fight, he’s freaking tired. It’s not like a superhero.
MILLAR: That’s the other thing about the world we always wanted it to be: it’s an extremely dirty, sweaty world. Everybody, even the baron who lives in this palatial house, you look closely you’ll see the paint peeling, you’ll see sweat on the beds. It’s a facade. Aramis who plays M.K., he’s filthy the whole time. We wanted to feel real, to give it a veracity. Unfortunately, everyone in America has too [many] good teeth. “Game of Thrones,” they get away with the teeth because everyone has bad teeth in England. It’s like what do we do.
GOUGH: They have a very good dental plan in the Badlands.
[laughs] In terms of the blood– I feel like blood is usually considered to be the thing that really gets you in terms of ratings. You can shoot people to death if you’re able to hide the blood in there to some extent.
MILLAR: You know what it is? It’s about getting the nitpicky details. If you see a blade going in, you can’t see it coming out, that sort of stuff. It’s how you cut it.
In terms of seasons — I hate to ask about Season 2 before we even see Season 1 — but do you have a grand plan in place?
MILLAR: Absolutely, yeah. I think we always set out as creators and showrunners, you have to have a plan. You have to know where you’re going, where the characters are going. But then you also want surprises. You don’t know the chemistry of the cast, and how things are going to work and which characters pop for you as a creator and a writer. You want to keep it organic, but you want to have touchstones of where you want to go and how it could change. In our own heads, we set out to create a show which have these touchstone moments, through at least five seasons.
Based on what I’ve read, how much of a road trip show is it?
GOUGH: It will turn into that in future seasons.
So, future seasons, but the first season…
MILLAR: We want to reveal the world slowly. Otherwise, it’s just going feel too big and overwhelming. I look at the first six episodes as if it’s really a giant pilot in a weird way. It’s an introduction to the world. The great thing about AMC is you have the time and scope in terms of the pace. It’s really about, for us, the action’s important, the fights, but also the characters and spending time with them. We are not into rushing through plot, it’s like “Empire.” It’s about complexity and ambiguity and moral choices and the gray of life. It’s not about black and white.
GOUGH: That being said, I love “Empire.” [laughs]
“Into the Badlands” airs Sundays at 10pm on AMC.