Even if it wasn’t for you, there’s no denying that there was nothing else like “Into the Badlands” on television in 2015. The post-apocalyptic martial arts drama heavily laced with supernatural elements showcased the talents of Hong Kong action star Daniel Wu as well as a talented supporting cast executing some of the most elaborate stunt work seen on television in quite some time. While the show has yet to be renewed for a second season, it was a ratings hit for AMC thanks in part to the time slot in which it premiered: Sunday nights, right after “The Walking Dead.”
Indiewire didn’t know too much about the series before talking with show creators Al Gough and Miles Millar (who previously launched the incredibly successful Superman adaptation series, “Smallville”) last summer at the TCA Press Tour. But in a phone conversation last month, just as the finale was about to premiere, we were able to dig into what Gough and Millar felt they learned over the course of the first six episodes, how they went about avoiding some obvious tropes and why they respond to both the good and the bad commenters on Twitter. An edited transcript is below, which includes some spoilers for the end of Season 1.
Congratulations on completing the season. How are you feeling about it?
AL GOUGH: We feel good about it. It’s obviously a crazy show, and we think it ends in an appropriate place: Where if you watch the first season, the story feels complete, but also we blow open the door for Season 2.
In terms of where you started planning the series versus where you ended up, how different did the first season end up going?
MILES MILLAR: It was pretty much on track. We liked the idea of introducing the audience to the world, and to show how much they had accepted or were confused by it. It was gratifying to see the people who embraced it immediately and understood it and got into it. They have tracked the characters through the six episodes, so it felt that now we can launch into the journey element of it. And really explore more of the Badlands.
I remember hearing something about how originally there was going to be a much higher body count in the first season.
MILLAR: Much higher than we have?
In terms of main characters, was the idea.
MILLAR: I think we’re always trying to avoid tropes. And I think that “Game of Thrones” has almost made killing people a cliche. For us, it wasn’t about that. For six episodes, it’s hard to invest in people, and I think when you kill a main character on television it really needs to mean something. So we certainly had talked about that, and I think we managed to juggle the ball to make a gripping, interesting and compelling finale. We feel that we didn’t have to go there at this point because we had such few episodes.
Having seen a fair share of movies and television, one thing I was anticipating was the character of Veil [Madeleine Mantock] dying some sort of horrible, tragic death.
GOUGH: We confounded some expectations.
You did! She’s pregnant, and she’s vulnerable. So clearly, she’s going to die.
GOUGH: Again, I don’t think we wanted to do the sort of expected move there. I think the Sunny and Veil relationship is really interesting. She really is the one kind of bright spot in Sunny’s life and the one person who believes in his ability to change. I think because she clearly has had her doubts and questioned it, but I think that’s an important compelling relationship and we didn’t want her– Stephen and Daniel said Asian cinema had a term for those kind of characters called the Chinese Vase, which means you just break. [laughs] And we really didn’t want to do that with Veil. I think all the female characters — whether you love them or hate them — I think they definitely confounded expectations from what I’m sure people thought when they were first introduced to them.
Another thing that is very interesting to see is how the use of magic was incorporated more and more into the season. By the end of the season, you basically have characters that are operating as flat-out wizards. What went into building that naturally into the world?
GOUGH: I think it’s something with M.K.’s power, which you see in the first episode. And then you see it throughout the course of the season, but I think, for us, it was that chi is such an integral part of martial arts and that inner power, so we wanted to find a way to dramatize that. And having those mystical elements you see in Asian cinema and certainly Asian martial arts cinema, it’s something that we wanted to begin to introduce — the idea of spirituality and the idea of there being something else out in the world besides people who are great fighters. Even Quinn alludes to it. He’s heard these stories. There’s clearly myths about people like M.K. and then you see the Abbott and that’s something we’ll definitely explore more in Season 2. But again we just wanted to — for the story — open that door to that part of the Badlands. And introduce the audience to it.
In terms of characters that popped for you in Season 1, were there any that surprised you?
MILLAR: Interestingly enough, the character that popped was the character Veil. We always knew that the Widow would be a fan favorite, and she is. [Emily Beecham] is really an amazing actress and she completely embodies that role and is otherworldly. And so that’s hopefully iconic to the show. Obviously, Daniel is a major movie star in China. We always knew he had that cinematic charisma that would translate as well. So, those things really worked. But then someone like Madeline who plays Veil, is a great actress. And she’s beautiful. But she has great empathy and she is the one noble soul through the first season. Of course, she has a lot of darkness in the last episode. The Badlands robs everyone eventually. But I think she is the shining light of hope and goodness in a land of brutality and bloodshed. It’s been great to see that because I think she does a wonderful job.
In terms of looking back over the season, what kinds of lessons do you think you learned about creating this world?
GOUGH: I mean, we learned a lot. Whenever you do something that’s original, not based on a comic book or a novel or an old movie or a franchise, you definitely learn a lot and for I think it was very gratifying to see the people embrace the world. Once they got into it, they really got into it. They understood the barons and the hierarchy and they also were starting to ask good questions — the questions you want asked, like, “I want to know more about this world.”
You don’t want to throw out the cards too quickly. For us, these six episodes were kind of like a super pilot, so that people could get immersed in this world and meet a few of the barons, understand the main characters, understand that there is also a mystical, supernatural element in this world, and get immersed in it. And you learn a lot. I think for us the feedback has been interesting, and in a lot of ways it’s confirmed things that we’ve been thinking, which we usually find a lot with social media. A lot of times there’s never really any complete out-of-left-field things where you think, “Wow, I never saw that at all.” It’s usually things that have confirmed things that you thought were working, or confirmed things that you thought were still developing.
I noticed that you guys have been responding to people on social media, which isn’t something I see every creator doing.
GOUGH: Television has always been a conversation. Movies come along and they’re kind of like three-ring circuses, and there’s a new one next week. They don’t really have the cultural impact — other than “Star Wars,” of course — that they used to because television is something that week to week people invite into their homes. It’s a relationship that in success can go on six, seven, eight years. I think certainly in the early days, you definitely want that engagement.
MILLAR: Also, when we did “Smallville,” we didn’t have an opportunity to interact with people who watched the show. And see what they had to say and listen to criticism and listen to praise at the same time. So a lot of this is a new experience and it’s very interesting and rewarding for us. I think we get honest feedback. You get hate. You get a lot of love as well. And I’m actually very curious what people think of the show. For us, it’s been a passion project of ours, and an incredibly challenging show to make.
GOUGH: It’s interesting in this situation because it’s six episodes they were all shot and pretty much finished when the show started airing. So it’s not like a show where you have 22 episodes and the episodes start airing and you get feedback and you’re still writing and you’re still working on the season. It’s a little nerve-wracking actually because you’re kind of like, “Well, it’s done. I hope they like it.” You don’t have time to course correct.
I personally feel like if I was the creator of a show and I was on Twitter looking at Twitter comments, I might respond to the people who were saying nice things, but not the people who were saying mean things.
GOUGH: You know what’s funny about the people who say mean things? There’s a certain part of Twitter that is literally shouting into the void, and then sometimes when the void shouts back it’s like, “Whoa! I wasn’t expecting that. I got called out.” And then if you have a conversation, you find out they like something or they like that or they have questions about that. As Miles said, it’s sort of a new experience for us. Because “Smallville” was really the advent of interactivity with an audience. But it was mostly curated through fan sites. it wasn’t literal, direct communication.
MILLAR: This is a show that’s going to live and breathe on word of mouth. And having a core base of fans who have friends… It’s something that’s very, very different and I think that’s why it divided critics initially because they didn’t understand it or get it. They didn’t understand or have a knowledge of what we were trying to do. Bringing in the Asian martial arts aesthetic to American television. For us, these are the people who will make the show a hit or a failure in future seasons. So it’s for us to respect them and interact and see what they have to say.
It’s interesting that you bring up “Smallville” because, in its height, that show had a really intense fan base. Are you starting to see that grow for “Badlands” as well?
GOUGH: You know, we have actually. Considering that [with] “Smallville,” you were going to bring all those comic book and Superman fans to at least check it out. For this one, the people that have checked it out. They may love martial arts or just think the world looked cool in one of the many, many ads that AMC ran. But now that they’re in, they take ownership of the show which I also think is great, and “Smallville” did the same thing where they suddenly become these characters and wonder, “How can you do this to this person? I love this person.” Actually, it’s great because it just shows that they’re invested in the show.
MILLAR: I think that people are really hungry for original content. I think there’s a sense of reboots and remakes, and we’re lacking in any sense of originality in media. So, I think the people who want something like this which has a graphic novel feel or comic book feel but that is designed and created for the medium of television, I think that is something is very appealing to a lot of people. So, that’s rewarding to see for us.
GOUGH: And also, they don’t know the mythology from another source material. Even “The Walking Dead,” the show is different than the comics, but you can still go to the comics and there are still touchstones. Whereas this one, nobody really knows where it’s going, so I think that’s also exciting.
I don’t want to make you lay out budget specifics, but in terms of budget in comparison to other AMC shows do you have a sense of how expensive this is?
GOUGH: No, we don’t. They gave us what we needed to make the show that we wanted to make. But I don’t know how that compares to other shows they did — “The Walking Dead” and “Turn.” They don’t share that with us. Nor would I expect them to because we don’t want our numbers shared with their shows.
But do you feel good, budget-wise, about what you had?
MILLAR: There’s a level of action unlike anything else on television. AMC always makes distinctive television and I think that certainly fits that requirement.
You guys had the incredible fortune that you got to launch behind “The Walking Dead,” which is a great way to launch a TV show. In general, how do you feel about the support you’ve gotten from AMC?
GOUGH: They’ve been fantastic. I mean when you go to a network and say, “We want to make a martial arts series in the future.” And give them the pitch. And by the way, the only way to achieve the authentic Hong Kong martial arts we need a full-time fight team unit working concurrently, and we’re hiring a Chinese fight team from Hong Kong. And they were like, “Great, let’s go.” There’s so many parts of that pitch that people would be like, “Oh, thanks for playing. Goodbye.” And they’ve really been all in. Their marketing department is really second to none. Taking an original property in an incredibly noisy cable environment and being able to really bust through and use the power of “The Walking Dead” is great. It feels like that’s a cool night of genre television between those two shows. So, obviously, it’s the best launching pad of television at the moment. AMC has been great from top to bottom.
That being said, do you have a sense of what they’re looking for in terms of greenlighting a Season 2?
GOUGH: Not yet. We’ll probably know something January or February. They’re taking in all the numbers and how it’s played across all the platforms nationally and really sort of taking their time. I mean, look: As a network, they’re not the network that usually picks things up after the first episode airs. They definitely have a methodology that they follow. But they’re very happy with the show and they’re very excited with how it’s performed. So we’re very positive and we’re certainly acting like there’s a Season 2, even though it hasn’t been officially greenlit yet.
Are you guys already writing?
GOUGH: No. We’re not writing right now. Right now we’re resting.
GOUGH: We’re exhausted. So, we’re resting.
MILLAR: Obviously, we have a plan. You need a certain amount of flexibility for characters within that plan. But we have a certain direction we want to go and how it will evolve. It was very nerve-wracking to launch a show like this and it’s been very rewarding to see the response.