The “Into the Badlands” set is a fascinating aural environment when the show’s epic fights are being filmed.
That’s thanks to the blend of accents amongst the crew — American, English, Irish — as well as the Cantonese instructions being barked out as The Widow (Emily Beecham), Tilda (Ally Ioannides), and their many stunt doubles spin about and spar with each other, filming action so in-your-face that before certain shots, cameramen have to put on lacrosse helmets.
It’s a blend of sounds that echoes the show’s own eclectic nature. “Badlands” has stood out since its premiere in November 2015 as a show that blends genres and boasts one of the most bonkers narratives on television. Set in a post-apocalyptic wasteland where fighting ability might be the only thing that keeps you from a bloody (and we mean BLOODY) death, the series draws direct inspiration from the great samurai films of the past, with some modern flair and wuxia twists. The end result is like nothing else on television.
IndieWire traveled to Ireland last fall to watch the AMC martial arts drama in mid-production, and discovered how “Badlands” pulls off some of the best action being filmed right now: Despite the fast-paced and quick-turnaround nature of episodic TV, they’ve imported a strategy to spend weeks on it.
At any one time during the season, there are two production units operating simultaneously, known as the “drama unit” and the “fight unit.” While the drama unit moves the story forward, the fight unit spends days slavishly executing the complex, meticulous fight sequences – helping the show stand out in a sea of blandness when it comes to martial arts.
And here’s the secret: The Hong Kong approach to fight sequences means that actors never have to memorize an entire dance all at once.
“They stand on set and they talk very loudly in Cantonese for 25 minutes and they do bits of stunts and they throw people around — they come up with 10 moves or 12 moves and you go off and learn those while they light the shot,” said Nick Frost, who joins the cast for Season 2 as a series regular. “And then you come back and you do those 12 moves, and the process begins again.”
It’s a guerrilla approach that means, according to Beecham, “I don’t know what I’m going to do in the next shot ever.” Instead, she and the other actors put their trust in “Master Didi,” aka martial arts coordinator Huan-Chiu Ku, who trained with the legendary Yuen Woo-ping (“The Matrix”) and has worked on the “Kill Bill” films, “Once Upon a Time in China II,” and “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.”
Star Daniel Wu was originally brought on board by producer Stacey Sher to put together the martial arts on “Into the Badlands.” He was instrumental in bringing Master Didi to the series, in his role as an executive producer, but without any intention of starring in the series himself.
“I said, ‘You know, you guys should cast somebody who’s in their late 20s, early 30s. Because if the show is successful, it could go on for six, seven, eight years, right? You’d need this kid to be able to last that long — physically,'” Wu laughed. “I was 40 when we started. And I was like, ‘If we go to where I’m 46, 47, 48, I’m not sure that my body’s going to hold up that long.’ It’s like being a professional athlete and an actor at the same time. And most professional athletes are retired by 40.”
But after Wu fell in love with the character, and the casting process didn’t turn up the perfect candidate, he decided to give it a try. “I started doing a week of heavy training, just to see how my body would react, and it reacted really well. I was able to come back into and said ‘OK, I think I can do this, let’s give it a shot,'” he said.
For Wu, the Hong Kong approach is “imperative” when it comes to the fast-paced nature of television. “They’re used to working at that kind of pace and that kind of style, where you just learn that sequence, practice it a couple of times and shoot it.”
Frost also appreciated the approach. “It takes a lot of the pressure off the actor in making it look like the first time you’ve done it. Once you do the choreography you learn what’s coming next. The key is to forget it so you don’t look for the next hit, so it seems like you’re actually fighting,” he said.
And that contributes to a major benefit for Wu — by keeping things loose, the action never feels over-rehearsed, which he always wants to avoid. “If you over-rehearse anything, whether it’s acting or fighting, it becomes really dead, it loses its life,” he said. “Like the fight in ‘The Matrix’ with Keanu Reeves and Laurence Fishburne — it was very obvious to me that they’d done it hundreds of times, because he’s blocking before the fist even comes in.”
Season 2 brings a new level of levity to the show thanks to the addition of Frost. One fight sequence in Episode 2 even features him and Wu fighting together in chains. “It was just nice being chained to Daniel for 10 days,” Frost said. “He’s a good egg and I can’t think of many other people I’d want to be chained to. I think it really helped break the ice — when you’re chained together for ten days and you only become unchained when you have to use the bathroom. You get down to the nitty gritty quite early on.”
Switching between the drama and fight units, Frost noted, offered its own rewards. “One is a relief from the other,” he said. “If you’ve been fighting for four or five days, it’s nice to go onto drama knowing that you don’t have to beat up 10 men, it’s a nice physical relief. And then vice versa — you’ve been doing lots of scenes with loads of dialogue, it’s nice to know that you can just do this all day long.”
Having a separate fight unit is a luxury many shows that feature action sequences don’t have, but time is still the real enemy. While “Badlands” might be able to spend eight days on two or three individual fight scenes, that’s nothing compared to some of the classics they’re trying to emulate.
“On War Kong-wai’s movie ‘The Grandmaster,’ the fist fight scene in in the rain — which we homage in Season 1 with our rain fight scene — took 30 days to film. Just for one fight sequence,” Wu said. “We’re trying to do that level of fighting — not just the fighting and choreography, but the cinematography and all the camerawork, lighting, everything. But we only have eight days per episode.”
That makes the finished “Into the Badlands” product even more impressive. “It’s crazy and frenetic while we’re making it,” Wu said, “but once it’s assembled and you see this final graceful balletic thing, it’s like, wow, we were all a part of that. That’s really cool.”
“Into the Badlands” airs Sundays at 10 p.m. on AMC.