Curated by the IndieWire Crafts team, Craft Considerations is a platform for filmmakers to talk about recent work that we believe is worthy of awards consideration. In partnership with HBO, for this edition we look at how the crafts team behind the martial arts drama series “Warrior” translated Bruce Lee’s original vision with stunt coordinator Brett Chan, costume designer Moira Anne Meyer, and visual effects supervisors Nathan Overstrom and Jonathan Alenskas.
In the early 1970s, Bruce Lee wrote a pitch for an American television series he was excited to make. The story centered around a Chinese martial artist — a role Lee wrote for himself — who comes to the American West circa the 1870s. Years later, his daughter Shannon Lee found the original eight-page treatment — one that every major studio in Hollywood passed on decades earlier — and brought it to “Fast and the Furious” director/producer Justin Lin. Together Shannon and Lin, along with showrunner Jonathan Tropper, would develop Bruce’s original pitch into “Warrior,” which was recently picked-up for a third season by HBO Max after the first two seasons aired on Cinemax.
Set in San Francisco during a time of great change — and against the backdrop of the Tong Wars (violent disputes between rival Chinese factions) — the setting of “Warrior” supplies an evocative canvas for each craftsperson to paint. Wanting to stay true to Lee’s approach to martial arts-based storytelling, the series has forced each artisan to be creative in their approach to handling its distinct blend of period and genre filmmaking.
The Fight Choreography of “Warrior”
As one of the industry’s top fight choreographers, stunt coordinator Brett Chan was well aware of the risks involved in taking on a series that was designed to embody the ethos of the martial arts legend who had changed action filmmaking around the globe with his unique fight style.
“Because Bruce Lee is a legend, you can either do this and it can be really bad, and I’ll get slammed for the rest of my career,” said Chan. “Or you can do it really well and hopefully his family can proud.”
The starting point for Chan is always character, and for the “Warrior” protagonist Ah Sahm, played by Andrew Koji, the goal was never to do a Lee impersonation. In the video above, Chan shows how he built the spirit of Bruce Lee’s onscreen persona and philosophy into Ah Sahm’s fight choreography. But character is not a static thing, and after Ah Sahm’s dramatic turn at the end of Season 1, Chan breaks down how he collaborated with Koji to reflect the character’s internal turmoil in a far more ruthless approach to combat with his opponents.
In a series that features a handful of major action/fight set pieces per episode, Chan knows his job can’t simply be to create attention-grabbing new moves that look cool, but that each story and character beat needs to be engrained in his choreography. In the video above, Chan discusses how taking over the second unit directing duties on the “Warrior” fight scenes has helped him employ camera movement and editing that deepen our emotional connection to the action.
The Costumes of “Warrior”
The “Warrior” Season 2 storyline offered a number of new elements for costume designer Moira Anne Meyer to sink her teeth into: The burlesque night-life of the Barbary Coast, an underground fight club, a dangerous new gang with an unorthodox leader (Dustin Nguyen), a dramatic expansion and exploration of the city’s Irish neighborhood and a factory owned by the mayor’s wife (Joanna Vanderham), along with an episode-long excursion to Mexico (although the production would never leave its South African stages).
Yet for Meyer, the most exciting Season 2 challenge was actually how to dress the two female leads who were at the heart of Season 1. The brothel madam Ah Toy (Olivia Cheng) and the Tong leader Mai Ling (Dianne Doan) are the two characters who wield the quiet power behind-the-scenes of the series’ two warring factions. These two alluring, and at time elusive, characters are vividly brought to life through bold costuming.
The costume designer recalled her marching orders from showrunner Jonathan Tropper when she joined the series for Season 2: “Right from the beginning with me he said, ‘Look, Moira, these two women are never allowed to wear the same costumes twice, and we really need to show something that nobody has ever seen in television.’”
In the video above, Meyer shows how she approached costuming these two characters, along with her collaboration with the series’ hair and make-up departments and Chan’s stunt team. She also breaks down her approach to period costuming, with clothing that feels like its part of the series’ 19th century world, while taking a great deal of creative license by incorporating contemporary styles and other cultural influences.
The VFX World-Building of “Warrior”
The heart of the “Warrior” production is a large complex of studio back lots in Cape Town, South Africa where the series is shot. While the production design team built the streets, businesses, and buildings that capture the essence of the city’s different ethnic enclaves, it is the visual effects department, helmed by VFX supervisors Nathan Overstrom and Jonathan Alenskas, that builds the larger world of 1870s San Fransisco around these exterior sets.
“San Francisco is an iconic location,” said Overstrom. “And so in order make you really feel like you are in San Francisco, you need to be able to show the elevation and the hills, and see the surrounding areas.”
In the video above, the two VFX supervisors show how they seamlessly placed these South African back lots in an atmospheric Bay Area, especially in Season 2, where the scale of San Francisco dramatically expanded on screen. The most exciting of these additions was the introduction of the seedy Barbary Coast neighborhood, where Ah Sahm seeks redemption brawling aboard a fight club housed on a ship docked in the harbor. In the video, the VFX artists take us behind the scenes of how they built this evocative Barbary Coast brick by virtual brick.
Below watch our full conversation with Chan, Meyer, and Overstrom below.
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