As Warrior launches tonight Friday 5th April on Cinemax in the US, and to Sky One on the 25th of June, James Kleinmann spoke to Bruce Lee’s daughter Shannon Lee for HeyUGuys about the new martial arts drama series inspired by her late father’s writings. James also spoke to the series creator and executive producer Jonathan Tropper and his fellow executive producer Justin Lin about bringing Lee’s concept to the screen and recreating nineteenth century San Francisco Chinatown in South Africa where the series was shot.
James Kleinmann: When did you first hear about your father Bruce Lee’s treatment for this television series and how did it finally make it to the screen nearly fifty years after he wrote it?
Shannon Lee: “I’d always known that the treatment existed. It was part of the history of my family. My father had created this show and I knew the show hadn’t been made and that he hadn’t been cast. It wasn’t until I started to look after his legacy at the end of 2000 that I actually held the treatment in my hands. I wasn’t prepared at that time to do anything with it and I just thought ‘well, maybe one day I can get to this and make it into something.’ Then about four years ago I got a phone call out of the blue from Justin Lin and we got together and he read it and said ‘we should make this the way your father wanted it to be made.’ It just so happens that Justin is a good guy and he wanted to do it the right way. We got on well, collaborated really well and he had only the best interest in my father and his legacy at heart and so we started down the path to make Warrior.”
Justin Lin: “I feel like the idea’s been with me for half my life. When I was eight years old I was this latchkey kid and I was watching TV and I remember landing on Kung Fu and I was utterly confused about why there was a Caucasian man speaking broken English. Then when I got older I heard about the story of Bruce Lee pitching an idea to a studio and back then they were like ‘we can’t cast an Asian to play Asian on TV.’ I just thought maybe it was myth or lore until one day I called Shannon Lee. I thought we should try to complete his vision and so we made a pact. I feel fortunate because I was at a place in my career where I was like ‘let’s do it right or not at all.’ We started talking about what that would be and then when we sat down with Jonathan Tropper. It felt so organic, like we were always meant to work together and build this. It’s been a long road, but I think every step of the way we want to really respect what Bruce Lee set out to do. It’s been fifty years since he wrote the document, but I think our job was to explore the themes and hopefully understand the essence of what he was trying to do and build the show that way.”
Jonathan, I know you’re a big fan of Bruce Lee, how did that come about?
Jonathan Tropper: “I practiced martial arts from the age of about ten or eleven until I was about 30. Growing up I only had access to what was on TV and what came out in movie theatres and I think my first experience of martial arts movies was actually Chuck Norris, not Bruce Lee. Then I happened upon Way of the Dragon on a local television channel in New York and I recognised Bruce Lee from posters, but I had never seen him move or act before. When I watched that movie he just blew me away and I became kind of obsessed. We were just getting video stores in my neighbourhood and I went to my local store and the guy working there told me ‘you’ve got to watch Enter The Dragon,’ but it was always out and I would go back every day to look for it and finally I got to rent it and it just blew my mind! Then I started seeking out all of Bruce Lee’s movies, which were much harder to find back then and every time I happened to be in the video store if Enter The Dragon was in I took it and watched it again, so I know that movie by heart now. I became a big martial arts movie fan growing up. I’ve seen them all, the A movies, the B movies, the C movies! So the guys at Cinemax knew that about me and when Justin and Shannon brought them Warrior they put us together and I got very excited by the whole project.”
How specific was Bruce Lee about the period and setting of 19th Century San Francisco in his treatment and how historically accurate is the series?
Jonanthan Tropper: “He had our lead character Ah Sahm coming off the boat in San Francisco’s Chinatown, getting involved in the Tong wars and facing all of this systemic institutionalised racism and xenophobia that existed then. That’s why he picked that time period. In terms of being accurate, we might compress things or take certain liberties, but that’s what the struggle was then. The working class wanted the Chinese out because the rich people were using them as cheap labour and the middle was not getting work. What also happened was the completion of the railroad was kind of like the building of the Internet. You didn’t have to buy from the store down the block anymore, you could buy from New York and wait for the train, so there was a huge recession across America. It was very easy to pin it on the Chinese for “stealing the jobs”, but it wasn’t about the jobs, it was about the railroad changing the whole market place. They blamed the Chinese for smallpox too. As in today’s world we get ‘they’re rapists, they’re the bad people coming in.’ It’s not a problem that’s gone away in America, it just changes shape. It’s a country that’s built on the backs of immigrants, but it’s never made peace with its status as an immigrant country so whoever got there ten years earlier doesn’t like the next round of immigrants and that’s the flaw in the design.”
In terms of being faithful to Bruce Lee’s his vision for the series, how does that relate to the representation of martial arts and the fight sequences?
Shannon Lee: “My father actually didn’t like the Kung Fu movies of his day, with all of the flying through the air and sword play and the fantasy of it all, because he was a real martial artist. He was like ‘listen, if I punch you in the face, you’re not going to just keep fighting, you’re going to fall down and it’s going to hurt!’ With Warrior we need to show that and it can’t be violence for violence sake. If I’m punching you there’s a reason, I’m fighting for something, I’m making a stand for myself or I’m trying to stop you from hurting someone else. It was very important to us that the fights were real, that they were a little messy and that when people get hit they fall down. It’s very purposefully in the spirit of Bruce Lee.”
Justin Lin: “Early on we never really talked about the action because we were more concerned about the characters and the world of the series. I knew that was a good sign because I think we have gone to a place in Marvel land where everyone seems to know martial arts! I’ve always felt that when it comes to sports or fights in many ways it’s our only way to express our true selves. I can tell you ‘I’m the greatest fighter’ but you’ll know for sure within five seconds if we start fighting! We brought on stunt coordinator Brett Chan who’s amazing and talked with him about where Ah Sahm is, where he started off and where he’s going to go and it was always based in character.”
Jonathan Tropper: “We are so concerned with character and the drama of what’s happening; the stakes are very high, people are dying every day. When people fly up into the trees to have sword fights you don’t worry too much about people dying. It’s like watching a ballet and we wanted every fight in Warrior to feel like a dirty street fight where people could die or people could get badly hurt. The fights had to have a visceral intensity, which is very much what Bruce Lee did. The production value was very different, but it was the same thing, he took a lot of the traditional Hong Kong theatre stuff and made it much more of a street fight, and sure he moved beautifully, but it was violent and it was visceral and people really got hurt. We wanted this to be the same way. The stakes of our show and the dirty grime of Chinatown and the feeling of San Francisco is there and these fights had to feel complementary to that and not ‘now we’re going to fly off into fantasy land!’ It had to feel grounded in the world.”
What do you think your father would have made of the two very kickass female characters we meet in the first episode and their fighting styles?
Shannon Lee: “It was very important to me that the female characters were strong women, that they have power within the worlds in which they operate and that they weren’t just accessories to the men. My father believed in the whole human and in teaching and training women in his classes, that’s how he met my mom. I think he would be thrilled to see women in there scrapping it up just as well as the men.”
Justin, you mentioned that there was an unwillingness to cast an Asian man in a lead role back when Bruce Lee first pitched his idea, what was the casting process like for Warrior as you went about assembling it?
Justin Lin: “It was not an easy process. Sometimes people almost paint by numbers with casting, you know they’re like ‘oh, it’s Asian American, here’s the pool of people ’ or ‘oh, it’s martial arts, here’s the pool of people to cast from.’ We felt like we had worked too hard for that and wanted to open it up. So we pushed really hard to make this global, trying to see whoever could come in. We were relentless, we just kept going and when Andrew Koji sent in a tape which he did in his kitchen we saw something in him. We flew him over and it was amazing. It’s one of those great moments when you make films and TV where you just see someone and you know he was going to take that role no matter what. That’s what you want and he was half way around the world and we found him.”
Shannon Lee: “We didn’t ever want to cast someone who was trying to be Bruce Lee, or who looked like Bruce Lee, because first of all that’s just a recipe for failure. We saw a lot of actors come in and audition and try to be Bruce Lee in the role and we were like ‘those are some big shoes to fill!’ Also that’s not part of my father’s philosophy. My father’s philosophy is to be you as much as possible, to express your soul into whatever you’re doing and so we needed somebody who could fight, who could act and who had charisma, which my father had in spades. That’s a tall order for those three things to come together, so it took us a while and we launched a global search and we were so fortunate to come across Andrew and he had actually trained in martial arts, but not since he was a teenager. He was athletic though and he’d done some stunt work so he could move, but there was a lot of training that had to go on.”
“From the time Andrew got the part to the time that he started shooting, he had about five months and so he went immediately into training and he trained in Wing Chun because we wanted him to start out with a traditional style of martial arts. Wing Chun is what my father was trained in first and Andrew really took it seriously, thank God, and just trained really hard. Once he got down to South Africa he trained with the stunt team and the whole cast. He was really being put through his paces with these workouts and more and more of the cast started joining in and so they started having these massive workouts! He really grew throughout the season as well, because it was a four month shoot. He really had to get in there and train hard!”
Shannon, talking of not wanting to cast someone to play Bruce Lee in Warrior, someone is playing Bruce Lee in Quentin Tarantino’s upcoming film Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. Did anyone approach you about that?
Shannon Lee: “No, they never reached out to us about it, so I don’t really know anything about the project other than what I’ve heard. I have met Mike Moh who plays the character and he’s lovely and I know that he’s a huge Bruce Lee fan and so I’m sure he’ll do everything in his power to do his best to portray my father. I don’t know what Tarantino’s going to do to portray my father. I guess it remains to be seen. So I’m hoping that it’s good project. I guess we’ll see.”
What does Warrior mean for Asian representation on screen?
Justin Lin: “I remember when I started off back in 2002 and I just wanted to have colour-blind casting and the studios were like ‘what are you talking about? Why even do that?’ It was always a battle. There was no malice there, it was just the way they did things and I said ‘well, why can’t we do it?’ Finally I fought and we got it and I remember the Asian American actors who first came in, they were so used to doing one line that they weren’t off book, and so I would pull them aside and say ‘hey, next time you come in for a lead role for a big movie you better be off book!’ So it’s a learning process, it’s about creating opportunity and having the right discussion. For Warrior, through the years I’ve always felt like the talent was there, but there weren’t opportunities. It was a casting process than usual, four or five months. I think a lot of people might think, ‘oh it’s about martial arts, go find martial arts experts who want to be actors’ and I was like ‘no, we need to find people who can act and then we’ll figure it out.’ So I’m really proud of this cast and all that they are doing. There’s always that moment in a show where it just clicks and the character is theirs and I can’t wait to see how Jonathan is going to keep evolving the characters and how they are going to grow. I’m also excited because I feel like these opportunities are going to create other opportunities for the cast. These are three-dimensional, flawed human beings. This was the right way to do it, to create opportunities and let the talent shine.”
Shannon Lee: “We have a beautiful, varied and complex cast with many roles and many different representations of different characters so we’re providing opportunity in that regard. We’re also telling a part of Asian American history that people don’t know. So many people, when I tell them what the show is about and say ‘it takes place in 19th century San Francisco, right before the Chinese exclusion act’ are like ‘what’s the Chinese exclusion act?’ So telling those stories is important and it’s having the Asian character not just be the guy in the background, but instead be human with his own story and his own life. All of my projects are around my father and his legacy, so hopefully as I get them made they’ll continue to be more and more opportunity out there in the world. This gives a platform for these beautiful and talented actors and the question is then what do they go on to do from there?”
“It started with my father. We have him in an interview on camera saying ‘I’ve already made up my mind that what I’m going to do is show the authentic portrayal of a Chinese man in the West,’ that was his goal back in 1969 or ’70 and so he did that for himself. When he came busting on to the screen it was the first time we’d seen a strong romantic Asian leading man and he suddenly shifted what was possible. Then he passed away and it kind of slumped back down again, but now we’re in a place where we’re having these conversations more and more about inclusion about representation. I’m really impressed with Justin because he’s fighting the fight at his level to say ‘I want an open, colour-blind casting’ like ‘this is the character, let’s just find the best actor and let’s audition the actors.’ The thing is a lot of these actors don’t even get auditions. So I’m hoping that this just helps to add to the mix of talent that’s available to the world.”
I love the look of the show and the period detail. Why did you decide to shoot the series in Cape Town, South Africa?
Justin Lin: “The reality is that this is commerce and art colliding, it’s not limitless money, but we wanted to make sure every cent got put on screen and so we knew we were going to have to build San Francisco and even the terrain had to be built in a certain way, there was a lot of construction.”
Jonathan Tropper: “One of the things I’m most proud of is when people in the industry hear what our budget is and then see this show they can’t believe it. They always assume we had twice the budget that we had. And we got away with that by going to Cape Town.”
What aspects of your father’s philosophy do you think are well expressed in this show?
Shannon Lee: “Well, I think that this show has the lifeblood of Bruce Lee running through its veins. In making the show, we did have to transform the treatment a little bit in the sense that it was written for 1970s episodic TV. People don’t tell stories that way anymore and if they do no one wants to watch them, so we had to make this show a little bit more current and paced the way people consume television now. The lifeblood of the show is in there though; the period, the fact that it’s an American story, an Asian American story, that it’s an authentic representation of Chinese culture, Chinese martial arts. All of this was very important to my father and is running through the show. The main character, Ah Sahm, is going to go on a journey, his own Bruce Lee journey of self actualisation and growth throughout the show. He doesn’t start out that way, so we sprinkle in a lot of the Bruce Lee philosophy, but in the beginning it’s coming from other sources towards him, but at some point Ah Sahm will get on his own journey and grow and evolve himself. The hope is to have many seasons in which to do that. It’s very important that everyone has their own unique way of expressing themselves through movement or weaponry or whatever that’s unique to who they are as a characters. All of these things are part of the Bruce Lee soul if you will.”
Are there any other potential TV shows among Bruce’s writings…?
Shannon Lee: “There are film treatments and TV show treatments, there’s one complete script. They take place in all different time periods and they are all martial arts, action vehicles because he envisioned them for himself. They all explore on some level the philosophical journey of a martial artist and what that means and so there are more projects that we hope to bring to the screen.”
Shannon, you’ve been working on a book, what can you tell us about it?
Shannon Lee: “Yes, I have a book it’s going to be published at the beginning of 2020, it’s call ed Be Water, My Friend and I tell many stories of my father and my own stories as well, but it’s really book about his philosophy and how to use it in your daily life toward the betterment of your life and yourself and your personal growth. That’s the nature of the book and I hope at some point we’re talking about that and everybody’s loving it!”
Is his philosophy something that you’ve tried to live by in your own life?
Shannon Lee: “You know, the reason I got involved in all of this in the first place is not just because I’m his daughter, I don’t really care that much about making cool Bruce Lee t-shirts! What I care about actually is the philosophy. It’s been extremely meaningful to me in my life, it has helped me in my life and it continues to help me. His writings are so rich and deep and even though I’ve read them a thousand times sometimes I’ll be reading it and another part of it will just strike me because of where I am in my life. I have talked to so many people the world over who have been profoundly touched by his words and his philosophies. So to me this is all in service to that, to keeping that energy, that inspiration, that message going.”
Will Warrior continue to be based on Bruce Lee’s treatment for the show if the series continues to more seasons?
Jonathan Tropper: “The template is there, based on the writings of Bruce Lee. The world came out of his idea, the themes we’re exploring came out of his idea, so even when we’re writing seasons 2, 3 and 4 it’ll still be based on the writings of Bruce Lee because this concept comes from his idea. As for his characters, they’re going to grow, the world’s going to grow, we’ll look at history, we’ll look at what was happening in the world at that time and we’ll continue to build a narrative around that story, but hopefully we’ve built characters that are really exciting to watch and we’ll continue to spin their stories and just keep moving forward for as many seasons as they’ll let us!”
WARRIOR debuts today Friday 5th April 2019 on Cinemax in the US and comes to Sky One on Tuesday, the 25th of June.
Synopsis: Warrior is a gritty, action-packed crime drama set during the brutal Tong Wars of San Francisco’s Chinatown in the second half of the 19th century. The series follows Ah Sahm (Andrew Koji), a martial arts prodigy who emigrates from China to San Francisco under mysterious circumstances. After proving his worth as a fighter, Ah Sahm becomes a hatchet man for the Hope Wei, one of Chinatown’s most powerful tongs (Chinese organized crime family).
Befriended by Wang Chao (Hoon Lee), a fixer and profiteer in Chinatown, Ah Sahm is taken under the wing of Young Jun (Jason Tobin), the hard-partying son of the Hop Wei’s leader, Father Jun (Perry Yung), who is facing an imminent opium war with a rival tong. As he is indoctrinated in the rules of Chinatown gangs, Ah Sahm wins the confidence of a canny brothel madam, Ah Toy (Olivia Cheng), revealing to her the true intentions of his journey to America.
Over the course of the season, Ah Sahm crosses boundaries inside and outside Chinatown, bringing him into contact with tong rivals Mai Ling (Dianne Doan), a beautiful and ruthless Chinese woman who has achieved a position of power in one of the tongs, and Li Yong (Joe Taslim), a tong lieutenant and Gung Fu master. As violence erupts, Sergeant “Big Bill” O’Hara (Kieran Bew) and Richard Henry Lee (Tom Weston-Jones), a transplanted southerner and rookie cop, are tasked with forming a Chinatown squad.
Meanwhile, working-class leader and tough Irishman Dylan Leary (Dean Jagger) is fighting for all Irish laborers by trying to inflict as much damage as possible on the Chinese immigrants he says are stealing their jobs. Amidst the strife, power-hungry San Francisco Mayor Samuel Blake (Christian McKay) and Deputy Mayor Walter Buckley (Langley Kirkwood), who has his own political aspirations, engage in widespread corruption, while the mayor’s young wife, Penny (Joanna Vanderham), finds herself trapped in a loveless marriage.