Over 50 years after it was originally pitched, the late actor and martial arts legend Bruce Lee is bringing his vision back to television in ‘Warrior’ with the help of his daughter, Shannon Lee, and creator Jonathon Tropper.
When it come to the martial arts, one of the first people to come to mind is Bruce Lee. With iconic films like Enter the Dragon and Fist of Fury under his belt, the late martial artist, actor, writer and director was a legend in his own right. His story is one of inspiration and hope, not only for Asian Americans in entertainment but Asian Americans everywhere.
The skill, martial arts, confidence and ability to transcend racial barriers in a country where minorities, as himself are underrepresented, are all qualities that have become a central pillar in his work and continues to make him the icon that he still is to this day.
Bruce Lee wrote many of his films, a fact that fanatics were already aware of, but may not be common knowledge to others. Though some of them were able to become more than just an idea written on paper, others were not as fortunate enough to not get lost in the archives except for one. Years before his untimely death, Lee had an idea for a new film project that wasn’t able to come to fruition but, with the help of HBO and Cinemax, that is now about to change.
The television company has picked up a new series entitled Warrior, a ten-episode series set to premiere on Cinemax early next month. The show was created and executive produced by Jonathan Tropper, who some may know as the creator of popular Cinemax series Banshee, as well as executive produced by Lee’s daughter, Shannon Lee and Fast & Furious Director Justin Lin.
Warrior takes place in the Chinatown neighborhood of San Francisco during the late 1800s. During this time period, the tong wars were a prominent issue triggered by Chinese gang members that typically ended in violence and even death. It stars the main character Ah Sahm, who is played by British actor Andrew Koji, who migrates to America along with hundreds of other Chinese natives. Ah Sahm is a warrior there on a mission but finds himself being hired as a hatchet man for a powerful tong family.
We were able to sit down at the HBO offices for an open round table interview with executive producer and daughter of the legendary Bruce Lee, Shannon Lee, who gave us some an inside look at the making of the series.
Check out what Shannon Lee had to say about the making of Warrior!
The Knockturnal: What was the emotional experience of discovering you father’s writings like? How did you feel throughout the process of bringing this idea vision to life?
Shannon Lee: So, the notion of this series and this treatment that he had written, it’s something that I’ve always knew about. It has been talked about and told in story to me about how he had written this treatment and did not get casted because he was Chinese and they didn’t think a Chinese man could carry the lead of an American TV show. So, I always sort of knew about it but I didn’t really put my hands on the actual papers until I stepped in and started running [Bruce Lee Entertainment] at the end of 2000. So, the archive all came to me and we were going through and organizing it, and I came across it and was like “Oh! Here is this thing that I’ve always heard about,” but that time we were figuring things out and trying to run a business and do a lot of clean-up work because it has been a few decades that a lot of stuff had gone on. I was like “Oh, there it is!” and then it went back into the box (laughs).
From there, it really took another 14 years for Justin Lin and I to get to know each other over time. For people who are fans of Bruce Lee, this is part of the lure that people knew about this project. But Justin [Lin] came to me and he said “Hey, is it true that your father wrote the treatment for [Warrior]?” and I said, “Yeah, It’s completely true”. He said “Do you have any idea where it is?” and I said, “It’s in a box in my office!” (laughs). So, I pulled it out, we got together, he read through it and he was like “You know, this is really good and we should make this show the way your father intended it to be made.” For me, it was such an amazing experience to feel supported and excited to be able to write these wrongs and bring his creative idea to fruition and have him be acknowledged in that way.
The Knockturnal: Is there a reason that this is coming out now? Is there something special about the current climate in America with immigration?
Shannon Lee: Well, interestingly enough, we started working on this before the election and before immigration became an even hotter topic. But my father was very interested in the immigrated experience. He purposely did a lot of research about this time period in writing the treatment so that it took place right before the Chinese Exclusion act was going to be enacted into law in the United States. It just happened to dovetail with the climate we find ourselves in now but it wasn’t necessarily intentional in that regard, except that my father’s treatment was very much about that. He was very focused always on trying to represent, in any of the projects, an authentic representation of the Chinese experience. He was very good at finding those moments in time or those sorts of things. When you think about his second film Fist of Fury, it’s about the Chinese/Japanese tension and his next film Way of The Dragon is about the experience of the Chinese overseas trying to run a business. So, he was very good at honing in on the Chinese experience and he was always wanting to portray an authentic cultural portrayal.
The Knockturnal: This show is very raw and brutal. It opens up with Ah Sahm calling the immigration officer a “fat white f**k”. Were there any confines on how far you could push the envelope in the making of it?
Shannon Lee: The series is definitely very adult and we wanted it to have that raw sense to it. Even to the fight scenes, we wanted to have a sense of the tensions of the time and not shy away or sugar coat in any way. So, all of that is rather intentional to have a heightened sense of the atmosphere.
The Knockturnal: How hands on you were with the direction of the series? Since it was your father’s idea, was there anything that you were hesitant to cover in the series or wanted to push to the forefront to make sure that it was highlighted throughout the series?
Shannon Lee: I was very hands-on. Jonathan Tropper, Justin Lin and I would get in a room. Jonathan was obviously the writer and showrunner so he was creating the world and Justin and I were giving our thoughts and comments. There were a lot of challenges about how to have a show that’s a period piece but also have it feel contemporary. So, that was something we were working on all the time. I, in particular, wanted to make sure there were some strong female characters in the show and they weren’t just side pieces to the men so we kept an eye on that.
I think the thing that has been so great about this show is that we all collaborated really beautifully together and everybody listened to everybody. So, there was never a moment when somebody was like “No, I don’t want to hear anything you have to say.” Any concerns were always talked through and hashed out and we were able to find a remedy to anything so the collaboration was really nice. This is my father’s idea but the treatment he wrote was for 1970’s episodic television and we’re not there anymore (laughs). I did not want to be too overly precious about it. I want to do something that audiences of today will respond to and be able to weave the legacy of my father throughout the show because he himself is not in it.”
The Knockturnal: In regards to the audience, who are you hoping Warrior this reaches?
Shannon Lee: Obviously, I hope it reaches everybody. I hope it becomes a beloved show globally. This is an action drama, right? So, the consumers of action typically tend to be younger men; however, there are really strong female characters in this and there’s also really deep characters and stories. It’s a rich time. I think there’s something for everyone in there. I may be a little bit biased but I tend to love action, I was raised with that (laughs). I love to see action movies and series but I hope that the time period, the interesting setting of the show, the politics, the era, and the strong characters, for people who maybe action is not their first choice, will draw them in as well. Certainly, Cinemax is known for their action, so that’s a natural fit. We also wanted to be in a place where hopefully we could stand out and elevate, as well.
The Knockturnal: It’s been over 50 years since the original treatment of the project was created. What steps did you take to modernize the concept? What are your hopes for the Asian American community in regards to representation in entertainment?
Shannon Lee: Well, the no-brainer portion of it is to be able to have it cast in the way it should be cast. My father ran into the issue of not being able to star in a show because he was Asian. So, obviously, we want to take that away and were able to do that more so today than 40-something years ago. Aside from that, we really wanted to delve into the experience and we have this amazing cast and show of all human portrayals. It’s authentic to the time and the culture, but also there is a variety of humans in every background. So, you have some representation of many colors, facets, and stories within that culture, as well.
The Knockturnal: You’ve spoken a lot on how your father lived his life and his philosophies. What do you think your father, as well as you, would want audiences to get out of the series?
Shannon Lee: The series is going to go on this journey, hopefully, a long journey over many seasons (laughs), but the idea is the main character played by Andre Koji is meant to go on this journey of what a warrior is which is very much in line with my father’s philosophy. Rather than showing up as the fully developed and evolved “Bruce Lee-esque” philosophy-spouting warrior, he has to go on the journey of growing into that over the course of the show. So, when he first comes in, he can fight but he’s immature and now he’s in this world that he doesn’t understand and has to figure out and grow as a warrior. The idea is that, philosophically, he’ll be mentored and guided and he’ll have his moments where he’s crushed down and has to rise again throughout the show.
The Knockturnal: You spoken a lot regarding the need for Asian American inclusivity and how now is the great time to receive this product. Do you feel like the whole process is long overdue? Do you think this could possibly be the lead show for Cinemax?
Shannon Lee: Certainly, a show like this is overdue. Also, the Asian American experience is not really known, it’s hardly taught if at all. There are so many people that when I tell them about the show and that it takes place in the period leading up to the Chinese Exclusion Act, go “what’s the Chinese Exclusion Act?”. So, it’s shining a light in that regard on the Asian American experience which, from this historical perspective, I don’t think has been seen before. I think it’s way overdue to have a show that is able to have this large Asian cast and, by the way, not everybody in the show does Kung-Fu. Obviously, the Ah Sahm character does. There’s a lot of fighting but there’s also a lot of raw scrapping if you will. It doesn’t have to be this beautiful Kung-Fu choreography all the time because not all Asians do Kung-Fu (laughs). I think it’s really long overdue that there’s a show like this and I hope it’s the beginning of much more. I think the time is right and good to be another example of what’s possible.
The Knockturnal: There are definitely multiple language transitions that happens in the show, how did you deal with that? Andrew Koji is not Cantonese or Chinese, so what was the process of the process of teaching him the language like?
Shannon Lee: Cantonese is the language of the time and it’s also the language my father spoke. So, we definitely have that reflected in the series but it was definitely a challenge. There is a Cantonese speaking coach on set to help all the actors because they’re not all Chinese and even if they are Chinese, some of them don’t speak Chinese. So, there was a lot of coaching that goes into that to help the Cantonese dialogue sound as good as it can.
In the pilot, there’s this moment of transition where they’re speaking in Cantonese and the camera swoops around and [the language] starts to morph in to English. The idea is that we and the audience understand that when the Chinese characters are all speaking to each other, they’re speaking in Cantonese but it morphs in to English for ease of the audience participating in the experience. But, whenever there is somebody who is on the outside like one of the Caucasian characters, they overhear them speaking and it goes back to Cantonese. Whenever the Chinese characters speak in English to the Caucasian characters, they have an accented English that they use. So, there’s a lot of keeping a close eye on the language and how it’s heard by the different characters within the show. That was our approach to it.
If you’re a fan of Bruce Lee or action-packed shows, or maybe you just appreciate the cultural aspect of Asian entertainment, then you’ll definitely love Warrior. The series premieres on Cinemax on Friday, April 5th at 10 P.M. ET. To find out more about Warrior, click here.
Check out the trailer below: