HBO and Cinemax are the home of the new drama series ‘Warrior’, an Asian led action and drama ten-episode series created and executive produced by Jonathan Tropper.
Tropper, who some may know as the creator of popular Cinemax series Banshee, teamed up with Bruce Lee’s daughter, Shannon Lee, and Fast & Furious Director Justin Lin in the making of Warrior.
The show was inspired by the late, legendary martial artist, Bruce Lee, who is known for some of the most popular and significant films in Asian culture and entertainment. With writing credits for iconic movies like Way of the Dragon and The Big Boss which both contributed to making Bruce Lee a household name throughout Asia, Bruce wanted to create a new film project conveying a different side of the Asian experience mixed in with his usual top-of-the-line Kung-Fu fighting skills. However, the treatment for the project was typed up more than 50 years ago and became lost in the archives after his death, until about 15 years ago when Justin Lin and Shannon Lee began discussing the possibilities of what the treatment could be.
With the help of HBO and Cinemax, the project is finally coming to life and is set to premiere in early April.
Warrior follows a young warrior named Ah Sahm, played by British actor Andre Koji, who migrates to the Chinatown slums of San Francisco all the way from China during the late 1800s. Ah Sahm is on a mission unbeknownst everyone around him. This secretive mission leads Ah Sahm on a long, but not east, journey to self-discovery and discipline. Along the way, Ah Sahm finds himself getting caught in the crossfires of the local Chinese tong wars after being hired as a hatchet man for a powerful crime family. Some of those who he meets along the way are only roadblocks while others are more valuable in his struggles to navigate living as a minority in a new country where he is seen as the complete opposite of how he sees himself.
We had the opportunity to sit down at the HBO offices for an open round table interview with the show’s creator, writer and executive producer Jonathan Tropper who initially had very little knowledge of the Asian immigrant experience in America but ultimately gained a new understanding of it and wanted to integrate as much of it as possible throughout the show’s development.
Here’s what creator Jonathon Tropper had to say!
The Knockturnal: How did you get involved with the story and come up with the concept?
Jonathan Tropper: Actually, Bruce Lee came up with the concept about 50 years ago and I had just decided that the fourth season of my last show Banshee was going to be our last season. So, I think the guys at Cinemax were asking me what I wanted to do next and Justin [Lin] and Shannon [Lee] brought in this Bruce Lee treatment to them. Kerry, who runs Cinemax, knew that I was a big Bruce Lee fan and asked if I wanted to look at it. Then, I looked at it and I was surprised at how developed it was. Also, it was about a time in history that I really didn’t know about and the whole thing just intrigued me so when they asked if I wanted to meet with Justin and Shannon, I kind of did it on a lark, not really thinking I want to be restricted by someone else’s idea. But, once I met with them and read the materials and saw the potential of what the show could be, I don’t remember ever deciding to do it. I just remember doing it from the minute we met.
The Knockturnal: You mentioned that it was a time in history that you didn’t particularly know a lot about. Could you speak to your research and what you learned about this period of time?
Jonathan Tropper: Well, the whole thing was a surprise to me. Growing up in American history classes, I definitely knew that a lot of Chinese labor had built the railroads. That’s pretty much all I knew. I knew Chinatowns existed and I never connected the idea that in the early 1850s, during the gold rush, the Chinese were coming over to look for gold and the Chinatowns began forming almost as a way station for the gold rush. They became inexpensive labor for the railroads which was in the ’60s. [I was] learning about about how they were recruited from China for the railroads where the American companies would send these flyers around in China offering work at the gold mountains and wealth if you come to America to build the railroads, and conning all these people to come to America and then work for pennies under really grueling, terrible conditions. Just learning about how all that came to be and how all that led, at the end of post transcontinental rail road connection, to this huge Chinatown in San Francisco that became a political tool because they were a source of cheap labor for the industrialists which made them a point of contention for the existing labor force, which was largely Irish immigrants in that area. Just seeing how it’s not much different from what America’s doing today.
This notion that we’re this country built by immigrants and continuing to be built by immigrants yet we’re a country that has built into institutional racism that prevents us from completely embracing the immigrant population. It just felt like a show that’s a great piece of history and also as relevant today as it was back then. So, that just got me really intrigued.
The Knockturnal: Shannon Lee mentioned that they cast Asian actors for the leads and have them speak Cantonese. Was that search for authenticity also extend to behind the camera? Did you go out of your way to, for instance, recruit Asian American writers or directors?
Jonathan Tropper: Yes, we’ve done both and we have both. We had two Asian American writers in the room and we’ve had Asian American directors, not exclusively but we’ve had some. In fact, one of our actors Dustin Wynn is actually a director as well and will be acting and directing. It was just all around trying to do that. What’s interesting is that it’s a show about the Chinese experience and I asked Shannon when we started casting, because I heard that when Disney was casting Mulan they were looking strictly for Chinese actors, “Are we just limiting it to people of Chinese heritage or are we going just with Asian heritage?” and Shannon told me her father would roll over in his grave if he felt we were discriminating against Asians. She said “we just want Asian actors who wouldn’t have gotten this role 50 years ago when he was trying to sell it,” so we opened it up and did a search for Asian actors.
The Knockturnal: What was the process of writing and integrating Cantonese? How did you deal with the use of rhyming, slang, and wordplay with adapting the language and how much could you integrate?
Jonathan Tropper: So, not that much (laughs). I’m sure if you’re a Cantonese speaker, you realize that some of the Cantonese [in the show] is not that great.
Jason, who plays Young Jun, is fluent in Cantonese. We try to throw all the Cantonese his way. But, the conceit of the show is you’re hearing it in English even though they’re speaking Cantonese, and whenever a non-Chinese person in the room is observing them they have to speak actual Cantonese. We try to limit those moments and when we do those moments, what will end up happening is the actors will learn their lines phonetically with a consultant and then we’ll end up doing another looping session afterward, syllable by syllable, and I’m told it’s still not great. The truth is, the next stage would be re-voicing them which we were trying not to do.
So, we made the decision to stick with flimsier Cantonese because it’s really more of a storytelling device. We’re not doing the show in Cantonese but,
whenever possible, we do throw it to Jason and Jason tries to get the other actors to speak it. Olivia [Cheng] is very good at imitating it but she didn’t
grow up with it. Olivia takes it very seriously and, interestingly, it’s just something we struggled with but we do it more as storytelling device and we’re not going to try to actually have characters speaking full Cantonese. We’ll write it in English but we’ll parenthetically call out that the line is actually spoken in Cantonese. Then, we have a consultant in Cape Town where we shoot and we have a second consultant in post-production who works with the actors on looping and our edits.
The Knockturnal: The use of “onion” as a nickname or a derogatory term is really interesting because in Cantonese, there’s actual wordplay behind it. How did you find that specific term?
Jonathan Tropper: That was me googling. What I wanted to do was create a slang for the characters that wasn’t based on anything real but reminded you they’re not actually speaking English. That’s why it’s really important that no one else ever used that slang except the Chinatown gangs. Even within Chinatown, it’s only the gangs that use that slang. There’s never a certain class versus the regulars in Chinatown. So, some of [the slang] like “onion” is a Cantonese slang I read. A lot of the Cantonese slang just didn’t work when you wrote it in English so we made up some of it, as well. The idea was to give them a little bit of patter so you remember this isn’t actual English you’re hearing.
The Knockturnal: What was the process when writing about the characters? Is there anything that you connected with personally?
Jonathan Tropper: Our goal in writing any character is that there are no villains on the show and there are no real heroes on the show and that each character on the show could be the star of their own version of the show. Ah Sahm, whom I spent a lot of time on obviously, is kind of a Rockstar back in China. He’s a champion martial artist and revered for his skills. He comes to America and suddenly he’s being treated as less than human and he has the ability to speak perfect English which is a rare thing for a Chinese immigrant. That’s like it’s his super power but it also makes him feel like nobody has the right to put him down and he’s struggling about when to assert that. When does he actually speak English to people? When does he not let them treat him like they’re treating all his brothers and sisters around him? I think his big struggle is one of figuring it out. He’s not a humble guy and having to attain the humility required to survive in White America is something that does not go down easy for him and he struggles with that. At the same time, he also thinks he’s a hero to his sister. It’s a big wake up call for him that you’re not all you thought you were, you’re not a warrior.
The idea behind Warrior is this guy in China thought he was a warrior, and he shows up in America and realizes he’s a thug. It’s his journey back to actually becoming a warrior that will form the many seasons of this show. So, in terms of what I can relate to in Ah Sahm is I think we all struggle with that notion that I have this idea of who I am, and then there’s your perception of me. How important is it to me that you see me the way I see me, or when do I learn that maybe the way you see me has some validity to it too? I think that’s something we all struggle with and when writing the characters, it’s kind of like finding that piece of humanity whether it’s ego, or arrogance or fear or insecurity and the thing that makes people tick which always excites me as a writer.
The Knockturnal: You mentioned earlier that Banshee ended out with a fourth season. To me, that was the flag-bearer for Cinemax in terms of content. Do you feel like Warrior is a different Segway because you’re going away from strictly action to action drama? Do you feel like Warrior is definitely going to be the next flag-bearer for Cinemax?
Jonathan Tropper: Yes (laughs). Cinemax doesn’t make as many shows as a lot of the other networks and of the shows they make, a lot of them are co-productions. So, right now we’re the only wholly produced Cinemax show just like Banshee was. I think we occupy a special slot with them and they have the most invested in us in that regard. I’m not interested in being in business of defining a network. That’s not my job, my job is to write a good show. I think this show crosses a lot of lines in terms of it not being a martial art show per se, but it has great martial arts. It’s not a drama, it has a little too much pulp to be straight drama so it’s kind of a pulpy drama. My goal is to always create something that doesn’t exist anywhere else, and right now I feel like there’s nothing else like this on TV so I’m just happy to keep trying to do that.
The Knockturnal: The perception of Asian Americans and the presence of Asian Americans in media has changed since the show’s was originally pitched over 50 years ago. What was the process of updating the material?
Jonathan Tropper: The tone of the show, and opting to take not the merchant ivory approach but the more graphic novel approach gives it a contemporary bend. One thing that did start creeping into our scripts, you’ll see, is that when we wrote the pilot we had a different president. Then as we started getting into the season, our whole country changed and I think we found opportunities to slip some of the rhetoric into the script because the argument’s the same.
The Knockturnal: It is. Specifically, in the pilot, there’s “the Chinese must go”. That’s what Denis Kearney said during the Workingmen’s Party.
Jonathan Tropper: Right. So, [Dylan] Leary is basically modeled on Kearney. In a lot of ways, he’s actually a much more colorful character but a lot of what he
says comes out of transcripts of Kearney’s speeches. But, the notion is that as we move further into the season we have another politician, we haven’t met yet, who some of the things he says comes out of trump’s [mouth]. We did find such haunting similarities between what was being said then. The [Chinese] Exclusion Act was the only time in this country’s history where there was legislation about immigration against a particular race of people until today. The whole thing seems to be happening again so that definitely found its way into the scripts because that was going on while we were writing them.
The Knockturnal: Did you have any other kind of inspiration outside of Bruce Lee’s work for this show?
Jonathan Tropper: Well, there was both inspiration and there was also the opposite which was we didn’t want our show to be pretty. So, even though Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is a beautiful movie, I wanted none of that aesthetic in the show. I didn’t want that martial art in the show, I didn’t want the beautiful scenery in the show. We wanted to create a grungy, gritty feel and what Chinatown really felt like. Even we do a graphic novel version of Chinatown. We looked a lot at photos and maps of Chinatown and its clearly meant to be a slightly heightened version of it, but at the same time, we wanted to stay away from the tendency, especially in Korean filmmakers, to make beautiful shots like the white snow, red blood, and black hair. We tried to stay away from all of that and just make this much more of a spirit of gangs of New York, and things that aren’t necessarily Asian American but they’re a part of early filmmaking versions of the American immigration experiences. Certainly, I can’t even think of all the martial art and filmmaker influences I’ve had in my life cinematically but there’s definitely a lot of Tarantino here and Scorsese, Sergio Leone, and Bruce Lee. Bruce Lee was influenced by that stuff around him too, just like Tarantino is very much influenced by Bruce Lee and Sergio Leone. So, it’s all kind of a stew of this thing we’re trying to do which is just a real steamy, gritty melting pot feel.
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: