In 1971, Bruce Lee had an idea for a television show called The Warrior about a martial artist in the Wild West. He pitched it to studios like Warner Bros. and Paramount, but studio executives balked at the idea of a network television show starring an Asian lead and denied him. One year later, the Warner Bros.-produced Kung Fu aired on ABC. It starred David Carradine, a white man, as a Shaolin monk wandering the American West. His passion project stalled out and effectively stolen, Bruce Lee boxed up his notes and moved on to bigger and brighter things. Those notes remained packed away in the Lee family’s residence for decades until a fateful call from Justin Lin changed everything. Now, 48 years later, it is finally coming to television.
Set in 1878 San Francisco, Warrior is an engrossing, complex drama full of violence, sex, and morally ambiguous people. It begins with the arrival of Ah Sahm, a Chinese immigrant with prodigious skill in martial arts. He quickly becomes embroiled in the vicious gang wars ravaging San Francisco’s Chinatown as he attempts to make a new life for himself and find someone near and dear to him. The show is set 141 years in the past, but it feels shockingly modern in how it handles issues like xenophobia, political corruption, and bigotry. Stylish, sleek, and addictive, Warrior has some of the most badass fight scenes on TV, and it’s poised to become your favorite new binge watch.
So how did Warrior go from being a forgotten relic of Bruce Lee’s legacy to one of the best new shows of 2019? With a single question.
Long before he was an in-demand director and producer, Justin Lin grew up as a latchkey kid, spending hours in front of the television set. In particular, he remembered watching Kung Fu on TV, but not quite understanding what exactly he was seeing.
“I was just turning dials and watching Kung Fu and I was confused,” Lin told me over the phone from Warrior‘s New York City press day. “There was no adult to kind of shield me. I’m like, ‘Why is there a white guy speaking in broken English, and he’s apparently Asian?’ I was so confused.”
Like many fans of Bruce Lee who work in Hollywood, Lin was vaguely aware of The Warrior and its false start. It achieved a mythical status over the years. The subject came up during a conversation with Danielle Woodrow. The two were discussing the legendary treatment, when Woodrow turned to Lin and asked, “Is this true?”
“And I said, ‘Yeah, I never thought about it,'” Lin said. “So I thought, ‘I can call Shannon [Lee] and just see.'”
From L-R: Justin Lin, Shannon Lee, Jonathan Tropper
That phone call turned into Shannon Lee, Bruce Lee’s daughter and the keeper of his estate (as well as an executive producer of Warrior), bringing the eight-page treatment to Lin’s office. Lin had the chance to pore over something that many people in Hollywood didn’t believe actually existed.
Shannon Lee knew the document existed, but it stayed in her office along with reams of other archival materials from her father’s legacy for many years. When she took over managing her father’s estate from her mother around the year 2000, Lee found herself with boxes and boxes of materials. “In going through all of that stuff, I came across the treatment [for The Warrior], and I was like, ‘Oh, hey, here’s this thing I’ve heard about all my life.'”
Due to other, more pressing concerns, Shannon Lee put the treatment on the back-burner; it was filed away with the rest of the archival materials for nearly 15 years. While Lee always intended to pursue entertainment projects centered around her father and her father’s materials, the process was slow-going.
“I was also having a really hard time being taken seriously as more than just a rights-holder,” Lee explained. “People just wanted what I had, and they wanted me to go away.”
That was not the case with Justin Lin. “I felt very fortunate, and it was typed, it had texture,” Lin said of holding Lee’s original notes in his hands for the very first time. “He even had some drawings. Reading it, it was very clear to me early on that what he was doing was way ahead of his time.”
Lin didn’t simply want Lee to hand over her father’s materials and step aside; he wanted her to be an active collaborator and part of the creative process in realizing her father’s passion project.
“Nobody had ever come and said, ‘Not only should we make something around the idea of this project, but we should make it the way your father envisioned it,'” Lee revealed. “And not only that, but Justin also was like, ‘And you should be involved in helping guide this.'”
Together, Lin and Lee embraced a creative mantra: “If we’re gonna build this, let’s try to build it the right way.” There was no timeframe, no ticking clock. It had been nearly half a century–so what if it took a few more years? While Lin had intended to direct the pilot of the series himself, his schedule didn’t permit it. They turned to Banshee creator and longtime martial artist Jonathan Tropper to helm the series as showrunner, guiding it through the many potential pitfalls of making a television show.
“I went to have the meeting, but I didn’t really expect I would join,” Tropper explained to me via phone. “Only because I didn’t like the idea of being restricted by someone else’s idea. But once I met with them and saw how passionate they were and also saw the time and history that I really knew nothing about, this whole story of the Chinese in San Francisco in the 1870s and the Tong Wars and the struggles of … basically the whole immigration struggle. I just became fascinated by it and I don’t remember making the decision to do it. I just feel like once we started talking, we never stopped until I wrote the pilot.”
Predicting the Future
The passion for the source material was palpable, but after 48 years, would the story still hold up? Why was 2019 the right time to bring Warrior to the small screen?
“If I’m being honest, I think it’s always been the right time in the sense that this story and this experience should be shown, and it always should have been shown,” Lee explained. “However, I don’t think it was possible to show it [before now]. Certainly back in the 1970s, a show like this was never going to be on network television. But these are always relevant conversations, conversations about xenophobia and immigration, and the experience of different peoples in the world. It’s always been relevant.”
“It’s a show about survival,” added Tropper. “It’s all survival and everyone on the show are kind of victims of the system, of the systemic imperfection of a country built on immigrants.”
“I have to give Bruce Lee all the credit,” Lin said. “Reading the document, it felt very present, ahead of its time, but it was also very contemporary. Growing up, again, you were like, ‘Wow, the Chinese-Americans were lucky! They’re the extras. They’re the guys doing laundry.’ And even in history class, you’re lucky to have two sentences on the Chinese-American experience. So I think, personally, I’ve always felt like it’s such an American story, but never told.”
“The aesthetics have changed and the tone of television has changed, but cinematically, we’re exploring the same material Bruce Lee wanted to explore, which was what it felt like to be a Chinese martial artist arriving in a place that was kind of really poised against him,” Tropper said. “What it felt like, what the Tong Wars felt like, what it felt like to be a third-class citizen in America, and not even a citizen really.”
Capturing the Past
While the show’s themes are uncomfortably modern, Warrior is still undeniably a period piece. Shot on location in South Africa, Warrior is a painstakingly crafted version of San Francisco in the 1870s. However, authentically recreating the experiences of many Chinese-Americans and Chinese immigrants proved more challenging than expected thanks to shoddy record-keeping and unexpected disasters. According to Tropper, research on the period proved difficult because there was so little primary source material available.
“The American history books don’t really dwell on this period very much when it comes to the Chinese experience,” Tropper told me. “And the Chinese [in San Francisco], at that time, weren’t amazing record keepers. Then what records were kept, were all destroyed in the [earthquake of 1906].” That earthquake which destroyed approximately 80% of the city.
“There really weren’t a lot of records, so it was really piecing it together through a lot of different articles, chapters in various books, copies of letters that were saved, legal arguments that were made, and just gradually sort of putting together an idea of what this world felt like,” Tropper continued. “And then, taking the next step of creating our own sort of heightened version of this world. We’re not trying to do a docudrama; what we’re trying to do is just create more of the graphic novel version of that world, but stay really true to the historical events and the cinematic integrity of it.”
No Punches Pulled
That graphic novel approach to Warrior is readily apparent in the show’s fight scenes, which are visceral, bone-crunching affairs that will have you alternately wincing and whooping with each punch, kick, and Bruce Lee-ism peppered throughout these elaborate beatdown ballets. This attention to detail is the result of incredible dedication on the part of the actors and fight choreographer, but also thanks to Tropper’s own martial arts background.
“It makes me both a great ally and a big pain in the ass for our fight coordinator [Brett Chan], ” Tropper told me. “Because he’s never worked with a showrunner who literally scripts every punch and kick.”
This is the inevitable result of Tropper’s 25 years of martial arts training and a lifetime of martial arts movie fandom. “I get very into the weeds on the fights, as expressions of the characters and as expressions of what the story is,” he continued. “Every fight has to tell a story. It can’t just be two guys duking it out.”
But those are simply the raw elements the performers and stunt coordinators then mold into the mesmerizing display of martial arts we see on our screens.
“Our fight team takes the intention that I have and then makes it 1000 times better,” said Tropper. “I need Brett Chan to read what I’ve written and understand what I’m going for. And then he shows me much better ways of doing that.”
This won’t be anything like Into the Badlands or Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, though; Tropper and his creative co-conspirators wanted to make the action feel grounded in spite of its highly stylized nature.
“We want the martial arts to feel like street fights,” Tropper revealed. “We feel that’s much more true to the Bruce Lee legacy, so we don’t do wire work. We don’t do special effects and we really try to make the punches and the kicks hurt and leave wounds. We’re much more inspired by Bruce Lee and by movies like The Raid. Just really finding that brutal, violent beauty in it as opposed to the great and aesthetic wonder of it.”
Warrior premieres in all its brutal, violent beauty on Cinemax on April 5 at 10PM.