Wu Assassins interview: John Wirth details Netflix martial-arts series, working with Iko Uwais, Katheryn Winnick
Come tomorrow (August 8), Netflix is launching a series like no other in Wu Assassins — it’s a bold, refreshing, and above all else a thoroughly entertaining journey that has so much of what you would want in a TV show. Think in terms of a perfect pace, great acting, and fight scenes that will drop your jaw. It revolves around a young chef in San Francisco’s Chinatown named Kai Jin (Iko Uwais), who becomes imbued with incredible martial-arts powers and abilities. His goal? To stop a dangerous and deadly force that could hit very close to home.
Wu Assassins is the sort of show that will get you hooked right away on the action and moments later, you’ll realize you’re hooked just as much on the story. It has a fantastic cast, plenty of heart, and strong writing lead by showrunner John Wirth. Following his run on Hell on Wheels and Hap and Leonard, Wirth lent his talents to creating and building the mythology of this world. It’s a martial-arts story with supernatural elements, mystical figures and philosophical questions, but it’s also a human story about a man finding his place with some chaos along the way.
In this interview, Wirth speaks about the creation of the series, what makes the action sequences stand out from the pack, and also getting martial-arts star Uwais over to a major American television series alongside Vikings star Katheryn Winnick and many more. If you haven’t seen the full trailer yet for Wu Assassins, you can do so at the bottom of this article.
CarterMatt – One of the things that I’ve enjoyed about your recent career is that you’ve gone from Hell on Wheels to Hap and Leonard to now Wu Assassins — all three very different shows. What drew you to this; is there a degree of intentionality to try to do something totally different?
John Wirth – Yes, there is — though I wouldn’t say totally different.
I’ve written a lot of episodes of television, and sometimes on my down days I think to myself, who needs another episode of television written by John Wirth? Pretty much nobody. I’ve done the cop shows. Genre shows give you more latitude to change things up. I got a call recently about a new cop show at Fox. They needed a showrunner. It was a very well-made pilot and everything about it was fine. But, I’ve written hundreds of those stories. Unless there’s something truly different about it, I don’t know what I bring to it that is new or fresh or different enough to excite me, or frankly, the audience.
I guess what I’m always looking for is, what’s the story? With Hell on Wheels, I never thought I would get involved with it because there was a lot of strife surrounding that show. For many years, I had been one of the guys people called when things fell apart and they needed someone to come in and fix it. That can be a really lucrative job and a really gratifying job, but it can also be super-stressful, difficult, and hard. Just because a new person is there doesn’t mean all of the reasons why a show is experiencing problems go away. You have to correct them.
At first, I didn’t think I should get involved with [Hell on Wheels], but I fell in love with the story. I thought the cast was superb, and it turned out to be my favorite job. This is all a long-winded way of saying that the story is ultimately the most important thing for me.
Wu Assassins came to me through Chad Oakes. He was an executive producer on Hell on Wheels. He and his partner Mike Frislev had developed an idea with Tony Krantz and Chris Regina at Netflix. They had a pitch doc and needed a writer and showrunner. And I needed a job.
After Hap and Leonard, I had written a pilot for AMC with Tom Brady which was similar to Warrior. We’d delivered the first draft of the pilot, and were awaiting notes. Just then Cinemax announced they were going straight to series with ten episodes on this Bruce Lee thing set in San Francisco in the 1880’s about the Tong Wars. Exactly our show (laughs). AMC said ‘well, there’s no way we go forward with this.’
Chad knew that I’d been interested in the Chinese story since Hell on Wheels, and with Hap and Leonard getting cancelled I was suddenly available. The stars were aligning. The way Wu Assassins was presented to me was, ‘we want to do a martial-arts show with supernatural [elements] set in San Francisco’s Chinatown, present-day. If you say yes, it’s ten episodes straight to series.’
But it was really a Rubik’s cube in terms of what is the show? – they basically said, here are the ingredients we need you to include: martial arts; present day San Francisco Chinatown; lead character’s a chef; supernatural element; Chinese mythology. That’s like if I said to you, ‘Hey, Matt, here is a package of pasta, some frozen peas, here is a little bit of olive oil, here’s a bag of Hershey’s kisses, and here’s a bottle of tequila — put all that together and make something delicious to eat.’ So this is what I’ve been doing for the last 17 months of my life. Hopefully making something delicious to consume.
So the thing I liked most about what Wu Assassins could potentially be was the story. The Chinese story. To my knowledge, we’re the first American [drama] series to feature an almost entirely Asian cast. I know Warrior is out in front of us, but I wouldn’t consider that to be a strictly Asian story. We have 11 cast members and eight of them are Hong Kong-Chinese, Chinese-American, or Indonesian. All of the bad guys on this show are white men, which is kind of interesting given the times we’re in now.
And I think this story is an important one for our times, you know? Just as Crazy Rich Asians was important, or Always Be My Maybe, or The Farewell. The idea of featuring Asian actors as people, not just as bad guys, or old white man fetishes, or comic relief. Lewis Tan is a wonderful actor and martial artist, very experienced and dedicated, and he came up to me on set one day and said, ‘I just want to thank you. You created a character for me that has a name, is three-dimensional, and really gives me something to play. So often I’m just Triad Bad Guy #3 on the call sheet. That’s what I play.’ That hit me and stuck with me, because it’s very meaningful to my cast that we made this show and they got to play real people. It very much is a genre show with the martial arts and the supernatural aspects, but at the heart of it is a lot of heart, which is at the heart of everything I do. It’s what gets me going and it makes me want to get up and write it everyday.
Let’s get into this cast a little bit more. I love the congruence of seeing people you’ve worked with before — like Tzi Ma and Byron Mann [from Hell on Wheels] — with also people like Katheryn Winnick from Vikings and Tommy Flanagan from Sons of Anarchy. How did you get these people on board?
The first two guys we hired were Byron Mann and Tzi Ma, even before we had fully fleshed-out characters. It seemed like it would be an uphill journey to try and make the show without those guys. I knew that they could hold down the show, no matter what it ended up being.
Chad Oakes had the idea of bringing on Katheryn Winnick. It was pitched to me that if we offered her a directing assignment, she might sign on. Obviously, she could be doing her own show. I sent her the script and she was intrigued by it enough to want to get together. So we had coffee. I told her ‘you should do this. I think it would be a good idea for you.’ She asked why, and I said ‘because you don’t have to carry the acting load all by yourself, you don’t have to be the star and you can direct an episode, which I know you really want to do and I’ll support you in that effort. I think it’s a good idea — it’s so different from Vikings, you’ll play a modern, contemporary woman, and, we’ll have fun.’ To my surprise, she said yes.
By the way, she directed a hell of an episode. I’m so pleased with her work. She did episode 7 and she got incredible performances from our actors and did some great fight scenes. I’m really glad she said yes — she was an enormous get for this show, and she brought so much to a very pivotal episode, not to mention her on camera work as an actor.
In terms of Iko [Uwais], I had been a huge fan of The Raid movies. But nobody was even remotely considering getting Iko. We set out to find somebody ‘like Iko.’ Everybody said ‘let’s just get a guy like Iko.’ Of course, the first thing that comes to mind after that is who is that? (laughs). Who is like Iko? Nobody.
We started going down that road and there, in fact, was nobody. Then, one night I was stressing out — I told Iko this story, and he thinks it’s very amusing. I woke up and I just sat on the edge of my bed. I’d had a dream about Iko. And the most obvious thing dawned on me — why are you looking for a guy like Iko? Why don’t you just get Iko?
But how? Iko is a movie star. Nobody knew if he even spoke English well enough to carry an American television show. There were a lot of roadblocks thrown up. I called my casting director and asked if I could get Iko’s manager’s phone number. She did, I called him, and he said ‘this sounds interesting — would you like to talk with Iko about it?’. I said yes, and the next day we set up a Skype call. We talked, and the first thing I realized was, what do you know, he does speak English.
At the time, Mark Wahlberg and Pete Berg were in post-production on Mile 22. I’m acquainted with those guys, so I reached out to them. I said ‘I know this is highly unusual, but I’m considering putting Iko in my TV show. I’m not sure he can handle the language and be the lead. I don’t know anything about him. Would you guys be willing to show me some film?’. They said ‘absolutely, come to the editing room,’ which was about three blocks from my office. I went over there, and they showed me some cut scenes with Iko, showcasing his phenomenal martial-arts ability and also his acting. I thought he was fantastic and that this would be a great show for him. He hasn’t really been asked to do a lot of acting — people want him in these movies because he’s an incredible martial artist, but I was sure he had ambitions beyond that, and that’s what I appealed to.
So we had another conversation. Iko asked me if I had a script, and I said ‘not yet. I’ll send it to you when I’m done.’ This was because I was initially thinking of him as #2 or #3 on the call sheet, and now thought, why not make him the star? So I re-conceived the script (by the way, my writers room was enormously helpful with this). When I finished the script and sent it to him, he called back and said ‘yeah, I want to do this. Can I bring my fight team? We choreograph all of our fights and I need to be the fight choreographer on the show and bring these guys. That was like getting a bunch of Christmas presents all of a sudden.’ I said ‘yeah, absolutely,’ and I called Chad and Chris and said ‘Iko wants to do the show.’ They were like ‘What?! That’s insane! Are you crazy?’ They got very excited about that.
So when I told Iko this story where I had a dream about him and realized he was the guy, he was very amused. He was like ‘what kind of dream were you having?’ (laughs). He won’t let it go.
So now, I had a really strong core — two go-to-guys in Byron and Tzi and then Katheryn and Iko. I needed a bad guy. I think it was Iko’s agent who suggested Tommy Flanagan. I didn’t know much about Tommy other than that he was on Sons of Anarchy. I’d seen a few episodes of that show but I wouldn’t describe myself as a hardcore fan. The main thing I knew about him was that I was scared of him. He was such a badass on that show. I didn’t know if he was going to be real trouble or if I could handle him.
Tommy’s agent set a coffee for us (you have to drink a lot of coffee these days to mount a show) – and I instantly realized he’s an absolute gentleman. Such a wonderful guy. We hit it off immediately. We spent about forty minutes together and afterwards, he said ‘do you want to do this?’. I said ‘yeah. Do you want to do this?’. He said yeah, and I told him ‘you don’t really come into the show until episode 4. I’m not at that point and I don’t have any scripts to show you.’ He said ‘I don’t care. I think we can do this and we’ll do some wonderful work together.’ He signed up on the basis of our conversation. And he’s incredible in the show. He brought a humanity to the bad guy that was so empathetic. He has such a beautiful, lilting way of talking. The Benson Sisters (Julie and Shawna), Yalun Tu, and David Simkins wrote most of the episodes that he was in but I did a little tweaking on Tommy’s lines because I love the lilt — not to take anything away from my amazing writers. All of them just killed it.
With Lawrence Kao, I didn’t know him but he’s a phenomenal young actor who came in over the transom thanks to Cathy Sandrich Gelfond, our casting director (she also did Hell on Wheels). Li Jun Li had been in Quantico, and Cameron Litvack, our co-executive producer, worked on Quantico, and made a very impassioned pitch for her. Cam turned out to be absolutely right. She is stunning — really smart and intuitive. Very physical, as well.
This character, Ying Ying, is played by Celia Au, and she’s a kook. I needed kind of a kooky person to play this character — she plays [almost] the Chinese version of a sensei. I didn’t want to be too on-the-nose about it — I wanted to tip my hat to Kill Bill and others that have reinvented this classic Chinese kung-fu character. And I wanted a young woman to play the part, somebody who was not so earnest, but could also be the water-carrier for what is the show? And how does it work? Why is [Uwais’ Kai Jin] the chosen one? It’s a very tough role, to have to deliver all of that information, but she did a wonderful job with it. She’s really a lot of fun.
I also want to mention JuJu Chan, a phenom! Amazing martial artist and a cool woman. She plays Zan, Uncle Six’s bodyguard. She doesn’t talk much, but she definitely carries heavy fists and fast kicks. JuJu’s a world-renowned martial artist. So… don’t make her mad.
And, of course, I also managed to snag Summer Glau and Robin McLeavy. Summer is just other-worldly, so gifted, and like a daughter to me. This is our 3rd collaboration. And Robin played Eva on Hell on Wheels and she’s a deeply gifted actor and good friend.
This cast, they pulled together because they were the right people, but also because they were making a show that was about them. Their culture. It was very much a family situation and I love to foster that on all my shows. We had it on Hell on Wheels and then on Hap and Leonard. This group is a really strong family — they get together and have dinners anytime they’re in the same city. It’s been a really gratifying journey — a long one. I couldn’t be happier with this group of people.
I know a lot of the reaction online to the trailer has been about some of the fight scenes. I know there will be a lot of people who will be excited to see this for that alone, but will then get immersed into the story. What can you speak to on this after spending so many weeks and months seeing everything be edited together? What makes them stand out from everything that’s out there?
I think the big thing we have going for us, which a lot of television shows don’t, is that we have authentic martial artists working as actors on the show. A lot of times with shows like these, you have an actor who isn’t a martial artist starring in it. The way you film that is specific, because the actor isn’t really doing the stunt work. You have the stunt person doing that and you’ll have some close-ups of an actor throwing or taking a punch. If you do your job well, and most people do, people watching the movie or episode aren’t aware there are two people there.
In this case, because Iko and Katheryn and Lewis and Byron Mann and Mark Dacascos are all martial artists, they do all their own fighting on camera. Iko was very specific in terms of choreographing it and our stunt coordinators – Dan Rizzuto and Kimani Smith – worked hand in hand with him and his fight team to make sure we shot it in a way that features the fighting in a way you typically don’t see when working with stars who aren’t martial artists.
I did a couple of smart things. I invited Iko into the editing room to work on all the fight scenes, whether he was in the sequence or not. It was fascinating to watch him watch both himself and other people on film. He would reenact the moves in the room and he would be very specific — he kept saying he wanted to see the ‘process.’ The process was very important to him. More important than the impact. I learned something – that the process (in martial arts) leading to the point of impact is more important than the point of impact in terms of what you’re seeing on film. We really edited with that in mind. And we pulled the camera back so we could see the fighting.
Before we wrap this up I gotta ask about the future. Did you make these ten episodes thinking that this was a standalone story, or were you thinking about a season 2, that there would be more to come?
Oh yeah. I’m still stuck in old-school mode thinking that there is going to be five or six seasons of a show. I’m not sure Netflix is thinking that, but I am. We definitely designed this season with an eye towards season 2 — there’s a cliffhanger that sets up a new path for season 2. Don’t ask me what that is yet because I have no idea. That’s a part of my own personal horror – what do we do now? … We shall figure it out, and we’re set up for more to come.
I think if the show works, it’s going to have a lot to do with people’s interest in seeing Iko and Katheryn. They have big fanbases and Netflix has a strategy of wanting to push out into Asia, and I think these 2 stars can definitely take us there. Somebody said to me — I don’t know if it was somebody at Netflix or someone just in passing — that all of the good IP is already taken. Controlled by the Disneys and the Warner Bros. of the world. Netflix, because they’re an aggressive, forward looking company, and also a disruptor, is looking to create their own IP. Not an easy thing to do, but hopefully, Wu Assassins is a successful part of that effort.
I did a show a few years ago that Tom Wheeler created called The Cape. I really thought it would be a big hit but no one cared, and it was heartbreaking at the time. The same could happen with Wu Assassins, but if it works, it’s a really good opportunity to create an IP and I can see opportunity for all sorts of ancillary assets like video games and all sorts of stuff. There are a number of reasons why everyone is rooting for this to work. It really just comes down to, does anyone care, does anyone, or rather, do enough people, want to see it, and have we done our job well enough to hook people in. We shall see.
What are you the most excited to see when it comes to Wu Assassins?
Be sure to share right now in the comments! Remember to check it out on Netflix August 8 and thanks so much for John Wirth for his time and candor. (Photo: Netflix.)