Few of us can relate to the experience of being the progeny of famous people, and among those who can, fewer still can tell stories like Lee Heung-yee can – or, as you more likely know her, Shannon Lee. The daughter of the legendary Bruce Lee, Shannon established herself as a singer early on, while dipping her toes in action-movie waters with such appearances as 1998’s “Enter the Eagles”, opposite Benny “The Jet” Urquidez, and the television series “Martial Law”. These days, however, she’s known as the president of the Bruce Lee Foundation, dedicated to furthering her father’s philosophy of life and martial arts around the world.
Her latest endeavor, the Cinemax series “Warrior, is proof positive of the idea that good things come to those who wait if ever there was any. Based on a concept for a television series created by her father, “Warrior” ultimately never got off the ground during his pitches to various studios in the early 70’s, with his untimely death in 1973 seemingly putting it on ice for good. That is, until filmmaker Justin Lin of the “Fast and Furious” franchise approached Shannon about the idea of resurrecting “Warrior” for modern audiences. Fast-forward to 2019, and “Warrior” is now midway into its first season on Cinemax with a second season recently greenlit. Four and a half decades is certainly a longer than average wait, but better late than never!
Today, Shannon sits down with KFK to share the process of reviving “Warrior” with the materials her iconic father left behind and fully realizing the concept of the series for modern audiences, along with sharing a peek behind-the-scenes at the making of the series, and a pinch of some other projects she has coming up in the near future!
Hi Shannon, welcome to Kung Fu Kingdom! It’s an honour and privilege to connect with you, we hope you’re keeping well?
Hi Brad, I’m doing great, thanks for having me!
Fantastic. Well, before we get started, what do you think of the name of our site, Kung Fu Kingdom?
I think it’s awesome!
Thanks a lot. Okay, so let’s jump right into “Warrior”. What can you tell us about how “Warrior” originally came about when your father, Bruce, first conceived of it? What can you share about how it was revived and greenlit by Cinemax?
Well, my father conceived of “Warrior” about fifty years ago, and he’d pitched the treatment to Warner Brothers, but unfortunately, there was a lot of resistance to the idea of a TV series with an Asian lead. So, at that point, he kind of moved on, and did all the films in Hong Kong. After he passed away, my mother held on to all of his writings, and I’d always heard the story of the concept for “Warrior”, but I didn’t really see the treatment itself until around 2000 or 2001. And even then, I was still getting my arms around the business and his legacy, so I wasn’t really in a position to do anything to push it forward at the time.
Then about five years ago, I got a phone call from Justin Lin, and he asked me about the story around the treatment for “Warrior”, and if I’d be willing to share it with him. So I did, and he thought it was really good and asked if I’d be interested in trying to get it made, and I said, “My God, that would be a dream come true!” Justin was also really adamant that if we couldn’t make it the way my father intended to, then we shouldn’t make it at all, and of course, that’s how I’ve always felt around anything to do with my father’s legacy. So to have a partner who not only felt the same way, but who had the pull to get it greenlit was really a dream come true.
Certainly is. On that note, what can you share about how far along your father was in the creative process of it, and what materials he left behind that formed the basis of “Warrior”? Did it require any notable modifications for its current-day form?
Well, we had an eight-page treatment, but my father had a few different ideas of where he wanted to take the series, so we also had a lot of preliminary drafts that he had written. We also had a handful of his notes, featuring different plot points and, as he was quite a good artist, we also had quite a few of his sketches as well.
However, the eight-page treatment was essentially the backbone of the show. So we had a handful of characters like Ah Sahm and Bill, and plot points like the Tong Wars, the Chinese exclusion act, and the time period its set in, but it was also written in the style of 1970’s episodic TV. So, it was really upon the executive producer Jonathan Tropper and the creative team and I to help create the bigger world. Jonathan in particular was the one who scripted the different worlds that are in conflict with one another.
Well, going off of that, what was the deciding factor that led to the casting of Andrew Koji in the role of the series’ protagonist, Ah Sahm?
We definitely needed somebody who could do martial arts and had a nice charisma about them, so we cast the net pretty wide. Also, even though my father would have portrayed Ah Sahm, we didn’t want to create a Bruce Lee caricature with the character, we wanted somebody who could really own the role. So we looked at actors really from all over the world, and finally had people come in to read in person. What we really loved about Andrew was that, even though he wasn’t necessarily the most experienced actor or martial artist we saw, he really had that charisma and soulfulness we were looking for, and he really came in making Ah Sahm feel like a whole human being, which was really important to us.
That’s such an interesting selection process. So, what are a couple of very memorable experiences for you in the making of “Warrior”?
I would say just the energy around the process of making the show, and creating the partnership with Justin and Danielle Woodrow, who was another of the executive producers, was one of my favorite experiences in the making of “Warrior”, because they just had such a warmth and openness, and a desire to really collaborate.
I’ve had people pitch me projects in the past, and a lot of them really kind of just wanted to utilize the material and not necessarily want me involved creatively. Justin really wanted to do this together, and that was particularly heart-warming and gratifying. There was one point where Justin, Jonathan and I were mapping out the series, and I sort of had this out-of-body moment where I thought “I can feel it, this is gonna be really good!”
And that feeling really continued as all the pieces came together, from when Cinemax came in, when Andrew came in, and when we had our first table read with the whole cast in South Africa. There was never a time when anyone was dragging their feet, everyone that came aboard had a lot of enthusiasm and excitement for the show right from the start, and every moment of it has been a real blessing.
It’s been just as much of a blessing to see it come to fruition. So, what would you say is your personal favorite episode and fight sequence of the show?
(Laughs) Oh my goodness! That’s a good question. I think I’ll have to give the lame answer and say that there are so many great moments in every episode that I’m really proud of, and I don’t think I could really choose one. A lot of people have told me they really loved the fifth episode in particular, but there are just so many moments throughout the show where I just say, “Wow, that was awesome!”
Another thing about the show is that while we have an amazing stunt team and an amazing fight coordinator/stunt coordinator with Brett Chan, we really strove to have the actors perform as much of the fight work and stunt work as they possibly could. We really wanted there to be a realism to the action, as well, so there wasn’t a lot of wire work or fantastical choreography. We also didn’t want the fight sequences to go on just for their own sake, but to be an integral part of the characters and to carry an emotional impetus, and we had a cast that really pushed themselves to bring that all to life.
That certainly comes across on the show. Shannon, what other projects do you have in the works following “Warrior” that you can share?
Well, there’s season two of “Warrior”, which I’m super excited about. I also have a book that will be coming out early next year about my father’s philosophy and life, and how that’s influenced me in my life and can do the same for other people. Also, this summer, The Bruce Lee Foundation has our Bruce Lee Camp that we’re holding in Los Angeles and Seattle that’s focused on teaching kids about his philosophy of life and martial arts, and how to live in harmony on this planet. Also, Justin and I have a few other projects in the works that we’re very close to being able to announce soon.
Definitely looking forward to hearing all about it. Thank you so much for the privilege of speaking today, Shannon. We wish you all the best with the second season of “Warrior” and all of your upcoming projects!
Thanks Brad, it’s been a true pleasure to speak with Kung Fu Kingdom today!