Warrior on Cinemax exclusive: Shannon Lee talks about Bruce Lee’s long simmering TV series resurrected

Andrew Koji plays the role originally intended for Bruce Lee in Warrior on Cinemax.
Andrew Koji plays the role originally intended for Bruce Lee in Warrior on Cinemax. Pic credit: Cinemax

The new Cinemax series Warrior is based on the writings of Bruce Lee and is an original series from Jonathan Tropper, the co-creator of Banshee, director Justin Lin and Lee’s daughter Shannon Lee, who had the treatment for this original series.

Warrior is familiar and completely new at the same time, a rare feat for TV these days.

The Tong Wars of the late 19th century San Francisco Chinatown serve as the backdrop of this kick-ass fish out of water tale of gangs, turf wars and love stories set in 1878 amidst poverty and difficult circumstances.

Chinese-American history is sparsely taught in the USA, and it is ripe for creatively mining.  This lesser-known period of American history was the inspiration for an obscure treatment that what was one of Bruce Lee’s many left-behind legacies. The martial arts master and actor had bequeathed his wife and daughter Shannon a treasure trove of writings and this particular television treatment he had wanted to produce.

Sadly he died in 1973 at the age of 32. A vibrant life was cut far too short.

The 10-episode action-packed drama series has a perfect home on Cinemax, where action is king and the wrapped series Banshee’s executive producer and writer Jonathan Tropper was available and selected to work with director and executive producer Justin Lin (Fast & Furious 6, Star Trek Beyond) and Lee’s daughter, executive producer Shannon Lee.

Our lead in Warrior is Ah Sahm (Andrew Koji), who has mastered some of the most important lessons in life that any of us can hope to possess – to be adept in more than one language, physically fit and trained to fight and also to be an expert at reading people.

He is of Chinese birth and good fortune gave him an American grandfather who taught him perfect Yankee English. This is huge as in historical recounting of the Tong Wars, every gang had one or two perfect English speakers – it was invaluable. It also kept him out of the slave labor ranks.

Of note, Bruce Lee was a bit like Ah Sahm himself except he was born in San Francisco and raised in Hong Kong. He was a quarter white, living in a British-ruled area of China that was occupied by Japan. Lee’s fluidity was what propelled him so quickly in Hollywood, his ability to speak and straddle both Western and Eastern writings and his captivating to watch mastery of the martial arts.

Adding to that handy skill of speaking perfect English, Sahm too is a lethal weapon with high proficiency in the martial arts. No spoilers here but the episodes we watched ahead of our interview will delve into the way he has become a hired gun, so to speak, for one of the biggest Chinatown crime families. He is too valuable to disappear into those huddled masses that arrived by boat daily.

The cracking cast of Warrior has a Banshee all-star cast in the mix, Hoon Lee, and also stars Kieran Bew, Olivia Cheng, Perry Yung, Dianne Doan, Dean Jagger, Langley Kirkwood, Christian McKay, Joe Taslim, Jason Tobin, Joanna Vanderham and Tom Weston-Jones.

Shannon Lee, Bruce Lee's daughter
Shannon Lee has a treasure trove of Bruce Lee’s writings. Pic credit: Cinemax/Shannon Lee

We spoke to Lee one-on-one and at length about this gripping yarn that will have your eyes glued to the screen:

Monsters and Critics: This story highlights such a rich period of American history, that very few people actually know about, the Tong Wars. Were you ever taught about this in school, or when you were in college, or in high school?

Shannon Lee: Well, no. It’s so interesting because in the history books, and what’s taught in school, essentially, the Chinese-American experience is sometimes just a couple sentences.

Something like, “They build the railroads.” You know… that’s kind of about it. So, this is a very rich period of in time, and it’s also, this is part of America’s past, and America’s history and the Chinese-American experience, and not just the Tong Wars, which were happening at the time, but also this is right before the Chinese Exclusion Act is enacted into government.

I know what I’ve been telling people that I know about the show, I say, “Oh yeah, this takes place right before the Chinese Exclusion Act,” and people are like, “What was … What’s that? What’s the Chinese Exclusion Act.” I’m just like, “Oh, my gosh.”

M&C: For you as a producer, this is juicy material to dive into. We certainly got plenty of movies about Italian mobsters, and Irish mobsters, and all of the immigrant experience, positive parts of it as well. 

Shannon Lee: Oh, totally.

M&C: How did your path lead you, as a producer, to Justin Lin and to Jonathan Tropper?

Shannon Lee: Yes, so interestingly, it was Justin Lin who came to me. The story of this treatment that my father had written has been part of Bruce Lee lore for several decades at this point. I’d always known about it, and I knew that the treatment existed, and I had it in my archives.

It was one of those things where it’s like, “Well, maybe at some point when I can have the where with all, I can get around to doing something with this someday.” But it was really just sitting in a box.

Justin Lin called me up, I guess about four or five years ago and said, “Hey, I’ve always heard this story about how your dad wrote this treatment for the show, and how he wasn’t cast because he was Chinese, and all this stuff. Is that a true story?”

I said, “Oh, yeah. Absolutely.”  He said, “Well, do you know anything about this treatment?”

I said, “I have it in my office.” He was like, “What?”

So, we got together and I showed him the treatment, and he read through it and he was like … There was also a bunch of accompanying notes, and drafts, and things like that.

So, he was like, “Wow, this is really good. This is really well written.” Also like, “We should do what your father wanted to do. We should tell the story your father wanted to tell. And would you want to do that?”

Of course, I was like, “You had me at hello.”

But, it wasn’t just that Justin wanted to make it, it was that Justin wanted to make it the right way, that he was committed to taking our time, really figuring it out, really finding the right writer, the right place that we could make this, get this made, but not just get made, but made the right way, and with the right feel, and really in line with my father, and what my father wanted, and his legacy.

So, Cinemax is one of the networks we were talking to and they, at the time, had the show Banshee, and Jonathan Tropper was the creator, and showrunner of that.

We needed a writer because we had the nugget of the idea, we had this eight-page treatment that my father had written, but that’s not a show. You need to really flesh that out.

They said, “You know, Jonathan’s show is ending, and so he’s gonna be free shortly. We could reach out to him and see if he’s interested.”

Then it turned out that when Cinemax spoke to Jonathan, that Jonathan is a black belt, he had trained in Martial Arts for many years. He was a huge Bruce Lee fan. He’d seen all the movies and read a lot of the books, and all that.

So, it turned out that he actually was the perfect fit, in particular, because once we started really talking to him about what we thought the show should be, he got it right away and was very collaborative, and the three of us together really worked well.

M&C: I’ve seen past interviews of yours where you note that your dad’s journals, that it was like Jazz. There was a method to the kind of disjointed bits of information. It was enlightenment, it was philosophy, it was information. How many journals did you find of his as you were growing up?

Shannon Lee: Yeah, so, they’re not exactly journals per se, there are notebooks that he wrote in, and things like that. But, he was kind of a mad scientist in that way.

He would just write things on loose leaf paper a lot of times. There are hundreds of pages of writing. He wrote extensively about Martial Arts, but then also extensively about philosophy, and how one should lead their lives.

We have letters that he wrote to people. Because interestingly, he was a draftsman. So, a lot of times he would write drafts of letters, and ideas, and thoughts, and then he would re-write them in perfect form to be sent.

But, because he did all these drafts, and because my mom held on to all of them, we actually have drafts of letters that he wrote to people and things like that, which is rare. Because usually when someone writes a letter, right, you write it, you send it off, and it’s no longer in your possession.

So, we have articles, and essays, and all sorts of things that he worked on and wrote. And it’s hundreds of pages. Not to mention that we have his library of books too, and those are hundreds of volumes of books as well. Many of them are annotated, he’s written notes in them and underlined in them, and all sorts of things.

M&C: Were there any other treatments other than Warrior? Was Warrior the only story that he left behind for you to find? Or are there other potential films, or television shows, or ideas of them that he left for you?

Shannon Lee: Yes. There are many actually. There are some that are known about as part of this Bruce Lee lore. For instance, the film Game of Death that came out in the ’70s that he never finished. The story of which he had an entirely separate story for, so that was never fully realized.

Then there’s Silent Flute, which is a treatment that he wrote for a film that he had been intending to do with James Coburn. That treatment is now in the hands of someone else because there was a film made later in the ’70s called Circle of Iron, that was not a very good film, and not very true to the treatment. But there are those projects.

But, aside from those projects, there are actually many treatments, even one full script that my father wrote. He was extremely creative. He was just … It’s interesting. Whenever anybody comes and visits our archive, and we start showing them all the different materials that we have, it looks like the output of a person who lived to be 80, as opposed to someone who lived to be 32. But, my father was just constantly creating, honing, training, crafting.

M&C:  To say he was vital was an understatement. Like your dad, the lead in Warrior, who you selected, he’s one-quarter Caucasian in the story. Andrew Koji. Did you have him in mind? Who picked your lead?

Shannon Lee: Yes, totally. Well, we picked him [Andrew]. We held many casting sessions, and we, Justin, Jonathan, and I, were in them together. We went on a global search looking for someone, because we needed to find someone who could move, and do Martial Arts hopefully, and act, and who was charismatic, and a lot of the people, because they knew that …

Even though this lead character of Ah Sahm was not supposed to be Bruce Lee, they knew that was the role that Bruce Lee would have played.

So, a lot of people came in doing imitations of Bruce Lee, which is not what we were looking for. Right? We were looking for somebody who really wanted to embody the character, and who had charisma, like my father had, but was really coming in to own the role, right?

We found Andrew very late in the process, actually. He came from the UK. He had trained in Martial Arts but actually had not been training since he was a teenager. But, he was physical, and he had done some stunt work, and he had been doing some acting.

He was just very soulful, and he came into the room just really wanting to own the part. We would give him some direction, and notes, and he would try different things. He was very directable, and really just had a lovely energy about him. So, we were like, “Okay. This is our guy.” And we felt really fortunate and grateful to have found him.

M&C: You’re a child of the Eastern and the Western Worlds, and your father was too. You really kind of straddle both. Where do you feel most at home in your Ethos, in your philosophy, and just the way you approach everything? Do you feel more Eastern? More Western?

Shannon Lee: Well, it’s funny. I’ll give you my answer first, and then I’ll give you my father’s answer. I would say that I feel most at home with myself. I’m a person who can feel pretty comfortable just about anywhere.

Different cities, different parts of the world, different groups of people, and that’s because I feel comfortable in my own skin. I’ve done a lot of work on myself to get to that place of feeling centered and grounded within myself.

My father’s answer to that question is he was asked that very question in 1971 by a Canadian talk show host. And he said, “You’ve done some work in Hollywood, you’ve done some work in Hong Kong. Do you consider yourself North American? Or do you see yourself Chinese from Hong Kong?”

And he said, “You know how I’d really like to consider myself is a human being.”

I think that’s the same answer. It’s like, I may, at times, not feel 100 percent like I fit in, because I’m not 100 percent Chinese or I’m not 100 percent Caucasian, or whatever, but, I also think that the human experience is to feel somewhat isolated at times. No matter who you are, and no matter what your background.

So, I think that the best work that we can do is to feel completely safe and secure and at home within ourselves, and then we are at home wherever we go.

Warrior will air Fridays on Cinemax beginning April 5, 2019.

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