This interview was conducted, and this piece was written before the 2023 WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes. Without the labor of the writers and actors currently on strike, the series being covered here wouldn’t exist.
The third season of the critically acclaimed Warrior, a martial arts drama based on the writings of Bruce Lee, is available now on MAX. We had the chance to talk with several of the cast and crew that bring the show to life, so be sure to check out our other interviews.
Here we talk with Shannon Lee, executive producer, and Jonathan Tropper, executive producer and creator.
BNP: Let’s jump right in! So, it has been three years since the second season of Warrior released on HBO Max. A lot has changed: the name of the streaming platform, an increased spotlight on police brutality, a rise in anti-Asian hate. What’s it like producing a period piece based on writings from decades ago that has remained very resonant with its thematics and situations to the present day, almost eerily?
Shannon Lee: Yeah, I would say “eerie” is a good – is a good adjective. [laughs] You know, it’s unfortunate; it’s also, in some ways, great that we get to shine a light on it, and, um, it is kind of a strange thing to see our show reflecting – our show, which takes place in the 1800s, reflecting today’s sentiments and emotions and policies and all of the things that are happening in the world. And in that way, I think our show feels very timeless.
Jonathan Tropper: Yeah, and I’ll just say that, you know, one of the things we struggle with in the room, and we always come to the same conclusion is, coming back after a long time off, we were very aware that in the first two seasons we had shone that light and we had been a show about that, and about immigration, about xenophobia and systemic racism, and the concern was now, in the time off when that stuff has, if anything, become more intensified and more difficult for the country to face, how do we address it and how do we make sure we don’t not address it, but how do we make sure we don’t over address it? And I think we spent a lot of time just reminding ourselves that it’s in the DNA of the show and all we have to do is tell our stories and it’s going to be inherent in the DNA, and that sort of, like, was the thing that released us to finally just figure out the best stories to tell, because it really is in the DNA of the show.
BNP: So, speaking of the story, some of the plot points of Warrior Season 3 include the insertion of the personal printing press and the Chinese Exclusion Act, which is something that’s been hinted at in the background for like the past two seasons. How far in advance were you planning to incorporate some of these real-life plot points into the narrative of the story, and like, how much foresight do you need in order to get all of the timelines to match up?
Shannon: I mean, I think…yeah. I’ll just start by saying that like, in terms of the Chinese Exclusion Act and the Tong Wars and that historical point in time, that was something that my father was – in – surrounding his original treatment and notes. So, you know, this time period was a Chinese-American story that he really wanted to have be the setting for his idea. So we were blessed with that as a very initial set piece for us, and to be able to set our world in that time and place. And then I’ll let Jonathan talk more to the specifics.
Jonathan: Yeah, I mean, once we became informed about that, we purposely set our show four years before the Exclusion Act so we could kind of have that sort of looming as this thing that gets referenced and that we know about and we know is coming, but you know, we didn’t want to actually do a show about the Exclusion Act; we wanted to do a show about what it felt like to be an immigrant in San Francisco from China in the 1870s. So, you know, everything is based on that time in history that would lead up to a point of so much racial strife that they would – it would be the one time in the history of this country that they legislated against a very specific, you know, race of people, that they couldn’t come into the country. And so, every year, what we do is we look at one or two historical touchpoints from this struggle, whether it’s the Page Act, which Shannon, you know, brought up for us to address in Season 2, or whether it’s, you know, the Chinatown riots that happened in a number of Chinatowns during that time period, and we sort of build a lot of the drama of the show using that as kind of an informational touchstone. So we’ll take a few things and things that we knew about or that we read about in the research we’re doing between seasons, and use them to kind of foster ideas for story, and then the story kind of takes off on its own.
BNP: Speaking to the research, for anyone interested in this time period, are there any sources that you found particularly resonant that people could seek out on their own?
Jonathan: The sources are really hard because there’s nothing actually written about this specifically, but there is a book called Hatchet Men which we all read, which was really helpful. There was another book called The Barbary Coast, which, you know, isn’t only about Chinatown; it’s about San Francisco during that time period, but there are chapters and bits within it that really give some illuminating, you know, information about Chinatown. Um, there’s another book – I’m blanking on the title of the third book, but those are the two books that come to mind that like every writer in the room has read. And then it was a lot of articles, a lot of stories, a lot of, you know, just pieces of periodicals that we were able to track down. You know, records of court cases, things like that, and just, you know, the rest of it’s a lot more spread out.
BNP: So, very quickly, how would you describe Warrior Season 3 as like the logline, the bullet point punch that will get everyone to watch it? I’ve already watched it, and I’m excited for it, so…
Jonathan: Well, we put it on the poster, right? “Choose a side.” And that has a lot of meaning for this season, but it’s largely about, you know, what was laid out by Bruce Lee originally is having to make that choice to follow the path of the warrior, or in our case, the path of the gangster. And it’s about choosing your path. And, you know, Ah Sahm’s been flirting with that for the first two seasons and now, in Season 3, we’re going to force him to start making those hard choices.
BNP: So, and then, just very quickly in the remaining minute I have left, I’m going to get super greedy and ask, how much Warrior can we anticipate in the future?
BNP: I want more.
Shannon: We want more too! [laughs]
Jonathan: We don’t know, but we’re hopeful that this will be the beginning of a new run for us, but we don’t know yet.
BNP: Okay, well, thank you so much for your time. I really, really enjoyed talking to you about the show. I watched the third season of Warrior over the weekend, and it is just phenomenal.
Jonathan: Thank you.
Shannon: Thank you.