In AMC’s Monday-night THE TERROR: INFAMY, Japanese-Americans and their immigrant parents and grandparents are confronted by two kinds of horror. One is the real-world abomination of the internment camps, set up by the U.S. government in a wave of racist panic after the 1941 bombing of Pearl Harbor, which mandated that all people of Japanese descent be rounded up and held in detention facilities. The other terror is more ancient, a vengeful spirit from Japan who is stalking victims in the community. George Takei, who in real life was detained in the camps as a child, plays one of the immigrant elders, and serves as a consultant on the series.
Alexander Woo, previously a writer/producer on TRUE BLOOD, MANHATTAN, and SLEEPER CELL, co-created the story for THE TERROR: INFAMY with Max Borenstein. Woo also serves as show runner and an executive producer on the anthology series in its second season. The first season of THE TERROR was based on Dan Simmons’s novel of the same name, based on a historical ill-fated Arctic expedition in the mid-nineteenth century.
ASSIGNMENT X: How did it work out that you and Max Borenstein created THE TERROR: INFAMY? Did AMC come to you and say, “We’d like to do Season 2 of THE TERROR, and this is our very basic idea,” or did you have the very basic idea, and go to them, or …?
ALEXANDER WOO: The genesis of this was from my co-creator Max, who had I think the germ of this – he says he had seen George Takei give a talk twenty years ago, and then he had just an epiphany in the middle of the night [laughs]. He woke up and entered the idea into his cell phone. And he pitched the idea to AMC, and they liked it, and they thought it would make a great Season 2, and I was the beneficiary of Max’s extremely successful screenwriting career. He wasn’t available to write the pilot or run the show, and because I was already in the family with AMC and had been developing with them, they asked me if I would take the seat, and I was really happy to.
I will confess that I was initially a little bit hesitant, because I am not Japanese-American. I’m Chinese-American. And it’s not historically the story of my family. However, what I came to discover, upon talking to George and talking to a number of people who had lived through the internment and also doing a deep dive into the history, I realized something – while it is historically the story of Japanese-Americans, it is not exclusively a story for Japanese-Americans. It is a story for anyone whose family has been touched or shaped by the immigrant experience, which quite frankly in this country is just about everyone [laughs], unless you’re Native American. You don’t have to go very far back in just about anyone’s family to get to an immigrant, and that’s where I plugged into the story, as an immigrant story.
AX: When you came aboard, did you talk to THE TERROR Season 1 developer David Kajganich and/or show runner Soo Hugh at all?
AX: THE TERROR is an anthology series, with each season as its own story, but are there particular rules for the show, like horror that is presented within the context of some actual historical event?
WOO: We were given a lot of freedom to explore what it was, because, I think, as a second iteration, it’s still trying to figure out what it is. As it turns out, THE TERROR, I think, is a historical story, told using some sort of genre vocabulary. In our case, the type of horror we’re using is a little different from what Dave was using, but in both cases, we’re talking about a group of people who are in a place where they’re not welcome, and where the human horror is just as palpable as the supernatural horror. The wisdom that was imparted from Dave and Soo was about just how to get it done. It’s not easy. Making a genre show takes a lot more time. And then a period genre show on top of that, takes a lot more time than otherwise.
AX: How did you break down the story you wanted to tell?
WOO: We knew that there were historic signposts that we were going to have to hit, and we wanted to tell the story of the entire internment story, which does not end when the camps were closed. This is one big thing that we learned from George [Takei] and from other people, that the experience, the trauma of the internment wasn’t over when the camps closed. They were returned to a country that was still at war with Japan, and that was still very hostile to Japanese-Americans, and they returned with no money, no money and no possessions, so it was a really rough road to hoe. So that was very important for us. So we knew we wanted to have that. So that was going to happen. That’s 1945. We’re starting in 1941. There are at least four years to cover. So we knew there were a lot of historical moments we had to hit, but there’s also an emotional story we have to tell, there’s a love story that starts at the very beginning that’s a big part of our show. Coming to it as a playwright, I only know of one way to tell a story, through character, and making sure that those character arcs have the same structural integrity, even when we’re taking big chunks of time.
AX: What happened to Chinese-Americans during the internment? Racism often seems to victimize people in all directions …
WOO: Though we don’t touch on this in the show, Chinese-Americans often wore buttons that said, “I’m Chinese, not Japanese,” and that was self-protective, in a way. The Chinese-Americans who had been there a little bit longer than the Japanese-Americans, and endured the Chinese Exclusion Act of the 1880s, their self-preservation mechanism was to create these very, very insular Chinatowns, so just to completely cordon yourself off from that, and distance yourself from the hostility toward Japanese-Americans. We don’t, unfortunately, touch on that. There’s so much which we’ve gotten into in those ten episodes, but that’s what happened to the Chinese-American during the war. And my grandfather was one of them.
We actually wrote the scene but did not shoot it – there was a pamphlet that was taught. Pardon me, I’m about to use a racial slur here. It was called, “How to Spot a [racist term against Japanese people].” It was a pamphlet that was handed out to distinguish a Japanese person from a Chinese or other Asian type of person. And it’s using the most astonishing kind of [rhetoric], like, “If you say hello to a Japanese person, they will not look you back in the eye, a Chinese person will.” “The features – the eyes are slanted in a different way.” It is an astonishing piece of propaganda that you just would not believe can possibly be real, but if you look it up on the Internet, it’s there.
AX: THE TERROR: INFAMY uses some of the conventions and imagery of traditional Japanese horror. Do you have any idea why, in Japanese horror, water and women’s hair factor so heavily in the imagery?
WOO: It is always taken as a given. All the representations, all the art we looked at, going back centuries and centuries, the ghosts, the hungry ghosts, are almost exclusively women, and the hair is a big part of it. I think I can answer the gender side of it more, because I think there is obviously a very long history of women who have been mistreated, maltreated, wronged, and going to their graves with a regret, and being disempowered in their lives, and then coming back with great, great power, and choosing to right those wrongs with the power they have. I can’t imagine some great samurai hero going to his grave and coming back as a vengeful ghost, because what’s there to avenge? [laughs] He was already powerful. And frequently, a lot is about babies. So there is a hunger for babies that were lost. That’s a common theme as well. The hair I genuinely don’t know, because it’s such a theme throughout art, but I will say that the hair is always very messy and unkempt, as opposed to your traditional Japanese [woman], who is very put-together. So this may be the answer to it, is that it shows a certain kind of wildness and madness, and departure from the norm. This is not just any old Japanese woman that’s walking around – something has happened. I think that’s probably what the hair indicates.
AX: Was it always part of the plan to incorporate Japanese horror into the season? What did it add to the story? Did you do any research for how you wanted it to look?
WOO: All of us were fans to begin with, so we thought it would be really cool, first of all. But I think it’s also uniquely suited for the television medium, so the kind of J-horror that we’re drawing from is the one descended from the original Japanese kaidan folk tales, and then, by extension, [Masaki] Kobayashi’s KWAIDAN and then THE RING, THE GRUDGE, DARK WATER, those kinds of things, as opposed to AUDITION [laughs], as opposed to the slice-and-dice really, really gory kinds. I don’t think we draw as much from that. But what the former category of movies do is, they’re psychologically deeply, deeply creepy, and in a television medium, we are increasingly watching television less and less on a television set. You’re watching it on a tablet six inches from your face, with the lights turned out, curled up in bed, in the middle of the night. So that becomes a really intimate form of consuming the medium, and so a kind of storytelling that worms its way under your skin, and creeps into your brain, I think, is ideally suited for television. And that’s the style of J-horror that we’re drawing on.
AX: How did George Takei become involved with THE TERROR: INFAMY?
WOO: Well, if we’re going to tell a story about the internment, George is arguably the most notable living person who has ever been interned, and he has stated on many occasions that this is his life’s work, to make people aware of what happened in this period of history, so that we don’t repeat it. And he’s a working actor in our business. So it seemed logical to approach George, and luckily, he was very receptive to it, I think in large part because he had done a musical called ALLEGIANCE that uses a genre to [explore] the spectrum of emotions surrounding the internment. In that case, the genre is musical theatre; in our case, it’s J-horror. But he was familiar with using a style to tell the story, rather than doing the literal point by point history.
AX: Do you have any other projects going on that we should know about?
WOO: I wish I did. I’ve been so consumed in this world for the past year and a half – we’re having another kid. That’s a project [laughs].
AX: Congratulations. What would you most like people to know about THE TERROR: INFAMY?
WOO: I think you can enter it from any number of ways. I think if you’re interested in this period in history, that’s a great way to get into it. If you’re interested in seeing Asian representation on screen, that’s a great way to enter it. If you just want a great scare, that’s a great way to enter it. All those are perfectly valid, but once you’re in, I think you will have hopefully developed a real connection and investment in these characters and their plight. You’ll feel what it’s like to be in their skin, and really come to understand and be inspired by them, but also terrified for them, of what they’re going through.
This has been such a joy and a pleasure to work on that I don’t know if I’ll ever have anything this special again in my career. It really has been singular, to work with a cast and crew that it’s so personal for them. We have so many people all the way from the background, that this was the story they were walking quite literally in their parents’ and grandparents’ footsteps. I don’t know if I’ll get to do that again.
This interview was conducted during AMC’s portion of the Summer 2019 Television Critics Association press tour.
Article Source: Assignment X
Article: Interview with THE TERROR: INFAMY season co-creator Alexander Woo on the latest iteration of the historical horror series