Alexander Woo, showrunner of AMC’s The Terror: Infamy, talks to TV Drama about fusing Japanese folklore with real-world history, representation on-screen and working with iconic actor George Takei, a series regular and consultant on the show who was imprisoned in an internment camp as a child.
For its second season, AMC’s critically acclaimed horror anthology series The Terror is drawing on one of the darkest times in modern U.S. history. The Terror: Infamy, which premiered in the U.S. yesterday, centers on members of a Japanese-American community, ousted from their homes and sent to internment camps during the Second World War, being haunted by an evil spirit. The series was co-created by playwright turned TV scribe Alexander Woo (True Blood), who also serves as showrunner, and Max Borenstein, with Ridley Scott among its executive producers.
TV DRAMA: How did you approach this part of history, which has not been explored in long-form TV drama before, while adding genre elements to the story?
WOO: The genesis came from my co-creator Max Borenstein, who years ago heard a talk that George Takei gave about his experience in the internment. Max pitched to AMC the idea of telling an internment story with this genre element. And I was the beneficiary of Max’s extremely successful screenwriting career—he wasn’t available to write the pilot or run the show, so I got to do it! The strategy from the very beginning was to use Japanese kaidan—ghost stories or folklore that is hundreds of thousands of years old. Viewers might be familiar with it from the Japanese horror movies like The Ring and The Grudge, the psychologically creepy movies that use a lot of these traditional elements. The idea was to use the genre to help the viewer feel the terror of the historical experience. There’s a danger when you’re doing period [drama] where it can feel like a museum piece—you’re at a safe remove, looking at it through glass. This is something that happened 75 years ago, thank goodness it’s over, immigrants have nothing to worry about now! You don’t want that feeling. You want it to feel very present. You use the elements of horror filmmaking to make you feel what it’s like to be in the skin of these characters, the atmosphere of dread for these characters, where you are not only experiencing wartime but wartime in an internment camp.
TV DRAMA: The show marks a major milestone for Asian representation on American television.
WOO: I have to credit our network for never pushing back on the makeup of the cast, or for that matter the amount of Japanese spoken. There is a significant amount of subtitles in our show! We never got any pushback at all. We’re in an environment where there is so much attention being paid to representation. We needed people who could speak Japanese. And as we were going through the casting process, we discovered that just about everyone who was Japanese American coming to read for us had some personal family connection to the internment. Everyone who was of Japanese ancestry in the 1940s was rounded up and put in the camps. As we were telling such a personal and important story to this community, it was incumbent upon us to cast the entire show with actors of Japanese ancestry, including the little kids. This is their story, and they bring something so personal to it. And not just our cast, our crew as well. Our cast and crew had 138 immediate relatives interned in the 1940s. That elevated everyone’s work. It made everyone feel we were doing something really special and made everyone work a little bit harder.
Our first assistant director [Jason Furukawa] is Japanese Canadian. His parents were interned, and that’s why he dropped everything to work on our show. Our director [Josef Kubota Wladyka] is Japanese American, and his family was at Hiroshima. This is uncompromisingly from a Japanese-American perspective. That speaks to the climate we’re in. There’s a willingness and an openness to tell this story organically.
TV DRAMA: There can be a fine line between scary and camp in horror. As someone who has done a lot of genre pieces, how do you negotiate that?
WOO: We had a very simple guideline: we will deploy the genre toolbox to evocate the emotional experience of the characters, whether it’s fear or rage or betrayal. We would use it if it helped the viewer gain access to the emotional experience of the characters. If it became prurient or just for the fun of it, then we would set it aside. There were times we had an idea to try an effect—we do a lot with visual effects, special effects and makeup—and they didn’t always hit the mark. And then we had to fine-tune until we got it to a point where we felt, This evokes the horror that our character is going through. We would fine-tune it until we could feel what the character is feeling, so we understand what it’s like to be in their skin.
TV DRAMA: How did you assemble your writers’ room?
WOO: We have a very small writers’ room—it was me and four others. I’m not Japanese American, I’m Chinese American, so I fully realize that this is not the story of my family. But I realized very quickly, upon meeting with people like George Takei and other internment survivors, that although this is the story of Japanese Americans, it is not exclusively a story for Japanese Americans. It is a story for anyone whose life has been shaped or touched by the immigrant experience, which in the U.S. is just about everyone! I plugged into it as an immigrant story. And I needed some Japanese-American writers. We had Shannon Goss, who worked on ER, Outlander, Reign and Revenge. Her grandfather was at Pearl Harbor when the attack happened, so she has a very personal connection to [the story]. We had Naomi Iizuka, who is the greatest Japanese-American playwright of my generation. I wanted to have a playwright on staff, and I was going to reach out to Naomi to see if she had any recommendations, but it turned out she was on sabbatical and was interested! We were so lucky to have Steven Hanna, who has a Harvard Ph.D. in Japanese folklore. And we have Tony Tost, a self-described redneck from the Ozarks who loves pro-wrestling and Johnny Cash. He’s also a poet by trade and has a poet’s ear. He’s a great cinephile and has an encyclopedic knowledge of Japanese films. And to top it all off, Tony has created and run his own show. So much of the task of production is management, so it helps greatly to have someone who has also created and run his own show. It was an extraordinary team. We were really lucky to have the group we had because everyone brought completely different strengths to the story.
TV DRAMA: How did you manage the language issue, with scripts being written in English but a lot of the dialogue in Japanese?
WOO: [Laughs] It wasn’t easy! We had a translator in Tokyo who did a pretty literal translation. Then our actors, who are Japanese speakers, also worked with our on-set translator to tailor [the dialogue] to the specific speech patterns of the characters. On top of that, there’s a dialect issue. A good many of these characters are from Wakayama Prefecture. There’s a specific dialect that is very different from the standard Tokyo Japanese. If I had known it was going to be so complicated, I might not have insisted on it! [Laughs] Luckily we had some actors from Osaka and Kyoto, which are close to Wakayama, who were able to help other actors speak in this dialect. It was a very complex process, but ultimately I think it was worth it.
TV DRAMA: AMC is taking The Terror: Infamy around the world. How do you think it will resonate with international audiences?
WOO: Even though it’s an American story, it’s one that will have great appeal to a lot of people. You can approach this show wanting to see this period in history depicted on this scale. You can approach the show wanting to see Asian representation on-screen. You can approach the show just wanting a really great scare! All are perfectly valid. But once you’re in, the goal is the same—it’s to build empathy for these characters. The genre elements and the historical elements all work together to build a relationship and empathy between the viewer and the characters, so they go on this journey together.