[This story contains spoilers for episode one of The Terror: Infamy on AMC.]
Alexander Woo jokes that if viewers enjoyed the first season of AMC’s anthology series The Terror, “you’ll get exactly none of it in the second season.”
Which, of course, is not entirely true: The Terror: Infamy, which premiered Monday night, offers up a similar blend of a horrific real-life event — the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II — with elements of horror storytelling.
“I think we do share a lot of the DNA. The idea of The Terror as an overarching franchise is that we’re telling an historical story using a genre vocabulary,” Woo, the showrunner of Infamy, told The Hollywood Reporter. “Now that is a pretty broad definition. The tone is very different from season one to season two, but we do share some similarities in that both shows are about a group of people who are in a land where they’re not welcome and that the horror is as much human-generated as it is supernaturally generated.”
Monday’s premiere lays the groundwork for both: It takes place in the days leading up to the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, that marked U.S. entry into World War II, beginning with a woman’s death and ending with the Japanese-born men of a community on Los Angeles’ Terminal Island being loaded onto buses by members of the military while their families, including lead character Chester Nakayama (Derek Mio), are held back by other soldiers.
Woo, who is Chinese-American, said he was hesitant initially to take on the story (Woo and fellow executive producer Max Borenstein are credited as creators of the season) and “this is not historically my family’s story.”
“But as I steeped myself in the subject matter more and took a really deep dive into the internment, I recognize that this was the story of the Japanese Americans but not exclusively for Japanese-Americans,” he said. “It is a story that holds great relevance for anyone whose life has been shaped or touched by the immigrant experience, which frankly in this country is just about everyone.”
Woo spoke to THR about shaping the story, populating the cast with actors of Japanese descent — including George Takei, who was interned as a boy and is a consultant on the show — and incorporating elements of contemporary Japanese horror into the show.
The premiere plays out mostly as a family drama, with the creepy opening and closing and a few other horror elements. How did you want to structure this story and balance the grounded and supernatural elements?
Because my background is in theater and I was a playwright, that’s the only way I know how to approach telling a story, is through character. I think that’s the great strength of television is that over an extended period of time, a relationship is built between the viewer and the characters. They feel real to you. And for anyone who has lived with a show for years, you feel a loss when characters die or when the show ends, you feel happy for them when good things happen or you’re pissed off at them or fearful for their safety. It’s a very powerful phenomenon of how these characters really come to life. So for me, always, the number one job is to build characters that feel real to the viewers so that they can engage with them — and specifically in this show, feel like they are living in their skin.
And when you do a period piece, frequently it’s easy to feel at a safe remove from the history because you think, “Oh, that happened 75 years ago, that’s nothing that could possibly affect us now.” And I didn’t want that feeling, I didn’t want that docudrama feeling, because there have already been many wonderful documentaries made about the internment. But the strength of doing scripted television that is released episodically is that you can feel like you’re really going on a journey with these people.
So for me, the first thing you have to do is create these three-dimensional characters that you feel connected to. And then the strategy of the show has been to use the vocabulary of kwaidan, Japanese ghost stories, and then by extension the Japanese horror movies that are descended from it, like The Ring and The Grudge, Dark Water, those kinds of movies, as an analogue for the terror of the historical experience so you really feel, using that horror, you really feel the horror of what these people are going through.
It seems that in addition to Chester and the younger generation that were born in the U.S., the older characters also consider themselves Americans.
They consider themselves a part of this country. There is a recognition that I think is very poignant, that they also kind of know that they can never fully, fully assimilate. They legally cannot even become citizens. At this point legally it was impossible for these Japanese-Americans to become citizens, the ones who were born overseas. But also culturally there as always going to be a divide.
And so in the case of our characters, they stay in this very insular community on this little island, which is a source of great frustration to Chester, who thinks I’m an American, you’re in America, there’s this whole country, you could be anywhere you want, why do you stay on this tiny little island? And that’s part of the tension between generations that we start with.
Why was it important to you to cast exclusively Japanese-American and Japanese-Canadian actors playing Japanese characters?
It was important to me initially because we have a lot of characters speaking Japanese. And then during the casting process, it became evident that this is such a personal story to the Japanese-American community and so many Japanese-Americans, unless their family moved here in the last 20, 30 years, you have immediate relatives who were interned.
And you had people like Derek Mio, who are telling the stories of their families. His grandfather was a fisherman from Terminal Island who was sent to Manzanar. His other grandfather served in the military, which is also a part of Chester’s story in the course of our show. So he is telling the story of both of his grandfathers. … By pure coincidence, this was not by design at all.
But we had so many members of our production, not just cast but crew as well, who were telling the stories of their ancestors, and there’s no substitute for that.
What did George Takei bring to the show, both as an actor and as a consultant?
He brought so much. On a consultant level he told many stories of his day-to-day life in the camp. There’s a movie-night scene at the beginning of the third episode; it’s a scene that he told us about. And because he is an actor and a storyteller himself, he gave us a perspective that is hard to glean from history books.
And it’s not just George, it’s a number of survivors of the internment that we spoke to who wanted to emphasize that the story of the internment wasn’t just one of pure misery, though of course it was miserable. But it’s also the story of the great resilience and resourcefulness of the Japanese Americans who were imprisoned. So you see scenes of people playing baseball, you see scenes of people persevering. … We wanted to honor that as much as possible, too, and George was a big part of that.
What was your level of knowledge of internment when you started on the season?
I felt like I knew a good amount. As I discovered, I barely scratched the surface, and in our 10 hours we barely scratched the surface as well. One big thing I knew nothing about was that there was a Japanese-Canadian internment. And when we shot in Vancouver, that racetrack scene that you see in episode two is the exact racetrack, Hastings Park, where the Japanese-Canadians were detained while the Canadian camps were being built.
And Jason Furukawa, our first AD, on the first day we shot there, at the end of the safety meeting, says, “And by the way, if you’re curious, my parents were interned in stable seven and eight, right there.”
We had a background actor who only told me at the end of the show that his parents, who were Japanese-Canadian and were interned, didn’t like to speak of it. And this was very common — not to pass on the suffering to their children. But he never got to hear their story very much until he was working as background … and he realized he was standing in the exact same spot that his parents were 75 years ago. He is in his 60s now. And he thought in that moment he understood what his parents went through.
Can you talk a little about the Japanese legends and ghost stories you researched?
The spirit world in our show is something that to the older generation, the Issei generation, is completely real, it’s as real as you or I. The spirits are all around us. And we used the belief in spirits as a way to delineate the gap between that generation and Chester’s generation, who believes that that’s all old country superstition.
There’s a number of words that the Issei generation used to describe what’s going on. They used bakemono or obake or yurei, and they all mean slightly different things because they’re not sure what it is yet. Bakemono is a general term for a somewhat malevolent spirit. I know obake is more general and could be benevolent or malevolent, we don’t know. And then a yurei is a very specific spirit, a vengeful ghost of a human being who was wronged in life or did not receive a proper burial who is constantly hungry for vengeance and there is no way to satiate it. And that’s a very specific thing. But no one is sure what it is at the beginning, so they bandy about a bunch of different terms.
How did you go about blending the historical setting and these legends with the call-outs to more modern Japanese horror?
A lot of these are homages to our favorite Japanese horror movies. We planted some Easter eggs, sometimes just in the very, very deep background. And if you miss it, you miss it, but the camera doesn’t call attention to it and it’s just there and maybe on a rewatch it’s like, “Oh, my god, it was there, watching me the whole time.”
That’s the vocabulary of that style of filmmaking that we used as a template to tell our story. Our DPs, John Conroy and Barry Dunleavy, and all of our directors, but starting with the director of our first two episodes, Josef [Kubota] Wladyka, really embraced that storytelling style. And not necessarily horror even, but Japanese filmmaking. So there’s some framing that is a direct homage to Ozu, and there’s some stuff from Kobayashi’s Kwaidan.
What can you say about the rest of the season?
We are telling the scope of the historical story, which includes in large part the internment, but also we’re not locked into the camp the whole time because there were many Japanese-Americans who went to war and served in the military, which is its own… fraught with its own set of challenges.
And one thing that George really emphasized, and that many survivors of the internment emphasize as a huge part of the story, is the resettlement from the internment, that the internment wasn’t over when the camps closed. In fact, if anything it was an even greater challenge to resettle back in America to a country that was still at war with Japan and a country that was still in large part hostile to Japanese-Americans with no money, except for the $25 that was given. You were given $25 and a one-way ticket.