Season 1 of AMC's horror anthology The Terror was one of the most impressive TV undertakings of 2018. Executive producers David Kajganich and Soo Hugh adapted Dan Simmons' speculative history novel about an Arctic expedition gone terribly wrong: Two British naval ships get stuck in the ice as they try to find the elusive Northwest Passage across Canada in the 1840s and are bedeviled by threats from outside — a murderous polar bear-like monster called the Tuunbaq, who protects the local Inuit community — and in, as the men go insane from lead poisoning and isolation. Season 1 had a remarkable blend of meticulous maritime historical detail, Emmy-worthy performances from serious actors like Jared Harris, Tobias Menzies, and Ciaran Hinds, a relentless sense of dread, and a vividly physical depiction of bone-deep Arctic cold. And it was all in service of a story that explored themes of white men's catastrophic attempts to control nature and other people.
Season 2 is perhaps even more ambitious. Subtitled Infamy, it's a ghost story set against the backdrop of Japanese American internment during World War II. It follows the members of a Japanese American community from California to a fictional internment camp, and the angry ghost that followed them across the Pacific to remind them of what they left behind.
The cast includes George Takei, who as a boy actually was held in an internment camp and who also serves as an advisor on historical accuracy. It resurfaces a shameful and under-dramatized chapter of American history that has obvious parallels to what's happening in America right now, as the government is holding migrants in camps at the border with Mexico. "We're aiming very high," said executive producer and showrunner Alexander Woo. "It's such an important story to tell. That's why we stay up late and why we work the long hours... It's something that is not only historically relevant but relevant to the present day."
TV Guide sat down with Woo at the AMC Summit earlier this year to talk about history, research, ghosts as a metaphor, and what to expect from The Terror: Infamy. (Don't hold your breath for a Tuunbaq!)
TV Guide: This has never been done before with this particular story, which is one of the worst things this country ever did. It's a history that most Americans just don't know enough about. What are the particular challenges of telling a story that honors what happened? And honors what happened while also incorporating these genre elements?
Alexander Woo: I think the strategy from the beginning was to make the viewer feel not just empathy for but really the entire range of emotions that accompanied this particular historical experience. It can be presented sort of as a museum piece, and we can feel a safe remove from it. Or we can experience it as horrifically as it really was. And hopefully, whether you access it through the genre door as someone who loves Japanese horror or Japanese ghost stories or kaidan, or whether you're someone who's interested in the historical side of it, or are excited to see a cast entirely of Japanese ancestry. You meet in the middle and get to experience this in the skin of the characters who are at the center of our story.
TVG: And there's a very clear parallel to what's happening right now in America.
Woo: I don't think we need to draw the line that hard. If you can feel an empathy for the people who are going through this in 1942 to 1945, it's not a very hard leap to feel empathy for people who are going through this in 2019.
TVG: Will that be explicit in the show? Or you don't have to even underline that connection.
Woo: Maybe because my background is a playwright and theater is a metaphorical space, I've always worked more metaphorically. I don't think we'll need to hit it that hard.
TVG: Do you feel a particular responsibility to make it as historically accurate as possible?
Woo: Yes, absolutely. It's an under-taught and underserved part of history. There is a huge part of this history that was new, certainly new to me, and will be new to a lot of people. So in many ways I recognize that for a good portion of our audience, a lot of these details will be presented to them for the first time. I think that we trust audiences to understand, that when there's a ghost going through our story that that is a creative choice rather than an attempt to document the history. The camp that we have created is a fictitious one. So we're not suggesting that any of these events happened at any specific camp for that very reason.
TVG: What was the research process? I know you have George Takei as a consultant, who was there.
Woo: There are a number of organizations and survivors of the internment whom we spoke to and archives that we've gone through. There's the Japanese American National Museum, there's Densho, which is the biggest repository of information about the internment. There's George. There's a number of other survivors that we spoke to as well. There's the museum at Heart Mountain, which is one of the internment camps. We pulled from every resource we could to make sure all of our detail work was as accurate as possible. And still there's, in 10 hours it's actually not enough time. There's a lot of other stuff that we wish we could have included as well. But we wanted to be as accurate to and as respectful to the actual historical experiences.
Which includes, by the way, not just the period of internment, but the period before, where it wasn't just like suddenly there was suspicion of Japanese Americans. There was certainly a good deal of that before. And the period after, which if you were to talk to George, he will tell you that the resettlement was as difficult, if not more difficult than the internment itself. The Japanese Americans were released from camps back into a country that was still at war with Japan. And not only that, your belongings were gone, your money was gone. You were starting from nothing again in a country that was hostile to you. So we tried to touch on that as well.
TVG: Where are you filming and where is it set?
Woo: It's being shot in Vancouver, and it's set in a very large number of locations. The community we're following is from Terminal Island, which is a little island just off Long Beach, California, which was a fishing community. And it was the second largest Japanese American community in Southern California, next to Little Tokyo. It was a very tight-knit, insular community. So we start there. And go to Los Angeles and we go to our camp, which is in the Pacific Northwest, which helps us in Vancouver. But we also are in a number of places around the world that Vancouver has to double for. But luckily Vancouver is a great place for that. You can find a lot of stuff in British Columbia to cover just about any setting.
TVG : How did this come about? How did you pitch it to AMC?
Woo: I can't take credit for the conception of it. This originally was a pitch by my co-creator Max Borenstein who pitched this to AMC. They liked it. Max wasn't available to write the pilot or run the show. So the network asked me, I was very glad, I was thrilled. I read what Max had put together. I thought it was fantastic.
And I was initially, I have to be honest, a little apprehensive, because I'm not Japanese American, I'm Chinese American. This is not specifically my story. But, very, very quickly I recognized I could easily plug into this story as an immigrant story. This was what I had written about as a playwright, and it's something I'm very familiar with. This is something I'm very, very comfortable with. And frankly I think this is what gives this story a larger appeal. Because I think in almost all of our viewers, you don't have to go very far back before you get to someone who was an immigrant. And this is a story about the immigrant experience. It's very specifically about the Japanese American experience. But anyone who has been an immigrant or has a family member who's an immigrant, or is close to someone who is an immigrant. It has a very, very easy access point.
TVG: What's it been like working with George Takei on this?
Woo: He's a national treasure. And a man who is so warm and open and passionate about preserving this piece of history, and making sure people remember it. This, as he has said, is what he feels is his life's work. And it's not just George; our entire cast has a connection one way or the other to this experience. And we had the great honor of having a cast and crew that feels so deeply committed. This is really more than I've ever experienced in my career. People who are so, so committed to making this the best show it could possibly be.
TVG: Tonally will it be anything like Season 1 of The Terror?
Woo: It is obviously spiritually descended from the first season. We're telling an historical story with the genre vocabulary. The type of genre is a little bit different. We can take a little bit more of a Japanese ghost story approach to it. Thematically, there are certainly similarities. There's a core group of people who are in a place where they're not welcome.
The other thing that is that piece of the equation that we haven't talked about is visually how breathtaking it is. And this has absolutely nothing to do with me. I can't design or line up a shot with any facility at all. But there are two people who are carryovers from Season 1; there's our researcher and then our production designer. And Jonathan McKinstry, who designed that amazing production for those ships in Terror 1, has built a world out of British Columbia in Season 2. It's a visual signature that I don't think you would see anywhere else. It's something that I'm very proud of. You see a couple frames of it, you'll know what show it is. And it's also a credit to our cinematographers, John Conroy and Barry Dunleavy, who are exceptional artists who have taken inspiration from the classic Japanese ghost stories and the classic Japanese films of the '50s and '60s. And then the spiritual descendants of those movies like Ringu and Dark Water and The Grudge. So the feel of it will be reminiscent of those movies as well.
TVG: Is there any hint you can give about the ghost?
Woo: Well, the fact that there's a ghost is a hint already. I think any ghost in a ghost story is both literal and also a metaphor for the past. A ghost is a dead person among the living. So there's something about the past that works with the story we're trying to tell about the ghost of the past, and it works with the personal stories of the people whose stories we're telling who have ghosts of their own past. So it's meant to work on a literal level and metaphorical level.
TVG: I'm happy to hear that it's the same researcher, because one of the things I liked so much about the first season was how lived in it felt.
Woo: Absolutely. And she got to co-write an episode, too. Her name's Danielle Roderick. Very gifted writer as well as researcher. So I was very lucky to have her on our team.
TVG: So we'll learn some of the language of the camp. Season 1, there was all the nautical jargon that they didn't even explain. You had to catch up to it.
Woo: There'll be a good deal of the show that's in Japanese. So the thing that will be really distinctive, sort of linguistically or aurally, is you'll be hearing a lot of Japanese spoken. I think obviously there's not going to be a bunch of nautical jargon in the show [laughs]. I think our aural trademark will be the use of Japanese. There's going to be a lot of it.
The Terror: Infamy premieres Monday, Aug. 12 at 9/8c on AMC.