Set Report: The Terror: Infamy Transcends Genre as a Radical Step Forward for Representation

Our report from the set of AMC's anthology horror series.

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Set Report: <i>The Terror: Infamy</i> Transcends Genre as a Radical Step Forward for Representation

The barbed wire fences were real. The guard tower was real. And the ghosts? If they were anywhere, they would be in the makeshift graveyard on the edge of camp. The cast and crew of The Terror: Infamy knew a production of its kind would never happen for them again. “We talk about it almost every day,” star Derek Mio told me between midnight takes in a chilly Vancouver tent. His face lit only by the light of a smartphone screen, he was almost reverent. “There’s never been another show or movie like this.” Uprooting everything to be a part of it was natural. Magnetizing those with a common heritage, Infamy is reverent to its subjects as a matter of historical fidelity, which made its radical production one of horror’s most ambitious.

I visited the set of the AMC anthology which, in its second season, tackles the real-life horror of Japanese-American internment after Pearl Harbor—and it boasts a claim that’s sadly revolutionary: the internees are all played by Japanese speakers of Japanese ancestry. The main cast, the guests, and even the 120+ extras were played by Japanese actors, Japanese-Americans, Japanese-British, Japanese-Australians, and Japanese-Canadians. No pan-Asian casting, period. This feat, which showrunner Alexander Woo admits was the most time-consuming and difficult part of production, is just one example of the show’s dedication to representing its ghost story’s history.

The first season modified a novel’s true story of variously-sideburned explorers seeking the Northwest Passage with the supernatural. It choked would-be adventurers with their own hubris, then allowed a vengeful anthropomorphization of the culture they’d invaded to tear them asunder. Blending history, injustice, and monsters continues as a throughline for Season Two. Chester Nakayama (Mio), his parents Henry (Shingo Usami) and Asako (Naoko Mori), and their Californian fishing community are uprooted and interned—and something keeps killing people.

I visited on a March afternoon, midway through the chronologically-shot season. Production designer Jonathan McKinstry—one of only two returning crewmembers from The Terror’s first season— took me on a tour of a fully-realized internment camp that, ironically resplendent with patriotism, celebrated the Fourth of July. Red, white, and blue banners hung across the crowded gravel streets. American flags flapped from guard towers looking in on American citizens rather than out. Prop vegetable gardens and mid-game checkers sets filled the pathways, while each of the camp’s ten buildings served either as a dressed location or a storage facility for production vehicles. It was more like touring a preserved colonial town than a set.

The ebb and flow noise of filming was already underway, heard across camp, and continued until well past midnight. As the long and cold night shoot began, a full moon loomed over the walls surrounding the production. Filming one of the season’s pivotal scenes, Mi, Usami, and Mori were inside a long unadorned wooden house mere yards from a dense and wild Canadian forest. A few hours later, George Takei commanded a macabre ceremony. And what lurks in the shadows? A spirit, perhaps. Fake fireworks flash in the freezing cold. The incongruity matches that of the season’s out-of-place ghost, all the way from the old country.

“It’s a historical drama using the vocabulary of Japanese horror,” Woo explained. While co-creator Max Borenstein originated the premise of the season, it’s Woo’s show. Woo, known from his work on True Blood, dug more into his history as a playwright to turn Borenstein’s treatment into Infamy. A Chinese-American, he was ready to spin and mold the immigrant experience into something with a genre draw. Themes of exclusion and alienation, “living within the hyphen” of “Asian-American,” were prevalent in his stage work, but this was his first chance to explore them on screen.

Tack on the additional weight of internment, something that’s been brushed under the national rug, ad there’s a sense of “responsibility,” Woo said, “to be accurate about what it was and what it wasn’t.” With little direct pickup from episode to episode, the narrative time gaps allow the camp to evolve as the story unfolds over several years. Gardens flourish and communities forge. The story we want to tell is the resilience,” Woo said. “This is not a place where people have given up, but a place which they have turned (despite the conditions) into something quite lovely.” The priority was clearly about getting the story right … so why house it inside of horror?

“All the creatives wanted to tell this really, really huge story—this is a story that happened to a hundred thousand people—on a very small, personal scale,” Woo explained over the drone of sawblades and cranes constructing a new set.

Opposed to a detached documentary, horror allows subjectivity that puts viewers “inside the skin, so to speak, of the characters.” Even shooting straight docudrama might give the audience enough clinical distance to feel safe. Woo doesn’t want that. He wants horrorborne empathy to drive the rage, betrayal, rejection, pride, and hurt of his characters. He wants people to give a damn. He wants terror.

Camp-based detention has once again skyrocketed in America, with Mexican migrants now the targets. It’s hard to understate how seriously those behind The Terror take the (sometimes literal) parallels. Woo shook his head. “We didn’t have to underline it very hard.” How do you make a true story of state-organized cruelty resonate when reality has already so clearly allowed history to repeat itself? Adding a ghost story is one way. An almost journalistic devotion to realism is the other.

Books and archives accessed with the help of the show’s other returning crew member, researcher Danielle Roderick, and organizations like the Heart Mountain, Wyoming Foundation were used as reference to construct the camp. Sometimes they filmed places already entwined with history. A former Japanese fishing community, now a museum, merged into the location of the protagonists’ fishing-focused home of Terminal Island. Vancouver’s Hastings Park Race Track, another location, once held Japanese-Canadians in repurposed stables. Infamy first assistant director Jason Furukawa’s parents were in Stables 7 and 8.

Nearly everyone I met had a connection to the camps. Furukawa dropped everything on the show, as did director Lily Mariye. AMC later disclosed that Mariye lost her grandfather in an internment camp due to lack of competent medical care, while her mother’s whole family was interned at Tule Lake. Visual effects producer Ken Kokka told me that he quit a job he’d worked on and off for two decades in order to work on the season. His parents and grandparents were interned on both sides of his family: “When my parents meet people their age, they go, ‘Oh, what camp were you in?’” Mio saw his familial connection to the camps eerily reflected in his character. Popping into a heated tent between midnight takes, Mio told me he was really playing a “composite of his grandfathers.”

His character is a Terminal Island fisherman-turned-translator who joins the military as a retaliatory response to his country questioning his patriotism. Mio’s grandfather on his father’s side, George, was a fisherman from Terminal Island. The grandfather on his mother’s side was a Military Intelligence Service translator. Both were interned. Mio’s MIS co-star? His grandfather was a translator in the MIS. Bittersweet serendipity is the standard, and everyone can feel its buzzing power on set. Mio reflects on the resonating trauma of internment, passed down through the generations. His stoic, emasculated skipper grandfather has a soured relationship with his father, who passes that ingrained hurt on to the next generation. Just so, Infamy’s workers are bound by the electric threads of history.

At last count, 138 relatives of cast and crew were interned, Woo confirmed at the show’s first San Diego Comic-Con panel. Only one was actually interned themselves. Veteran actor Takei didn’t initially even have an on-screen role—he was brought on just to assess accuracy as a consultant, since he’d spent some of his childhood in both the Rohwer War Relocation Center and Tule Lake War Relocation Center. Of course, when you have Takei already on set, it’d be a waste not to have him in front of the camera. Thus his character of Yamato-San was born. And ironically enough, when he arrived on set for filming, the memories it stirred were relatively happy ones.

Immediately charismatic, Takei took me through his childhood in his trailer. “Unlike my parents, who would’ve been chilled to see the [set’s] barracks, I was too young to really understand what was going on,” Takei explained in his droll baritone. “As a Southern California kid, going to the swamps of Arkansas was an adventure. My father told me that we were going on a long vacation in the country. ‘Arkansas’ sounded exotic. Honestly, now it’s nostalgic.” Punctuating the storytelling with asides about the Supreme Court or President Trump, Takei recalled the sense memories sprung from hyper-accurate minutiae like the crawlspace beneath the barracks. “We adopted a stray dog and it loved to go down through that. [Walking through set] was a reliving of the joys of childhood.”

Takei was quick to point out Infamy’s groundbreaking treatment of the internment, which has very few fictionalized accounts—especially without a white hero (Snow Falling on Cedars’ Ethan Hawke, Come See the Paradise’s Dennis Quaid) leading the way. The younger members were excited by the production’s ethnic makeup; the older were in awe. “I’ve been working as an actor more than 20 years,” the soft-spoken Usami whispered after nailing a particularly emotional take. “And I thought ‘Ok, it’s never gonna happen in my lifetime.’ But it did.”

Finding Japanese actors that speak Japanese and aren’t mixed-race (something that wouldn’t work for the internment story) took the full might of an international team of casting directors. The one area of compromise was with children. Internment camps were full of children (around one in three internees), but finding a ton of child actors of Japanese descent is tough enough when they’re not being recruited for R-rated horror.

Perhaps the only unrealistic thing involved in the whole production was a set specifically designed for the show’s monster. Walking into a warehouse was like walking into a watercolor illustration in a book of mythology. Built for a fantastical sequence involving the out-of-time Yuko (Kiki Sukezane), the set was a hyper-real, over-the-top, Technicolor rendition of postcard Japan. Silk cherry blossoms never wilted, matched in unnatural vitality with the over-saturated colors and blown-out photographic mountain backdrops. It was like a dream that’s just a little too real to be real. A nightmare posing as a daydream. For the show’s Issei (first-generation immigrants) and Nisei (second-generation), this is their halcyon memories of a Japan they left behind or never knew, come back to haunt them; for those making the show, it’s just one more thing to get right—even its demons get origin stories straight from the experts.

“On our writing staff, in addition to our Japanese-American writers, we had a guy who was uniquely qualified,” Woo said of the mythological antagonist. “A 10th-century Japanese folklorist.” This specialist added realism to the spiritual realm while the carpenters constructed it in the physical world. He’s the reason that the show’s Y?rei (the “same species” as the one crawling out of the TV in The Ring) fits in with a cast steeped in authenticity.

As we leave the warehouse on the way to another sound stage, Woo defines his horror ethos. Wartime, especially wartime in an internment camp, embodies a sense of constant dread. There’s a constant lack of safety, where everything can seem fine, “but around the corner is a dead body,” as Woo spookily put it as we walked through barebones barracks. Raw treehouse planks are disfigured with shadows, cast by asymmetrical hanging linen barriers put up for some semblance of privacy between interned families. The uninhabited sets were almost as unnerving as the spirit haunting them. Along with The Ring, Woo namedropped plenty of J-horror touchstones as we navigated the set’s skeletal structures. Dark Water, Ju-on: The Grudge, and Kwaidan—all classics that focus on upsetting, lingering images rather than jump scares.

Woo wants the history, like the images, to stick with viewers. In Infamy, the two are stubbornly connected. “I would love, in my wildest fantasies,” he said, sheepish outside the camp’s tall wired gate, “to have millions of people watching it to get a good scare or because they’re really into Japanese horror—whatever the reason is—and getting millions of people to care about the internment and what its implications are for the present day.” Woo shrugged. “A couple million people can swing an election.” Takei, in his Broadway show Allegiance and graphic novel They Called Us Enemy, is vying for the same thing. In medium after medium, genre after genre, these storytellers keep looking for a way to make the history stick. Infamy is just the latest version, radically staffed by those for which it’s not just history. It’s their history.

The Terror: Infamy begins its 10-episode season on Monday, August 12.

Jacob Oller is a film and TV critic whose writing has appeared in The Guardian, The Hollywood Reporter, Vanity Fair, Interview Magazine, Playboy, SYFY WIRE, Forbes, them, and other publications. He lives in Chicago with his two cats and a never-ending to-do list of things to watch. He likes them (the cats and the list) most of the time. You can follow him on Twitter here: @jacoboller.