Cowboy Bebop (Finally) Rides Again, Thanks to Netflix and John Cho
“I heard a big pop and went, ‘Oh, that’s not good,’” says John Cho. The 49-year-old actor was in the middle of filming Netflix’s highly anticipated live-action adaptation of Cowboy Bebop when he went down. It was late at night; Cho had already been filming an action sequence for several takes. After he injured his knee, the series lead tried to muscle through the pain—but was soon rushed to the emergency room, where he learned he had torn his ACL.
Executive producers Becky Clements and Marty Adelstein scrambled to keep production going, hoping for a miracle. “But after Marty spoke to about 65 doctors,” says Clements, “it became evident there was really only one path forward—and that involved quite a bit of time down.”
Production on Cowboy Bebop stopped in October of 2019. Cho left the New Zealand–based set and returned to the U.S. for nine months of recovery; filming was set to resume in the summer of 2020. By then, of course, a new challenge had stopped production once again. For fans of the beloved franchise, it was beginning to look like this latest attempt at a revival was slipping away. But now, after nearly a year’s delay and a unique border exemption for cast and crew that saved production, Cowboy Bebop is finally set to premiere on Netflix November 19.
Cowboy Bebop first debuted as a manga in 1997. The comic chronicled the adventures of Spike Spiegel, Jet Black, Faye Valentine, and Edward—bounty hunters aboard the spaceship Bebop—as they chased criminals around the galaxy. Sunrise studio turned the manga into an animated series for Japanese audiences in 1998. Three years later, Bebop arrived in the United States when Cartoon Network included the series in the original lineup of its Adult Swim programming block. The show became a cult hit, credited with helping introduce American audiences to more adult-oriented anime at a time when Pokémon and Dragon Ball Z were the medium’s banner titles.
In 2008, talk began circling of a live-action Bebop film adaptation from producer Erwin Stoff (The Matrix), starring Keanu Reeves as Spike. News of the project ebbed and flowed for years, never making much progress before finally fizzling out.
By 2017, Adelstein and Clements of Tomorrow Studios were taking trips to Japan to meet with Sunrise about its library of titles—“Cowboy Bebop being the most important one,” says Adelstein. Rather than making Bebop a movie, “the idea was to go there and say, ‘Hey, let us do these for television, and we can get them done and on the air in a year and a half or two years’”—rather than the 10 to 12 years it had been taking to make a film. After three or four trips to Japan, Adelstein says Sunrise decided to take a chance on the pair and signed Bebop. With a deal in hand, Clements and Adelstein took the property to Netflix, which gave them the green light.
Announcement of the new adaptation had fans buzzing once again. But they were also cautious after several instances of popular anime projects whitewashing their lead characters with caucasian actors (most notably 2017’s Ghost in the Shell). Would a white actor land the role of Spike, or would it be an actor of Asian descent? Who would play Faye Valentine and Jet Black?
“The future that Cowboy Bebop presents is not dystopian, it’s multicultural,” says showrunner André Nemec. Right from the get-go, Nemec wanted to hire a diverse writers room and ensure “that we have a diverse cast in order to tell the multicultural stories that we want to tell.”
In April 2019, the production made good on that promise, revealing that John Cho would play Spike Spiegel, Daniella Pineda would play Faye Valentine, Mustafa Shakir would play Jet Black, and later it was revealed that Gren (a nonbinary character in the series) would not only appear on the show, but be played by nonbinary actor Mason Alexander Park.
By the fall of 2019, filming was underway in New Zealand. But by the time Cho suffered his injury in October, only a few episodes had been completed.
“The first thought I had was, Can we shoot anyway?” the actor recalls. He and Allan Poppleton, Bebop’s stunt coordinator, tried rigging up a solution: “Poppleton’s like, ‘If you sit on this stool, and we position the camera here to go from the waist up, you won’t have to put any weight on your knees and you can do this and that,’” Cho remembers with a laugh. “Eventually, we all said this is not sustainable.” It was clear that Cho needed to recover from his injury, and to do so would require time.
Having your lead actor down for several months—and just as filming is getting underway—is not only a major disruption to a project, but very costly. It would have been understandable if Netflix or the series’ producers had proposed finding a new actor to jump in.
“Let the record show that there was never the thought of replacing John,” says Nemec. Clements agrees that Cho was always the only choice for Spike. “I don’t know that in all of my long producing career, I’ve had that sort of [feeling],” she says. “John Cho is the guy for this role.”
The long recess became an opportunity for the rest of the show’s cast and creative team as well. “That’s the beautiful thing, the silver lining,” says Shakir. “Everybody was able to sit still for a little bit longer so that the nuances were able to bubble up, and I think that really helped us not make mistakes, quite honestly.”
The writers went back in and reworked their scripts, getting character development and storylines just right.
“It was definitely the longest I’ve ever stayed with a character and with a role,” Cho says. But as his recovery neared its end in the spring of 2020, production once again took an unexpected turn.
COVID derailed production from there, says Christopher Yost, a writer and producer on the series. “It was just an incredible sequence of events for a TV show to be down due to an injury, and then be down due to a global pandemic.”
In a chance turn of luck, New Zealand, where Bebop had been filming, remained one of the few places on earth able to contain the virus. In July, the country’s Ministry of Business, Innovation, and Employment granted border exemptions to the series and four other productions (including The Lord of the Rings television series) that allowed 241 foreign-based cast, crew, and family members to reenter the country and resume production.
“I think all the Americans came over to New Zealand carrying all the trauma of those first few months in the U.S.,” Cho, who brought his wife and children with him, says. “Mustafa, Daniella—we just didn’t want to touch anyone for weeks. It was bizarre. We didn’t want to shake anyone’s hands.” Protocols enforced by Netflix and New Zealand further eased their fears, says Nemec.
“There was something very freeing about being in a country knowing that there were zero cases,” says Daniella Pineda, who plays Faye Valentine. “I know a lot of productions where actors are literally not allowed to hang out with one another when they’re not on set. We were so fortunate that we basically got to live regular lives.”
“When I get back to the States, everyone I meet is going to be like, ‘What was your year like? What was 2020 like?,’” Cho says. “I look forward to downloading with everyone. We had a different experience, and I don’t know how people did it during COVID.”
In June, Netflix announced that Yoko Kanno, the composer behind Bebop’s iconic score, would return for the live-action adaptation. The announcement also gave eager fans a first look at Cho’s Spike Spiegel hair. Now, with the release Tuesday of the show’s first full trailer, anticipation is at a fever pitch.
“Hopefully a global audience embraces it, because we’ve got a lot more stories to tell,” says Yost, who had already begun planning season two before he wrote season one. “Across the lore of Bebop, there are certain episodes and stories that are just slam dunk, no-brainers to tell. And I would certainly love to tell more of them.”
“It’s always going to be impossible from my point of view to not be thinking about,” Nemec says of future seasons. “So we’ll get through season one and then, if there’s a season two, [I’m] just noodling on what the possibilities could be.” At this point, why wait?
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Published at Tue, 26 Oct 2021 23:20:00 +0000
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