Exclusive: The Karate Kid Director Harald Zwart

When people watch Sony’s upcoming remake of The Karate Kid, they may be surprised that it’s directed by Harald Zwart, the Dutch/Norwegian filmmaker whose American output includes movies like One Night at McCool’s, Agent Cody Banks, The Pink Panther 2 – let’s just say they weren’t the most critically well-received movies ever made. (Zwart also directed the Norwegian comedy hit with the unfortunate English title of Long Flat Balls.)

The original “Karate Kid” came out in the summer of 1984, starring Ralph Macchio, Pat Morita and Elizabeth Shue, and it became a movie that really stuck with a lot of people, considered by some as a beloved favorite. The new version stars Jaden Smith, son of Will and Jada Pinkett Smith, producers on the movie. He plays Dre Parker, a 12-year-old who travels to China with his mother (Taraji P. Henson), only to be faced with local bullies who torment him until the building supervisor Mr. Han (Jackie Chan) agrees to train Dre in the martial arts so he can face the bullies in a high-profile kung fu tournament.

It’s essentially the same heartwarming story that will be intimately familiar to those who love the original, but switching the setting to China and switching the fighting style to kung fu, with a master like Jackie Chan getting into the action, makes The Karate Kid a different experience as well as one of the best movies of the summer so far. It’s certainly Zwart’s strongest effort to date as a director, showing that he can direct epic cinema filled with emotional drama and fast-paced action as well or better than he does comedy.

ComingSoon.net got on the phone with Zwart this past weekend to talk about the movie and found him to be so pleasant and enjoyable that we loved his movie even more… if that’s possible!

ComingSoon.net: This is a different kind of movie for you, because you tend to do a lot of wackier, high concept comedies. This is more dramatic and serious, and you would not be the first director people would think of to do a movie like this.
Zwart: No, and that’s why I was really happy to be able to get a chance to show that this is really the filmmaker I am. You know, I’ve made a career out of making funny commercials and comedy comes really easy to me and I always did what they called in Europe, “the visual comedy”–comedy that also looked good–but I always had that much more serious emotional side to myself. You just get on the career train and you do things that get offered to you. I enjoyed the movies I made, I thought they were all fun to make, but this one came along and I thought, “Oh, this one is actually very close to my heart and this can become the movie that is actually the most kind of filmmaker I am.” So I agree. You wouldn’t look at my resume and say, “He’s the right guy,” but I guess I convinced (Sony) in the meetings. What I eventually did, because it was a big race, there was a lot of directors in there and normally you know who’s in there, you kind of spy on each other. (Laughs) I knew there was one other guy who was a terrific director who had done similar underdog sports type movies, and I didn’t know how to kick him out of competition. So what I did with my wife and my sister, we decided to build this scale model of Jackie Chan’s house just to have some visuals to show them. So, we just sat and after the kids went to bed, just built a whole train-set-scale of Jackie Chan’s courtyard. I used all that to figure out how the training could be and that’s how I came up with that shadow theater on the wall. I lit it up because I knew I had it all in me, and I think I felt that I just needed to get that last 2S% to kick the other guy out of competition.

CS: What was the big draw for you? Were you a big fan of the original movie and wanted to do your own take? Was it the China aspect of it?
Zwart: Yeah, no it is. Not so much that much of a fan of the big movie. I really remember loving it, but my draw was the emotional side of it. I felt like this is such a strong story, it could be retold. To me, it was never a remake; it’s a retelling of a story. I just found myself fantasizing about sitting there with my seven-year-old boy watching the film and when he walks out of the theater he’s just motivated knowing that he has to stand on his own two feet and that nothing comes easy in life. All those life lessons I felt I could get across through this movie.

CS: Absolutely, and it’s not like you see the original movie on cable a lot these days or anything. You’d really have to look for it, and I don’t think kids these days would do that, at least not looking for a movie that could teach them those lessons.
Zwart: Yeah, and I think the story deserves to be retold. That’s kind of what drew me to it. I’ve had three big things I wanted to do in my career. I’ve shot mostly all over the world and I’ve done commercials in Cuba and South Africa and Russia and I’ve been almost everywhere. I hadn’t shot in China yet, so I wanted to shoot in China. I always wanted to work with Jackie Chan. I had a pitch years ago that I tried to get to him. It was funny, when I spoke to him he said, “Yeah, I have that thing on my desk and I liked that bit…” That was so funny to know. My third wish, I always wanted to work with Will Smith. He’s not only a huge star, but he’s such a creative genius. Everything he does is really, really good. It’s just intelligent stuff. Then this movie had all those three elements in it, so it was just an irresistible project.

CS: So basically Jackie, Jaden and the Smiths, they were all on board before you came on to direct. What did you want to bring to the project when they gave you the job?
Zwart: Well, I think my approach to the movie was simply told, I wanted to shoot it like an independent movie with enormous scope. That’s why I wanted to have the handheld, the reality-based cinematography. I wanted the fights to feel like you were in “The Bourne Supremacy.” I always said, “This is not a kid’s movie. It’s a family movie with kids.” I didn’t want to make it a kid’s movie. To me, for a kid when you’re in a fight it’s just as serious as if you’re in it as a grownup. I think that was partly the approach–I don’t know what the other (directors) did–but that was my strong angle in. I really wanted to shoot it as if it was an independent movie, and we did too. In China, I had about a 550-man crew and every time I had 90 drivers. One day we were gonna shoot just these close-ups of Jaden in the backseat that are in the opening sequence and I counted 40 trailers. I said, “Guys, this is insane. I know we’re a big Hollywood movie, but there’s no correlation between this number of trucks and the little shot I’m making over here.” So I had a big meeting with everyone and I said, “I want to be in the streets of Beijing. I want to go to these old temples. I want to shoot in the Forbidden City, all these places I wanted to shoot. If we’re gonna take over the world each time we come in… if I can’t shoot somewhere because I don’t have a parking lot nearby big enough for the trailers, we have to rethink.” So I decided, “Let’s become this small, independent crew for those certain moments.” We became a crew of just one van. We decided not to have any more equipment that we could fit in one car. Will and Jackie just put on baseball hats and pretended not to be themselves (laughs) because they can’t walk around anywhere without people recognizing them. So that’s how we got all those shots done. On the top of the mountain, we just had the little gondola and I saw Will carrying sound equipment and Jackie helping out with props. That’s how we got all that authentic energy in the movie.

CS: You talk about the scope of the movie and China really brings that scope, but it must be really difficult to shoot there even with influential men like Jackie Chan, Will Smith and Jerry Weintraub backing you. What was involved with shooting and how much time did you have to shoot in the Forbidden City and the Wall?
Zwart: Well, yeah, I had a two-hour window to shoot the whole thing in the Forbidden City. I had about 30 minutes on the airport. I just had those little small windows. I want to credit Will Smith and Jackie Chan and the producers. They understood that, so they helped me become just a small, lean and mean crew. They understood this was the approach to do. That just shows what kind of great filmmakers they are. They could easily just leave their trailers behind and help out carrying things. So I really want to credit that to the producers and the stars. They were so on board on that approach because we would never have gotten any of that had we continued to be this monster production.

CS: I want to talk about Jackie Chan’s performance. You mentioned being a fan of his, and I’ve been a fan of his for a long time, but I’ve never seen him give a performance like this before, even in the films he made in China. How did you know he could do a role like this and how was he able to stay in that sort of head for the whole movie?
Zwart: Have you met him? He’s a really warm, focused man. As soon as you meet him you realize he’s got that in him. He’s really connected emotionally. You can see when he talks about the earthquake or anything that moves him, this man is really with the heart in the right place, so we quickly realized that of course he could do it. So we just worked a lot on making the character, making it logical for the character to have that kind of a – call it a secret that he was carrying. He just, I don’t know, he prepared himself. We had lots and lots of rehearsals which I think is great. It’s also a credit to the producers that they just allowed me to have so many days of rehearsals. Then, when we shot it, he had just prepared himself as any other actor. He comes on and he just stunned us all with his performances.

CS: How involved was he in helping with the training of Jaden and some of the younger kids to do the martial artists in some of those scenes? Were any of them from his school?
Zwart: I don’t know if they were actually from his school. They were all the Jackie Chan team. There’s a whole team of the best of the best, and they do everything. They do the whole securing of the locations for the kids in the fighting. They do everything. So you get a whole package which is just so drilled and so trained and they know exactly how to work with the camera. These were Jackie Chan’s people and one of them is called Wu Gong who is himself a kung fu master – unbelievable when you see him do his stuff, when he demonstrates for the others. He’s lightning fast. He trained Jaden for months and months and then they found a bunch of kids that I then picked out the ones I wanted out of that. That’s how we built the ensemble because we couldn’t really have kids – they needed to both be able to act, but also be able to do great kung fu moves.

CS: Jaden’s been acting since he was five and he was amazing in “The Pursuit of Happyness,” but this is different because he carries the movie and does all these different things besides the martial arts. Were you confident he could pull that off or did you know you could make it work regardless?
Zwart: Yeah, the emotional side I wasn’t worried about at all. I had prepared myself to double him more in the fights. That’s kinda what you’d normally do. You wouldn’t necessarily put your biggest star in the harm’s way of these. If there’s one thing I’m really proud of it’s that there is no speed manipulation in the film. They are as fast as they seem in the film, which to me, is unbelievable. They are so quick because there’s a choreography here. They can’t really hit each other and there’s the blocking. When you see how fast they are it’s just really, really incredible. Jaden had to learn all that. So I was prepared to use a lot more of a double. I had a double standing by. But, I didn’t use him at all. Jaden ended up being as good as he needed to be and we could just shoot everything with Jaden. I think there’s one, maybe a wide shot where the guy walks around on the mat that is a double because Jaden had to leave. You know, really that was when you shoot with kids. But, the rest is all him.

CS: Was any of the training we see in the movie based in real martial arts training and did Jackie consult with that at all?
Zwart: Actually, the training he does in the movie was modeled after the actual training he had to go through. So I was up there every day standing there with Will watching Wu Gong his foot on Jaden’s back to make his legs go deeper and we see this tear running down his cheek, and Will and I were looking at each other going, “How can that not be in the movie?” (Laughs) We shot almost all of that on video and we made a pre-vis of the actual training and that’s how I blocked the training in the movie, it’s based on real training.

CS: That’s going to be some great stuff for the Blu-ray, have you already started working on that?
Zwart: The Blu-ray is gonna have tons of fantastic stuff like that. We’ve documented everything, so yeah, it should have all the goodies.

CS: Obviously you’ve come from straight comedies and physical comedies and you have some humor in this, but you scale it back. Was there anything you could bring from your comedy work to this?
Zwart: Yeah, I think my commercial experience came into work a little bit. We were sitting around thinking of the fly swatter. I was thinking, “How would I solve this if this was a commercial? I would lead the audience down to thinking it was one thing and then surprise them with something new.” That’s how the fly swatter idea came about. But, we all agreed. The tone of the film, it was really important that nobody was trying to be funny. The comedy comes from a totally straight basis, you know? So, I wanted the comedy to be not forced and I think that’s a smarter comedy personally. So that’s kind of where the balance of the humor was I think.

CS: Now about the remake thing, it is a double-edged sword because on the one hand you’ll get a lot more people interested because of the name, but you’ll also have people skeptical because it has the same name. I know at one point, it was going to be called “The Kung Fu Kid” so did anyone fight to keep it that rather than use the same name as the original?
Zwart: No, I mean, I think from the beginning it was gonna be “The Karate Kid,” then we played around with “The Kung Fu Kid” for a little while there, but it always made sense in the movie to call it “The Karate Kid” because he trains karate in the scene where he is looking at his old television. We even had a line in there where the kids are sort of teasing him, “Oh look, he wants to do karate. It’s the Karate Kid.” It’s in there. It’s in the DNA of the movie, so once you see the movie, you don’t question that anymore. Mom also says, “Don’t you like that karate class?” He goes, “It’s not karate, Mom.” Yeah, the people in the movie know the difference between karate and kung fu, and that makes perfect sense for me. Of course, “The Karate Kid”, we are honoring that story, so to me it really wouldn’t make sense to call it anything else.

CS: Being a remake, you’re always gonna have people being really critical just because it’s a remake.
Zwart: Yeah, and it’s funny how the old movie suddenly becomes this national treasure that you get compared to all the time. It’s a great movie of course, but why can’t be just be reviewed for just being a movie? (laughs)

CS: Unfortunately, that’s just one of the stigmas you will always end up facing with a remake no matter how good a movie is, and this is a really good movie. I’ve seen the original movie a few times but never watched it over and over nor treasured it like some people. Now the original movie did go onto become this franchise with multiple sequels and the unfortunate attempt to relaunch it in the ’90s. This is really set up like a one-off movie, but would you want to do another one with Jaden and Jackie if Sony decides to do a sequel or do you feel you told the story you wanted to tell with this and it should just stand on its own?
Zwart: Well, that’s always a tempting idea, and I think we all would love to go back and have an experience again. Certainly, I remember just watching Jaden and Jackie on and off camera and thinking, “They’re such a good movie couple.” I just got that feeling when I’ve seen great buddy movies of just off-camera they were just joking and Jaden is a great practical joker. (laughs) They’re just a good two characters I think. I definitely think we can take these two people somewhere else, but that’s all up to the success. I’m open for anything.

CS: Yeah, there are so many factors of course. I always wonder, because some directors feel like they’ve done what they want to do with the first movie, but there’s also the challenge of trying to make a second movie that blows away the first one, especially after the characters are already set-up. So how do you feel about your competition, “The A-Team,” another ’80s inspired movie.
Zwart: Yeah, I think if I was going to the movies that weekend and I was gonna either take my family or wanted to relive that moment from the ’80s even though I’m in the age where “The Karate Kid” meant a lot to me, I would choose “The Karate Kid” because that’s me. (Laughs) I’m sure – are you gonna talk to the guy who made “The A-Team” later?

CS: I am.
Zwart: (Laughs) Oh yeah, well tell him good luck from me. I’m sure they’ll do really well. It looks cool… but our movie’s better. Tell him that.

CS: I haven’t seen that movie, but I’ve seen your movie twice, so you definitely have an advantage there. I know that “Rollercoaster Tycoon” is something you’re developing. How far along is that in development? Is that something you just started?
Zwart: Yeah, that’s in early development. It’s a movie I’m really excited about. I love the game and I’d love to be able to go back to Sony again because they’re fantastic people, so yeah, that’s early development, but I’m reading scripts and just checking things out there.

CS: So you might be able to direct another movie before you can get to that one.
Zwart: I really don’t know. No, I wish I could tell you that.

CS: There’s the stigma of critics towards remakes, but there’s also a stigma around making a movie based on a video game, though I guess this isn’t as known as Donkey Kong.
Zwart: Yeah, and I can’t judge my decisions by stigmas of critics. I do what I’m excited about and I’m trying to not put the carriage before the horse.

CS: Before I forget, I also wanted to ask when you shot this movie, was it after the Olympics?
Zwart: Yeah, we shot it last July, August, September.

CS: Wow, that’s a pretty fast turnaround.
Zwart: Yeah, I cut the movie together. Normally in my contract, a director has 10 weeks of editing and after five weeks I was done. We tested it and it tested 97 which is the highest Sony’s had in a long time and it actually scored 100 with parents. So we all said, “Okay, let’s lock it.”

CS: It’s funny, I was hearing those numbers and then I saw it in ShoWest and I really believed it. When I watch the commercials now and it really brings back the emotions from watching the movie which never happens.
Zwart: Thank you. I’m so happy with that.

CS: Anyway, great talking to you and best of luck with the movie. I’d really like the movie to do well and hopefully people give it a chance and then tell others if they enjoy it. I’m definitely a fan. Hopefully I won’t have to learn martial arts to fight my position against other critics. Maybe if I ever meet Jackie Chan, he can train me.
Zwart: Thank you very much and to hell with those other critics you have to fight them.

CS: Exactly, that’s what I say.
Zwart: Was there a lot of them?

CS: I’ve only talked to a few people after ShoWest, but I still think the movie is incredibly well done and that Jackie Chan should get an Oscar nomination; he was amazing. I’m gonna keep pushing for it and hopefully everyone listens to me and not to anyone else.
Zwart: (Laughs) I hope you’re right. Okay, well nice talking to you too.

The Karate Kid opens on Friday, June 11 everywhere.

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