Interview: ‘Karate Kid’ Director Harald Zwart on Retelling Stories and the Hard Work of Film

By  · Published on June 12th, 2010

Harald Zwart does not make movies for my generation, but he’s been incredibly successful with the types of films he’s wanted to make. Agent Cody Banks. The Pink Panther 2. Like I said ‐ not necessarily for my generation.

However, the one noticeable factor in both of those films is that they are elevated above expectations, and that is a direct result of Zwart’s involvement.

His next film, a remake of The Karate Kid, is the kind of movie most web-savvy movie fans might not expect much from (or might downright despise the very idea of it as another studio-insisted reboot). With those expectations, the film is sure to surprise more than a few people, and, again, Zwart will be one of the main reasons for that.

I was fortunate enough to speak with the director about a variety of topics ‐ the beauty of China, getting Will Smith to carry sound equipment, and the possibility of getting your ass kicked by an 11 year old.

You’ve talked before about the difference between remaking a movie and retelling a story. Could you expand on that a bit?

Well, the thing that attracted me to the project was not necessarily to remake The Karate Kid. I think The Karate Kid is a terrific movie, and some people have argued that maybe that should just be left alone, but it’s the core story of the movie ‐ the idea that you have to stand up for yourself, an underdog gets bullied and he has to train and learn Kung Fu. To me, that was always a metaphor for standing up for yourself, and I think that’s such an important story. I have a child ‐ who’s not being bullied thank God ‐ but he’s a 7 year old boy, and I just think there’s a lesson that we all could learn from that movie that should be retold.

I don’t think I could get him to sit through the original Karate Kid. Maybe he would, but it’s a great story that needs to be told, and that’s where I came in.

Do you think there’s a shortage of those type of movies that teach the kind of lessons you’d want your child to learn?

Yeah, it seems to be. I think there are movies that I take him to. [Laughs] I think that Kung Fu Panda was great in that sense, and had some great life philosophy to it. I think it’s important to make movies where you don’t necessarily scream out the message but where there’s an emotional connection so that when you leave the theater, your children have learned something. Yes, I do. We could make more of those.

Have you heard about the scheduled protest in Austin against remakes for the weekend your film opens?

Oh, I didn’t know that. That’s actually quite funny, isn’t it? [Laughs]

Yeah ‐ there’s a gentleman in Austin that’s decided that this is the last straw, and he’s going to be boycotting at a local theater in a generic sense against remakes but very specifically of course toward your movie because it is the one coming out this weekend. Do you have any gut reaction to that?

I think that’s good. It’s good PR.

[Laughs] To get the word out about your film?

Everybody has the freedom to say stuff like that. I think that’s fine. I hope, if he sees the movie, he’ll see that we really respected the original one. We’re not ruining the first one by making a new one. We’re honoring it. We’re homaging it at certain points in the movie. What I hear from everybody who’s seen the film is that after ten minutes, they forget they’re watching a remake. It’s totally it’s own movie.

I think that’s fair. You have to balance being true to the original while doing something new.


Which should be the goal of every remake or retelling.

And I think if you tried to remake Star Wars, you’d make a mistake because the visuals and the whole design of the film is so buried in the story that you couldn’t make the same argument. You couldn’t say, “We’re retelling a story.”

In the case of The Karate Kid, it is a universal, much more, can I say broader?…I don’t feel the same panic about remaking the movie.

You shot in China, and there’s a lot of gorgeous scenery. Was there any cinema of China that inspired you?

Not one film specifically, but I was very inspired by the artistry in China. From how everything was lit with lanterns -and there’s not just one lantern; there’s thousands of lanterns! ‐ to the shadow theater. That’s something I brought on board the project. I love those. I love being able to echo the shadow theater when they are doing their final moves. When they do their training, and you see they’ve now become the shadows on the wall, and they have their sticks so they actually look like the shadow figures.

I just like the whole artistry and how the architecture has all these details. I was very specific on how I wanted the windows in Jackie Chan’s house. All these wooden details. We built all that. I just think there’s so much texture in China, and the juxtaposition between the most amazing modern buildings and the oldest buildings that we know. They’re right next to each other. Side by side.

I was inspired by the whole idea because when I went over there, I was blown away. I wanted to show more than what you normally see in Chinese movies. You know, typically they’re historical or costume dramas, but I wanted to show the everyday life ‐ people walking on the streets in Beijing, showing the building blocks where they live. So, I was inspired by cinema, but I wanted to show more than what cinema normally shows you.

You said in an interview that you wanted to shoot like an indie film. Is that how you work most comfortably?

No, I can do both. I think with my European film school background and my commercial background ‐ you know, in Europe we don’t always have those big budgets that we have over here. I can also make things look great without having ninety trailers. With that confidence, I had a meeting with everyone, and I said, “We need to scale down.” There was one day when we were just going to shoot a close-up of Jaden in the car, and I counted forty trailers. There’s just no correlation. It’s just insane. Who ordered these trailers?


[Laughs] You discover that just because you are a big movie, just because you can, everything is on auto-pilot. We have to reset. This is not how we should make the movie. We decided to have a lighter weight crew or whatever we could fit in one car, and Jackie and Will [Smith] ‐ they get recognized everywhere. So I said to them, “Why don’t you guys just disguise yourselves a little bit?”

And this is what’s cool about Will and the Overbrook Production crew. They are so flexible and so result-oriented that they don’t need their trailers or anything like that. Jackie’s the same way.

That’s how we got to the temple. The temple was just a gondola ride, and we had to walk up, but Will carried sound equipment and Jackie helped out with wardrobe and vacuuming. It was insane, but we became this little indie crew when we shot in those sensitive places. Tienanmen Square. The Forbidden City. Old neighborhoods. A lot of those extras are authentic extras because we’d just have Jaden hop out of the car and skateboard down the street.

You know what the shot in The Forbidden City reminded me of? The shot in Times Square in Vanilla Sky

Oh cool!

…where there’s no one in the street. When the doors opened to The Forbidden City and there’s no one there but your class. How did you pull that off?

I have to compliment our co-producers in China because they really pulled some strings. Those doors haven’t been opened since the last emperor died. You know, the real emperor. They did some terrific background work to make that happen.

I had only an hour and half window to shoot the whole scene.

Plenty of time, right?

[Laughs] It is plenty of time for an independent movie.


No, it is! And if you have that kind of independent movie flavor to it where you don’t schlep ten HMIs and your crew isn’t super heavy, you can really get around quickly, and that’s how we got those shots. It was a window between when they emptied the entire Forbidden City and when the sun went down.


And we shot the whole scene in that window.

Who do you think would win in a fight between you and Jaden?

[Laughs] I think he would just leave me crawling in the corner.

Sorry. I wanted to get you on record saying that an 11 year old could beat you up.

Right. [Laughs] And that’s not to say that I’m a weak guy. It’s more to say that he’s just an amazing fighter. [Laughs]

Were you there during the process of that transformation for him?

Yeah! I was there everyday of his training. You know, every single day he trained for hours and hours, and we videotaped the whole thing, and what we ended up doing is to shape the whole training sequence in the movie after his real training. So when Jackie in the movie puts his foot on his back to get his legs to stretch more, that’s what Wu Gang the trainer did to Jaden.

Was there any point where you thought it was a lot to ask of an 11 year old?

Yeah, we were all constantly aware of that, and Jaden tells you. There’s no way any of us were going to push too far. His parents, I, no one wanted to do that because he had to last. It just had to be a fun ride for him.

Although, he was the hardest working person in the movie. He had to learn Chinese. He was training everyday between takes. He was up early, in bed late, just incredible stamina, and I think that’s the pedigree of his parents.

You mentioned earlier your European film school experience.

Yes, I did film school in Amsterdam.

What was worthwhile and what wasn’t?

I think I learned a lot from doing film school. I started making films when I was 8 years old, so I had already been making films for years before I went to film school. I was quite young when I went. It really shaped me. Things are so different from school to school, and I can’t speak for any other school, but the Film Academy in Holland was very focused on shaping you for the industry. You had to work hard. We made a film every year. It’s a state-funded school, so we did 35mm films all paid for by the school, but if you didn’t do a good job, they threw you out.

So, we started with 16 directors and we ended up with 8. So you had work really hard in order to stay in business. For me, film school was absolutely invaluable. Does that mean that I liked it? Valuable? [Laughs] I’m from Norway, so my English is not always…it was priceless. I was very happy to do film school.

The teachers there were all focused on three-act structure and just trained for American filmmaking or the most traditional filmmaking. I know there are schools who don’t necessarily follow the system. I know there’s a school in Norway that doesn’t teach three-act structure, and that to me is insane.

However, I know there are examples of people who have made it fantastically well in the industry without doing film school, because it’s all up to your will. Nowadays you can just go out and make a film digitally. There’s so much home equipment that you use that you can actually make a decent film completely on your own.

How do you think the 8 year old version of you would respond to your career now?

I try to remind myself almost everyday when I come home…on the red carpet the other day I almost got teary-eyed because I did think about the 8 year old filmmaker back in Norway.

Where I came from there was absolutely no film industry around me. I had nobody working on film around me. Our TV over there was from six in the evening to eleven in the evening. That’s all the TV we had in Norway. Once a year during Christmas they would show cartoons. [Laughs] It was, like, miserable, and I could not be further away from the American movie industry.

That night I found myself on the red carpet with Will Smith and Jackie Chan and Jada and Jaden and signing autographs, and I just thought, “This is so amazing. I really deserve this because I’ve worked so hard.”

It didn’t come easy. You go through years of commercials and rejections. You get a job. You lose a job. There’s no easy way, and I think the 8 year old filmmaker would go, “Okay now! That’s a great movie.” I was very happy when they cheered at the end, and you get chills, and people are teary-eyed coming out it, and Tom Cruise loved the movie. All that stuff. It feels really good.

The Karate Kid is in theaters now. Unless you’re reading this long after its initial publication on June 11th, 2010.

Movie stuff at VanityFair, Thrillist, IndieWire, Film School Rejects, and The Broken Projector Podcast@brokenprojector | Writing short stories at Adventitious.