Interview: Harald Zwart Directs The Karate Kid Like An Independent Film

The challenge of remaking a beloved classic like The Karate Kid is one thing. Taking that remake to China, filming on location in the streets of Beijing with stars like Will Smith and Jackie Chan on the set, and taking the whole show to the Great Wall? That's not a challenge; that's insanity. But director Harald Zwart, after a career spent filming commercials and movies all over the globe, wasn't just up for the challenge of filming in a complicated country like China-- he was downright excited.

Zwart came on board the project well after it was in development with Overbrook Entertainment and the Smith family in charge, but says he immediately connected with the story's emotional elements and brought in ideas of how to incorporate the stunning Beijing scenery by filming the movie as if it were an independent film. Hey, I promise it makes sense when he explains it. Check out our exclusive interview with Zwart below, and catch The Karate Kid in theaters this weekend.

The movie was in the works before you came on, and it was in some ways the Smith family's production. How did that affect your work as a director?

Overbrook is a great company who really respects a filmmaker. They want to have the filmmaker come on board and give his vision. What really responded to me with the project was the emotional connection I had with the story, and also the visual side of it. China opens up huge possibilities for just making it a visually stunning movie. In addition to the obvious story points, I wanted to shoot it as if it was an independent movie, but with a huge scope.

What do you mean by independent movie?

It's the whole approach to how you do a scene. The handheld, the camera is not interfering, shoot on existing locations. I had a 550-man crew but most of the time we left them back at the studio, because when we were shooting in the streets of Beijin or up in the mountains, I had drilled everybody to bring as little equipment as they could. Will came in disguise with a basketball hat and sunglasses. You can't really go anywhere, especially with Jackie Chan in China, without creating a mania. We just had to get a different approach. You treat it as if you don't have all the money, and you just bring exactly the lenses you need, the equipment you need. You're able to be a flexible, fast crew. That's how we managed to shoot the Forbidden City, the busiest airport in China. It was all done with this mythology, which worked well.Everyone was great sports. I had Will Smith carry lens cases up the top of a mountain.

Jaden Smith and Jackie Chan have really different levels of acting experience. How did you prepare both of them for the movie, which required so much of them?

Jaden started training about four months before the shoot, or maybe more. He went through a gruesome training period, five times a week, several hours a day. I was up there almost every day, filming him, watching him train. It was very helpful in the sense that this became the road map and model for how his training would be in the movie. Jaden had to learn Chinese, he had a bunch of lines, he's in every scene of the movie. And he goes places emotionally that I think are very very impressive. There's not a false moment in the movie.

So how did you get that performance out of him?

That's what's great about great actors, whether they're young or old. If they have it in them-- obviously Jaden with the DNA, the pedigree, is terrific. It's not so much teaching them how to do it, you've just got to help them to get there. It's all about creating the right circumstances sometimes to let them go the last mile themselves.

We haven't seen a performance this dramatic from Jackie Chan in English before. It's interesting to see him stretch that way.

The first time I met Jackie, we had conversations not so much about the movie but about life in general, and you very quickly discover that he's a man with the heart in the right place. He can get emotional, he has childhood memories like the rest of us. You learn something about the person. He also had a strong willingness to go there.

The movie is dramatic overall, and more than you might expect for a Karate Kid movie. How did that decision get made?

That's where I connected with Overbrook. I think the studio too had hopes that it would be a true emotional movie. There's no way you can get the chills at the end unless you're emotionally invested in the characters. I think we al felt that that was the direction to go. Will's a terrific actor himself, he's a genius in how to steer all of us and inspire us to go to places. We all had the same vision in the drama I think.

What is Will Smith's role on the set, maybe different than what an average producer might do?

First of all he was a dad to Jaden. And to me he was a producer who had a great-- he's just an incredibly inspiring guy. You really get inspired by being around him. He does it with positive energy. There were days when I felt like, oh my God-- you have good days and bad days as a director. Just having WIll take me for a little walk, pep talk-- it's the kind of stuff a really great producer is made of. Like I said, the whole Overbrook spirit is to support the filmmaker. No idea is a bad idea. We all agree it's better to just try than discuss it to pieces. He was constantly thinking of ways to make it better. He was just a really fantastic creative producer who I loved working with.

How did you guys balance the references to the first movie and making something that was your own?

I always felt like I wasn't remaking a movie, I was retelling a story. To me it's a really good story. We were all kind of aware-- I know that everybody's waiting for these iconic moments, and there's no way we can really top them, because they were really well done in the original.

How did you change it to "Jacket on, jacket off" instead of "Wax on, wax off."

That was actually born out of my first meeting with Jackie. We were looking for a movie-- in karate it's almost mechanical, at least in the original movie. Whereas in kung fu, one swooping move consists of five different moves. It's sort of like a ballet, where all the other moves are buried inside one move that looks so simple from the outside. It was in conversations with Jackie where we discussed this jacket, taking off the jacket. We explored every possible normal move a kid would do during the day. It was Jackie who came up with the idea that when you take your jacket off and hang it up, it could also be the blocking and the pushing away. Then I got chills-- I have it on video when he does it, and I said "There it is. That's the move." Then we worked backwards and made that into the one thing his mom is trying to teach him.

Katey Rich

Staff Writer at CinemaBlend