Q & A with Director Harald Zwart

“The Karate Kid” director Harald Zwart

“The Karate Kid” director Harald Zwart

As part of ZAMM.com’s continuing conversations with leading filmmakers Martin Grove talks to director Harald Zwart about Columbia Pictures’ “The Karate Kid,” starring Jaden Smith, Jackie Chan and Taraji P. Henson, opening June 11.

An Overbrook Entertainment/Jerry Weintraub Production in association with China Film Group Corporation, “The Karate Kid” was directed by Harald Zwart. Produced by Jerry Weintraub, Will Smith, Jada Pinkett Smith, James Lassiter, and Ken Stovitz, its screenplay is by Christopher Murphey and its story is by Robert Mark Kamen. It was executive produced by Dany Wolf, Susan Ekins and Han San Ping.

The Story (official version - no spoilers): Twelve year old Dre Parker (Jaden Smith) could have been the most popular kid in Detroit, but his mother’s (Taraji P. Henson) latest career move has landed him in China. Dre immediately falls for his classmate Mei Ying — and the feeling is mutual — but cultural differences make such a friendship impossible. Even worse, Dre’s feelings make an enemy of the class bully, Cheng.

In the land of kung fu, Dre knows only a little karate, and Cheng puts “The Karate Kid” on the floor with ease. With no friends in a strange land, Dre has nowhere to turn but to maintenance man Mr. Han (Jackie Chan), who is secretly a master of kung fu. As Han teaches Dre that kung fu is not about punches and parries, but maturity and calm, Dre realizes that facing down the bullies will be the fight of his life.

Harald Zwart has a knack for weaving visual magic and telling stories that are funny and accessible. He is one of the leaders of a new generation of internationally trained feature filmmakers. Fluent in three languages, the Dutch-born filmmaker has a unique gift for reaching across cultural boundaries to touch the minds and hearts of audiences of all backgrounds and ages.

Zwart was born in Holland and grew up in Fredrikstad, Norway where he began making films when he was eight. He received his formal training at the Dutch Film Academy in Amsterdam. After his student film “Gabriel’s Surprise” was shown on Scandinavian television, Zwart began receiving offers to direct television commercials and went onto become one of Europe’s most successful directors of advertising and music videos. He won numerous awards for his commercial work including Director-of-the-Year honors (1998) at London’s Midsummer Awards.

His commercial credits include spots for BMW Mini, ING, Sky Television and Nokia. Due to Zwart’s feature background he is often called upon for celebrity testimonials, including spots with Jose Mourinho, Michael Douglas, John Travolta and Richard Gere for Lancia.

In 1997, Zwart made his debut as a dramatic filmmaker with “Commander Hamilton,” a four-part mini-series for Scandinavian television starring Lena Olin, Mark Hamill and Peter Stormare that achieved popular and critical acclaim. A feature-length version was subsequently released theatrically and became the region’s top-grossing film of the year.

Based on that success, Zwart began to receive offers from Hollywood. He became the first Norwegian director to be accepted as a member of the Directors Guild of America. His feature film debut followed in 2001 with “One Night at McCool’s,” starring Liv Tyler, Michael Douglas, Matt Dillon and Paul Reiser. A black comedy about three men who fall in love with the same woman on the same night, the film showcased Zwart’s talent for complex narrative, edgy humor and inspired casting.

Zwart directed “Agent Cody Banks,” the action-adventure film starring Frankie Muniz and Hilary Duff and went on to create the story for its sequel. Zwart went on to helm “The Pink Panther 2,” starring Steve Martin, Jean Reno, Emily Mortimer, Andy Garcia, Alfred Molina, Aishwarya Rai, John Cleese, Jeremy Irons and Lily Tomlin.

Zwart, who divides his time between Los Angeles and Oslo, continues to direct commercials and develop feature projects through Zwart Arbeid, the company he founded with Veslemoey Ruud Zwart.

Q: When we spoke earlier this year before “Pink Panther 2” opened you were about to go to China to make “The Karate Kid.” Now here we are and “Karate Kid” is about to open.
A: I found it a really interesting experience. I thought I’d come across every challenge in the book, having done commercials all over the world, but shooting in China presented some new ones. But they were just incredibly helpful over there. There’s clearly a language barrier that you have to get over. But we really managed to open doors that hadn’t been open before. Literally. We actually opened the doors in the Forbidden City that had not been open since the last Emperor died.
© 2010 CTMG, Inc.  All Rights Reserved.<br />

PK-01_DF-33546.JPG<br />
Jaden Smith as “Dre Parker” in Columbia Pictures’ THE KARATE KID.<br />

© 2010 CTMG, Inc.  All Rights Reserved.

© 2010 CTMG, Inc. All Rights Reserved.
Jaden Smith as “Dre Parker” in Columbia Pictures’ THE KARATE KID.
© 2010 CTMG, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Q: How did you get involved in making the film?
A: I was presented the project through my agents and having worked with Sony it was kind of a natural thing to get in the making (of the film). And then I just presented my vision. I ended up building a scale model of Jackie Chan’s house. My wife and I were sitting up three nights in a row right before I was going to meet (Sony Pictures Entertainment co-chairman) Amy Pascal and we built this scale model of Jackie’s house. I hadn’t been to China so I wanted to experiment with what I could do inside this courtyard where they’re doing all their training.

I brought that thing into the meeting and I had lights on it and I could show all the stuff that we were going to do. That seemed to do the trick. That’s when I won the race. It connected to a really emotional scene where the visuals support the emotional theme. I think that’s what they saw in my presentation. It’s become a really emotional strong epic movie.
Q: When was that?
A: Around Christmas last year.
Q: Was there a finished screenplay at that point?
A: Yes. There was a screenplay. Jackie was attached. Jaden was attached. And those elements obviously made this project very, very interesting. Jaden’s an incredibly charismatic young actor and he’s proven himself to be even more than that in this movie. It was really something everybody wanted to show of Jackie Chan that nobody’s seen before.
Q: How did Jackie feel about doing something so different?
A: He seemed really ready for it. I spent a lot of time with Jackie and I saw that in addition to being just a great spirit and loving his life and his work he has a deep soul. I could see how his engagement with the earthquake (of 7.1 magnitude that devastated western China last April, killing over 600 people and injuring thousands more) had sparked something in him. He was one of the first people to donate money to help the victims of the earthquake.
Q: Had you met Jackie before you flew to Beijing to make the movie?
A: No. I met him the first time at a dinner (in China). We had to fly down to a town where he was working and we had a late dinner. We were talking about the whole movie. I had been walking around in Beijing for a week trying to find a role model for his character and I saw this older man on a bicycle in the old neighborhoods in China and I took a series of pictures of him. I showed those pictures to Jackie and I said, “This is your character.” He loved it. He had never cut his hair for any other movie before and he said, “For this movie I’ll cut my hair.”
Q: Looking back at production, what were some of the big challenges?
A: We had a 560 man crew. It was the biggest crew I’ve ever had. I had 90 drivers. One of the things I did between takes is that I try to run a green set so I learned how to say “Turn off your engines and save the planet” in Chinese. I walked around to all the drivers because, you know, it’s so hot that a lot of people were just sitting and cooling off in their cars. So I tried to prevent cars from idling on the set and tried to be more conscious of plastic waste and all that stuff. There were 90 drivers so there were a lot of people to talk to.

We all wanted to have a movie that had the spirit of “Slumdog Millionaire,” almost an independent flavor to it. I wanted to shoot in the street in Beijing in the tight little neighborhoods there. So I said to everyone, “We can’t have 560 crew and 90 drivers. We have to be able to jump in and out of a van with a handheld camera. Jackie and Will (Smith) have to be half-disguised because people recognize them.” And they were all up for that. It was really as if we were doing a much smaller movie.

We backed up into the neighborhoods and they all jumped out of a van. We had this one hand-held monitor and we shot on the streets with realistic surroundings. And it was the same thing when we went to those temples where we had to go up with a gondola that holds two people at a time. It would have taken a day to transport the whole crew up there so we just went, “Let’s go handheld.” And then Jackie and Will were both carrying lens cases. It was almost like doing a student movie — just with these huge movie stars. And that was just amazing to me — how flexible we were and how supportive they were, the producers and the actors, of the whole filmmaking process. I think the movie has that authentic flavor. It doesn’t feel arranged. It feels like we went straight there and staged a realistic story.
Q: How was it working with Will Smith as a producer. How involved was he?
A: Will and Overbrook are, I think, the most inspirational people I’ve worked with. They are very, very respectful of the filmmaker. They are very supportive of the filmmaker’s vision. Having Will there just made the approval process so much quicker. Any new ideas, anything we were insecure about, we just fixed it right then and there. He’s an incredibly inspiring creative force. I’ve never felt better as a filmmaker. Will was also there as a dad to Jaden, obviously, so that was really helpful. It was great for Jaden to have his parents around.
Q: When you film in the U.S. with children, of course, it’s a shorter working day and there are a lot of restrictions on what they can do. Is it similar in China?
A: The same thing. We had the same short amount of hours with all the kids. There were the same limitations over there.
Q: Was it difficult communicating with your crew? Was it mostly a Chinese crew?
A: Yes, it was a complete Chinese crew. I just had key people like the production designer and DP and editor — those were non-Chinese people. But the whole crew was Chinese or Hong Kong Chinese.
Q: How did you communicate with them? I’m assuming that you don’t speak Chinese.
A: No and I don’t speak Chinese now either. I was hoping to pick up more Chinese, but that’s just too hard. It was through interpreters. It’s funny how the language of film (is the same). Once they get the style of the film, the very hand-held almost documentary feeling that it has, they get it. It was very easy for me to adjust and correct. Culturally, we’re much close than we think.
© 2010 CTMG, Inc.  All Rights Reserved.<br />

PK-05_DF-17011.JPG<br />
Jackie Chan as “Mr. Han” in Columbia Pictures’ THE KARATE KID.<br />

© 2010 CTMG, Inc.  All Rights Reserved.

© 2010 CTMG, Inc. All Rights Reserved.
Jackie Chan as “Mr. Han” in Columbia Pictures’ THE KARATE KID.
© 2010 CTMG, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Q: How has the story changed since the original “Karate Kid?” (The 1984 hit was directed by John G. Avildsen and starred Ralph Macchio and Pat Morita.)
A: Well, funnily enough, the story hasn’t changed that much. The epic story is still the same. It’s about a boy who has to stand up for himself. The life lessons, the emotional impact — that’s still the same. We’ve done it our way. The thing we were wanting to really not fall into the trap of is that we don’t think there is a way to top "wax on…wax off." Wax on…wax off is really just one of those iconic moments that are just brilliant in the original movie.

But the idea of a kid thinking he’s learning something whereas all along he’s been learning martial arts, that idea is the same although we’ve changed it from "wax on…wax off." If you look really carefully you can see that every single one of those iconic moments are somehow spread out through the movie. There is a scene where Jackie casually waxes his car and he waxes on and he waxes off and we make no comment about it. He’s just waxing his car in the scene.
Q: But it’s there for people who know the original.
A: Exactly. And then we feel really good about the replacement ideas. The core idea is the same, but the execution of it is completely different. We’ve tested the movie and it tests incredibly well. Sony ran a test screening and we scored 97%, which was one of the highest they’ve done. What everybody tells me is that after like 10 minutes they forget that they’re watching a remake. And that was really good to hear.
Q: What was it that made you want to direct the picture?
A: I had three really independent wishes. You know, I shoot commercials all over the world and I’d never shot in China. So I wanted to shoot in China. And I always wanted to work with Jackie Chan. I wanted to show that he has a different side to him. And then I always wanted to work with Will Smith. So this project came with all three of those ingredients. But I think the most important thing was I really wanted to tell the story of a young boy coming from somewhere.

You know, I’m from a small town in Norway. The likelihood of me ending up in Hollywood is very small. And the idea is that if you really work hard at your dream you can achieve it. I have a seven year old son and a four year old daughter. I want to share with my children the experience that the original movie gave me. That’s where I came to the movie emotionally.
Q: Can you share any good stories with us from production?
A: We had a scene that’s not in the movie where we had Jackie hanging on a wire and a brick fell off of one of our sets. We were starting to pull out ladders and Jackie said, “No, just pull me up.” We pulled him up on his wire onto the roof and he glued all of that stuff back on himself. That just shows he’s a complete filmmaker at heart who loves the filmmaking process. He never walked back to his trailer (after finishing his scenes). He was always on set. That’s something people don’t know about him — how much he’s giving to the process.
Q: He’s directed, himself, hasn’t he?
A: Yes. He directed when he was barely 20 years old and it was a huge hit in China. He seems to know every single process in filmmaking.
Q: How was it for Jaden working with him?
A: Those two had a really good tone between them. They were like a good movie couple. When they were hanging out on the set they were throwing stones along the water or they were training between themselves. It’s hard not to become really good friends with either of them. But they just had a really good tone with each other.
Q: Had Jaden had any experience in karate or kung fu or anything like that?
A: He’s been doing martial arts for a while, but he went into an incredibly intense training period when we started working on the movie. I went to his house and watched him train every day and the training he went through in real life is what we modeled into the movie — stretching for weeks, doing repeated motions, all that hardcore stuff. Sometimes he was stretched so hard you could see a tear coming down his cheek. We decided that’s real life. Let’s put that in the movie.
©2010 CTMG, Inc.  All Rights Reserved.<br />

PK-34_DF-26990.JPG<br />
Jackie Chan as “Mr. Han” and Jaden Smith as “Dre Parker” in Columbia Pictures’ THE KARATE KID.<br />

© 2010 CTMG, Inc.  All Rights Reserved.

©2010 CTMG, Inc. All Rights Reserved.
Jackie Chan as “Mr. Han” and Jaden Smith as “Dre Parker” in Columbia Pictures’ THE KARATE KID.
© 2010 CTMG, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Q: What sort of budget did you have?
A: It was under $60 million.
Q: What are you working on next?
A: Right now I haven’t got my head above water to start reading scripts, but I can feel the industry buzzing about my movie because I’m now getting served more (projects to consider) than I used to get before. I’m getting presented with projects that are still comedic and big action pieces with a heart to them. I really love the idea that I’ve been able to prove that I can do that.
Q: What would the ideal next project for you be?
A: “Men in Black III,” but my friend Barry’s (director Barry Sonnenfeld) already doing that one. I would like to be doing that. (The new “Men in Black” sequel reteams Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones and is on track for an August production start.)
Q: You’d like to do a big comic book driven kind of superhero project?
A: Yeah, but with a soul and a good touch of humor.