Born in the Netherlands and raised in Norway, Harald Zwart first came to attention directing several award-winning short films, commercials and music videos (including several for fellow Norwegians, a-ha). He transitioned into features in 1998 with the action film Hamilton (starring Peter Stormare), which he followed with the raunchy 2001 comedy One Night at McCool’s (starring Matt Dillon and Liv Tyler). It was with his next film, however, that Zwart found his niche—action-adventure family comedies–with 2003’s Agent Cody Banks. In 2009, he directed the commercially successful sequel to The Pink Panther, with Steve Martin. Now, Zwart prepares to jumpstart another beloved franchise with his reimagining of the 1980s classic The Karate Kid, about a young boy who learns the art of kung fu from a wise karate master. Stepping into the formidable shoes of Ralph Macchio is Jaden Smith (The Pursuit of Happyness, son of Will and Jada Pinkett) as the eager student, while Jackie Chan appears as his mentor, a role made famous by Pat Morita (who was nominated for an Academy Award for his performance).
Just before the movie’s release on June 11, Zwart spoke with MM about how the new The Karate Kid differs from the original, and how he thinks the movie will fare—opening against tough competition like The A-Team.
Kyle Rupprecht (MM): The original Karate Kid is viewed today as a nostalgic artifact of the 80’s. How did you envision the remake? What did you think was important to keep from the original?
Harald Zwart (HZ): To me, this was never a remake of a film. I saw it as a chance to re-tell a great story. A story that deserves to be told again and again, because the theme is timeless and the moral universal. The lesson applies to us all—girl and boy, young and old. That’s why I also never regarded it as a kid’s movie, but a family movie with kids.
MM: You reportedly modeled the feel of the movie from the fights you were in as a kid. How did those childhood memories come into play when making the movie?
HZ: I never was a fighter. But a few times I just ended up in a fight—like most kids did. And maybe because I never liked to fight, I remember them well. Fights scared me then, and they scare me now. So I wanted to communicate that a fight is just as dangerous and scary to a kid as it is to a grown-up. Therefore, I chose to cover the fight scenes with the same seriousness and sense of reality as in, for instance, The Bourne Supremacy.
MM: For The Karate Kid, you worked with both a relative newcomer (Jaden Smith) and an industry vet (Jackie Chan). What was it like working with two actors at opposite ends of the spectrum?
HZ: I don’t consider Jaden a newcomer; he is an extremely disciplined actor. He works very hard and is so focused. He worked so hard training, getting into character, learning Chinese, in addition to his own lines. He is a dedicated and complete actor whom I admire enormously.
Jackie, as you say, has endless experience. He knows every aspect of moviemaking. But I never sensed any compatibility problems between the two based on different career length. On the contrary; they are both hardworking, open-minded actors, and in my opinion, a perfect match. Jackie, of course, was a great help directing stunts and action scenes. But he also helped carrying boxes, painting and vacuuming carpets and directing extras. A great actor and person that I would love to work with again.
MM:You’re also a chainsaw artist. For those not really familiar with chainsaw art (such as yours truly), could you explain it a bit? How did you get into it?
HZ:This is more of a one-time gig. We had a huge tree on our property in Norway that had to be removed. But I cut it rather high up, allowing me to make a replica of the famous Venus de Milo from the rest, using my chainsaw. I am very happy with the result. She’s still there, standing on her root, slowly rotting away. Unlike movies, chainsaw art does not last forever.
MM: Following Agent Cody Banks and The Pink Panther 2, The Karate Kid is another of your films geared toward families. What’s the secret to making a movie that both kids and adults can enjoy?
HZ: Maybe because I always like to treat kids as seriously as I treat grown-ups. This has always been very important to me. Therefore, I never considered a certain movie to be for kids only, even before I had kids of my own. There will always be some points in a movie that the kids get better, and others only parents get. But on the emotion and excitement level, they all connect.
MM: The Karate Kid hits theaters the same weekend another remake of a 1980s pop culture phenomenon, The A-Team, opens. For those undecided about which to see on opening day, how would you persuade them to see your movie?
HZ: I have not seen The A-Team movie yet, but I believe that The Karate Kid is the movie you want to see with your family. Actually, I was a fan of the “A-Team” TV show back when it aired. But still I would choose to see The Karate Kid, even if I did not have kids of my own.