Exclusive Interview: John G. Avildsen on Rocky and The Karate Kid

The Karate Kid

CraveOnline: You did the first three Karate Kid movies. Did you have an option to do the fourth one?

John G. Avildsen: Nope. I thought that Ralph [Macchio]’s character should die at the end of the third one. He gets in a fight defending Mr. Miyagi’s honor and he dies in the fight. Miyagi feels so devastated that he says, “I taught him too well.” Then in the fourth one he meets the girl, but that didn’t happen so I didn’t pursue it.

Wow, Robert Mark Kamen told me that he wanted the third Karate Kid to be a Crouching Tiger style martial arts period piece. You wanted it to be a tragedy. Were you aware of Kamen’s first idea?

Actually, what I wanted the third one to be, if you remember in the second one, Mr. Miyagi tells Daniel the story of how Miyagi family karate came to be, that the ancestor of Miyagi was a fisherman. He was out fishing, had too much sake and fell asleep and woke up off the coast of China and came back ten years later with a Chinese wife and a secret to Miyagi family karate. So I thought the third one, Ralph and Pat would time travel back to ancient China and Pat would play the Miyagi character as the ancestor and we would see how that all began.

The Chinese government was all enthusiastic about it and Columbia at the time was owned by Coca-Cola. It was going to be a great opportunity for them to do business in China. There was going to be nothing political about it, but the producers didn’t want to spend the money to go to China so we just did the first one over again. The third one wasn’t very good I’m afraid.

That’s the first I’m hearing there was an idea for a tragic ending. I could believe it for Rocky, but a character as young as The Karate Kid, it would be very bold if you had done that.

Yeah, well, that’s what people are paying their money for. They want an experience. They want to be moved. They don’t want to see the same old thing again.

Was the first Karate Kid conceived as a Rocky story?

No, no. When I heard about it I said they’re going to call it The Ka-Rocky Kid but I hit it off with Robert Kamen and had a great time making it. I had a terrific casting director, Caro Jones, and Pat was the first person she brought in to audition for Mr. Miyagi. He came in, had a video camera setup and he just knocked it out of the park. I went and told the producer, Jerry Weintraub, I said, “This guy is it. You don’t have to look anymore.” He said, “Who?” I said, “Pat Morita.” He said, “Pat Morita? Give me a break. He’s a comedian. We need a real actor for this guy.” So I blew a couple weeks looking at other actors and finally convinced Jerry to give the guy a proper screen test. When he saw it, he realized what I was talking about.

By the time you did 8 Seconds did you see any Rocky parallels in a bull riding story?

No, but I realized that that kind of stuff would be made, that allusion.

You finally got a tragic ending though.

Right, of course that was a true story too.

When you first heard the Bill Conti music for Rocky, did you have a feeling that it would stand the test of time?

The Bill Conti music was a huge factor in the Rocky movies. I had met Bill some years before and wanted him to do the music for W.W. and the Dixie Dancekings but the people at the studio had never heard of him and they said, “No, no, we need a proper composer.” So when Rocky came along, it was a very low budget and nobody seemed to care who was going to do the music. So the music budget was $25,000. That included the composer’s fee, it included a payment of all of the musicians if there were any, it covered the cost of the studio rental and the tape and copying of the sheet music and the works. 25 grand. So we had one three-hour session with about a 32-piece orchestra. When the producers walked into the recording studio, saw all these guys, they looked at Bill and said, “How in the world are you going to make any money if you blow it all on this?”

But fortunately he did and when I was preparing, which I had never done a fight picture, and I didn’t know anything about boxing and had never seen a boxing match. When I looked at a lot of boxing movies in preparation and the boxing looked really phony. I said, “If we’re going to do this, we’ve got to make this boxing look real, and I think the only way we’re going to do that is we rehearse a lot. So let’s have two weeks of rehearsal before we start to shoot to get the boxing down.” So they agreed and the first time Carl and Sylvester get in the ring, they start bouncing around saying, “I’ll do this, I’ll do that.” I said, “Wait a second, fellas. We’re going to be here all year. Sylvester, why don’t you go home and write this out. Left, right, he gets knocked down, this guy gets up. Whatever, write it out and then we’ll learn that like a ballet.” Sylvester liked that idea, came back the next day with 32 pages of lefts and rights and that’s what we learned, and that’s why it looks so good.

I think it’s not just the “Gonna Fly Now” theme, it’s the fight music, the music with Adrian…

Oh, absolutely. He could have played the whole thing on the piano. He’s a great piano player but while the rehearsal of the fight was going on, I shot it with my little 8mm camera and I would project it on my 8mm projector, slow it down and play Beethoven behind it for Bill Conti. I said, “See. See this music, this beautiful classical music?” It was the 6th Symphony. I said, “That’s the kind of sound I want behind it because it’s going to move it up. It’s going to bring it to another level.” Bill, having been a director at Juilliard, loved classical music and he said, “Okay, that’s what we’ll do.”

When we were recording that “Gonna Fly Now,” which was going to be the training montage, it wasn’t a song originally. I heard it and I said, “Bill, you gotta put some words to that thing. That thing sounds like a song.” So there were a few people in the studio and they got together and they sang it. That’s where the song came from.

With the more modern music, the hip-hop, interesting for you to explore in Rocky V or was that more something the studio wanted?

I don’t know. I think that was more something the studio wanted. I don’t recall actually.

Watching them all back to back, I noticed some small differences. In the street fight flashbacks in Rocky V, is the shot of him falling in the fight with Clubber Lang, is that a new shot, different from the one in Rocky III?

Gee, you’ve got me, Fred. I don’t recall.

That’s what you get for watching them all back to back.

Right, right. [Laughs] 

Fred Topel is a staff writer at CraveOnline and the man behind Best Episode Ever and The Shelf Space Awards. Follow him on Twitter at @FredTopel.