In May 2014, I began working on an L.A. Weekly article that was to coincide with the 30th anniversary of one of the most beloved films of the 1980s: The Karate Kid. The pitch was simple: Photograph the film’s San Fernando Valley locations and other L.A. area spots utilized in the movie — such as Golf n’ Stuff in Norwalk — and interview the film’s location manager. If I were lucky, maybe I’d even get the film’s Oscar-winning director, John G. Avildsen, to comment. The piece was supposed to be about 1,000 words, so I didn’t want to go overboard.
Not only did I go overboard — I went crazy. After obtaining stellar interviews from Avildsen and location manager Richard Davis Jr., I took it upon myself, haphazardly perhaps, to reach out to the film’s writer, Robert Mark Kamen, legendary producer Jerry Weintraub and all of the main surviving cast members, hoping I would get interviews with just some of them. They all agreed to speak with me. Suddenly I was talking to my childhood hero Ralph Macchio, childhood crush Elisabeth Shue and favorite childhood villains William Zabka and Martin Kove.
Unbeknownst to my editors, the 1,000-word assignment quickly ballooned into a meticulously researched 3,000-word feature about the film’s production.
Shortly after attending a Karate Kid double feature and Q&A at the New Beverly Cinema, which capped off the first film’s 30th birthday, I was already looking ahead two years to the 30th anniversary of the film’s well-regarded sequel.
I recently caught up with Avildsen on the phone, and we talked in-depth about The Karate Kid, Part II, which continues the story of newly crowned karate champ Daniel LaRusso and his venerable Okinawan teacher, Mr. Miyagi, right after the All Valley Under 18 Karate Championship. The film was released on June 20, 1986, and was the fourth highest grossing movie of that year, outperforming the first film’s domestic box office receipts by almost $25 million. The sequel also garnered an Academy Award nomination for Peter Cetera’s unforgettable pop ballad “Glory of Love.”
This time around, Daniel and Miyagi would leave the San Fernando Valley behind and travel to a country where old-world customs rule, the indefensible crane kick is actually defensible and the stakes are much higher than winning points in a tournament.
Jared Cowan: When did you know a sequel to The Karate Kid was going to be made?
John G. Avildsen: Gee, I don’t remember specifically; it was 30 years ago. But it was pretty clear after the reception of the first one. I remember taking my sons Jonathan and Anthony to the opening of the first one at the Ziegfeld Theatre in New York the afternoon it opened, and the kids went wild. The place was packed and it was pretty clear that there was going to be a sequel.
Taking the potential box-office return out of the equation, did the idea of a Karate Kid sequel appeal to you? Did you think there was another Karate Kid story to tell?
Oh, absolutely! Robert Kamen is a terrific writer, and he and I got very close and the whole working experience was great fun. That’s all the incentive you need.
What were your initial thoughts about how to best tell a second story with these characters?
I thought Robert’s idea was excellent: to take Miyagi back to Okinawa and reunite him with his first love. It seemed like a very romantic story. And he had to settle a score with his best friend from his youth. It had a lot of texture, layers; it was very human and it appealed to me.
When we talked two years ago about the first film, you told me that at its heart the movie is really about a boy and his surrogate father. What would you say the second movie is about?
It was about an hour and a half, I think.
That’s really an old joke.
I’ve heard it before, but it’s a good one.
[Laughter] Gee, that’s a good question. I would think that it was really Mr. Miyagi’s story more than it was Daniel’s. The unique thing about it, as far as Daniel is concerned, was the love affair he had with Kumiko (Tamlyn Tomita) because I think [she] was the best girlfriend he ever had.
So that was Robert Kamen’s initial idea? There weren’t any other ideas floated around about continuing the story in Los Angeles?
No. And after Karate 2, I wanted to use a scene from the movie to launch Karate 3. … Miyagi says his ancestor was a fisherman and one day he was out fishing and there was too much sun, too much saké, and he woke up on a beach in China. He came back 10 years later with a Chinese wife and the secret to Miyagi karate. I wanted to time-travel back hundreds of years [in Part III] to see what happened when he got off his boat on the beach in China and have Daniel and Mr. Miyagi peer through the foliage. Pat [Morita] would play the original Mr. Miyagi, and we’d have Kreese (Martin Kove) be a pirate or whatever. And we had the Chinese government’s blessing because there was nothing political about the movie. Coca-Cola owned Columbia Pictures at the time and they were all for it because they could sell a lot of Coke there. No Americans had shot anything in China. China, visually, is unique in the world so I thought it would make for a great sequel, but unfortunately the producer didn’t agree and we did the third one, which is just a bad remake of the first one.
[Laughter] Do you think in a few years people will want to talk about Part III [released in 1989]?
Umm, maybe with disgust.
No, some people liked it and I’m glad they did, but I was very disappointed that we didn’t go to China and keep notching up the story.
The second film opens in the parking lot right after the All Valley Karate Championship ends. That scene was originally written as the end of the first movie. Why did you and Robert Kamen feel it was important to start the sequel there?
Well, first, it was already written. [Laughter]
But after the parking lot scene in Part II the film skips ahead six months to just after Daniel’s senior prom, so why start the movie in the parking lot?
It was to put the kibosh on Kreese. [Miyagi humiliates the militant Cobra Kai sensei after he assaults his own students in the parking lot.]
In true Miyagi style, he honks Kreese’s nose with his fingers instead of seriously hurting or even killing the Cobra Kai sensei. This would foreshadow the climax of Part II. Did Miyagi honk Kreese’s nose at the end of the script for the first film?
You worked with casting director Caro Jones a lot throughout your career. Can you talk about her and why she stood out as a casting director?
She had a great understanding of actors and talent. She brought in Pat Morita — that was her first idea — and Ralph Macchio. She brought in Nobu McCarthy for Yukie in the second one. Besides being a really nice person, she was a great asset.
I imagine Caro also brought in some of the other newcomers in Part II, like Yuji Okumoto and Tamlyn Tomita.
Yes. Tamlyn hadn’t done anything prior. Caro knew Tamlyn from the fact that she had won some kind of talent contest for Asian-Americans or something of that nature. That’s how I came to meet Tamlyn.
Yuji had done a couple of other ’80s films prior, like Real Genius and Better Off Dead. What did you like about him for Chozen, the ferocious opponent whom Daniel would have to fight in Part II?
He was a good actor and had the looks and the physique. He was a natural.
Danny Kamekona is really wonderful as Miyagi’s old best friend turned nemesis, Sato. You really felt like, here’s a guy who could do some damage to Miyagi.
Danny was an old pal of Pat Morita’s. They used to get into [mischief] together and were old friends. Pat brought Danny to my attention. He auditioned great, and he was just the opposite of the character he played.
You’re not telling a story in the San Fernando Valley anymore; you’re in Okinawa. Your cinematographer, James Crabe, was nominated for an American Society of Cinematographers Award for the movie. Did you shoot the sequel with a different visual approach?
No, we just continued to have a good time. We went to Japan to look at locations and then we went to Okinawa. When we were in Japan, that’s where my son Jonathan and Aly Morita [Pat’s daughter] got to be pals, because Pat was over there with his family at the time. Jonathan and I and Bill Cassidy, my production designer, we all went to Okinawa and went to the dojo where Robert Kamen learned a lot of his karate. But Okinawa was really unattractive because they had so many storms there that the only things left standing were cement blockhouses. It wasn’t really visually appealing. Then we had the good fortune to end up in Hawaii, which was not difficult. [Laughter]
You ended up doubling Okinawa on the Hawaiian island of Oahu. Why did you choose Kahalu’u on the windward side of the island to build Miyagi’s home of Tomi Village?
It was a big hunk of land with nothing on it, it was on the water, and it had a lagoon. The location was accessible, just on the other side of the island from Honolulu. It only took about 20 to 30 minutes to get there. It just seemed perfect. Bill Cassidy liked the looks of it, and he was able to build that village. [Today, there is a 7-Eleven on Kamehameha Highway right on the spot where the movie was filmed.]
How long did it take to build that village?
Not very long. It was primarily just the front of a lot of places.
Were the interiors of Miyagi’s home shot on a stage?
No, everything was built there. … I try to avoid stages. The dojo also has that beautiful view of the water.
Hawaii has to be a great place to work. Was it a good experience shooting there?
It was delightful. The weather was great; the people couldn’t have been better. It’s a beautiful place. I had never been there before and I fell in love. It’s great to go to Hawaii with people paying you. [Laughter]
I would imagine it’s safe to say you enjoyed shooting more in Hawaii than in the San Fernando Valley.
The Valley was fine, the first was a lot of fun, but, you know, Hawaii is tough to beat.
At this point Ralph and Pat were huge movie stars. Did you have any issues with onlookers while shooting in Hawaii?
The village was really off the beaten path, so there wasn’t any problem with crowd control because we weren’t shooting in downtown Honolulu or what have you. The public was never really around.
Did you have any wild parties while on the island?
I wish. No, not that I recall. At least, I didn’t. [Laughter] I don’t know about anybody else.
Weather in Hawaii can be iffy. Did you encounter any setbacks due to weather?
No. We were there during the time of year that was not the stormy time. Weather was never a problem. The storm that we had in the movie we had to create … [which] wasn’t a big deal. We just took two nights maybe [to shoot it].
We were fortunate that when we needed bad weather, or at least foreboding weather, we got it. We shot the tea ceremony in Hawaii where the two characters are looking at each other and in the middle is the window and we see the storm clouds. We did the close-ups on the two characters in Northridge. We did that in the parking lot [of the CSUN Matadome] … because it was cheaper than spending the time to do it in Hawaii. … We just put up a wall behind each of them.
No matter how many times I watch the movie, the tea ceremony between Daniel and Kumiko is always mesmerizing. Did you have an adviser who provided insight into that tradition and others, like the floating candle lanterns and the Obon dance?
Yes. Caro found somebody who knew all about the formality and the ritual of the tea ceremony, how you fold a napkin and hold a spoon and all that sort of stuff. That’s how Tamlyn learned to do all that. I knew zip about that stuff when I got involved, but we had people who did, and we paid attention.
Last year I did a piece on the locations from Pee-wee’s Big Adventure, which made heavy use of the Warner Bros. backlot [which was shared by Columbia and Warner Bros. at the time and called the Burbank Studios]. Upon rewatching The Karate Kid, Part II I thought I recognized a storefront in the downtown Naha scene that resembled the fortune-teller’s shop from Pee-wee’s Big Adventure. Did you use the studio backlot in Part II?
Yes. [Hennesy Street] at Warner Bros. has been used for decades. What makes it so popular is that there’s no long vista. You get the sense of converging streets, but there’s not a long view anywhere. It’s very cleverly designed so that it looks like a city street, and the fact that you don’t see down an avenue is not obvious.
I’d like to run through a few of the other locations in the film, like the Okinawa airport.
That was at LAX at a private aviation terminal on the other side of the airport. We stuck in a couple of palm trees; Bill Cassidy did his magic and the place looked great.
Where was Sato’s warehouse?
That was in Hawaii. You see all of those beautiful mountains and so forth behind it. Bill Cassidy painted “Sato” on the side of one of the hangars.
How about Sato’s big house by the water?
That was also in Hawaii. That belonged to some big record producer. I can’t remember whose house it was. It was a friend of Jerry Weintraub’s. Jerry was in the music business.
Was the ’50s sock hop shot on a stage?
That was on a stage and Paul Shaffer from the David Letterman show did that arrangement of “Rock Around the Clock.”
Where was the beach that Daniel and Kumiko spot the ruins of the castle of King Shohashi?
That was in Hawaii. The ruins of the castle were some kind of phony-baloney matte painting. The beach was near a place I think they call the [Halona] Blowhole.
Was the interior of the castle on a stage?
Yes, that was shot on the biggest stage at Warner Bros. because it has a tank you can flood with water.
When we talked about the first movie, you said you were very proud of the shot that brings Daniel, Miyagi and Ali into the tournament and then booms up to reveal the entire gymnasium. Is there any shot in Part II of which you’re particularly proud?
Yes, the sunset shot.
Do you mean the scene at the beach when Daniel comforts Miyagi after his father dies?
Yes. The first day we went there, the sunset was horrible. Fortunately, Jerry let us go back to try it again and we had a nice sunset. It’s a very simple shot. We didn’t light it; we just had a camera on a tripod. It was almost like a second unit–type shot. There are only a few angles so it was a very easy shoot.
Can you talk about your decision to let a majority of the scene play out in a one-take shot focused on Ralph?
Well, when everything’s working, don’t screw it up. Every time there’s a cut it’s an interruption, no matter how subtle. It’s an artificial thing that’s happened when you cut, so if you can avoid the cut, then why not?
One of the iconic scenes in Part II is in the bar when Daniel slices through the slabs of ice with his hand. The audience sees him do it in a master shot. Do you remember what the ice was made out of that made it easy for Ralph to break through all six pieces?
No, but I guess it was ice that was pre-scored.
So it was actually ice?
Well, what else is it going to be?
Oh, I don’t know, I’ve never tried breaking ice with my hand so I don’t know if it’s easy or hard.
[Laughter] Me neither. I would imagine that scoring it would make all the difference.
It’s portrayed in the film as being really difficult.
The magic of the movies. [Laughter]
A memorable prop that many people associate with The Karate Kid, Part II is the Japanese pellet drum — the secret of Miyagi family karate. That drum left a huge impression on me as a kid. To this day, if I ever see one, I always have to pick it up to try it out.
It was a very happy coincidence that [the drum technique] took the place of the crane kick, which was tough to follow.
Especially when the crane kick doesn’t work in Part II.
The first music cue over the Columbia logo uses a very heavy tone that sets up the serious life-or-death situation in which Daniel and Miyagi will find themselves. What were your ideas about how the musical themes of the first film would be used in Part II?
When you have a composer of Bill Conti’s talent, knowledge and expertise, you’re in good hands. We talked about the story, we were on the same page and he brought his genius to bear. I’ve always said without Bill Conti on the soundtrack, these things wouldn’t have worked nearly as well as they did. [Conti, of course, is also well known for writing the score of Avildsen’s Oscar-winning film Rocky.]
A popular song from the 1930s called “Fascination” is heard during the country club scene in the first film and again on the car radio in Part II after Chozen picks up Miyagi and Daniel at the airport in Okinawa. What’s the significance of that song?
The singer who made that song famous [in the 1950s] was Jane Morgan. She was married to Jerry Weintraub. What a coincidence! [Laughter]
During production you met then–Vice President George H.W. Bush and Barbara Bush on the set. How did that happen?
Jane Morgan and Barbara Bush were pals from childhood, and that’s how Jerry met George and they became pals. He invited George to come to Hawaii.
What was it like meeting them?
It couldn’t have been more cordial or friendly, and the Secret Service was very unobtrusive.
Did he get your vote for president after that?
No. [Laughter] He never came close to getting my vote, but he couldn’t have been nicer.
Jerry Weintraub passed away last year. Can you talk about him as a producer? Were you close with him?
Yes. I’ve never been as close to any producer. He just made everything fun. He was always enthusiastic and he was always receptive to suggestions and ideas. Jerry couldn’t have been better.
Did you think Part II would outperform the original film at the box office?
I don’t think in those terms, but Jerry made that prediction.
How do you feel the sequel stacks up to the first movie?
Well, I think the first one is tough to beat. It’s so simple and the surrogate-father theme is really a universal one, whereas whatever the theme is of the second one, it’s not as universal. At least that’s my sense of it.
Do fans ever tell you they think the sequel is better than the first film?
Not specifically, but I’ve read the comments on IMDb and there are a lot of folks who loved it and some liked it more.
I remember the first time we had a sneak preview of Part II in Costa Mesa and a lady came up to me and said how pleased she was that the story was continued with the same quality as the first one, that it didn’t disappoint her, and that made me feel real good.
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Looking back at Part II, is there anything you would have done differently?
The only thing I would have done differently is stayed in Hawaii instead of going back to Burbank. [Laughter]