“Find Your Own Balanced Philosophy” Josh Heald, Jon Hurwitz & Hayden Schlossberg on ‘Cobra Kai’
“We never stopped talking about The Karate Kid since it first came out,” said Josh Heald. “The three of us are from New Jersey. Jon Hurwitz and Hayden Schlossberg met each other in high school. I met both of them in college. We’ve known each other for 25 years. We bonded over that movie, as well as other movies from the 80s that defined our youth and our taste… and we just celebrated it.”
Clearly, the trio behind the new series Cobra Kai aren’t the only ones celebrating The Karate Kid franchise. The original trilogy came out in the 80s, followed by a Next Karate Kid which featured Hilary Swank, and yet another reboot that showcased Jackie Chan and Jaden Smith.
The Netflix series, however, takes a different spin. In Cobra Kai, Ralph Macchio’s Daniel LaRusso faces off once more with William Zabka’s Johnny Lawrence, but this time, audiences are invited to root for the so-called bad guy.
Joining the Cobra Kai
“We thought somebody might buy into the Cobra Kai, because it was the type of karate that had a little flash to it,” added Heald. The trio wanted to celebrate the balance of badassness and ridiculousness that came from the Cobra Kai mentality. “We thought it would be amazing to continue that story in a way that came in through the eyes of the Johnny character.”
Specifically, in the new installment, Johnny is a bit of a has-been, still remicicinsing over what could have been (was Daniel-san’s crane kick illegal?), while Daniel owns a car dealership in Reseda and uses his fame to help push new rides.
“There’s the theory that Daniel was the bully,” joked Heald, “But well before that, we were talking about Johnny being an unfortunately maligned character. He’s treated as a bully when he was under the tutelage of a bigger bully.” The bigger bully, of course, was John Kreese, played by Martin Kove.
Coincidentally, Zabka viewed the character in the same way. He was a misguided kid who simply had a bad teacher. To play the bad guy, he needed this lost innocence to inhabit the character.
A Deeper Story to Tell
“We looked at that moment as, what if that was the beginning of a natural downward spiral?” said Heald, referring to the aftermath of the kick to the face in the mid-80s match. Not only had Daniel defeated Johnny, but he also took his reputation, and his girl. (Not cool).
“[Johnny] didn’t even peak at the end of high school. He peaked before the end. So you actually start to experience this disappointment before it’s over. Meanwhile, Daniel was in this upward trajectory. It felt like Mr. Miyagi (Pat Morita) made everything better, but Miyagi’s not around anymore, so will the cracks in the surface start to show?”
Describing Daniel as a “rudderless LaRusso,” the writers knew there was more to this story as well. Essentially, without a mentor, Daniel was left to make his own decisions. “Over the years, this was fan fiction between the three of us, as we were writing our own movies, but with streaming television, we felt this was a story that would be perfect for this.”
With a streaming series, Heald, Schlossberg, and Hurwitz knew they could take a deep dive into multiple points-of-view, unwrap layers from every character, and tell more about the world, rather than just a bullied kid overcoming adversity. “It felt like this story was timeless, and it was time for it to continue being told.”
Like any adaptation, once the story was mostly broken, the writers had to think about how they could honor the original story while still provide a new twist in the series. This meant paying homage to The Karate Kid, but also giving Cobrai Kai its own footing.
Breathing New Life Into a Classic
For the Cobra Kai series, Josh Heald, Jon Hurwitz, and Hayden Schlossberg had two distinct audiences in mind. The first was the hard core fans who would inevitably grill the TV writers for any mistakes. The second was the new audience who perhaps have never even heard of The Karate Kid.
“If this story can work on both audiences, that’s what we’re trying to achieve. The reason why we care about both audiences is that we’re part of the first audience. We are hard core fans who would be upset if something was trying to be The Karate Kid.”
This meant creating a specific effort to live off the previous dynasty (including the Hilary Swank movie), but also a fresh look. “As storytellers, we know that if you rely too much on these callbacks, it’s going to just be nostalgia for nostalgia’s sake. What fans of the original movies want isn’t just to be reminded of things—they want that feeling again.”
“The feeling of watching The Karate Kid is seeing a kid that’s getting bullied and dealing with these issues. He finds somebody from another culture, and while it may not seem like an important relationship, it becomes the most important relationship in the Daniel’s life.”
This unlikely hero is what made the movie so interesting in the first place. Not only was Mr. Miyagi a surprise hero, but his lessons were also hidden in plain sight. In Cobra Kai, this is presented in the form of Miguel Diaz, played by Xolo Maridueña.
Fans of the original trilogy will see parallels in this new relationship, but it also has its own spin for new audiences. “We want [the new] audience to have the same feeling of wish fulfillment that we had, so once you work on both of those levels, you have something a generation can watch with their children.”
Three Dojo Philosophies
Jon Hurwitz said each of the main characters (Daniel, Johnny, and John) had their own philosophy to running a dojo. “Johnny’s approach was a guy floating around in life who needed a purpose and saw this opportunity, so he was training the kids as much for himself as he was for the kids.”
Johnny Lawrence agrees with the aggressive nature, but also sees the flaws within the method. “He’s teaching from a place of what he knew, but through his teaching, he’s finding himself and his own philosophies. He’s trying to find his own way by modifying the toxic elements.”
“For Daniel, it goes back to Mr. Miyagi’s teachings that karate is for self-defense only.” Daniel sees the Cobra Kai opening back up and sees it as a threat that he once experienced as a kid. Rather than have this philosophy spread once more, he needed to create a free, alternative option, because he felt a duty to do so.
“Sensai Kreese, who you see in Season 3, we see where his karate style came from. This is a man who had a very tragic beginning. He learned certain things the hard way. He saw the life and death implications of being wishy-washy, which led to the strike first, strike hard, no mercy philosophy. If you show mercy, you open yourself up to weakness.”
“Daniel and Kreese are approaching their students with a very firm belief system, whereas Johnny is someone who has a belief system and is sort of finding his way.”
Rivalry, Balance, & Perspective
Ironically, despite their different approaches, all three characters believe their method is best because they’re all arming the youth of the Valley with the tools they need to survive. Within this mental frame, no character is meant to be a pure villain, but at the same time, they are all far from being any kind of hero, especially Kreese.
“We do a dive into Kreese’s backstory in Season 3, so we’re able to get to his core and relate to him, and experience who he was as a young man, guided by a war with a soldier who had a black-and-white view of life,” said Heald, Hurwitz, and Schlossberg, “He saw the negatives of inaction.”
Without giving too much away from the plot, the story of Kreese has a backstory that makes sense for his binary mentality. “That being said, you hope even that character is capable of some evolution. It remains to be scene as to whether there is some sunshine that can bleed into that credo.”
As for Johnny and Daniel, both men believe — and perhaps rightfully so — that they are the heroes of their own journeys. “We all think we’re the heroes of our own story being written. No one things they’re a cog in the machine, here to tell someone else’s story.”
“I think they both enter the world each day with a confidence in their outlook and ideals, and what they determine to be respect, or the right way of moving forward.”
The creative team is conscious that neither dojo looks like a “villain’s lair,” but rather, a different perspective of the same philosophy. “They naturally butt heads and have difficulty with the existence of the other, but it’s up for the audience to decide for themselves.”
In the end, the audience may also change their opinions of the characters throughout the show. “It changes, moment to moment, or episode to episode, whose side we’re on at a given time.”
The Miyagi Paradox Of Aggression
Despite the characters’ opposing viewpoints, all have been influenced by Mr. Miyagi, even if the influence was interpreted in a different way. “The core of the Miyagi karate is self-defense, but beyond that, we view it as passivity compared to aggression.”
This holistic Zen approach applies to more than just fighting. “Miyagi was a very non-confrontational person. Those lessons apply to all aspects of life. From the Cobra Kai perspective, you’re about to look at [Miyagi’s lessons of restraint] with a sense of criticism, where in the original Karate Kid movie, you’re looking at aggression in a critical way.”
With this in mind, the writing team began to think about how aggression can be important in life, even if it should not be used for every occasion. “We saw the shift of perspective to see Cobrai Kai as an opportunity to explore all perspectives of these teachings. It’s not just different sides of a character, but different sides of a philosophy.”
The multiple look at these perspectives helps the audience see a balance between the passive and aggressive reactions. Schlossberg said, “Our perspective that you get on the show, is that there is a value to both, depending on the situation that you’re in. Going too far in one direction maybe costs you in some sort of way. We play with that on the show.”
Winning All Elements of Life
“We love seeing Cobra Kai as a positive influence on kids who need to come out of their shell.” This is also a different perspective from the original Cobra Kai, who appeared to simply be bullies, like “an evil army.”
“Some teenagers could use a little bit of aggression, but we don’t want to go too far down that line where we dismiss Miyagi’s intentions, because if you stay in Cobra Kai too long, it could lead you down a bad path.”
The show also focuses on the largest problems with the all-or-nothing mindset, as not everything is so clear as winning and losing. “Sometimes you can win, but also lose, or something you can lose, but also win. These characters are navigating the path to hopefully win in all elements of life.”
“We try to write it with a lot of shades of grey. There are a lot of TV shows that show you the good guy and the bad guy, and traditionally that’s more dramatic. But if you believe in this karate rivalry as the ultimate stakes in this small universe, you can find pieces of everything in it, depending on which character is going through an evolution.”
The writing trio is hesitant to call Cobra Kai a revenge story, or even a redemption story, or anything that’s one side of the other. It’s simply a journey story, with multiple points of view, and the hope for balance. During some of their early meetings, they actually discussed a potential ending for the series. “There is an end. We think about our characters, where we want to leave them, and how our audience might be satisfied.” So far, they’re still moving towards this original ending idea.
“At the end of the day, we think, what is true to the world, what would an audience life, what would we like? We feel a responsibility to leave this franchise and the characters in a good place. Obviously, we set things up so fans want Johnny and Daniel to work out their differences, but that was never the end of the line for us.”
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