For your reading pleasure, please enjoy this excerpt from Backstory’s interview with Cobra Kai showrunners Jon Hurwitz, Hayden Schlossberg and Josh Heald from Backstory Issue 33.
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When they met as teenagers back in the 1990s, Jon Hurwitz, Hayden Schlossberg and Josh Heald formed a bond over their love of movies—and one film in particular: The Karate Kid. All three ended up forging successful filmmaking careers—Hurwitz and Schlossberg wrote all three films in the Harold & Kumar franchise and wrote and helmed 2012’s American Reunion, while Heald penned both Hot Tub Time Machine releases—but they would often mull a collective dream project: a proper follow-up to their favorite movie. A few years ago, that dream started to become a reality when the trio decided that if they ever were able to continue the Karate Kid storyline, they would do so not through the eyes of Ralph Macchio’s Daniel LaRusso, the titular hero of the franchise, and instead through those of the original film’s villain, Johnny Lawrence, portrayed by William Zabka.
Over the years, the writers thought Johnny’s story could ultimately end up being more compelling that Daniel’s. “We saw a lot of value in him being the guy who got kicked in the head and essentially lost the big game,” Heald says, referring to the conclusion of the first film. “Right after that, he lost his father figure, he lost his girlfriend. What’s the believable downward spiral that would make him stall out there? We started thinking of Johnny, who hit his apex in high school and has been wishing for another shot at that.” Of course, Hurwitz, Schlossberg and Heald knew better than anyone that if anyone was going to do a continuation of the big-screen series, you’d need the two stars, and they had no intention of making their project without Macchio and Zabka. So they plotted out the majority of their story before even attempting to meet with either actor. “We didn’t want to walk into a room with Billy and Ralph and underwhelm them,” Hurwitz says. “We didn’t want there to be any possibility they would say no. We wanted them to feel like, These guys have put in the appropriate thought and cherish this franchise in a way that they would take care of us. We wanted them to feel like they were in good hands.”
What they came up with was not a film after all but a 10-episode streaming series titled Cobra Kai, named after the dojo that trained Johnny in the first film. Down on his luck, Johnny reopens the dojo to school a new generation. He also reconnects with Daniel, who is now a suburbanite who owns a chain of car dealerships. And true to form, the two clash, bond and then clash again throughout the series. Zabka was the easier actor to sell since he and Heald had known each other from when the actor appeared in the first Hot Tub Time Machine. Macchio turned down most Karate Kid opportunities that had come his way over the ensuing 30 years, yet the writers felt they had a unique enough take on the material to get his attention. “We knew we were giving him the opportunity to do a wide array of things different than what he’s done,” Hurwitz says. “In our experience with actors, they don’t enjoy rehashing what they’ve done in the past. They’re looking for something that is challenging. We hoped he would understand that by putting Johnny front and center, it gives Ralph’s character a chance to go through a different growth.”
To call Cobra Kai Johnny’s story is far too limiting. Though he appears to be doing well on the surface, Daniel is going through some self-fulfillment issues. There are younger characters that make up the heart of the 10 episodes: Daniel’s daughter, Samantha (Mary Mouser); Johnny’s estranged son, Robby (Tanner Buchanan), who works for Daniel; and Miguel (Xolo Maridueña), a shy geek Johnny takes under his wing who becomes the first student at the new Cobra Kai dojo. The two bond at the end of the series’ first episode when Johnny intervenes as a group of high school classmates from beating up Miguel outside a liquor store where Johnny is buying a case of beer. It’s a testament to the previous 20 minutes that the audience gains sympathy for Johnny so quickly that during the fight, it may take a moment to realize we are cheering for a grown man to beat the hell out of teenage boys. “It’s something we put a lot of thought into,” Hurwitz says. “Every single choice you make in writing has an impact. We want to make sure the audience is picking up what you’re throwing down in a real way. We made sure they understood why he is the way he is and where he’s coming from. We wanted to turn him into an underdog. We needed to take this character you’ve hated all these years and make you root for him and understand he didn’t have that charmed life way back then. His life is in the toilet, and he has his own challenges in life and his own frustrations and his own humiliations. We see that softer side of him.” Schlossberg believes their portrayal of Johnny stems from a natural curiosity people tend to have when wondering what happened to their old high school bullies once they have to grow up. “You always want to know what happened to that jerk,” he says. “That doesn’t apply to just the character. You wonder what happened to your first girlfriend, to that friend in elementary school you lost touch with. It came out of that. I think as we got older we looked at and related to that character in a different way.”
Before convening a writers’ room—a first for all of them—they laid down the entire 10-episode season. “Between the three of us, we have this dialogue going on before you even open the writers’ room,” Schlossberg says. “The room adds to that conversation. Before we start, we have the full five-hour movie for the entire season, and we break it into two halves. You want to feel like you’ve been through two and a half hours of a journey to get to this midpoint, and that now sets up the last two and a half hours. The three of us figure out that story, and then we as a group of nine writers in the room figure out what the individual episodes are that ultimately tell that bigger story.” Heald notes the early days of the room amounted to the three showrunners trying to impress upon their new hires the specific tone they wanted for the series: “We wanted them to think of it more as a drama. It’s not going to be a traditional comedy writers’ room where you’re pitching jokes and bits. It’s how can we write for these characters and come upon funny moments with them more naturally.”
One of the major challenges the scribes faced was not in regard to Daniel or Johnny but rather Miguel, who reels in audience sympathy in the early episodes before taking a darker turn in the final two and becoming a character akin to Johnny’s in the original film: a bully. Miguel’s journey in season one is a masterclass in writing the evolution of a character. “We wanted to show how different teaching methods can frame an impressionable young person,” Hurwitz says. “Back in Karate Kid, Daniel was a bit of a hothead and if he had walked into Cobra Kai, he would have turned out different than he did with Mr. Miyagi [belovedly played by the deceased Pat Morita] taking him under his wing. We liked the idea of exploring a guy who’s a good kid and could use some guidance in his life and see what comes out on the other side of the Cobra Kai ringer.” It’s a quick process to get Miguel from where he is in episode seven as he goes on a charming date with Sam and the two begin dating to where he is in episode nine, drunk at a beach party and angered that Sam showed up with Robby even though the two are just friends. Miguel tries to start a fight with Robby and ends up knocking Sam down. It’s a twist for what to that point had been the fan-favorite character, and the writers admit that getting it exactly right was tough. “Teenagers are insecure and can be influenced by a story from their father figure,” Hurwitz adds, referring to Miguel and Johnny, who stoked Miguel’s flames by warning him how distrustful the LaRusso clan can be. “To us, we always tried to make him remain human and show the heart was still in there. But people who are good people make mistakes in life.” Schlossberg says he wishes they had one extra episode to further explore Miguel’s downward spiral, but together they decided otherwise. “It would have been nice, but we thought we hit all the beats,” he says. “We had to make sure [Miguel has] heard Johnny’s story so he’s already thinking there’s something wrong here and he’s already on the defensive when she shows up. That lays the seeds of insecurity. We decided it was enough time for it to all work.”
The proof that it works can be felt in the final episode, which takes place at the All-Valley Karate Tournament, the same one as at the end of the original film. Miguel and the rest of Cobra Kai enter, with Johnny as their coach. Robby, who spent the previous few episodes training with Daniel, also enters. Of course, Miguel and Robby end up meeting in the final match, with Johnny and Daniel in their respective corners. If you have gone on this 10-episode journey, the final confrontation represents a major conundrum. You’re invested in all four principal players, you want them all to do well, and you can construct arguments for why either Miguel or Robby deserves to win. It’s a complete triumph of the writing that we genuinely don’t know what outcome we want. “That was by design,” Heald says. “We worked very carefully to construct everybody’s arc so that when you meet a character, you might not be on board with them immediately but we’ll show you their world. We shift point of view a lot. The first episode you’re with Johnny more. The second episode you’re with Daniel more. Little by little, you’re getting a piece and perspective of everybody’s world. You have these dueling protagonists and the worlds they inhabit. By the time you get to episode 10, yeah, there’s good and bad, but there’s good and bad on both sides. We were hoping we had done this balancing act well enough to not be sure what a happy ending looks like. We’re not looking to villainize every character and weigh the scales in favor of one or the other. Everyone has flaws. Everyone deserves the victory and the loss to a degree. The dream was we could achieve that in the writing.”
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