June 14, 2010 / 12:19 AM / 8 years ago

"Karate Kid" retains indie spirit in China

LOS ANGELES (Hollywood Reporter) - Making big studio movies takes enormous manpower, but working with so many people can pose challenges for directors.

Actor Jaden Smith of 'The Karate Kid' arrives at the 2010 MTV Movie Awards in Los Angeles, June 6, 2010. REUTERS/Danny Moloshok

Case in point: The re-imagining of the 1984 action comedy “The Karate Kid,” which opened at No. 1 at the weekend box office in North America with a surprisingly strong estimated haul of $56 million.

Shooting the $40 million Columbia Pictures project in China, director Harald Zwart (“Pink Panther 2”) had a crew of 560 people, almost none of whom spoke English, but he managed to shoot as if he were making a small film.

“We wanted to have a movie that had the spirit of ‘Slumdog Millionaire’ with almost an independent flavor to it,” he explained.

Since Zwart tries to run a green set, he learned how to say ‘Turn off your engines and save the planet’ to the 90 drivers idling their engines while cooling off in their cars.

The new “Kid” stars Jaden Smith in the role Ralph Macchio originated. Jackie Chan’s in for Pat Morita, and Oscar nominee Taraji P. Henson plays Jaden’s mom. Her career move to China puts Jaden in jeopardy with local bullies until he masters the art of self-defense with help from Chan’s wise old character.

Shortly after “Pink Panther 2” opened last February, Zwart went to China to meet Chan. He had a week to explore Beijing before they got together, and while wandering around he found an inspiration for Chan’s character.

“I saw this older man on a bicycle in the old neighborhoods and I took a series of pictures of him. I showed those pictures to Jackie and I said, ‘This is your character.’ He loved it. He had never cut his hair for any other movie before and he said, ‘For this movie, I’ll cut my hair.

In order to shoot in Beijing’s tight neighborhood streets Zwart jumped in and out of a van with a handheld camera. Meanwhile, Chan and Will Smith — one of the producers — wore disguises to avoid being mobbed by onlookers, and pitched in carrying equipment.

“We had a scene that’s not in the movie where we had Jackie hanging on a wire, and a brick fell off one of our sets,” Zwart said. “We were starting to pull out ladders and Jackie said, ‘No, just pull me up.’ We pulled him up on his wire onto the roof and he glued all of that stuff back on himself.”

The new film’s story does not differ much from that of director John Avildsen’s 1984 original. Nor did Zwart try to top the original’s iconic scenes like “wax on ... wax off” where Morita tells Macchio how to wax a car, but is actually teaching him the essence of martial arts.

“The idea of a kid thinking he’s learning something whereas all along he’s been learning martial arts is the same although we’ve changed it from ‘wax on ... wax off.’ If you look carefully you can see that every single one of those iconic moments is somehow spread out through the movie.”

For instance, Zwart noted, there’s a scene where Chan is casually waxing his car “and he waxes on and he waxes off and we make no comment about it. He’s just waxing his car.” But those who know the original will get the point.

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