Despite big crew, 'Kid' was like shooting student movie


Making big studio movies takes enormous manpower, but working with so many people can pose challenges for directors.

Case in point: The re-imagining of the 1984 action comedy "The Karate Kid," opening Friday via Columbia Pictures. Shooting in China, director Harald Zwart ("Pink Panther 2") had a crew of 560 people, almost none of whom spoke English, but managed to shoot as if he were making a small film.

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.

 Zwart's support team included producers Jerry Weintraub, who produced the original; Jaden's parents Will Smith and Jada Pinkett Smith; and James Lassiter and Ken Stovitz, Will's partners in Overbook Entertainment, which made the movie with Weintraub and China Film Group.

"It was the biggest crew I've ever had," Zwart told me. "I had 90 drivers. I try to run a green set so I learned how to say 'Turn off your engines and save the planet' in Chinese."

That meant walking around between takes to tell everyone cooling off in their cars from the torrid Chinese weather that they had to stop idling their engines on the set.

"We wanted to have a movie that had the spirit of 'Slumdog Millionaire' with almost an independent flavor to it," he explained.

That doesn't happen with 560 people on the set. In order to shoot in Beijing's tight neighborhood streets Zwart jumped in and out of a van with a handheld camera. Meanwhile, Jackie and Will wore disguises to avoid being mobbed by onlookers.

"When we went to those temples where we had to go up with a gondola that holds two people at a time, it would have taken a day to transport the whole crew up there. So we just went, 'Let's go handheld.' "

Jackie and Will pitched in carrying equipment, Zwart said, and "it was almost like doing a student movie -- just with these huge movie stars. And that was just amazing to me."

Zwart puts "Kid's" budget at "under $60 million" and while that's a lot more than a small movie would be able to spend, it's still way less than big studio pictures cost these days.

For martial arts veteran Chan, "Kid" was a very different kind of project and he welcomed the change.

"He seemed really ready for it. I spent a lot of time with Jackie and I saw that, in addition to being just a great spirit and loving his life and his work, he has a deep soul."

Zwart points to Chan being one of the first people to donate money to help victims of the earthquake that devastated western China last April, killing 600 people and injuring thousands more.

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 prowling 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.
Chan pitched in during production to help however he could.

"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. 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."

Asked how the new film's story differs from John Avildsen's 1984 original, Zwart replied, "It hasn't changed that much. The epic story is still the same. It's about a boy who has to stand up for himself. The life lessons, the emotional impact -- that's still the same. We've done it our way."

What he didn't try to do was 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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