Cobra Kai stunt coordinators break down those kick-butt season 3 fights
Cobra Kai's husband and wife stunt coordinators Hiro Koda and Jahnel Curfman give us a blow-by-blow report on the show's SAG Award-nominated season 3 karate battles.
Strike hard, strike first, get nominated! That's how it works for Cobra Kai's husband-and-wife stunt coordinator team Hiro Koda and Jahnel Curfman. After earning two Emmy nominations for their stunt work in seasons 1 and 2 of the YouTube-turned-Netflix hit, Koda and Curfman are up for a 2021 SAG Award in the Outstanding Performance by a Stunt Ensemble in a Comedy or Drama Series category. It's pretty much impossible to pick the best fight in Cobra Kai season 3, given all of the ridiculously good options: Johnny (William Zabka) and Daniel (Ralph Macchio) squaring off against goons in the chop shop! Young Kreese (Barrett Carnahan) battling his Army commander (Terry Serpico) over a pit of snakes in Vietnam! And of course that massive dojo-vs.-dojo showdown that destroyed several rooms in the LaRusso house! EW got the blow-by-blow from Koda and Curfman about all the kick-butt battles in season three.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: There were so many great karate showdowns this season. What was the most challenging one to execute?
HIRO KODA: Everything was a challenge, but the finale fight in the LaRusso house was a big one — to try to top what we did in season 2 with the high school fight. Originally, that fight was supposed to take place outside in the Miyagi-Do dojo outside, and weather kind of screwed up our schedule a little bit. So they decided to do it inside the house, and we ended up having to change things very quickly and make it work inside the house. It ended up being a lot more fun for us all together and overall. But what made it so difficult was, not only was that happening, we had the finale fight with Johnny, Kreese, and Daniel — that stuff was happening at the same time, and the Vietnam stuff was all going on. All of that was happening around the same time, so it made those three sequences very tough to put together.
Is the LaRusso house an actual house you were shooting in, or is it a set?
JAHNEL CURFMAN: It was an actual house that we shot in, in season 1, and then they went ahead and built the interior on our stages for season 2. So since season 2, it has been a set on stage, which is nice because it's a little bit more controllable when we're shooting.
Jahnel, you're also working as a stunt double while coordinating?
CURFMAN: Yes, I double Peyton List who plays Tory. And when she came on board in season 2, I started doubling her. For me that's the biggest challenge, performing and coordinating at the same time. It's really hard… You get to those points where, you know, you want to be talking to the directors and your DP about how to set up a shot, and then hair is like, "No, I have to fix your ponytail." It's like, "No, hold on. I need to get in there and discuss what we're doing first."
You wanted to top the fight at the school — so how did you approach that?
KODA: I think it was more about having a lot more characters involved, which was going to make it bigger, and then making it longer time-wise. We extended that one way further than what the school oner in the hallway was. So that was what we were doing to try to accomplish something bigger. The season 2 finale high school fight was really still mine and Jahnel's all-time favorite. It was pretty incredible; the location was cool.
That fight in the hallway was originally not very many characters. And we had spoken with the Big Three [creators Josh Heald, Jon Hurwitz, and Hayden Schlossberg] and I told them, "Hey, we can incorporate a lot more people in this and let this carry on a lot further." So, it just became bigger than it was in the school. And the school itself was a challenge because we were actually shooting at a working school, so it was hard for us to shoot during the week. We can only shoot on weekends. So it made it difficult for us.
I mean, being inside the LaRusso house, it was a lot of fun, more fun for us, I think if it would have been outside because, in the LaRusso house, there's just so many different paths and different areas to go into and to make the camera movement so different. With the high school fight, we had one hallway that we stayed in. With the LaRusso house, were able to kind of travel through the atrium, through the living room, through the front room, through the kitchen and back through the atrium. Like we were all over the place in there and there was glass all around... There was more stuff to break! Josh Heald was directing that episode, and he's basically like, "You guys find whatever you want in this house and break it, break everything if you want."
It makes it challenging in the sense when you're doing those types of things, because the action that's happening in the foreground, that's what everybody's watching, but you also have the action in the background. If somebody in the far background messes up something, it messes up the entire oner, because we were doing it with no stitches, no cuts. It was all the way through one camera movement. I think we did it in what six or seven takes and we got it.
This season also revealed a new style of Miyagi-Do karate, when Chozen teaches Daniel the "pressure points" technique. What was the process of creating those moves?
CURFMAN: Some of that was written into the script, into the story points, and we knew those were things that we had to touch on with them to bring those through with the characters, the story for Daniel and Chozen. And there are moves in certain martial arts that do things similar to what they were trying to achieve. So we just took some of those specific moves out of those particular disciplines of martial arts and incorporated them, and we tweaked them a little bit to make them cooler, bigger, and look like they'd be more effective... There's practical, fighting, and then there's fighting on camera, and there's a big difference between the two.
KODA: The Big Three had it written in the script, the pressure points. There were no specifics on exactly what it was, and they sort of gave us creative control on how to come up with those different pressure points to make it cool and exciting.
You have both worked with the cast since season 1, training them in the martial arts moves they'll need for the show. But obviously, there are also stunt performers who step in for specific scenes or moments. How do you determine when it's time for a stunt performer to come in and double for an actor in a scene?
CURFMAN: A lot of it comes down to two factors, capability and safety. Some people train every day, they have stamina, they have tricks that they do and things that they do and the way to do it, to keep them safe, but also to make it look really dynamic on camera. Even if an actor was capable of doing a fancy trick, they may not be able to do it in a way that reads as well on camera. And on top of that, they may be able to do it to a mat, but they're not able to do it on the hard floor. And on top of that, are they able to do it 10 times, the 10 times it takes to shoot it from different angles? So those factors go into it.
We try to cater to our actors as much as we can when we're choreographing their fights. And we really play to their strengths. We have trained them from the very beginning, so we know what their strengths are, and if there's something that we want them to be able to do by the finale, we'll start working with them on it the first day they step in the door for pre-season training. So we generally have an idea of where we want our actors to progress. And we will work on those certain things while they're in training.
When our actors are getting their coverage [shots] in a fight, we always have them fight with a stunt person, because then they go harder. They perform better, and they're not worried about hitting another actor in the face. It really works to our benefit to get the best performance possible from our actors when they can just go full out in that way.
KODA: And our actors are all perfectly capable of doing a lot of their own stuff. But there are just certain things that we have to take a step back and say, "Hey, we can't take a chance of you doing this right now, because if something goes wrong and you get hurt, it causes problems for the entire production." And that's why stunt people are thrown in to take care of that for them.
So Jahnel, in scenes where Sam LaRusso and Tory are fighting, you are the one fighting with Mary Mouser in certain shots?
CURFMAN: Right, right. And it works out too because I train Mary, so she and I are very in sync when it comes to performing together. And Mary's actually a southpaw, which means her stance is different from a normal stance. So every time I'm training her, it twists my brain in a way, like, "Oh yeah, I got to do the exact opposite of what feels natural."
KODA: It makes the choreography challenging because we always got to go the opposite direction for her stuff because she is a southpaw… I mean, the majority of the actors enjoy fighting with the stunt double of the person they're fighting with instead of the actor because they can go harder like Jahnel said. So it gives the fight a lot more energy and excitement.
Are you guys working on season 4 now?
CURFMAN: Season 4 is currently filming. However, we are no longer a part of the show.
May I ask why? Was it a mutual decision?
CURFMAN: Well, it was not our decision. It came as quite a shock, actually.
KODA: We started prepping season 4, and then…
CURFMAN: …they decided to go a different direction.
[Editor's note: A source tells EW there was a scheduling issue with production.]
Were there any times this season where you got on set to shoot a fight scene and something just didn't work the way you wanted it to, and you had to change the fight in the moment?
CURFMAN: Every single one of them, something like that happened. Whether it was something [wrong] in the environment that we were shooting in, or running out of time and having to cut out chunks of choreography, I can guarantee you with every single fight we did last season, there was something that had to be adjusted or changed the day of.
KODA: We try to plan it out as much as possible. I shoot all the previz with stunt performers prior to [shooting with actors]. We'll put an entire previz together that I cut, put music together, and sound effects and everything. And I cut it as if it's being shot so that everybody can see what we're doing. And I turn that over to the directors so they can see what we're designing and what our choreography is going to be. It kind of gives us all a blueprint to kind of figure out exactly what we're going to do on the day.
That makes things a lot easier when we are shooting so that when these things come up where the environment gives us problems, or we're running out of time and things have to change, and we have to quickly make adjustments on it, everybody's on the same page with what the fight is. So it's easy to figure out where we go — we cut this section out because we can jump to this section and it'll still all make sense.
Originally, when the episode 10 showdown between the kids was supposed to be at Miyagi-Do, was there anything you were hoping to do outdoors that you didn't get to do because you had to move it inside?
KODA: We had lots of different ideas and things that we were brainstorming on and starting to choreograph, but it wasn't a complete fight put together already at that point anyway. So by the time we ended up having to move it into the house, we had to really kind of put it all together and make it work inside the house.
At first, when the weather was going to become a problem, they came to us and they were like, "Hey, it's probably gonna rain. So now we're thinking about getting rain towers, let's get rain towers out there and we'll just do the fight in the rain. That'd be really cool." And I was like, "Yeah, it'll look cool, but it's going to [require] changing the clothes every take. It's going to be slippery, muddy. It's going to be dangerous." I mean, it would have been a nightmare to do that outside in the rain, and it was freezing cold at the time as well.
Earlier, you mentioned the flashback to Vietnam, which is also in that episode. When you first read the script and saw, "Young Kreese fights his Army commander over a pit of snakes," what was your initial reaction?
CURFMAN: It was fun to do that because it was different from anything we'd ever done on Cobra Kai. Whenever stuff like that comes up and they're creating new places and new characters that are fighting, it always creates unique challenges. So we jumped into that full speed ahead. It was fun to choreograph something on the bridge between these two characters that we aren't choreographing for every week.
Hiro, when I interviewed Yuji Okumoto before the season, he mentioned you two had worked together before and he was excited to team up again for Cobra Kai. What was it like to work with him again on these important scenes between Chozen and Daniel?
KODA: I was so stoked when I found out he was going to be part of season 3. As soon as that was announced, Yuji quickly called me and said, "I'm coming to Atlanta!" As soon as he gets there, he's like, "Let's get to training!" And I tell you, he and Ralph, they worked their butts off for that sequence. They were in that training hall training every day, working the best that they could.
Yuji is incredible. He's playing an older character now because it's been however many years, but it was like he was the same person. I mean, he hasn't lost anything at all. He still moves well, it was just taking off the cobwebs and keep on going. And he worked so hard at that whole sequence. The first time we got to see the two of them together, it was super unique — I still have chill bumps on my arms when I see it. And then to have Yuji at the end put Daniel in position and honk his nose was, like, unbelievable.
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