REWIND FEATURE - Interview with director Derek Wayne Johnson

Filmmaker Derek Wayne Johnson (left) and filmmaker John G. Avildsen (right)

When anyone mentions "Rocky" (1976) people immediately think of boxing, Stallone, ice skating, Mickey, Clubber Lang, "Gonna Fly Now", the city of Philadelphia, etc. When anyone mentions The Karate Kid" (1984) people immediately think of Mr. Miyagi, "wax on, wax off", Ralph Macchio, the car keys, the bonsai, the crane kick, etc. But when asking "Who directed those two films?" most people cannot think of the name off the top of their head. And when you give the answer "John G. Alvidsen", most would give a very confused looking reaction. Alvidsen was an Oscar winning director who made iconic films but never led to becoming a household name or even a name recognized by most cinephiles. Director/Screenwriter/Producer Derek Wayne Johnson's fascination with the films led to making a documentary portrait on the director, aptly titled "John G. Avildsen: King of the Underdogs", which included lengthy interview sessions with the director as well as interviews with Martin Scorsese, Sylvester Stallone, Jerry Weintraub, Burt Reynolds, Talia Shire, Burt Young, Ralph Macchio, Tamlyn Tomita, Lloyd Kaufman, Carl Weathers, and many more with various clips from the films, and rare behind the scenes footage and photos. Sadly Alvidsen passed away on June 16, 2017 from pancreatic cancer at the age of 81, less than a month before the July 2017 theatrical release. A Blu-ray, DVD, and digital release followed (a review of the Blu-ray can be read here)). Rewind DVDCompare is very thrilled to present an interview with the writer/director of the film, Derek Wayne Johnson (DWJ) conducted by James-Masaki Ryan (JMR).

JMR: First of all, thank you for your time for this interview as I know you're busy with a few forthcoming documentary projects we will mention later. I think for many people of our generation, "Rocky" and "The Karate Kid" are synonymous with growing up in the 80s. When did you first encounter a John G Avildsen film?

DWJ: I remember seeing “The Karate Kid Part 2” at the movie theater when I was 3 years old and I was mesmerized. It’s the first movie I can remember seeing in a theater and it just so happened to be a John Avildsen film. It wasn’t until years later as a teenager that I realized John directed both “Rocky” and “The Karate Kid” though those films were and still remain my favorite films of all time.

JMR: What motivated you to make a full-on documentary on Avildsen?

DWJ: Growing up, I was fascinated with John’s movies and didn’t feel he got the credit he deserved for making such major classics as he did. I was intrigued at why this was the case. Who was this man with the funny name and why don’t people know who he is? After meeting John in person it clicked that I should make a film about him. He agreed and the rest is history. I am forever grateful to him for what he gave to me and to the world.

Johnson with Sylvester Stallone, who contributed greatly to the documentary

JMR: So what was it like first meeting him?

DWJ: Meeting John for the first time was such an incredible experience. It was like meeting Spielberg or Scorsese to me. We had been talking on the phone and emailing each other for about 6 months, but to finally meet him was an honor. We spent about 3 hours together discussing his films, my films and even shed a tear together when I told him how much Mr. Miyagi’s drunken scene in “The Karate Kid” meant to me. You will see him shed a tear about that same scene in our documentary.

JMR: What were some things you learned about him and his movies that surprised you?

DWJ: I learned just how stubborn he was and how that stubbornness was sometimes to a fault. He was fired from a lot of movies because of that personality trait, but he also got his way quite a few times. I think we are all better off that he did!

JMR: I was very surprised to find out that he was attached to movies "Saturday Night Fever" and "Serpico" which eventually became classics in their own right, but they would have been interesting to see if directed by Avildsen. But then there were also projects such as "Rocky V" which he directed, but there were many changes during production in which the finished film ended up very different from the one originally scripted. You mentioned in the audio commentary about watching the director’s cut of “Rocky V”. How were you able to see it?

DWJ: I caught the director’s cut of “Rocky V” on YouTube a few years back and it was fascinating. You could really see John’s original vision come across the screen. I think he had a copy of it at his house somewhere and we talked about it a few times. He was very disappointed in the way the movie turned out.

JMR: 1999's "Inferno" starring Jean-Claude Van Damme was his final film he directed, but he sadly used a pseudonym because he disowned the finished work. Do you know if he was able to make a director's cut of that film?

DWJ: John didn’t have final cut on “Inferno” and due to creative differences he decided to take his name off of the film. I’m not sure if he had a director’s cut but I certainly got to see a lot of behind the scenes footage, some of which we included in the documentary.

JMR: Some of the films like "Inferno" were skimmed over or barely mentioned. What were the decisions on which films to discuss and which not to go in depth with?

DWJ: We originally set out to discuss all or most of John’s films, including the stinkers. The first rough cut we showed John was 90 minutes long and did just that. After it was over, John told us we should cut about 30 minutes out as no one wanted to see the stinkers and it would be a bore. I mean, after all, how could you follow up “The Karate Kid” segment with a string of duds? It loses steam that way. So, we decided to not go chronologically and we cut a lot of films out. We are happy with that decision but are fully aware that some fans would have liked to see more. Maybe I should release my own director’s cut one day?

Behind the scenes photo from 1976's "Rocky"

JMR: A director's cut or extended cut would be very welcome. Considering that, how much interview material was left on the cutting room floor? Was there a reason not to put them on the DVD and Blu-ray as extras?

DWJ: There is quite a bit of material that we didn’t get to use. Hours and hours of footage. One day I think we will release some of this material as we just couldn’t fit everything into the film.

JMR: Hours and hours of footage with a lot of big name people. How difficult was it to schedule so many big names for interviews?

DWJ: We filmed approximately 40 interviews in a span of 9 months all over the United States, so scheduling was tough. Most people signed on and only a handful declined, usually due to scheduling issues. Some we got immediately, some we had to wait 6 months, but we were very happy at everyone who turned out to say a few things about John. We know he was certainly pleased as well.

JMR: Do you think he felt bitter that his name was not as well known as it should be? Or was he content with the films themselves being more popular than his name?

DWJ: John was certainly content with his films being more popular than his name. That’s just the way he wanted it. He wanted his work to speak for itself and didn’t care to go out and publicize himself. I’m sure part of him wished he had more, but I know he was happy the way things turned out in the end.

JMR: Did he ever discuss the two reboots of “Karate Kid” and the “Rocky” sequels he didn’t direct? What were his thoughts on them?

DWJ: John didn’t care much for the reboots and sequels that he didn’t direct, but he really enjoyed “Creed” and thought Sylvester gave his best performance since the original “Rocky”.

JMR: “Rocky” and “The Karate Kid” received very good special edition DVD and Blu-ray releases, but his other films have gotten the basic “no extras” treatment. Which of his films would you like to see get a special edition release?

DWJ: I think “Save the Tiger” deserves more respect and love! It’s a great film that critics didn’t really care for, even though Jack Lemmon won the Oscar for it, and I think a special edition release would be amazing. John has some behind the scenes footage from the making of that film which you can see in “King of the Underdogs”.

Johnson in a "Karate Kid Part II" reunion moment with Avildsen and actors Ralph Macchio and Tamlyn Tomita

JMR: How have audiences reacted to the documentary?

DWJ: We have received nothing but positive reactions and praise from audiences and critics and even won a few film festivals. People are really loving the movie and it is certainly an amazing experience to see how people are inspired by John’s story, much like they were inspired by his movies.

JMR: What are some of your future projects to look forward to?

DWJ: Currently, I am directing a documentary called “STALLONE: Frank, That Is” about Grammy and Golden Globe nominated singer, songwriter and actor Frank Stallone, younger brother of Sylvester. We are also working on a unique documentary about the making of the original “Rocky” entitled "40 Years of Rocky: The Birth of a Classic" which utilizes John Avildsen’s home movies from the set. We felt Frank has a fascinating story and career and in keeping with the “underdog” theme and he certainly falls into that category. The “Rocky” documentary was something that Sylvester discussed with myself and my producing partner Chris May and we jumped on it immediately.

JMR: As we are a website that focuses on home media, could you tell us some of your favorite Blu-rays and DVDs?

DWJ: First and foremost, I must say that John Avildsen signed my Blu-ray set of the “Rocky” series and “The Karate Kid” trilogy as well as my DVD of “Save the Tiger”, so those are definitely on top of the list. Some of my other prized possessions are “Se7en”, “Raiders of the Lost Ark”, the “Lethal Weapon” series, “Poltergeist”, “To Live and Die in L.A.”, “Purple Rain” and many, many more.

JMR: Again I have to say thank you for the interview with us. Do you have any other comments you would like to add?

DWJ: I urge everyone to watch our film and listen to the audio commentary on the Blu-ray and DVD as they will get a chance to really understand the man behind their favorite films. John passed away a month and a half before the release of the film and it’s sad that he didn’t get to see how the world will take to his story, but I know he would be proud.

"King of the Underdogs" is available on Blu-ray, DVD, and digital download from Chassy Media.

Images courtesy of Derek Wayne Johnson/AJ16 Entertainment/Chassy Media



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