Derek Wayne Johnson is the Texas-born director, writer, producer, editor and actor behind the independently-financed drama BROKEN BLOOD (2013) and the horror thriller SCRAPE (2013). A lifelong fan of the films of John G. Avildsen, and in particular ROCKY (1976) and the KARATE KID trilogy (1984-1989), after getting to know Avildsen, Johnson decided to make a documentary celebrating a filmmaker as much an underdog as Rocky Balboa and Daniel Larusso (aka The Karate Kid). The resulting film, JOHN G. AVILDSEN: KING OF THE UNDERDOGS (2017), is a hugely enjoyable,  fascinating and inspiring documentary that boasts new interviews with Avildsen and the likes of Sylvester Stallone, Martin Scorsese, Ralph Macchio (THE KARATE KID series), Burt Reynolds (W.W. AND THE DIXIE DANCEKINGS), Talia Shire (ROCKY, ROCKY V), Stephen Dorff (THE POWER OF ONE) and Carl Weathers (ROCKY), as well as archival footage. In the first part of a two-part interview, I spoke to Derek about falling in love with the Rocky and Karate Kid films and how they influenced him growing up, investigating his other films, and the road to meeting Avildsen and working with him on KING OF THE UNDERDOGS.

When did you first encounter a John G. Avildsen film? 
The first film I remember seeing in a movie theater, at the age of three, was THE KARATE KID PART II (1986). It had a huge impact on me and a lot of the images stayed with me. Growing up I became such a fan and student of his films, especially ROCKY and the KARATE KID films.

Why do you think THE KARATE KID PART II had such a huge impact on you? 
I think because I was only 3 and my memory was just starting to develop, seeing those images on the big screen was a big thing for me. I remember Daniel shaking Chozen's hand and the way Chozen's muscles popped out of his arm. The film is such an awesome sequel. The music is great and the story takes place in Okinawa. It just really captivated me. THE KARATE KID and ROCKY are my two favorite films of all time.

In what ways did you apply whatever messages you learned from those two films to your own life as you grew up? 
Well, I became a martial artist because of THE KARATE KID and Bruce Lee. That said, I actually feel more of a Rocky Balboa type of person. Growing up I would watch ROCKY and the KARATE KID films not only because I really identified with Rocky and Daniel but also because I wanted to study how John shot the films – the cinematography, the camera placement, the editing and the music. Round 14 in ROCKY is to this day still my favorite moment in movie history because it makes me cry and gives me the chill bumps. Every time I see the crane kick happen in the climax to THE KARATE KID, I still get that same rush I felt as a child. These movies have been with me for my entire life.

One can study history and say ROCKY and THE KARATE KID partly at least succeeded because of the zeitgeist or the commercial trends of the day but I think they are just great films that probably would have connected with audiences no matter when they were made.

Absolutely. Kids and new generations are watching them today and responding the same way as audiences felt back when they were originally released. They are just timeless films. ROCKY is just like IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE (1946). It's just not going to go away any time soon.

At what point did you start investigating John's other films? 
I grew up watching stuff like LEAN ON ME (1989) and NEIGHBORS (1981) but I didn't really put two and two together that John was behind so many other films until I was out of film school and in the film industry. I picked up SAVE THE TIGER (1973) and JOE (1970) and other films and I started seeing how eclectic his film catalogue is. I absorbed all of his films and I found this underdog tone to all of his films which I tried to highlight in my documentary. John has had as many hits as he has had misses and he would be the first to admit that he has made some terrible films, but man, when he hits, he hits big. He's very aware of the mistakes he has made and is very good at sharing what he has learned from both his successes and failures. He doesn't want to see young filmmakers fall into the same traps that he did.

Looking at his body of work, what would you say are the main components of a John Avildsen film? 
Obviously there's the underdog theme, but he's also great at ending the story with the characters at their highest peak. He only allows the audience to come down as the credits roll. He doesn't waste time. In a John Avildsen film, the characters are so well done that it is hard to separate them from the actors. He's kind of the king of the montage scene. He's very good with his music choices – Bill Conti's score for ROCKY being the greatest example. They did a lot of movies together. There's always a good story to his films, and a great human element. He doesn't do big blockbusters with explosions and so forth. He's very old fashioned when you think about it. A lot of the elements in his films are old techniques that he just kept fresh.

When you finally met John, how did he compare to whatever preconceptions or expectations you had about him? 
When I met him, it was like meeting Elvis Presley or someone to me. And he is just this little old man. I had seen a lot of interviews with him, but he exceeded my expectations. Right now, he's family to me and a mentor to me, like my Mr. Miyagi or Mickey Goldmill. He took me under his wing. The first time we met, we really connected and even shed a tear together. We got so emotional talking about his films, particularly the scene in THE KARATE KID when Miyagi is drunk and talking about his dead wife and child. We both choked up. I think in me he saw not just a fanboy but someone who took his work seriously and had a deep connection to it.

What would you say you have learned from your time with John? 
He's very hard-headed to a fault but he taught me to stick to what you believe in. In the film business there are many people who will delude you into diluting whatever story you're trying to create. I learned from him to be headstrong, to say ''No, this is my opinion. This is what I want to do. You hired me to direct, so please let me direct. '' I'm very thankful for that lesson. 

Given John's personality, do you think it was always going to pass that he lost the directing gigs of SERPICO (1973) and SATURDAY NIGHT FEVER (1977)? 
I think so, but John definitely regrets losing those films. He feels he should have maybe backed down a little bit. He would have loved to have done them. There's a lot to be said for a man with a lot of conviction, and he is to be appaluded for that, but he admits he let ego and pride get the best of him. On the other hand, who knows, maybe if he had done those films we mightn't have got ROCKY or THE KARATE KID. So maybe we should be thankful he didn't direct them. John is a very humble guy so he would laugh at me for saying this, but I think the world would be a different place if he hadn't directed ROCKY or THE KARATE KID. He was the man to make those films. And let's remember that Sidney Lumet and John Badham did great jobs on SERPICO and SATURDAY NIGHT FEVER.

When did the idea for a documentary on John come about? 
I met with John a couple of times and he had turned me down on some scripts I obviously wanted my hero to make. On the first script I offered him, he said ''Send me a cheque for a thousand dollars. I'll read it, and if I like it, I'll do it. If I don't like it, I promise I'll give you your money's worth and I'll be a script doctor and I'll fix the script for you. '' I said ''Of course!'' And I sent him the thousand dollars. Two weeks later I get a phone call from him: ''Hey, John Avildsen here. Get a pen and paper ready. Your script sucks. '' He kept his word. He didn't direct the film but he script doctored the entire thing for me. The second time I gave him a script to look at, which he didn't charge me to look at this time, I flew out in person. I live in L.A. now, but I didn't back then. After ten minutes of reading the script he tapped me and said ''No, thanks. I don't want to direct it. '' I'm devastated. He's turned me down twice, and I spent a thousand dollars on the first script.

So I later I got an idea and I called him up. ''Look, I really want to work with you. If I can't make a movie with you, what if I make a movie about you?'' John said ''OK, kid. You want to work with me? Let's do it. '' Then of course I had to follow through. And here we are several years later talking about it, after finishing the movie.

By the way, about that thousand dollars. A few years later, John and I and one of our investors from New York are sitting having lunch, and John says to the investor ''Did Derek ever tell you the thousand dollar story?'' She said ''Yeah, it was a great story. '' John said ''What Derek doesn't know is that he is the only one who ever fell for it! Nobody has ever sent me a thousand dollars to look at a script. All of a sudden I get this cheque in the mail with a script. I thought ''This kid's serious!'' '' I said to John ''I thought you were for real!'' He laughed and said ''No!'' So I asked him ''Well, can I get the money back then?'' And he said ''Of course you can't!'' It was the best thousand dollars I ever spent! 

Part two of the interview. 

Rest in peace, John.  (PR) 

JOHN G. AVILDSEN: KING OF THE UNDERDOGS is available for pre-order on Digital Download, Blu-ray and DVD here. Release date, which also includes iTunes and other digital platforms, is August 1st.  

Interview by Paul Rowlands. Copyright © Paul Rowlands, 2017. All rights reserved.

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