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 second part of a two-part interview, I spoke to Derek about his experience making KING OF THE UNDERDOGS and interviewing Sylvester Stallone and Martin Scorsese; how his conception of the film evolved during the editing process; what he has learned from working closely with John Avildsen; his hopes for KING OF THE UNDERDOGS, and the two Stallone-related documentaries he is currently working on. 

Part one of the interview. 

How long did it take to make KING OF THE UNDERDOGS? 
We worked on it for three years. We did about 40 interviews in about 9 months. We had a very long post-production. A lot of it was just lining everything up and making John happy. That's not to say he stepped over me but he was very good about giving pointers and notes. Of course we would butt heads once in a while when I felt passionate about something, but he would say ''Have an opinion and stick to it'' and he would bow down and let me win a few arguments. Most of his notes he was right about and when he signed off on the film, he was very happy.

What was the experience of interviewing Stallone like? 
Interviewing Stallone was literally the best day I have ever had on set on a film. Everything went so smoothly, it was a perfect day. There were no issues, and he was great. The interview has led to two other documentary projects that we are working together on.

Have you learned a lot from your time with Stallone? 
Absolutely, and some of it was incorporated into the film, and some of it wasn't. Sly really opened up about John, and gave him the credit that he really deserves. Whenever ROCKY is celebrated, John is always pushed aside, even if it's HIS footage used to celebrate the film! ROCKY was John's vision of a Sylvester Stallone script. Hopefully Sly's words in the documentary and KING OF THE UNDERDOGS in general will help put that straight.

One of the coolest moments for me was when Sly invited my producer Chris May and myself to screen KING OF THE UNDERDOGS at his house. He loved it, and afterwards he put on various scenes from ROCKY and broke each scene down and gave us various bits of trivia. The whole experience was like a whirlwind.

How was speaking with Martin Scorsese? 
Scorsese was unfortunately the only person in the film that I did not get to interview. I'm really sad about that. He was in New York, and I was in L.A,. Scorsese is always so busy and gets asked to do so many documentaries, but he's a very generous man and wants to help. So what he often does is asks you to send him the questions, and one day his crew will film him answering the questions via a teleprompter. Thankfully he said yes to my request, and after  6 months we got the call from his office that he was going to film his answers the next day, so please send the questions. I was ready to hop on a plane and go to New York but I didn't get the chance to do that.

Did your conception of KING OF THE UNDERDOGS change as you spent more time on the project? 
Originally the film was going to be in chronological order and we wanted to hit on most if not all of his films. The first cut that we showed John after a year of filming was 90 minutes, and not 78 minutes as it is now. We showed that cut to John and he laughed, he cried, and was very emotional, but about an hour later he said ''You know, guys, you need to cut like half an hour out of this thing. It's just too long. Nobody is going to want to sit through 90 minutes of a film about me! Who am I?'' I thought ''Wow, how humble. What person tells you to cut down a film you've made about them?'' In taking out footage about quite a few other films, it became clear the film couldn't be in chronological order anymore as it wouldn't make sense, so we decided to push that aside and make it non-linear, but keep the ROCKY and KARATE KID segments together.

With all the research and new interviews that you did, and the time spent with John, what are some of the things that you learned that changed the way you looked at John and his films? 
I saw that this man really loves what he does, and that loves his films and his characters. You'll notice in the film that he sometimes chokes up talking about his films. Going in to the film, I didn't know this about him. He could have been a jaded Hollywood guy and these films were all just paychecks to him for all I knew. I think his passion and care show in his films. Even though I know so much about his films now, and I've seen them all a gazillion times, I still get excited watching them. I can even spot the little mistakes he has made in some of his films, and it cracks John up when I point them out to him. He always responds with ''Well, the movies still made millions of dollars, didn't they?''

One of the things I took away from the film was this notion that John has that it is impossible not to live a life without regrets. 
Yeah, John calls ''bullshit'' on those who say they have no regrets. KING OF THE UNDERDOGS is a love letter to his films, but I think John really comes across. I wanted to show the darker side to John and his career too. He has made mistakes and he is willing to admit them. He's full of regret, but everything kind of worked out for him anyway.

Sometimes it seems one of the reasons talented people are more successful than others is because they also have an aptitude for managing their careers. 
John tells people all the time ''I just didn't feel like spending a lot of money on a publicist. '' In retrospect, he feels that was probably a mistake. A lot of these big filmmakers spend a lot of money to get their name out there but John just didn't want to do it. He felt that the people who knew him could call him. But one day the phone stopped ringing. People like Scorsese don't wait for the phone to ring and John's personality isn't that way.

What do you hope people will take away from KING OF THE UNDERDOGS? 
I hope that they will have a newfound appreciation for the man behind some of their favorite films. That they'll start to appreciate his films for being character-based, with a message and human elements, and realise that his films were big hits that didn't rely on big budgets and special effects. Hopefully, they'll keep that flame burning because the art form of telling a human story is dying out. We are being flooded with CGI, green-screen blockbusters these days. A lot of people enjoyed CREED, and Ryan Coogler did a great job, but the whole ROCKY saga started with John's vision of Sly's script. John's innovations – the title going across the screen, the music, the training montages, Rocky running through the streets and up the steps – have been mimicked and copied and homaged throughout the years. When David O. Russell made THE FIGHTER, he said he wanted to make his own ROCKY, and he even invited John to a party related to the film and they met. 

What are your next projects? 
I'm working on two documentaries, 40 YEARS OF ROCKY: THE BIRTH OF A CLASSIC and STALLONE: FRANK, THAT IS. I don't see myself as exclusively a documentarian, but whichever medium suits the story best, I'm fine with it. I'm really excited about these films, and they both sprang from KING OF THE UNDERDOGS.

What appealed to you about making a film on Frank Stallone? 
Frank is a pal and an exciting character, and he's also an underdog. He has such a rich story to tell. He's been a musician for 50 years and he's still playing and doing shows. He has been in some interesting movies as well. Like John, he's a guy that a lot of people just don't know about.

How will your ROCKY documentary bring something new? 
We're focussing on the impact made by the first film and we are going to incorporate a lot of John's home video footage that he shot behind the scenes from ROCKY. We have a treasure trove of stuff. Rehearsal footage, for example. Some of it has been been seen before but most of it hasn't. You are literally going to see the birth of the movie happen in front of your eyes because John happened to have his camera rolling at all times. We are trying to take a unique approach because ROCKY documentaries are dime a dozen. This will be a bit more intimate.

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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