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Our interview of Josh Heald for “The Creative Influencer” podcast is available today for download on iTunes, Spotify, and premier platforms everywhere. Josh is a writer, executive producer, and co-creator of the YouTube Premium original series “Cobra Kai,” the hit extension of the Karate Kid universe.
A transcript of the full interview follows:
Jon: I am joined today by Josh Heald. Welcome to the podcast.
Josh: Thanks for having me. Pleasure to be here.
Jon: You are an actor.
Josh: Sort of.
Jon: Sort of. You are a writer.
Josh: More sort of, yes.
Jon: And an executive producer.
Jon: Uh, we'll take a deep dive into all things Cobra Kai in a little bit.
Jon: But I want to tease the topic. What is Cobra Kai?
Josh: Cobra Kai, the TV show, is a continuation of the Karate Kid saga 35 - somewhat 30, 33 to 35 years later - following the events of that movie we pick up later in life with Johnny Lawrence and Daniel Russo and we see that the karate rivalry from 1984 has not quite gone away. And not only is it still alive and active, it is poisoning the very fabric of the San Fernando Valley and it's on the YouTube Premium. And the second season is -
Jon: Which used to be YouTube Red.
Josh: Briefly, YouTube Red. And they have emerged with a new identity and that's still the same product.
Jon: And the first episode had 55 million views.
Josh: It did. It did very well.
Jon: I saw that it was the sixth most searched show on Google for last year.
Josh: That was a mind blowing stat that the show was trending that highly in terms of just the search term.
Jon: And it is the most successful YouTube original content produced to date.
Josh: It is to my understanding, yes.
Jon: Okay. We'll come back to this. So I want to talk to you about your background. One of the themes that goes through with all my guests are relationships. So you are friends with your co-producers?
Josh: Very good friends. I've known them both for over 20 years at this point.
Jon: And you met one of them in college?
Josh: I met them both while I was in college. Jon Hurwitz was in my hallway freshman year of college, so I met him, if not the week of orientation within the first couple of days of being there. And Hayden Schlossberg went to high school with John Hurwitz and I met Hayden that same year, freshman year. Because he was going to a college he didn't particularly seem to like as much as visiting ours. So he would come and stay regularly and we all became close friends and very good friends.
Jon: And you went to school at.
Josh: I went to school at the University of Pennsylvania. I was in the Wharton school there.
Jon: Which is a very prestigious Ivy League school.
Josh: Yes. It was nice to be able to attend such a good academic school for not doing much with it these days, in terms of academics anyway.
Jon: So, you graduated from the business school.
Jon: But now you're a writer.
Jon: What was that journey?
Josh: That journey was - I was always of two minds. While I was an Undergrad at Wharton, I was also the editor-in-chief of 34th Street magazine, which is the on campus newspaper, The Daily Pennsylvania, which turns out a lot of journalists to a lot of papers of record around the country. They have a weekly arts and entertainment insert that was approximately 20 to 25 pages. And I wrote for that and I stuck around long enough that they needed somebody to kind of run it for a year. And I did that and I was of two minds as I was graduating, do I go toward journalism or toward creative writing or do I gravitate more toward business? And it was really tough. Um, when I was looking for internships while I was in school, I was simultaneously putting out resumes for, I want to be an intern at the Conan O'brien show and I want to work at Deutche Bank. And the level of compensation at these two places was dramatically different. And so when I graduated college, I had an offer and I went to go work for Booz Allen and Hamilton, a management consulting firm in San Francisco.
Jon: How long did you do that?
Josh: I worked for them for about eight or nine months until a little thing called the dot-com collapse of early 2001. Kind of decimated a lot of the San Francisco area business and they laid off their entire first year class. So there was one day where, where the big question of, "Hey, a lot of us in the office don't seem to be doing much lately" was answered with, "Yeah, we can't really keep you guys here any longer." So it was a very short lived but frenetic management consulting career where I got to work on a lot of interesting projects and cases that I otherwise would have never thought about or spent that kind of time and effort on. But it was really the kick in the pants I needed to go to the other thing I really enjoyed, which was writing.
Jon: So did you transition to writing right away?
Josh: Well, I was writing a screenplay on my work computer at the time, so I was already kind of looking for an exit in my own head. But I was looking for an exit that somehow brought the salary with me. So when the salary went away, it was an easier, cord to pull. I moved back to new where I grew up very briefly for the summer. The layoffs happened to coincide with the end of what had up until that point been my school year. So I still had never really experienced working through the summer. So, I started in August and I was done in May and it seemed like, "Okay, I guess what, what do you do? It's time to go home." So I went home and I briefly looked for jobs, but the tide was certainly turning with the downturn in tech at that time. And after speaking with my parents about my real passion, which was writing, I decided to go for it, and I used my meager little severance package to buy a Honda Accord and I put all my stuff in it. And I drove to Los Angeles where my friends, Jon Hurwitz and Hayden Schlossberg had moved right out of college. So it was nice having two friends on the ground in Los Angeles when I got here. But they were baby writers at the time trying to get their own foothold in the industry. So it was a lot of trying to figure out what to do and how to get your foot in the door.
Jon: And as somebody that is a writer and wants to break in and what he did you do?
Josh: I was very fortunate that I was able to get a coveted job, which was, I was a reader. I was reading scripts that were submitted to agencies and to production companies and to studios for their consideration. And the massive amount of volume at least then - and I assume now as well - in terms of screenplays and books and just teleplays and material that is coming through the door and landing on people's desks day to day is too much for any executive to read unless that's all they're doing from morning till night. So they would hire people like me to do little book reports essentially. And I learned a lot about screenwriting and television writing from reading about 1700 screen plays over the course of two and a half years.
Jon: How many can you read in a day?
Josh: I can do about three in a day if I had to. Because you have to read the whole thing, you have to summarize it in about three or four pages, and you have to write a pretty good one to one and a half page analysis of why this should be considered or why we should absolutely not even open it and read it.
Jon: If you take a typical hundred, how many of them make the cut to the next level?
Josh: Very few. Very few. Even if the reader says, “Oh my gosh, you have to make this; this is the best thing ever and here's why,” it's still very difficult for anything to cut through. Then it was a different marketplace than it is now. And this is the early two thousands when studios, were still acquiring more scripts just to take them off the market. Everyone was still in a hoard things in their little storage room, you know, "Oh, we have that now you can't do it and we'll decide later whether or not we actually want to put that into development."
Jon: This is pre-Amazon, this is pre, pre-Netflix.
Josh: Yeah. Pre-everything, pre-writer's strike. A lot of things changed after the 2008 writer's strike in terms of two step deals and what the spec market was like and just consolidation about the amounts of companies that were going out and how many movies those companies were making in any given year. So it was kind of a great time to want to be a writer because as few scripts could actually break through, there were still a lot of them that could break through. And it was a time when you could sell a script without having a star attached or a director attached or a budget, or knowing exactly how it was going to be performing internationally. It was still a little bit of the wild west in terms of, "Hey, this is a great voice. Let's just go grab the script and figure it out later." So it was at once encouraging to a wannabe writer that this was possible and discouraging when you would see how few of them were happening.
Jon: So how long did you do that?
Josh: I did that for about two and a half years. And while I was doing that, I was writing as much as I could. Which was a mind numbing process because I was also writing summaries, summaries all day long. And at the end of that, you know, the last thing you want to do is crack open final draft and start writing. But you have to, because that's why I'm living in this studio apartment and trying to make something of this. And while I was reading all those scripts, I wrote a few television sitcoms, I wrote a few screenplays, and every time I wrote one of them, it got a little bit better. The dialogue was smoother, the pacing was improved. I was learning to write by just reading all of these -
Jon: Bad scripts?
Josh: Yeah, bad, good. Otherwise, all these pieces of material. And along the way, I, developed a pitch for a movie about two friends who decide to buy the dive bar that they used to sneak into when they were in high school. And later in life they buy this thing and it turns out to be just a terrible decision that leads to a 109 pages of comedy. And I was able to pitch this to New Line Cinema and sell it to them in early 2004. And that was the first thing I sold. And they weren't paying me yet because I had to sign contracts, and they were saying, "Quick, write it." And I'm saying, "I still need to do my reading job, because checks take time. And then a month later the movie Dodgeball came out and it was this big sports comedy set in the world of a professional competitive dodge ball. And it did very well. And I had a Spec script that I had written about the world of competitive eating at the time. That seemed like a great Monday morning to send that out after Dodgeball did so well over the weekend. And New Line Cinema bought that one as well. And then suddenly you have a writing career because you have somehow managed to buck the odds and sell two pieces of material.
Jon: Now, I was going to save this towards the end, but I'm going to jump ahead now. You talked about the eating. As part of your research, I read where you entered the Nathan's hot dog eating contest qualifier at the New York, New York Casino in Las Vegas.
Josh: I certainly did.
Jon: So how does one enter one of those contests?
Josh: So what happened was, the competitive eating comedy I wrote was called "All You Can Eat.” I write it, I'm doing a rewrite on it. New Line puts a director on it, JB Rogers. And we decide with my friends Jon and Hayden, who I'm writing Cobra Kai with. They were attached to produce because they had made Harold and Kumar. And now we're in the position of saying, "We're going to be kind of producing an overseeing this to a degree." So Jon, Hayden, JB Rogers and I go to the Queen Mary in Long Beach where there's going to be a live competitive eating show, or competition, or what have you, where we're going to see this up close and personal. Because we'd only seen it on our computers and on - Fox aired special once.
Jon: I think ESPN now even covers it.
Josh: Oh, yeah. They cover the hot dog thing. But we wanted to see what kind of the road show looked like, because the script took place and smaller events that wasn't Coney island. And we get there, and they're having a Wienerschnitzel eating contest that's going to be just as amazing as that sounds. But they have an opening act where they invite anybody who's there to compete, where it wasn't going to be a quantity. It was going to be whoever can eat three wienerschnitzel sausages and bun with peppers and onions on them the fastest, wins. Now, I had been studying the techniques now for a while and I've been watching Kobayashi and how he would break these hotdogs and half and, and dunk the buns in water and the assist, how the saliva goes down the throat. And I had been writing all this disgusting stuff into to the screenplay and I said, "I can do this." And so I volunteer and I realized that no one was really volunteering, that they had already kind of preselected some comedians to participate in it. But they are willing to have a volunteer, they just didn't think anyone would actually want to do it. And I got up there and I destroyed the competition. I was done in about two seconds. And these enormous comedians were looking at me with wide eyes like, "How did this guy finish that quickly?" Because I was dunking the buns and I was ripping things apart. And so the head of the organization which at that time was called the International Federation of Competitive Eating, saw something in me. He saw a gleam, and he said, "What are you doing here?"
Jon: Here's your Mr. Miyagi.
Josh: Here's my Mr. Miyagi. And we told him, "Oh, actually we're making a movie and it's going to be great." And he saw the potential for what that could mean for that sport and his growing industry there, and invited me to come out to Vegas to take on Joey Chestnut and Rich “The Locust” LeFevre and, and some of these big names in competitive eating. So I went out there with an entourage of about 12 friends. We were all wearing mustard yellow tee shirts with my face on them. I was throwing out teachers into the crowd. I made a real spectacle out of the situation and I managed to put down 12 hot dogs and buns in 10 minutes and make myself really, really have an upset stomach and decided not to really compete too much after that.
Josh: When they had this contest, is it all the contestants at once?
Josh: Yes. It's a big long table, like a dais. Imagine if someone's getting married, except everybody's standing and there're just massive platters of food in front of them that is being shoved down their faces as fast as possible. And most of the energy is kind of like a professional wrestling match. There's the introductions and people come out and you hear all the statistics of, "Oh, he took down the Matzah Ball Challenge," and "Oh, he's coming off the asparagus circuit."
Jon: What kind of fans Go watch this in Vegas?
Josh: It was mostly your afternoon drunk casino runoff in terms of, "Oh, there's something weird happening over here; let's do it." But there are some die-hards out there who really kind of follow some of the super elite of the sport. There are people who have made their livelihood competitive eating in terms of the Joey Chestnuts, and Eater X, and Sonya Thomas, and some of these real big names in the sport.
Jon: So you sell that script.
Josh: Right. Yeah. I forgot it was a script. It does not get made, it goes through two attempts to get made. There was the initial attempt where it was 2004 and they made some big offers to some actors and a couple of guys who were on the verge of kind of writing their own tickets said they didn't want to do it. Because I had a lot of physical comedy and it also; you were asking someone to come in and just make a fool of themselves. You really had to buy in to what this was. And the first two actors they went out to said "no," and then, a little bit of the shine comes off the script. At that point it doesn't become as much of a hot property. But then it briefly, got put in turnaround and was almost bought by another studio who put another director on it. So, then we developed it and then it didn't happen again. So it's one of those kind of tenacious projects that I wouldn't be shocked if it came back around again. Although now it's been long enough where it probably needs a rewrite and a little more attention to it. But it was a fun one to dig into.
Jon: No pun intended.
Josh: Yeah. Right, exactly.
Jon: So what was the first property that you sold that was made?
Josh: The first movie, the first anything I got sold that was made as a movie called Mardi Gras: Spring Break, which is exactly what it sounds like.
Jon: I did look. It Has Carmen Electra.
Josh: It Has Carmen Electra, also on the cover of the DVD. It's basically an American Pie-esque movie following some guys who are on the verge of college graduation who realize that they've never had the quintessential college experience. They've led a boring four years and they've squandered their experience here. They're about to enter adulthood and they don't have any embarrassing or amazing stories to look back upon. And it was a pleasure to make, honestly. My friend Phil Dornfeld directed it. He was a first time director. Josh Gad, It was his first movie. Nick D'Agosto, Bret Harrison, Arielle Kebbel. It was really, really fun cast and really fun time because we were one of the first movies to go down and to film in New Orleans after Katrina. And it was just a great experience. The first time I was ever on set for anything that I wrote was on Bourbon Street, which had been shut down to fill in the portion of this screenplay that I had written. And it was amazing to see that. The movie had some issues and Sony eventually decided that they were going to wait to release it. And they eventually put it out straight to DVD and cable and things like that. So someone's watching it in the world somewhere because I occasionally will get a writer's residual check. But that movie didn't come out until after I had sold, written, and they had released Hot Tub Time Machine. So Hot Tub was the second thing to go into production, but the first one to come out.
Jon: Has comedy always been your thing?
Josh: I guess. I was an overweight kid, so you're always looking for the joke to disarm somebody who might make you sad by saying something about your weight. So you develop a sense of humor there. But I also was the kid who watched all the police academy movies and all the Gene Wilder and what's his name movies. I always gravitated toward comedy. I always wanted to laugh. I always liked the John Candies and the Steve Martins and the bill Murrays of the world. Which wasn't just say I couldn't watch something deeper. And as an adult, I actually now watch more one hour dramas that are -
Jon: I'm not trying to humor shame you.
Josh: Yeah, no, not at all. But I think as a kid you naturally find comedy, but also through my teen years and into my young adulthood, the things I consumed most was comedy and I appreciated all the different levels from satire to absurdity to everything else. And I realized that it came very easily to me when I wrote that I couldn't not write with a comedic bent. It was difficult to try to say, "I'm going to write something completely in earnest." Whereas the older I got, the easier that came more naturally.
Jon: And I'd be remiss, because in the list of names, Bill Murray, did you mention?
Jon: Okay. Because we are on the Sony lot and there are two Ghostbusters cars parked right outside the door.
Josh: Yes. Right outside this building here. Yes.
Jon: I read where Hot Tub Time Machine started as an inside joke.
Jon: What was the joke?
Josh: The joke was the title. I was pitching another movie that never got made with that film's producer, Matt Moore. It was the end of a day where we had been around town pitching a project that by that time in the afternoon, we knew wasn't going to sell, and feeling sorry for ourselves, just kind of hanging out in Matt's office. He was on his computer and he was looking at some article about something and said, "You know, someone should really remake the movie Hot Dog." Except I heard him say "Hot Tub." And I said, "There's a movie called Hot Tub?" I was like, "How do I not know about that?" And then we started talking about Hot Dog. And oh yeah, there was such a - it was like a window in the late eighties where ski sexploitation comedy was this sub genre of cinema that was so ridiculous in terms of the villains on the slopes, and you had the sex scene because you had to, and just all this -
Jon: Kind of like Game of Thrones.
Josh: Very Much. And in a ski universe. So we started talking about, "wouldn't it be great to make the quintessential eighties ski movie, but now?" And, "How could you get away with blending the here and now of it?" And we decided at a time machine made sense and the way to get there was the hot tub. But it wasn't a movie. It was just a turn of phrase that we would say to each other for a few months when we would call each other. And it was actually that day I was talking about, that first day that I went down to New Orleans and Mardi Gras was in production. I got back to my hotel room. Adrenaline was going. I can't believe it. I've finally written something where someone rented a camera and a crane and put actors on the street. And Matt called me, and he had just left the company he was with and he was on his own as an independent producer briefly. And he said, "You know, I can't get Hot Tub Time Machine out of my head. Let's try to go sell it." And I said, "It's not anything; it's four words." And we agreed that we should sit down and try to figure out what a movie called "Hot Tub Time Machine" might look like, and figured it out and wrote a pitch, because I certainly wasn't going to write an entire screenplay because it seemed very unlikely that someone was going to buy it. And we hit MGM on the right day where they got it. They really got it. And they said, "How fast can you write this?" And I said, "Fast enough that hopefully you still have that smile on your face when I return with a script." And it went into production very, very quickly. It was a window of really taking advantage of the moment with that one.
Jon: A little foreshadowing, but you met an actor on the scene.
Josh: I did. I met Billy Zabka during the production of Hot Tub.
Jon: And Billy played whom?
Josh: In Hot Tub Time Machine, Billy played a character named Rick Steelman, who is a little bit of a shady character in 1986 who has a girlfriend that he doesn't treat too great and he has a gun. And he hangs out in bars near ski resorts, and you don't want to make the wrong wager with Rick Steelman.
Jon: And he also played Johnny Lawrence in Karate Kid.
Josh: In Karate Kid.
Jon: So then was that your end of the hot tub movies?
Josh: That was not the end of the hot tub movies. The hot tub movies refused to ever end.
Jon: Is there a Hot Tub 3 in the works?
Josh: There's always a Hot Tub 3 in the works. There's not a Hot Tub 3 in active development, according to MGM right now.
Jon: So Hot Tub Time Machine 2 was what?
Josh: Hot Tub time machine 2 was, well we went to the past with the first Hot Tub Time Machine. So what do you know? According to Back to the Future rules, for Hot Tub Time Machine 2, we went to the future and, of course, hijinks ensue.
Jon: I saw an interview with you on the red carpet for Hot Tub Time Machine 2 where you said, "Embrace your dumb ideas."
Jon: What's the best dumb idea you embraced?
Josh: Hot Tub Time Machine. I mean, really, how am I ever going to top that? I really meant what I said there. That movie should be the shining example of really if you spend a lot of time and passion and effort and thought working on something that might sound dumb, it might not actually be dumb by the time you're done with it.
Jon: And I also saw in an article you wrote for the Hollywood Reporter where you quoted the wisdom is Mr. Miyagi.
Jon: "If come from inside you, always right.
Josh: That's true.
Jon: Has that proved to be true for you?
Josh: No. There's plenty of stuff that has come from inside me, has proven to be either not right or not the right time. But Mr. Miyagi was always the sage of my childhood. I saw a Karate Kid when I was six and that character just landed with me the same way it landed with so many other children and adults at that time. And it's such a great piece of advice in terms of don't be afraid of being passionate about something. If you have something in your heart or in your mind, it's not bad. It's the little kick in the pants you need to say, "Go for it." It might not be right for somebody else, but it might be right for you.
Jon: Which is a perfect transition to Cobra Kai.
Jon: It is Karate Kid thirty-four years later. Why Karate kid? What was it for you about karate kid?
Josh: Man, I saw Karate Kid on the big screen when it came out. I was six and that moment where Mr. Miyagi asks Daniel to show him everything he's been learning, painting the fence, waxing the car, sanding.
Jon: Wax on, wax off.
Josh: All of that. Where Daniel realizes that he's been training for karate this whole time without realizing it. That's one of those cinematic moments that there's not too many of them. Were you realize, "Oh my gosh, it's been karate this whole time." That was so special as a kid to watch. And to watch this kid who was being bullied, and trying to experience first love, and just all these kind of coming of age moments, and finding his way. I don't know. It had a little bit of everything. It had karate, it had a great father son story, it had first love, it had good over evil. And that movie just never left me; I just carried it with me always. When we got a VCR, it was the first movie we had. I still have the VHS tape. And years later when I would meet Jon and Hayden, we would just always talk about Karate Kid. We all grew up in New Jersey. Daniel Russo's from Jersey. We all moved to California.
Jon: He moved to California.
Josh: Right. My wife grew up across the street from the house that was used for Ali's house in the movie.
Jon: Oh, I did not know that.
Josh: Yes. And she loved Karate Kid growing up, also, and would force the young ladies who would sleep over at her house to watch that instead of My Little Pony or whatever they wanted to watch. So there's just a lot of special moments in my life that Karate Kid was there for. And when the guys and I started talking about realistically trying to make Cobra Kai, it seemed like, "Wow."
Jon: How did the idea come up?
Josh: We started talking about it maybe 15 years ago when the 20th anniversary special edition DVD or Blu ray of the Karate Kid came out. There was an interview on that with Billy Zabka talking about his character. He was speaking about Johnny Lawrence in a way that you don't think of Johnny Lawrence, in terms of, he was just a kid and he was taught bad karate, but he didn't know it. And he was in love this girl and he was trying to turn things around, and then this other kid shows up.
Jon: From New Jersey, no less.
Josh: Yes, this horrible place. And throws everything into a blender. He brought this, and he accessed all of these emotions while he was making the movie. And it really got us thinking that "there's two sides to every story," and "what's going on with the bully? Why is a bully a bully? And I bet they have something worse going on at home than the vitriol that they're putting out there in the world. And we really started thinking about "is there a way to do this story as a feature film?" Because at the time, all three of us were feature writers. I was writing, they were writing as a team, and we just realized we knew how the business worked and that it was going to be a hard property to revisit with those guys in 2004, 2005 Then a few years later, the Jaden Smith movie comes out where they rebooted it and told the original Karate Kid story with new actors, a new setting.
Jon: In China.
Josh: You're right. And it just felt like the ship had sailed.
Jon: But I confess, I didn't know it has come out.
Josh: Oh yeah?
Jon: It was totally off my radar screen.
Josh: We knew, I guess, because if anything, we probably have a Google alert for Karate Kid. But yeah, and then with the advent of streaming and premium cable doing all of these long form stories, such as with breaking bad. It was such an important show for so many people. But the guys and I would talk about that show all the time. When that spun off with Better Call Saul, you have this character that you really didn't feel like he was the impetus or the point of that original series. And how is that gonna work? And what's the tone of that going to be like? And then you see, oh wow, that could totally work. That gave us encouragement. And then you'd see things like Fuller House, that's just this old IP that is being reintroduced and is enormously popular. And we knew that there was power in that IP and then that power might actually help us be able to tell this very pure story that we want to tell that 15 years ago it didn't seem like it would have the market for it.
Jon: So you decide you're going to go forward and try to start on this.
Jon: Sony was the original studio. Excuse me, Columbia was the original studio.
Josh: Columbia, right, which is Sony.
Jon: Which is Sony. How did you even know where to start?
Josh: We start with a phone call to our agents, with one question, "Who controls the rights to The Karate Kid?" Because we want to sit down with them and talk about our dreams. And it turns out it was, Will Smith's company Overbrook. Will had produced -
Jon: Had acquired it.
Josh: Had acquired it when they did the Jaden Smith version. Their company had acquired the lion's share of the rights. So we sat down with Caleeb Pinkett, who completely got what we were saying. He was our age. He also saw it when he was six. He had the same references. And loved what we were saying we were going to do. And he assured us that he would get the rights. Jerry Weintraub was the original producer of that film - his widow and his estate had some rights. He said he would make sure that would fall into place, and he did. So from that moment on, we developed this massive pitch for what a whole season of the show looks like. We hired an editor friend of ours, Jeff Yorks to put together a sizzle reel.
Jon: Now, did you have is in your head, or did you whiteboard it out? "Here's what it would be."
Josh: We wrote documents about what this whole season was, and by the time we were pitching this thing, we had each memorized a piece of this. We had this 35 minute pitch where we could walk a room of people through what the first 10 episodes of this series look like and how that sets up a future seasons. And we had a three minute sizzle reel that used footage of Ralph and Billy to tell exactly the story we're going to tell. We took footage from all of their other movies and short films and music videos and anything they had done. And we had that cut in such a way that it presented a visual image of what the tone and the style of the show was going to be. And Sony got it. They said, "You're going to need Billy Zabka and Ralph Macchio." Billy, I knew, so it was a pleasure to sit down with him.
Jon: Was he surprised to hear the pitch?
Josh: Shocked. Shocked. I had kept in touch with Billy, but we didn't talk every day or every week, so I emailed him.
Jon: So how do you initiate the conversation? Do you just send him a random text?
Josh: We wanted to surprise him. So I wrote him an email and I said, "Hey, look." And he knew John and Hayden as well. And I said, "Hey, the three of us have a project we'd love to discuss with you. Can we meet you for lunch?" We took him to lunch and we just laid it on him, and he was very surprised. We knew he would love this. It's the opportunity to tell his story and to dig into this character. He had a character that was three dimensional that was presented largely through that movie as two dimensional until the final moments. And I think it took about three tellings of the pitch before he could really realize what we were saying, which was that we had the ability to use the real Karate Kid as the way into the story and that we were pitching something where he was going to be one of the co-stars of this show. Then we had to get Ralph and none of us know Ralph.
Jon: How did you get the introduction?
Josh: We called his manager and I got the impression on that phone call that Ralph gets a lot of people saying, "Hey, we want to do this Karate Kid thing with your client." He was very much in a protective fly swatter mode for his client in terms of saying, "Ralph doesn't want to do anything with Karate Kid." And we explained what it was that we had and he still was doing the perfect job as a manager and saying, "Get lost, kids." And we said, "I really believe you that if he hears what we're saying, that he might actually consider this. Can we speak with him? Can we fly out to New York and meet him?" Jon Hayden and I flew out to New York and we sat down with Ralph in Tribeca for a four-hour lunch where we went through this thing forwards, backwards, upside down. And Ralph, to his credit, came in with an open mind. He did his research on us. He knew that we didn't just show up yesterday and decide like the first thing I'm going to do when I got off the bus is go remake Karate Kid. We knew that he was a very protective keeper of the torch in terms of the original legacy of that movie and letting it kind of be, and that had been his goal for many years - to have his career move on from karate kid and not potentially do something that damages what that was. Because it was fine the way it was. And Ralph put us through the paces in terms of "What about this? And have you thought about this?" And we really had. We had been thinking about this for so many years at this point that we had answers and we had specific thoughts on everything he had raised. And if we didn't, it was a great question that we had an answer for the next day because we thought about it more. So we went back to Los Angeles. Ralph said he would think about it. The next day we talked to him over the phone for another couple of hours, and we had maybe one or two more of those conversations. During this, Ralph was telling us the whole time, "I'm going to keep asking you the questions. I'm going to keep being this guy. But the moment I decide, if I decide yes, I'm going to trust you and I'm going to be all in." And it was really him needing to get to know us and get to know that we really did have a plan and intent, and we got to that place where he said, "Let's give this a go."
Jon: How long did that take?
Josh: Oh, he was on board within that week. And then it became the process of Sony needing to put deals in place for everybody before we can all go in a room and pitch it together, which was the most fun project I've ever pitched. Because you get to go out on the pitch trail with Ralph Macchio and Billy Zabka. And I remember Jordan Peele was on the pitch trail that weekend. He had just had "Get Out" come out, and it was a big thing. And he was just looking at us because he saw as an Amazon that morning and then he saw us at Netflix that afternoon. He eventually came over and he said, "I got to know, what is this?" It was nice to be the toast of the reception areas. But what was nicer was the very first pitch we had was with YouTube Premium - formerly YouTube Red - and they bought it in the room and gave us an order straight to series.
Jon: And I had heard that they were actually pitching you.
Josh: Yeah, they stopped us probably three and a half minutes before we were done with a pitch. And it was Susanne Daniels who basically did the hard sell and told us what her plans were for the YouTube Originals and their subscription platform over there. She told us that they wanted this to be their "House of Cards," and they're building and getting bigger and this is the type of show they really want and will be passionate about. All the things you want to hear in terms of you're going to get the attention you need. You're going to get the marketing commitment you need. You're going to get the eyeballs on this show.
Jon: Was there hesitancy in going with YouTube because they had not been known for their original content?
Josh: Yeah, there was.
Jon: I put original in quotes because it's all original.
Josh: Yeah. I mean, up until then, we hadn't really seen much on that platform that wasn't something that was coming out of their YouTube creators. I can honestly say that when we walked into that meeting, I don't think anyone of us were thinking "That's our dream ideal place that we've always imagined the show would be." But the more they talked about their platform and what it could do, it really started to seem like a place that started to sound like, "Okay, we can be part of something at the beginning. You can be that big thing that becomes the beacon for other projects there." And it was difficult. It was an ongoing conversation because Netflix wanted it, some other places wanted it.
Jon: Which is not a bad problem to have.
Josh: It was a very good problem.
Jon: How much internal discussion did you have of, "We should go Netflix. We should go Amazon. No, no, we're going to go YouTube."
Josh: YouTube was the most aggressive. So they had the edge in that they said we could make all 10 of our episodes, and we hadn't written a script yet. Netflix and some of those places were really encouraging, "Show us some pages. We'd really love to do a script to series deal." And things like that. And there were other places where there were budgetary differences, whereas YouTube knew that they had to be aggressive, knew that they have to strike now, strike first. And it really matched up with the spirit of the show in terms of we really wanted to make that whole season and we didn't want to take the risk of having a pilot that didn't go because we knew that that first episode was so specific. It was so Johnny specific. And the second episode was so Daniel specific and those early episodes are really choreographed very precisely to show that there's these different points of view that we're going to be coming in and out of where sometimes that guy's going to be the bad guy and sometimes that guy is going to be the bad guy and by the time we get you to that finale, you're not going to really know who you're rooting for. And we wanted to ensure that we got to tell that story. It was kind of like, we knew we had a five hour movie and we didn't want to just write the first 10 pages.
Jon: How was it transitioning from movies to television in the sense of a typical half hour show is what, 22 minutes?
Jon: But you're not limited to 22 minutes.
Josh: No. Our episodes come in anywhere from 22, 23 minutes to - I don't know if we have a 40 minute episode, but it's pretty close. We try to keep it around that 30 minute mark, but it's great to be able to write a full 30 minutes because I've written 22 minute pilots as well. I made a 22 minute pilot a few years ago and it's a different animal. With 22 minutes on a broadcast half hour comedy, things have to be fast and furious. You don't have moments to pause and for a character to really sigh and contemplate something, or for the camera to pull way back to appreciate the splendor of a quiet moment. You better be just plowing through on story or jokes or whatever the impetus of the moment is. Whereas we're really able to stretch the moments and enjoy the quiet as much as the fracas that is the show.
Jon: So from the time you got the deal signed with YouTube, how long before you started to shoot?
Josh: I want to say we pitched them in April of 2017 and we were shooting by September. So we pitched them in April, which doesn't mean that the deal was signed. I want to say that thus began the process of, "Is it really going to be YouTube? Is it possibly going to be Netflix or somebody else?" And meanwhile the John and Hayden and I start writing because at this point we know that somebody is going to get it and whoever gets it is probably gonna say, "Quick, hurry up. Give us a show." So we had to get ahead of it. By the time they started the writers' room, it was the very beginning of August or late July or thereabouts, and we had about five or six weeks before we were going to be rolling cameras. So that first season writers' room, God bless everybody in it, because we were constantly being pulled out of the room for casting, for department head meetings.
Jon: Take a second and step back and describe a writers' room.
Josh: A writers' room, I don't know. This is the only writers' room I've ever been in.
Jon: Let me ask it again. Describe your writers' room.
Josh: Our writers room for this show - which I don't know how common it is – Jon, Hayden, and I have a very clear and specific outline for the macro beats of the entire season when we enter the room. We know exactly how it's beginning, we know exactly how it's ending, and we know a lot of little things that are happening along the way. And then we have about seven or eight people in there who join us and we have an ongoing discussion. It's a movable discussion that never stops with people taking notes and organizing and note cards hitting walls that are, "This is a story idea. This is a moment. This is a character. This we're not sure what it is." And you start filling in those holes little by little and the discussion just morphs ideas. Things that you thought were an episode become a scene, things that you thought was a character you're definitely gonna have in season one doesn't even show up. And those micro beats for each episode start to take shape and then you're writing scripts and you're rewriting scripts and you're continuing to modify scenes and characters as you cast people. And casting sometimes changes what you've written. But that first season was such an abbreviated writers' room because we had to build sets and get down to Atlanta where we shoot the show and we had to hire everybody, we had to find a director of photography who's style really matched what was in our head. It was very important that this look and feel like The Karate Kid and not feel like a half hour comedy and not feel like, "Okay, this is something that's going to be on at 12:30 at night on a comedy network." We were just very precise and very stubborn and very careful about how we went about that.
Jon: How did you pick Atlanta?
Josh: Atlanta was a little bit picked for us in that we had a reasonably appropriate budget for the show, but really not enough to shoot the show in Los Angeles and be able to put as much scope and character and fights and moments on that screen. So then you start talking about where the tax credits in the world, and they're in Vancouver, and they're in Atlanta, and they're in places like that. Atlanta has just been more and more attractive in the last few years because it's so big. I've made a couple of movies in New Orleans and you can tell when there's one production too many in New Orleans, because you start bumping into each other and you start realizing that the crew you got might have one or two people who have never had that position before. It runs a little thin. Whereas Atlanta just has so much infrastructure and there's so many unions there. There's so many talented people, um, a lot of whom have relocated from Los Angeles to Atlanta because there's such a film and television industry there now, that it became a very hospitable place to shoot this show if you can't shoot it in the San Fernando Valley.
Jon: When you shot it, did you shoot it motion picture style where everything's out of sequence, or did you shoot it episodic?
Josh: Well, we always begin with the best intentions. We block shoot two episodes at a time. So episode one and two are shot together with one director episodes three and four are shot together with one director, et cetera, et cetera. The deeper you get into production and the crazier your days get, inevitably there are scenes that get dropped from a day or moments that get dropped from a scene because of time constraints, or location constraints, or weather, or actor availability, or sickness. So toward the second half of production, it really becomes, "Okay, well one of the three of us - Jon, Hayden, and myself - might be picking up a moment from this or that or the other. Which is not the worst thing in the world because the three of us direct six out of the 10 episodes, so it's usually our own stuff. We're cleaning up, but you might have a moment where I'm directing five different scenes with the same actor from six different episodes.
Jon: How long did it take to shoot season one?
Josh: Uh, I want to say 10 weeks, approximately about a week per episode.
Jon: How long did it take to edit them?
Josh: About two and a half months, roughly. We shot both seasons roughly from the beginning of September, or the middle of September, to Christmas. So about a three month period there. And then our post production editorial process is usually over by the end of February. So we have about two, two and a half months. It's fast. They're both fast. Production is faster than we prefer, but I don't think we're the only producers who feel that way on their show. Everyone always wants more time, more resources, but we really need it. And editorial goes very fast. But compared to production, it's an easier speed to deal with, because we're not out there in 20 degree weather. It's more about we make other people's lives miserable in terms of notes to editors and assistant editors rather than our lives personally being miserable.
Jon: What is the audience demo for the show?
New Speaker: The audience demo is anybody who has seen Karate Kid, which I believe is 96% of the world. But you don't have to be, either. It's a show that's very accessible if you've never seen Karate Kid. All you need to know is that in life there's something called high school and in high school there's something called people not getting along. And as you grow older, you find out that some of those rivalries fester. That's really all you need to know. If you know Karate Kid, and if you know it intimately, there are layers upon layers of things that are built into the show that are special for you. But it's a very easy show to show up to if you either have never seen Karate Kid or don't remember. The fun in terms of who watched the show is that it was really widely enjoyed by people of all demographics, sociopolitical socioeconomic.
Jon: So it has these common themes through it.
Josh: Yeah, there's something for everybody. And that was a little bit intentional and then a little bit it's just baked into the idea of this universe in that there are things to grasp ahold of in terms of, "Oh, you're a kid with an absentee father, or you're the new kid in school, or you're the kid who moved here from another country, or you're the girl who's getting cyber bullied, or you're the guy who feels like life owes you something, or you're the parent who's just trying to raise kids who aren't spoiled." And there's a little bit of everything.
Jon: Season 2 drops, April 24th.
Josh: April 24th, all episodes.
Jon: How many episodes?
Josh: 10 episodes again.
Jon: Same thing.
Jon: How many seasons do you have in you?
Josh: We have a lot. I can't say that I know specifically. Is it six? Is it seven? Is it eight? But we have a lot of seasons in us, and I know that because we keep not having room for the things that we think we're going to do. In both seasons so far, we've pushed out ideas that I can say I thought in stone we were doing. There are still things that we thought we were doing in season one that we haven't gotten to, and there were things that we were quote unquote “definitely going to do” in season two that we still have not done. We have a long and rich thought process for where this is going and the way that it's pacing out so far. It's really nice that we're getting the room to tell all these stories within stories and these points of interconnectivity that we don't want to rush it. That's the benefit of doing the streaming serialized show instead of the movie is that we don't just have to rush to the finish and take our hero up the mountain and see what happens. We get to have all these obstacles and detours and things along the way that inform other stories that maybe we haven't even considered yet.
Jon: What advice would you give to somebody that wants to produce original content for YouTube?
Josh: I would say really just do it. YouTube is a place where you can actually produce original content for YouTube today. You can put yourself in front of your cell phone. Do it. Believe me, it's out there. And people are becoming successful doing that. That's the platform where that happens. At the end of the day, content is key. Content is king. That's the old phrase that will always ring true. It doesn't matter where it is. It doesn't matter if it's on YouTube or it's on your phone and you show it to the right person. If you have something interesting and specific and beautiful to say or tell or do or show or write, just do it, because there's so many places to exhibit content now that it's never been a better time for a creator.
Jon: I'm going to shift to personal.
Jon: What is your favorite social media platform?
Josh: That's tough, because I'm not a huge social media guy. Although I'm one of the people who was there at the birth of social media. I started on Friendster and quickly moved to Myspace and then was told that you got to go to Facebook. And then I'm still on Facebook, but I'm also on Twitter. And then there's this thing Instagram, that I ignored and still largely do. I guess Twitter, because you get your dose. You can just quickly scan down that thing. You can get a little bit of everything. You get a little bit of comedy, you get a little bit of political anger, you get a little bit of news. You can follow more people and keep up with more people who aren't really intimately in your life. But I also like Facebook, because there's something fun about posting pictures of your kids for the people that you're actually closest with.
Jon: What TV channel doesn't exist, but really should?
Josh: Hmm. That's a tough one, because there's a TV channel for everything. I really don't know. Maybe the Magic Channel where it's just a magician.
Jon: They don't have that, do they?
Josh: Yeah. Just straight up magicians doing just magic all the time.
Jon: The Houdini channel.
Jon: My typical go-to question is favorite movie, but I already know that.
Josh: Yeah, yeah. I think you've got that one.
Jon: What's your guilty pleasure?
Josh: Eating. Just eating junk food. It's wonderfully guilty.
Jon: What is something that people would be surprised to learn about you?
Josh: I am a musician who plays a variety of musical instruments.
Jon: What do you play?
Josh: I play piano, I play trombone, I play drums, I play clarinet, and if you give me any woodwind or a trumpet, I could probably get a sound out of it.
Jon: That's impressive.
Josh: Piano, mostly. My wife and I both play piano. We have one in our house.
Jon: If you could make one rule that everybody had to follow, what would that rule be?
Josh: You have to surrender your license to me if I decide that you're a bad driver and then you're never allowed to get back in a car again. I would love that. That's what I want my superpower to be. I would like to take away people's licenses and just clear the road one driver at a time. I view that as my purpose: to go out there and just be the guy who -
Jon: Gets bad drivers off the road.
Josh: Yeah. They see me coming. They're like, "Oh no." And I'm like, "Yup. Hand it over." And that's it. And then that's one and out.
Jon: Since moving to Los Angeles, have you ever been starstruck?
Josh: It's funny, I'm not a very star struck person except with, there's that level of star. I met Tom Cruise, I sort of met Tom Cruise. My parents met Tom Cruise at the Hot Tub Time Machine premiere. Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes were there. And we were in the lobby afterwards and my mother and father came out and they've only been to Los Angeles two or three times.
Jon: So of course they're going to meet Tom Cruise.
Josh: So my mom says, "There's Tom Cruise. You should tell him you wrote the movie." And I said, "I'm not going to go over and bother Tom Cruise." Because I'm respectful, I don't know. So I go to the restroom, but I come back to find out that my mother bothered Tom Cruise and he could not have been nicer to her and they talked for like 15 minutes. And there's pictures to prove it. She wanted to take a picture of Tom with my dad and he said, "No, why don't all four of us take a picture." So there's this picture on the mantle at my parents house of them with Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes, which happens every time you come to Los Angeles.
Jon: Are there any pictures of you at the hot dog eating contest?
Josh: Yes. There's a picture of me before the Nathan's hot dog eating contest. There was video that Jon Hurwitz took of the hot dog eating contest that even I've never seen because it's on some type of camera that was prior to iPhone that we're not quite sure how to hook up to a computer. But one of these days, that will surface. And there's still images of me taking down that initial wienerschnitzel eating contest.
Jon: What's a question you wish people would stop asking you?
Josh: That's an interesting question. I don't get asked the same questions a lot. I guess, "Can you read my script?"
Jon: Do you get that?
Josh: Oh yeah. I get plenty of, "Hey man, if you wouldn't mind reading this..." Which believe me, I empathize with so much. I spent probably 10 to 12 years at the beginning of my actual screenwriting career reading every single one of those scripts, because people did that for me. But the amount of time that is required for me to read somebody's script and meaningfully give notes and help them along - and at that point, I'm invested and I'm going to want to read the rewrite - it's a lot. That's not to say that if I'm producing something, I will not give it my 100% all. But in terms of somebody who's like, "Hey, I'm from nowhere."
Jon: So you don't want to read the one I brought with me?
Josh: No, thank you. With no disrespect whatsoever, but I've done my community service for a few years now.
Jon: Have you had an "I've made it" moment?
Josh: Yeah. I think for me, it's not even "I've made it," but there was a short-lived awards show called "The Comedy Awards" that only seemed to happen for two years. The inaugural one was the year that Hot Tub Time Machine came out, and Hot Tub Time Machine was nominated for and won best original screenplay. So I got to go to New York, and get up on stage, and accept this microphone award that was modeled after Johnny Carson's microphone, and give some semblance of an acceptance speech. And I'm looking out at the crowd and it's Steve Carell, and Steve Colbert, and Jon Stewart, and Kristen Wiig. It really felt like, "what the hell am I doing up here and they're sitting at the tables?" And then they were accepting awards also, so it wasn't like I was the toast of the town, but it was a really fun night. It's a silly thing, but it's nice to have somebody pat you on the back at some point and say, "Hey, that thing you did, we enjoyed it."
Jon: So last question, where can people find you on the Internet?
Josh: You can find me on the internet on Twitter - we've revealed my favorite social media platform. I am Heald Rules, @healdrules. You can ask me to read your script, and I won't be a cranky old man. Maybe I'll read one script.
Jon: Thank you. It's been a pleasure.
Josh: Thank you so much. I appreciate it.
The Creative Influencer is a weekly podcast where we discuss all things creative with an emphasis on Influencers. The podcast is hosted by Jon Pfeiffer, an entertainment attorney in Santa Monica, California. Jon interviews influencers, creatives, and the professionals who work with them.
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