Kevin Derek discovered two great passions from an early age; film making and martial arts, which he combined to build a career in film bringing to the screen the life stories of those who have been his inspiration. From his early years producing action films, to producing and directing stirring documentaries surrounding his love of Karate, Kevin has truly captured the spirit of competition on film. His directorial debut “Empty Hands; The Real Karate Kids” followed the journey of four young Karate-kas facing their biggest competitive challenge.
Kevin has won critical acclaim, not to mention numerous “Best Documentary” awards for “The Real Miyagi”, a film chronicling the life of his Sensei and inspirational role model (second to his own father) Fumio Demura. A legend in the field of karate, Sensei Demura overcame prejudice and hardship and was essentially responsible for the rise of Karate in the US and the West. His incredible accomplishments and down to earth demeanour have earned Sensei Demura the adulation and respect of many of the biggest names in martial arts.
Kevin is currently working on a documentary on the life of Pat Morita (who played ‘Mr Miyagi’ in The Karate Kid films) from which he has taken time out to talk with KFK all about his life, love of film making and martial arts.
Hi Kevin, It’s great to connect with you and we hope you’re keeping well?
Hi Ramon, I’m doing great. Thank you so much!
Well first of all, welcome to Kung Fu Kingdom and thanks so much for taking some time out to share your story with us. What do you think of the name Kung Fu Kingdom (KFK)?
It’s catchy and easy to remember.
Thanks. So tell us a little about yourself, where were you born?
I was born in Shiraz, Iran at a time when if you’d mention that to anyone in the States, they would have no clue where that was, or they’d say, “Yeah, our family just vacationed there”.
Interesting! Have you trained in martial arts?
Yes, martial arts have always been a big part of my life.
I see. What was the first main style you trained and what different arts if any have you studied?
I was first introduced to Shotokan at the age of 9 years-old, took a liking to it and continued for many years, then I went on to study Shito-Ryu, Taekwondo and American Kickboxing.
That’s quite a good mix of styles. How much time do you dedicate to training?
I spend a few hours a day, 3 days a week but just recently I injured my back at a demonstration doing a flying spin-kick and I landed wrong, so that’s put me out of commission for the time being.
Sounds nasty, we wish you a speedy recovery! Who would you say has most influenced you in the martial arts – who are your heroes or inspirational figures in the fighting arts; a top 5 perhaps?
As a child I was the most influenced by Bruce Lee! No surprise there, then Chuck Norris came along and of course the great Jackie Chan. I grew up watching their films fanatically. As you get older your perception changes and you tend to look for more than just great martial arts ability in an inspirational figure. I’m sure that Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan are wonderful people but my all-time hero has to be my father. It takes great courage to take your family to the other side of the world and start from scratch and build a new life. I don’t have a top 5of these figures in my life per se, but Master Fumio Demura comes a close second.
Your father sounds like a courageous person indeed. Do you enjoy martial arts movies and who do you most admire in the martial arts movie world?
I love martial arts movies. I mainly enjoy watching the older ones that feature more traditional fighting styles even though the premise is thin, they are fun to watch, like “Kill or be Killed” and the older [Chuck] Norris films “Octagon” and “Force of One”. Films that are competition-based are my favourite, not a big fan of wires and special effects but there are a few exceptions. If the story is solid and the characters are believable, then it works for me.
I’m with you. Could you list off some of your top martial arts movies? (Doesn’t have to be in order though.)
Colourful gems there! So,what inspired you to pursue a career in film?
I remember that moment very clearly. I was in 8th grade; the portable VHS camcorder had just hit the market, it was like; “here comes my neighbourhood friend showing off the state-of-the-art camera with title features that he got for his birthday.”!
That weekend, with a combined $18 in our pockets, we set out to create an epic masterpiece. We knew nothing about video cameras nor telling a story for that matter, but we were both into karate, so we decided it would be a martial arts action film in the tradition of “Enter the Dragon”. We called it “Enter the Black Belt”. We came up with the basic premise and pretty soon all the neighbourhood kids wanted to get involved.
With a cast of eight, we began to shoot. Back then we had no editing equipment, so we edited in the camera as we were shooting. We shot the entire film in four hours, and that same night we invited our parents and friends for a screening. Even though the audience was made up of our relatives and friends, their reaction to the film made me realize that even though I couldn’t always verbally express my thoughts, this was a tool that I could use to make people feel a certain way or to express myself. It was very clear to me at that point that this is what I wanted to pursue.
Fantastic. I’d love to have seen that film. Anyway, I know you mainly started off on the technical side of filmmaking but in 1999 you produced your first film, the documentary “Martial Arts in Motion Pictures.” Can you tell us more about that?
I was going to college at that time and needed to make some money to pay back my tuition. Having a few connections in the martial arts film business, I thought of making an instructional documentary with my buddy Jack Kaprielian that would help martial artists use their skills to get into the film business. With the help of Master Fumio Demura, Roger Yuan and T.J Storm we shot it in a week, the post only took a month and it was pretty successful helping many martial artists kick start their film career.
Following on from that you produced a variety of films and even broke into screenwriting with the 2001 action film “The Ultimate Game” starring Paul Logan and T.J Storm. What led you to make the move into writing?
Basically, we had a very tiny budget to create this action film and didn’t have the money to get a writer, so I had no choice but to take a stab at it. This film was too ambitious for its own good. Considering what we had to work with; a cast of 60 actors with 34 action scenes and only 2 weeks to shoot it all…For those who have shot a fight scene before, you know it takes at least one day if not more depending on the complexity to shoot just one fight scene. In our case we only had 3 days to do the main tournament scene. I have to give T.J. Storm and J.D. Rifkin credit, they seriously worked their hearts out. Needless to say, we gave it our best shot but what I wrote was not what we filmed because of time and money constraints, but we managed to complete and sell it worldwide.
Amazing. Your first film as director is the documentary entitled “Empty Hand; The Real Karate Kids”. Can you tell us more about this film and what motivated you to tell this story?
Well, I was hanging out with my producing partner, Oscar Alvarez and I was telling him it’s time I started directing something. I mentioned I wanted to make a film about kids, and the first thing he said was “Karate” and I said “Kids” and as corny as that sounds, we started pursuing that idea. I wanted to create a film that was motivational for kids.
My son was currently taking karate at a local dojo, so I hit up Sensei Paul Godshaw and told him the idea, so we picked the four most interesting kids in the class and followed them for a year. Basically “Empty Hand: The Real Karate Kids” is a true story of four young karate competitors who prepare to fight against their toughest rivals in the biggest tournament of the year. This film is an open window into their private lives. From the confines of the Karate dojo, to the wider outside world and beyond their comfort zone, the four struggle to balance the rigors of training with the demands of being a young person in America. This is a tale of dreams, aspirations and the hope of taking home the title of the next Karate Kid Champion. The documentary, I believe was the first of its kind and was premiered at the Oscar Accredited DOC NYC Film Festival in November of 2011. If anyone is interested, it’s available on Amazon & DVD.
We’ll be sure to check it out. Was your first time in the director’s chair nerve-racking; how was your experience of making the film?
Actually, directing has never been nerve-racking for me. I truly enjoy doing it and can’t imagine doing anything else. Sometimes you get overwhelmed when you have to deal with a barrage of questions but that’s part of the job. A narrative film is directed 3 times: when it’s written,when it’s shot and when it’s edited. With documentaries it’s mainly in the editing especially when you shoot over a hundred hours of footage. The process of editing is excruciating and you start to doubt yourself after a year of working on it. One thing I can tell you is that, sometimes I run into named actors that I have grown-up watching and admired. I need to interview them for our films, and it’s sad to see how self-centred and arrogant they are. It makes you not want to be in the same room with them. Other than that, it’s a rewarding process.
Now onto “The Real Miyagi”, your second film as director about the life and work of the legendary Fumio Demura. How did you approach Sensei Demura with your idea for this documentary?
Master Fumio Demura was my first karate teacher back when I was 9 years-old. When I was in Florida shooting “The Real Karate Kids” I ran into him at the National Tournament. I hadn’t seen him in a long, long time, but he recognized me so later we went out to lunch and I waited until the right moment and I popped the question. I looked him in the eye and said “Sensei, I’ve been wanting to do a documentary about your life for the longest time” and Sensei replied, “You’d better do it quickly because I don’t know how much longer I have to live”. With that being said, I got on the phone with my producer and the rest is history.
Seems like he was enthusiastic from the start with a touch of persuasion.
He was excited from the start. I think he had been wanting to do this. I just came along at the right time.
Sounds like good kung fu or rather karate-karma lent a helping hand. What was it like for you personally to not only meet him again but to be working on his life story?
Definitely honoured that he trusted me to preserve his history. I was excited to tell his story. I knew his life forward and backward having been around him during my childhood.
Did you learn anything new about Sensei Demura during the course of filming that you hadn’t known previously?
Yes, I didn’t know he loved to eat pizza! Also, his connection to Steven Seagal. In his 20’s Seagal lived in Buena Park, California where Sensei Demura was doing his demonstrations at the Deer Park Village. Seagal use to carry around a drum to attract people to come and see the show and help Demura with the demonstrations and few other things – that Sensei might kill me for if I share – but he is a great man and respected all over the world
I thought Seagal’s part there was interesting. Things took on a special kind of poignancy when Sensei Demura fell into a coma a year into production, and it seemed almost certain he would not recover. How did this change your intended direction for the film in terms of telling the story?
This was so sudden. One of his students called us and gave us this grim news. We were all in shock. We basically stopped the shoot and out of respect, we did not want to videotape this.So we just waited.
Well thankfully he did recover and you got to finish the film. So, has Sensei Demura seen the finished film, what were his thoughts?
The first time that Sensei saw the film was at the premier we had in Anaheim, California. He couldn’t stop crying. This was the first time I had seen Sensei Demura get so emotional.
A very touching moment. Of course, Sensei has led an extraordinary life and you have done well to capture all these various aspects of it. Was there anything that you couldn’t include but would’ve liked to, and if so can you tell us about them?
Yes, many, many scenes were taken out because my first cut was over two hours long. We had to cut out the scenes where directors and producers discuss the other films he had worked on. His first film with Chuck Norris and the Texas Ranger, “Rising Sun” with Sean Connery, “The Ninja” and many more stories that were told, we had to take out.Also one thing I regret not filming was his recovery process. It would have had a greater impact on the audience, how a person in his mid-70’s that’s given only 5% chance to live, came out of coma, regains his strength and recovers the way he did. It was nothing short of a miracle.
That would‘ve made for an extra-inspirational story, and he did phenomenally well to bounce back like he did. You’ve now embarked on a third documentary following the “Karate Kid” theme this time looking at the life of Pat Morita whom we all know as the endearing wise-mentor ‘Mr. Miyagi’ from the films. Tell us more about this project, how far along are you into production?
We are currently looking for investors to finish production. As you know, documentaries are love projects. You need to truly believe in the subject matter before you take the journey because it takes many years to create one. We’re in our first year of production and everything is going as planned. Just recently we interviewed Ralph Macchio, he’s such a nice guy. We had a dozen “Karate Kid 3” posters that Pat Morita had signed before his death, Ralph also signed them, so we can auction them off to help cover the production costs.
Ideal that you interviewed the Karate Kid ‘Daniel-san’ himself! What appeal does Pat Morita hold for you?
I met Pat Morita when I was 15 years-old. This was before “The Karate Kid” came out. My encounter with him was so memorable that it stayed with me. His portrayal as ‘Mr. Miyagi’ resonated with millions of people. He became everyone’s sensei. All of a sudden Karate was hip igniting a karate frenzy worldwide. You had lines of people outside karate dojos wanting to join. I think it’s time that people knew who he really was, the struggles he faced and how he became this beloved man we all know as Mr. Miyagi.
That’s very true. Without giving too much away, care to tantalize our readers as to what will feature in the completed film?
His entire life was compelling. Can you imagine being in a full body cast from age 2-11 years-old due to contracting a rare form of tuberculosis? Having been told that you will never walk again? And, when he’s finally being treated and able to walk, the war breaks out and he’s escorted by an FBI agent to the internment camps. His family had to get rid of everything they had worked hard for and restart their life from scratch. Many, many other obstacles in his life that I can’t mention, for him to come out of these ordeals in one piece without losing his sanity, to then become an iconic figure speaks volumes.
That’s incredible. We look forward to seeing the finished film. So, let’s learn a little more about you! What’s one geeky thing about you that people don’t really know?
I used to collect comic books
Me too! What are some of your other hobbies outside of martial arts?
I wish I had time for other hobbies but I enjoy building and creating something from nothing. Whether it’s a backyard project, sculpture, art pieces, etc. Kind of like making a film, you create a project from nothing.
So you’re a very creative person. Any favourite (non-martial arts) movies?
Yes, many! “The Shaws hank Redemption”, “Fracture”, “Black Hawk Down”, “Gladiator”, “Scarface”, “The Deer Hunter”, “Memento”, “American History X”, “The Usual Suspects”, “The Little Death” and many more.
Some great films there. What in life do you really like?
Helping people out, nature and chocolate doughnuts.
Who doesn’t love chocolate doughnuts! What in life do you dislike the most?
Racism and hate
Agree. What would you say is your proudest accomplishment so far?
Nice! What are you really keen to accomplish in the next 5 years?
I have three other documentaries in the works and also working on a feature narrative script based on a true story that I hope to have done by then.
Keeping busy then! Could you share a couple of “warrior-wisdom” quotes that have shaped and molded you up to this point into who you are today as film-maker and martial artist?
“The only thing that stands between you and success is your ego” – KD (Kevin Derek)
“9 times fall 10 times get up.” – Sensei Demura (he always says this.)
And:“You won’t learn until you fail, visualize your goal and work toward it.”
So true. So, as we get ready to sign off, what special message would you like to share with Kung Fu Kingdom readers and people that know you around the world?
Don’t give up on your dreams whatever they may be, keep pursuing them until they become a reality. Everyone gets at least one chance in life, and when that opportunity comes you’d better be ready for it.
Absolutely! Thanks so much for this unique interview Kevin, it’s been a real pleasure. Lastly, if people would like to find out more about your work and keep up to date with what you’re doing, where’s the best place to go?
Love karate? Who (or perhaps which movie) inspires you most in the karate world? Let us know in the comments below, join in the conversation on Facebook and follow us on Twitter (don’t forget to check out our previous interviews)!