Interview: Emmy-nominated ‘Cobra Kai’ Stunt Coordinators Hiro Koda & Jahnel Curfman
Recently, I had the opportunity to sit down with husband and wife stunt team, Hiro Koda & Jahnel Curfman, the Emmy-nominated Stunt Coordinators of YouTube series ‘Cobra Kai‘.
Continuing the story of the classic ‘Karate Kid’ movies, ‘Cobra Kai’ is set 30 years after the events of the 1984 All Valley Karate Tournament. A down-and-out Johnny Lawrence (William Zabka) seeking redemption by reopening the infamous Cobra Kai karate dojo, reigniting his rivalry with a now-successful Daniel LaRusso (Ralph Macchio), who has been struggling to maintain balance in his life without the guidance of his mentor, Mr. Miyagi.
Hiro Koda & Jahnel Curfman works together as stunt coordinators on ‘Cobra Kai’, which is coming back for Season 3 in 2020, and have previously worked together on HBO smash hit drama ‘Big Little Lies’. The pair are currently nominated for the Outstanding Stunt Coordination For A Comedy Series Or Variety Program Emmy for their amazing work on ‘Cobra Kai’ Season 2.
Both working together and separately, the duo has an incredible list of projects under their collective belts. Hiro worked on shows such as ‘True Blood’, ‘Sons of Anarchy’, ‘The Last Ship’, ‘Ozark’ and ‘Supah Ninjas’, which won him his first Emmy. Jahnel has worked ‘Avatar’, Netflix movie ‘Bird Box’, where she doubled for Sandra Bullock, ‘Bones’, where she doubled for Michaela Conlin, ‘Rizzoli & Isles’ as double for Angie Harmon, and ‘Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle’ where she doubles for Karen Gillan.
To start off the interview, I just wanted to get some clarification on exactly what being a stunt coordinator on a show like ‘Cobra Kai’ entails, and how they got into the business in the first place.
Geektown: For people that maybe haven’t seen or heard us interview stunt people before, do you just want to explain what your job is as a stunt coordinator?
Hiro Koda: Stunt coordinator is in charge of hiring all of the stunt performers that work on the shows, stunt doubles, indie stunt performers, stunt players that are play stunt acting roles, things like that. We design all of the action that is broken down in the script during prep, depending on if it’s a television show or feature, we do both.
Jahnel Curfman: Usually we’ll get a script, we’ll read through it, we’ll find the beats of action, and then start brainstorming, breaking down, figure out the most dynamic and safest way to do the action. And then we choreograph it, create it, and then take it to the directors and just brainstorm with them. It’s very collaborative because a lot of times, we’ll come in with something and they say, “Oh, can we change it to a little bit more like this or that?”. It’s very much a collaborative effort so that sometimes what you start out with isn’t necessarily what you end up with on-screen.
Hiro Koda: Also, as the stunt coordinator, you’re in charge of the safety of your cast, obviously. And then also for the crew, for anything that is for the people behind the scenes, depending on what is happening in a scene, whether it involves a big stunt or a big special effect or whatever it is, you’re in charge of the safety of everyone on set.
Geektown: Yeah, of course. It’s an interesting job! How did both of you get into it?
Hiro Koda: For me, I got my SAG card when I was 12 years old doing a national commercial and dabbed into acting for a little bit, and then the writers had a strike the year that I tried to start to act, and it shut the industry down for quite a while. I’ve grown up in martial arts my whole life, so I was travelling all over the country competing and whatnot. But my father, he trained a couple of stunt folks kickboxing, and when we were in L.A. visiting, I got to go and visit a movie set and I met a tonne of stunt people doing a rehearsal. It was a stunt rehearsal and I thought it was the coolest thing in the world. So since I was 12, that’s all I wanted to do. Jackie Chan, Buster Keaton is like one of my favourites growing up. By the time I was 16 turning 17, I had a made the move to California to become a stuntman and try to figure this business out. And here I am today.
Jahnel Curfman: I didn’t know as early on as Hiro that this was even a choice for a career. I was a competitive gymnast growing up and then went on to play basketball in college and then I was dancing professionally in L.A. I had an agent, I was a Laker girl. I was doing commercials and music videos and that sort of thing as a professional dancer. And I got a call from my agent that there was this top-secret feature film that was looking for tall, graceful, athletic women to do motion capture. And at that point, I had no idea what motion capture was. But I went in and I auditioned and ended up screen testing and then ultimately ended up on that film for three years, which was ‘Avatar’ with Jim Cameron and worked very closely with the stunt team. And in that experience, it made me realise, “Wow, like this is what I want to get into. This is really the embodiment of everything I love about movement and action and performance all wrapped into one.”. Once ‘Avatar’ was over, I started to make that transition from dancing professionally into stunt work.
Geektown: Wow. What a shift! You do work together on some projects, but not on everything. You have both been working on ‘Cobra Kai’ though, which must’ve been a great show to come together on. It’s based around martial arts, so there’s a lot for you to be able to get hold of what a show like that.
Hiro Koda: It’s an incredible show to be a part of. The creators, Jon [Hurwitz], Josh [Heald] and Hayden [Schlossberg], are incredible writers and going through and reading all the scripts, it’s such a joy. And this cast, crew… incredible. They’re all amazing. Growing up in martial arts, my father was my instructor. He was basically my Mr. Miyagi and Karate Kid was a huge part of my childhood, and to get the call come on board of ‘Cobra Kai’, it was pretty much a dream come true. It was pretty amazing.
Geektown: Did you go on that show together or did one of you land it first and then you ended up with both of you getting involved?
Hiro Koda: I started the show first season and ran through the first season. Jahnel was very busy on other shows. She came in and out, day played here and there, but towards the end when we were getting it to the finale, the All Valley Karate Championship, I brought her in as another coordinator. There was no way to do it by myself.
Jahnel Curfman: I came in for that final sequence for the All Valley tournament and we choreographed, rehearsed, taught, and prevized 20 fights in about 4 days. To do that much choreography to make it all look different, to make sure your actors are dialled in to what they need to be, it was a lot. Hiro was actually on camera as well during that sequence. He played the Centre Ref, so he needed an extra person, not only help with the preparation, but the days when we were actually shooting, you always need to have a stunt coordinator behind monitor to make sure the hits are selling, to make sure all of the action looks clean and crisp and is shot well. I was his eyes behind the camera while he was in front of the camera, and then Season 2 came around, and they upped the action 1000%, so the two of us just sort of rolled right into Season 2 together.
Geektown: Season 1 had that big tournament at the end, and Season 2 has the huge showdown at the high school. How is it prepping something, which was essentially an organised event, compared to an all-out massive rumble?
Jahnel Curfman: It was insane! The writers, Jon, Josh and Hayden, basically kept paralleling it to a prison brawl. We kept coming in with like, “Okay, there just has to be chaos.” And we sat down with the script and just started to organise that chaos into bits and pieces that were manageable. Yeah.
Hiro Koda: We had to map every bit of it out to figure out where everybody was going to be and where they were going from point A to point B in the location at the school because it was all over the place in that school.
Geektown: What was particularly difficult about just organising that many people? Because I guess you’ve got to make it look chaotic but not be chaotic because you don’t want people hurting each other.
Hiro Koda: Yeah, safety was our number one concern for sure. The biggest difficulty for us and the challenge for us was just the time. We didn’t have a whole lot of time. The amount of stuff that we did, we shot in three days over a period of three weekends because the building that we were using was not available during the week, so we only were able to shoot on the weekends, so it was lit up over three weekends or two and a half weekends or whatever. And the time of coming to the finale of the season, everybody’s working different scenes, so bringing them in to learn their choreography and keeping their training going on prior to was very difficult as well, so we took time on our weekends prior to the weekends of us shooting to try to put all this together. And then even as we were going, just things were changing a little bit here and there and trying to shorten things up or make things longer or make them go different directions. We were choreographing there on the day for, “Okay, this is what we’re going to be doing tomorrow so we’re going to do this section.” It was pretty chaotic there just doing everything prior to shooting it.
Jahnel Curfman: Yeah. The weeks leading up to it where the cast is shooting during that time and one of the ADs would say, “Okay, you’ve got 30 minutes with Mary Mouser.” And so it’d be like, “Okay, who knows Mary’s choreography? Let’s get her through the pieces. Let’s get her to know what she needs.” And that was the thing, too, is making sure that every time we did do a chunk of choreography for a specific thing, is that we referenced it on our iPhone because, a lot of times, we would get to put it all together and be like, “Okay, wait a second. What were those 12 beats that I choreographed 3 days ago that I want to put in here?” And that’s another really important thing, is just making sure we reference everything as we come up with it.
Hiro Koda: We had an incredible stunt team and all of our doubles, they’re great doubles for all their actors, and they were with us through all of this the whole time. I just kept them on and we just need to pull them when we can and work with them.
Geektown: Are you responsible for training the actors in a certain amount of martial arts to be able to make it look real when they’re there doing the fight sequences as well? Because there must be an awful lot of that on ‘Cobra Kai’.
Hiro Koda: Absolutely. We started way back on the first season of Cobra Kai. Because Cobra Kai’s shot in Atlanta, Georgia, we would start our training in L.A. before they flew out to Atlanta, and as soon as they get here they’re just continually training in Atlanta. We have a gym set up at the studio for us to train in, and we’re just gearing up now for Season 3, so the cast is now training in L.A. right now, getting ready to come here. They’ll be here in a week and then we start training here with them.
Basically, through prep and before we start filming, they’re in the gym everyday training with us, and then once filming starts, we work out a schedule with them as far as how their shooting schedule goes and we pull them in. They come in and train as much as we can, learning choreography, and just continuing their martial arts training as well, which has been nice because a lot of the kids, none of them had martial arts experience prior to, so they’ve progressed with the season as the story progresses, which is kind of cool.
Geektown: Have there been any actors that you’ve been training on this that you’ve been particularly impressed by and have really managed to pick it up?
Hiro Koda: Jacob Bertrand, who plays Hawk, he’s an incredible athlete. In fact, that kid, if he didn’t want to act and wanted to be a stuntman, I’d put him on my team. He’s pretty incredibly talented. All the kids are, and they all work very, very hard. Xolo [who plays Miguel Diaz]… from the beginning to where he’s at today, is just an incredible difference with the first day that I saw him throw a punch.
And then you have Mary [Mouser who plays Samantha LaRusso], who didn’t have any action in the first season and then jump to the second season where she had loads of action. I’ll let Jahnel tell you her story because they worked together quite a bit and she was probably one of the hardest working last season because she hadn’t done anything like this before.
Jahnel Curfman: Yeah, it really was cool coming on full-time in the second season because they had some really strong female characters step up the action as well. Peyton List’s character, Tory, who I also was the stunt double for, and then Mary Mauser’s character, Samantha, really increased their amount of action, so it was really cool coming on full-time to see their action increase.
And Mary was such a hard worker. She reached a lot of her goals as a martial artist and a lot of her goals just physically and athletically. And to see where she went from the beginning of the season to the end of the season was astounding.
Geektown: So you’re coming back for the third season, which you’re starting to shoot fairly soon. You talked about the action from season one to season two going up 1000%. What sorts of percentage is it moving up for Season 3? I know you can’t tell me specifics about anything, but…
Jahnel Curfman: We just got the first two scripts, and it’s … I’ll just say this. They’re not letting up.
Geektown: Another show you’ve worked on as well – ‘Stranger Things’. Were you both working on that or was that just Hiro working on that?
Jahnel Curfman: Yeah, that was just Hiro. I was busy with something else when he was on that.
Geektown: The last season was particularly superb, and one of the episodes that you were responsible for was the ‘The Battle Of Starcourt’. How was that to work on?
Hiro Koda: ‘Stranger Things’ was an incredible show to work on. It was extremely difficult. I second unit directed the third season as well.
Geektown: I saw that. Yeah.
Hiro Koda: Yeah. That show… I mean, when I first got the show, remembering like the first two seasons I had seen and I was like, “There’s not a whole lot of action on this show. It’s busy, but it’s not crazy.”. And then when I started getting into Season 3, it was like, “Whoa, they’ve amped up this action way more than they had in the past!”
But yeah, it was such a fun show to work on. The cast on that show is amazing. The Duffer Brothers, it was an honour to work for them, and it was such an amazing thing for them to trust in me and second unit directing some of their scenes. And to be able to do that finale sequence, it was incredible. The main cast was coming in on my sets when I was directing second unit, and I was shooting with them. It was, it was incredible. It was a good experience for sure.
Geektown: Is directing something that you’d like to do a bit more of?
Hiro Koda: Yeah, directing is where I’m headed. I love second unit directing. I love stunt coordinating and designing action. I’ve been doing that for now for 30 years, but directing is ultimately where I want to go. Jahnel and I have projects that we’ve done together that she writes. We co-wrote a project called ‘Contrato’ that she produced and I directed. It premiered it at the Arizona international film festival this year. That was kind of exciting for us.
Geektown: That’s great! Stunt work is one of those things that I guess there comes a point where you think, “I’m getting too old for doing this.”
Jahnel Curfman: There’s definitely an expiration date.
Hiro Koda: As far as coordinating, you can coordinate for quite some time, because I hire the people to do the hard hits and all that stuff for me, I just get to design it and say, “This is what you’re going to do.”
Geektown: Yeah. It makes life a lot easier. Less getting hit in the face. That’s what you want.
Hiro Koda: For sure! [Laughs]
Geektown: You both worked on ‘Big Little Lies’ too. I wouldn’t have thought they were a huge amount of stunts in that…
Jahnel Curfman: You’d be surprised!
Hiro Koda: On that show, those actually were even more difficult because the content itself dealt with domestic abuse and stuff. But Jahnel had to do a lot of that doubling of Nicole Kidman. She wasn’t able to wear any padding or any kind of thing like that. The harder the hits were much harder.
Geektown: Yeah I’m sure! There’s a whole range of shows you worked on. Is there one particular sequence you’re each proudest of the way it came out?
Hiro Koda: The finale sequence of Season 2 of ‘Cobra Kai’, we’re super proud of that sequence. The big “oner”, 88 seconds long in that hallway, was 98% cast with a couple of quick Texas switches of stunt people coming in and out of that. But that was something that we were very, very proud of, and I’m obviously very proud of the stuff I did on ‘Stranger Things’. That finale fight with Grigori was my baby last year when I was directing that. I’m very proud of that sequence as well. For you?
Jahnel Curfman: For me, I would say the first ‘Jumanji’ movie I doubled Karen Gillan as Ruby Roundhouse and I really enjoyed every piece of action that I got to perform in that movie, along with just having an amazing cast, an amazing stunt team. It really is a Jumanji family. I really just adore the whole production team, our director, our cast, everybody. But I think for me, it was also a personal challenge. I did the entire movie with a herniated disc in my back…
Geektown: Oh, wow.
Jahnel Curfman: I was facing my own challenges, and of course, as a stunt person, we don’t ever let anybody know that. It was just silently suffering on the sidelines, but then coming in and doing my job. And I think for me it was also a huge accomplishment physically and mentally to get through that. And to become as close as I did with the stunt team and the cast and everything also made it really special, so that’s something I look back on and I’m extremely proud of.
Geektown: And you went back for the second movie as well, which I know is in post-production at the moment.
Jahnel Curfman: It is. Yeah. We just finished that in May.
Geektown: Is there a difference between doing stunt work for a straight action-drama and stunt work for an action-comedy?
Jahnel Curfman: Yeah, absolutely. In fact, we’re nominated for best stunt coordination for a comedy, and stunt coordinating with an Emmy award has only been separated since 2013, and Hiro actually won the Emmy for best stunt coronation in a comedy for ‘Supah Ninjas’ the very first year that they separated the dramas from the comedies.
It is very different, because you want to take into consideration that you can make something a little bit campier, or you can incorporate those comedy beats within the action. Whereas something that’s a straight drama that’s very serious, it’s sometimes a lot heavier, darker content. It allows you different avenues in different freedoms in each.
Geektown: Have you got one particular fact about your job that might surprise people?
Jahnel Curfman: I guess something that might surprise people is as a stunt performer, we’re used to doing things that are very risky, and people think that, “Oh, you know, you’re brave, you’re a daredevil, you don’t get scared.”. But there’s been certain things that I’ve been terrified to do. It’s not all courage and being brave on our end. There’ve been certain things that I’ve gotten into that’s just like, “Oh God, I’m terrified right now. I cannot mess this up.”
Geektown: Has anybody come to you with the stunts and you’ve looked at it and gone, “How are we going to be able to pull this off? It looks great on a page, but how on Earth are we going to bring this to screen?” And you’ve managed to pull it off?
Jahnel Curfman: I think that all the time, and this is the incredible thing about my husband. Hiro will look at something and know immediately how to pull it off, what little tweaks need to be made, what needs to change, anything that as far as safety and as far as making it look as great as possible on camera, he just knows every little thing to pull off to make it work. And it still to this day baffles me. I’ll look at something and I’m like, “There’s no way. You can’t do that.” And he’ll say, “Well, if we do this to this and tweak this a little bit, it’ll be perfect.” And it’s like, “Oh my God, yes.” But I guess that’s what comes when you’ve been in the business for 30 years and have a brain like his.
Geektown: Last few questions. One thing I always go into the IMDB and look down through the list to see some of the things in the earlier part of the career, because I always find that quite interesting. One of the things that stood out for me on Hiro’s IMDB you did in 2003… Motion capture for the ‘Star Wars Galaxies’ video game…
Hiro Koda: Yeah. Oh my gosh.
Geektown: I only spotted that because I loved that game!
Hiro Koda: Oh, did you?
Geektown: Yes. I was completely obsessed with that game!
Hiro Koda: That’s all me.
Geektown: So you were you doing the motion capture for everything on that?
Hiro Koda: I did. I did every character in that game.
Hiro Koda: That was the first experience I ever had with being in the motion capture suit, which today, I think motion capture is very different. Jahnel’s very savvy on all the motion capture, but years ago, it was very new. That was my first time doing that and I did like four days straight of just every single character in that game. And I never wanted to do motion capture again after!
Geektown: Yes, very different to doing something like Avatar I’m fairly sure!
Hiro Koda: Yeah. I was in a black room in front of a bunch of guys in front of a computer and they’re going, “Okay, now let’s turn this way and do the same thing. Okay, turn this way and do the same thing.” It was just like “agh!” It’s funny you found that because that was the first and probably last time that I actually got in a motion-capture suit!
Geektown: It just stuck out to me because I absolutely loved it! It was online and the official game servers aren’t active anymore, but people run copies of it on their own private servers, so it does still survive!
Hiro Koda: Awesome.
Geektown: Last couple of questions, which are always the same for all our guests. First one – What TV shows are you watching at the moment?
Hiro Koda: Well, we just finished ‘Catastrophe’.
Jahnel Curfman: Which is brilliantly written. Have you watched it?
Geektown: I have seen it. It’s hilarious.
Jahnel Curfman: It’s so funny. And we actually don’t watch a lot of action. We watch a lot of drama. I’m still finishing up the last season of ‘Scandal’. I’m a little bit behind on that, but we love ‘How To Get Away With Murder’. We recently finished ‘The Good Wife‘, which we both really loved. We’ve got a whole list of things. Our favourite TV show of all time is ‘Breaking Bad’. There just has not been anything like it.
Geektown: No, I would agree with you on that! It’s quite funny, it’s like when I’m talking to, say, a composer, half the time they’ll pick something that has no music…
Jahnel Curfman: [Laughs] Oh, that’s funny. But yeah, we don’t watch ‘Walking Dead’. We don’t watch ‘Game of Thrones’. We don’t watch any of the big action…
Hiro Koda: We will watch the shows that we do.
Jahnel Curfman: Yeah. Yeah. We’ll watch ‘Cobra Kai’ and ‘Big Little Lies’ and the TV shows that we work on. But, for the most part-
Hiro Koda: It’s not our leisure time.
Jahnel Curfman: Yeah. We like good drama and good comedy.
Geektown: Yeah. I might know the answer to the last question now, given what you’ve just said, but… If you had the opportunity to work on any TV show, past, present, or future, not one you’ve worked on, but which show would it be?
Jahnel Curfman: Oh man…
Hiro Koda: I love ‘Breaking Bad’ so much. I would have loved to have worked on that show.
Geektown: Yeah. I thought ‘Breaking Bad’ might back come up!
Jahnel Curfman: Yeah, that would have been a fun one to work on! One of my dad’s favourite shows growing up was ‘Magnum PI’. And I remember that was back in the day when they did huge stunts. There wasn’t a lot of visual effects, so they were doing all of those things practically. And I just remember the car chases and the helicopters and the fights. That would have been a fun one to go back and work on!
Geektown: Yeah. Original ‘Magnum PI’, not remake ‘Magnum PI’?
Jahnel Curfman: Original. Yes. Tom Selleck Magnum PI.
Geektown: Tom Selleck, and you get to be in Hawaii! What more could you ask for?
Jahnel Curfman: [Laughs].
Hiro Koda: Exactly!!
‘Cobra Kai‘ Seasons 1 & 2 are available on YouTube right now. Season 3 is due to arrive in 2020.
Dave has over 20 years experience in the digital industry, and is founder and editor of Geektown. Obviously a huge geek himself, he can often be found in front of the latest tv show or movie, on various video games, or with his head in a comic book.