“Growing up, I felt like a student of John [Avildsen]’s and his movies as I not only was inspired by them, but learned valuable filmmaking techniques through studying how he shot his pictures,” said director Derek Johnson of the eponymous subject of his latest film, John Avildsen: King of the Underdogs. Avildsen is the award-winning director of iconic movies Rocky and The Karate Kid, yet not many know his name. Johnson set out to change that with this documentary that traces the life of the genius behind the camera of two of cinema’s classic films. See facebook.com/JohnGAvildsenUnderdog.
What made you so intent on telling his story?
If you ask anyone who directed Rocky, nine times out of 10 they say Sylvester Stallone. If you ask them who directed The Karate Kid, they have no idea. I’ve always thought it was a shame that this great director never got the recognition he deserved (aside from winning the Best Director Oscar for Rocky) and it was interesting to me that John all but vanished from movie making. I wanted to show the world that this is the legend behind their favorite movies. It’s not every day that you get to meet your heroes, befriend them, be mentored by them and especially get to make a movie about them. I’m very thankful for this opportunity.
How different is directing a documentary to directing a fictional film?
The production process of making a documentary is much different than making a fictional film in so many ways. For one, it takes much longer to make a documentary as production is spread out over several months and even years. You work around the interviewees schedules, piece together hours and hours of footage that you have to obtain and get clearance on, etc. But the key similarity is that the goal of both genres is to tell a good story, and that is the most important aspect. One of the best compliments we’ve received about John G. Avildsen: King of the Underdogs is that it doesn’t feel like a documentary, but rather it feels like a movie. That was very satisfying to hear.
What discovery surprised you the most while you were making the film?
What surprised me the most while making this film is the fact that it had not been done before. It’s certainly time for John’s story to be told.
What do you hope audiences take away from this film?
I hope audiences go back and re-watch Avildsen’s films with a fresh appreciation of simple storytelling about people and how they overcome their obstacles. I hope younger audiences are inspired to take a look at these masterpieces and see that a movie doesn’t need to just rely on explosions and CGI and superheroes. But mainly, I hope audiences understand the contributions John Avildsen made to cinema and to the world.
What is your next project?
Recently, Sylvester Stallone invited myself and my producing partner Chris May to his home to screen John G. Avildsen: King of the Underdogs with him. He liked it so much that he handpicked us to direct and produce a documentary entitled 40 Years of Rocky: The Birth of a Classic, which celebrates the fortieth anniversary of Rocky. Technically we will be releasing it in its 41st year, but it’s better to be late to the game than not show up at all!