Updated: Oct 8
The fifth season of the Netflix tour de force, Cobra Kai, had fans, such as myself, devouring it in one, long, delightful binge. After five seasons, the ongoing saga of the All Valley champion, Daniel LaRusso, after his formative battles in the 80s, is still one of the hottest tickets on any streaming service.
With just the right amount of humor, nostalgia, and butt-kicking action, Cobra Kai’s fangs will likely be sinking deep into the ratings for the foreseeable future. While the writers and producers handle most of the show, the engineers of the epic battles between Miyagi-Do, Cobra Kai, and Eagle Fang, aren’t Daniel, Johnny, or even Sensei Kreese. The true masters of the dojos are Ken Barefield, stunt coordinator, and Don Lee, fight coordinator.
Taking over the stunt duties for the Cobra Kai series in season four, Barefield and Lee had the daunting task of growing the abilities of the cast, coming up with exciting action, and keeping the integrity of the world of Cobra Kai true to The Karate Kid films and their martial arts origins.
The Bridge of Sais
Coming up with new and inventive action scenes is no easy task, but that is the bread and butter of the Cobra Kai stunt team, and they always deliver. In season five, the team introduced an epic sword fight between the former villain, and now Miyagi-Do ally, Chozen (Yuji Okumoto), and Daniel’s arch-nemesis, Terry Silver (Thomas Ian Griffith). The use of Katana versus Sais was one of the many new touches that the Barefield / Lee team brought to the series. Barefield tells how they created the climactic showdown. “Speaking specifically, it was Don’s idea to make the sword and Sai fight. They wanted it, initially, for it to be a sword-on-sword fight. But Don, being the master of karate that he is, he knew, he was like, no, it can’t be sword on sword. It has to be an Okinawan weapon versus a Japanese weapon. They listened to him, and they were like, ‘Yeah, it’s a brilliant idea.’ And then what you get is what he came up with, which is amazing.”
Lee’s background of years of martial arts training and film industry experience came together perfectly for the inspired choice of the Sai for the bladed battle. The evolution of the idea, as Lee explained, came from using the weapon in competition, previously, as well as working with Jennifer Garner on the film Daredevil (2003), “Trained Jennifer Garner, is how I got into the business, for her first movie Daredevil. I trained her with the Sais because that’s the weapon that I used to compete with.” Lee, an Okinawan Shorin-Ryu practitioner since 1988, also competed in NASKA and NBL. “Actually, I did another interview back then for Black Belt, with Jen Garner and the Sais, because it’s just a weapon that nobody really uses, and it’s something that I grew up using and I competed with. That’s how we stuck Mary (Mouser) with the Sais as well. She loved ‘Electra’ (2005), and she liked those things, so I said why don’t we do the Sais, because it’s more of an Okinawan weapon, and if you want to be different, with a bow, then let’s go Sais.”
Cobra Kai Cast The cast of Cobra Kai has been at this for a while now. Many of the younger actors have gone from being novices to All Valley competitors in season four. With five seasons under their belts (pun absolutely intended), is there a process for the cast, and their respective characters, to mature in their martial arts training? Lee talked about the process of developing the martial skills for the show, as well as for the characters, and fighting the perpetual battle against limited time, “I think in the last few seasons, which we did in within one year, that getting to train the kids, and the adults, and just finding out where they’ve come from, where they’re growing, and where they want to take it. And finding out what in their own characters, what would they like to learn to be better at? What would Hawk like to be known for? What would Robby like to be known for? What would Miguel? What would Mary? Peyton? What’s Silver’s techniques? And get in their heads to help them portray what they want from their character. It’s not a lot of time, but the time we do get, it’s very detailed in what we do.”
In developing the cast, Barefield and Lee work hard to train and teach what is appropriate for the needs of the characters, as well as the cast members portraying them. Lee gives a breakdown of the method they use, “They’re all talented. And they all have kind of like superhero powers, right? Everyone’s got their own. Some may be able to flow with water better. Some may be able to have fire better. All these different elements that people have in characters, we go to what they naturally, can physically do.”
Barefield and Lee also take into account the individual actor’s strengths. Lee continues,“Like Jacob (Bertrand), I feel like, he’s got mad hops, and he’s a climber, so he’s got a really strong grip. So, we utilize the things that he naturally has and just heighten those things to portray. Robby, Tanner (Buchanan): super flexible, has a dancer background. So, you can give him so many different types of beats, and that’s why a lot of the movements he has are so, you know, beautifully displayed. He’s like a mini Jean-Claude Van Damme.”
Double Cobras The stunt team is always working against the clock, and often has little time to create, teach, and then film the elaborate fight choreography. However, the demands of making a show like Cobra Kai a consistent ratings winner, depend on the cool heads of Barefield and Lee collaborating to create great action, as well as their ability to work miracles, regularly.
While the job of Barefield and Lee is to compose a brutal ballet of kicks and punches that the producers and writers need in order to move the story along, as Barefield points out, the process is more of a partnership. “It is a nice, like marriage, between the two, of what they want, and what we want. And they trust us, just as much as we trust them, to kind of give them exactly what they’re looking for. It’s a collaboration on all fronts.”
Not everything is on the written page though. Although the script dictates what fight goes where, and Barefield mentioned that the producers and writers may be specific about the needs of the scene or story, much of the action that viewers see on screen was left up to Barefield and Lee. “When I say they are specific, there are specific things they want, but other than that, they just kind of say, ‘And a fight ensues,’ and then we take it from there,” Barefield said.
How does the creative process work to make memorable action sequences for the show? Barefield provided an example, “Like the Robby and Miguel fight in season five, right? It’s not detailed out of like them jumping off the wall, and kicking each other, and going through the door. That’s like Don and the guys playing with ideas and coming up with the actual choreo (choreography).
What I brag about, especially with Don, he’s very good at going back, not just in previous seasons of what we’ve done on ‘Cobra Kai,’ but previous movies of ‘Karate Kid, right?” Barefield explained one of the links between the films and series, “In season five, when Ralph (Macchio) punches the wall, and he has blood, he took that from the movie. So, he just like has little sprinkles, and he goes:‘That’s where we’re going to put that in the fight,’ and they just like blend together so well.” (Read more with Ken Barefield and Don Lee in Part 2)