Hiro Koda is an Emmy winning stunt coordinator and director, who has worked on dozens of film and television projects throughout his career in the film industry. He currently serves as the 2nd Assistant Director on Cobra Kai and Stranger Things for which he has received a 2020 Emmy nomination for Outstanding Stunt Coordination in a Drama Series. He was a panelist on “The Art of Collaboration: Duos Behind Top TV Shows & eSports” for Comic-Con @ Home.
Recently The Beat had the opportunity to chat (and perhaps geek out) with Koda about his career, the making of a fight scene, and what inspires him as a director and stunt coordinator. The following interview has been edited for clarity.
Carolyn Hinds: My first question for you is how you got into the industry. I read you started pretty young at the age of twelve after visited the film set of Lethal Weapon with your uncle. You saw the stunt performers and thought, “This is what I wanted to do.” What was it about specifically about stunt work that appealed to you, more than the acting?
Hiro Koda: I’ve always been a performer my entire life, and a bit of a daredevil. I trained in martial arts as a child. My father was my instructor, so I kind of grew up in a dojo, and I raced motocross as a kid, so that was pretty exciting, and I did gymnastics. I did a lot of physical sports aside from karate. When I saw those guys doing that stunt rehearsal and the stuff that they were doing, I was like, “This is the coolest thing I’ve ever seen!” That was all I ever wanted to do after I saw that. It’s all I talked about. “I wanna be a stunt man. I wanna be a stunt man.”
Hinds: As you grew older, was there any particular aspect of stunt performing that was more interesting to you? There are two areas that stand out for me. The first is acting where you’re playing the character in place of the main actor, and the second is figuring out the mechanics of movement and being aware of your surroundings.
Koda: As a stunt performer, if you’re playing a part or anything like that, as you said you’re performing your own stunts, and you have to be very aware of what action actually is happening in the scene. Which is different from if you’re doubling an actor, where your face isn’t seen, but you need to be that person. You have to pretend that you’re that actor. You’ve really got to study the actor that you’re doubling; you have to move like them.
If they’re running through a scene and then get into some kind of action, you need to know how they move and you have to move like that so the audience believes that it was the actor doing those stunts. That’s the interesting thing between those two different types of performing. With stunts, there’s just so much physical activity that goes into it. I mean, it had me wanting to be an actor as a child. Being a stunt person, you do have to act whether you’re doubling or performing as a character, like you said. It’s kind of the best of both because you get to act and you get to be a stuntman and do all the cool stuff.
Hinds: One of the things that has always interested me about acting, especially the action genre is I love learning what goes on behind the scenes of making the films to see how the directors and the fight choreographers, and stunts come together and plan a scene. I love watching old-school Jackie Chan films, and I saw you did in a film with Sammo Hung. Those types of films allowed us to see the beauty of stunt performances, and how brutal and difficult it could be. For example with Jackie Chan, one of the things he’s known for is breaking almost every bone in his body because of how dangerous his stunts were.
Considering this, how do you psych yourself up, and prepare mentally for something like this where every time is a potentially dangerous situation?
Koda: All stunt people are very different in how they prepare themselves for a big stunt. Myself, when I’m preparing for anything big, I get this huge adrenaline rush, and [with] the excitement of what I’m doing, I don’t have the fear. If you start bringing the fear into it, then you’re going to start second-guessing what you’re doing. You have to stay focused on what you’re doing.
If you’re catching yourself on fire, you’re jumping off a building, or you’re crashing the vehicle, you just have to stay focused. That adrenaline rush is going and that’s what pushes me forward for what I’m trying to do. I’m usually pretty quiet if I have a very big stunt to do. I’m not one of those that are very excited, like getting pumped up, like some big fight is about to happen or anything like that. I’m just pretty quiet and want to stay calm so that I can perform what I need to do and get the shot done, and be successful, [then] go home safely, and not go home hurt.
Hinds: Could you tell me a bit about your decision to transition from stunt coordination to also going behind the camera as a director?
Koda: It’s kind of a process not everybody goes through. As you move through this business, you’ll start outperforming and then you gradually get into coordinating. What I moved into was fight coordinating. So I was choreographing fights and things for big coordinators, and then from that position on I started moving into assisting those coordinators and getting some mentors. I really enjoyed working and learning how it was to coordinate, and that’s something I really enjoyed doing, moving up that process. Once I started coordinating — I’m a filmmaker at heart, and that’s what I wanted to do ultimately, in the end. I want to direct, and that’s what I’m pushing for. I got my DGA card (Director’s Guild of America) in 2000, and since then, I’ve been trying to push second unit directing.
I’ve done a short film. I made it to the Arizona International Film Festival, and I’ve actually shot a feature film that was put out. Then, I directed some television shows that I’ve been a part of, they gave me main unit. They gave me an episode or two to shoot, which has been nice and I’m just gradually pushing myself more towards that. And it’s just the progress that some people will never move to because they just don’t have the interest in doing that. So people move up to coordinating, and some people will perform their whole life and that’s what they want to do until they can’t do it anymore.
Hinds: How does your experience help you as a director, as it not only gives you the perspective of being in front of the camera, but also the awareness of physical space, I think, different from a “regular director”?
Koda: Yeah, the benefit of me being a stunt coordinator and, especially working on like television shows, for example, you are on a show and you have several episodes that you’re doing, there’s a lot of different connectors that come in and out. It gives me the opportunity to work with a lot of different directors and see what things work good for them and what doesn’t, because I hear both sides of it from behind the scenes and stuff that they don’t hear. And also the actors that I’m close with — that I train and am working with outside of set — I hear from them, and it’s just something that I can learn and I pick up on from watching all these different directors. So it’s a process for sure.
Hinds: Could you explain the specific differences between stunt coordinator and fight choreographer?
Hiro: Yeah, anytime there’s any kind of action and things like scuffles, it doesn’t have to be martial arts, it can be just a bar fight or a small fisticuff fight, anything like that, the fight choreographer will be in charge of choreographing those fights and putting those moves together, and figuring out what that choreography is going to be. And then they’ll usually present it to the stunt coordinator who will be overseeing all of it, making sure they like what they’re seeing, and they’ll collaborate together to make sure they’re both on the same page and then move forward from that.
As a coordinator, you’re in charge of all the action and overseeing not just the safety of your actors, or your stunt performers, you’re also in charge of safety for the crew. I mean, if you have like big cars, and there are cameras, you got to know the safety parameters of what’s happening in that scene, so you can say, “Yeah, cameras can be here or cameras can be here, but there needs to be a crash camera. We can’t have anybody manning that camera because if something goes wrong, it might end up right there.” And then there’s a crash camera setup that we want to hit. So we set a crash camera up, and that’s where the car’s going to land, you know. There’s safety involved in all of that on both sides.
Hinds: With a show like Cobra Kai, how do you as the stunt coordinator and 2nd AD with the experience of also being a martial artist, work through the progressions of what the actors and their character’s martial arts capabilities are through the actual time used for filming?
Koda: It’s the luxury of being on Cobra Kai. I was on there from the very beginning of that show, so during prep of the very first season, I was able to bring all those kids in and start assessing where they were at martial arts wise. Some of them had never had any martial arts experience, some had trained a little bit as a child, and then some had a little bit kickboxing [experience] or whatever. So, it was assessing each of those different characters, and the benefit of being there from the very beginning, is their training was from me the whole time. And so their progression continued through season one, we continued to train. Before we started season two, we had prep and time to train before season two, and then still train through season two. The same thing for season three, we prepped and rehearsed and trained again, prior to shooting season three, and then we continue to train through season three.
And [the] progressions of those characters kind of worked with each of them because they were all new from the very beginning, and they’re learning martial arts on the show as they were progressing. The difficult part was some of them got very good, very quickly, and we had to hold them back and say, “Well, you can’t be that good yet. You’ve got to kind of slow it down a little bit and not look as good.” But then you have Billy Zabka [and] Ralph Macchio, those guys already had prior training from doing The Karate Kid years ago. Ralph didn’t continue training, but Billy did continue to train martial arts for a while after those films were shot. So bringing those guys in was like dusting off the cobwebs and getting them back into it.
Those guys work so hard, and all the kids, everybody wants to do as much as they can on their own. So they work really hard at what they’re trying to do. That makes my job easier, and I get a lot of pleasure out of seeing them work so hard and then see them perform so well on screen.
Hinds: I want to get a bit into the nerdy aspect of this. The thing about Cobra Kai is it’s a very nostalgic show, and for anyone like myself, who was into The Karate Kid, and even Kung Fu: The Legend Continues, there are particular things that kind of transport us back to when we first watched them. For you, having found your love of the profession and industry by being on the set of Lethal Weapon, one of the most popular action films of the 80s, what was it like as a fan working on a production where you got to be a part of bringing that history back to life and the nostalgia of seeing things like Miyagi-Do?
Koda: It was incredible to get the phone call to come in and interview for that show. And actually I didn’t know what the show was until I went in there to interview with them, so that was a bit of a surprise when I got in there to talk to them, but Karate Kid was a huge part of my life.
I grew up in martial arts, so seeing Karate Kid when I was young and then being a part of something like this now, was so incredible. Josh [Heald], John [Hurwitz], and Hayden [Schlossberg] — the creators of the show — they’re so wonderful, and they’re writing to keep that feel of the show, and they do all these throwbacks from the shows. And so, for me, as a coordinator, I need to be on my toes. I know that show by heart, I’ve watched them so many times anyways. The Karate Kids, I’ve watched them all several times, and to be able to go back — it’s different.
For example, we tried to create a fighting style for everybody, but also, we want to keep to the theme of that show. Ralph Macchio’s character Daniel, has a certain fight style, and you see that from the very first Karate Kid that we saw years ago, so when he’s fighting in today’s time, we still want to keep that same flavor. We didn’t want to change it all, and make it look different.
But then we can also bring in new fresh things that sort of keep the feel of the old school, but it’s still something new. It’s an incredible show to be a part of. I don’t get too star crazy when I see people, but I’m a huge fan of Ralph Macchio’s, and to go on set and meet him, and Billy Zabka, and all of them it was just…it was incredible. It was awesome.
Hinds: I think what makes it so nostalgic isn’t just what the show is based on, but because we’re at a time when we’re all looking for something a bit more lighthearted, though some of the themes aren’t that light. But also because that era was such a pivotal point in the action genre in North America, in particular. The genre became more mainstream thanks to shows like Karate Kid, Kung Fu: The Legend Continues, and even Highlander, and then later we have The Matrix, which is iconic because it meshed so many different elements of action into the story.
As a creator, what inspires you, from your past and what you’re doing now, for the stories you want to tell?
Koda: To be honest, I’ve done so many action things over the years…I’m a huge Hong Kong cinema fan. I’ve watched that as a child growing up forever, and you know Jackie Chan was a huge, like I loved watching everything that Jackie Chan did, and I when got to work on Rush Hour 3 and do a fight with him, it was the most incredible part of my career. But yeah honestly, like for me, personally, outside of work, if I try to go watch a film, it’s really hard for me to go. My wife and I will go to watch a film, and then when we start seeing faces of stunt people we know. A lot of the stuff that we’ve been watching during this quarantine has been like non action stuff, like straight drama or a thriller with a little bit of action in it. Don’t get me wrong, I love to watch action and stuff like that, but we tend to be a little bit more critical, and we start seeing friends of ours and go, “Ah, what was that?” We love it, but it makes it difficult.
Throughout the years being a Hong Kong cinema fan, when I first started this business, I did the first seven seasons of Power Rangers. That was like one of my earlier things that I started to do for a long time. It was with the Japanese stunt team on there called Alpha Stunts, and the director/producer/second director on there was a gentleman named Koichi Sakamoto, who was sort of like my mentor, and he was a huge Hong Kong cinema fan. And all of his stuff is very Hong Kong style related. The way he shoots is the same type of style, and I took a lot from him, and that’s what I do as a stunt coordinator.
When I’m coordinating a show, I direct my own like previz (previsualization) with my stunt doubles, and I try to get the action all sorted out beforehand, so that I can present it to the directors and say, “Hey, this is what I’m thinking,” and I give him something visually to look at, instead of just talking him through it, and say, “Yes! That’s awesome! It’s perfect, it’s what I want.” And then, by the end of it, it’s a huge tool for everybody because everything is sort of set in place and we’re ready to roll. It’s been approved, and now everybody’s on the same page. On the day of shooting, it makes things a lot faster and we know exactly what we’re going to be doing. So I’ve kind of kept that feel and that flavor in my style of directing and coordinating.
Hinds: Two things I want to segue on from that. You work with your wife Jahnel [Curfman], and doing what you do, collaboration is a huge part of that. Everything is a team effort, and because it’s so dangerous, you have to trust the people that you work with. So, what is it like working with your wife in this particular field as she herself is a stunt performer and doubles for actresses?
Koda: It’s works out very well. I trust her completely. She trusts me completely, and the wonderful part about it is that we know each other so well that when we’re collaborating and brainstorming on ideas and things like that, she may think of something that she thinks is cool, but she knows, “Hiro is not going to like that, so I’m not even going to try it.” So, it makes things a lot easier. There’s probably some husband and wife teams that can’t work together, you know, but we work really well together. We can be harder on each other because we want to push each other to be the best that we can be.
She’s my number one fan, I’m her number one fan. I completely trust her in what she’s doing, and a lot of times she gets super excited. She’s new to the coordinating now. She’s been performing for years, but now she’s starting to coordinate more, and her and I do things together. It’s such a wonderful thing because we’re together instead of apart. A lot of times, if we’re working on different shows, we get separated sometimes in different states, sometimes in different countries, and that makes it tough. The best thing for us to do when we get home is we’ve got to shut down and get off of the work, have a glass of wine, not talk about work, and just be a husband and wife team. But it’s a wonderful thing working with her. The collaboration that we have and the process that we go through, it’s hard to explain exactly what we do, but we read each other so well and it’s easy for us to bounce ideas back and forth.
Hinds: You mentioned working with Koichi Sakomoto, who drew a lot of his inspiration from Hong Kong action films, and as fan of those movies, one of the things that I personally appreciate is how those complicated fights themselves are filmed and choreographed. The action is allowed to breathe. There aren’t a bunch of quick cuts, and shaky cam. You can see what’s happening such as the kicks and punches landing, and with Cobra Kai, that’s what stands out to me.
In the season two finale, there is a very long action sequence, that’s over 20 minutes long. The action movies through the school where it’s taking place. We follow the characters through hallways, up and down stairs, and that was one of the things that really impressed me.
Koda: Thank you.
Hinds: I appreciate how each character involved was able to have their own moment to show their skill. Could you tell me what it was like coordinating such a long and complicated fight sequence?
Koda: That’s what I enjoy a lot about Hong Kong cinema; you do see that action and you give it that time to breathe. That’s what I take in part for my choreography and my designing of action. The storyline is very important. You read those scripts, you gotta make sure the story points are there and makes sense to the action that’s being designed to that sequence.
A lot of times there’s some weird action, or something is thrown in that doesn’t fit the time period or just because it’s a cool move, why was it thrown in there? It doesn’t really make sense. But, then the other part is having [the camera] pulled back a little bit, so you can see everything. You have the chance, if you have incredible actors that are very athletic and can perform, to pull back and see them. [You can] see what they can do and really feel the action, instead of being right in there with all the quick cuts and all that stuff. It’s very difficult. With Cobra Kai on that finale sequence, we were shooting at a college that they weren’t allowing us to shoot during the week, so we only had weekends to shoot. We had four days over the weekends to shoot, that was it, just four days. They gave us two and a half days to actually shoot all the action, the other time was acting stuff that didn’t require any action at all.
During that time, we were doing a lot of rehearsing. That sequence, because those kids work so hard and they performed so well, I was able to shoot a lot with them. I mean 90% of all that was those kids performing. I did a little thing called a Texas Switch a few times when we had some doubles get twisted in there, that you didn’t know, and then they got pulled back out. But that one, it was such a big sequence to sort of put together. We were all throwing ideas around, and I’m putting all these fights together. The elements to choreograph in all the sequences, and all the different sections and in my head I’m trying to figure out [what’s] the best way to shoot all of this and continue that camera moving so that we can see everything that’s going on and know it’s the kids doing it. That was the cool part of it; actually seeing those kids performing.
The kids came in on their off-time to train. They just wanted to do this big and long…as long of a sequence as we could do, without stopping and having any mistakes. Ultimately in the end, I think by the time we finished, we did it in seven takes and we had it, which is pretty impressive. I was very happy with everybody. I was super stoked and proud of everybody. We had a big celebration in the hallway that lasted for like 15 minutes, and the directors are coming and going, “We gotta keep shooting. We don’t have time.” “That’s great! We’re done.”
Hinds: As someone who’s been in the industry for so long, and worked on so many different films and TV shows, are there any in particular that’s your favorite where you worked on as a stunt performer and coordinator?
Koda: Wow! Goodness, that’s a tough question. I’ve enjoyed every part of my career. The beauty of my job as a performer or even a stunt coordinator — every show that I go on is so different and you get to do so many different things whether you’re working with creatures or you’re working with kids. It’s always different.
It wasn’t a huge stunt, but a huge part of my career was being able to do the fight sequence with Jackie Chan. That was huge for me, and I got to play myself in that. So being able to do that. They auditioned us separately, because we were already working on the film, they said, “Alright, we’re going to need some guys that are going to fight with Jackie, but you have to audition for his coordinator.” They wanted to make sure that you can move and he’s very particular in who he fights with and things like that. So there was an audition held within the people that were already working.
They said, “Now if you don’t think you can do it, don’t worry, you’re still going to work but don’t go in an embarrass yourself. Make sure you can do it.” So going through that process was like a whole other thing, being able to get through all of that, and getting picked to be one of the fighters with him was pretty awesome.
And coordinating wise — everything is so different, everything that I’ve done. Cobra Kai is huge to be a part of. Stranger Things has been an incredible, incredible show to be a part of. I love working with cast and crew. The crew on that show is so incredible. They just they put their heart and soul into everything for the fans and it’s such a fun show to be a part of. The Duffer brothers, the creators of that show, are just incredible. Their writing and the stuff that they give me to put together is just so much fun to be part of.
Hinds: Final question, as a fan, do you have a favorite stunt performance in a film of show?
Koda: I’m such an old school fan of older films. I said I grew up watching Jackie Chan, but one of my favorite people to watch, and who I look at, is Buster Keaton as well. That guy’s incredible. He is so incredible to watch, the stuff that he did. And when you look back on the old days of stunts, they didn’t have what we have today for safety, and [they] didn’t have the visual effects as they are now. The visual effects of today are just incredible. But all these different things, in the evolution of the stunts from years ago to today, have changed so much.
It’s getting to a point of how far can we push it? How dangerous can we get? But the safety level is so much better than it used to be. Back in the old days when they were flipping cars and things like that, they didn’t have roll cages. They didn’t have helmets. They had these things, grab straps, where you flip a car over and lay down in the front seat, grab a strap and just hold on and hope that the car didn’t crush them. And they’re doing four or five crashes in a day, where now the budgets don’t even allow it.
So you’re only going to do one crash in a day, and you have like a full car. You have a cage inside your car, you’re protected. You’re wearing helmets, and the safety equipment and stuff that we have today wasn’t there back in the older days. Even the wire work that we do today is completely different. The type of wires that we used then, years and years ago, was piano wire. So it’s different. Those are some tough old school stuntmen. The cowboys and things that they did on horses were just incredible.
You can find Stranger Things and Cobra Kai streaming now on Netflix.