To say that More Than Miyagi: The Pat Morita Story is a passion project for director Kevin Derek would be an understatement since his previous was titled The Real Miyagi in 2015 that centered on the actor's stunt double in The Karate Kid films in martial artist Fumio Demura. I spoke with Derek about the inspiration behind looking into Pat Morita's life, his journey making the documentary, and putting the actor's life into proper perspective. "I got to interview Pat Morita's wife [Evelyn Guerrero-Morita], and after the interview, she started sharing all these fascinating stories about his life from his childhood and how he saw his father die in front of him," Derek said. "A lot of the stories she told stuck with me. A year later, [The Real Miyagi] came out on Netflix, and she called me saying, 'Kevin, you did such a great job.' She got really emotional. I asked her, 'What do you think if we did a documentary on Pat?'" Guerrero-Morita originally wanted to venture into a biopic, but the director convinced her a documentary could initially help gauge interest in one.
"Pat wrote a manuscript on his life back in 1996," Derek said. "He started to document everything that happened to him starting at the internment camp. He asked (his wife) Evelyn that if anything were to happen to him to finish the manuscript and get it out there, whether if it's a book, film, or documentary. By doing [More Than Miyagi] with his wife, she was able to fulfill one of his wishes." With her blessing, work began assembling the subjects to interview. "I checked out his profile on IMDb and looked at what he'd worked on," Derek said. "The people who I felt knew him the best and worked with him the longest. We hit everyone up through their agent. The people who got excited called us up and were willing to do the interview." There was one key actor he wanted to include but couldn't. "I wanted to talk to Hilary Swank because her first major feature was her performance in The Next Karate Kid (1994). She was nice, but she was working on a series for Netflix and didn't have the time to do the interview. If there was anyone, it would be her." Swank was featured while promoting the film in archival footage and also spoke at Morita's ceremony commemorating his star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
Derek was able to interview Christopher Cain, the director of the 1994 feature for Columbia Pictures, which ended up being Mortia's final film of the franchise. He was also able to interview the principal actors from the franchise, most of now star on the Netflix series Cobra Kai. "Ralph (Macchio) is the most important part of this documentary because he spent so much time with Pat," he said. "I think everyone we wanted to get we got. At the same time, a lot of people passed away while filming, like John Avildsen, the director of The Karate Kid (1984). The producer [Jerry Weintraub] passed away. Gary Marshall, producer for Happy Days, and (actor/director) Penny Marshall also passed. A lot of people who knew him really well passed away, and we couldn't get their side. We did well with what we got."
With Morita's passing in 2005, Derek discussed how much of his Miyagi and leftover essence was in the Netflix series. "When I talked to those who worked with Morita on The Karate Kid films, they said Pat was like his Mr. Miyagi character," he said. "He would make you feel comfortable. He would make you laugh. When I was talking to Ralph about Cobra Kai, he said it was important to incorporate (Miyagi) as much as he could into the series because when you look at it, without Mr. Miyagi, I don't think the original film wouldn't have worked as well, and without its success, they wouldn't be able to do Cobra Kai. Pat Morita IS the backbone of the series. I think Ralph and William Zabka do a great job."
Toward the end of the film, Derek tackled Morita's personal demons and battle with alcoholism, including an incident regarding his Happy Days castmates during a reunion. "When it comes to anyone in any family, (chances are) they have an addict," he said. "I didn't realize he had suffered so much when he drank. I had to be careful not to dehumanize him. I tried to be objective about what had happened." The director then reflected on what was on the actor's mind and how he persevered. "Can you imagine growing up and living in a body cast?" he continued. "He's been through a lot in his life. He was able to rise above his problems and create one of the most iconic figures in cinema history. He also paved the way for a lot of Asian performers and actors along the way. I think it was groundbreaking for what he did."
Even when Morita achieved success with The Karate Kid films ironically, he ended up in Miyagi-like roles for the remainder of his career when the original 1984 film allowed him to break away from his comedic typecasting. "For any actor who gets any role that they'll be remembered for the rest of their life, for some they get pigeonholed and can't get past it," Derek said. "After The Karate Kid, the same thing happened to Pat. I think he got to an age where he wasn't getting as many quality roles when he got to a certain age as before that similar to Miyagi." More Than Miyagi comes out digitally on February 5.