“You Have to Put Your Heart in the Project for Your Project to Have Heart.” – In Conversation with Kevin Derek, a Documentary Filmmaker and Producer

When your interview starts with lots of laughter, you know that the conversation is going to be a delightful experience. Kevin Derek is an interesting person; he is smart, humorous and self-critical. But, above all, he is a thoughtful and very passionate, award-winning documentary filmmaker whose latest production More Than Miyagi: The Pat Morita Story was released to raving reviews. 

Becoming a filmmaker requires meticulous determination and vision; it can be a rough journey if one is not resilient enough, nevertheless, Kevin knew which road to take when he decided to become one: “My question to you is, how elaborate do you want me to be?” Kevin laughs when asked about his journey into the profession, then he continues, “Back in the 80s, I was around 12-years-old, the first portable camcorder came out, you know, the one that you carry on your shoulder; it was so expensive, around $2000 and I was just 12-years-old, I asked myself ‘where am I going to get that amount of money?’

“I started selling on all my stuff, I sold my comic book collection, my bike and I borrowed some money from my mum, and I finally ended up buying that camera,” Kevin admits with a chuckle. After getting his hands on the brand new camcorder, he ran to the kids in his neighbourhood and decided to make a film: “‘Hey guys, I am thinking of making a movie, do you want to be in my movie?”’ the filmmaker says while reflecting on the past. 

“We found karate outfits, the neighbours’ kids dressed up and [then] we spent all day shooting some ridiculous stuff which we later showed to everyone, also our parents came over. You know, even the film plot of our film was dull,” Kevin laughs out loud. 

Photo © Courtesy of Kevin Derek (BTS of “More Than Miyagi: The Pat Morita Story”)

Subsequently, Kevin realised that there is a way that he can express himself; filmmaking became his goal. Later on, he went on to do an internship at a local TV station in Orange County, where he learnt the craft: “I learnt a lot there, however, I didn’t really like it that much, I think because they were repeating the same thing everyday, [for example] breaking down the set etc. I just didn’t want to do that. The next thing I did was go to a film school in LA, then I worked on a lot of low-budget films with friends, I did short films, [and] I camera operated and edited them.”

While working on different things, the thought of becoming a cinematographer passed through Kevin’s mind, however, directing was something that attracted him more. After college, he started working for a distribution company that took films to the American Film Market.

“Working for a distribution company is [probably] the most educating experience that I have had. I didn’t realise that there are 20,000 films made each year just in the United States alone, and [around] 1% makes it into the market, this definitely opened up another thing for me, a conversation about what makes a film to be regarded as a good pick,” Kevin tells me while highlighting his experiences. 

Photo © Courtesy of Kevin Derek (Pat Morita & Kevin Derek)

In early 1995, he became friends with Oscar Alvarez, a producer and an actor, and their friendship later developed into a professional collaboration. Kevin started to work on documentaries in a producer capacity first, but it all changed in 2011 when he directed his first film called Empty Hand: The Real Karate Kids followed by The Real Miyagi (2015), a story about Fumio Demura, a well known Japanese master of karate and kobudo, and Pat Morita’s stuntman in The Karate Kid films (1984 and 1989). He recently released his third documentary More Than Miyagi: Pat Morita Story, a film that perfectly sheds a new light on Morita’s entire career: “I think it was 1983 when I saw Pat Morita at one of my karate tournaments. There he was sitting right next to my karate teacher, and you know, [at that time] I only knew Pat Morita from Happy Days,” Kevin laughs, then continues: “When I was younger I didn’t have problems in approaching people, [for some reason] it was easy to talk to everyone. Long story short, he [Morita] was sitting there so I decided to sit next to him.

“Pat Morita was so nice, he started to chat with me like he knew me for a long time. We talked about Happy Days for a little bit and then we took a picture on a 35 mm camera… and, hold on a minute.” Kevin pauses for a minute and proudly picks up the aforementioned picture off his desk and shows it to me with a big grin on his face. 

“Who would have known that after 30 years I would be making a documentary about Pat Morita?” Kevin exclaims. 

Photo © Courtesy of Kevin Derek (Oscar Alvarez, William Zabka & Kevin Derek)

While making The Real Miyagi, Kevin wanted someone to represent Pat Morita and the only person he could get a hold of was his third wife, Evelyn Morita: “We went to Vegas to interview her, and then we went out and had some sushi. We had a very deep conversation about Pat Morita that stuck with me.

“And when The Real Miyagi was released on Netflix, Evelyn called me and said ‘wow, you made me emotional, it was a great tribute to Pat Morita,’ and that was the moment when I thought about making a documentary about him. And I asked her what she thought of the idea, she said ‘Kevin, I am thinking more of a narrative feature,’” Kevin says of the subject. 

Making a narrative feature is a long process and it also costs more money, so because of that Kevin suggested filming a documentary. And in 2016, Evelyn eventually agreed and that’s when the process of creating More Than Miyagi: The Pat Morita Story began. Kevin interviewed various people that, one way or another, knew Pat Morita. Although not all of the conversations made the cut, the film managed to show the actor from a completely different perspective, proving that, as the title itself suggests, Pat Morita was more than just Mr. Miyagi. 

“People [who feature in the documentary] truly love Pat, and took their time to record their thoughts on the actor, like Ralph Macchio who spent so much time with us, almost three hours. He was in the middle of shooting the first season of Cobra Kai and he had to go to Atlanta, nevertheless, he was nice enough to do the interview.” Kevin continues: “[After the interview], I asked Ralph if he wouldn’t mind signing posters that I had of Pat which he also signed [a while back] so we could raise some funds for the film. Ralph said ‘sure’ and he also signed a bunch of other stuff. He [Ralph] is such a nice guy! Everyone was really nice.”

Photo © Courtesy of Kevin Derek (Kevin Derek & Fumio Demura)

Concurrently, Kevin tried to interview other people, including Hilary Swank who acted alongside Pat Morita in The Next Karate Kid (1994). But, as she was busy shooting a film for Netflix at that time, she kindly sent an email stating that she had a good experience with Pat,  but was unable to be part of the documentary due to her busy schedule. 

Making a documentary, or any film for that matter, has never been easy, and although there  were good days while shooting More Than Miyagi: The Pat Morita Story, Kevin doesn’t deny that they also faced some challenges during the production. 

“The biggest challenge for me was the beginning, the first 10-15 minutes of the documentary. My first version was over two hours.” Kevin pauses and then quickly explains: “What actually happens is when you are editing, when you start to edit for the first month, everything looks good to you, you tell yourself ‘everyone will love it’. But then you see the same thing 400, 500 times six months down the line, you go ‘yeah, yeah, I think it’s good’. And after seeing it a couple of thousand times, you start saying: ‘what the hell is this, is anyone gonna watch this?’” Kevin admits sincerely. 

After a few ‘battles’ with editing, Kevin had a test screening and asked the audience for some feedback. It turned out that the beginning of the documentary was too long for most of the viewers and, as the result, the crew ended up with a film that lasted an hour and a half, and, regardless of editing, More Than Miyagi: The Pat Morita Story will remain in one’s mind for a long time. 

As Kevin stated in the interview: “the biggest support was the TV Academy Foundation, without them, I don’t think the story would have been the same. Also, the majority of materials came from Pat’s wife, she had old VHS tapes, pictures and other stuff. We were truly lucky to be able to shoot the film with Evelyn’s support.” 

Photo © Courtesy of Kevin Derek (Ralph Macchio & Kevin Derek)

There is no doubt that Kevin is a passionate documentary filmmaker that might inspire those who want to become one, and with that comes his advice: “Do it on a subject that you love, because with documentaries, there is not much money involved in it, so you have to do it because it’s your passion project and it takes a long time, sometimes four or five years. And in all honesty, you gotta make films for yourself as well.” 

Kevin’s documentary making is remarkable and, facing forward, the filmmaker has plans on shooting a narrative feature as he explains with a teary-eyed expression: “Every time I talk about it, I get emotional.” Kevin pauses for a minute then continues: “I am actually from Iran, I came to the US when I was 8-9 years old, a year before the Revolution happened. Everything was good when I arrived in the US, I made friends etc. And after the Revolution occured, the discrimination began. I was just 10 years old, I went to school, I was punched at school and spat on. People sprayed our house with graffiti ‘Go back home’… how do you explain that to your kids, what do you mean go back home? I was home. A lot changed at that time and all those experiences have stuck with me. [As a result] I decided to make a narrative feature about it and with the help of my friend, the first draft is already written.” 

As he chose not to discuss the story in too much detail, our conversation came to end. There is no denial that Kevin Derek will bring another heart-rending story to life sooner or later; one can only wait patiently to see it, and, for the time being, the audience can watch his latest work More Than Miyagi: The Pat Morita Story. 

Written and interviewed by Maggie Gogler

Edited by Roxy Simons

All photos © Courtesy of Kevin Derek 

View of the Arts is a British online publication that chiefly deals with films, music, arts and fashion, with an emphasis on the Asian entertainment industry. We are hoping our audience will grow with us as we begin to explore new platforms such as K-pop, and continue to dive into the talented and ever-growing scene of film, arts and fashion, worldwide.

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