When the husband-and-wife team of Hiro Koda and Jahnel Curfman were brought in as the stunt coordinators for Season 1 of “Cobra Kai,” they faced a cast with no real professional martial arts experience. The actors playing Miguel Diaz (Xolo Maridueña) and Eli ‘Hawk’ Moskowitz (Jacob Bertrand) had at least taken some classes as children, but Samantha LaRusso (Mary Mouser), Robby Keene (Tanner Buchanan), and Tory Nichols (Peyton List) had none.
“Before Season 1 even started, we just developed each character’s own style of Martial Arts,” Koda explained in an interview with IndieWire. “The complexity is where their progression was going — how much they were supposed to have improved and learned along those seasons.”
According to Curfman, the cast’s willingness to train hard with the stunt coordinators has led to tremendous growth, with each performer blossoming at different points of the three season run.
“I definitely think Xolo made huge progress throughout Season 1 from when we first see him until the final tournament,” Curfman said. “Mary Mouser, who came in not really having any training at the beginning of Season 2, worked really hard and just kicked butt by that high school fight at the end. Then Season 3, Peyton List improved so much from the beginning of the season to the end.”
Koda and Curfman created a distinct style for the opposing dojos (Miyagi-Do and Cobra Kai), but also the individual characters, which in turn would dictate what advanced moves the stunt coordinators added to each’s repertoire and both the actors and characters progressed in their fight capabilities.
“The Miyagi-Do we keep as a traditional style and movement, and then the Cobra Kai were more aggressive and just a larger mix of stuff that we incorporated,” Koda said. “Tanner’s character was strictly Miyagi-Do, but we created a bit of an interesting thing because he had a little bit of a dark side to him.”
Following the big fight at the high school that end Season 2, the “Cobra Kai” team was focused on kicking it up notch with three intense showdown, at three separate locations, to conclude Season 3: the Cobra Kai students breaking into the home of Daniel LaRusso (Ralph Macchio) and fighting the adults, the ensuing fight that breaks out at the Cobra Kai dojo with Daniel, Kreese (Martin Kove), and Johnny (William Zabka), and the fight on the bridge.
“All of those were happening around the same time,” Koda said. “The LaRusso house ended up being a great situation to shoot because there were a lot of things for us to break, destroy, and play within the house.”
Curfman added, “The idea behind the LaRusso house was we wanted to do another oner that was more epic than the high school fight. Starting with that, it just materialized into this much bigger thing. Ultimately, it always evolves from what it starts out as to what the finished product ends up being, whether there’s certain sections that we pare down or there’s certain things that we feel like we need to amp up.”
Of the these final showdown, the fight between Sam and Tory showcases the first combat sequence of the series that involves martial arts weapons.
“As soon as they both found out what their weapon of choice was going to be, they had their respective training weapons with them all the time,” Curfman said. “They would cut a scene of dialogue and then come back to grab their bo staff or the nunchucks and have them in their hand and run through some of the practice drills that we had given them.”
The key was for the two actresses to have as much time with the weapons in their hands as possible. According to Curfman, if performers are uncomfortable handling the weapons it is instantly and visually obvious.
“Both Mary and Peyton did a great job with their training with the weapons and we were able to shoot a lot of the pieces of that fight between them with the actors,” Curfman said. “When we have [actors], who know the weapons and know the style, it comes across as way more believable within the story, rather than someone just trying to fake it.”
With the number of fights over threes seasons, the two stunt coordinators have had to draw on their own background to keep things fresh. Koda brings a mastery of the traditional Japanese Karate called Yoshukai, along with other styles he attained while competing on the NASKA (North American Sport Karate Association) circuit. Curfman grew up as a competitive gymnast, professional dancer, and college athlete; then transitioned to stunt work as she studied Filipino Martial Arts, Silat, Eskrima, Muay Thai, Savate, and Jeet Kune Do.
“We have to progress, things have to change, have to stay innovative, make new things happen, and we don’t want to do any repeats of what we’ve done previously,” Koda said. “That creatively becomes its own challenge for us to keep everything fresh and new every season.”
After three seasons, with the cast now having developed a solid martial arts foundation, the Emmy-nominated fight choreography team is planning to push Season 4 even further in a new direction by incorporating even more advanced techniques.
All seasons of “Cobra Kai” are currently streaming on Netflix.