Cobra Kai: Choreographing Emmy-Nominated Stunts

Cobra Kai stunt coordinators Hiro Koda and Jahnel Curfman talk about how the fight-heavy show garnered them Emmy attention in season 2.

Hiro Koda and Jahnel Curfman on Cobra Kai

Stunts are a mainstay of many genre television dramas these days, but few shows integrate fight choreography into the story as completely as YouTube Premium’s Cobra Kai, the small screen continuation of the legacy that began with The Karate Kid films. No wonder, then, that stunt coordinators Hiro Koda and Jahnel Curfman have been nominated for an Emmy for their work on the show in the recently concluded season 2. We spoke to the married couple and professional partners about the experience they’ve had working on such a fight-heavy series.

DEN OF GEEK: Cobra Kai season 2 ended with a game-changing fight sequence between the two dojos. What went into choreographing something of that scale?

HIRO KODA: It was a massive sequence that we had to put together, and the timeframe and the schedule that we had was very difficult. But the cast, in that whole training process the entire season… any day that they had off basically they were training… We had two and a half days spread out over two weekends to shoot the entire sequence at the high school. We were literally choreographing the last day on our first day of shooting what time that we had free just to find the sections of the school that were available for us to get into and just work out the sequences there that we had planned to do.

further reading: Cobra Kai Season 3: Daniel is Going Back to Okinawa

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Do you feel that, with a cast like the one found in Cobra Kai, anyone can learn the sequences you design?

JAHNEL CURFMAN: We have a very unique cast in that everyone is very eager to learn. Everybody wants to train; they want to learn choreography; they want to do as much of the fights as they can themselves as far as our actors go. And we’ve just gotten really lucky because they’re all actually really good.

Are there times when you have to tell an actor they won’t be able to do their own stunts, either because of time constraints or safety concerns?

KODA: There’s a lot of times where the actor is probably very capable of doing certain things, but just safety-wise there’s just no way we can use them within the sequence because of a chance of getting hurt. And if they get hurt, our show goes down, so it makes it difficult to talk them through the situation. It’s like, “Yeah, I know you can, but you can’t right now. You gotta have somebody else do this part.”

Jacob [Bertrand] who plays Hawk is an unbelievable athlete, and… I think he wants to be a stuntman instead of an actor. He’s very good and wants to do everything possible that he can do. Just for an example when he’s in high school he gets thrown into that glass at the end, he wanted to be in that shot so bad, and there’s just no way he could do that due to safety issues.

You also coordinated stunts for Stranger Things. Is it a challenge to find good doubles for younger actors, both in that show and in Cobra Kai, just because of their smaller stature?

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KODA: Luckily, our cast — they’re young, they’re minors, but they are taller, so finding younger stunt guys to double them is not too difficult because they’re taller. I mean in Stranger Things when we find doubles for much smaller children it gets a little bit more difficult, but in the past we’ve used a lot of females that are very small in height and they’re great for kid doubles.

We pride ourselves on finding good people that are doubles and good matches for their actors so that the action and what the stunt doubles and the cast do work seamlessly so nobody can really tell. Was that really the actor or was that a stunt guy? That’s what we pride ourselves on doing, and if we can hide that well and nobody knows, then we’ve done a good job.

more: Cobra Kai Season 3: What does Kreese’s Return Mean?

How did you two meet, and what’s the dynamic like for a married couple working on stunts for both television and film?

CURFMAN: I got hired last minute on a commercial that Hiro was shooting over Thanksgiving weekend,… and I’d had a week of rehearsal. I came in last minute on the day, super nervous because I knew of Hiro. I knew who he was, and I think he’ll tell you it was sort of love at first sight where it took me a little while to be okay with dating within the industry and that sort of thing. But that commercial brought us together, and then he continued to hire me and we continued to work together. And it just sort of blossomed from there.

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Most of the time when we go onto a new show, people don’t know that we’re married, and sometimes we’ll get through entire seasons and it’s not until we show up together at the wrap party that people are like, “Wait a second, you guys are married?” So we do like to stay very professional, and I know it’s not for everybody, working with their spouse. But it’s something we really enjoy doing, and we work really well together. It’s nice because even when we get into doing choreography, I can always tell if he likes one of my ideas or doesn’t like one of my ideas. We’re pretty good at taking each other’s constructive criticism as well, so we’ve got it pretty dialed in.

Is the experience of designing stunts for a fight-heavy show like Cobra Kai significantly different from coordinating for other shows where the stunts aren’t as integral to the story?

KODA: The fights are such a huge part of the story, and the writers and Jahnel and I just get together and discuss all the sequences with them. Cobra Kai, when that first came along,… I’d known the producer a very long time, and when he got that show, he immediately thought of me, called me immediately… And to be able to do something with Cobra Kai, Karate Kid was such a huge part of my life as a child. I grew up in martial arts; my father was my instructor. I pretty much took karate since I was a baby, and Karate Kid was huge in my time when I was younger. So being able to do this project was pretty incredible. And then to meet these guys who were my heroes when I was a kid was just amazing.

further reading: Cobra Kai: What’s Next for Season 3?

Who would you say is the most improved member of the Cobra Kai cast in terms of stunts?

CURFMAN: That’s a good question! They’ve just all improved so much. Billy Zabka and Ralph Macchio came in with… their experience on the first movies, but most of our newer cast, our younger cast, came in with little to no training whatsoever. I think for me most improved for season 2 is Mary Mouser who worked her butt off to perfect every single detail and move and piece of choreo that we threw at her. She worked really, really hard, and to see the change in her from the beginning of the season to the final product when we finally watch this season, it was just astounding what she accomplished on screen.

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What stage are you in with planning for Cobra Kai season 3?

KODA: The offices just opened. The cast gets started training about a month out. They’ll start doing some pre-training and just do physical training and getting the cobwebs off… Then they’ll all arrive here about two-and-a-half weeks before filming, and we’ll dive into starting to get them through the new choreography that we have. And they’ll continue to train through the whole series as we have in the past. It’s just any days that they have off, they train.

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Cobra Kai season 3 may still be far off in the future, but ever since the dojo battle at the end of season 2, anticipation has been high for whatever direction the series decides to take in the future. One things for sure: whatever lies in store from a narrative perspective, the fights and the martial arts on display will be a huge part of the spectacle and the story, and Koda and Curfman and their stunt coordination will be a huge part of what makes the show so successful and so appealing for fans of both the original Karate Kid and its legacy that lives on in Cobra Kai.

Listen to the full audio of our interview with Koda and Curfman; including more examples of their work in Stranger Things, Jumanji, and more; on The Fourth Wall podcast. The Fourth Wall seeks to allow creative people behind the scenes to break through the illusory “fourth wall” of stage and cinema to speak directly to the audience of their work. Our interviews with authors, composers, set designers, and others give voice to a whole host of artists we wouldn’t normally get to hear from. Subscribe so that you never miss an episode, or simply listen to the latest episode below!

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Michael Ahr is a writer, reviewer, and podcaster here at Den of Geek; you can check out his work here or follow him on Twitter (@mikescifi). He co-hosts our Sci Fi Fidelity podcast and coordinates interviews for The Fourth Wall podcast.