'Cobra Kai' Showrunners On That Huge Season Finale Reveal And Much More [Interview]

If you binge watched all of Cobra Kai in the first day, you've surely got questions about that final reveal. So creators Jon Hurwitz, Hayden Schlossberg and Josh Heald agreed to talk spoilers as long as this interview ran after the premiere. If you haven't made it through all 10 episodes yet that's okay. Savor it, and we'll save the spoiler talk for the end of this interview.

There's plenty to talk about up front, just with the idea of revisiting The Karate Kid in this format. The YouTube Red original series picks up in present day with Johnny Lawrence (William Zabka) down on his luck, living in the shadow of Daniel LaRusso (Ralph Macchio). When Johnny reopens Cobra Kai to start training a new generation of students, it reopens old wounds with Daniel, too.

The creators all have credentials when it comes to revisiting popular franchises and genres. Hurwitz and Schlossberg wrote and directed American Reunion. Heald wrote Hot Tub Time Machine, which time travels back to 1986 and features Zabka in a role. The trio spoke with /Film at length, so strap in for a deeb dive into the Karate Kid franchise then and now.

Was the biggest hurdle how to handle the fact that you wouldn't have Mr. Miyagi anymore?

Hurwitz: When we started planning the show, we obviously knew that we weren't going to have Mr. Miyagi. But it was crucial to us that the spirit of Mr. Miyagi lived on on our show. Daniel LaRusso was trained by Miyagi for many movies. In our minds, they had a relationship for much longer than that and one that has helped inform Daniel's life throughout, so part of the fun of making the show was keeping that Miyagi spirit alive.

Schlossberg: One of the reasons why not having Pat Morita didn't prevent us from doing the show is that we knew that this was a show where Johnny Lawrence was sort of our protagonist as we entered into the story. It was sort of a different perspective. We try to just take the loss of Miyagi and turn that into something that an audience can resonate. As you get older, you lose that father figure or father or your mentor. Then it puts pressure on you to become that person to somebody else. We just used that to our advantage storywise.

Heald: One of the benefits of having many movies with Daniel and Miyagi in scenes together to pull from is that we are able to keep characters alive in spirit on our show. Whether it's using archival footage or anything like that that can give you a sense of people being there, even though they could not be.

Is the end of this inevitably going to have to be Johnny re-learning that Cobra Kai's mentality of getting revenge on your enemy doesn't work?

Heald: It's an interesting arc for Johnny Lawrence because he needs to grow as any character does over the course of the season of television, but he has to grow within reason and boundaries. It's always been one step forward, two steps back or two steps forward, one step back. We're not trying to show that everything changes in the course of one season for Johnny, but it's a little bit of a reboot of his perspective, his outlook and his expectations.

Hurwitz: Cobra Kai has helped Johnny Lawrence with his highest highs as well as his lowest lows. So he has a love-hate relationship with karate, with Cobra Kai, with his teachings. What we get to see with him on the show and other characters on the show is taking the good, taking the bad and trying to figure out what the right path it.

Heald: I will say at the top of our season, Johnny has a very particular, very distinct point of view about Cobra Kai karate and how it's different than the one man, than Kreese. Cobra Kai is separable from Kreese. Cobra Kai in and of itself can be good karate. His journey over the season occasionally challenges that.

Is it sort of a myth of the movies that a bully will just go away when you defeat them? Most bullies don't accept defeat.

Hurwitz: One of the things we like exploring on the show is there's a reason why a bully is a bully oftentimes. We took one of the most iconic bullies of all time and did a deep dive with him. So you get to learn why he was the bully that we met and we see what happens to that bully. All of us when we were younger experienced bullying in one form or another and then as you get older, you start to realize that the people who were bullying us may have had their own problems and everyone has a bully in their own lives. I think that a bully may always have the bully within him, but as you get older you can hopefully progress in life in one way or another.

Does Will Smith get an Executive Producer credit because he produced the remake with Jaden?

Schlossberg: Yeah, you know, when we were trying to get the rights, when we first decided we wanted to pursue it, we called our agents to find out who owned the rights. It was Jerry Weintraub's estate along with Will Smith's company Overbrook because they acquired a portion of the rights when they made the reboot. We needed them in order to do this and we pitched it to them not knowing whether they would be into going back to the original characters and original version of Karate Kid. The executives over there loved the idea, they loved our take. Beyond just allowing us to do it, they were very involved, were on set and very helpful.

Has there been an actual sports debate about the illegal crane kick?

Heald: We address the idea of the illegal kick in our first episode, but we also take steps to point out that it's a matter of perspective. The illegal kick may be an illegal kick or may not be an illegal kick depending on who you are. The rules were a little bit vague.

Schlossberg: I just think it wasn't completely thoroughly explained in the movies. How I interpret the rules is that kicks to the face are allowed. Punches to the face are not allowed. So that's why Daniel won. If it was illegal, they wouldn't have given them the trophy.

Heald: We do acknowledge that some characters view the kick as illegal and other characters view it as perfectly legal. We leave the 1984 rules a little bit vague.

Do you imagine that Daniel met Julie Pierce at Mr. Miyagi's funeral, and have you reached out to two time Academy Award winner Hilary Swank?

Hurwitz: I love this question first and foremost. In our minds, those two characters do know each other. They were both very important to Mr. Miyagi. We have not yet reached out to Hilary Swank but we do think about her as somebody who is part of the Karate Kid canon and who could exist in the world of Cobra Kai.

Heald: We treat the first four Karate Kids as canon to this universe. They all have Miyagi in them as a throughline.

Is there a scene from Next Karate Kid or Karate Kid III, the least talked about sequels, that you love and might mention on Cobra Kai?

Schlossberg: For hardcore Karate Kid fans who've seen all the movies, characters like Terry Silver and Mike Barnes are really popular. We understand why the original movie is always considered the classic and there's all sorts of criticisms you can have on the later sequels, but we were all just watching HBO at the time and loved these characters.  It's not like oh my God, this is a show where we really delve into Karate Kid III and Karate Kid IV but there may be an Easter egg or two in the first season if you watch all the episodes.

Cobra Kai early buzz

I imagine the success of TV reboots helped get Cobra Kai made, but shows like Roseanne and Will & Grace are coming back as the same show. Is it different to change the format from movies to a TV show?

Hurwitz: The three of us have been friends for over 20 years and we've all been huge fans of Karate Kid for over 20 years. For all this time, we've talked about how much fun it would be to revisit the Karate Kid universe, but our angle in has always been Cobra Kai. We never thought it would be interesting to do, "Hey, it's The Karate Man now. Daniel and his son, it's the exact same story." We always thought there was something interesting about the perspective of the bully. You even see in that very first movie, the vulnerability in Johnny's eyes as his sensei tells him to sweep the leg. He hands Daniel the trophy at the end of the movie. To us,there's always been more to that story and that felt like a fresh way in. When shows like Fuller House started coming out and you start to see shows that were popular when we were young are returning, and you're able to have Kimmy Gibbler on a billboard, we started to think hey, maybe that Cobra Kai idea that we've had all these years, maybe that would make for a great streaming show so we could tell a bigger story and expand upon it. We view Cobra Kai as Karate Kid 2018. It has a certain edge to it that you find in present day. We're flipping the script in a sense. We thought it's just a much more entertaining and interesting experience for the audience.

Schlossberg: It provides all the fun nostalgia that you would get from watching a Roseanne or a Will & Grace. We're seeing the same characters today and there's a lot of the same themes, martial arts and all that stuff to bring you back to that enjoyment that a lot of people had when they saw the original Karate Kid. But what we love about this is it's totally different. It's not just a retread. Not only seeing it from the Cobra Kai side but also the fact that it's a TV series, so we're changing the format, we're changing the protagonist. It's very original while keeping a lot of the classic themes it started with.

Hurwitz: A big thing for us is it allows us to see a different version of Daniel LaRusso as well. In our minds, both Daniel and Johnny are protagonists and they're both antagonists in our minds. All the characters on the show, we like to see both sides of it. Having the ability to do a streaming show which has five hours of material instead of a movie, you get to do a deeper dive in all those characters.

Heald: This isn't a TV show that's been off the air for 10 or 20 years. This was a movie that was 34 years ago. Even if we did just lean directly into the exact themes and storylines of the movie, it was bound to be dramatically different anyway because we're taking characters who were teenagers coming of age and now they're grown up. There's families and there's businesses and there's worlds and extended families. That in and of itself gives the show a different DNA. That and the shifting POV tells a completely different story.

You mentioned Johnny handing Daniel the trophy. What's your take on what happens after he says, "You're all right, LaRusso?" When does that start to change back in his mind?

Heald: Johnny Lawrence is a very complex character that is intentionally underserved by the movie because it's not Johnny's movie. It's Daniel's movie but the movie does do a pretty good job of showing you that it's John Kreese who's really the big bad. Johnny Lawrence is the student who's been a little misled in the ways of what's proper karate and proper conduct. We don't view it as everything changed in that instant for good and forever, but that kick, that loss was a catalyst. We obviously know what happened directly after he handed Daniel that trophy. He went to the parking lot and John Kreese tried to choke him to death. So in that one moment, Johnny lost the championship. He already lost a girlfriend. He lost his father figure. He lost a sport he loved that kind of defined him and he's got six months left of high school? It's just not a good moment and it's kind of the beginning of the downward spiral.

Hurwitz: We see in that moment, Johnny and Daniel are good but you see that Daniel has always been a bit of a cocky kid and not somebody who's shy about his victories. It's possible that in the rest of high school, Daniel may have walked through the hallways a little bit more confident. Maybe there were some taunts from other students in the school making fun of Johnny for that kick to the face. That's probably the instant reaction the rest of the school year. What's happened since then is Daniel's become a successful owner of a string of car dealerships and uses karate in his commercials. He talks about kicking the competition and he has billboards all over the valley and commercials on the radio. So Johnny who had this really traumatizing experience at this karate tournament has had to have it rubbed in his face for the last 30 years. That can grate at you.

Jon and Hayden, you did American Reunion. Was that a different sort of continuation than doing Cobra Kai all these years later?

Hurwitz: American Reunion we loved making as well. I think the big thing about that movie for us was that was specifically a reunion movie. So the goal on that movie was to almost be a direct sequel to that original American Pie when we saw them in high school as seniors. So that one was leaning heavily on the nostalgia there and the feelings that you'd have at a high school reunion. When approaching Cobra Kai it was sort of a completely different scenario. Yes, we have callbacks to the original movies, and also just the nature that it became a TV show, it was all about keeping the story grounded, keeping it of today. The story that you would see with a couple kids may feel a little bit softer just by the intense bullying. It's a little bit darker what you might see present day with a man who's in his 50s and life hasn't turned out well, whose guiding light has been the Cobra Kai philosophy.

Schlossberg: But it was informative having worked on American Reunion and going into an existing franchise. I think the big takeaway was we were just huge fans of the American Pie movies. When we got on board American Reunion, we had to meet all the actors and gain their trust. I think they saw right away we understood the characters. I think that was similar in this case. When we met Ralph Macchio for the first time and told him all our thoughts, I think he realized okay, these guys really understand The Karate Kid and fans of The Karate Kid are going to enjoy this new show.

Heald: We all have had very interesting and specific R-rated comedy feature careers. That's not the toolbox that any of us brought to this show. We were first and foremost Karate Kid fans and we wanted to honor that and tell that story in a different way than what you might expect from our collective resumes.

Is it true you guys already wrote an American Pie 5?

Schlossberg: No, sometimes IMDB will list a bunch of things. I think that there was maybe a period of time when that was in discussion but it wasn't even formerly announced. We haven't been working on that.

Hurwitz: No, we haven't written an American Pie 5. We've had thoughts on what we would do in an American Pie 5 but it isn't something we've ever put pen to paper on.

Heald: But I have written Back to the Future IV.

You know, at the 25th anniversary of Back to the Future I pitched Bob Gale doing a part IV in the real 2015 and sending a new teenager back to 1985. He said he thought Hot Tub Time Machine already did it. 

Heald: That's the coolest thing I've heard. It's an honor. It was no accident that Hot Tub went back to the '80s. It's the era in which we're nostalgic for.

I think Thomas Ian Nicholas thought there was an actual script so he'll be disappointed.

Hurwitz: We saw that. I think Thomas, in the wake of making American Reunion, there was a lot of talk about making an American Pie 5 and we had some really serious thoughts about it. There was real talk about doing it but it just never ended up coming together.

Schlossberg: It made enough money worldwide to warrant another sequel, but that was the right story and the right timing. Those types of things are always possibilities. Look at Cobra Kai 30 years later. It's not not happening, but we haven't written anything.

Do you have any thoughts on another Harold and Kumar?

Hurwitz: Yeah, we think about Harold and Kumar a lot. We're still really good friends with both John and Kal. Many times a year we talk about doing another Harold and Kumar movie. Even on my walk this morning I was thinking about Harold and Kumar IV. We have nothing definitive on that but it's something that I know we'd all like to do one. It's figuring out the right time and place.

Josh, are you working on any other screenplays?

Heald: Yeah, I have a couple of screenplays in development right as we started making Cobra Kai, then Cobra Kai kind of took everything over. One of my projects is embroiled in the Dimension/Weinstein Company situation so I know the producers are very actively trying to get that one out of there. The other one is a Chinese coproduction that I don't know the current state of.

Cobra Kai Trailer

The three of you are the first to write Daniel and Johnny since Robert Mark Kamen. Was that some pressure?

Schlossberg: I wouldn't describe it as pressure as much as an honor and just an enjoyable, fun experience. The three of us have been in the screenwriting game for a long time and I think any screenwriter holds Robert Mark Kamen in high regard. He's one of the best screenwriters in Hollywood history. Karate Kid is probably, of all his movies, the one that we like the most. I think we always felt the pressure to make this as awesome as it can be, but we knew that because we were fans ourselves, if we're liking it, probably fans and Robert Mark Kamen would like it too.

Heald: We reached out to Robert and we got his blessing. We've had a lot of great discussions with him and we know that he's excited to see his characters live on. He's been very intrigued and encouraged by what we're doing and what we're telling with these characters and they're very different characters now. They have the same voice in that it's very obvious who they were then, but they're also 34 years on. There's that newness to them as well.

Hurwitz: One of the greatest experiences that the three of us have had in this industry was right after the official trailer came out for the show, we got a call from Robert. He could not have been more excited. He loved what he saw. Even though he only saw two minutes of material, he was able to extrapolate so many things because he knows these characters inside and out and he knows screenwriting inside and out. When he said to us, "I can tell you guys did this right," it was the greatest honor for us. We're looking forward to him seeing the entire show.

If you thought of this 20 years ago, were you waiting to get the clout to do something this big?

Schlossberg: We've been talking about it probably early in our screenwriting career, in the early 2000s, around the time the new Karate Kid DVD came out with the special features. I think we've always loved Cobra Kai and Johnny Lawrence and Kreese, in addition to obviously Daniel and Miyagi. We loved the idea of taking what happened to Johnny. There may have been 15 years ago, we talked about wouldn't this be an awesome movie? Yeah, maybe at some point we thought, "Can we do this?" but maybe we didn't have the clout. Pretty soon the Jaden Smith reboot came out and it just seemed like that's probably not going to happen. With the evolution of TV series, it opened up the possibility again.

Hurwitz: We were very serious about it as a movie in the early 2000s and then we got to be in the movie business and you realize how hard it is to get a movie made. It's all about what have you done for me lately, with stars. It didn't feel clear that Ralph and Billy were going to get the big studio push that we would want for a Karate Kid movie. Then the Jaden Smith movie happened and we felt like it's gone forever.

Schlossberg: We'd hate the idea of doing the straight to DVD version of a movie. I think what's cool about this is as a streaming series, it's just inherently a different format. So it's not something where it's like we're making a movie that's just much cheaper than the original movies. This is something that is a completely different art form but with the original characters.

Heald: We felt it would've been dishonest to say okay, we'll do it without the rights and it won't be necessarily Daniel or Johnny. That wasn't interesting or attractive to us. We hold the movie in such a high regard that the only way to do this right is to have that movie we're referencing. We knew it was always a risk in terms of we hope we don't break Karate Kid because we love Karate Kid so much, and we'd never forgive ourselves if we did. But we would also never attempt to do this without putting it on the shoulders of greatness.

When you first started thinking about Cobra Kai, was Pat Morita still alive and did you have a version where he was still in it?

Hurwitz: We did initially start talking about this pre-2005. We didn't dig super deep back then when we started talking about it where we knew exactly what we would want to do. It was more revolving around what happened to that bully from your high school? So we were thinking first and foremost from the Johnny standpoint and thinking about his life, and conversely that concept that Daniel you would hope has made good while Johnny's life has gone in the opposite direction. In terms of the specifics of Miyagi, we assumed he would be a part of that world but we didn't have grand plans for exactly what Miyagi would be doing in that story. Again, it was a movie plan as opposed to a TV plan. So he would've had some role in it but it would've been a smaller one probably. I think he will actually have a much bigger role in this series, weirdly enough.

Heald: Not having Pat put certain constraints and handcuffs on what we can do with the Miyagi character but it also makes every choice we make for that character more powerful and more meaningful because of the limited amount of footage we have to work with with an actor who has passed. Pat Morita and Mr. Miyagi had a lot of wisdom to impart on Daniel through three movies so we look forward to continuing to use that as much as possible to influence the Daniel side of the story moving forward.

Hurwitz: In our world, Mr. Miyagi lived many years beyond those movies as well. In our world, Mr. Miyagi knew Daniel's wife. Mr. Miyagi met Daniel's daughter. So there are things that the audience hasn't seen that happen in the world of this universe that we can find out in the future in, hopefully, creative ways.

So when he passed in 2005 did that ever seem like an insurmountable hurdle?

Hurwitz: It definitely, when he passed, it was one of the elements that made us feel like well, I guess that's not going to happen. It was one of the contributing factors of feeling like the movie will never happen.

Do you get to address how karate is now sort of the forgotten martial art, considered old in a world of MMA?

Heald: We get into the idea of other martial arts disciplines on the show in the San Fernando Valley. We also lean on the fact that there was an era that karate in the Valley is like football in Texas. That was kind of the era of Johnny and Daniel, but we do acknowledge that the idea of old school karate is a little bit foreign to these kids who know MMA, jujitsu and things like that.

Schlossberg: I think there's a conceit on our show that in the Valley, karate is sort of a big deal. It comes with the original movie and the fact that there was this big huge tournament. I'm not sure that's the case everywhere, but we just kind of accepted that okay, here in the valley, there's all these different karate organizations and it's a big deal here. I think we took that as okay, that's part of this world that we're creating and that explains why Daniel would use karate in his videos.

Heald: And not in a comical way where everyone walks down the street talking about karate. You have characters who are completely removed from knowing that karate is even a minor deal in the Valley at all. But there definitely is a little bit of a subculture that still celebrates the world of karate.

And now, here is the talk about the spoiler at the end of the season finale of Cobra Kai. Read no further if you have not finished season one of Cobra Kai yet.

So by the very end, a certain someone shows up, someone Karate Kid fans have been expecting to see, at least until Johnny said in episode eight that he was dead. So I got to ask the show runners why they waited until the finale to reveal him, emerging from the shadow with a monologue tease like a Marvel movie Easter egg.

Why did you decide to wait until the last episode to reveal this character and end it on a cliffhanger?

Heald: We've said John Kreese's presence looms large. You see him in flashbacks. You know that he's a big part of the Cobra Kai universe. So he played a huge role in the series. We loved the idea of after seeing the journey that our characters go through this first season, to throw sensei Kreese into the mix as a curveball for the audience, for the characters themselves, and for the places that we can take the series going forward. He's a character that we all absolutely loved and fans of The Karate Kid love or love to hate. When doing a show called Cobra Kai, we from the beginning have always wanted him to be a part of this universe. But we felt that the first season would benefit from the story that we tell in the first season. His presence should be greater going forward.

Hurwitz: In order to tell Johnny's story, and the first episode of the season, Johnny is still dealing with the ghost of Kreese from him losing the tournament and saying "Sweep the leg" and choking Johnny. Kreese is very much on the mind, but it felt like in order to see Johnny start to grow and experience Cobra Kai karate, to have Kreese along for that ride right away felt like we were shortchanging Johnny's experience. Withholding his arrival back into Johnny's life until the end of the season felt like the perfect place for him to show up and really throw a curveball at the balance that we've established by that point.

Even before seeing the show, my first thought at the idea of a Cobra Kai show was if Johnny's reopening Cobra Kai, wherever he is, John Kreese would hear about it.

Heald: We're leaving it intentionally vague for the first season whether or not Johnny is aware that Kreese is still around, alive, in the country. We don't want to reveal yet where we're taking that and going with that because during the season, Johnny does say point blank when asked about Kreese, "John Kreese is dead." Does Johnny believe that? Is Johnny lying? Was Johnny told something or is he just dead to Johnny? Those are all things we look forward to answering when we take the story forward.

So you do have an explanation for season two?

Hurwitz: Yes, in season two you'll learn far more about the lingering status of that relationship. You'll know what Johnny knows and what the world knows going forward, but at the end of this season it's just a surprise that he shows up. It's just the beginning of the story basically.