Admit it. At some point in your life, you’ve done an impression of Sylvester Stallone as Rocky Balboa wailing, “Adria-a-a-a-a-a-an!”
And now, thanks to Irvine resident Kevin Derek, you’ll get to meet the man who directed that iconic moment. While writer-star Stallone may dominate most people’s memory of “Rocky,” it was actually director John G. Avildsen who picked up the Oscar for that 1976 classic — and he’ll be a guest of honor at this month’s Irvine International Film Festival, which will bestow on him its Lifetime Achievement Award.
Derek, who directed the documentary “Empty Hand: The Real Karate Kids” and has “The Real Miyagi” in the works, created a packed program for the third annual Irvine festival — which, despite its name, will actually take place at the Laguna Hills Mall Cinemas. With opening night approaching, Derek joined the Daily Pilot in an email interview:
Last year, the Irvine International Film Festival showed nine short films that were nominated for Oscars. You have several films on the program this year that have been shortlisted. Are you eagerly anticipating the nominations on Jan. 16?
This year, we have nine as well, and a doc we screened last year, “Jujitsu-ing Reality,” is also on the Oscars’ short list. And, in fact, the same day that the Oscars are being announced, we are screening five short documentaries and one feature doc, “The Act of Killing,” that we hope will be on that list.
Will you celebrate at the festival if your films score a lot of nominations?
Absolutely! Our award show lands on the same day as the Oscar announcement. Perfect timing.
Tell the truth. Before you started running your film festival, had you ever seen those shorts that get nominated for the Oscar?
Yes, but not as much as I have seen since I’ve been running the festival. There aren’t that many places in O.C. that you can go to see short docs. You might get lucky and see one or two Oscar-caliber at a festival, but to see nine in one festival — that doesn’t happen that often. We want to be known for showing quality films.
All right, so which quality short films should I find time to see this year?
I would have to say all of our short-list selections are top notch!
Tell me about your first experience with film festivals. What was the first one you attended?
To be honest, it’s been so long that I don’t remember the year. But the first one I attended was the LA Film Fest, I would say 12 years ago. But the most memorable ones were Sundance and Doc NYC.
What was memorable about those?
The atmosphere, surroundings, meeting and hanging out with filmmakers.
Which filmmakers did you get to meet?
We usually go with a group of friends. Not all the filmmakers there are well-known. You run into producers, editors, cinematographers, etc., that all share the same common goal.
What goal is that, at least as far as a film festival goes?
Their goal is to be recognized for the countless hours they spent on the film, to be accepted to a prestigious festival.
Gene Siskel once cited a story about an old Hollywood producer who applauded at the end of every movie he saw, simply because he knew how hard it was to get a movie made. Is it really that tough to see a film to completion?
I do the same exact thing. Making a feature narrative and documentaries are completely different worlds. In general, making an indie film is very difficult, from finding the right concept, funding, production, post and distribution. At least, up until the early 2000s, it was much easier to sell your film because there was less competition.
Now, with digital cameras, the market is oversaturated, and it’s difficult to find distribution even if you have great reviews. You need to realize why you wanted to become a filmmaker to begin with. To make a nonsense action formula movie? Or to do something you believe in? Because, ultimately, you have to live with what you’ve created. “Antarctica,” one of the docs we’re screening, took [director Anthony Powell] 10 years to make.
Can you describe how you felt the first time “Empty Hand: The Real Karate Kids” played at a festival?
The feeling is indescribable. I felt vulnerable because I put so much heart and soul into this film and I was unsure how it was going to be perceived. The hope when you make a film is that people will respond the way that you intended at a specific scene. The feeling is euphoric to see three years of your hard work come to life.
In my experience, film festival audiences are more vocal than most because they understand that it’s a communal experience. How did people react to “Empty Hand”? Did you get laughter, cheers, gasps or anything else?
Yes, you are right. Most of the people in the audience were karate practitioners, so they had been waiting for some time for the release, and thank God we didn’t let them down. We were pleasantly surprised. They were cheering and applauding at the right moments.
Speaking of karate-associated filmmakers, you’ll be giving your Lifetime Achievement Award to John G. Avildsen, who directed “The Karate Kid” and “Rocky.” Is he a hero of yours?
Mr. Avildsen has directed two iconic films. I remember when “Karate Kid” came out in the theaters in 1984, I went to the first screening on Friday night, and there was a line wrapped around the mall — and, by the way, it’s the same theater that we are honoring him at. At that time, I was taking karate, and my instructor, Master [Fumio] Demura, the gentleman who I’m directing the documentary about, did the stunt work for Pat Morita.
“Karate Kid” was one of the most anticipated movies within the martial arts community — finally a film about the true karate. Before that, it was all about Bruce Lee and kung fu. So to be able to pay tribute to Mr. Avildsen for his great achievement as a director is an honor.
When major festivals like Sundance and Cannes occur, they pretty much take over the surrounding area. Do you anticipate a day when it will be hard to book a hotel in Irvine in mid-January?
I can feel it coming soon!
If You Go
What: Irvine International Film Festival
Where: Laguna Hills Mall Cinemas, 24155 Laguna Hills Mall, Laguna Hills
When: Jan. 10 through 16
Cost: Opening night pass $10; passes for other days $40; visit website for prices for individual screenings
Information: (949) 800-6163 or https://www.irvinefilmfest.com