John Wick: Chapter 2 is right around the corner (buy your tickets here). Which can only mean one thing. That's right. It's John Wick Week!
John Wick was a true miracle for fans of pure cinema – a twinkle toes bullet fest that gave Keanu Reeves another seemingly thankless role on paper that he molded into a genuine genre icon. The fact that John Wick: Chapter 2 is actually better than the first film is downright confounding, and a testament to director Chad Stahelski (who co-directed its predecessor with uncredited future Deadpool 2 helmer, David Leitch). Hailing from the world of stunt coordination and martial arts choreography (not to mention being a double for both Reeves and Brandon Lee back in the day), Stahelski shoots every action scene with a sincere respect for the performers throwing themselves around his frame. Easily one of the best action directors working, it’s this recognition of how to properly stage, pace and shoot a perfect set piece that sets him far apart from his peers. Stahelski’s cinema is one of fluidity and muzzle flashes, finding a zen-like grace in relentless violence.
We had the chance to sit down with Mr. Stahelski and his stunt coordinator, Jordan “J.J.” Perry, and what followed was an in-depth discussion regarding the logistics of creating bona fide face-melters and the glory of working with Keanu Reeves…
Birth.Movies.Death: I have a general question before we jump into the specifics of John Wick – what do you guys think makes a great action scene?
Chad Stahelski: The magic is in the aesthetics. Is it a cool tone? Am I supposed to laugh? What does the scene accomplish? Is it Saving Private Ryan? Or is 21 Jump Street? Is it Jackie Chan “oh shit, look at what he just did”? Or is there an emotional element that each impact is trying to convey? What most people don’t realize is that action can be one of our greatest forms of storytelling, because it’s human beings using their bodies to convey everything we need to know. Forget dialogue. It’s primal.
Ultimately, every scene should have an end goal, and should be executed clearly. The audience reaction is how you gauge whether or not it was successful. [Motions to JJ] We both came up as martial arts choreographers, then stunt coordinators; we did both. I use The Matrix as an example a lot when I talk about action, because it was executed so wonderfully.
BMD: So, the aesthetics dictate the emotion, essentially….
CS: Think of it this way: when you first saw “bullet time,” or Carrie-Anne Moss run up that wall, you knew you were seeing something special, because it was so cleanly presented to you. Or Bruce Willis running across glass barefoot in Die Hard – all of a sudden, now everything has changed for that character, and it’s told through this detail in a gunfight.
Simple creativity in action scenes is key. How many car chases have you seen? How many superhero battles? Now think – how many of these stand out to you anymore? It’s because too many filmmakers think presenting the action itself is good enough. You have to think the details through, and how it’s going to look. Too many of these superhero movies just show us digital punching and we’re like “eh, it’s alright, I guess.” But then you have something like Bad Boys II and Michael Bay is just smashing cars and the guys are talking shit to one another. That’s genius, because we get their relationship, and full scale destruction that feels real at the same time.
BMD: Does your background as a martial arts coordinator help mold the way you frame each action scene through the camera? With both John Wick movies, it seems like you shoot with utmost respect for these fighters in mind.
CS: Absolutely, and thank you. It all needs to be about clarity, and seeing the performers move within the frame. Otherwise, it doesn’t feel real.
BMD: That’s what’s so great about the John Wick movies – the clarity of action. Too many action pictures nowadays – at least the shitty ones – are all about the close-up, handheld style of shooting that’s chopped to bits in editing.
JJ Perry: We call that “shaky-cam” and we’re just as guilty of that sometimes. We’ve done it, too.
CS: In our “day jobs” as Second Unit Directors, we don’t have a whole lot of control over it when we film a scene, and we’re rarely asked into an editing bay unless it’s a high-end martial arts show.
Most of the time, “shaky-cam” is used to infuse something into a scene that wasn’t there in the first place or cover something up. A lot of Hollywood editors like to overuse it because they think it’s adding something to the action, or creating a sense that the characters are moving faster than they really are, when really all you’re doing is losing clarity. Most of the time, when you see “shaky-cam” in a movie, it’s because there wasn’t enough prep time, or money, or something just wasn’t quite right with the shots. We call it a “forced decision.”
BMD: What about prep time for an action sequence? How much prep do you guys do before rolling on something like the club scene in the first John Wick or the insane Enter the Dragon glass room funhouse sequence in Chapter 2?
CS: Here’s how it usually works – directors come to the coordinators and go “OK, put together a really bitchin’ action sequence," and you’ve got a week to put it together, and the cast members train for three days. The stunt guys try to rehearse it, the camera men have never seen it, yet you still have to try and piece it together in a day. So you just sucked away all your time. The stunt guys have barely rehearsed, the cinematographer’s only lit a particular area where you’re shooting, the crew has set up the wire work in another area that doesn’t work. So – to circle back to your last question – these are the things that stuff like “shaky-cam” hides.
For a great action sequence – it’s all about rehearsal. I’m sure you’ve been to live theater, right? How much do you think those guys rehearse? Or if you go see the New York Ballet? There’s no editing there – there’s no hiding anything. Any little mistake you’re going to see, even if the dancer is just slightly out of sync. But that’s the best way to describe how to get truly great action choreography.
JP: There’s no take two if it happens in the frame. You see him fall. You see him hit the dirt. You feel the pain that double just experienced.
CS: By the time we get to set, everyone has rehearsed together. The cameramen, the stunt guys, the actors. It’s on. Because what good does it do if everyone is rehearsing separately? You ever see a movie camera, man? [Literally stands up and mimics the motion of shooting a scene.] This is an eighty pound hunk of metal, so you’ve gotta know who’s moving where, and how you’re going to move with them. We’re going to get this, and it’s going to look good. Jackie Chan’s guys have rehearsed for weeks. The camera guys used to be stunt guys, so they know the motions he’s using to create the scene. Plus, he’s got the choreography, the edit and emotion all in mind. That’s how great action sequences are born.
BMD: What about Keanu? How does he fit in with all this?
CS: Since we’ve been doing this our whole lives, we know a bit about budgeting. So we take all the money they think we’re going to need in order to shoot, and we end up putting it toward other resources. Instead of four weeks, Keanu’s going to rehearse for four months. We pay for everybody from the wardrobe girl, to the prop master to come and see how we want this thing to look. We pay for the Director of Photography to come to rehearsal, so he knows how to apply the aesthetics. Even the coffee guy is going to see this thing before we roll. Everyone’s going to know we’re doing big, long takes and it’s going to be wide, so get your shit off set. If we’re in the “mirror room” today, position yourselves accordingly and don’t wear red. It’s all about prep. We want to show the world that there’s a way to do cool action that’s lit well and looks great. All it takes is a lot of rehearsal and a little bit of thought.
JP: We invested really heavy in the training of Keanu Reeves early, early, early. Because, at the end of the day, the action’s only going to be as good as Keanu can be. We surrounded him with a crew of expert martial artists. We surrounded him with three-gun and four-gun world champions who are as proficient as you can get with a deadly weapon. Then there were a bunch of ex-service guys and ex-killers, and that rubbed off on him. He’s training five hours a day, six hours a day, fighting, and putting rounds in targets. By the time he was done with four months of that, he could’ve competed in a jiu jitsu tournament or a judo tournament, or brought it at a three-gun shooting competition.
BMD: Oh word?
JP: He was incredible. Watching him take that journey was just…it’s hard to put into words how dedicated he was.
CS: He’s Steve McQueen learning to drive a getaway car. The man’s a legend.
BMD: What you’re describing also reminds me of the way Michael Mann describes prep when making his movies. It’s all about the mechanics of professionalism.
JP: It’s the only way to get that reality, really. You train until you’re perfect.
CS: In any aspect of life, the more you study, the better you’re going to be. If you want build the best house, you need to learn up on how to become an architect.
The first thing the moneymen try to cut during budget negotiations is prep. They don’t want you to spend $30 million, they want you to spend $20 million, and they use prep as a bargaining tool right there. So we just tried to find ways to work around that and get what we needed. We protect this prep with our lives.
The second most important thing to us during the making of this movie was communication. I communicated to my team the type of movie I wanted to make, and they helped bring that to life, through thick or thin. I told them, no matter what, we’re going to shoot with long takes, and I’m not going to cut unless it’s a pacing issue, or I think it’s a really interesting creative choice.
BMD: Now what about environments? What’s really cool about this second movie is that it felt like a lot of thought was put into giving Chapter 2 a European flair.
CS: That speaks to the world expansion we wanted to pull off with the new movie. We’d seen a good chunk of New York in the first film, now let’s go elsewhere. John Wick’s world is international. I’m a big fan of the early Bonds, and if James Bond goes to the Alps, I wanna be in the Alps. If Bond goes to the Bahamas, I want to be in the Bahamas.
That bathhouse we used in the first film was an actual location in Tribeca. We wanted people to look at the movie and go “where is that? I want to go there.” Same mentality applies to Chapter 2, only it was taking you to the Catacombs and to this concert in the middle of Europe. The cinematographer, Dan Laustsen, is a beautiful world builder, and like the action, we want you to see everything. We want you to be there with John Wick, just like you were with James Bond.
BMD: Talking about expansions, the mythology gets bigger here too, but not too big that it overwhelms the movie. How much do you work with [screenwriter] Derek Kolstad on this?
CS: When you’re world-building, it’s an ever-evolving process. When we’re out scouting, Derek’s back in his room, writing. We type up a bunch of description and send photos of the locations back to him as sort of a guide, so he can visually see what we’re putting together. We paint the pictures for Derek.
For example – we wanted to do a rock concert in [Chapter 2]. But it was going to be set in these ancient ruins and, instead of having the crowd running away when the shooting erupts like they do in the club sequence in Collateral, they start clapping and cheering. It’s the Coliseum in this John Wick world. Or like the catacombs [shootout sequence] – we sent Derek pictures and then he just put it in script form. And as Derek sees the scenes come together, he puts in the dialogue and builds the story around that. He’ll throw that flavor into it like “I thought you were retired?” [Imitates Keanu] “I’m working on it.”
BMD: So it’s a “set piece first” approach to storytelling…
CS: Sometimes it works like that, especially once we start shooting. But Derek also gives us ideas and we expand upon his ideas. The John Wick team doesn’t exactly operate in a traditional sense. A lot of bigger movies – the producers hand you a script and then you take it and go “oh, here’s the movie.” With us, it’s constant collaboration on the go. Keeps it fresh and very kinetic.
Truthfully, it’s such a wacky world and we know how ridiculous it is, but it’s ours and we love it.
John Wick: Chapter 2 hits theaters February 10th. Tickets on sale now!