Chad Stahelski had been around the industry well before his directorial debut in 2014’s John Wick. After spending two decades as a stunt double—taking and doling out punches for some of Hollywood’s biggest stars—Stahelski tried his hand at directing alongside production partner David Leitch for the Keanu Reeves action vehicle. The film took off, and so did Stahelski’s career. He directed the 2017 sequel, John Wick: Chapter 2 and will return with this year’s John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum. Boxoffice spoke with the director about keeping his action franchise fresh, and what to expect from the latest installment in the series.
Where does the third movie take off?
Keanu and I started talking about how we wanted to do this—what we like and don’t like about some action movies, sequels, and trilogies—and found that a lot of our films deal with Greek mythology, fable telling, and the act of consequences. Karma, fate, and all that. We always liked the idea that none of the movies wrapped up with an overall happy ending. We were always drawn to what happens the day after the protagonist survives the trial. So we thought it’d be fun if we linked all three films together with the same time line.
Obviously, the first one ends and literally the next day the second film starts. The third starts the next day number two ends; we find John literally seconds after we left him in John Wick 2 and we proceed with the story that originally started in John Wick. I wouldn’t call it episodic, but it’s definitely tied together on the same time line.
Basically, John Wick is having a really rough week.
That’s how we like to see it. We start with one problem, and another problem happens, and there’s a ripple effect. You do bad things, bad things happen to you. The second films takes off because of the first, and the third happens because of what he did in the first two films. He has to deal with the consequences.
There are few films in this genre that get to redefine how action is staged and choreographed. I’d say your work with Keanu Reeves in these films has achieved that status. How did you keep things fresh with your action choreography in John Wick 3?
If you look at choreography in general—whether it’s dance choreography, musical choreography, or a combination of both, action choreography—the lowest common denominator in these sequences is your star. In our case, that’s Keanu Reeves. I could bring in the best stunt people, great set pieces, I can blow up entire cities … but it still comes down to your connection with the character and if they’re believable to you.
In order to up the ante, it’s not about bigger digital or CGI components; it’s not about bigger set pieces. It’s not about bigger guns or body counts or anything like that, it’s about your protagonist. It starts with the hero. In order to do that, we need to make Keanu Reeves better. If you trained three hours a day, it’s about training five. Training with guns, knives, motorcycles, cars, horses. We worked to make his martial arts way, way better. As hard as we pushed in the first two movies, we pushed him even harder for number three. In any good action sequence, if the hero gets better, the action gets better.
The next level of that is creativity; how do we make this fun for the audience? If you just fight and shoot and shoot and fight, it’s not very fun. For this one, we put him in a range of new settings: a library, an antique store, on a bridge, on a motorcycle, on a horse. We have him fight underwater, in a glass house, in a big open foyer. We just tried to really show the vast array that the world’s best assassin would be great at.
What you’re saying reminds me a lot of Hong Kong action cinema. The sort of films that Jackie Chan and Jet Li built their careers on.
It’s no great secret that both Keanu and I have had vast experience with Asian cinema. We’re heavily, heavily influenced by Hong Kong cinema of that era. Today, it’s Asian cinema, Chinese cinema, wushu, Wudang, and all the great kung fu movies. They pushed their protagonists to the absolute extreme to not only be great, but so they’d be believable in their performances.
Did you specifically draw from any of those films for John Wick 3?
I’d like to think we took good notes. Jackie Chan would have a more humorous tone to a lot of his fight scenes. We took some cues on how to expand set pieces by exploiting moments of situational comedy, while being more grounded and serious in our tone.
Muhammad Ali used to say that fights were in the gym, not the ring. How vital is pre-production on a film like this? Is it like the lead-up to a boxing match where you put your star through a 10-week training camp before anyone shows up on set? How has your experience as a stuntman informed the way you approach pre-production?
The 10-week camp, you just described the typical medium- to big-budget Hollywood movie. They hire the cast, producers hire the stunt guy, stunt guy hires the fight team, fight team hires trainers depending on the cast members’ availability, and they get six to 10 weeks to train. And that’s supposed to get you the superhero star that we’ve never seen the likes of before? That’s why every movie looks the same. We spent a good part of our career doing those jobs and decided it was just a fruitless endeavor. You have to remember that no matter who’s in the cast, they’re human. You can’t turn an actor into a martial arts expert in 10 weeks.
A lot of these actors, they kind of fake it. They’ll give us someone who’s never done martial arts before, expect to make them a world-class martial artist in 10 weeks. I’d be lucky to get you in decent shape in six to eight weeks, let alone a world class martial artist.
Hey, I’m happy if I can lose 10 pounds in that span.
That’s why we look for people with exceptional physical aptitude, already in shape, with a high-level ability to memorize. Martial arts choreography in a movie is a lot more like dancing than actual martial arts. Can you remember the steps? Can you work with your partners? There’s very little to do with real, actual fighting. As soon as you can get your head around it—that it’s not real fighting—and you don’t train them like martial artists, you train them like dancers, things become much easier.
This was Keanu’s third time working in this franchise. Did you have to adjust that regimen with a new cast member like Halle Berry?
Halle trained every day; as we were shooting, she was training. She trained three to five days a week for five months. That’s the level we expect to get somebody up to par so we can shoot. We’re not trying to use sneaky shots or fast editing; we’re doing long takes. I’m not going to do those long takes with Keanu Reeves and then change the style with other cast members. The bar is already set with Keanu. When Halle walked in, she went, “OK, that’s what I need to get to.” And to her credit, she didn’t miss a day and was every bit as committed as Keanu
You tend use to use color very strategically in these films: very bright whites, silky blacks, cool blues. Where did you draw this from?
I did a great deal of tutelage under the Wachowskis for all three Matrix movies, Speed Racer, and Cloud Atlas. They stressed world building. It was like going to film school for 10 years with them. Everything needs to be tied into a film’s world, it doesn’t matter how small. Through them I learned a lot about color. One of the things from the original Matrix, for example, is that none of the clothes are black. They are all different shades of green.
A lot of action movies at the time were very saturated—washed out, grainy, dark—and that was supposed to give you a mood of intensity. When I watch those kinds of movies, I get what the directors are going for, but it also feels like it’s pushing me away from the screen. I never felt like I could get out of my chair and walk into the screen. The color should suck you into the story. We wanted to change the way people experience our action, and one of the best ways to do that is through color. We wanted to draw the audience into the shot. One of my favorite Renaissance painters is Caravaggio, so the blacks had to pull you in like you’re going into a tunnel. The colors should feel warm and embrace you. I think that keeps you a lot more engaged in our world.
Do you think action films work better on the big screen than they do at home?
That depends on the audience; I hope they get enjoyment from both. On a directorial note, our cinematographer, Dan Laustsen, and I both wanted to make these movies for the cinema. We wanted to make it on the big screen. A Sergio Leone film, something like The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, it’s less fun seeing it on a small screen. Seeing it at the theater is amazing. That’s what we wanted, too, an immersive cinematic experience.
Nowadays a lot of tentpole movies concentrate more on being bigger on the screen and not as much on composition. A lot is shoved in your face instead of letting the frame tell you where to look. Good composition lets your eye find what we wanted to show you in the wide shot. That’s why we shot this movie the way we did. Even the fight choreography feels different; it’s not what you’d call “action-edited.” I want the characters and their blocking on-screen to capture your eye instead of doing seven cuts to show a guy jumping over a fence. If something’s not there when you shoot the scene, it’s not going to be there when you edit it.
Who are some of the artists that have inspired your filmmaking?
My biggest influences are Spielberg, Kurosawa, Sergio Leone, Tarkovsky, and Bertolucci. Their movies predominantly use wide angles; the films are built to be big. That’s the way I want you to experience the films. John Wick is just a little part of something much, much bigger. When you see our anamorphic wide shots, or when we do a big push in, close-ups with Keanu on a wide angle, you should feel like there’s still a massive world behind him.
That’s how I always felt in Sergio Leone westerns and with Kurosawa’s characters. When you’re watching a Bertolucci film, you always know that the character is just another player in that world. In John Wick we’re trying to tell a modern-day martial arts fable; he’s just another piece of this world. That’s what we try to show with the choice of lenses we use.