Chad Stahelski’s John Wick entered the market in late October 2014 with unexceptional prospects. It was a midbudget action film, helmed by star Keanu Reeves’s former stunt double in The Matrix. Few would have blinked if it had taken its modest box office haul and retreated to a comfortable afterlife in the Sunday afternoon programming rotation on basic cable, the fate enjoyed by countless films before it. But John Wick was more than just another counter-programmer—it was a fresh and exciting take on a genre weighed down by superhero movies; it became a word-of-mouth box office hit, and above all it was good. It was really good. A sequel followed in 2017, as did a third part in 2019. All were directed by Chad Stahelski, who has remained at the helm of the franchise since its inception. With John Wick: Chapter 4, scheduled for release this March, John Wick is now one of the most important series in Lionsgate’s slate. Boxoffice Pro’s Daniel Loria spoke with Stahelski as the filmmaker was putting the finishing touches on the film about the franchise’s journey and its director’s role in ensuring its status as a modern action classic.
I remember seeing the early footage of John Wick 4 at CinemaCon, and I’m really looking forward to seeing the finished product. This installment is coming out in a very different environment, as the exhibition business is bouncing back from the pandemic. How did the Covid-19 pause affect the development of this movie?
We straddled the pandemic while we were in development. We were three or four months into writing the script and had started to kind of sort out the story when the pandemic happened. You get a little dissuaded on what’s going to happen, but we figured if we can’t get right into production, then let’s keep researching and figuring out what we want to do. It gave Keanu [Reeves], myself, and our writing team extra time to reflect back on the first three films. And the story did change quite a bit because we did have that extra time. You’re also thinking about everything everybody’s watching, because we were all locked up in our little boxes. You start watching all the content that’s on all the streaming services. We started redeveloping what we wanted to see as audience members. It greatly influenced what kind of story and what kind of set pieces we were going to put into this film. We spent a little bit more time in the kitchen until we finally got the go-ahead from the studio that we could start, under Covid restrictions and safety protocols.
As the world was retreating indoors to watch movies on their couches, you decided to enlarge the visual scope of John Wick 4 to bring in some iconic locations. Do we have the pandemic to thank for this expanded world-building and broader cinematic canvas?
We began our scouting, and because of the state of the world we had fairly solitary access to a lot of places. This is the biggest entry that we’ve done in the John Wick series. I think we went to five countries overall. We were in New York. We were in Aqaba in Jordan. We were in Osaka and Tokyo in Japan, in Paris, and in Berlin. A pretty good array of locations. We shot in the Louvre, we shot the Trocadéro, the Eiffel Tower, and some amazing, amazing locations in Berlin. And we shot a portion where David Lean shot Lawrence of Arabia in Aqaba. In one way, [the pandemic] was a little restrictive, but in another way it gave us a chance to explore very different opportunities. A little bittersweet, but I think it helped us overall to take the time and really consider what we wanted to do with the movie instead of just rushing to production.
The John Wick franchise has always delivered on the promise of a cinematic experience for audiences. There’s an extra element to seeing them on the big screen.
If you’re going to quote me on whom I rip off the most, it’s Kurosawa and Sergio Leone—with some Bertolucci and Tarkovsky thrown in. I like the classics because of their scale; you feel these characters are part of a bigger world, and that’s something that allows the characters to grow. They employ a very strategic use of close-ups and composition. I love big sets that can transport you to a different environment. I’ve always wanted to do cinematic experiences, actual movies that are meant to be seen in theaters—and shot that way. It’s really funny when you get into the editing process, working on computers with 50-inch screens. It’s tricky because you start editing for a small screen, and every other week you look at your footage in a theater and realize you need to edit differently so it looks great on a 40-foot screen. It’s just a different style. Combine that with almost two years of not going to a theater because of the pandemic—we knew we were going to make something big.
I’ve enjoyed how much you’ve expanded this world over the course of the series. It was great to see all the location shooting you did in New York for the first film—along with everything built around it, from the cinematography to the production design. It all served a cohesive aesthetic purpose that has remained in the franchise with every subsequent installment. You’re taking that further than ever before with John Wick 4.
We’ve been fortunate enough that we don’t really look at a script in the beginning; we’re too busy researching. We spend more time and money in prep than just about anybody else I’ve ever met. I’ve been fortunate enough to have a pretty crazy life, going around the world making movies as a stuntman, stunt coordinator, and second unit director. I’ve been traveling since I was 10, so I was pretty familiar with Asia and Europe by the time I was in my early 20s. You direct, you shoot, and you make what you know. I grew up with the Bond movies. That’s what I watched on Sundays with my dad and brothers. There’s a sense of magic when you see him go down a luge in Austria, so when you get the chance to make your own [film], you try to expand that world according to your own personal experience. When Dave Leitch and I were doing the first John Wick [Leitch codirected, but only Stahelski was credited], we had spent 15 years as stuntmen or stunt coordinators, living in hotels, so putting together the idea for the Continental [the luxury hotel/meeting place in all four films] was pretty easy. That’s where all that came from.
Do you feel pressure to outdo yourself for the fourth installment in this series?
The question we get a lot since doing John Wick 3 is how do you outdo yourself? How do you make it bigger, better, stronger, or faster? And to be honest with you, we don’t even really think about it—we simply tell the story that we want to tell. I have this huge whiteboard where we write down everything we love: muscle cars, martial arts, traveling, going to cities like Paris. And you put all this stuff up there and then you start writing. Next thing you know, we end up with 100 great scenes. Then you start building a story around those great scenes, where we want to go with the character. It’s a very nonlinear process. Every day we’re finding a new location. We’re always researching to find what’s a cool kind of ammunition to feature. What new kind of firearms do you want to use? What’s the car we want to be in the movie? And then you get into aesthetic decisions: What are the camera angles we want to use? How do we want to push the color scale? You put all this stuff up on the whiteboard. You write down that you want to shoot in the Louvre and then get permission to shoot in the Louvre. You start building it from the outside in and from the inside out, kind of at the same time. Then it’s the process of editing that down. That’s the creative side, and then you’re actually going to these places, seeing them, and realizing none of your ideas are going to work in that location—and that’s how you end up doing a fight scene while standing in the middle of traffic in front of the Arc de Triomphe. You keep pushing it, even if you have no idea how you’re going to pull off half these scenes. We’ll get in the room with my stunt team and figure out how to do it. I’ve been part of so many projects where sequels are dictated by blowing up more things or having two spaceships instead of one, and I’ve never believed that’s the right answer for sequels. I’ve always thought equilateral expansion is the best way to do it.
The only reason for us to do John Wick 4 is to make it better than John Wick 3. Keanu has to train harder; he’s got to learn new weapons, he’s got to have new skills, driving skills, and learn more martial arts—it all needs to improve. I have to be better as a director. I have to write better, produce better, and shoot better. And I tell the same thing to my cinematographer and my entire production team: “You guys are great. I love you. Be better.” I always use a quote from Bob Fosse: “Fifty percent of directing is coming up with crazy ideas, and the other 50 percent is finding people crazy enough to pull them off.” I’ve got a lot of crazy people on my team. The point is, if you want to get something to the next level from what you’ve just done, I don’t know if going bigger is always better. I think it’s better if you have 50 individuals and make them better, do harder research, and everybody pushes themselves a little bit more. If you don’t know how to do it, find people that can and keep expanding.
You’ve mentioned the location shooting, and that’s something, as an action movie fan today, I really believe has been missing from the genre. I’m tired of green screens. I’m tired of elements in the production design, the mise-en-scène, that have no weight to them. Every time I see one of your movies, it has a geographic reference, and the fact that you can orchestrate and choreograph huge set pieces in real, lived-in places, I think that appeals to moviegoers, whether they’re aware of it or not.
That’s where the Lord of the Rings and the early Bond movies really stand out. They transport you. It’s a travelogue. My grandfather used to take me to museums whenever I would stay with him. Those places are full of magic, and it gave me a sense of wanderlust. I just remember the effect the early Bond movies had on me. They convinced me that if I was going to do movies, let’s show the world off a little bit. People want to see the Eiffel Tower, they want to see the Louvre. We shot in the Versailles stables, one of the most unique places in France. Movies are magical because they take you to places you’ve never been to. I worked on the first Matrix and learned a lot about visual effects from all the great people that were involved. It’s where I learned that the best special effects in movies are sleight of hand—magic. Somewhere along the way, as an industry, we gave up on giving audiences that magic and sense of wonder. Don’t get me wrong, there are still some great productions out there, but in a lot of the massive franchises, it’s easy for audiences to tell what’s a visual effect and what isn’t. I get it—it’s hard to do a big superhero or sci-fi movie without computer-enhanced visual effects. You have to; that’s the best way to tell those stories. But just look at Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings movies. He knocked it out of the park by shooting in real locations and layering the visual effects on top of those settings. It helps you slide into that experience. I’m a huge James Cameron fan, and Avatar: The Way of Water is one of the most impressive films I’ve ever seen. He’s great at that type of movie. Personally, I have a knack for working in physical locations. When you’re shooting on location, you have to bend to the location. We shot at the [basilica of] Sacre Coeur; we had to get Keanu to go up 400 steps for a scene, and we had to adjust our shots to the physics of the location. I wish I could tell you the magic formula—but every location, every fight, and every action sequence I’ve ever done has always either bent or broken the rules of what I thought we were going to do. Every time you go into a scene convinced that you’re going to do it a certain way, it never works that way. There’s always something—too cool, too hot, too loose, too tight, the crane doesn’t work—and you’ve got to roll with it. A big lesson from my 10 years as a second-unit action director was to always find a way to problem solve. There is an opportunity in every limitation. That’s why I like shooting in real locations.
What are you excited to have moviegoers discover in John Wick 4 when they watch it on the big screen?
I would like to think we’re not the average action movie franchise that tries to just give it a certain look and make it gritty and tough. We’re trying to be the action movie art film. The whole idea of John Wick came from The Odyssey: You’re Odysseus—you’re trying to head home, but the universe and the gods throw everything they can at you. That’s where we really designed John Wick and all the other supporting characters; they are all factors that either hurt or help you on your journey. I love Quentin Tarantino’s movies, where every scene is its own movie. There’s no wasted energy there. There’s no exposition. Kill Bill is a series of great little movies—and it all clicks. That’s precisely the energy we’re going for.
CHAD STAHESKI AT THE MOVIES
What does the theatrical experience mean to you, as a filmmaker?
For me, it stems from how I grew up in the pre-cellphone, pre-internet generation. When my parents took me to the movie theater, it was like going to Disneyland. A chance to be transported somewhere new, to dream while you’re awake. It would let you see and do things that you had never experienced. When a movie clicks, you feel like you’re on an adventure—not just watching one. If you can pass that on to others through your own work, that’s the main motivation.