“John Wick Chapter 2” hits theaters this Friday Feb. 10. Director Chad Stahelski has been a stuntman and stunt coordinator for over 20 years. Stahelski’s background is stamped all over the “John Wick” films and brings a human, realistic approach that many action films lack today. How do you outdo the action from the first film? We asked Stahelski and stunt coordinator, J.J. Perry.
Interview questions by Catherine Gutierrez and various publications
What was your process planning the stunts both the car chase sequence at the beginning and also the fight sequences in the catacombs?
Chad: I wanted to start with tone and bring a new audience into our world as fast as possible. You know the scenes in sequels, where they spend the first 20 minutes of the movie explaining the first one. We didn’t want to do that. In “John Wick,” it’s a pretty weird world so we’re like the movie happens a few days after the first movie and John Wick is still pissed and wants his car back.
Then you start the next process in bringing in JJ, stunt guys, location scouts trying to figure it out. We didn’t have a lot of money and you’ve seen a lot of car chases before that go on for 10 minutes and nothing happens. You see a cool car chase like in “Bad Boys 2” and don’t care what happens except that you got two guys talking great shit to each other. That’s what’s fun! So our thing is John Wick is angry, he’s compulsive obsessive, he does all this stuff so rather than run from things he’s going to hit things with the car. What happens when you take a great fight guy and a great driving guy and stick them together in a room? You get carfu.
JJ: So what we did to make John Wick better is we were going to have to make Keanu Reeves better. What that meant was a 3 to 4 month training camp like he was competing for a tournament. He was getting fed a steady diet of Brazilian Jiu jitsu, Japanese Jiu Jitsu, Judo and Sambo. That’s 5 days a week and 2 of those days he’d go to a gun range in Simi Valley and do what we call 3-gun, which is rifle, shotgun, pistol and spend 4 hours up there shooting at least 3000 to 4000 rounds. You look like a raccoon when you leave from the amount of gunsmoke.
Keanu could’ve competed in a Judo tournament, in a Jiu Jitsu tournament or 3-gun tournament. He had gotten to that level because you surround him with killers and it’s going to rub off on him. And he, to his credit is one of the hardest working people that I’ve ever met. He’s extremely intelligent so he’s able to retain choreography to retain what he learns. When you see these long takes, you 10 stunt guys getting hosed down by guns and getting thrown and we’re not cutting. Those guys only have to remember 1 place, 1 move. Keanu has to remember all of his spots and it’s cold, underground, in the tunnels in January. We had to prep him not only to be good in throwing but his resilience to be strong and prevent him from injury, but that he would have the endurance to last the 47 days of shooting.
Allie: Talk about your choice on having the really wide shots and not being tight but being out.
Chad: I love classical music and classical art and had a fairly decent education in that. That’s just art wise, what I consider pretty. I like colors and deep black where you can see things happening not just a two-dimensional black, which is again Caravaggio. My main influences as well were Jackie Chan, Jet Li and the Asian cinema revolution. There was no YouTube yet, so we went down to Odyssey video and everyone kicked in $3 for a video. We’d watch Japanese animation, Akira Kurosawa is one of my all-time favorites granted not just the action, but I like wide shots.
Take that to the next level is Sergio Leone and that’s really what “John Wick” is a ripoff of the Leone films. How to use wide to geographically establish-and if you watch my editing style it’s very similar to Sergio’s. It’s wide, medium, tight to bring it in, it’s geometric. I believe in a geometric progression for editing. I don’t believe you cut where you have to cut. If you watch the faster paced stuff, we cut to enhance or cut to hide, it feels kinetic but also an aesthetic off-balancing. It’s a difference between a “yank” or a “come here.” So if I bring you into the scene like the art museum scene when Santino is in front of the Italian Civil war painting, it’s boom (wide), boom (medium), boom, (close-up).
One of my biggest influences is the Wachowski’s, I spent 10 years with them on “The Matrix” trilogies. I still consider them both geniuses as far as the coffee cup to the lighting, to the action, couldn’t be any more symmetrically planned. I tried to take some of that and take the classical training and put that together.
Collectively: How did you film the Hall of Mirrors sequence?
Chad: We have a great digital support team nowadays. We chose to go a different route and make it as real. If you choose to do flat mirrors and glass the reflection becomes very symmetrical meaning for VFX it’s very easy to wipe out. When you use something called the parallax like a house of mirrors it becomes almost impossible to erase. If you erase the image how are you going to get the reflection of the other images? You don’t erase one cameraman is what I’m saying you can erase as many as a hundred by the time you refract. In the mirror room scene, if we see anything in the mirror, it’s not the one reflection over the shoulder, but the ceiling, all four walls.
It took months of prep with the stuntmen and everyone holding these little shitty mirrors and trying to figure it out. Then they make the director, me, commit because you have to budget those scenes out because you can’t just go willy nilly and go I’ll figure it out on the day and then your VFX budget, when I originally pitched it they thought the VFX with just the removal of the crew and cameras would be 1 million. And it cost 1 million to build the set. You have to be sneaky and we tried to be as sneaky as possible. I would tell you all the tricks, but we may do it again.
What was the biggest challenge in “John Wick 2?”
Chad: I would say being originally entertaining. It’s very easy to step in your front prints because then you know where you’re going. To step outside of them you got to be a little crazy. It comes down to the audience, if they’ll buy my bullshit. So try to impress yourself and you’ll impress others.
Allie: Can you tell us anything about a possible “John Wick 3?”
Chad: When we wrote “John Wick 2” there was actually a big chunk of stuff and where we ended “2” felt really nice. We have a lot of ideas and have a developed outline. I know where I want to end the character and where Keanu would like to end the character. We’re currently in development that’s a fancy word for “we’re still thinking about it.”