‘John Wick: Chapter 2’ Director Chad Stahelski on Making Incredible Action Scenes and a Possible ‘Chapter 3’
When actors move behind the camera, they bring a new perspective to the directing process, one that’s often more character-driven; more verbose than visual. In 2014, we saw what happens when a stunt coordinator moves behind the camera, and the result was the glorious action film John Wick. Chad Stahelski and David Leitch pumped decades of combined stunt experience into the film, which cast the immortal Keanu Reeves as a would-be retired assassin out for revenge. Two years later, Stahelski took on the second chapter of John Wick’s journey on his own, delivering a follow-up that’s just as exciting as its predecessor.
We spoke with Stahelski during a recent stop in Austin to promote John Wick: Chapter 2, which takes Reeves’ impeccably-dressed assassin (and his new dog) to Italy. Stahelski was joined by his own stunt coordinator, J.J. Perry, who sat in with us as we discussed the expansion of Wick’s world, the mythology and impressive diversity, and what a typical Sunday is like for John Wick when everyone isn’t trying to murder him.
These action scenes are incredible. I mean, obviously.
Stahelski: Thanks, we try.
I find myself looking for the seams, but it’s just so seamless.
Stahelski: That’s the whole trick. If you don't put seams in, there’s none to find. That’s our secret.
And most of that is Keanu.
Stahelski: You have to start with a concept, and then you have to work towards that concept. If our concept is to see action and create what you call a very “limited seamed” action, meaning lesser cuts and more takes. Increase our own pacing. We always use live performances. If you’re doing a live dance performance, the rehearsal time and the conception of it is you cannot make a mistake. You have to carry this through. Luckily, we don’t have the same strict restrictions on us; we can edit. We can do things. You’re gonna hear us say time and time again that most of the styles that are a big part of action editing and action filming now are the ability to hide things. Shaky cam, tighter lenses and fast editing. It’s either to infuse pace that they didn’t get initially in the take, we’re just gonna jump around — it’s just cutting things out because the cast member couldn’t do five moves great.
You’re hoping that the audience is gonna go, “Whoa! That’s amazing!” It’s just frustrating, to us, anyway. We’ve done so much of it in our careers as second unit directors. It’s all to hide doubles, hide explosives, hide wires, hide sets, hide lights. Hide, hide, hide. We took the reverse approach. We’re going, “You know what? Let’s just be brave, we’ll see what happens.” We’re going to do long, wide shots but it always starts with the guy.
Perry: We trained him, like, we really pumped a lot of time and effort into training him three and a half or four months.
Stahelski: If John Wick is going to be better, what does that mean? Keanu Reeves is going to have to be better.
And he’s great. He knows how to hold the gun, how to check it — every move feels like it comes from experience.
Stahelski: No hiding, no inserts, no nothing. Honestly, it’s a very solid plan. It’s communication, that means everyone on the crew, including our cast, about where we’re gonna head with this. It’s about a lot of people working really hard to get there. It’s time and creativeness.
Perry: And we shot thousands and thousands and thousands of rounds and got thrown by Judo players and Jiu-Jitsu players.
Stahelski: Keanu deserves the Oscar for perseverance in this one.
Perry: He could have competed in a Jiu-Jitsu tournament or a three-gun tournament at the end of the training period, he was that good.
I just saw the new Resident Evil sequel last week, which, aside from being probably the most visually incoherent action film I’ve ever seen, completely wastes Ruby Rose. Your film is the complete opposite: Coherent action, and Ruby is a badass.
Stahelski: It’s a tricky thing, and it’s still something I’m learning with directing. I tried to make a movie that I would like to see, using the aesthetics that I like to see. I like to see the action. I like, and again in a non-derogatory [way], I like slower-paced things. I want to see the guy walking out the door. I don’t need to see cut, cut, cut, cut, cut. I’m not worried about the pace and I’m not worried about the duration of the film. If I’m invested, the movie can be three hours or 20 minutes. I don’t care — just keep me invested. And that can be through a look, just because a guy is not doing something doesn’t mean you have to jump out of it. Just because a guy trips in an action scene, unless it’s meant to be absolutely the guy’s an electronic, perfect cyborg, you know — let me see the imperfections, let me see it.
I want to see color, I want to see life, I want to see stuff going on. And I think action that’s just sloppy is ... y’know, we used to call it bad camera work. Now it’s a style, which is funny to me. I hate to go on record saying this stuff, it’s not me critiquing another person’s style. It’s just John Wick is the sum culmination of the aesthetic of action and the aesthetic of movies that we like. The characters that say less and do more. I don’t want to hear about how badass he is, I want to see him be a badass.
Perry: But the Richard Crenna lead-in from Rambo, we don’t need to hear that.
Stahelski: Yeah, I don’t need to hear somebody else give me a deposition about my guy, I just want to know my guy is good.
There was something else I noticed, which only stood out to me probably because it is, sadly, unusual: This is an incredibly diverse film. In any given scene, half of the people onscreen are either women or people of color. Was that a conscious effort?
Stahelski: Yes, I mean, J.J. and myself, we travel, I mean I’m home two, three months out of the year. Even if it’s my off-time, I’m traveling doing research or scouting. I got news for people, the world is pretty f---ing diverse. So if you are trying to do a world expansion, I don’t know how you would not. Honestly, to your question, it was not a conscious choice going, “We need diversity in this film.” I don’t work with Derek [Kolstad, screenwriter] or write characters going “We need a black guy, we need an Asian guy.” I wanted, for some reason, a sumo wrestler. It just so happened that the guy, Yama, the Japanese man we cast, he had a great background, he had a great face, and he was Japanese, not that there are non-Japanese [sumo wrestlers].
Just he was the guy, he fit the role. The two stunt guys that did the pencil fight — they came in, we did the auditions, I look at their faces and something about them clicked. And the Asian stuntmen, there is no “I need two white garbagemen, I need two Asian pizza men,” you just kind of do it. The character Cassian was written to be nondescript. Of all the people that came in, we wanted someone that would be John Wick if John Wick had stayed in the business. Common looks great in a suit. Common’s got that Barry White voice. He was cool. He did great in the physical test, he did great in the screen test. So I want this guy. You know, hopefully those decisions, being honest about what we wanted and not too hung up on that gave us a cool cast.
It really did. It’s only February, but the two most diverse films I’ve seen this year are both action sequels: xXx: Return of Xander Cage and John Wick: Chapter 2. Speaking of xXx, have you ever considered or discussed the possibility of working with Donnie Yen because — sorry to be That Fan — I think you guys could make something awesome together.
Stahelski: I’ve met Donnie, have you met Donnie?
Perry: Yeah, yeah.
Stahelski: We’ve both met Donnie. Huge fans. If it ever came to the point, we worked with Jackie Chan, we know Jet Li, we know Tony Jaa, Iko [Uwais], They are all in our little world that we bump in to and talk to. If I can work with all those guys, the answer is I would love to work with Donnie Yen, I just don’t want to do a Donnie Yen movie that wasn’t good for — it’s got to fit. I feel like as long as you don’t force anything. Like, “I’ve got this great cop script, it’s like Training Day. Donnie Yen, I’ve got to work with you, it would be great” — it just doesn’t seem like the right fit. But if you have this surreal world cop in Asia, fish out of water story, sci-fi future cowboy and space movie and Donnie is like, “This is awesome!” Then yeah, I could be into this, it could be great.
I’d watch that movie. Based on the ending, can we assume that Chapter 3 is coming? I know you guys have been talking about it...
We hope. I’ll let you know in two weeks. [Laughs]
Could there possibly be a place for Donnie Yen in a John Wick: Chapter 3, though?
Stahelski: It’s tricky. The answer is I’d love to, and if he was ever in there, hey he’d be great casting. It’s always tricky. We never wanted John Wick to be a martial arts movie. We want it to be a genre film of its own nature. Whether it’s MMA or UFC, or Hong Kong action stars, they call it packaging. So a lot of times people behind the film, the producers, the studios or whatever it is, would want to package it. On paper, column A and column B kind of add up. Chemistry is a completely different thing. Maybe pulling in someone that was like, a professional tennis pro, or a golf pro to do a golf movie. It may be a great cameo, it may not be depending on who you use. It could be a catastrophe. Or it could be very funny and cool, but it’s also very self-aware and that can hurt you or help you.
If we brought in every great martial artist to fight Keanu, I don’t think it would have been as effective as bringing in someone like Common, who you don’t see coming and has no background. Then training that person to the point where you’re like, because you said it yourself — “I didn’t know Common could move like that,” or “Holy s---, oh my God, that’s Ruby Rose.” That is breaking the level of expectation. If I bring in Donnie Yen, then what are you expecting from me?
Perry: Spin kick, spin kick, spin kick.
Stahelski: You were expecting something like that. Now, if we could sit down with someone like Donnie and reconceive them ... I just don’t want this to be what they’ve done before, just like we wouldn't do it with Keanu. If the cast, no matter who it is, not just picking on Donnie — if we all sat around the table and go, just out of my own director ego we want to create something that we haven’t done before, I know everyone says it, but we kind of mean it. If they were all down with that, to be retrained, I would go to your Hong Kong action star and go, “All the wuxia stuff you know? Chuck it. We’re going to take all of your physical attributes and turn the world on its head, and you’re going to do it in diapers.”
Perry: And you’re going to have revolvers.
Stahelski: If we could bend the rules, I’d be interested.
Not only do you have such a great, unique perspective, but you have this uncompromising attitude that most up and coming directors don’t have — not that either of you are exactly new…
Stahelski: Well, we’re old now. We’re stunt guys. We don’t give a shit, pretty much.
Perry: As stuntmen we’ve worked on so many things over the years. You see and learn from the good things and see a lot of mistakes. So I think at the end of the day, you can coordinate…
Stahelski: We’re pretty happy in life. Our bucket list is looking good right about now. So it’s all or nothing.
Speaking of bucket lists, in Chapter 2 we kind of get to see more of John Wick’s life in retirement, but before the cement even dries, they pull him back in. What do you think a typical Sunday for John Wick is like?
Stahelski: Ah, you want the prequel, so do we. We’ll figure that out, hopefully. No, I think if you saw regular John Wick, you’d be bored. That’s the prize, to have a day. And honestly, a lot of Keanu, a lot of myself, and part of David Leitch kind of went into it. We’re all dog fans. I have two puppies. Dave, I think, has three. You sit down with the girl you love, you pet the puppy, make some popcorn, and watch the football game. Hang out and go for a walk. Just have peace. And I think the older you get, peace is worth a lot more than partying.
John Wick: Chapter 2 hits theaters on February 10.