JoBlo.com gets into the action at 87eleven Action Design for John Wick!
The upcoming Keanu Reeves feature JOHN WICK is not only astonishingly badass, but the action sequences are simply stunning. Credit can be given to the film’s directors David Leitch and Chad Stahelski. These two fine gentlemen offer their expertise in the incredible world of creating some of the most mind-numbingly impressive stunt work ever put to screen thanks to their company 87eleven Action Design. Aside from JOHN WICK, this impressive group is involved in such upcoming feature films as JUPITER ASCENDING, JURASSIC WORLD, DRACULA UNTOLD and THE HUNGER GAMES: MOCKINGJAY PART 1 and 2. So yeah, these fellas are busy.
Thankfully, this fine team took some time out to give us a very intensive behind-the-scenes look at creating an action set piece. This was an incredible opportunity that we at JoBlo.com couldn’t pass up. Once I arrived at the 87eleven offices, I was given a brief instruction on handling a weapon. This is all new to me so it was exciting to learn this skill – even if it is clearly not my specialty. Next up, my new hero Jackson Spidell taught me the choreography of one of the most thrilling sequences in the new movie. This included a little hand-to-hand combat, dropping to my knees and correctly – and quickly – aiming for my target. On this special occasion, the targets were many, and thankfully they were all experts in the field.
The entire experience was certainly one hell of a cool experience. But most importantly it was a reminder as to how very important these guys are to making the movies we love great. An impressive stunt, and the stuntman who pulls it off, is the key to making some of the most thrilling on-screen action work. Working with this amazing team was the chance of a lifetime. It also helps that they were the nicest guys in the world. Thankfully, we captured all of this on film and offer it to you, the JoBlo.com reader – look out for a special appearance from Reeves’ himself and with music courtesy of DJ Dylan Eiland aka Le Castle Vania! I’ve always been a fan of great stunt work, but getting an up-close-and-personal look at how hard these guys train, it was more than inspiring.
After shooting the sequence, a small group of writers – all three of us participated in creating our own separate video – sat down with both Stahelski and Leitch to talk about the film and what went into making the it.
Chad Stahelski: “When you are trying to do an action film, you have certain things you have to [work with]. There is budget and there is time but there is also the talent capability. We knew the movie we wanted to make but casting is always difficult. We knew Keanu was kind of already attached before we went in. So if you have a cast member like Keanu Reeves who is used to action and used to longer takes and who is physically capable and has a great physical aptitude, then it takes a lot of the pressures off. When you have somebody who can actually do what you are thinking.”
David Leitch: “There were a lot of difficulties, don’t get us wrong, but we are experienced as second unit directors working on a lot of big films and working with actors and knowing their ability. It’s like Chad said, when you have somebody like Keanu, we recognized he is going to be able to do choreography and longer takes. This allowed us to actually get a lot more action done in a short amount of time. But also we chose it as a visual style because we’ve wanted to do that for a long time. Western cinema wants to tighten up the lens and shake the camera, and we do that in our day jobs as second unit, but our influences are usually more Asian cinema, the Westerns and Kurosawa, where you really hold compositions.”
On creating the style of JOHN WICK and how quickly did Keanu Reeves respond to their vision.
Chad: “We don’t particularly have one style of action we love. Just through our training and our careers it’s if the action fits the story and the story fits the action. You just don’t mishmash traditional Kung-Fu in this story. You have to create the world and then the action kind of befits the world. When we read JOHN WICK, the first script we read by Derek Kolstad, it just kind of clicked, this is what we can do with this. We had to find something that we were interested in that fit the story.”
“As far as Keanu goes he probably didn’t have the same vision of action as we did because he hadn’t been exposed to it. We had brought him some of our test rehearsal tapes and he just smiled.”
“It’s hard to do anything new. You give it a different vibe or a different flavor or different tone or whatever you want to call it. The MMA thing, and for us Judo/Jujitsu and all that kind of stuff and tactical gun work… it’s there, it’s always been there since the beginning of film. All this stuff has always been there. It’s just how we took it and kind of combined it and just let you see it. That’s the big thing is you have a cast member that went through the training. No one just learns on the day. Keanu spent four months with the gun coaches and our tactical people from L.A. SWAT and our Navy SEAL friends. And then we went through our guys and our concepts at 87eleven and we put it all together. And that morphs itself because the way that Dave moves, the way I move, the way that Keanu moves, the way the doubles move, it’s all different. So you start going through the evolution of it. Then we take it tonally and have a little fun… The evolution of choreography is very organic and it changes from story to story.”
In regards to finding the right balance of tone that is kind of heightened yet taking itself seriously enough to buy into it.
David: “It was hard to nail the tone. As directors we’re very, very aware of the type of movie we wanted to make. We wanted to make sure the audience was having fun. But the subject matter is serious. So you are balancing those two things. The types of movies that we like, the action movies like Indiana Jones or James Bond, there is a world and you can really escape and have fun and laugh at certain things. It’s not easy. We tempered the over-the-top action with sort of dry, comedic moments. We had great performances and input from Michael Nyqvist who played it straight and he was excellent. He was a quirky villain. And we took time with the script and found those humorous moments and made sure we paced them correctly with the ultra-violence. I’m glad we hit it, but it wasn’t easy.”
And when it came to casting.
Chad: “One of our biggest and best decisions was casting. We wanted great character actors to let you know you are in a story… We are storytellers and we are telling you a story. Sit back and enjoy. So here are all the larger than life characters. Willem Dafoe is a larger than life character. Michael Nyqvist, he is not your stereotypical Russian bad guy. He is a quirky guy, how he gives his reads. You just have great people come in and they get it.”
On shooting in New York – a low budget action film - and how vital was it to make the film work.
Chad: “We could have gotten more money and more resources had we shot in New Orleans, Boston or Chicago or Detroit. The movie took place in New York and we wanted to create a world, and we kind of made it like a Greek myth. We wanted an underworld. Can you tell me one other city that has an above ground underworld? New York is a vertical city and we tried to show it on the anamorphic lenses. So just by the world we wanted to create… picture that same movie with Willem Dafoe and Keanu talking in front of the French Quarter… or in front of the Atlanta Superdome? So all the locations, people love those, especially in the second act, the bathhouse, the bridges, and the city. That is New York. That doesn’t exist anywhere else.”
On how much the script changed during production.
Chad: “I wouldn’t say much. Some changes. You go through the logistical problems. We had location issues through New York as you can imagine. We shot in wintertime so we were losing light and the rain and the weather, so there were some location changes, so we had to get permits. I mean, gunfire and fast cars chases don’t go well with New York apparently [Laughing] so that had to be adjusted. The bank scene – and we say the bank we mean the church – it was always scripted as a bank. We had a bank robbery and we didn’t find a location we liked so we came up with the idea to make it that he has a hidden little stash somewhere. What’s odd? Oh. A church! You’d be surprised how many churches don’t want you to have a gunfight [Laughing]. And you’d be shocked by the one that actually said yes. But I think we stayed pretty true to the Derek’s script.”
About the difference between first and second unit directors and how their experience helped them.
David: “Every director has a style. There are narrative guys that all they do is talk to the actor and the cinematographer sets up every shot. There are other guys there that are mainly these shooters. They have a great idea for aesthetic and art direction, and the producers and the writers are there to help them guide the story. And that doesn’t mean they are bad directors, they are just a different type of director. So it just depends on what movie you are on and how much influence you have. As second unit, it could be little, small and print. For us as first unit directors, having worked with so many big directors and being in the movie business for twenty years, and being department heads for twenty years, it has helped us I think really be smart first unit directors - in terms of scheduling and in terms of story, and trying to avoid pitfalls. Getting something on the screen that looks bigger than what we had the resources for.”
Chad: “Not everybody gets to be Spielberg – and that is nothing against Spielberg as we’re are huge fans – but they have more resources and people that are willing to give them more and let them risk more. We have to be a little bit more conservative because let’s face it, if you can’t schedule and you can’t budget, you can’t get it on screen.”
“We love action, we’d put more action on the screen if I could, but if we have more action then we lose the set. There is always a baseball card thing. You get one more action scene or you can have this set. You can have this location or you can have this actor. You are being pulled and you want it all, but you can’t have it all. And we learned through watching other people. We know it’s an action movie, and we know you want to go see it, but everybody loves Keanu’s wardrobe. We wanted to go Seventies with the three piece vest, the turtleneck. Steve McQueen you know? Lee Marvin. All that stuff. We knew we wanted a cool world and we took a big hit going to New York, but I guarantee that that movie would not look half as good in some of the other locations we saw.”
“The visual style helps you absorb the world. We knew this is the world we want to do. We need this world. If we sacrifice location, art department or art design, even the music is meant to do that. And we found out when you run out of money, you gotta put some of that money back in there so you get the right guys to compose. We lucked out with our guys and our editor and such. They created the world.”
On whether or not we will ever see Academy Award recognition for stunt work.
David: “It’s a slippery slope. It is disconcerting when you’ve spent twenty years in the business and you watch all your other department heads up there on Oscar night, getting awards for movies that you participated in and you were a huge part of. That is hard. But how do you identify who deserves that award on any given movie? I’m of the opinion that it should be maybe the stunt coordinator, or the second unit director. But there could also be the stunt performer. It’s hard, and you know what movie would be nominated? Smaller movies like in Asia where the stunts are practical and the gags are huge on a danger level? And then there are the great practical/visual effects stunts that are innovative. It’s a hard thing to do. I wish there was some recognition, but I don’t know how they are going to do it.”