Directors David Leitch and Chad Stahelski Talk New Film ‘John Wick’
by Stephen Jones
David Leitch and Chad Stahelski are well-known on the Hollywood stunt circuit, having choreographed and performed stunts and fights for many prominent films of the last 20 years, such as The Matrix and The Hunger Games. John Wick is their first time in the director’s chair, and we were able to talk with them about their experience. John Wick hits theaters Friday, Oct. 24.
How did you two get involved with the film?
CHAD: Dave and I are stunt coordinators and second unit directors. We were called (almost simultaneously) by Keanu Reeves, and Thunder Road Entertainment handed [us] the script John Wick, and they were interested in us maybe choreographing or directing the action in it. I’d read the script, sent it over to Dave. Dave had read the script; we had a quick talk. We’d been looking for a first unit project or a directing project for quite some time. We talked, thought it was a great vehicle to direct with, called Keanu up back on the phone, said, “Hey, we’d like to pitch to direct this film.” We gave Keanu a little version of what we’d do with it. He backed us, and then we went to Thunder Road and pitched for the directing job.
Can you talk about some of the stylistic influences, visually and otherwise?
DAVID: I think we were influenced by this sort of classic composition from the 60s and 70s. We loved, also, the spaghetti western movies, Sergio Leone movies, the Kurosawa movies … I mean, none of it involves long lenses and shaking the camera; you need to live in these graphic shots where the performance is compelling. So that’s what we were sort of targeting.
CHAD: We wanted to create a world, and it’s hard to create a world if you don’t show it. So we just wanted a visual style that, composition-wise at least, showed off the world. Like Dave said, a lot of the 70s, 60s and 70s films have that.
There are a lot of familiar faces in the film. Can you guys talk a little bit about your casting choices, why you cast who you cast?
DAVID: Yeah. First of all, we were really blessed to get the people that we wanted. I mean, they’re like first choices on the list, all the way down the line. And I think a lot of it, we really wanted to create this world, and to create that you needed these compelling character actors that audiences are familiar with so you can kind of feel at home in this world, but also a little bit… challenged by it, I should say? I don’t know. To get Ian McShane and Willem Dafoe to show up was amazing. John Leguizamo… unbelievable.
CHAD: The way [screenwriter] Derek Kolstad had written the script, each one of those characters had that one big punch line, and you learned more about John Wick and John Wick’s world through these bit characters, which made them even more important. They had to give us that little piece of information, even if they’re only on-screen a little bit. From Lance Reddick being the Continental desk clerk to David Patrick Kelley being Charlie to John Leguizamo being Aureilo, we wanted those people to really fill in the world for you. I think having great character actors like that really helped.
DAVID: And I think they believed in the material, and they believed in it was a Keanu Reeves movie, and they’re like: “We’ll show up.” I mean, they all got what we were trying to do.
So there’s quite a bit of action in the film, but it’s also very character-driven. Was it tough to find that balance to keep it human and keep that human connection?
DAVID: Yeah, it is, because at the end of the day, we’re action junkies, and the films that sometimes we like maybe the character gets lost, and we just watch it for, like, basically—
CHAD: Action porn.
DAVID: Action porn, right. But we were really really aware of keeping the integrity of the character throughout the story. And that’s why we reigned ourselves in at some times. I know the action seems insane, but there were some times where it was character over action.
CHAD: We wanted to kill a hundred people, but we’ll only kill five… or something. You know, it’s good, but you try to use action as that little bit of vehicle. After the first home assault, you should know a little bit something more about John Wick that you didn’t know before. And hopefully, especially in the last shot, where the struggle’s with that one guy in that one long take, it’s done and you hear the doorbell, hopefully that moment gives you a little window inside of John.
Were there any scenes or sequences that were particularly difficult to shoot?
CHAD: Logistically, cars and fights and all that stuff is always trickier. So, sometimes, is directing a little puppy. So, you know, they both have their difficulties.
DAVID: I would think the one that (and, you know, this question was asked a while ago), it’s, like, the rain scene at the end, the fight with [Michael Nyqvist] and Keanu. It is near freezing. It’s just, like, 36 degrees.
CHAD: We couldn’t shoot one night because they wouldn’t let us use water it was so cold. So Michael Nyqvist and Keanu Reeves were very very cold for those five days.
DAVID: Unbelievably cold. And they refused to wear a wet suit. (Or, Keanu did.) I’m like talking near hyperthermia. It was fr-eezing. And it was two days and three nights. It was hard work.
How was the transition going into the director’s chair? Was it easy, was it difficult…?
CHAD: Fairly easy.
DAVID: It felt natural.
CHAD: Very natural, you know. There’s more responsibilities, for sure. There’s a bigger game out there, but that’s also why you want to go. That’s why you want to step up to a different challenge: that there were other things to learn.
DAVID: Yeah, I mean… We’re constantly directing and creating and telling mini-stories in the choreography, or telling mini-stories in action sequences that it’s just like the next level. And we’re not afraid to talk to producers and actors and department head, because we’ve been doing it for a long time in our day job.
Did you vision for the film change or evolve at all from when you first got the script to when you finally shot it?
CHAD: Overall, vision: no. How we got the vision: yes. The roads change but the destination was always the same. We knew we wanted a visual style, we knew we wanted an audio style. We knew the music, we knew we wanted a very distinct color palette. We knew what we wanted out of John, we just weren’t always sure what road we had to put John to get there. That was the day-to-day learning process for sure.
DAVID: I would say, too, the tone. We wanted to make a movie that was fun, and there were elements of comedy in the script that we highlighted and we knew we needed them in the can, but I think in editorial is when we found we really wanted to punctuate them at the right time, so that the audience would have a moment of drama, and then some action, and then some levity. Drama, action, levity, and we paced it out in the right way. So we didn’t necessarily feel that on the page as much as we felt that in editorial.
CHAD: That was probably the hardest thing: tone and pace in editorial. There’s a fine balance, because you’ve seen this kind of movie a thousand times. Too cheesy, too serious, too funny, too goofy, not action-y enough, too action-y. The pitfalls are many in this kind of genre, and we just tried to walk the line as best we could.
So, did the script, while you were finding the roads to go down, change at all during the course of production?
CHAD: Yeah. The voice, which we loved, we tried to— When we read the script, it was so different. That’s what attracted us. And it was always a constant urge to try and change the part— I mean, the original script had, what, there was no action in the first act. Not all the way up to the house. It was twenty pages without action. It was a long time. I mean, most action movies open with a big opener, and it was all about a guy, what’s happened to him, his sadness, all that stuff. And then, the voice in the script is very different. [to David] What would you call it? Pseudo-retro…?
DAVID: Yeah, there was this old-school vibe to it that we never tried to lose.
CHAD: We loved it. So there were certain things about the script that we definitely did not want to lose, and we were very keyed in on those. […] That 70s vibe, that retro version, we tried to keep. But you come to a city like New York, you have logistical challenges. Locations, overall story points, and pacing is always a challenge.
DAVID: You know, for example, the church scene, which, I don’t want to give a spoiler, but the church scene was an invention. We were trying to get a bank. It was originally just he was going to go to Viggo’s bank, and it was going to be like a bank heist moment. We started to realize that the world is already sort of fun and compelling. Let’s make the bank hidden inside a church, and let’s have John shoot an undercover priest, and people were like, “What?” And we were like, “Yes.” But that was not in the script. We had created a world that had allowed us to do that, and we knew that it was going to work, but there were so many question marks at the time.
CHAD: Yeah. I think we called up Derek Kolstad pretty much every week and say, “Hey, can we change this?” And Derek never failed.
DAVID: And never said no. “Yes. What are we doing?” It was super great.
CHAD: “Let me go, let me go! I’m going to drink three Jolt Colas and stay up all night and I’ll hash it out.” He was awesome.
DAVID: …they still make Jolt Cola, did you know that?
CHAD: Apparently Derek is the key consumer of that product.
Just one more question: Do you see yourselves as continuing down the directing and producing path?
DAVID: I hope so. I mean, that’s where we want to live.
CHAD: Fingers crossed.
DAVID: We want to keep telling stories, and we want to create worlds and characters people can attach themselves to and have fun with and hopefully be moved by.
CHAD: Yeah. Hopefully move to the theaters instead of away from the theaters.