Stunt choreographers turn stars into stone-cold killers in 'John Wick'
by Josh Rottenberg
If you've ever watched some chiseled action hero coolly taking out bad guys onscreen and thought to yourself, "How hard could that be?" I have two words for you: Try it.
On a recent afternoon, I paid a visit to 87Eleven in Inglewood, a stunt choreography studio run by Chad Stahelski and David Leitch, two of Hollywood's most in-demand stunt coordinators and co-directors of the bloody Keanu Reeves revenge thriller "John Wick," which opens Friday. Here in this unmarked warehouse near Los Angeles International Airport, Stahelski, 46, Leitch, 42, and their team have trained numerous actors to look like fearsome warriors in films such as "300," "X-Men Origins: Wolverine," "The Bourne Legacy" and "The Hunger Games."
A mild-mannered, middle-aged father of two who has never wielded a weapon outside of an Xbox game, I am no one's idea of an action star. Could Stahelski and Leitch do for me what they've done for Brad Pitt, Hugh Jackman and Jason Statham — in less than an hour?
We started with Action Movie 101: handling a pistol. After some brief instruction, I managed to get down the basics of ejecting the magazine from a handgun, popping in a new one, cocking, aiming and pulling the trigger well enough that I no longer felt like I was wrestling a small, angry octopus. But within a few minutes, Stahelski and Leitch dramatically upped the ante, choreographing a scenario in which I was to shoot four bad guys who were closing in on me from different directions.
Look left, pivot, shoot bad guy No. 1 ... look over the shoulder, aim under the armpit, shoot bad guy No. 2 ... look right, drop to the knee, shoot bad guy No. 3 ... look left, shoot bad guy No. 4 two times, then spin and shoot bad guy No. 1 again because it turns out he was only wounded. Got it? OK, now imagine there's a camera pointed at you, dozens of crew members watching and millions of dollars on the line. Try to appear cool.
While I was blowing away imaginary villains, Reeves — for whom these sorts of moves are mere child's play — waited patiently in the wings. "It's all about getting the rhythm," he told me afterward. "With experience, you know a bit more about your body and where you have to end up. The timing is everything."
In "John Wick," Reeves costars with Willem Dafoe and Michael Nyqvist as a hit man who comes out of retirement to exact revenge on a gang of underworld criminals who have stolen his car and killed his dog. To portray this assassin whose very name strikes terror in the cold hearts of fellow killers required Reeves, who recently turned 50, to pull off a series of physically grueling and highly complex action scenes involving high body counts — and make it all look effortless.
For the actor, who most recently starred in the martial-arts films "47 Ronin" and "Man of Tai Chi" but hasn't done this type of full-tilt action in years, the prospect of making a gonzo, guns-blazing film like "John Wick" with Stahelski and Leitch, who are making their directorial debut, was a daunting but exciting one.
"There was some judo and jujitsu I had never done, and I hadn't done anything with weapons in a long time," said Reeves, who first got to know Leitch and Stahelski when they performed stunts on the "Matrix" films. "Working with Chad and Dave, there was an ambition to do something at a high level. They've wanted to direct a film for a long time, and they wanted to raise the bar, have a style, have a vision."
Stahelski and Leitch first met in the early 1990s at a martial arts academy and soon segued into the movie business as stuntmen. "A stunt coordinator saw me compete one day, and he asked me to double a guy on a low-budget Kris Kristofferson movie," Stahelski remembered. "I got the paycheck and I realized I could get paid more not getting hit in the head than getting hit in the head."
Over the years, performing stunts, choreographing onscreen mayhem and directing second unit on action-heavy movies, Stahelski and Leitch had experimented with blending flying fists and firearms into a hybrid they call "gun fu." With "John Wick," they saw an opportunity to give this fighting style full expression.
"That mix of gunplay and martial arts was something we always wanted to put in a movie," said Stahelski. "We just needed the right world, and we needed the right actor."
In Reeves, they found an actor who not only possessed tremendous facility with various types of action but was also willing to push his body to the limit in long, elaborately staged takes that often involved his character taking a beating. "We've had the pleasure to work with a lot of actors, but Keanu is as hard-core as they come," Leitch said. "He's as hard-boiled as John Wick. We asked more of him than we'd ever asked of any actor, and he never let us down."
Not that it was easy. "Being older, there were moments when it was really tough," said Reeves, who is joining the ranks of actors including Tom Cruise, Brad Pitt and Liam Neeson who are proving more than capable action stars into their 50s and even 60s. "You want to be able to do everything, but there were certain times during filming, when you're in the 16th hour of the third day of shooting [a big action sequence], when I just couldn't do something. That was depressing."
To help his body recuperate, Reeves had the kind of cold plunge bath used by high-level athletes installed in his guest bathroom. "I first learned about ice on 'The Matrix,' but this was another level. I'd get home from a day of filming, get the water to 37 degrees and lie in it up my neck." He smiled. "Heaven."
Of course, not every actor Stahelski and Leitch works with possesses Reeves' skills and fortitude. There are some, Stahelski says diplomatically, "who may not possess the physical attributes to be what's on the page."
And then there is me. Despite Stahelski and Leitch's efforts to make me look like one of the stars of the "The Expendables" (another of their credits), even after a series of clumsy repetitions, I was still about at the level of Don Knotts in "The Shakiest Gun in the West." Stahelski told me not to feel bad: "You've done this eight or nine times. If we're working with an actor, we'll rehearse something like this 400 times."
Indeed, no matter how ungainly someone may be when they first walk into 87Eleven, with enough training and a dash of movie magic, he or she can be made to look like a fierce killing machine onscreen. "We will bring them as close as we can physically, and then through stunt doubles or camera work or VFX [visual effects] or whatever we can do, we will help create the hero," Stahelski said.
In other words, there may be hope for me yet. "Some editing, a little slow-mo, some blood effects — you'd look great," Stahelski said. "Trust me, there were moments of coolness in there."
Watch your back, Reeves.