John Wick’s Men In Charge Speak: An Interview With The Directors
by Jon Hueber
John Wick is a legend. As the narrative says, he’s not the boogeyman, he’s the guy you send to kill the boogeyman. And for last year’s best action film, John Wick, the production needed not one, but two directors to tell his story.
Recently, we sat down with Chad Stahelski and David Leitch to discuss the movie, Keanu Reeves performance, Hong Kong cinema, and how a 65-year-old retired assassin became the legendary badass, John Wick that hits Blu-ray this week.
TheHDRoom: What did Keanu, a known fan and practitioner of martial arts, bring to the choreography?
Chad Stahelski: He brought his ability. Keanu is very, very cool. He’s a student of martial arts in general. As far as the moves go, he allows the choreographer, and us, to give it the flavor and style, and then we’ll present him with what we think the moves should be. Everybody dances a different way so he just goes through the moves and we make changes based on his ability and what feels natural to him. But he lets the choreography be done by the action design guy (Jonathan Eusebio) and the choreography team. He’s really giving that way, and that’s great. That’s why he looks so different in his films. He embraces what we think would be cool. The Matrix had its style, Man of Tai Chi had its style, and John Wick was a completely different martial arts style for him. He embraces it all.
Talk a little about Keanu’s performance. How did you get such badassery out of Keanu?
CS: We’ve know Keanu for 20 years. We’ve been observers and we’ve been stunt directors, and we’re were pretty at home with what we think he can do and where we can take risks. When you have a close relationship, you can get the actor to trust you a little bit.
David Leitch: We had a thing with him where there was nothing to settle on with John Wick. We wanted to get a range of performances just like with everybody. We’d do a middle take, and then we’d go to 11 (a Spinal Tap reference). There were times that Keanu played it — he understands the emotions, and we always did a take where we went big. We felt like we wanted that in the can for Wick and used some of those takes.
CS: It’s part of us knowing the character and knowing what we wanted to achieve. And having a cast member who trusts us enough as directors to go places where he doesn’t normally go. Once he did it once, it was very easy to get the takes — the ones and elevens out there — and most of the time, I’d say 100 percent of the time, we took the most extreme takes.
The Bath House scene is arguably the best action sequence in the film. The actual scene when John kills the guard with the knife was powerful. How did that come about?
CS: It wasn’t in the script. We were doing quick kills, and the stunt guy who did it, a good friend of ours, Dennis Keiffer, had a good look. We wanted Keanu to cup his mouth and just “go.” The whole point of the bathhouse scene was to show John Wick as the boogeyman. All of our prelim stuff and our backstory came to life visually. We kept referencing that Saving Private Ryan scene with the German and the knife.
DL: We had to, at some point, show him as the boogeyman. How scary he was. He’s a killer. Sometimes movies like this gloss over it. We wanted it to be slightly disturbing and then try to pull the character back to his meaning.
Talk about the visual language of the film. What kinds of things inspired the look of John Wick?
DL: A lot or things inspired us. Seventies films, Sergio Leone films, Kurosawa. And then I’d say working with the Wachowskis (The Matrix Trilogy, Speed Racer, Cloud Atlus, Jupiter Ascending) for a decade, and having them mentor us. They’re huge graphic novel fans and they’re composition freaks and so are we. There’s an inspiration there. And Japanese anime — that we love to watch — and Hong Kong cinema. It has sort of that same aesthetic.
CS: Part of it is a cathartic reaction to our day jobs (both men are stunt coordinators and own their own stunt direction company in Los Angeles). We’re creating these action sequences and you have to shake the camera because the performance isn’t doing it, or you have to tighten the lens to hide something. We wanted this to feel like a Hong Kong movie in a sense, with compelling action and have a cool, colorful world. You get them in Hong Kong cinema, but you don’t really get them in western cinema.
DL: We had a great relationship with our cinematographer. He really understood where we wanted to go. We said look, we want this to be graphic novel-esque and he said “great.” We wanted to have an extreme color pallet and he said “great.” And once we got the locations we tracked the colors of the movie and used a color wheel to track how the colors would look. We (story)boarded dialogue sequences to make sure that we were using compelling angles and the right close ups to enhance the character in a constant fashion. John Sela is a master and it was great to collaborate with him.
How did you get so many great cameos in such tiny roles?
CS: We knew we wanted to have cool people in every role. You know, when we grew up watching movies, it always made you feel a little bit better when you recognized everybody, even though you didn’t know their names. And we wanted that. This world is hyperreal. We wanted the best character actors you could find to make you feel, “this is an extreme world.” The colors, the characters, the choreography, even down to the type of guns; we made everything look a little bit different than it should. The gold coins, the dial telephones — there’s not a lot of technology. Just a few iPhones here and there. Old cars, old hotels, suits and ties, every body calls each other “Mister.”
DL: Getting good actors is key. It helps when you’re in New York. There’s a lot of actors that live there and you can get them for a day. It’s harder when you’re on location. It worked well to get a lot of great talent to show up for the day.
What changes were made from the script to the screen?
CS: In the original script, John Wick was a very real world. That’s the biggest change. It was meant to be a reality; we made it hyperreal. We made it more of a mythological story, than a real world. We gave it a graphic novel vibe. In the original John Wick script, John Wick was 65-years old. He was a an old retiree from the cold war. When David and I came on board, Keanu and our producer, Basil (Iwanyk), they kind of made it a younger John Wick, and we gave it the edge of the graphic novel. The car was the same, but Ms. Perkins (Adrianne Palicki) was the main change, I think (she was originally a man in the script).
DL: The action sequences were completely modified from their locations
CS: John Wick only killed five guys in the original script.
DL: …And we killed 84 (laughs).
CS: That’s probably the biggest change.
DL: It was more of a realistic thing, kind of like Payback (a 1999 Mel Gibson film). He just went in and shot the guy. It was more of a drama. And we wanted to build it out in a sort of an action — we wanted to play with the choreography, combining guns and martials arts, and you needed a lot of “red shirts” to make the sequences go longer. We needed henchmen.
So, is there talk of a sequel?
DL: Yeah, they want to do it. Thunder Road wants to do it. Keanu wants to do it. I think everybody wants to do it. Derek (Kolstad), the writer, is coming up with some stories and we’re working on it with him and we’ll see how it pans out.
CS: We just want to make sure it’s something people want to see.
John Wick was made for $20 million and has grossed over $70 million worldwide since its release. I think a sequel is something that people want to see. And Chad Stahelski and David Leitch agree, and are working on it. John Wick will return.