John Wick: Chapter 2 interview: Director Chad Stahelski talks TV series, superhero movies, and Chapter 3
The former stuntman spoke about the series' expanded future and concluding John Wick's story
by Jack Shepherd
When John Wick first reached cinemas, many questioned whether a Keanu Reeves-led neo-noir action — concerning an ex-assassin getting revenge on those who killed his puppy — would become a box-office hit.
Thanks to the film's vivid world, excellent action, and stellar reviews, people quickly filled up cinema seats, spreading the good word of John Wick throughout the world.
With the second instalment in the series, director Chad Stahelski doubled down, the visuals becoming more impressive and the mythology behind the series being expanded. Arguably, the sequel surpassed the original.
Speaking to The Independent over the phone from Los Angeles while promoting the film's home release, Stahelski — who is currently working on Chapter 3 and the upcoming reboot of Highlander — gave away some details regarding the upcoming sequel, revealing that the creators believe chapter three will conclude the titular character's story. Read the full interview below.
Thanks for talking to me about John Wick: Chapter 2. The beginning of the film starts as a quick refresher on the first film and also marks one of the film's funniest scenes. How much of the humour was intentional?
We made the first movie not to be too serious. Tonally, we wanted something that seems so out of the norm, a guy killing people because of a puppy. We knew how ridiculous it was, and that was really fun, taking people on that trip, to a different kind of world where these motivations existed. Rather than do all good guys, we did all bad guys. These assassins hidden around the world of New York City. When we did the second one, we wanted to open up the world but, at the same time, it would have been very difficult to tonally neuter the film to keep it serious and self-defacing. We wanted to start the film by introducing how whacky our world is. Later, we have sinister guys with pencils, we have sinister rock concerts in 2000-year-old ruins. How do you not be a little self-defacing? Plus, it tells the critics, ‘we’re going to have some fun and show you something you haven’t seen in a superhero movie or Bond film’.
That’s probably why these two films have picked up such a huge following, because they’re not afraid to be fun. But, there’s also world building. Everyone wants to know more about the world of John Wick.
Some people watch this movie critically. There was even one review that said this world is unbelievable. You have to laugh, because they obviously didn’t get the movie. There are funny and believable films, funny and believable superhero films. I wanted to entertain in a different kind of genre.
It plays like a B-movie, and you don’t really get those these days. Everything’s either really high budget or seriously low.
It doesn’t come down to A, B, C-movies. They’re not being judged on their cost. I know plenty of $200 million movies that would be considered B-movies. There’s no thought put behind big, digital set-pieces, those types of composition. Even if the budget is $10 million — some of these horror movies — it doesn’t matter. As long as you’re telling interesting stories, doing something creative and not phoning it in, that’s a good thing. You can’t substitute money for creativity.
I imagine there must be some temptation to throw huge amounts of money at a set piece. Or do you not find that?
We wrote John Wick and found those set-pieces organically. We didn’t know he would be fighting in a museum. For this, we wanted to show off culture, and that became the rock concert. As long as the set-pieces don’t substitute story-telling, as long as they hit the beat. I’d rather have three very interesting set pieces than one big one. Sometimes you leave these movies and think: ‘Wow, that last set-piece was fantastic. The rest of it, pretty s**t.’ If you had to guess what the next big superhero set-pieces were going to be, would you say skyscrapers? Would you see giant space-ship? You would be within 95 percent accurate just guessing at those. Here’s a challenge for you, if you had to guess what the next John Wick set-piece would be or The Avengers, which would you be more likely to guess correctly?
Definitely the Avengers.
Exactly. Guys like me, and other filmmakers, we love watching the Marvel stuff, and other bits too, but we want something different. We don’t have $100 million to create a metropolis that we can throw The Hulk through. I’ve got to come up with a set-piece I can actually shoot and still be as entertaining as any of those. It’s a bigger challenge, because if we can’t afford all those big set-pieces, how are we going to keep you entertained for two hours? You think, ‘I’ve got to have funny lines, interesting characters, a cool world.’ If I’m boring you every 20 minutes until you get your next set-piece then I’m failing.
Lots of these bigger films do seem style over substance.
Which is OK. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that. Some movies are made to be style. You don’t have to create a masterpiece to be entertaining. But, I do think you have to be entertaining to be a masterpiece.
When you were working on John Wick, with something like the coin, do you throw it in there and then explain it or do you build the world behind it first?
Definitely build the world behind it first. Our whole reason for the coin, for instance, comes from the cold war. Spies back in the day used gold coins. You could melt it, it was non-identifying, and everyone in the world excepts gold. We thought, ‘what’s an international currency? Gold coins? Done.’ Then we thought 'let’s put a special stamp on them.' Then you have the gold coin as part membership card and payment. We then build the world up from something like that.
What were the starting points with the series?
Derek Kolstad, who wrote the first script, came up with the hotel, the Continental, which was more of a warehouse where assassins would all hang-out. Because we were on the road so much, we thought, 'if you were a world-class assassin, what services would you like?' And we built it up from there. Instead of room service you want somewhere to buy guns, somewhere to hide evidence.
You only hint at John's past. Is that already mapped out?
Keanu and I probably have it in our heads, up to the point where, when we explain it, it will probably be very obtuse. We love the idea that we show you stuff rather than tell you about his past.
How much input has Keanu had on the character?
Quite a bit. He’s very involved. We developed the character with nobody else in mind. He’s the one that brought the project to me, so, he already had a sense of the character. We talked about how we would build an empathetic assassin. Because you have no real good guys in the movie. How do you make good bad guys verses bad bad guys?
Was pushing moral boundaries something you wanted to explore in particular?
I believe in mythology, and mythology has rules and etiquettes. We structured it around that.
What were your main inspirations for the second film?
I’m a big Sergio Leone fan, so probably The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. Also, Seven Samurai. Framing wise, we looked at old Orson Wells.
Were there any sequels you aspired to match?
In method only, probably James Cameron as he's a genius on how he handled Aliens. Rather than duplicate Ridley Scott, he goes ‘Ok, I’m going to make it a new genre. That was a sci-fi thriller, this will be sci-fi action.’ He paid great tribute to the original, but made the second one his own by expanding the world and keeping the threat very close to the first movie. I wish I was as good as Mr. Cameron.
You turn John Wick from hunter to hunted while also expanding the world, which seems like a natural progression of the story.
That’s something I thought would an interesting change. It seemed like the right arch to do. Then, in the third one, we’ll be able to show what he’s like as the predator, what he would have been like before the first one.
How’s work on the third one going?
We’re in that magic spot called development, but it’s going OK.
How much influence do you have on the script?
Myself, Derek Kolstad, and Keanu are all very involved, story-wise and character-wise. We’re all very invested in this world. It’s a very collaborative, creative team. We have a lot of discussions about it. We’re pretty much knee-deep in it.
What elements that have been unexplored by the series so far do you hope to explore?
We are going to put in something about the High Table, how that all works. We’re going to put in something about where John comes from, and where he wants to go. I don’t want to say too much more, but it will be a nice completion to Mr Wick’s journey.
Do you think this will finish a trilogy, then?
In our minds, yes. But I’ll let the studio answer those sort of questions.
Because the world is so wide and unexplored, the series seems ripe for a TV show.
Lionsgate is working on that right now. That’s up and running. That could be fun.
Are they looking at a prequel, or something different?
There are a lot of ideas being thrown around right now. A lot of people working on it. I don’t know if they’ve locked in a consensus yet. But they have some very good people on it.
Would you be involved?
I’ve let them know that I’d like to be. Yes, I’d like to be, but let’s see what happens over the next couple of months.
The first John Wick was co-directed. Do you prefer working with someone else or on your own?
If it’s working with my partner Dave [Leitch] then it’s all good. Somebody else, I’d be hesitant. For Dave and I, it was business as usual. We use the same crews, so we feel very comfortable together and apart.
How did your experience as a stunt co-ordinator help with directing?
It depends who you work for, who you come up through. I came up under some very good directors who were very kind and helped me with directing. The movie industry has some very smart people, and if you find those people to help mentoring you, it’s very easy. I’ve been very fortunate working with confident directors who were very helpful.
The first one feels very assured. Were you ever worried audiences wouldn’t respond how you imagined to the film?
We have a great deal of confidence, but the way people picked up on the movie, I was pleasantly surprised.
In both, you have some very vivid colours, these vibrant neons. What was the thinking behind that?
Everyone else was going grey and black, trying to be Christopher Nolan, so we thought we would go a different way. When we released the first movie, we had had enough of saturated, grainy, films, so we did the exact opposite. World building is about every little thing - the colour, the tone, the wardrobe, the backgrounds — so when we looked at this world, we wanted to be a metareality. So we decided cool neon and LED lights were the way to go.