Neo's Stunt Guy Chad Stahelski on How The Matrix Changed Movie Action Forever
by Bilge Ebiri
“The Matrix literally transformed the industry,” says Chad Stahelski, who was Keanu Reeves’s stunt double in the film and went on to become one of the busiest stunt choreographers in the industry. Nowadays, he’s best known for directing the John Wick films, also starring Reeves. (Stahelski directed the first John Wick with fellow stunt veteran David Leitch, and has helmed the subsequent sequels by himself.) But he’d be the first to admit that those movies, not to mention most of the others he’s worked on, would never exist without The Matrix. “Back in the day,” he recalls, “fight scenes were secondary to car chases and horse chases and helicopter chases and motorboat chases.” And what fights there were focused on “single-gun battle stuff or Arnold Schwarzenegger pummeling you to death with his hands.”
But The Matrix showed that a fight sequence could be graceful and surprising, as well as tell a story. Even the nascent superhero-movie genre, which would soon become dominant, took a big page out of the Wachowskis’ playbook. Think of Spider-Man learning to use his powers, or Black Widow speedily dispatching a roomful of villains while still tied to a chair, or Wolverine slicing his way through armies of thugs. “Now,” Stahelski says, “action movies want their big sequences designed around the fights. Think of any action movie in the past decade or so that doesn’t have a bitchin’ fight scene. The Matrix said, ‘Look what you can do with your heroes.’” The director and stunt legend recently took a break from a busy schedule finishing John Wick: Chapter 3 — Parabellum to talk with me about how The Matrix changed movies — and his life — forever.
How did you first get the job for The Matrix? Way back in 1996, the Wachowskis and Yuen Woo-Ping, the fight choreographer, were doing a casting search in Australia, China, Canada, and the U.S. to find a martial-arts stunt double for Keanu. At the time, martial arts weren’t that big in big-budget features. It was considered more of a low-budget, chop-socky kind of thing. Most of the fights at the time were single-gun battle stuff, or Arnold Schwarzenegger pummeling you to death with his hands. It was a very different action-design fight era. I was working on a TV show called Pretender at the time. And I had to do a car hit in the morning. So I got hit by a car, cracked my head open, and managed to make an 11 a.m. audition in Burbank from Pasadena. I was still bleeding when I got there. First, they wanted to know if I was homeless — I still had blood on my T-shirt, and I was trying to stop the bleeding from a minor head wound. I was a big Asian-cinema fan, so I recognized Yuen Woo-Ping; I recognized some of the guys on his team from all the great Jet Li and Jackie Chan films.
I went in thinking, Okay, I’m gonna have to do a drop and a split; they’ll throw a kick and that’ll be it. They spoke some Chinese, and then they pointed to this guy Chen Hu. They said, “Just do what this guy does; copy him.” I emerged an hour-and-a-half later, dripping in sweat, having gone through every martial-art combination, kick, flip, tumbling pass … It is still, to this day, the longest and most arduous audition I’d ever been to, and I’d been completely unprepared. It was the first time I’d ever met Keanu. We took a couple of photos together and I split.
A month goes by, nothing. Almost two months go by, and I get another phone call. “Hey, would you mind coming back in?” So I go to the same shooting warehouse in Burbank, and it was literally the same audition exactly, move for move, all over again. A week or two later they offered me the gig. They said, “Hey, how would you like to go to Australia and double Keanu?” I was like, “Aw, that’s awesome. But, uh, sorry. No, can’t.” I was still on a TV show.
Really? So how did you wind up doing the movie? Keanu had a neck injury, so they pushed all the action until the next year. So, a couple of months go by and I get a call from Barrie Osborne, the producer, going, “Hey, we pushed all the fights. Now can you make it?” And I got on a plane in January to go out to start filming in Australia. I showed up the first day in Sydney to do rehearsals, and it was still, to this time, the toughest process I had been through up to that point in my career — just an amazing amount of repetition and trying to get it right, so that everything’s perfect. Training with Keanu, with the Hong Kong guys, everybody had to memorize everything. They demanded a lot.
And the Wachowskis were meticulous, to say the least. The storyboards were hundreds and hundreds of pages. I still have my copy of them. And I shit you not, they are almost the exact movie. The edit points might be slightly different, but it is so well-boarded and so well-thought-out and conceptually almost identical to what’s on the big screen. It’s creepy. I’m not gonna lie to you, anyone who’s worked for the Wachowskis who’s still mentally functioning is forever and positively influenced by them. Their work ethic puts even the hardest-working people to shame. We all got better on those movies and we all want to be better, and we all want to impress our mentors. I’m 50 years old now and all I can think about is, like, Aw man, I hope they’re gonna like this.
What was your impression of Keanu before you did The Matrix? He’s very introspective, but at the same time he’s hugely team-oriented. He eats, sleeps, hangs out with the crew. In Australia, you’d be more apt to see him out having dinner in Chinatown in Sydney with the Hong Kong guys and the stunt team. Even on the John Wick movies, to this day, he’s super tight with his stunt team, because they spend so much time with him. He’s the guy that’ll take the camera guy out. He’s very crew-oriented. He loves that world; he loves being part of it.
When you started, did they give you a script? I didn’t get a script until I landed. I read it and didn’t understand a fucking word of it. I was like, How the fuck are we gonna do this? I have a pretty good creative mind to piece things together, after seeing the rehearsals and the sets, but The Matrix is the only time this ever happened to me, where it literally wasn’t until I saw the movie that I got it. I remember coming in, seeing a very early rough cut of something, and going, “Wow, this is pretty cool” — and I still didn’t get it. Because the effects hadn’t been put in yet. Then I was fortunate enough to get invited to the premiere in Westwood. When I saw that, it was mind-blowing.
It’s the only film I can think of in which both the stunts and the visual effects were genuinely revolutionary. There are certain things that motivate evolution, or motivate an upward expectation in the industry. I love the Mission: Impossible franchise, I love the Bond franchise, but at no point has there ever been a Bond or a Mission: Impossible that has changed action design. That’s never happened. After The Matrix — just look at the martial-arts genre. It had never breached the mainstream before. You would not see a Stallone movie, or a Schwarzenegger movie, or a Bruce Willis movie where martial arts were prominent. You wouldn’t see a $100 million or even a $50 million movie with martial arts. Our action heroes didn’t do it. Americans worshiped one big power punch.
But after The Matrix, I went from an average stunt guy to one of the biggest choreographers in the business. I started a company that deals specifically with martial-arts choreography and that’s grown into all the John Wick movies and everything. The Matrix literally changed the industry. The influx of martial-arts choreographers and fight coordinators now make more, and are more prevalent and powerful in the industry, than stunt coordinators. The Matrix revolutionized that. Today, action movies want their big sequences designed around the fights. Think of any action movie in the past decade or so that doesn’t have a bitchin’ fight scene. The Matrix said, “Look what you can do with your heroes.” Back in the day, fight scenes were secondary to car chases and horse chases and helicopter chases and motorboat chases. Now, what does every great Marvel movie have? Whether it’s flying or in spaceships or in boats or in airplanes and so forth, they want action design centered around fight scenes.
Was there a particular moment during the production when you thought, Okay, this thing is going to be big? I remember my first time on camera was in the government lobby sequence, when Carrie-Anne does her wall-up. We had rehearsed it a million times. We had squibs that had to go off. It was all practical effects, so you couldn’t have a cell phone within 300 feet of the stage, because at the time, the frequency of cell phones could set off the electronic squibs. They had over a thousand squibs, and they’re blowing off, and we’re seeing them and just going, “Oh my God.” I had to do a thing where I cartwheel over to an M16 rifle, pick it up with one hand, and then Keanu shoots and goes into the fight or whatever. I remember the setup was a day turnover, so you get one take, and it takes a day to reset, and then you do the second take. I had barely met anybody on set at this point. I’m in the getup, and I’m getting ready to go, and I remember producer Joel Silver walking over to me — I had never met the man before in my life — looking me right in the eye and saying, “Don’t fuck this up.” Basically, don’t miss. And he gave me that little stare. He’s a very intense person. And I was like, Okay. Don’t miss gun. They said there’d be a lot of debris, so I just practiced doing the flip with my eyes closed. And I swear to you, as soon as they yelled action, the first squib went off, and I couldn’t see shit. I just threw myself in there and magically found the gun and grabbed it. I was only 25 and I was like, Don’t miss gun. Don’t miss gun. Don’t miss gun. But after that scene finished, I remember calling everybody back in the States and just going, “Yeah, this is gonna be something different. This is real stuff.”