Collider (US), Mar 26, 2019
‘John Wick: Chapter 3’ Cinematographer Dan Laustsen on Shooting Long and Wide Takes in the Sequel
by Steve 'Frosty' Weintraub
One of the people you almost never get to talk with on a set visit is the director of photography. That’s because while the actors get to take a break between setups, the second the production gets the shot, the cinematographer is immediately moving on to the next location or set up and rarely has any down time.
But last summer, when I got to visit the set of John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum with a few international reporters, we actually got a few minutes with Danish cinematographer Dan Laustsen. If you’re not familiar with his resume, he’s shot a ton of movies including John Wick: Chapter 2, The Shape of Water, Crimson Peak, and many more.
During our brief time with him, he talked about what digital cameras have been able to do with natural lighting, the look he’s trying to bring to the third installment, if he’s ever had to tell the director a shot was impossible, the challenge of trying to film Keanu Reeves in Times Square in the rain, how much he does previz before arriving on set, and a lot more.
In addition, when Laustsen had to go back to set, we got some time with John Wick 3 director Chad Stahelski. He talked about the massive motorcycle fight scene they were filming on the Verrazano Bridge at actual speed, how they solved all the impossible variables to pull it off, being inspired by the morcycle chase in The Villainess, and more.
Question: How’re you doing today sir?
DAN LAUSTSEN: I’m doing fine.
Like everyone here, I’m a fan of your work.
LAUSTSEN: Thank you very much! I hope Chad, the director, is as well.
He is not a fan of your work. (laughs).
I was being serious. One of these things that’s amazing about the digital cameras now is that you can shoot in all sort of different light conditions, with natural light and make it look – what you can do now with cameras is crazy.
LAUSTSEN: I think cameras are just a tool. You have to decide what the look of the movie is going to be. That has nothing to do with if you shoot it digital or film. It’s going to be the same kind of, telling the story with the light and the camera angles. Of course, some stuff is easier in the digital world because you have so much more control over post. I think it doesn’t matter so much what kind of camera you’re shooting on, you have to figure out what the look of the movie is going to be.
What has the digital camera allowed you to do with natural lighting, that maybe you couldn’t do before?
LAUSTSEN: I don’t think I’ve done anything with natural lighting. I think I have done a lot with color separation and color look. It’s easier to make a very colorful looking movie, as we’re doing with John Wick. We’re putting a lot of colors in. You see the way we are shooting right now, you know, we have such high quality monitors. It is easier to control the look of the movie and the color look. I don’t think it’s such a big deal, in the daylight situation. I think it’s much more, when you’re inside and you’re playing around with color. For me, it’s easier to do it. It’s just when you’re working with it you have a much better feeling about how the movie is going to look. But it’s just a tool. You can do more or less the same movie on film if you want to do that. It’s just that we decided to go in the digital world. That worked for testing for John Wick 3, and for John Wick 2.
Do you see this movie as an evolution from the second movie? Or a continuation?
LAUSTSEN: Well, you know, of course the accent is the same, but it’s a new story. You’re trying to change it a little bit and make it more powerful, and try to go into a new world. But of course, it’s still John Wick. It’s still Keanu and it’s still Chad. We try to make it even better. That’s what you should do on number 3. It should be better than number 2, and better than number 1. That’s what we’re trying to do.
How do you handle a glass set like this?
LAUSTSEN: Well, you know, Chad had this fantastic idea about putting a glass house and everyone was like, well, “how are we going to do that?” (laughs). Now we are here and it’s amazing. When you’re standing inside the glass house you feel like, it’s 25 floors in Manhattan, and that’s amazing. Of course, a lot of challenges because you have a lot of reflections and all, but that’s handable because you can do that in post and paint stuff out. But it’s just to get an idea, to have a feeling of how it should look, I think that’s the challenge because it’s so great. It’s really cool, it’s fun.
How challenging is it for you to portray New York as a different city, because it has been filmed many times?
LAUSTSEN: We try to gel it much more contrast, and much more colorful. We are playing a lot with rain. We try to do it more, as you see, the old fashion New York. We try to move away from the slim line New York. We try to do it more atmospheric, with rain and smoke. A lot of rain, that’s for sure. And that’s fantastic. It’s painful to do, but it looks so amazing. We do that a lot and it’s really cool.
You guys have made some great shots, especially in the second one. Has there been a sequence or a shot that Chad’s asked for, that you’re like, it’s almost too daunting? Could you talk about some of the challenging shots you’ve had to pull off thus far.
LAUSTSEN: Chad is a very visual director. That’s so fun, and to work with directors visual directors, they kind of push you into a corner you cannot get out of. I think the glass house, for example, is a good example because you just have that idea for like, 5 or 6 months, and when we are here and we’re pulling it off. When we start to talk about like, how are we going to do this? Now we are here and it’s fantastic. So, that’s his vision and his fight to get it in. And it works, it’s great.
Has there ever been a shot where you’re like, “We actually can’t do this?” Do you always find a way?
LAUSTSEN: I always find a way. There’s always a way. Sometimes, of course, it’s like woah, rain on Times Square, it’s like, “how the fuck are we going do that?” You know but we did it and it looks fantastic. We have a lot of challenges and a lot of problems. At the end of the day, it looks fantastic, and Keanu is running around.
Chad Stahelski: That’s why he’s Dan Laustsen.
LAUSTSEN: (laughs). You know, just push everybody as far as you can. You don’t want to be away from your family and friends, and do something you’re not proud of. When you get home from work you have to say, “this is fantastic.” That’s what we try to do on each shot. We try to push ourselves as hard as we can, and a lot of the times it’s a challenge, but I think we’re doing really well.
When most of the effects are practical, does that make your job easier or more complicated?
LAUSTSEN: It’s more complicated, but it’s much more real. As much as you can do in the camera, you see how it looks and that’s the way it should be. I think you should do as little as possible in post. Of course there are somethings you cannot do, like a glass house you cannot do that for real. I feel very strongly that as much as you can do in the camera on the day, it’s really good for everybody. It’s good for the actors. They have a feeling about the environment. It’s much better than shooting stuff in the green screen studio. Sometimes you have to do that because you cannot control, whatever reason you’re going to do that but most of the time you should shoot as much for real as possible.
When you got the script and read it, besides the glass house, was there a sequence that you were like “Ugh, god I can’t believe we’re doing this?”
LAUSTSEN: Well, there’s a motorcycle chase that’s pretty fantastic. Of course we haven’t shot it yet ,but it’s just good when you read the script and you talk about it, and It’s fantastic. But you know it’s not only an action movie, there’s a lot of scenes and performances that are fantastic. There’s not one scene, but a lot of scenes, when Chad is talking about, “Let’s rain all the time in New York,” and everybody said that’s not possible, but two months later we’re doing that. All that is great. That’s one big challenge. Shooting rain in New York in the summertime. It’s really tough.
Do you and Chad do a lot of storyboards and previz of the sequences? How much is it figuring out in the moment, when you’re standing there, where the camera is going to go.
LAUSTSEN: We’re talking about all the shots and all the scenes of course, upfront, and how we should do it. We have to be as precise as possible, but of course on the day we will improvise; “is this a better angle or a better shot?” We have a strong plan, and Chad has a very strong plan about where we want to go on the day. We’re just changing that a little bit. Are we going to do this shot on the crane? Are we going to do this shot on the steadicam? That’s a little bit of a discussion on the day, but you know we have prepared. Sometimes you don’t have a crane, so you need the crane. So you know, all of that in advance. We are pretty well prepared.
I’m enjoying that shot that’s on the screen right now.
LAUSTSEN: That’s cool isn’t it.
Chad Stahelski: That’s actually our plate shot unit. On top of everything else, we shut down the largest suspension bridge in the United States.
Because of course you did.
LAUSTSEN: Never take a no for a no, go for it.
Chad Stahelski: Tell ’em!
LAUSTSEN: That’s the key. You try to do it as best as you can.
With certain movies, they do a lot of extended tracking shots and Keanu being so good at what he does, how much do you guys consider how far can we push this tracking shot? How long can we make this shot go for? Is that a consideration?
LAUSTSEN: Of course it is, because all the fights – Chad is doing most of the fights himself. We play that as wide as we can. Because that way we see it’s him. We do that a lot, we try to play it as wide as we can and do long shots. Of course, because Chad has a background from the stunt world he knows exactly how to block this kind of stuff. I’m not the best stunt person in the world, but I’m learning.
So, there’s motorcycles on the screen right now. Is this part of the motorcycle set piece that’s coming?
Chad Stahelski: Well, we’re doing a huge – motorcycles are very hard to do martial arts on.
Stahelski: But we have found a way. We’re doing a massive motorcycle fight scene on the Verrazano bridge at actual speed.
Stahelski: Yes, it’s all safe. It’s a combination between, my best friend Darrin Prescott is the second unit director, and what we’re doing. We found a way to put Keanu and ninjas fighting on motorcycles at actual speed.
Who figured that sequence out? Who was the one who actually broke it down and said we can do this?
Stahelski: It was a lot of people. And we’re still guessing. I’ll let you know in 3 months. We’ve got some really smart guys on it.
That looks cool.
Stahelski: One of my favorite all time movies from Asia was also The Villainess. That motorcycle chase, also a big fan of it, was an ode to it. To say thank you that was very classic, but now we’re going to try to beat you.
You don’t have any competitive streak.
Yeah, got it. (laughs).
Stahelski: Tribute. Guys like that in the Asian cinema now – they’re pushing – It’s gonna be cool. We have new technology that we used in John Wick 2 that we used on anamorphic dummies and they passed the test. Just like crash test dummies, we do it with crash test stuntmen. Then we have to figure out how to put all of this together. So, these are all crash tests before we actually go into it.
When you get the bridge from the city, and they say you can actually shoot on this, what are the – how long do they give it to you and how many hours a day are you allowed to use it for?
Stahelski: Well, we’re a nighttime movie. So we have it like 9- 5 AM. Sun comes up and we’re dead.
Did they say you could have it for two weeks?
Stahelski: Cool thing about the Verrazano is that it’s two layers, so we can shut down the bottom and they can still use the top. It’s a rare bridge in New York. It’s just going to have to work in our favor.