'John Wick 3': Chad Stahelski on the Action Scene That's a “F**k You” to Other Action Scenes
by Steve 'Frosty' Weintraub
One of the many things I love about director Chad Stahelski is his unfiltered answers. Usually, when you sit down to talk with someone about their movie or show, they are very careful with what they’re willing to say, never wanting to be the person that rocks the boat.
But last summer, when I got to visit the set of John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum when the sequel was filming outside New York City, one of the best things about the set visit was talking to Stahelski. Not only did he go into great detail about what he wanted to accomplish in the sequel, he was pretty honest about wanting to outdo what other filmmakers have done.
When talking about the “horse sequence” which features Keanu Reeves riding through New York City beating up guys on a horse, Stahelski said:
“It’s probably the craziest thing I’ve ever done in my career. Same with Keanu. I mean, we’ve all done The Matrixs’, we’ve done 300, and a lot of the Marvel work. It’s all great and they all focus on one or two divisions of action. This is our ‘fuck you’ to everybody else. So, we’re just going to do a lot of everything and better than everyone. That’s a lot to say, right. I’m throwing down the gauntlet. We got tired of everybody getting slacky.”
I love this answer.
After two John Wick films, it would have been easy for Stahelski and Reeves to dial it back a bit and coast on the success of the previous films. But that’s not in their DNA. Both of them are perfectionists, willing to do whatever it takes to make it the best it can be.
In addition, during the wide-ranging interview, Stahelski talked about how the film opens moments after the second film ended, how the sequel has references to Die Hard, The Good the Bad the Ugly, and Akira Kurosawa, what Halle Berry did to train for being the dog handler on set, why it’s important to have big action set pieces throughout the movie, why they cast Boban Marjanovic for the opening action scene, how Reeves is always willing to push himself to the next level, and so much more.
Trust me, if you’re a fan of the John Wick films, you’re going to love reading what Chad Stahelski had to say below. John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum is in theaters May 17, 2019.
Question: How’re you holding up? You feeling good? Day 35?
CHAD STAHELSKI: Yeah. It’s easy.
Keanu was telling us you have a list of things you really want to do with the third one. Can you tell us about it?
STAHELSKI: Ever since I was a second unit director and action director I’ve been keeping a notebook of all the weird shit I want to do in a movie. So, when they asked us to do number 3 I was like as long as I get to use my notebook. (laughs). I don’t think anybody knew what that meant, and the studio went, “Sure!” Now they’re finding out.
So, this is in the notebook?
STAHELSKI: This is in it. I love architecture. Grew up with my dad building houses. I always wanted to a house made out of glass. So about two years ago, me and my production designer Kevin Kavanaugh, were sitting in the office and I found this great architectural digest thing about an office building. It was all glass. I was like, “We’re going to build that some day and we’re going to do a gun fight in it.” So, two years later I built it and I’m doing a gun fight in it.
Be careful what you wish for right?
STAHELSKI: They should be careful what they let me do.
STAHELSKI: No one quite got it. I was like, “I’m going to put a bunch of ninjas in a glass house,” and they were like, “Well how are you going to do that?” I was like, “Oh, don’t worry, I’ve got Dan Laustsen.” The cinematographer who can make the best black in the world. He does all of Guillermo Del Toro’s stuff. He just did Shape of Water. So, we have him on this.
STAHELSKI: Yeah. Who else let’s you do – I’ve got horses, dogs, cats, a raven, a bunch of pigeons. Motorcycle chase, car chase. Halle Berry, Keanu Reeves, Laurence Fishburne, Ian McShane, Lance Reddick. Shotguns, guns, and ninjas.
STAHELSKI: I’ll take on bombs. Let’s go. Bring it.
You mentioned recently that you had a few action set pieces, like the world’s best people working on these and you had not cracked how you were going to film it. Which sequence, or sequences, are you still trying to crack, and are you still trying to crack them?
STAHELSKI: This is one, so you guys get to see it now. We have Yayan and Cepcep, from The Raid series here with us. We brought them in. Plus our stunt team, plus some of the best fight guys in the states right now, I think martial art wise. We wanted to do something that was – to tell you more about John Wick 3, it is kind of a big amalgamation of all the things I love. There’s a reference to Die Hard, there’s a reference to The Good the Bad the Ugly, there’s a reference to Akira Kurosawa. There’s all these great little references we drop in because I love the genre stuff. So, what better form than to use this as a genre thing. Part of it is martial arts. So, we want to do something other than just shaky cam or try to upgrade martial arts. We want you to see cool martial art guys doing cool martial arts stuff. How do we work that into the story about modern day New York? So we came up with the ninja idea. We don’t actually call them ninjas in the movie. But the character Zero has this little group of guys that can only beat John up, but Zero has to kill John to collect the bounty. So, we wove that into the mythology and that’s when we kind of collected our best fight guys from all over the world.
Then, a fight is great, but it’s much better when you shoot it in an interesting way, and still show off. One – you’re only as good as your cast members. So, we have Keanu who is willing to get beat up by all these guys, and he’s willing to go through the training. So, when you can put him with great fight guys that are actually the cast as well, so they’re not double and double. It’s Keanu, really with Cecep or Yayan, or with all of our great fight guys. That works out really well. Now if you can do it – and we’re like what’s the best way so I can do any angle? A glass house (laughs). It’s also – I don’t know if you saw the last shot – but we’re trying to do it all without VFX. The guys are in the shot the whole time, and you’ll see that a lot, in this sequence with all the different ninjas in the theater and all these things, we’re trying to hide the guys using actual camouflage and lighting techniques. It’s like where’s waldo. You’ll see the guy, we’ll go past the guy, and the guy will pop out of the wall and fight, fight fight. Then, the guy will disappear. We’re trying slide of hand and optical illusions, and with a glass house, I can look up, I can look down. I can be through a wall and so you see it’s really Keanu. That becomes really fun.
The other set piece we’re doing, we haven’t shot yet, which we’re still trying to crack is a series with Keanu and Halle Berry, which we’re going to film in Morocco, in Northern Africa. Halle’s character, Sofia, has two Belgian Malinois dogs, and she’s currently training with them in LA right now. We actually have five of them. There’s two sets of heros, and a stunt double dog. (laughs). They’re super athletic. If I showed you what they could do – in movies, when you see a dog attack, that’s actually a dog attacking a human. The dog doesn’t know its a movie. (laughs). He just goes *dog attacking noise* and he tries to actually kill the human that he’s attacking. We decided that wasn’t the best idea to pursue, being a dog guy. So we found some of the best animal trainers out there and we went, “Look, we just want to play with the dog. We want the dog to actually be trained as a stunt dog, an acting dog.” So, we found that the best athletic and the most trainable dogs are the Belgians Malinois, that the military and police use. We’ve been training them in a certain way to know that it’s play and it’s fake, and it’s fun.
Rather than just have an actor walk in and the trainer give him a little piece of meat we actually decided well, forget that, Halle’s character owns these two dogs. They’re like her children. So, Halle began dog training school. So, she’s actually learning to be a dog trainer, to train the dogs, so when the dogs are on set it’s not looking at the trainer – they’re looking at Halle because Halle is the trainer. So, we just cut the middle man out of the loop. So, she spends – if she’s not in martial arts, jiu-jitsu, or firearms training – she’s training three days a week with the Belgian Malinois. So, when she walks on set they know, that’s my girl! And that’s who they stay with. The whole point the dogs are actually learning martial arts and how to beat up and attack the stunt guys. So, if you can imagine, “gun-fu” as the call it now, Keanu doing as tactically good as he is, Halle, I promise you will be equally as good, from what we’re doing. She’s going into hyperdrive. So, she’s training 5-6 days a week, and firing over 1000 rounds. That’s a lot of gun work a day. So, on top of that, if you can imagine those two doing the gun fighting together, and then throw in two dogs. So, “dog-fu.” That’s the second biggest sequence in the movie.
Our third biggest sequence, we start shooting in a week in a half, which is – call it our “horse sequence.” Keanu Reeves rides a horse through Manhattan, and beats up guys with a horse.
STAHELSKI: That’s my ode to Westerns.
That’s fucking crazy.
STAHELSKI: It’s probably the craziest thing I’ve ever done in my career. Same with Keanu. I mean, we’ve all done The Matrixs’, we’ve done 300, and a lot of the Marvel work. It’s all great and they all focus on one or two divisions of action. This is our “fuck you” to everybody else.
STAHELSKI: So, we’re just going to do a lot of everything and better than everyone. That’s a lot to say, right. I’m throwing down the gauntlet. We got tired of everybody getting slacky, so.
The last movie ended with great promise of things to come, with everyone in the assassin world getting a text message going, “Kill this guy.” I imagine you deliver that promise in this one. Can you talk about where it picks up?
STAHELSKI: Yeah, it picks up exactly where – I like chapters. I like books. I like the way it goes chapter to chapter. So, sometimes – I don’t want to find my guy five years later. It was meant to be one movie. So, if you watch it back to back to back, hopefully it’s written so you’ll see, ah that’s the nice guy and the wife or – I’m not going to tell you what happens. Yeah, it’s mean to be watched all together. It’s not just Keanu’s arc – it’s the other guys, it’s where Winston goes. So, it just kind of goes together like that.
What do you think are some of the biggest misconceptions = that people get about filming action movies?
STAHELSKI: All action is escapist in a certain way, and that’s cool. You can do the American History X thing and make it ultra violent and real, which is great if it goes with the character. I think the biggest mistake made in action is the tone of the action doesn’t match the tone of the film. They just want like, “I want Hong Kong action!” but it’s a super serious movie. You don’t see a guy doing a double twist running up the wall, or wire work or something like that. The first Matrix is a great example of, look the tone and the vibe. Everything was a set piece. Keanu and myself, and some of my team came up in the Matrix world with the Wachowskis. They were probably the best world builders I’ve met in a long, long time. At least in the current industry. So, you learn that every little piece; the wardrobe, the set pieces, the lighting, everything builds the world. Whether it’s the kind of car they drive. So, when you’re trying to build the world, the action is a big part of that.
To answer your question, next to tone, probably the biggest mistake that is made is that, say you have an action movie that has 3 acts of actions. You got the opening, something in the middle, and the big end fight scene. That’s great, but most of the modus operandi for most movies, especially for big ones is – that’s why I have a nice house and a job. The director comes in, “Okay cut. Okay action team, throw to second unit.” We’re going to go off and shoot it. Then some guy that you haven’t met before comes in and is a guy like me or something like that and is like, “Shoot action! We got 20 setups today.” Then you watch the movie and it’s like – it’s all stunt doubles. It’s all over the shoulder. It’s all weird things. The acting stops for a second. You get directors nowadays, and I’m lumping myself in with all of this, sometimes they’re scared to do what they don’t want to do. “Well, I don’t want to do action, etc.” The good ones – like Spielberg shoots his own action. That’s why you can’t tell where the story stops. Go watch Saving Private Ryan. You get good directors – action is like wardrobe, it’s like lighting. It’s just another piece of the pie, and if you leave it out and treat it as a separate thing, “He doesn’t do action!”, then you’re really not a fucking director, are you? It’s like me saying, “You know what, I like to direct, I just hate acting.”
f your movie is 45 and 45, I’m going to do 45 minutes of action and let somebody else do my movie? If I’ve got to learn acting, the other guy has got to learn action. That’s what we’re trying to show. You can have pretty action. Look at Dan Laustsen, he’s one of the best cinematographers out there. Any smart guy out there – you guys could all come up with a good action sequence, everyone has an imagination. So, if you can take that and just understand the methodology and get where you want to go, and get good stunt guys, rehearse, train the cast. You never had to tell Errol Flynn to rehearse. That guy was pushing the stunt teams to rehearse. If they can act, OK, great! So, if everybody is on the same page, from my wardrobe people to my grips, to my cinematographer – they all come to stunt rehearsals. So, I want them to know what movie I’m making, and if everybody sees it – See everybody here? They’re all like, oh that’s great, OK! They know what the shots are. They know they got guys that hide in black, jump out, and karate chop Keanu Reeves. In a glass house. In as few shots as possible. Everyone is on the same page, so we know what we’re creating. That’s a good thing.
One of the things I love about the John Wick films are the colorful characters; the assassins, the names, “Tick Tock Man, The Adjudicator.”
STAHELSKI: I’m good with names. I don’t know how I am as a director, but the names are great.
Is it fun coming up with the different characteristics and the people who are going to try and kill John?
STAHELSKI: I’m on set going, “Tick Tock, guys.” Someone made fun of me, and I thought that’s a great name for a character. It’s great. I am a big Joseph Campbell fan. I love Greek Mythology, Roman Mythology. I love mythology of everything. I like those. So, you try to get these little bits. If you go watch a good Italian Opera, you’ve got “The Fool,” etc. We try to put those in. Each one is a little bit of – it’s fun. If you watch the old Kung Fu movies – they’ve got this guy over here, they’ve got the fool, the funny guy – I like doing that. It’s another part of world building. Most throwaway roles, you can get a guy in – we had Jason Mantzoukas, who I’m a big fan of. You wouldn’t think to cast him as “Homeless Guy,” where he literally has 5 lines in the whole movie. But, I was a big fan so I just called him up and go – we’re pretty shameless over here so I was like, “Look, you’re going to hate me, I don’t want to insult you but would you like to do a part?” He read it and he was like, “Fuck yeah!” That’s how we got Willem Dafoe in the first one. Me and Dave Leitch, my partner, call him and he’s like, “What? Meet me for lunch.” We met him for lunch and he was like, “This is fucking weird, I’ll do it.” He literally said that. We’re like, right on. That’s kind of what – but Jason changed the character. You watch him and he is wacky and funny, and you never would have gotten that out of a day player.
I imagine he has more than five lines now, right?
STAHELSKI: Yeah. No he’s fucking awesome. That’s what’s fun too. We got Mark Dacascos to play Zero. Again, could have been an action guy, but Mark plays this quirky little like, fanboy kind of assassin and it’s really cool.
Of the cast you brought in, who surprised you most of their ability to be able to do the martial arts and learn it quickly. Was there any one person that stood out?
STAHELSKI: I think, Keanu is always the wacky one. I know it’s sounds weird because I’ve done so much with him, but we’ll push him a little bit. It’s hard to go, we want your martial arts to be better, and we know you’re 55. We want your martial arts to be better, we want your guns to be better, and you have to learn to ride a horse, and you’re going to have to slide a motorcycle, and we want you to jump through glass. He’s always the one who gives us, “*Sigh* Okay, when do we start?” So, that’s wacky. That’s really weird, even for a stunt guy that’s weird. After that, again we met Mark, and have known him for years. I was in New York and we bumped into each other. I was like, “Hey, I have this wacky character you want to play?” We always knew he was in great shape, but then we brought him to the gym for the first and the fucking guy was not in good shape, he’s in great shape. So that was a good thing.
The rest of the guys, I’m trying to think – Oh, Boban Marjanovic, second or third tallest guy in the NBA, Clippers guy. We had this idea, we’re going to do a fight in the New York Public Library. Opening fight of the movie. We had all these stunt guys and were like, it’s going to be great. No, fuck that. That’s not good enough. So, I was like, “What are we going to get?” The producer was standing behind me and was like, “You should get a guy that’s 8 ft tall, that place is tiny!” And we were like, “Okay, find us one!” He goes, “The guy on the clippers!” He’s 7’8”. 7 Feet, 8 inches long. Biggest guy in the NBA. So, we called him up, he’s 27, he’s from Serbia. He sent us this Serbian commercial – he’s doing cartwheels. I’m like, wow, that’s pretty good for a tall guy. We called him up and were like, “Do you want to be in a John Wick movie?” He was like, “I fucking love John Wick.” We flew him out for an evaluation. He came out and the stunt guys put him through hell for two days. We looked at the rehearsals going, I think it’s going to work. He probably gets the medal for best new guy because being 8 ft tall and learning martial arts, and doing a fight scene with Keanu Reeves in the New York public library stack section where is head was hitting the ceiling, it was pretty cool. He gets that medal.