John Wick burst onto the scene in 2014 guns blazing letting audiences everywhere know that Keanu Reeves was still the ultimate badass. That film was brought to life in part by director Chad Stahelski. With a storied career in stunt work dating back to Point Break and including The Matrix Trilogy, Stahelski clearly knows the ins and outs of the stunt and action world. But he also brought an invigorating sense of style and timing to John Wick, his directing debut with co-director David Leitch. For the return to John Wick’s world in John Wick: Chapter 2, Stahelski returns to helm the film solo, upping the violence and aesthetic, while expanding the universe John Wick is playing within in equal measure. I had the privilege of sitting down with Chad as well as stunt coordinator J.J. Perry to discuss the film, Keanu and even some Buster Keaton.
Nerdlocker: Guys… John Wick 2…
Chad Stahelski: Did you see the movie?
NL: I did! Just last night and I absolutely loved it.
CS: What did you love?
NL: The first thing that comes to mind is that so much of the action and set pieces and choreography is real. With CGI nowadays you can do so much. You can destroy a whole city or even an entire world but there’s nothing real or tangible about it. You don’t truly feel anything because you know at your core that it’s just not real. With John Wick 2 you guys just jump right into it with this motorcycle chase sequence that escalates along into this nearly exhausting (in the best way) warehouse scene. It feels more intense and I think part of that is due to it being real life stunts and action.
CS: Honestly we just simplified it. We trained the hell out of it. We got really good guys and then we hit people with cars.
NL: (laughing) Excellent! Would you say that, with your extensive background in the stunt world, bringing that sense of realness is what’s most important to you in making a film?
CS: I wouldn’t say it’s a defining thing. It’s just an aesthetic thing. We’re good at making the practical a success. JJ and I started way back…I think my first gig was ’90 – ’91.
J.J. Perry: Exactly.
CS: So you think of the time period we came up. It was coming right off the Jackie Chan era of the late ’80s. Wire removal still wasn’t dialed in yet, so if you did a wire it was almost piano (string) thin, so not a lot of guys wanted to do wire work because it was not safe.
JJ: No CGI back then.
CS: If there was CGI it was at Star Wars level, ya know, using models or whatever.
NL: oh yeah, absolutely.
CS: Flying sequences were suspending a guy in front of green screen. So the emphasis on practical stunts like fight scenes, car hits, high falls, fire burns… the meat and potatoes of the stunt world were a lot more dialed in. Now, and in a good way, it’s much much safer. We have much more creative freedom cause you don’t have to adhere to physics anymore. But you’re right you do lose a little in the process. Even on the best digital enhanced films now you do lose some visceralness. You do lose some of that.
NL: Without a doubt.
CS: The aesthetic I like is more that Hong Kong Cinema, Japanese animation, Jackie Chan era type of thing. That’s what I like seeing. I dig YouTube. I could watch fail videos all day long. I’m impressed by human skill and I alway have been since I was a kid that’s why I became a stunt person. Now, my ten year old nephew can watch a movie and go, “She’s in a wire!” or go “That’s fake!” and it’s like, they know.
CS: So how do we build and create? We wanted to create this action movie where “John Wick is the most badass guy in the world!” So you can write a scene of people talking about how badass John Wick is and then we could show you a bunch of fast editing and we can hope that you assume that he’s badass or we just do the Steve McQueen vibe and just show you Steve McQueen driving a motorcycle and we want that. We want you, the audience… It’s funny. Ian McShane has become a friend and we’ve worked with him. LOVE working with him. He comes from a very stage heavy background. So he’s very natural with his hands, he’s just used to being in front of an audience where there is no mistakes. He’s got this ease to his performance. He’s not worried about pacing or editing he just wants to engage. He hit me one day with, “What’s the most important thing for an actor?” and I was like, “uhhhhhhh…acting?!”
CS: I’m like, “Man, I don’t know! What’s the most important thing?” and he’s like, “One of the most important things as an actor is the bond.” The attachment and the connection between the actor, the performer, and the audience. He was like, “If you don’t find out what that is, if you can’t hook them, if you can’t engage them…you can’t just go, ‘Fuck them. I’m gonna do it my way.’ You have to engage at some point otherwise why do they want to watch you?” and that just hit me like, holy shit. I want every frame of the movie I direct to engage you. Even if nothing’s happening. If Keanu’s not shooting ten people, if there’s no cars jumping around it should still be a pretty picture. That’s number one. We tried to have animorphic frames. We tried to have nice color. We tried to bring you out of just the mundane. Try to take you out of your lives for a little while. I wanna take you somewhere. I wanna take you to the universe and I want you to be engaged. Keanu got this. Keanu just looked at me and was like, “of course it is. What, you didn’t know that?”
CS: So Keanu wants to build that honesty. If you look at any of his movies he wants you (the audience) to buy that he is the guy. Whether he’s surfing, whether he’s skydiving or whether he’s trying to drive a bus off a cliff or doing “Gun-Fu” or “Car-Fu” whatever you want to call it in John Wick, Keanu Reeves wants to be that guy. So, we obviously have the opportunity with that wants to go down. Everyone will tell you that they did all this training and everyone will tell you that they did all this stunt work and I’m gonna throw it right back onto everyone and be like, “Prove it!” Cause it’s a lot of talk. Up there (on the screen) I see a lot of fast editing and a lot of tight shots and I don’t see anyone doing it. So like, when Jackie Chan is sitting in a room with you…trust me, that’s the guy. He does it and he proves it. We’ve all worked with him and that’s an impressive human. He’s creative. He’s clever. And we’ve got that a little bit with Keanu. It’s just his work ethic is incredible. So if you get a guy like that and you take him through the training… you can see the tapes of him doing gun work.
NL: Oh man, yeah! Just those videos alone had me impressed and amped.
CS: He is shooting live ammunition at a real gun range at that speed. No cuts, no takes…that is Keanu Reeves and he’s not faking it. He’s an actual Three Gun competitor now. He’s an actual Jiu-Jitsu guy. He’s an actual Judo guy. He’s an actual stunt performer. He does his own rolls and a lot of his own falls. He gets tossed around by just about every actor in the movie and that’s him getting slapped on the ground. So if you have that guy you’re believing that Keanu Reeves is John Wick and now you’re believing John Wick is a badass. We didn’t tell you about it. You get to see it. I think that’s an important connection that we try to keep.
NL: Absolutely and it works 100%.
JJ: We never have to cheat these camera angles where it’s cutty. It’s always a long take where we see cause and effect. It looks like Keanu Reeves doing it because it is Keanu Reeves doing it.
CS: He’s a good stuntman and a good performer with a cool character
JJ: And incredibly well rehearsed.
NL: It truly does bring so much more to the film. Early on there’s a scene in the car where the door’s missing and he does this hard turn and…
CS: That’s him.
NL: Exactly! I was like, That’s Keanu! It’s not a computer. There’s no effect making this happen.
CS: And remember, what you forget about sometimes is, “Where’s the camera?” You don’t realize theres this thing we call the ultimate arm which is a camera with a huge mounting system on it that’s literally six feet off that door. So the penalties of not doing a good job are quite substantial.
JJ: Yeah, he could get wadded up.
CS: So the amount of trust we have in Keanu’s skill has to go WAY beyond what we think the risk is. Basically, if you think he’s good for us he’s gotta be twice as good as what you’re watching on screen.
NL: For sure.
CS: If there was no camera there he could have just looped that thing cause you don’t care. We’re taking him to the edge of his ability that we feel is safe and have a high level of success so he doesn’t hit the camera…not every one can do that.
NL: And furthermore not everyone wants to do it. As you were saying though, he wants the film and the work to be as believable as possible and it shows.
On top of the action there’s the actual aesthetic of the film, both films actually, that is often just stunning and clearly sets it above typical action film fare. You mentioned Hong Kong films earlier but what else inspires you aesthetically?
CS: Sergio Leone, Akira Kurosawa, Bernardo Bertolucci, Andrei Tarkovsky… those are my biggest ones. Then you take the soup of all that in and throw in some Harold Lloyd and Buster Keaton and the defining mold would be the Wachowskis. That’s who shaped what I find aesthetically pleasing. You know, spending over 10 years with the Wachowskis.
NL: Nice. I appreciate you saying Buster Keaton as one of the things I think is underrated about the first John Wick and continues into Chapter 2 is just how effortlessly funny it can be at times. The timing is just impeccable and truly takes advantage of how perfectly deadpan Keanu can be.
CS: That’s why the film opens with a Buster Keaton film projected on the side of the building.
NL: Yes! It’s so great!
CS: We want to let you know we’re having fun and we stole this all from silent movie people.
Many thanks to Chad Stahelski and JJ Perry for taking the time to sit with us and discuss the film. Thanks to our forever friends at Fons PR for setting it all up.
John Wick: Chapter 2 opens nationwide February 10th, 2017. Check out the trailer below:
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