'John Wick' Director on Turning Down Big Movies, 'Chapter 3' Plans and His 'Highlander' Reboot

"If John Wick had two or three decades to prepare, how would that compare to someone who had 500 years?" asks Chad Stahelski, who is of remaking the 1980s classic about an immortal Scottish swordsman.
Courtesy of Lionsgate; Laurent Viteur/Getty Images
Keanu Reeves in 'John Wick: Chapter 2' (inset: director Chad Stahelski)

Director Chad Stahelski has fought his way to the top.

After years of working as a second unit director and stunt coordinator, Stahelski and creative partner David Leitch struck an unexpected chord with their debut feature John Wick. The 2014 film was a surprise hit, leading to studios courting them with offers to jump to bigger franchises.

But the duo and their The Matrix colleague Keanu Reeves returned for John Wick: Chapter 2, which has received glowing reviews and is out this weekend. It's not a spoiler to say, it leaves one wanting more. 

In a conversation with Heat Vision, Stahelski shares his thoughts on what's next for the John Wick franchise, his upcoming Highlander reboot, and continuing to work on side projects like Captain America: Civil War.

This movie begs for a sequel, but you are going on to direct the Highlander reboot. Your John Wick partner David Leitch is directing Deadpool 2. Will there be time?

All I can say at this point is there's been talk of it, and I would be very, very interested and very happy to be involved in some capacity. I would like to be involved creatively at a very high level if and when they did a number three, for sure.

The first movie was career changing, and now you and David are moving on to huge properties. Did you consider, "Hey I may not do John Wick 2 right away?" What was that process like deciding to come back and make this your second feature?

We did the first John Wick without any anticipation of doing a second one. For us, it was a one-off. It was our introduction into directing, and we just tried to do a project that was interesting to us, regardless of how we thought it would be received. As we were posting, we thought no one would ever see our movie. We were like, "OK." We were already thinking, "Well I guess we are going back to second unit directing," and when it did do well, we're like "OK, maybe we'll do something like that." It wasn't until Lionsgate came back to us and said, "Hey — the movie did well, would you guys be interested in doing a second one? Because we think there is an audience for it."  We looked at each other and said, "Look, we had a really good time making it. We thought we'd created something a little bit different, at least different in terms of what we were interested in."

What else were you considering?

There were a lot of other offers and we were very flattered by the studios that came to us with what we would consider A-list projects, and at the end of it, you get really excited, you get really caught up in it. "Oh, wow, I'm going to be able to direct these big movies." And after seeing all the scripts, it just felt 1) we hadn't finished what we wanted to do with John Wick, and 2) that I just wanted to really work with Keanu and I wanted to be in that world for a little while longer, so it was kind of an organic decision to do number two.

Keanu has been doing crazy stunts for decades — and from watching this last movie he doesn't seem to slow down. But now that he's in his 50s, do you have to adjust what kind of work he can do compared to when he was younger? 

Keanu has been very involved from day one about the action design and what we wanted the character to do and how we wanted him to act. We wanted him to be a little off at first and see a gradual increase in skill. We over-train him in the beginning and then the acting goes like, "look, I'm getting back in the saddle." And by the end of the movie he looks like a million bucks.

As far as Keanu goes, he's a workhorse. Anyone who has worked with him can attest to how dedicated he is. And this time, because we had more time and a little bit more money, we threw it all into our prep phases. Better locations, training the cameramen, getting the best stunt teams we could and getting the best coaches we could to expand Keanu's skill base.

Everyone who makes a sequel says "this will be bigger and better," but in your case you delivered. How did you decide how far to dial up the action without overdoing it?

The bigger, better thing is a somewhat valid statement, but I think more in line with what we try to do is, we just try to expand. Now sometimes expanding means more or bigger. Sometimes it just means going deeper into the skill set. Going deeper into what the scenario calls for. If John Wick is at a big event, obviously he deals with the location. He deals with the situation handed to him. So we just try to be creative and come up with interesting situations. Whether it's at the concert in ancient Rome or whether it's in a museum or whether it's in the streets of New York, we just try to come up with interesting set pieces that force our character to do different action than what you see in the first movie.

You helped out on Captain America: Civil War. Are you going to be able to have side projects like that now that you're increasingly busy?

I'm not really sure. I'm going into my first rodeo here as well. We met and really enjoyed hanging out with [Civil War directors] Joe and Anthony Russo. They loved the first film, and they said, "We know you guys are probably too busy, but this is our big go at punching a hole in the Marvel world and making Civil War really stand out." We were just like, "We love you guys. We'd be happy to come down." What started as a few week thing turned into a few month thing. It was a professional decision. It's not just about the product, but the time you spend on set. Marvel has a very well oiled machine so they are very easy and creatively satisfying to work for. The Russos have a very clear-cut vision and they let us really try to help them expand their vision, which is always fun. If an opportunity to work with people we really like to work with comes up again, and it's not disruptive to our first unit projects, then of course. We love making movies.  

The trailer for the Highlander reboot will inevitably say "from the director of John Wick." What will that mean in terms of how you translate your style to Highlander?  

Highlander, it has a lot of parallels to John Wick. It's creating a world. It's creating a mythology that I think is very appealing to most people, the world of the immortals. How is that interpreted in terms of character? What could really be explored? If John Wick had two or three decades to prepare, how would that compare to someone who had 500 years? I think that's worth exploring and that's a challenge for us, instead of just doing the same old, same old sword fighting. What would that really be to a true immortal? I don't have all the answers, to be honest with you. I guess I won't sleep until I do have the answers. The stunt team is already working on it.

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