'John Wick' Director on the Scene He Fought For
[This story contains minor spoilers for John Wick: Chapter 3 — Parabellum]
There's a second act shocker in John Wick: Chapter 3 — Parabellum that director Chad Stahelski and star Keanu Reeves had to push hard to make happen.
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The moment involves assassin John Wick (Reeves) injuring his hand in a way that complicated the remainder of the shoot, as well as the potential future of the franchise.
"You have a left-handed actor who’s just deformed his left hand and that left hand is in every shot of the third act of the movie," Stahelski tells The Hollywood Reporter. "VFX wise, there’s a cost associated with that. There’s logistical problems and practical filming that are associated with that. The studio does their job of questioning my visions and my methods to see if I really like it. It was an issue."
Both Stahelski and Reeves pushed for the moment, making other concessions along the way to ensure they had the budget to make it work — and keep the studio, Lionsgate, happy.
In many ways, Stahelski and Reeves have become the R-rated version of Mission: Impossible team, Christopher McQuarrie and Tom Cruise. Both creative partnerships are committed to old-school filmmaking, with emphasis on practicality, shooting in-camera and putting in the necessary work (and then some) until an action sequence is just right. Both parties start with action sequences or locations and build their stories backwards from there. Despite three Wicks and three Missions in the books for each duo, neither is showing any desire to slow their respective franchises down. In fact, Stahelski and Reeves have already expressed interest in a fourth Wick movie, as long as the audience embraces Parabellum like they did the first two chapters. With a $5.9 million debut on Thursday night, the audience’s appetite for John Wick seems to be increasing considering John Wick: Chapter 2’s $2.2 million Thursday night preview.
Besides The Continental TV show that’s still in development at STARZ, Parabellum also introduces an intriguing subset of the John Wick universe that may set up a previously-announced spinoff from Parabellum co-screenwriter Shay Hatten.
"I think if you read Shay’s script and you look into the characters in that, you’d find your answer," Stahelski strongly hints to THR.
It's worth noting that Lionsgate purchased Hatten's Ballerina spinoff in 2017, before they expanded his role to co-screenwriter on Parabellum, which just so happens to introduce a ballet academy to the universe.
In a recent conversation with THR, Stahelski also discusses his relationship with John Wick co-director and Hobbs and Shaw filmmaker, David Leitch, as well as the reasons for opening the John Wick franchise's door to more screenwriters and his reflections on The Crow's 25th anniversary.
You performed stunts for more than 15 years, and yet, as of a few years ago, you said you hadn’t really felt the adverse effects of your profession. Are you the exception in your field, or do you know something the rest of us don’t?
(Laughs.) I’ve been a professional athlete for most of my life, so you kind of learn how to deal with that stuff. But, yeah, I’ve got a little hitch in my giddyup now; I’m not gonna lie to you. I stay very active, and I do the martial art thing quite a bit. I also work out with my stunt teams three times a week. So, that keeps the alacrity in my body moving fairly well. I just did a forty-minute drive to get to Lionsgate, and I got out of that SVU a little slow. When I start moving, I’m great; it’s just getting the horse going that’s a little tricky.
Since John Wick in 2014, you’ve made a point to educate viewers on your approach to action filmmaking, while criticizing the trends that have “hidden the action” for many years (e.g. shaky cam and quick cuts). Recently, there’s been an uptick in action films utilizing choreographed long takes and wide angles a la Wick. Have you also noticed Wick’s influence across the industry?
I have noticed a shift, but I don’t know if it’s because of me, our stunt team or John Wick. It’s like fashion: bell-bottoms are in, bell-bottoms are out, bell-bottoms are in, bell-bottoms are out. The audience dictates a lot more than we give them credit for. If people want to see a certain thing, they’ll show their support and their want for it. In general, people like to see stuff more than not. When Paul Greengrass started doing [shaky cam and quick editing] on the Bourne movies, he wasn’t doing it to hide anything. He had a great stunt team; he had great cameramen; and he had Matt Damon, who’s very talented, both physically and in the acting realm. Greengrass just did it to infuse energy and to give you the sense of anxiety, like a ticking clock. He had a very distinct and a very valid reason for doing what he did. Unfortunately, it just became an invitation for others to not put in the time and effort — and to hide things. I have nothing against quick editing or shaky cam as long as it’s used with the intent that is very similar to what Mr. Greengrass did — infusing an attribute or characteristic into the film. I think that’s genius.
No one teaches action filmmaking school 101 to upcoming directors. Myself, my partner David Leitch, my stunt team, Jonathan Eusebio, Jon Valera and Sam Hargrave, who are some of the best fight choreographers out there, are bringing it to Marvel and DC. Hopefully, we’re making a difference and making an influence on it. If I checked out of this business knowing that I helped influence it, even in the most minute ways, I’d be very proud of that fact.
Because you called out action filmmakers who use techniques to “hide the action,” did you face any backlash within the industry?
No, not at all. I read all my critiques, too. Some are pretty crazy; some are interesting, such as how I tell a story; do I use action to gloss over my storytelling ability; or how I deal with cast or plot. Those are legitimate critiques, and I have to watch out for that as much as anyone. I’m not calling out a filmmaker or their style. I’m not calling out someone’s choice or creative opinion on something. I’m just calling out lazy directing. I’m not even calling out action directing. If you’re a director and you take a job where three-quarters of the movie is action, fights, chases or superhero stuff, and you don’t go out and research because you think you got the job because of your incredible use of storytelling and ability to talk to cast, that’s great, but that’s only a quarter of your film. My partner, Dave Leitch, and I had to go through and learn how to deal with cast and as much as we could about acting, blocking, storytelling, post, editorial, pacing and tone. I just wanted to let people know that the storytelling doesn’t stop when the action starts; you gotta do both if you want to be in the action realm. Bad directing equals bad action, bad performances, bad set pieces, bad editing, etc. There’s no separation. Physical blocking, whether we’re in a dialogue scene or a martial art fight scene, is still blocking; it’s still directing. You can’t go to sleep and say, “I’m gonna take this job, but don’t worry, the second unit guy is gonna do all my work for me.” If I’m out there researching every little bit I can about performance, filming style and technology, why aren’t other directors going out there and learning about action? It’s not that hard. Go visit your stunt teams and your stunt facility. Why are you not out there shooting your own action sequences? Do you think it’s just going to naturally happen? Some directors go out there and think, “I’ll figure it out on the day.” No, you won’t. So, I’m just calling out lazy directing; that’s all.
The John Wick braintrust has been pretty close-knit, as it’s mostly been you, Keanu, screenwriter Derek Kolstad and executive producer David Leitch. However, on Parabellum, you brought in a few more screenwriters. Was this a case of you guys being too close to the material and wanting the benefit of an outside perspective?
Honestly, the creative process is just about the same on all of them. The first one was a little different because we had a script. We kept modifying it to fit the universe and the visuals we wanted that weren’t originally in the story, meaning the mythology references, the hyperrealism of the whole world, the body count and the kind of action that Dave and I brought to the table.
Chapter 2 and Chapter 3 were mostly done visually with ideas, lookbooks and sequences that Keanu and I had. We wrote a story and handed it back to the writers, who wrote the script based around all the sequences. We have a very backasswards method in John Wick.
Most writers are used to writing the good guy story: the natural arc, the honor. A typical John Wick-ish story would be: assassin retires, falls in love with wife, bad guys come back, kill wife, man has to go back and commit vengeance, drawing back into the life, but he’s got a heart of gold. We subvert all that: wife dies of natural causes, kills because of puppy, not a good guy, guy has not only vengeance but grief on his mind. At the end of the day, John is not looking for anything other than vengeance, redemption and hopefully a little bit of absolution.
So, we’re a little bit different. It’s okay not to do a three-act character arc; it’s okay not to be a good guy and have all this positive honor, instead of the bizarro world of inverse chivalry that we use. Not all writers get that. So, the series of writers that you see were all good at something else. Derek Kolstad has a really wacky vision of world building stuff. So, we get some ideas and characters from him. Chris Collins and Marc Abrams were very good with structures. They helped a lot with getting the plot dialed in, so we knew what we were shooting and how to organize the script into a readable document. And then, Shay Hatten is great working with Keanu and I on quick little dialogue, character developments and rewriting the action. Shay is very quick and very good at understanding action. The three different teams helped bring us over the line. At the end, it’s Keanu and I delivering the sequences and hopefully trying to narrate the journey of John Wick.
David Leitch is still credited as an executive producer on Parabellum despite being busy with Hobbs and Shaw. Were you still able to use him as an occasional sounding board?
Use or abuse — I think both are good. (Laughs.) He’s my best friend, and he’s a great filmmaker in his own right. We’re both very busy, but we try to include each other as much as possible in our ideas. Our paths cross almost on a daily basis, even if it’s just verbally on the phone. A lot of times it’s just riffing ideas. I don’t think either of us are super hands-on with either one’s thing; we’re just too busy for that at the moment. I think we both enjoy that, but running a company, trying to develop new productions and trying to help produce some of the people that we see coming up is taking up most of our time. To answer your question, yes, I bring him in whenever he’s available during the different stages of the film I’m working on, and I’ve been fortunate enough to go in to the different stages of post that he’s going through right now on Hobbs and Shaw.
With Wick, you’ve basically created your own original franchise. It has your imprint all over it. Do you think you’d be as satisfied working on somebody else’s franchise, given how rewarding Wick has been for you?
No. I don’t play that well with others. (Laughs.) Personality, ego, creative freedoms… probably not. I think the reason Wick does well is because we had some pretty crazy creative people working without any creative restraints. You always have the financial and time thing, but the studio let us do our thing. They stepped back and said, “We don’t quite get it, but we’re gonna let you go.” And they trusted us to deliver. I haven’t experienced that kind of freedom yet, and I haven’t seen it yet with some of my director friends, so I feel very fortunate to be in the situation that we’re in.
Keanu has only gotten better at your brand of action. In terms of action design, are you upping the ante in ways you couldn’t with him on the first film?
Absolutely. Physically, Keanu is a human being just like the rest of us, but the more you practice and the more you do something, the better you get at anything. Choreography is not about training hard for six weeks; it’s the exact same thing as dance. Look at Fred Astaire; he just got better, even into his sixties. Your memory gets better, your flow, your tactile sense to dance with a partner gets better, understanding cameras and all the moves is just muscle memory. I met Keanu on the first Matrix, and he’s gotten nothing but better since. None of us drop into the splits anymore, throw a double-twisting backflip or jump through glass as much, at least not me, but, as you go, you have to modify the motions. That doesn’t mean you can’t make it more intense. On The Matrix, he was doing a lot of punching and kicking; on Wick, he’s doing a lot more grappling and throwing arts. They both look great; it just requires a different skill set and we wanted a different kind of vibe out of him. But, yeah, he just keeps getting better, and I think he’s still got a great deal of margin left to go. He can continue to improve in everything, like we all do.
You’ve been asked about the value of the coins a million times, and in Parabellum, Jerome Flynn’s character explicitly states how the coins don’t have any monetary value. Was this your way of settling the question once and for all?
I think, if anything, it’s opened the door to the many possibilities of what a coin can mean. When we say a social contract, it’s not just with favors like the marker. It’s not just paying your buddy back. It’s also a membership card. The social contract is “I will live and abide by this world’s rules, just like I will adhere to your rules.” We tried to put a lot of meaning into it, and a lot of it has to do with socioeconomic policies today and what we feel the code of chivalry in our world would mean. It’s also the inclusive world that keeps out the rest of the world. It’s a heavy commitment. When you start using those gold coins, you’ve pretty much given up on the other side of the world and you’ve entered into our world. That’s kind of what we wanted to get across.
Parabellum provided some backstory regarding John’s origin. Were you very particular about how much we learned in order preserve the mythic nature of the character?
Oh my God, huge. It’s always a thing when you get notes from outside influences. I’m a big fan of Kurosawa and Leone. The rule is show, don’t tell. I don’t want to do a scene where you have two CIA guys talking about John Wick’s military or former assassin history. I like taking a chunk of a character’s timeline in present day, and through his actions, you learn as much as you need to know about him. Does he have a heart? What’s his intent? What’s his motivation? Where does he feel pain? What’s his emotional state? As far as backstory goes, everything you need to know about John is in Parabellum.
We hid it very well and hopefully, you’ll watch this movie three or four times. You may not care, and if you do care, when you watch The Director’s scenes and you see the girls, and you put two and two together with the tattoos and the crucifixes, the kind of martial arts he does, who he talks to, what languages he speaks, you can piece together a fairly comprehensive background on where John came from and what his upbringing was like. I give the audience a lot of credit; hopefully, they can piece it together and they like piecing it together. It’s like a book; that’s why we numbered the movies as chapters. As a filmmaker, you try to give the audience the opportunity to participate in the imagination of it all. Rather than me tell you, put it together in your head; you probably have your own tangents that make a good story as well.
Anjelica Huston’s The Director runs an academy that turns ballerinas into assassins. Is it safe to say that her introduction sets up Parabellum co-screenwriter Shay Hatten’s Ballerina spinoff that was reported a couple years ago?
I think if you read Shay’s script and you look into the characters in that, you’d find your answer.
John suffers a self-inflicted injury in Chapter 3. Was this choice a tough sell to the powers that be since the character leads a franchise?
If I told you the biggest argument between me and the studio was that, that would be yes. It’s a big sell. No one creatively saw a problem with it, but it comes down to a simple matter of financials. Without giving away the spoiler, you saw it; you know what he does. That’s on his lead hand. You have a left-handed actor who’s just deformed his left hand and that left hand is in every shot of the third act of the movie. VFX wise, there’s a cost associated with that. There’s logistical problems and practical filming that are associated with that. The studio does their job of questioning my visions and my methods to see if I really like it. If they said, “That’s too much, you can’t do it,” and I said, “Okay,” then I didn’t really want it in the first place. So you kind of need that dynamic tension to then go, “Look, you’ve already got this much money, are you sure you want to do this? It’s going to be a big pain in the ass.” They’ll push and push, and there’s a lot of arguments and discussions, and it’s something that Keanu and I felt very strongly about being an emotional trigger and incredibly symbolic of what he’s giving up at that moment in that scene. We wanted to keep it and we were willing to take sacrifices in other areas to preserve the funds to make that come to fruition. At the end, we all get along, but they have to question me and I have to push them back. You gotta fight for what you believe in and if, at the end, it all comes together, and I’m at least somewhat financially responsible to their needs, they back me creatively. In the end, it all worked out very, very well. So, yes, it was an issue.
This week marks 25 years since The Crow’s release. While it’s well-known that you doubled for Brandon Lee after his accidental death, I’m curious as to how that experience may have influenced your work on Wick.
Accident aside, it was the experience of working with Alex Proyas, the director, who before and after the incident with Brandon, was a phenomenal man and a really good director, I think. I had met Alex and worked with him before I had met The Wachowskis and worked with them on The Matrix. So, my first on-set experience of watching someone build an entire world, give it a tone and a comic-book vibe was something I had never seen. Alex had an amazing vision, from the smallest detail all the way through to some of the bigger choices. That was my first experience falling in love with the directorial style where you create your own universe, and I think that was my first big influence in that area. Then, after working with The Wachowskis on The Matrix movies and then going to Zack Snyder on 300, look at those three things right there; that’s the best film education you ever get as far as world creation goes. All three of those directorial parties were massive influences on what we tried to create with Wick.
by Graeme McMillan
by Graeme McMillan
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