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Chad Stahelski is making the best of the current situation as he’s knee-deep in development on John Wick 4 and his long-gestating Highlander reboot. As an added bonus, he’s also been helping Lana Wachowski with a sequence on The Matrix 4. While the original plan was to complete John Wick’s journey in John Wick: Chapter 3 — Parabellum, the John Wick brain trust eventually realized that the creative well hadn’t run dry just yet. Even franchise star Keanu Reeves felt he had another one in him, at the very least. Once Parabellum opened and set a franchise record with $326.7 million at the worldwide box office, Stahelski and company’s decision to continue was reaffirmed.
However, because plans changed, that meant that certain elements of John Wick 3 had to be removed, the majority of which can now be used in John Wick 4.
“There are a couple things. We had a couple of overlapping thematics, and I stripped it down to the bare essentials,” Stahelski tells The Hollywood Reporter. “And there were two action sequences that we had really kind of conceived, but we just didn’t have room for them. So, we pulled them from the movie. And I’d like to think that 90 percent of what I pulled, there’s a place in John Wick 4 that I can definitely reinsert them.”
After serving as Keanu Reeves’ stunt double in The Matrix and The Matrix Reloaded, as well as martial arts stunt coordinator in the two follow-up films, Stahelski is elaborating on his involvement in The Matrix 4 and the help he’s provided Wachowski.
“She comes with this idea. She comes with this set piece. She comes with, ‘This is the character. This is what’s happening. This is the conflict. This is where I need him to be emotionally or psychologically or whatever plot-wise at the end of this sequence. What do you got in your bag of tricks to make it absolutely crazy?'” Stahelski explains. “She’s one of those great people that she’ll tell us something and we’ll say, ‘OK, we’ve got this.’ Then she’s like, ‘Oh my God, that’s awesome. I didn’t think of that, but what if we took this and made it this?'”
He adds with a laugh, “She always kind of one-ups you and that’s a challenge. She’s probably still the most challenging person, in a good way, that I’ve ever worked with … If you love the Matrix trilogy, you’re going to love what she’s doing because she’s brilliant and fun and understands what the fans want.”
In a wide-ranging conversation with THR, Stahelski discusses the latest updates on John Wick 4 and Highlander, his early impression of The Matrix 4 and his thoughts on influential fan campaigns.
When it comes to development on John Wick 4 and Highlander, are you more productive during the lockdown, or is the indefinite nature of things slowing you down?
Yes and no. For the writing and creative phase of things, it gives us time. I’m sure there’s a million other people in the same thing. I’m talking to my writers and my creative team. As productive as you can be, I think we’ve been optimal in our time. Obviously, the Wicks aren’t formulaic or anything like that, so it takes a little while to kind of come up with the thematics we want to do and how nutty and subversive we want to be on storytelling. So, it’s been a lot of back and forth to really try and crack what we want to do with the next John Wick. There’s so many ideas to go with, between the action design, the set pieces and where we would want to shoot all that stuff. So, that’s been good for us. Time is always good when you’re in development. I’m fortunate enough to not have to run into the danger of too much time on anything I’ve done, so this has been nice to try and figure things out. What ideas survive the next-day test.
As far as Highlander goes, it’s a project I’ve been working on for a little over three years now. It’s a project that’s not only near and dear to my heart but also the other creative people that are involved in it. It’s something that we feel we’ve got a good direction on. It’s just a tough nut to crack because the Highlander property is so involved and the mythology is so deep. But to try and make it our own, and be somewhat true to the original, yet do it in a way that makes it ours, is a little tricky. We don’t want to do a remake. We don’t want to do a reinvention. We want to do something that’s fresh, that utilizes the mythology of what everyone loves from the first movie. To make a good film is hard, to make a great film is even harder. We choose challenging projects in trying to be new and diverse — at least something that the audience hasn’t exactly seen our way yet. So, time is always a good thing, but I think I have a knack for picking projects that aren’t easy to develop. So, that’s good, I guess. (Laughs.)
In the early days of John Wick: Chapter 3 — Parabellum, you were quoted as saying that it would complete Mr. Wick’s journey. Before $326.7 million at the box office happened, what changed, resulting in a cliffhanger of sorts?
On every John Wick, there’s literally been a day where Keanu and I have sat in the room with whatever writing team we’re working with and we go, “OL, we’re going to end it right here and that’s it.” We’re not looking for the Hollywood happy ending; we never have. At least for the Wicks, we’ve always liked mythology and fables, or something like that, that just kind of end, and they don’t tell you what happens the next day. The only modern-day example I can think of is The Graduate. You kind of get what it is. They’re on the bus, they’re driving … What’s going to happen next? We’ve always wanted to end the movies like that. We don’t mean for them to be cliffhangers. John Wick kills 80-some-odd people over a puppy. How do you wrap that one up with a happy ending? (Laughs.) You know what I mean? The story just kind of ends. That little journey or that little part of the journey ends. In Chapter 2, we ended how we thought it would end. In Chapter 3, we just ended it … He skated that one, and some people betrayed him. Just like in regular life, you have good and bad things happen on a great day, and he skated out. We didn’t mean it to be a cliffhanger. By Hollywood standards, the only time you really consider it a cliffhanger is when you don’t get the girl, you don’t win the football game or you don’t save the world. We didn’t have that Hollywood climactic ending. It just kind of ended. John Wick made it out, and for us, that was enough. He lived another day. So we don’t really consider them cliffhangers, but I get what you’re saying. We label them chapters for a reason. If John Wick were a real character, we don’t think those kinds of stories end well for the protagonist, just due to the lifestyle they lead. So, at some point, when we think Mr. Wick has run his course, I’m sure his demise will be epic, but until then, we’re going to keep doing chapters and just tell the story, the myth or the fable for that portion of his day or that portion of his life. It’s just the kind of storytelling we like.
Is [John Wick: Chapter 3 co-writer] Shay Hatten writing Wick 4 with you?
Shay Hatten is working with me right now, yep.
You previously stated that you removed a major element from Wick 3 in order to save it for John Wick 4. Was this an action sequence or a story point?
There’s a couple things. I like thematics. Obviously, you can see the influences of the old Westerns and the old samurai films. All the Arthurian tales for chivalry and all that kind of stuff, back to that. We had a couple of overlapping thematics, and I stripped it down to the bare essentials. And there were two action sequences that we had really kind of conceived, but we just didn’t have room for them. So, we pulled them from the movie. And I’d like to think that 90 percent of what I pulled, there’s a place in John Wick 4 that I can definitely reinsert them.
When Winston (Ian McShane) betrayed John, he shot him in the chest of his bulletproof suit, something Winston likely recognized. For clarity’s sake, do you want us to think that Winston wasn’t actually trying to kill John and that he was just appeasing the Adjudicator (Asia Kate Dillon) by making it look as such?
When we came up with the whole John Wick way we wanted to do this on the original, my partner David Leitch, Keanu and I all sat down, and we were like, “Look, these are the things we hate about some of the action movies that are currently going on. Everything’s spelled way too much out for everybody.” If you get notes from the studio, or anything like that, everything’s got to be on the nose. We just wanted to be ambiguous about the world, where John’s from … That’s why we leave some of the questions at a fork in the road. And that’s one of them we really wanted to put in this … Um, yeah, to answer your question. (Laughs.) Did Winston mean to shoot him? He meant to shoot him. Did he mean to kill him? That’s open for interpretation. You can take it one of two ways, and that’s kind of where we pick up some of the unanswered questions in John Wick 4. Again, I like open-ended questions, sometimes, where not everything gets answered. I also like satisfying the audience, but I like leaving a little to your imagination and a little open for debate. And remember, the John Wick world is a little wacky. That’s why it’s really important to have somebody like Shay or Derek (Kolstad) … Every writing team that I’ve worked with, they get the weirdness of John Wick. A lot of people have problems with it because it’s not a good-guy story, per se. Everybody wants to make a hero, everybody wants the guy that gets the girl, wins the game and saves the world. Wick is that kind of subverted sense of protagonist and antagonist. It’s a little different. So when we’re writing a John Wick, we’re trying to leave it a little ambiguous because the world John’s in is a little ambiguous. It’s not really about who’s a good guy; it’s who is a better bad guy, who has some kind of code and that kind of thing. So, if you think about it, in a very logistical, practical sense — I know it sounds weird, but we try to attack most of our issues from that standpoint. What other choice did Winston have? If he didn’t shoot John, it would’ve been left up to somebody else to shoot John, probably in the head or something like that. The Continental could’ve been taken away from him or destroyed. So, Winston was kind of boxed in. Did he hope that John was going to live? Eh? He likes John. I would hope so. Did he know he was going to survive the 56-foot fall down to an alleyway? I don’t know. That’s a little ambiguous. Winston is a bit of a gambling man. So, I’d like to think, personally, that Winston’s a very smart guy, and he doesn’t do anything that wasn’t planned. I don’t think he’s impetuous at all, so I’m going to leave you with that.
Sofia (Halle Berry) broke the rules when she helped John in Wick 3. Thus, how worried should we be about her daughter’s safety in John Wick 4?
I would be worried for her, but I would trust in the fact that Sofia is pretty badass and will do anything she can to protect the people she cares about. Obviously, she’s got a fairly good heart to help John the way she did. She chose the code over her own suffering.
When I previously asked you about Wick 3’s connection to Shay Hatten’s Ballerina script, you gave me a non-confirmation confirmation that the ballet company in Chapter 3 paves the way for Ballerina.
(Laughs.) I’m very good at that.
It’s since been reported that Ballerina has a director in Len Wiseman and maybe even a star in Chloë Grace Moretz. What can you say at this point?
I’m a producer on Ballerina, and Len’s name came up; I think Basil Iwanyk, who’s the main producer on Ballerina, brought it up. I actually have known Len for a while. I worked for him when he was directing Live Free or Die Hard. I worked for him as a stuntman on the show. So, I met him a while ago, and I love Len. He’s very creative. He’s a very visual director. He has a great sense of style. It was very interesting. I think Len had contacted Basil about it and said that he’s got a take. I think he had read Ballerina first. You’d have to check with Len, but I think he’d read a version of Ballerina and somehow got it in his head. He had a take that he wanted to pitch to Basil about how Ballerina fit into the John Wick world and how he could really spin it and put his taste on it. So, Basil and Thunder Road heard the pitch, and they wanted me to hear it. So, I went to dinner with Len, and he pitched me on his ideas and what he wanted to do with it. I already think he’s a really good director, and I think he gets the tone. He understands action, and he’s got a good visual style. And right off the bat, I was like, “Oh, we’ve got to get this guy. He gets it.” So, right now, I know that him and Shay are developing Ballerina. I’m not exactly sure what stage it’s at, but it’s something I know that both Lionsgate, Thunder Road and myself would like to see happen sooner rather than later. And from what I’ve heard recently, they’ve got a good angle on it and they’re actively developing.
Is there an understanding that the Wick-ian brand of action design will be upheld?
Mm-hmm. The director has a lot to do, especially someone as stylistic and as good as Len is. Having him on board and approaching some of the action design from a slightly different perspective, meaning the set pieces, the character involvement, how and what he wants to do during the action sequences, makes it kind of fresh. So, we’re not just copying ourselves over and over again with gun-fu or something like that. And because the character is different, we’re going to get a different take on things. But as far as the level, the competence or the style of action? Yes. I plan to be there to assist whenever I can. And our 87eleven stunt team will be very actively involved in helping Len in all his action needs.
After several years of aggressive fan-campaigning, HBO Max and Warners just announced that they’ve given Zack Snyder the greenlight to complete his director’s cut of Justice League. How do you feel about fan campaigns to get a different cut of a movie, or even a redesign of a character like Sonic the Hedgehog ended up doing?
That’s a good question. To tell you the truth, I never really thought about it. I know it’s different now because there are so many more products and much more content. The studio, the development systems work really differently. When I was growing up, if you saw one movie a month at a theater, you were, wow, you were going out a lot. (Laughs.) So, quality’s all over the place on anything. There’s some really horrible stuff. There’s some really cool stuff. There’s some good stuff. There’s something for everybody. All of the streamers are putting out a lot of content. I’ve been involved in projects where maybe the director hasn’t been very qualified or the studio for whatever reasons … It becomes directing by committee, and it’s never a good thing. It becomes a mish-mash, and I’m sure you’ve seen plenty of movies where you can feel that. OK, using myself as an example, you don’t like the way John Wick ends. No one wanted to see the puppy die because it was too much for some people. So, what do you want me to go do? You want me to recut the movie? That will intricately change the DNA of everything. I think fan input is super cool and super important, and I couldn’t be more thankful and shocked for the amount of comments I get all the time about why people love the Wicks. But, John Wick is not your normal action movie, I get it. We do thematics. We’re super simple plotwise sometimes. I get a lot of love and I’m flattered and thankful for all of that. By the same point, there is a contingent out there that thinks the movies are dumb and stupid and horrible (Laughs.) If you like the movie, you probably like it for kind of the same reason I do, but you might have something different you don’t agree on. “Yeah, Wick 3 was really good, but it kind of left the humanity and the personal-ness of the first one. It got too big for its own britches.” I’ve heard that comment. But I didn’t want to make the first movie over again, so I went somewhere else.
Now, if you didn’t like my choice, should I go back to number three and cut out the opening scene? Should I cut out the horses because it was a little too extreme? Should I cut out the dogs because it was too crazy? Or is that what you liked about it? I’m very fortunate as a director. The cuts you see in the movie, I would say, for whatever reason, those are 95-99 percent my cuts. The studio’s been very cool with me. They let me do whatever I want. So, what you’re seeing is kind of my cut. I might’ve had to trim things back because of certain time restrictions or limitations of my own poor directing skills. (Laughs.) But they’re kind of mine. There are cases, and I do have friend directors that the movie that came out wasn’t all theirs. It might be, like, 75 percent their cut and then because of test screenings and the studio, and because they were trying to do a four-quadrant film, it didn’t come out the way they wanted it. Or it didn’t adhere to a specific property enough. Look, if fans want to say, “Hey, let’s see the director’s cut,” I think that’s a cool thing, if the director’s into it. If the director goes, “No, this is my cut, this is what I wanted to say, this is my vision,” then I think that’s fair enough. That’s his cut. That’s what he wants to see. If the director goes, “The fans really want to see this and I have that footage. I really think I’m on to something,” then I’m with them. Point being is, I love fan interaction. I think it should definitely be heard. I think directors pay notice to it. I’m super thankful for it. In fact, I’ve got to be honest with you. There’s a lot of decisions I kind of went down on John Wick 3 because I have such a loyal and such a great fan base that wanted to see certain things. And without giving them exactly what they want, but kind of subverting it a little bit, that helped me a lot and it helped guide me. So, I’m super thankful for that. So, on one side, I’m all in, man. I love hearing from the fans. And I think if you mean it that way, yes, I think fan opinion kind of drives the creative process. But I would hopefully think it drives it forward instead of just being retroactive. I’d hate to go back and cut a film just because a lot of people wanted something a certain way that I didn’t choose to do. If it wasn’t my cut to begin with, to go back and recut something to help not just appease a mass group of people, but to appease myself and really get across what I was trying to say? So, I guess, yes, I would like the fans to drive creativity, but in a forward way. That being said, I love seeing Ridley Scott’s director’s cut of Blade Runner. I’m happy he did it. There are other director cuts I don’t think are great, but I love seeing the director’s cut of The Abyss. I think they were wise to do, at least at the time, a more commercial version of The Abyss, but I love the extra scenes. I’m a nerdy director guy, so I kind of dig seeing directors go long. You can never do too long for me. I’m all good with that. I don’t know. But that’s an interesting thing. I’ll have to think about that more.
Theoretically, if 300,000 fans signed a petition that demanded Common’s return in John Wick 4, you would listen at the very least?
I would absolutely listen. I mean, I read all kinds of stuff; you can’t help it. You get bored. I’ll read what fans want to see in John Wick 4 — the unanswered questions, what works, what doesn’t work. Did John Wick 3 lose its steam? How do we reinvent number four? I get all that. I read. Of course, I’d be stupid not to listen to the fans. I mean, that’s how I get the creative leeway to do what I want, by really listening to my fans. But you’ve got to realize, too, the fans don’t know what’s in my head and they haven’t read the scripts that we’re working on and all that. If I have a story idea in my head, like I do for John Wick 4, that I feel is really, really good and I’d have to ask myself if they want so-and-so in the movie, I’d be like, “You know what? That’s a great idea. I love that guy. I love that character. It’s just not going to fit in my story. We’ll save it for another time.” I would stick to that. But if I was a little on the fence about something and I felt like it wasn’t going to disrupt anything or blow what I already had, then I’m open to it. I don’t think I’d change my entire thematic of the film. But little bits? At least in certain processes. If I already have a script ready and I get that email, I’d be like, “Eh, we’re going to do it this way first and see what happens.” But when you’re developing and coming up with stuff, again, it’s what’s in your head. John Wick is, creatively speaking, a very open kind of project where really anything can happen, so it’s always good to get input. It’s not like I’m trying to stay within a certain comic book mythology that I can’t break from. So, again, always listen to fans. For sure. Now, whether or not that fits with what’s going on, again, directorial decisions.
The Continental spinoff TV series has had a writers room for a while now. Is there any update you can offer at this point?
I haven’t really heard anything from that side of things since COVID started and all that. I know they had come quite a bit … They had put together a fairly detailed approach to how they wanted to get it. There are still a few things left to crack. Currently, I just don’t know where they are. That’s one of the first things we’ll get back to when this is all over.
Tom Cruise’s and Keanu’s hands-on approach to stunts, fight choreography and gunplay are selling points in the marketing of their respective films. Consequently, are you noticing more actors wanting to do their own action a la Keanu and Cruise?
The actors I’ve worked with, the majority of them, male or female, young or old, they want to participate to bring the character to life as much as possible. All the really good ones I’ve worked with, they all want to do their own stunts, meaning they want to take it as far as they’re able to. That’s a big difference than actually doing them, though. I think the want is there for everybody. Now, half the time, it’s us saying, “OK, that’s as far as we’re going to go.” Everyone has limitations. If we get a cast, no matter who it is, if they have an injured back or they haven’t been trained a certain way or they have physical limitations or something like that, then yes, we do our best as illusionists to do whatever we can with our team, the behind-the-scenes and the castmember to bring those characters to life. And however the scene happens, between stunts and character, that’s where it lands and we do our best to hide it. Then, you have a different classification. You have Jason Statham, who was a professional athlete before his movie career. Hugh Jackman is a dancer with an incredible memory. He remembers choreography. Keanu was an athlete. He played hockey. He rode motorcycles. He had that background that allows us to take that line a little further. Somebody like Keanu has a background in sports or physical activities that lend themselves to stunts. You have a guy that has the willingness in his down time to upgrade. Point being, you have people that say they want to do their own stunts and then you have people that get off the couch and spend three months learning how to do more than their skill set is. When he’s not on the show, Keanu is doing something. He is riding motorcycles. He’s riding horses. He’s with our stunt team. He’s getting better. I mean, look, he goes right to Matrix. He has to learn a specific skill set for what they want him to achieve on that. And literally at the same time, as well as right afterward, he goes right into training for the next John Wick, learning an entirely new set of skills that he has yet to master for that. The willingness to do that? That’s not normal. That’s where you take it to the next level. That being said, remember, a stunt happens when the individual or the situation dictates it’s beyond that individual’s capabilities or limitations. So, Keanu is very good on a motorcycle — better than a lot of stunt people. It’s just his background. He’s done Grand Prix racing before. So by putting him on a motorcycle and having him round some corners, that’s not a stunt. If you’ve never ridden a motorcycle before, and I’ve got to get you to just ride down the street 10 feet, that becomes a stunt because it’s dangerous to you; you don’t have the background. So, Keanu does what he can do. His fight scenes, his stunts. But we wouldn’t want Keanu to actually fall down a flight of stairs and get hit by a bus. (Laughs.) That’s where we draw the line. But, if we were to put him in a wire and have him do a double twist into a backflip, he’s done that before. He has that capability. We train him and we make sure it’s safe.
How does the stunt community feel about more and more actors potentially taking away their bread and butter, so to speak?
As far as I know, everyone that I know in the stunt community and my stunt team, no one is concerned. That’s not even a thought, because actors, in general, want to bring their character to life and push the limitations of their own capabilities to further bring a character to life. That’s awesome. Every stunt person I know and everyone on my team, we want the actor’s involvement as much as possible. I want to see the guy’s face. I want him to bring his own acting to it. I want him to participate. We just want to keep it safe, and when it’s beyond that person’s limitations or capabilities, we’ll insert the double to bring that character to life. If he becomes a mystical vampire and he can’t stick to the ceiling and walk backwards, OK, that’s obviously sleight of hand, stunt double or VFX. We’re going to help with that. Again, at least the stunt people that I know, no one’s worried about cast taking their jobs. There’s always going to be that line where we’re going to do our thing and we’re going to see the capabilities and limitations of castmembers. They’re going to be great at what they do, and we’re going to be great at what we do as stunt people. And hopefully, we come together. It’s always been a collaborative process, and I think it’s always going to continue to be a collaborative process.
You’re helping Lana Wachowski with a sequence in The Matrix 4. Did she come to you with an idea and tell you to run wild? Or did she give you a clean slate to do whatever you wanted?
First of all, creatively, Lana’s one of the most unique people I’ve ever worked with in the industry. Just a fantastic mind. She’s a great director who loves to direct her own action. I mean, with her, you never discuss an action sequence. It’s the sequence. You hear me say it all the time; you probably hear Dave Leitch say it all the time. Action and story don’t cut; they don’t separate. So you have somebody like Lana, who’s going, “We’re going to do this and this and this.” She’s got some really great ideas. She knows the visual style. She knows what she’s trying to say in the sequence. She wants to collaborate and see how high you can take it in collaboration. So, to answer your question, she comes with this idea. She comes with this set piece. She comes with, “This is the character. This is what’s happening. This is the conflict. This is where I need him to be emotionally or psychologically or whatever plotwise at the end of this sequence. What do you got in your bag of tricks to make it absolutely crazy?” And that’s where we bring in the stunt guys and our choreographers. It’s literally just day after day of bouncing ideas off of each other. What’s the bigger, better, cooler thing? How do we help Lana achieve what she’s trying to do with whatever visual concept she’s trying to mold? She’s one of those great people that she’ll tell us something and we’ll say, “OK, we’ve got this.” Then she’s like, “Oh my God, that’s awesome. I didn’t think of that, but what if we took this and made it this?” She always kind of one-ups you, and that’s a challenge. (Laughs.) She’s probably still the most challenging person, in a good way, that I’ve ever worked with because she’s always taking your ideas and going, “OK, how do we make it better?” So, I hope that answers your question. The ideas she came to us with were, you know, not only were they cool, but they were fun. All I can say about what she’s doing on the next Matrix is, if you love the Matrix trilogy, you’re going to love what she’s doing because she’s brilliant and fun and understands what the fans want.
Because he made such an impression on me in a limited amount of time, will we see Kevin Nash’s Francis in a John Wick movie again?
(Laughs.) That’s funny, man. I love his character. I love Francis. Everybody’s been asking for Francis, Charlie and Jimmy the Cop. Love all those. I still love Aurelio, John Leguizamo, of course. Tom Sadoski, who’s done me two incredible favors on these movies as Jimmy, I keep promising him an action sequence and I haven’t given it to him yet. Look, this is my theory. One, as we go on with John Wicks, in order to create the world, in order to dive back down and try to hold the audience’s attention and keep trying to show you something new, I think it’s important to keep introducing new characters. So I want to keep pushing the ball forward. If a character were to return, it’s because it serves our story going forward. I don’t ever want to go, “OK, people love this guy, so I’ve got to bring him back.” Look, I love all of my characters and especially my cast. If their character really services the story we’re trying to tell and the thematic we’re trying to get across, great, that guy or woman is in there. For sure. But I don’t try to carve things out. I think a lot of sequels have suffered from trying to get the band back together again. It forces the story in a certain direction in hopes of bringing back some hopefully well-deserved nostalgia. I just don’t want to be that guy. I want to keep trying to show you something new. And if characters fit, they fit. If they don’t, no problem. We’ll catch up with you in a different chapter.
What happened to the marker that Winston gave John at the end of Wick 2? I presume it was the completed marker between John and Santino.
Yes! Another good question. See, that’s good. You’re paying attention there. Good. Now, was that the marker he pulled out? Was that the marker that he gets back? Or was that the marker he’s saving for something else?
In a post-1917 world, has an executive called you to pitch a Wick film that’s one big sequence or a series of sequences?
(Laughs.) Yeah, there have been discussions. Look, this is strictly a personal thing, and it’s just an opinion. It’s not overall. Let me start off: I really like the movie 1917. There are some really interesting parts of it. I like the character. I’ve never met Sam Mendes, but I think he did a good job. But from an action standpoint or an opinionated director’s standpoint, I have never had the desire to do big long one-takes. I know people think that’s funny coming from me, but I love to edit. I think editing is one of the most important tools that a director can learn. What to show, what not to show, how to show it, what pacing is. I never want to do a shot based on a gag. Children of Men is one of my best examples. When that shot happens with Clive Owen walking out of the coffee shop and the explosion happens, that was meant to build suspense and shock. I get that. An action example would be in Tom-Yum-Goong, the Tony Jaa movie, when he goes all the way up the staircase and all the way back down. You could even see Tony getting tired at the end of it, like, “Oh my god, I’ve got to keep going. One more time.” The question is, yes, it’s impressive for people that know how to do it, but even then, it was a gag. And was that worth decreasing the shots or anything like that? That’s a director’s choice. I don’t feel the need to do anything like that. I’ve never loved super long takes or whole movies. I feel like it’d be more creative — and you’d have more fun — to augment the pacing with editing. That’s not to say I haven’t seen some great oners. I love the beginning of Snake Eyes. I like what my partner Dave did in Atomic Blonde. There are some really fun ones. It’s just never been a priority to me to use that particular style. This is nothing against the filmmakers who do it, but those aren’t one-takes. Snake Eyes was a one-take. Tom-Yum-Goong was a one-take. There are no digital stitches in them. 1917, the illusion was it was all in one shot, but it was not. It was hundreds of shots with digital stitching and illusions, which has its own set of conundrums, problems and technical challenges. If you’re thinking it’s going to serve the story and that’s the way you want to tell it, or it helps give you the shock value or an emotional emphasis or a psychological emphasis that you’re trying to get across, by all means; it’s another tool in the box. Use it. As far as the kind of action that I like to do, I like the fine moments, and I don’t think I’d be as effective if I had to do an entire sequence in one shot. I think I’m more effective, at least in the style I do, with editing a certain way or trying to bring out moments that way. But that’s strictly a directorial opinion. I think it’s like anything else. You do it well, like 1917 or some of the other shows I mentioned, and it’s effective and it works. You do it poorly, and now you’re just showing off as a gag, and that just tells me you’ve got nothing else to say and you’re just trying to do something because you didn’t know what else to do. So as long as you’ve got a purpose and it works out and it gives you some kind of emotional pump, hey, I’m all for it.
Has John Wick killed you onscreen yet?
(Laughs.) No, I can honestly say that after three John Wicks, I have never been on camera. I had enough problems behind camera. I’m good. (Laughs.)
Will there be a time jump in John Wick 4, or will you resume where we left off like Chapters 2 and 3?
Good questions. Good questions. Hopefully, before I go to camera, I’ll have an answer for you.
For the 19-year-old John Wick fans who think Highlander is a Toyota, what’s your elevator pitch?
(Laughs.) It’s a cool story about … I call it the burden of immortality problem. You’ve got a group of individuals that, for some cosmic reason, have been allocated to be immortal. They have to live through human times and experience the human experience over centuries. The caveat to that being everyone you love or anyone whom you can bond with, you’re going to outlive. And the only people you can relate to, other immortals, the one simple truth is that there can be only one of you at the end. So, that means the only people you can relate to or actually become friends with want to take your head. So, how do you live through life with that kind of loneliness or that kind of burden upon you, knowing that you have to push love aside and you have to push friendship aside? And still learn every fighting style in the world because at the end of it, it’s one big gladiatorial pit over centuries, that there can be only one. And your mission in life is to survive, learn as much as you can and sword fight to the death. Come on. If you can’t get behind that, done to some really cool music, I don’t know what you’re doing. (Laughs.)
You’’d be surprised by the number of times that 87eleven — and the Wick-ian brand of action design — has been mentioned in my other interviews the past few years. Given the obvious demand for 87eleven’s services, have you and Dave had to make tough choices as far as what your team can and can’t devote its time to at this point?
It’s always easy to think that and see that. Not to lift up the curtain too much, but the way we run 87eleven in terms of teams and how we do things, it doesn’t really have a hard structure. We’re constantly bringing up new people. We’re constantly training with different teams. If it’s a show like a John Wick or an Atomic Blonde that involves a great deal of choreography where we’re trying to break the mold of martial arts choreography and fight scenes, then yes, that’s our A-team. And we have enough able performers to support two Wicks at the same time. We would have enough for two solid teams to do two solid films. If we’re doing like a military show or a stunt show, we can kind of go from there. But at most, maybe two solid full choreography teams, and maybe a third film that’s more action-based and not super high-end, Crouching Tiger choreography, as we like to joke about. You can check with Dave, but how I select films and where the teams go, it’s usually a case-by-case basis. After 30 years in the business, we have a lot of relations with studios, producers, writers and other directors. And if we’re not actively shooting something, we want our director friends to always have the best or at least the best we have to offer. So, we’ll try to get our teams interested in that. A lot of it is personality, too. Do our choreographers and do our coordinators click with those guys? So, it’s still kind of a case-by-case basis. And also, two of our top choreographers, Jon Eusebio or Jon Valera, get approached now. They have very solid careers, so they’re getting calls that are outside of 87eleven. We have a great relationship, so they’ll come and say, “Hey, we’ve been offered this. It’s from this studio …” So, we kind of work it out. To this day, it’s still very individual — both on how we choose a project and who goes on the project. And then, say Jon Eusebio’s coordinating a show, I’m directing a show, Jon Valera’s coordinating a show and Dave is directing a show, then it’s a matter of manpower for what needs what. If you’re doing a car movie, the car team goes there. If you’re doing a high-end choreography show, we try to pull more of the choreographers. So, everybody’s kind of got specialties. Again, I can’t stress this enough, but it’s a very individual, case-by-case basis on how we divide up the teams.
But to answer your original question, yeah, there’s only so much we can do and sometimes, the way Hollywood works, not everything goes as fast as you’d like. So, there’s always a little bit of time in there to kind of work out your schedules, and sometimes things happen and shows fall apart. But so far, we’ve been very good about maintaining quality, which is our main thing. So, if we feel we’re very, very booked, we really don’t go too deep outside, not just of 87eleven, but of our circles. Outside of 87eleven, there are three or four excellent choreographers out there that are not part of our team or our company, and we often work with both on our shows. Our guys are brought in to assist them on their shows. So, it’s still a very friendly, very collaborative effort on parts of three or four of the best martial arts teams in cinema, regardless of the country. And we all try to work together to make sure we all help each other because we need them as much as they need us.
I know the Bob Odenkirk project, Nobody, is Dave Leitch’s domain, but did it cross your desk in some capacity since 87eleven did the action?
On that one, Dave’s a producer on it, and it came through his company 87North. Dave and I communicate quite a bit, but I have nothing creatively to do with that. They used some of our team. Dave said, “OK, these are the kind of guys I need.” So, we all communicate quite a bit. And, OK, good, these guys are available. They go up and do their thing, and we kind of rely on the coordinators. Dave’s supervising the action up there, and you try to make everything a little different, a little special. Luckily, we have a very diverse team, in the sense of skill sets. Different types of martial arts. Different types of choreographers. Action directors with different influences and backgrounds. So, we’re not too worried about being too overly redundant. I mean, it happens in everything. Sometimes, choreography starts to look the same, so we’re always pretty aware of trying not to duplicate ourselves and changing, modifying or subverting the kind of things we’ve already done to make something. What’s new? What’s fresh? What’s a little bit better than what we did before? And that’s really the biggest challenge. But on something like Nobody, I’ve seen the previz of the guys talking about some stuff and, you know, I’ve put in my two cents. But creatively, that’s the team’s own entity and the director Dave hired. So, I try not to get too involved in that. Always happy to help, but that’s their little thing. When Dave and I are directing, we share ideas quite a bit. That’s when we have a lot of crossover.
What do you think of all the recent viral videos involving stunt performers?
I’ve grown up with stunt people for the last 25 years. Trust me, there are two things that don’t go together well, and that’s stunt people and boredom. (Laughs.) So, I think that just shows you the mentality of most of our brethren. Look, if you get into stunts, it’s because you love movies. You love physicality. You love being a part of the creative process. You love to perform. You love figuring out puzzles. And you can’t sit still, you know? Again, it makes me laugh. Knowing stunt people like I do, I would expect nothing less. In fact, I’m shocked that there were only two of them. I’m sure there are many more. Stunt people, in general, are fun people. They want to create. They want to show off in all the best of ways. They want to make you laugh. They want to perform for you, so I think that’s super cool, man. And it gives me hope that the next generation will be twice as good as we ever were. So, that’s great.
Interview has been edited for length and clarity.
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The Gilded Age