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Few, if any, stunt doubles go on to direct their A-list counterparts in a string of blockbusters, but that’s been the curious trajectory of Chad Stahelski. The exceptionally fit filmmaker, who stood in for Keanu Reeves in the first Matrix movie before becoming the trilogy’s martial arts coordinator, has now collaborated with the star for each movie in the John Wick franchise — the latest of which, John Wick: Chapter 4, lands in theaters March 24.
But the Massachusetts-bred Stahelski has much more on his plate than the hit-man film series, which has grossed $586 million. In addition to managing the production company 87Eleven Entertainment in Manhattan Beach, he’s also got 87Eleven Action Design in nearby Inglewood. The training house he co-founded with fellow stuntman turned director David Leitch back in 1997 has prepped countless actors for such films as The Hunger Games, The Avengers and even Anchorman 2. Piping in from his office in late February, Stahelski reflected on a life spent coaxing celebrities into stunts and offered his experienced take on why firearms have no place on a Hollywood set.
The John Wick movies have doubled their gross with each installment. Any thoughts on how you’ve grown the audience?
If you had given me $200 million after the first movie, which we made for nothing, I would’ve mucked it up. I’ve been part of so many second units and reshoots of big franchises, and they all go to shit. So, we watched the other franchises that threw money at just paying everybody more or on a couple bigger explosions. It’s great for the trailer, but there’s no meat on the bone. Then we decided to spend what extra money we got to go shoot in three or four countries and be very careful in our casting. I’m a huge Sergio Leone fan, and there’s not a movie he’s done where every little character isn’t great. That’s what I want.
I noticed that Eva Longoria was an executive producer on the first. How did that happen?
The first John Wick was independent, and someone went to her with it as an investment opportunity. When Dave Leitch and I were filming, we didn’t even know about it. We didn’t meet her until well after the movie came out. We eventually met her at Chateau Marmont for lunch one day, and she’s like, “Hi, I’m Eva. Isn’t this the weirdest thing?” We actually made her a bunch of money, which is awesome, so she felt like she should take us to lunch.
And you seem go back and forth on whether or not you want to do a fifth John Wick.
In our minds, Keanu and I are done for the moment. We’re going to give John Wick a rest. I’m sure the studio has a plan. If everyone loves it and it goes kooky, then we’ll take a quiet minute. Wicks always, for some weird reason, always get the latest release date in Japan. It’s always like, three months later. If it’s the same this time, we’ll do a Japanese tour and release the movie in September. Keanu and I will take the long trip to Tokyo, we’ll sit in the Imperial Hotel Scotch Bar and go, “What do you think?” We’ll have a couple 20-year-old whiskies and write some ideas on napkins. If those ideas stick, maybe we’ll make a movie.
You have a long list of projects in development or preproduction — Highlander, Ghost of Tsushima and Rainbow Six, among many others. Is this franchise keeping you from doing other stuff?
Hollywood loves a good announcement, don’t they? There have been a few that have come out, and I’ve been surprised to see I’m attached to direct them. (Laughs.) Really, though, there’s a lot I’m interested in. But the Wicks are so intense, and I like being part of all of it. I’ve tried to be the multitasker director — prepping one thing while working on another — but I can’t. That’s why they start stacking up.
Keanu, Charlize Theron and Tom Cruise get a lot of attention for doing so many of their own stunts. Who else impresses you?
87Eleven works on far more movies than I direct, so we get to see who’s really excited about stunts. Bob Odenkirk was training at our facility when he was doing Nobody. He didn’t come from an athletic background, and he was in his 50s when he started training, but he came in with such fervor. But we get a lot of people like that: Matt Damon, Hugh Jackman, Chris Hemsworth, Halle Berry.
Halle Berry seems game for stunts.
Funny story … I got a call from WME, when we were still writing John Wick 3, like, “What do you think of Halle Berry?” Well, she’s awesome. She’s Halle Berry. And then they said, “She’s coming to see you. Today.” And I swear to you, that afternoon I get a knock on the door, and it’s Halle Berry. She didn’t miss a beat and said, “I’m just coming to see you because I’m going to be in your next movie.” I’m like, “Are you?” Straight face, she says, “Yes, and I’m going to train my ass off.”
How often does eagerness turn to anxiety when you get in the gym?
All the time, with even an experienced cast. Not many of us feel natural standing 200 feet above the ground or having 40 cars drive by you at 30 miles an hour.
So how do you get them there?
It’s mental. Ninety percent of the drills we do are memory-based. If you can’t remember five moves, it doesn’t matter how good you do the first four. It’s the same for the great dancers, like Fred Astaire. You’ve got to remember the whole take, so it’s about getting people to retain what they’ve learned on set. When Keanu trains in the gym, he sees everyone’s faces. On the shoot, it’s ninja mode. Everyone’s in the dark. Lights are flaring. Guns are going off. You don’t know who’s who.
What did you learn from working with the Wachowskis over so many years and projects?
We actually put a line in the new movie: “How you do anything is how you do everything.” I’m sure they say it a little bit more eloquently, but that is a Wachowski mantra. They care about it all. There is no detail too small. There is no, “Hurry up. Just get it done.” There is only, “Get it perfect.” Ask anybody that went through the three Matrix films. Out of the 11 department heads, I think all 11 and all of their seconds-in-command are at the top of their field right now. That’s not an accident.
So much of your job is about safety, and you started your career in 1994 doubling for Brandon Lee after he died in an on-set accident with a gun while filming The Crow. How did you process the Rust shooting?
What happened on Rust … I wasn’t there, but the accidents that I’ve been around, seen or been part of have always been human error. It’s never mechanical. So, let’s just talk about firearms. Back in the day, when it all started, they came up with blanks. A blank is a bullet without the projectile, but they couldn’t put you and me in the same shot, 5 feet apart, and one of us pull the trigger. The concussive force coming out at the end of the barrel would be enough to shatter your skull. Accidents like that did happen and people died because of it. But in the past 10 years, they’ve come out with electronic guns, plug guns where it is impossible for anything to come out of the barrel and total CG. That’s the way we do it. That technology is out there for everybody.
Why isn’t everybody using it?
My feeling is that there’s no reason to have a live firearm on set. We can create cities and spaceships and Godzilla and all these things. We have the technology to do the same with firearms. But, for the last 100 years, Hollywood’s been using real firearms. And for prop houses, armorers or supply houses to switch over, it would make their entire stock of real firearms useless. It comes down to the fact that it would cost certain people a great deal of money to switch over. No one wants to say that, but that’s the real reason. You don’t need firearms. The alternative is just going to cost you more money.
What’s your take on the stunt community never getting its own Oscar category?
There’s one for every other department but ours? That’s a no-brainer to me. Truly, there are wives’ tales and rumors and myths about why there’s no category, that the Academy was mad at somebody about something. For all I know, that’s all bullshit. We want to be recognized because we’re one of the 11 main departments. We’re in every fucking trailer. Most movies are sold on what we do.
I’m going to let you go, but you ever wonder if John Wick could have been even bigger if the catalyst for the whole franchise hadn’t been avenging a dead dog? Audience appetites for human violence are endless, but dogs …
Killing the puppy was written out as many times as it was written back in. Ultimately, it’s mythological. We had to go so overboard, so extreme to push it to let you know that it was absolutely symbolic. We’re not trying to hold the realism. We want the viewers to know we’re having a laugh. But you don’t even know how much Dave and I stressed about that. Holy shit, we were risking credit cards, a house mortgage, everything. [Producer] Basil Iwanyk put his company up. And then you have that day where you realize we’re doing all this and we’re killing a puppy? I thought we would never come back from it.
Interview edited for length and clarity.
A version of this story first appeared in the March 8 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.
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