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Chad Stahelski is paying it forward.
When he’s not conducting well-choreographed chaos for Keanu Reeves’ John Wick, Stahelski strives to lift up the stunt community that launched his career as a stunt performer, as well as his second act as a director. With the success of the John Wick franchise, Stahelski and his company, 87eleven Entertainment, now have the cachet to create opportunities for other stunt professionals with filmmaking aspirations, just like Reeves did for him and his former partner, David Leitch.
So when Stahelski’s friend and John Wick: Chapter 2 supervising stunt coordinator J.J. Perry approached him and 87eleven Entertainment President Jason Spitz with a script called Day Shift, they both jumped on it and had it polished so they could pitch the vampire action-comedy to Netflix. Perry’s pitch went so well that Stahelski received a green light from Netflix VP of Original Studio Film, Ori Marmur, during the actual pitch.
“Literally 10 minutes into J.J’s pitch, I got a text from Ori during the pitch, saying, ‘OK, we’re in,’” Stahelski tells The Hollywood Reporter.
Stahelski and Marmur’s belief in Perry has now paid off as Day Shift is Netflix’s number-one film worldwide, and the John Wick mastermind is thrilled that he was able to have a hand in his friend’s dream coming true.
“It’s climbing Everest with your friend when you’ve already done it once, and you get to see their smile when they come over the top and see the sun,” Stahelski says.
Stahelski is also nearing completion on John Wick 4, which follows the franchise’s biggest hit, John Wick: Chapter 3 — Parabellum. The former stunt double for Reeves admits that the primary benefit of the 2019 film’s $327 million box office sum was the added trust from the studio.
“Our success has lent us the ear of certain execs who trust a little bit more now,” Stahelski says. “So when I say, ‘Keanu is going to ride a horse, he’s going to slide cars around the Arc [de Triomphe] and we’re going to have big waterfall set with dogs biting crotches,’ people take me a little bit more seriously. So there’s better trust between us now, and they’re allowing it to happen.”
In a recent conversation with THR, Stahelski also discusses his Matrix Resurrections cameo and how Reeves got into his head on set.
So Day Shift director J.J. Perry has worked with you and 87eleven for a while now. As producer, how did you facilitate his directorial debut?
We’ve been friends for a long time in the stunt community. We were both stunt performers and stunt coordinators around the same time. I then got into first unit directing 10 or 11 years ago, and J.J. kind of stayed in the second unit realm for a while. I think you’d have to clear it with J.J., but at least three years ago, he bumped into [producer] Shaun Reddick and they shared a script called Day Shift by the original writer, Tyler Tice. So J.J. then mentioned it to me, and I was like, “Oh cool. You want to get into directing.” And at the time, it was conceived as a very small budget film, but we kinda left it at that.
And then, about a year and a half ago, J.J. was like, “Now that you’ve got 87eleven Productions, we’ve still got that cool script.” And I was like, “I remember it. Let me give it another read.” So over a drink, we talked about what you could do with it, and he gave me his pitch to make it a comedy with a great cast and great action. So I thought it sounded kinda fun, and I was like, “Let me take it for a second. Are you okay if we buff it up a little bit?” And he was like, “Yeah, yeah, yeah.” So then we had “the talk,” as I was going to go sell it out. I was dealing with Netflix at the time, and I said to Ori Marmur, “I believe in J.J. We all know him from second unit. He’s got a really interesting take, and I’m going to grandfather this in. I’m all on board.” And Ori didn’t miss a beat. He was like, “Are you sure?” And I was like, “Yeah, we’re going to do good.” And literally 10 minutes into J.J’s pitch, I got a text from Ori during the pitch, saying, “OK, we’re in.” So it happened very quickly.
And how did it become a Jamie Foxx vehicle?
Netflix gave us a small list of people [who could potentially star], but then they said, “Well, we just did [Project Power] with Jamie Foxx.” And I’m a big fan of Jamie Foxx; I always have been. So I got off the phone with Netflix and called J.J. to ask what he thought about the list, and Jamie’s name jumped out at him, too. J.J. is a super happy guy, and Jamie is the same. So you put the two together, and that’s the special sauce. So from selling the movie to Netflix and casting Jamie, we got the whole thing up and running within three weeks. And then we got Dave Franco a couple weeks later and built from there. So that’s when this movie started getting really real, and we realized that this was not going to be another $5 million straight-to-video thing.
At a certain point, did you take J.J. aside to pass on the lessons that you learned on the first Wick?
I learned a valuable lesson with my partner at the time, [John Wick co-director] Dave Leitch. At the time, we were pretty high up there on the second unit hierarchy, and we thought we were the shit. We were like, “We’ve done it all. We’ll show these people how to direct.” And then in our third week of directing, we were like, “Yeah, we didn’t know everything we thought we knew.” We were actually pretty horrible at first, as we learned all the nooks and crannies and nuances of directing. So that was a big eye-opener. So I thought I’d do J.J. a little favor and take him out for a little talk over a drink. I was like, “Look, I know you’re at the top of the second-unit game, but there are going to be a few things you don’t see coming and they’re going to smack you. You’re going to be like, ‘What the fuck?’” (Laughs.) And he gave the same response that Dave and I did. He was like, “I’ve got it. I’ve done it all.” And cut to three weeks into his production, he was like, “Hey man, I didn’t see that one coming. You have to answer a thousand questions per day. How do you navigate this kind of situation” And I was like, “That’s directing.” It’s a little bit of knowing where to put the camera, but a lot of it is telling the story and leadership and getting your vision across to a lot of people in a lot of different languages. And I don’t mean foreign languages. You have to speak the language of camera, wardrobe, production design, music and performance. So that’s the real lesson to be learned as a first-time director.
Was it rewarding for you to be a shepherd on your friend’s first movie?
What makes great moments in life more special is sharing them with somebody you really care about, so it has been [rewarding] to see the thrill and the angst of J.J.’s first experience making something that I truly believe is a good product. It’s fun. It’s a movie that people will enjoy. Directing is one of the most coveted jobs in America. Everybody who comes to Hollywood wants their big shot, so it’s a dream come true to have that first shot over the age of 50, with a massive studio behind it and a great cast. But he also felt the pressure to not mess it up or let down his friends. J.J. and I are built from the professional athletic world or the competitive world or the stunt world to excel and to not let people down and to always be there for your team. That’s drilled into your head. So to see one of your closest friends go through the excitement and the angst, you feel almost honored that he doesn’t want to let you down. He was stressing himself to the point of giving himself gray hairs, but then it was cathartic to see it all come together for him. When we watched it together, I didn’t watch the screen. I was just watching him. I saw the smiles start to creep of like, “Fuck, I did something good, and I didn’t let anybody down.” That’s the greatest experience you can have, and that’s what makes producing this one so incredible. It’s climbing Everest with your friend when you’ve already done it once, and you get to see their smile when they come over the top and see the sun.
In the past, I’ve heard you talk about how dismissive executives have been towards the stunt community, historically, whenever they vie for a directing job or pitch something. So with the success of you, Leitch, the Waughs and Sam Hargrave, have things changed in this regard? Is the boardroom more receptive to stunt people now?
Yes. Look, there are people who obviously gave us chances, so that was not an all-encompassing comment. Have things changed? Yes, but it’s hard to say what the reason is. Is it because we now have better, more creative execs who are more objective? Or is it because me, Dave, Scotty [Waugh] and all these guys have done it, so why not jump on the bandwagon and throw the dice? If someone has a good pitch or take, whether they’re from stunts or production design, it’s hard to put them in a box. If you’re creative and you can lead and get that vision across, that’s a good thing as a director. If we’ve created opportunities for other people to direct, you would hope that [execs] don’t do it just because you’re a stunt person or because they think you’ll deliver great action. I’ve worked with some people that are great stunt performers, but they don’t know anything about action design. I know plenty of second unit directors that I don’t think can edit two frames together. So I think you have to look at it on an individual level. I’ve been playing with camera since I was two; I’ve been trying to write since I was ten. I’ve always loved storytelling and been fascinated by film. And if you talked to the people you mentioned, I guarantee you they have the same inclinations. We’ve all got at least a second degree of separation between us. We’ve all kind of supported each other, and that’s rare in any part of the industry. I’ve had most of those people come and see my work and help me and vice versa.
The John Wick 4 trailer just came out some eight months before release. Funnily enough, the original film’s trailer was released 5.5 weeks before the film opened. Anyway, has Wick 4 been the most challenging chapter so far?
Logistically, you’ve always got something. I love shooting on location. That’s what makes movies magical for me. Movies are like travelogues that take you somewhere you haven’t been. So you’ve always got something, such as language barriers, exchange rate problems, political environments. We were trying to get to Jordan while the Gaza thing was happening, so we couldn’t fly. Covid made it difficult, but I had a great line producer, Louise Rosner, who was very strict about it. So no one complained, and everyone wanted to make a movie because they hadn’t been working. And I don’t think we had a full production shutdown during our time. They’re paying you a ton of money to travel around the world and make a movie with Keanu Reeves, so it’s hard to bitch about wearing a mask. It’s nothing compared to teaching dogs to jump over cars and bite crotches without hurting anybody, or putting together an entire club scene with 43 waterfalls in it, or shooting car chases around the Arc de Triomphe.
Obviously, I could also bitch and moan about the artistry of having to outdo yourself. Our success has lent us the ear of certain execs who trust a little bit more now. So when I say, “Keanu is going to ride a horse, he’s going to slide cars around the Arc and we’re going to have big waterfall set with dogs biting crotches,” people take me a little bit more seriously and say, “I don’t understand how he’s going to do it, but that’ll probably look good.” So there’s better trust between us now, and they’re allowing it to happen.
You touched on this, but there’s got to be a lot of self-imposed pressure to outdo yourselves.
Keanu and I talk about it a lot, but doesn’t everybody want to improve at whatever it is they do? So I just tried to put all the things I’ve gotten better at in the last two-and-a-half years, into this movie. I hope that will make the movie better, instead of just trying to do bigger explosions and bigger shit. If I tell a better story, which I think I’ve done, and do my job a little bit better in every avenue, I think the movie will be better. I also know I’ve got an amazing cast. So that’s my philosophy, and I’m going with it. I could be completely wrong. It could be a bomb, but I’m going to stick with that philosophy for now. (Laughs.)
I stood up and applauded when you appeared on screen as “Chad” in The Matrix Resurrections. It’s one of my favorite meta cameos ever given your history with the franchise as Keanu’s double. However, when I last spoke to you in May 2020, we talked as if you were helping Lana Wachowski with an action sequence. Was that just a cover story for your actual role in the movie?
Well, yes, but I just didn’t know what my role was going to be. They actually brought in 20 to 30 people who had been crew on the Matrix trilogy for small cameos. So I thought that was fun, but Lana knows that I’m vehemently against being on camera, unless I’m doing a stunt. I am not a thespian, and I have a high voice. I’m terrible on camera, and I absolutely know my limitations. So I was like, “As long as it’s little, sure, out of respect. Thank you so much for a career and teaching me so much. I would absolutely love to pay it back by being on camera.”
So they sent me some sides, and I had to say one line. I was in the middle of doing my movie, so my head was somewhere else. But I showed up in San Francisco for the first part, and I went into the trailer to change. I was like, “Wow, I haven’t done this in a long time.” As I went into hair and makeup, they handed me three pages, and I was like, “Oh, I’m Carrie-Anne’s [Moss] husband, I have three kids, and I have to do a scene with Keanu and Carrie-Anne.” So I went and found Lana on set, and I was like, “I don’t think you want me to do this. I’m going to screw up your movie.” And she was like, “Oh, you’ll be fine.” So I told myself, “Okay, I’m confident. I’m a director. I’m a stunt guy. I can do this, no problem.”
So it’s the scene in the coffee shop, and I run in with the kids to get my croissant. And I noticed Keanu was giving me the Keanu Reeves’ eyes, and Carrie-Anne had her baby blues looking up at me. So all I could think about was Keanu Reeves and Carrie-Anne Moss staring at me, and I forgot my line. So it took me three takes to get it out. Keanu won’t admit it, but I think he was purposefully eyeballing me to choke me up. So no matter how tough or confident you think you are, there’s always that camera. I’ve been set on fire and blown up, I’ve done all these amazing stunts, but speaking in front of those two while they’re laying it on … So I think I’m terrible, but I think that was part of the satisfaction for Lana. I would hope.
Day Shift is now streaming on Netflix. This interview was edited for length and clarity.
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