John Wick took action fans by surprise. It was an original idea from writer Derek Kolstad and helmed by first-time director Chad Stahelski, a stunt performer who had also worked as a second unit director on various action films. Keanu Reeves’ world class assassin coming out of retirement to kick all sorts of ass seemed like a revelation, as John Wick featured some of the best action sequences of recent memory. Now the gang is back together for John Wick: Chapter 2, which sees Stahelski returning to direct and proving himself to be among the best action filmmakers working today. I recently got to sit down and talk with Chad Stahelski about his cinematic influences, his working relationship with Reeves, and the possibility of a John Wick: Chapter 3.
“I grew up through the ‘70s and ‘80s, so I think the composition back then was very much like Sergio Leone. It was super-wide, extreme close ups. I’ve always liked that,” Stahelski says of the films that influenced his style of action filmmaking, a style that presents action in a visually clear sense that establishes spatial relationships between its dueling characters. “I came up with the Jackie Chan crowd in the ‘80s. So I like seeing things. Huge fan of Akira Kurosawa, and more than any of that I started watching silent films in, I think, my freshman year of college. I was hooked with Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd, and Charlie Chaplin, which brought me into the Jackie Chan thing. To this day I still love The Good, the Bad, & the Ugly, Japanese animation. I love some of the artistry in that. Ghost in the Shell being one of the all-time best composition things I’ve ever seen.”
For Chad Stahelski, everything about John Wick and its success begins and ends with his star Keanu Reeves. “If you want great action, it starts with the guy. Without Jackie Chan you can’t do Jackie Chan action. You just can’t,” he said. “So we started with that process. Keanu’s doing it. So what’s he going to be? He’s going to be the best goddamn three-gun guy out there. He’s gonna be the best jujitsu, the best judo. ‘Alright, so I’m the best guy. How much time do we have?’ It doesn’t matter. Whatever money we need for prep, whatever money we need for training we’re going to take it out on the film. We’re gonna take the best stunt team, the best trainers, and Keanu’s gonna do it. Now we’re gonna get the best cameraman, because without a cameraman you’ve got nothing. Everybody rehearses stunts, nobody rehearses the camera moves. If you don’t have the cameraguy with a 90-pound camera rehearsing the moves with you, you’re not gonna get it.”
“A lot of modern day filmmaking, especially in action part, becomes – it’s not what I want you to see, it’s what I don’t want you not to see. One is about exposing. One is about hiding,” Stahelski elaborated. “I don’t want to you to see the cables. I don’t want you to see the stunt doubles. I don’t want you to see that my actor can’t kick. I don’t want you to see that he can’t reload a gun. I don’t want you to see where the lights are. And that is not choice, that’s taking away choice and give it that aesthetic of ‘Let’s just swish the camera around and call it energy.’ That’s not energy. 20 years ago that was called bad filmmaking. A cameraman would get fired for that shit.”
What’s Stahelski’s secret for making action visually clear? “We try to keep things in focus, which I think is a good idea. We try to keep things in frame, which I think is a good idea,” the director quipped. “We try to see that we spend all this time and money on an actor to make him believable. What we had said in the press conference wasn’t a fallacy – do you feel better believing in a super-assassin as the camera swishes around and you don’t see any of it, you just think, you think or you’re supposed to think he’s a badass? Or do you just want to see him being a fucking badass? You see, Keanu’s a good badass. I’m sold. He’s a badass. Done, let’s move on. That’s what we tried to do but it takes a lot of planning and a lot of prep and it takes the director telling his crew, and I don’t mean the stunt team, I mean the entire crew from wardrobe to hair, everybody’s gotta be dialed in. We’re doing big takes, we’re doing less cuts, we’re doing real action. I make my whole crew come to the rehearsals and they witness the rehearsals and everyone goes down the list: What’s your role? How are you gonna make it? How do you do this? And that’s how you pull it together. It’s really about just prep and thinking.”
As he mentioned earlier, the silent movies have greatly informed the directorial style of Chad Stahelski. “I guess the other thing is we call fragmentation. Dialogue scene, dialogue scene, dialogue scene – everybody cares about and that’s where we throw all the time and money. As soon as an action scene comes up, everybody goes, ‘Let’s just hurry up and get it done,’ or, ‘We don’t need that, we’ll give it to stunt doubles and second unit.’ The silent movie stars’ story continued through,” he explained. “There was no break between story and action. Action just happened between story and story happened between action. There was no break. It just continued right through and I think that’s the process we like. You should be learning something about the character by seeing the character. You should be invested in the character throughout action and dialogue or standing around or walking. It shouldn’t matter.”
John Wick: Chapter 2 marks another collaboration with his star Keanu Reeves, who Stahelski met while working with him on The Matrix as his stunt double. “I met Keanu, I think, in 1996,” he recalled. “I went through a couple auditions, met Keanu Reeves through the auditions, got the job, fortunately. And I was already, I’d say fairly successful or fairly high-level martial arts stunt performer at the time. When I met Keanu I was like, ‘Oh shit.’ You should see his work ethic, like he is a freak. He would never leave the gym. He would practice all the time. I’m gonna have to work overtime to keep up with this guy. It was the first time I ever dealt with a cast member who was training harder than I was. Oh, ‘I’ve gotta step it up.’”
Amazingly, Keanu’s training regimen came shortly after the star had just undergone surgery. “He had just come from neck surgery. He had two vertebrae fused and he was working out eight hours a day,” Stahelski said of Reeves. “He was a psycho. He was nuts. He was awesome, just an incredible work ethic.”
Beyond being the eponymous character, there’d be no John Wick if not for Keanu Reeves’ involvement and passion for the project. “He was the one that brought John Wick to us, I don’t know if you knew that. I was looking for a project to direct, couldn’t find something which I felt could showcase what we have to offer,” Stahelski recalled. “I get a random phone call from Keanu Reeves on a Friday going, ‘Hey, how’s it going?’ ‘Good, what’s going on?’ ‘I have this script. It’s a small low budget action movie. Give it a read.’ Read it and went ‘Woah, I think I’d like to direct this.’ He’s like, ‘Absolutely,’ and he really pushed it through once we got our pitch. So he was the main reason that I got to direct it.”
Finally, the question that’s on everyone’s mind – will there be a John Wick: Chapter 3? Chapter 2 leaves it wide open for a sequel and though it hasn’t been given the greenlight yet, Stahelski certainly seems to have a grasp on where a third installment will take us. “Number one was an intro,” he said. “Number two was about taking things away, introducing the audience to John and John Wick and then taking everything that he had, or we spent time showing you, away. So the third one is about the entire underworld looking for John Wick and what he does to resolve that and how he manages to work his way back in and who is on his side and who is not.”
John Wick: Chapter 2 opens on Friday and should more than tide over action fans until, hopefully, we get a third chapter in what has become the premiere action franchise.