May 17, 2019
Chad Stahelski on the Decades of Training Behind a Snowball Fight With Knives
The idea is there. It’s awesome. It’s bloody. It’s vicious. It’s original. Now comes the hard part. Don’t fuck it up. When director Chad Stahelski and star Keanu Reeves were asked to reteam for John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum, they trapped themselves into a room and began the joyous process of conceiving an action experience as worthy and as gnarly as the previous two entries. The images came fast, and they hit hard. The conceptual development has its own grueling nature, but the exhilaration of creation sped them through it. The terror arrives in actually executing the imagination.
There are so many ways you can fail yourself. An idea is nothing unless you have the means and the knowledge to pull it off. What separates the John Wick films from other action spectacles is the reality baked into the artistry. Stahelski didn’t concoct a melee of dog-on-goon violence only to mask it with CGI, doubles, and a thousand edits. Transporting that concept from sticky note to a realized wideshot requires a year of pre-production, marshaling your crew, and training your cast. No short cuts. You’re either all-in or all-out.
A few days before the film premiered, I spoke to Stahelski over the phone. For all his energy and excitement regarding this series, there is also a serious no-bullshit approach to the decades of practice and preparation demanded to forge such a feat as John Wick: Chapter 3. He and Keanu can create all the ideas they want, but if they don’t have an army of geniuses to support them, then those ideas amount to little more than mush.
We discuss the herculean task of topping John Wicks one and two, and the necessary fear he meets every day he steps on set. Our conversation begins with the cliffhanger climax of John Wick: Chapter 2 and the first essential element to kick-off the third film. From there, we go to his love for action films and cinema in general, detailing a few of the key influences easily spotted in the movie. Stahelski recognizes his fandom, but his concerns going forward are contribution over imitation. Ultimately, the filmmaker provides motivation to achieve your unique brand of madness in whatever you do by mastering your craft and assembling a team of supportive badasses.
Here is our conversation in full:
During John Wick: Chapter 2, I’m sure you had some idea of where you wanted to take this franchise in a third film, but what exactly was step one in realizing Parabellum?
To be brutally honest with you, we had no idea.
Yeah, no. I would love to lie and say it was a big plan and we had this universe kind of planned out. We finished number two by the seat of our pants with Keanu and I both laughing going, “Holy shit, we pulled it off. Wow, people liked it.” We didn’t know how it was going to go. We were already thinking wow we were really lucky we did one. We were fortunate too. We were lucky. Let’s cool it down now before we really screw up this franchise or the character.
So what happened?
Honestly, we were asked to do a third, and at the time Keanu and I both were involved in and developing other projects. The studio came back and said, “Look, we think we’d like to do a number three with you guys, what do you think?” Keanu and I were a little nervous. You know, we really hadn’t thought about it. We thought we were fortunate enough. I said, “I tell you what, we both love working together. We both love the project. We both love the character. Give us a couple of weeks. We’ll get back to you.”
So Keanu and I sat in this room down in Manhattan Beach and up at his place in Hollywood and just went back and forth with ideas and characters and location. Not really a story or plot, but just things we love about the world, things we didn’t get to put in, things, you know, we’d love to see in the world, places to go. Just ideas, just fanboying and completely nerding out about our own world and seeing what we could do with it. Then, at the end of the two or three weeks, we look at this huge wall in the office that was covered with pictures and characters and headshots and phrases and locations and ideas that we had, and we went, “Wow, this sounds really fun. I’d go see this movie. Would you?” He’s like, “Yeah, this would be great.”
So then we started writing a story around it, and wrote up like a 50-page story, almost in book form, you know? John was going to go here. He’s going to go to the desert. He’s going to go to antique stores, and he’s going to ride horses and all this stuff. Then, we brought in our writing teams to try to make sense of all the wacky ideas that Keanu and I had and try to, over the next couple of months, piece together a coherent story that we felt lent itself to both expansion and all being true to some of the premises that we had established in one and two. Again, a very arduous process, but very, very fun.
Well, I mean, hell, I’d love to have a camera planted in that room and watch that all those ideas come together.
It’s a lot of us laughing and going, “We can’t do that. That’s too crazy,” and then going, “Oh, fuck it. It’s a good message.” I wish you could say it was a professional development process, but it is far from that. It’s usually me jumping up and down and Keanu laughing at every part in this small office.
Do you remember the first idea that stuck from those sessions? Like whether it was a line of dialogue or an action scene or whatever?
I remember the first week or so, Keanu had done a bunch of thinking on his own, so the first couple days we got together we knew we wanted John Wick in a suit walking up a sand dune. We knew we wanted John Wick on a horse. I knew I wanted to do this weird idea of a snowball fight with knives. I really wanted to do something in a glass house, because I had that idea for years and years and years.
I knew I wanted to expose more of the Continental. Keanu knew he wanted a character called The Elder, a moral compass to the underworld. He also came up with the idea of The Adjudicator. Without a doubt, one of the first ideas I ever had, which I didn’t get in the second film, and which I really wanted to do, is I wanted an action sequence with dogs. Those are the ones that we really started developing very, very early on. I mean, the dog action sequence is probably the first thing that I’d come up with that I was absolutely going to do, because it’s something I came upon the second one, but we just didn’t have the resources at the time to do it. So, I was like no matter what we’re doing a fucking sequence with dogs in it, and we got it.
You not only let the dogs in on the action, but you also let the horses in on the action. It’s an absolutely rad sequence. Were you looking to give some validation to that poor puppy’s suffering from the first film?
Nothing’s better than dog revenge.
So, talking about that collection of ideas, those sequences of action, what’s your process in managing the pace of the film? How do you know when or how one fight should lead to another?
You know, that’s why we call our company Action Designs. Action Designs just isn’t choreography. It’s pacing, logistics, money, schedule, training. It’s how like Bob Fosse used to say, “choreography is 50% conception and 50% finding a group of individuals more talented and creative than you are to pull it off.” When you can see there’s something, you know. I’ll go with the same shtick that he once talked about – I’m not talented enough to pull off most of the ideas in my head, so I have to find people that are.
That’s a big part of it. The common denominator through most choreography, like a martial arts fight scene, is the cast. Shooting great fight scenes with stunt guys and having these great ideas is awesome, but if your cast member is not doing the motions, if they don’t know how to do it then your entire energy and your budget are spent trying to hide what you can’t do, you know? You may have a great choreography team or a great stunt team, but if your cast member can’t do the moves, then you’re using doubles, wires, safety placements, you know, tight shots, shaky cam. You’re spending all your energy trying to hide the great idea.
We focus on, okay, I have this great idea, how do we get it? Well, you can do shaky cam, we’ll hide Keanu, use a double. We’ll get digital dogs; we’ll use stoppies. We’ll shoot really tight and run it fast. Well, I’ve just destroyed my idea. So we’re like okay, fuck it, what do we want? Okay, we want big wide shots with Keanu, Halle Barry, dogs, guns, stuntmen. All right, great. We’re committed. We’re going to do it. How do we do it? Well, we got to get dogs a year out, we got to start training them to do the action. Okay, done. Let’s get the dogs. Get the guy, get Andy Simpson so we can start the process. All right, Halle Barry’s got to know aikido, jiu-jitsu, okay. Let’s get her. We start six months training.
Keanu Reeves has got to be better than he’s been in the first two movies where he’s plugged into all these other skills. Okay, let’s get him. We’re getting him six months out. He starts training tomorrow. It’s just commitment, passion, and fortitude to figure things out and to drive towards that vision and have the commitment for thoughts and the diligence to stick to it and get that idea out of your head and on camera. It’s that simple, man. It’s just fucking hard work.
Oh, and you see that training on screen. There aren’t many films that look like the John Wick films, and I’m in awe of them for sure, but it also sounds like a lot of –
Everything I got to live up to.
Yeah, right. You have to live up to yourself and what you’ve done, but also you’re an action movie buff yourself. Are there films you adore that you’re chasing?
Look, I’m a fan. If you and I switch this conversation where we’re having a drink or a cup of coffee, we could geek out and I could fanboy out with you about things that I love. I’m not trying to compete with things that I’m a fan of. I’m not trying to copy things that I’m a fan of. I did, you know? My early choreography days, you know, one of the first ways to start being a choreographer is to imitate. Everyone wants to imitate a Jackie Chan movie or Jet Li movie. Then, you start getting into collaborative stuff where you’re doing a little of both. Your ideas mixed with ideas you’ve seen, and then you get into that whole thing where you want to do your own thing. You want to see, create, and follow the flow of what the project needs.
That’s kind of where I’m at now. I think some of the Asian cinema stuff is far more complex and difficult to pull off than the gun-fu stuff we do, but we’ve kind of come up with our own gig. Hopefully, we’ve influenced the film community with what we’re doing with firearms and how we shoot and how we edit. Maybe we’d be fortunate enough that people start copying us, but I don’t know. It’s just we’re doing our thing, and we like to contribute it to the whole cinematic universe out there. That’s the fun thing. Yeah, there are action films out there that I absolutely adore and I love, and I stole my ideas from, and I appreciate. In a way, there’s probably over a dozen references of things I love from Leone’s Man With No Name series – The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly is a direct reference. Buster Keaton is a reference. The Raid films are directly referenced.
There are direct shots right out of some Tarkovsky films, Bertolucci films, Spielberg films. James Mangold is an influence, the way he deals with some character development. There’s David Fincher. Obviously, The Matrix is a huge influence on me, so there are shots like that. You really can’t miss them, and those, in my own way, are saying thank you, and I love these films, you know?
Each entry has expanded on the John Wick mythology. The Continental was unique and a little odd in the first film, and then the second movie dives deeper into this universe of assassins, and now you’re really blown up the world. The High Table and those below it. Why was it important to construct such a bizarre and complex mythology for this character?
I’ll give you a two-part answer. One, because I want to follow John and I want John to be the tour guide into something that’s attractive for the audience. The second thing is it’s what we call behind-the-scenes the curse of the sequel. You loved John Wick because it was new and fresh and good storytelling and action in a different way. Chapter Two, you’ve already seen number one, but you kind of want the same thing, and you just want to be wowed again. In the third thing, we don’t really have the option or the financial backing to go massively bigger, but we want to be different and more creative. I think that’s part of it.
When you go down the rabbit hole, you just want to see to explore the house. You want to see different rooms. You want to see how different rooms are used. You want to see different characters who occupy the rooms, and you want to see a different way of doing some of the things, you know, different twists on the same kind of eyes that you’ve seen in the original John Wick. The editing style, the camera style. We try to keep the same, so you feel like we’re not trying to cheat you. We’re trying to show you cool stuff, but we are trying to up the level of choreography. We’re trying to be more creative with our choreography, and we’re trying to be more creative with the world that surrounds the choreography and the action sequences.
A lot of that has to do with the stuff that happens between gunshots, which I think they call acting [laughter]. We try to do a little of that in the films as well. I think the backdrop or the backing for a lot of the acting sequences are very, very important, which is, of course, is the world building.
When you’re in that first room with Keanu, and you’re constructing these ideas, how do you know when one element fits this universe and when it doesn’t fit this universe?
I wish there was the official John Wick gauge to gauge what’s too much or if you’re jumping the shark too soon. Honestly, we just we go pretty extreme, and then it’s like a gut instinct. I wish I could tell you I was a creative genius or a great director. I’m just trying to make a movie that I like, and if other people like it too, that’s good, man. I just go with my gut. It’s like when I cast; I’ll just watch a performer and go, “They’re perfect. That’s the individual I want to play this part.” I don’t go for names. I don’t go for demographics. I don’t go for anything other than – do I enjoy this person’s performance in something they’ve done? In my head – do I see them giving a great performance?
I feel the same way with some of the world creation. We had dozens and dozens of ideas for different things, but when it came down to it, I loved the idea of an Elder. I loved the idea of an Adjudicator, and I really loved the idea of a Director, and all played by three great individuals. They just seemed to fit right. Keanu and I are, if nothing else, we’re very fortunate to have the same kind of taste and the ability to communicate what we think is hard-boiled and fun and suits the world. I think as co-collaborators in developing the world, we have a great common sense of taste.
We both look at each other, and literally, we both smile. If it came down to choosing between two ideas, it’s whoever’s idea got the bigger smile. I think that was the best way to judge what was too much or too little for the world.
The casting is inspired. I love Mark Dacascos in the film. His character is a vicious killer but also like us, this sort of a John Wick fanboy himself. What brought him into the film?
I had known Mark through the stunt world. I’ve known of him for many, many years. From way back when he was doing Brotherhood of the Wolf and Drive and some of the other low budget action things, he had been involved in back in the day of the early ’90s. We have a couple of mutual friends in the stunt world, so we just kept tabs. Then, I bumped into Mark when I was prepping John Wick 3 in New York. He was doing an Off-Broadway play; I believe it was a Shakespeare play. We just said, “Hey, why don’t you come to the office. I’d love just to sit down and catch up.” We caught up, and he seemed like he had a fairly business schedule between Iron Chef and doing a lot of theatrical stuff.
I asked him as a favor, “Hey would you like to come in and at least do a stunt role in my film? We got these little bit parts that we’re trying to play,” and I mentioned who we’re trying to cast. He was like, “That’s great; that’s great.” We had started to cast a different individual in the role of Zero, a great actor, huge fan, but he suffered an injury in his personal life and couldn’t continue with the role. He just wasn’t going to work out in the healing process, which left us like, you know, that’s kind of a bummer because this is a part and a character I really needed. It was kind of like the hinge in the third act that I really wanted to come through.
Literally within an hour of trying to get over my depression of losing a cast member, I just looked up at the wall, and I saw Mark’s shot. I was like, “Look, let’s give Mark a call,” and I was like, “Hey, how would you like to do this?” Mark, without missing a beat, said, “I’d love to,” and literally the next day he was on the plane and learning pages of dialog. I, as the director kind of struggled with the character for a sec, and then Mark’s the one that came up with the vibe. If you know Mark in person, he’s incredibly energetic and incredibly positive. I had originally written the role to be much more serious, like a Japanese sensei kind of thing. Every time Mark took over, he would leave something. He had the exuberance and the energy of kind of like a fanboy.
I think he’s a big surprise in the film.
He was so happy to have the job. I was just like, “Fuck it, just be you. Be positive, be happy. Be geeking out on all this.” Mark just ran with it and became this assassin fanboy, which Mark has a great ability to go super serious and then right back into fanboy literally in a drop of a hat. We just kind of embraced who Mark is as a performer. I think it really worked.
You’ve now worked in so many areas of filmmaking, and you’ve filled a lot of jobs in your career. What’s the big lesson you’ve learned that guided you while making the John Wick trilogy?
Oh, that’s a lot. If I was speaking to somebody that wanted to be a director, it’s how you direct that is more important than what you direct, meaning the project’s important, the script is important, but your methodology comes from who you are. I came up as a stunt person. I came up as someone that liked art and classical music. I came up as a physical individual. I came up as somebody that’s sort of introverted and kind of nerded out over film. I was fortunate enough to become a stunt coordinator, so I learned to lead and kind of run a department. I just take all those lessons I learned in each of the individual things in my life and tried to apply them to directing.
Trying to direct denying who you are only leads to problems and miscommunication. Embrace who you are, realize what you know and what you don’t know. When you come from the stunt realm, political correctness and politics play a very secondary role to reality and physics. You can bullshit your way enough, but at the end of the day you have to step off the ledge and physics will take over. There’s a reality to that, and it’s very comforting. When I was a competitor, you can shit-talk as much as you want, but when you step in the ring, none of that shit-talking was going to do you good. It’s straight up talent that leads to who has a better day. If one guy lands on his back, the other guy wins.
So, you kind of take that reality-based methodology into your directing and you just go, “Look, we can talk about this all day long, but it’s going to come down to hard work, communication, and your crew and your cast.” I think that’s probably the greatest lesson you learn. There is no actual magic there. You have to make the magic happen and embrace what you know, and definitely embrace what you don’t know and learn it as quickly as you can to bring it in. Appreciate how to talk people and how to lead, and learn to trust your gut with the creativeness, you know?
Directing should not be really a democracy. It should be an implementation of all the resources, both human and technical, that you can find, and the job of the director is to hold the thread of creativity together while somehow motivating and getting a crew to see your vision and executing that vision.
So, now you’ve completed John Wick Chapter 3. Are you already dreading or thinking about John Wick Chapter 4?
I wouldn’t say dreading, but you know, I’m sure that if you talk to any director and if they’re being honest with you, I mean, there isn’t a day that they don’t go to set and shit their pants, you know? I am scared out of my mind every day that whatever I got in my head is going to work or how do I fix it. You can’t be afraid of being afraid. You just have to accept that no matter how much prep you put in you still got to make it happen. Yeah, again, we didn’t finish number three with any thought of running into number four. We just wanted to make a good film and we’ll see what happens. Certainly, the ending of number three can be interpreted as a cliffhanger for number four. We just wanted to end it the way because we felt it was cool.
If I was asked to do a number four, yeah, I would feel my heartbeat go up, and my pulse go up. Yeah, I would begin the I’m scared out of my mind ready to shit my pants again trying to come up with ideas that would be interesting to the audience, and for me to share with the audience. Yeah, it would be a pleasant kind of anxiety, but you know, it would be something I’d be interested in for sure.
John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum is now playing in theaters everywhere.
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