In 2014, a gritty, rough-and-tumble tale of a former assassin emerged from seemingly out of nowhere to delight action movie fans. When bringing John Wick to the big screen, veteran stuntman Chad Stahelski and partner David Leitch used his practical, no-nonsense approach to stuntwork, which has been seen in everything from 300 to The Matrix trilogy, to his directorial debut. Along with his longtime collaborator, stunt coordinator J.J. Perry, the two bring the same kind of no-nonsense action for the sequel.
Along with the over-the-top action sequences, the first John Wick managed to pull audiences into a complex, thrilling world of a network of assassins and the code they live by. Three years later, John Wick: Chapter 2 is set to return viewers right back into the center of its pulse-pounding action. We recently got the chance to chat with both Stahelski and Perry about the intricacies of world-building, their rigorous action sequences, and how they set out to improve upon the first film.
Three years ago did you imagine talking about its sequel?
Chad Stahelski: To be totally honest, my partner Dave Leitch, the co-director, we had already taken second unit jobs. We didn’t think anybody was going to see the movie. We thought it was good. We made a movie that we wanted to see. We loved Keanu in it, we thought he was excellent, but we just thought it was a little too much off center.
What was it about that first movie that made it resonate so much with audiences?
Stahelksi: We went back to our genre roots. [We] like the old martial art movies, Hong Kong cinema, Japanese animation, and it just kind of hit. It was something different. And we came up with the Wachowskis, you know, through all the Matrix sequels, so we kind of learned how to world-build from them, and we had the idea of a Greek myth being supplanted over an urban story like John Wick.
[When] we got done, it just came out to have this weird tone that landed very well. It had emotion, but it also had the ‘What the f*ck?’ action kind of thing. So we hoped for the best, but honestly by the second week after it came out we were shocked. It hit number one for like a week, and we were just like ‘What’s going on with America?’ So it was very odd. Very odd. But, you know, a little spellbound, so it was good.
As a stunt coordinator for Chapter 2, how did your role change from the first movie as just a stuntman?
J.J. Perry: A lot more stress. A lot more f*cking stress. [Chad] said ‘Bigger! Better!’ So we did. We just took everything that was done on the first one and left it in our rearview mirror. We were about three and a half to four months out, we started a training camp to get [Reeves] ready. He trained five hours a day with judo, jiu-jitsu, and Sambo. We surrounded him with Rigan Machado, a bunch of great martial artists in our gym, 87elevn. You surround [Reeves] with a bunch of killers, it’s going to rub off on him.
Then, twice a week, we’d take him out to Taran Butler’s gun range up in Simi Valley, and every session he’d be putting 3,000 to 4,000 rounds down range twice week for four months. At the end of the training camp, before we rolled cameras, he could have competed in a jiu-jitsu or judo tournament, or competed in a 3-Gun tournament for sure.
I’ve heard Reeves’ commitment to roles is remarkable.
Stahelski: It’s so ridiculous.
Perry: He’s super smart, so his ability to retain choreography is amazing. And his work ethic is unmatched. We’ve learned over the years what to do, but also what not to do. And Chad gives us that opportunity, [and] that’s why I think we were very successful.
Stahelski: Also, [I had a] slight advantage over a lot of other first-time directors. We had already been in the industry for 18 years, so you build a lot of relationships. If you pay attention, you can learn quite a bit. We worked for some great directors who are more than happy to show you and expend their wealth of knowledge to you. You also come up with great crew people. You learn what a great cinematographer is, what a great assistant director is, what a great editor is. So by the time you get to direct, we got to pull in a lot of favors. We had a great crew. These are people we’ve all worked with. We had some new additions, but a great chunk of us, especially the stunt team, have worked together for 15 years.
With that kind of history do you develop a kind of shorthand with one-another?
Stahelski: We all speak the same language. And everyone has the same complaints about why action doesn’t work, or why other people fail, or don’t succeed, or something. So everyone was on the same page like, ‘Oh yeah we’re going to do it right this time.’ Everybody knows what I’m saying. And that helps when you’re all on the same page. You have a bunch of people that you can communicate to, but also understand what your vision is.
Directing is a little tricky. You’re not like a painter, or vocalist, or anything like that. That goes right from your heart, your mind, you voice, and out. I have at any given time anywhere from a dozen to 200 degrees of separation between me and them. So [with a] director, probably one of his best traits is to communicate what’s in his head to his crew. And if they’re all on the same page, you’re going to get something pretty cool.
On that note, these movies walk a real tightrope between the stylized and the visceral. Is it tough to keep that balance? Do you worry about swaying too far one way or the other?
Stahelski: Yeah, we have for sure. I mean that’s part of the journey, I think. I like pretty pictures, I like classical art, I like classical music, I like beautiful framing. Huge fan of, like, Sergio Leone, Bernardo Bertolucci, [Andrei] Tarkovsky, obviously the Wachowskis, [David] Fincher. All give a certain aesthetic. They like you to see the worlds they’re painting. I think that’s it.
So you have a pretty clear idea of how these movies should come together.
Stahelski: I know how I want the movie to look. Whether it’s action, dialogue, you can see a cinematic theme around the whole film. Scenes are shot wide, bring it in tight, we punch, back out. So there’s a symmetry to it, on the editing as well. We want you to be pulled into the scene, and then we want to expand back out to cool it off. The rhythm is just like music. You don’t want to just 4:4 time it, you’ve gotta go bom-bom-bom-bom-bom-bom pause. You want it sustained. You want that f*cking windmill air guitar WOMB! You want the audience just to f*cking crave it, then you hit them again with a power chord. And that was kind of the rhythm we wanted to use. Same thing with J.J. I want you to see the fight. I want you to honestly there’s a left turn, a right turn, and an intersection. We want you to geographically know where you are, and we want you to see the cause and effect of what John’s doing.
Perry: Reverse first person. You can see cause and effect in the same shot constantly.
Stahelski: Yeah, reverse first person. We wanted, instead of what we call pushing, to pull. You always see John. You always see what he’s doing, and how he’s reacting.
That pulling back you’re talking about almost seems necessary to give audiences a chance to catch their breath between these white-knuckle action sequences.
Stahelski: Well, it makes you feel like you’re there a little bit more. I think that’s important for the audience. I want them to be spectators. First person, although I do enjoy it, puts you in the movie in a different perspective. For John Wick I just want you to feel like you’re an audience member, but I want you to be there. Like you’re the camera guy. I want you to be there with me, and see the sets, and see what’s going on. I want you to feel the hits.
Chapter 2 feels like a direct continuation of the last movie.
Stahelski: People say it takes a week, in my mind it takes place two or three days after the first one. Just enough time to have breakfast, a cold shower, kind of bandage some things he’s like ‘Okay, f*ck it.’
Perry: [Laughs.] Stop the leaking.
Stahelski: Yeah, once the blood kind of stops, and the bruises went down a little bit, and he fed the dog, he went out, took a shower and went ‘All right, who’s got my car.’
It’s also a broader, deeper exploration of this world.
Stahelski: Deeper is what we went by. We didn’t want bigger, we wanted deeper. That was the key.
So that was the intent from the beginning?
Stahelski: We look at it as levels. We wanted to go down. Where does the High Table come from? Where did the Continental come from?
Perry: Like Dante
Stahelski: Yeah. I used Dante [for the] levels of Hell and how we go down. It’s funny, sometimes you can go deeper by explaining, and sometimes you go deeper by asking more questions. It’s like a research axiom. So we though let’s not explain anything, let’s just ask more questions. I know it’s a little frustrating but we thought that would be more fun, than trying to say ‘John Wick is good because of this. He came from here.’ Or who trained him. We just thought, ‘The world’s bigger, enjoy the ride.’
Was there ever any concern that it would be too frustrating for audiences? Did you ever feel pressured to add in something like voiceover narration?
Stahelski: No. We were adamant against it, actually. Again think back to any of the spaghetti Westerns with Clint Eastwood and Sergio Leone. No one asked where Angel Eyes came from in The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. They just knew he was a badass.
You keep that distinct sense of playfulness, too. Is that tough to pull off?
Stahelski: We wanted it to be a very unapologetic action film, to be a John Wick film. The cast did a great job of holding tone. No one’s cheeking in the camera. They’re playing it as if these people are real. But we also wanted you to know that we get it, it’s a ridiculous plot. It’s a ridiculous movie. I mean, I opened the movie with a Buster Keaton montage, you know? It’s funny. We’re stunt guys. We’re supposed to be super serious, and super tough and all, but we like to laugh. I mean, God, we spent more time goofing around than we did working to tell you the truth. But we like fun. And we want to be taken serious as filmmakers, but we want to be fun.
So the whole point was to have cool action, great aesthetics, do an action movie that actually looks good, that’s composed, planned out, for less money, deliver it on time, and have fun. At the end of the day, how can you have fun if you’re not cracking a smile [while] going ‘Holy sh*t, he just shot the sumo dude in the head 16 times over?’
Well, with Chapter 2 almost out, Chapter 3 on the horizon, and talk of a prequel series, how big is this sandbox going to get?
Stahelski: You know, I’d throw that back on your shoulders. All you people out there, if the audience wants it, I could do the next ten films. I could do a TV series, ten films, and an anime off of what I’ve got in my head.
John Wick: Chapter 2 opens in theaters February 10th.