It really shouldn’t come as a surprise that director Chad Stahelski is so simpatico with John Wick star Keanu Reeves. After all, the former stuntman was literally Reeves’ double on The Matrix films, and the pair have turned this creative synergy into one of the most unlikely action franchise success stories of the last 20 years. Measured against the multi-film universes being built by Marvel Studios, John Wick was a relatively simple tale of a former hitman avenging his murdered puppy. But the strange underground world of assassins it introduced continues to grow and develop thorough two sequels, with more to come.
After co-directing John Wick with Deadpool 2 director David Leitch, Stahelski took the reins himself on John Wick: Chapter 2 and the most recent John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum. The Wick films gained a huge following not just for the stylish world they built, but for the refreshing clarity of their action sequences. Rather than frantically cutting around, the camera pulls back and lets you see every carefully choreographed move and jaw-dropping action sequence. So the question is where does Stahelski go when he needs some inspiration? Although he claims to have “hundreds” of favorite action films, we asked him to narrow down the five that most influenced John Wick.
Let’s go with Seven Samurai. I’m a huge Akira Kurosawa fan. You can tell that Parabellum is the closest thing to a western chanbara film—which is a Japanese slang term for a samurai/sword-fighting movie. John Wick is basically paying tribute to all the great samurai and spaghetti westerns out there. That’s where we get it.
Let’s support Sergio Leone, too. If you look at the composition and the editorial style of Seven Samurai and Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, obviously, Leone and Kurosawa are very close. Both in style and thematics.
John Wick 1 was heavily influenced by Steve McQueen, by Bullitt. The Mustang and the turtleneck… Also, French Connection, that sort of thing. All those great ’70s films, they were a big part of John Wick 1.
John Wick 2 was really influenced by Hong Kong and Asian films and John Wick 3 went even crazier and was heavily influenced by The Raid. Gareth [Evans’] stuff, it’s great.
I love Zhang Yimou. I worked with him briefly when I was prepping a show for Legendary Films – I didn’t stay on that show, the timing didn’t work out, but I got to work several months with Zhang Yimou which was great. His use of colors, that’s what we used in John Wick. My cinematographer Dan Laustsen and I were very influenced by the artistic way he used color, because Zhang Yimou is also a photographer and amazing artist. It’s funny; when asked what my influences in action are, I usually choose them based not on the actual action choreography. It’s the vibe, the thematics of the action. Or how it’s shot and composed. That’s very important to me.
Eric Alt for Rotten Tomatoes: As you continue to push the John Wick world further, do you ever think about stunts or sequences that are just too over the top?
Chad Stahelski: Honestly, the answer is yes, all the time. The amount of ideas that pile on in the beginning of prep — hundreds of different stunts and fights. They say the hardest thing to do is take a blank piece of paper and make something out of it, and that’s what we do every time. It’s easiest when I can say, “He’s a military guy who can only do Krav Maga.” Gun-fu just didn’t exist. We have to make that s— up. You don’t often see sword fights on motorcycles — you have to make that s— up. Or you have to take something you’ve seen a million times and turn it on its head — that’s how we choreograph.
RT: Where are the boundaries?
Stahelski: The boundaries are just a gut instinct, to be honest. I’m very opinionated on everything from film to color to music. Apart from that, I’ve just been incredibly lucky that the things I like, people also think are cool and want to see. I’m happy to go to extremes — I’m happy to run horses down Brooklyn, I’m happy to do motorcycle ninja fights, so long as its done in a way I feel fits this world. The great thing about the John Wick world is that, between Keanu and I, we are the world. If we’re creating the world as well as the action, we feel we can do no wrong. It’ll fit.
RT: Having a stunt background yourself, you must feel pretty protective of the action sequences.
Stahelski: You watch [Steven] Spielberg or you watch [Christopher] Nolan or you watch James Mangold or [David] Fincher — they control the tone in every shot. A director directs. They direct everything. He should have an opinion on everything. If I was a second unit guy coming in where the director didn’t care about the world and the cinematographer didn’t care, that’s when things get really disjointed. It’s why so many times in film you can see the tone changing throughout the movie — I feel like the filmmaker hasn’t made a commitment. The Wachowskis were not kung fu experts before The Matrix; they spent a year of their lives studying [Yuen] Woo Ping and meeting with him and watching every kung fu movie out there and diagramming and breaking down choreography and going to every stunt rehearsal to figure out what made it tick.
RT: Is it difficult to get new actors onboard with the way Wick films work?
Stahelski: Well, we have a little street cred now, so… Like, we’re doing John Wick 4 and anybody who wants to get together and meet or chat… If someone’s a fan of the show, I’d love to meet them. And that’s how I met Halle [Berry] and Mark Dacascos. All these guys. They liked John Wick 2 and they lobbied to have a cup of coffee and meet and talk. They were aware that I shoot the way I do, that it would require a different kind of training — not just learning moves, but becoming an actual martial arts performer, a stunt performer. If you have the heart and you have the interest and you have the mental fortitude to do it, we put them through the training.
RT: So Halle Berry just said, “I want to be in John Wick 3?”
Stahelski: Yeah, Halle actually lobbied me. I had never met Halle before, and we started prepping John Wick 3. She contacted my agent, showed up at my office, and was like, “Hi, I’m Halle Berry, and I want a job on your show.” She literally said that, and I was like, “We don’t have a script yet!” She said, “Whatever. When you get one, I’m in it.” When you have that kind of desire… She jumped into the training. I mean, the training is not easy for a 25-year-old; when you’re talking Keanu and Halle and myself, we’re all, let’s just say, north of 40. The commitment you have to have is a different level. I mean, Keanu is in great shape, and Halle came to us already in great shape, but to go through the training and the martial arts and the gunfighting. That sounds fun, but it’s arduous after five months. And Halle pulled muscles, she broke a toe, she injured her ribs — I can’t tell you how many times she got bumped in the head or twisted a wrist or sprained her ankle, and just kept coming back. When you do it with that intent and that desire you get a very special product.
RT: Keanu Reeves is becoming the new Bill Murray, where everyone seems to have a whimsical story about encountering him. Do you have a go-to Keanu story?
Stahelski: I’ve known him for 22 years; I probably have a thousand. I just know that every time I turn around on set — he never leaves set, he’s always there — he gives me a smile or a nod. He’s very aware, both self-aware and aware of the environment on set, all the drama and the problems and issues, and it’s always nice to look over your shoulder and see him smiling back and giving me the nod like, “Ain’t giving up today, are you?” “Nope.”
He’s a solid, solid, solid creative partner. I don’t know what I’d do without him. When you’re galloping down Brooklyn under an elevated train at 35 mph on a horse and your actor’s got to hang off the side of a saddle and shoot a guy — I don’t know if you know, but if you fall off a horse at 35 mph, that’s not a good thing. You rehearse it, but when it’s time to actually do it, you look him in the eye and you go, “You good?” And Keanu, in true cowboy fashion, goes, “Yup.” Sometimes you have to hang yourself out there a bit to get those special moments, and to have a guy like that who is calm, cool, and collected… We all have fears, no one wants to get hurt, we’re all nervous. But to hold his s— together and give you that nod, it just makes you very proud to work with that guy.
John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum arrives on digital August 23 and on DVD and Blu-ray on September 10.