Chad Stahelski interview: John Wick 2, Highlander

The director of John Wick 2 on fight scenes, Keanu Reeves, the Highlander remake, Jason Statham and John Wick 3...

With John Wick co-director David Leicht off directing Deadpool 2, Chad Stahelski returns to take sole control over follow up to the brilliant, Keanu Reeves starring shoot ‘em up. We sat down with the former stuntman to talk about how he creates such beautiful carnage in John Wick Chapter 2, as well as grabbing updates on the future of the John Wick franchise and his upcoming Highlander remake.

Why John Wick 2? Why’ve you made a second one?

There’s all the fiduciary reasons for the studio. For me, on a personal level, we were very fortunate. The first movie did really well. My partner Dave (Leicht), and I got a lot of other offers to do projects and step into other people’s shoes and do other sequels. Honestly, I love working with Keanu and I love the crew that we had. Coming from an action background, John Wick gave us the opportunity to do all the things we weren’t allowed to do on everyone else’s movies, so it had that creative freedom.

John Wick we had no money, we had no time. It was literally a force of will to finish the movie between Thunder Road, our production company, and Keanu (Reeves) and Dave and I. It was literally a fight to the finish, so it became very personal. All these other projects felt a little diminished next to creating your own world.

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So after looking at everything else, we came out in October and by December they were like ‘do you want to do another one?’ I love working with Keanu, I love working in this world, I love my stunt team. I think we can do more, I don’t know how but I would be interested, so I said yes. Keanu said I’ll only do it with you and I said well I’ll only do it with you.

It took another couple of months to crack it and see how we were gonna address it because we were like everyone else in the audience, we hate seeing sequels that fall short. So if we’re gonna do it, we’re not gonna leave anything on the table, we’re gonna throw it all in. We’ll throw everything we’ve got into this, we’ll call in every favour we have, we’ll come up with every idea and we’re not gonna settle for less. That was just the attitude we went in with.

At that point then, two months after the first movie when you decided to come back, where were things at? Was there a script, were there story ideas?

We had nothing. We had a bunch of notebooks with action design and set pieces. Keanu had some character thoughts. It was show up at the meeting and dump out your sack of notes and start going though it. It was an arduous four months before we even had a script that we were willing to entertain. We just held true to our Joseph Campbell theories of hero worship and hero’s journey and focused more on character and plot and more on visuals than talky talky.

Something that’s interesting to me in the relationship between writers and directors, particularly on something like this where yours is quite an authorial voice, is how much are you able to shape the story without encroaching on the writer’s position?

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I hadn’t met him (writer Derek Kolstad) before the first John Wick, but since we’ve spent a lot of time in very crunch situations, like ‘you’ve gotta write this scene now dude’. When we walked into this Derek had ideas, we had ideas. It’s not that Derek writes the script, we go away for three months and he comes back and we give notes. Derek would lay out some ideas, we’d all talk, Keanu, producer Basil (Iwanyk) and myself would just throw our ideas and Derek would go write the scene. So it was a very collaborative process.

I don’t think the script was ever written; we wrote scenes, we wrote acts. It was a very slow and arduous process but it was very fun. So in answer to your question, I think between Derek, Keanu and myself it was very collaborative. Everyone authored everything. Like, Keanu came up with the Gianna bath scene, Derek gave it life and I said put it in a bathhouse. And then, I said I wanted to do a rock concert, I’ve always wanted to do that, and I want to do a mirror room, I wanna do a museum. And, this should be about fate. Derek goes ‘How about this thing called a marker?’ Everyone kind of co-authored everyone’s ideas.

So, I know what you’re saying and I’ve been in this process many times before, and this is the most creative, which is another reason to come back to John Wick 2. And probably a pretty good reason to do number 3. The process is very, very involved. That’s why it’s so personal and so you feel like you’re fighting for your film and not somebody else’s.

So, fight construction. Your fights are really good.

Thanks. I spent a lot of time on them.

Could you explain to me how you break them down?

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Sure. Most stunt teams do the choreography. They get the stunt guys together in the gym and they come up with all these moves without having met the actor. And the director, who is not educated in martial arts choreography, may have given them ‘I want something like The Raid’, ‘I want Jackie Chan’ or ‘I want The Matrix’, or now ‘I want John Wick’. That’s great but you’ve got to remember why it works. They don’t do enough analysis.

The moves are irrelevant, you can choreograph the most elaborate fight. You can do ‘Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon’ choreography, but that’s Michelle Yeoh. Super talented woman.

Whereas most teams will spend all their time and money choreographing with the stunt guys, we take all our time and money and put it into cast. Meaning, I’ll have the best guys train the actors, and rather than have to memorise moves we’ll have them get good. The best way to fake being good is to be good. There’s no way around it.

There’s no trick in movies about it, when you see Jackie Chan do it it’s ‘cause he’s fucking good. When you see Steve McQueen ride a motorcycle it’s cause he could fucking ride a motorcycle. When you see Keanu sliding a car, that’s Keanu sliding a car. That is not something you can learn on the day. That’s 20 years of his life spent racing motorcycles and drifting cars and rally sports. When you see him do judo it’s ‘cause he spent a phenomenal amount of time doing it. When you see that video of him shooting, that is not normal. That is competitive shooting level. He is not faking it. So we go with that. We get our guy to be good, which makes our character good, which allows me to shoot in certain ways.

If I had that same choreography and I had some other cast member who gave me three weeks of their time do you think it would look like that? There’d be so many fucking edits and shorts because you’re trying to hide things. You’re trying to hide doubles, you’re trying to hide the edits, to help the speed, to hide the fuck ups.

From a live performance aspect, which is what we choreograph from, I want to be able to do the fight scene live. We all sit and watch Keanu do the routine and we’re like ‘fuck, that’s great!’ Basically, I just can’t step on my own dick. I spent all this time, four, five months of prep, another two months training the stunt guys, another month training the cameramen to do the stunts in the locations. Some directors scout a location once or twice. I’ll do it ten times and live there on my days off. I don’t let anybody sleep on my crew. We go there over and over. I bring Keanu over weeks early just to see the set. Some actors who walk onto a set, they go ‘Ah, I’ve never seen the set before’. Keanu, he knows every pebble on the ground by that point.

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So it’s making a commitment, making a decision. Shooting a certain way, and then reverse engineering the whole lot. The better Keanu gets in training, the better the choreography gets. If I choreograph the whole thing first and then worry about training later, it doesn’t work.

It’s like, I’m gonna choreograph this football routine and I’m gonna have you be the Pele guy, but I’m not not gonna train you. But we’ll do it two weeks later. You’re never gonna get there. Then it’ll be, double, double, double, double. And then guess how you’ve gotta shoot? Horribly. You’ve got to shoot to hide your face instead of shooting a creative choice. Keanu’s good, if I chose to shoot the whole thing as a wide master I could. So the edits are my choice, they’re not because I have to. It’s because I choose a better angle, I choose a momentum building spot to cut.

Keanu knows that and so out of respect for me, he trains twice as hard to give me creative choices. If it’s the other way around, my creative choices aren’t made out of creativity, they’re based on getting it through. Like, ‘this action sequence sucks, how do I get it through? I’ve gotta get fast cuts. Well, he drops the gun here so I’ve gotta cut here, but this punch sucks so I’ve gotta cut here. Well, this bit wasn’t timed right so the camera guy wasn’t here so I’ve gotta cut here.’ They’re forced edits. I think most action movies today deal with fixing or hiding more than they do with creative choice. And again, I think that’s from misunderstanding the method behind good action.

Does that process make it more difficult to cast?

Much more difficult.

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I mean, you’ve probably sat in this chair a million times and heard ‘Oh, you don’t understand, it’s the actor, he does his own stunts or he does his own thing.’ I’m gonna throw down the glove and I’m gonna call bullshit on pretty much anyone you’ve ever interviewed. They did not spend eight hours in the gym a day. They did not do their own stunts. I’m gonna call bullshit. Cause I’m the guy that’s usually training them.

I can’t, at my highest peak as a professional stunt person and professional athlete, train for eight hours a day. You just can’t. And no one can just walk off the street. If I trained you for an hour you wouldn’t walk for the next three days. So you have to build up into that. No one just goes into the gym for eight hours a day.

Keanu would build up. He’d do two hours, he’d do an hour, but we’d tone it down and we’d have the best trainers. We’d do a little jiu-jitsu, a little judo, a little driving. So we’d build up to five or six hours a day.

Shooting alone was four hours. Just doing 2000 rounds. And I have the video, I can prove it. I can show Keanu doing it. You know why? Cause it’s in the movie. When you see you Keanu drift that car and fly through that guy and smash those guys with the car, that’s Keanu Reeves smashing. There’s no face replacement. When you see Keanu throw guys, that’s Keanu doing Judo. So if that’s the going thing of ‘they do their…’, prove it.

And it’s also a director’s job to pay attention. So many times they go ‘Well I’m gonna spend my time on telling a story, I don’t care about action.’ Action is storytelling. It’s visual storytelling. James Cameron does it great. Spielberg does it great. Fincher does it great. Guy Richie in Snatch does it great. I think Shane Black does a great job. They tie the story into action. Whether it’s a little one punch thing or whether it’s a whole sequence, they know that they will shoot their own action.

The Wachowskis shoot their own action, they don’t pan it off. They go ‘we know nothing of kung-fu’, and then for two years before The Matrix they studied and they watched Master Of Tai Chi, Iron Monkey, all the Jackie Chan, just classics to educate themselves so they knew what the fuck they were talking about.

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If action is gonna progress, if we’re gonna transcend the stuff that’s going on now, it starts with the director, of making the choice to educate himself and understanding the process to get there. And finding a cast member that’s going to endure that, ‘cause they’re human beings. There’s nothing special about, whether it’s Keanu Reeves or Brad Pitt or Laurence (Fishburne), or any of the younger cast members nowadays, they’ve still got to do the work. And sometimes that’s not what they want to do. It’s fun to talk about, but it’s very different to have to sacrifice other jobs, money and life to go and live in that gym.

When it comes to choreographing action, what works in real life doesn’t always translate to screen. Whenever I see a triangle choke in a film (a choke hold where the legs trap the neck and an arm), which I know from watching MMA, I wonder if people understand it. Do you feel a commitment to what works or what looks good on screen?

It depends on the movie, the project. On this we want practical tactical, we call it. If you didn’t know anything about jiu-jitsu, it would make sense to you. That’s why we like the throws. You can see if Keanu grabs you by the neck and throws you, you would go over. It’s very simple to see. If I just do a death touch on you, that probably wouldn’t make sense.

Some of the subtleties of jiu-jitsu, if I just grabbed your collar like this, you’ve never had it done to you so it didn’t look like it would choke you out, or pass you out. So we try to do the bigger moves that you get. Pencil in the ear, I think you get, that could be bad. Shot to the head, you get that. Any of the throws, the tie-ups, or when he puts the knife in the heart. That’s we we keep stabbing in the heart. A real guy doesn’t mess around poking or slashing at you, it’s just *boop*, you’re done. Quick kill.

So we try to ride the line that it made sense, practically. You can get into the grimmer nature of martial arts, this is what it’s for. We tried to hold true to more combative martial arts, but in a fun aesthetic way. You’ve got to walk the line. Sometimes we crossed over and went a little bit more kooky, other times we went a little bit more serious. I would like to think that we hit most of the time, but you know, you’ve gotta go for the ride sometimes.

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Is there anything you can tell me about Highlander?

We’re still in early development. I wish I could tell you more other than the fact that I love the original, I’m trying to stay true to the mythology of the original while expanding it out a little so we can have more than just one. Because I think a big flaw in the first go around with that whole property is that the first movie was super cool and interesting and then two, three, four, five kind of let us down. But I think there’s enough to that property, enough depth, that we could expand it over several projects. So the trick is to, again, try not to trip over myself. Don’t over plot it. Give fans and people like myself what they loved about the first one, which is the world of the immortals and the conundrums of being immortal, what that means to love, life and trust. And then reinvent the sword fight like we did with guns. That’s the goal for that.

And John Wick 3?

Again, we’re leaving it up to the audience. If it did come about we’d love to be a part of it. I think it’s super cool, super fun, so hopefully it’ll work out.

And what is your favourite Jason Statham film?

I’ve done seven Jason Statham movies! Do I get to choose one that I was in? Honestly, with Jason, I like the movie Safe, which is a movie we choreographed. I like that but my all time favourite is Snatch. Snatch is the definitive Guy Richie and I love Statham so it all just comes together.

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Chad Stahelski, thank you very much!

John Wick Chapter 2 is in UK cinemas now.