John Wick Chapter 3: Parabellum director Chad Stahelski wasn’t expecting to make a trilogy. In fact, he and his co-director on the first film, Deadpool 2 helmer David Lietch, weren’t sure how people would react to this underground world of assassins.
“At the time, we finished the movie and went, ‘We’re fucked. We’re gonna have to start looking for other jobs,’” Stahelski tells Den of Geek. “We’re never gonna direct again. We killed 80 people over a fucking puppy. We’re screwed.”
When John Wick hit theaters in 2014, action movies were in a different place. The Bourne movies were still dominant, the Marvel universe was just starting to build off its oxygen-sucking success from the first Avengers movie, and the marketplace for mid-budget actions movies was starting to shrink. In came Stahelski, Keanu Reeves, and that dog to change the game.
“Doing low-budget action was not engaging,” Stahelski says. “We did [John Wick] because we thought it was different. It was a chance to do my little pitch about the whole Greek mythology thing and subvert the two-act to three-act plays and do theatrical rather than a cinematic thing.”
John Wick proved successful, grossing $80 million against a $20 million budget. The sequel, John Wick Chapter 2, kicked even more box office ass, grossing $171 million. Those returns practically beg for a third installment, which both Stahelski and Reeves didn’t want to make.
“They asked us to do number three and we both said no,” Stahelski says. “Flat out said no. And then Keanu and I sat down for a couple of weeks. He came with a list of ideas. I go [to the studio], ‘If we’re gonna do this, it’s gonna get weird. Just, if you allow us to get weird, we’ll embrace it.”
The studio obliged to their demands and Stahelski let us question the weirdness of John Wick: Chapter 3 during the press junket for the film. Below is a condensed version of our conversation, edited for clarity.
Did you set yourself up with a goal for this movie going into it? It definitely expands the world a little bit.
Our methodology in how to make movies is a little different, sometimes. It doesn’t sit quite well with the studio, but we spent all our time and money on prep and development. And we don’t really always go into production with a really hardened script. It’s a little different when you’re shooting in New York or you’re shooting in logistically challenging places.
I think a lot of people when they’re doing big action… there’s a reason they do it on the green screen. There’s a reason it’s controllable. They can calculate their days, the hours, the actors schedules. When you’re doing it on location and trying to be as practical as possible, things change. We’re dealing with animals. There’s no such thing as a movie dog. There’s no such thing as a movie horse. They’re fucking animals, man.
We’re in the Sahara desert. There’s sandstorms. It rains when it’s not supposed to. It’s 100 degrees when it’s not supposed to be. You know, reality is a little different than expectations. So, you have to keep it a little bit loose in how we do things. I think you know, to answer your question, you just try not to suck. That’s number one. And then you leave it a little loose because you’re going to mold things. It’s very collaborative. I think that’s what keeps us a little loose.
The only thing was to try and figure out how to keep everyone entertained, not duplicate yourself, and still keep what people like about it. Is that fucking stressful? Yeah.
There’s more levity to this installment. It also feels a little more surreal. Was that almost like a wink to the audience in a sense because of the way this third film was conceived?
I think that’s the only way to really do what we’re trying to do this world. I mean it’s surreal, it’s weird… dogs and riding horses. Fighting ninjas on motorcycles.
I love the Marvel model. Despite some of the issues with the DC Universe, everyone’s trying. They’re trying to do something that’s entertaining. Whether we think the movie’s great or bad, whether you like superhero movies, that’s what the audience seems to respond to.
It’s just become such a big part of the business now. In the ‘80’s and ‘90’s [action movies] were right to video. Million dollar martial art movies, that’s where Seagal and Van Damme came up. That’s around when Jackie Chan and Jet Li got introduced that sort of cinema. Now it’s like, when’s the last time you saw an action movie? The $20 million dollar action movie.
I think action should be pretty. That’s why you see the pretty colors and the ballerinas and stuff and the framing the way we do. And I like live performances. So, we shot and edited everything so it looks like a live performance.
I wanted to ask about the colors, because that’s definitely something that pops out at you in the film. Is there a meaning behind the color palette of the film?
I love Renaissance painting. Caravaggio is my favorite artist, really. The Wachowskis are the most genius filmmakers I’ve ever worked with. And if you can’t see the influence in Wick, I don’t think you’re looking. Color being a big, big part. I use psychoanalysis of red makes you angry, blue makes you calm, sepia tones relax and show neutrality. That was a big part of them. So, when you get together with someone like [cinematographer] Dan Laustsen, it’s like a very, very layered world that shows depth. And the colors can mean things. Every color we chose was meant to be an emotional stabilizer to the scene.
Beyond the colors, what were some of your inspirations for John Wick 3?
Wick is the sum total of things that Keanu and I love about cinema. Kurosawa, Leone, modern Spielberg, Ridley Scott. There’s a lot of influence from [Scott]. And our little mix of those things, Buster Keaton and the silent movie references, the Western references throughout the film. I try to block like Spielberg. I really move the camera.
How do you approach the pacing of the movie? John Wick 3 never really slows down.
[John Wick 2] is a lot of action. Back to your original first question, are we trying to do more action? No, we’re just kind of writing these ideas down. We have two action sequences didn’t make the movie. It just didn’t fit with the pacing and all. I think the sequences are good, but it took away from the other ones. And that’s hard for me to kill that baby.
John Wick Chapter 3: Parabellum opens in theaters on May 17th.
Chris Longo is the deputy editor and print editor of Den of Geek. You can find him on Twitter @east_coastbias.