John Wick: Chapter 3 director Chad Stahelski on the film’s epic action scenes

Director and former stuntman Chad Stahelski tells Den of Geek how he and Keanu Reeves achieved Parabellum’s epic set-pieces

This article contains spoilers for John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum.

John Wick is back…and he’s back doing what he does best. Namely taking out bad guys in a host of increasingly inventive and wince-inducing ways, and looking dapper in a suit while doing so – check out our review.

Upping the ante from the first two movies was always going to be a challenge, but John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum takes the baton and runs with it, serving up a series of action-packed set-pieces in which everything from library books to horses are used as a weapon.

Luckily, the series’ director knows a thing or two about action. A former kickboxer himself, Chad Stahelski has been working as a Hollywood stuntman since the early ’90s, and has even set up his own “action design” company, 87eleven (along with regular collaborator David Leitch).

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Not only that, but he’s got a tried-and-tested partnership with his leading man, Keanu Reeves – Stahelski was the stunt double for Neo on The Matrix. “I’ve known Keanu for ever and ever, and have an incredible working relationship with him,” the director tells Den Of Geek when we catch up with him in London. “I’ve yet to find someone that works harder and is more collaborative.”

This is a big year for both of them, too – as well as unleashing John Wick: Chapter 3 in cinemas, they’re also celebrating the 20th anniversary of the movie that first brought them together. “We’re big Matrix fans, obviously,” says Stahelski, who’s included a few fitting nods to the sci-fi epic in his latest actioner (not least the return of Chapter 2’s Laurence Fishburne).

“I mean, if you can’t see the Matrix influence in my work…” Stahelski laughs. “I spent 10 years with the Wachowskis who, to this day, have had the most influence on me, because I’ve spent the most time with them. I don’t think it can be argued that one of their most talented aspects is world creation. From The Matrix to Speed Racer and V For Vendetta – I learned a lot about how to do it, and a lot of it is how you see the character in the space you’re putting him.”

Here, Stahelski talks about building the world of John Wick, collaborating with Reeves and bringing that incredible action to life…

When you start off making one of these films, how on Earth do you go about thinking how you’re going to up the ante from the last one?

Good question. You really don’t. I think that’s the key. I had a notebook this thick [holds his arms out wide] with all my stunt ideas. We don’t write a script first and then insert it. Keanu and I get together and go, “Look, I love this idea of…” I love museums. I love art. That’s why you see Caravaggio. That’s why you hear Vivaldi and classical music. I love Latin, so there’s Latin phrases – obviously like “parabellum”. And I love ninjas. I love horses. I love knife fights. I love antique stores. I love libraries.

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So we look at all these ideas and locations we love – New York, Arabic culture, the desert – and then we start piecing these great visuals together. And then Keanu comes up and says, “Well, I like this idea of an adjudicator – someone who’s going to be the judge of the High Table, but we’re not going to see the High Table; we just want to feel it.” And then we weave in this theme of consequences. And we really put all that up on a big wall, and start writing a story around it. So it’s kind of back-asswards. But I think that’s what gives it its weird tone.

This is the third John Wick movie that you’ve been involved with – what keeps bringing you back?

When my partner David Leitch [director of Deadpool 2 and Atomic Blonde] and I finished the first film, we were very happy with the way it was received. We read all these other scripts – every kind of battle and Navy Seal and assassin movie out there, I think we managed to read – and it just didn’t feel… I guess you could say there were creative boundaries. You had to work within a genre. You had to work within a framework of trying to create a realistic action sequence or battle.

After you come from John Wick, you’re like… We write everything. There’s no existing IP that dictates it, or a comic book that dictates the rules of the world. So we kind of make it up as we go. For a filmmaker, that’s pretty encouraging. And process-wise, because Lionsgate afforded us a great berth to create it, we really didn’t have an overseer. Other than budgetary constraints and logistics, it’s our process. There’s no script approval. There’s no “we have to have some of that”.

When we did number one, Dave, myself and Keanu went: “Oh my God, this is too weird. No one’s ever going to watch it.” We went off to find other jobs. But then the movie did enough that the studio asked, “Will you do number two?” Dave wanted to go explore other things. Keanu and I went, “We love the world, we love the stuff.” I come from a martial arts stunt choreography background, so that was interesting to me. But we didn’t say yes right off the bat. We went, “Fuck it, we’ll sit down and come back to you guys in two weeks. If we have a good idea, we’ll proceed.” It was the same on Chapter 3. Everybody wants to hurry up and make it, because they want to ride the wave of publicity, and make more money – as a company does. But we went, “No, we’re just going to see.”

You’ve got a few new characters in this one, but one that really stands out is Mark Dacascos’ villain, Zero. How did you go about creating that role and what did he bring to it?

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Mark has always been on our radar. I’ve always been a fan. He’s a legit martial arts guy. His acting was always a little bit quirky and fun, and I really appreciated that. When I was putting this together, I knew we wanted an Asian vibe. We don’t call them ninjas – but they’re technically ninjas. We thought, “You know, John Wick has never had a baddie.” There was always a bad guy, but we wanted someone John could really face off against. Originally I was going to shoot with Hiroyuki Sanada, who we’d worked with before on The Wolverine. But right before filming, he injured his Achilles tendon. It was a big injury. So reluctantly, we had to bow out.

Mark stepped into a role originally kind of conceived for Hiroyuki, which was much more “sensei” and, you know, a very serious role. Initially, it just didn’t feel cool. So we started rethinking it. I said, “Mark, play this one a little goofy.” And he was like: “Hey, how’s it going?” Like really happy. No accent. No trying to be Japanese. I was sitting back at the monitor, and I smiled. I was like: “That’s fucking it. Cut, cut, cut! Mark, come here.”

We took 10 minutes, and we walked. I was like, “Look, man, I hate to do this to you, but I want to try something different. I want you to be a fucking fanboy.” And Mark fucking embraced it, and went nuts with it. And I think it’s fun to have this guy that looks badass, because he can look pretty crazy when he turns it on, and just to be such a fanboy of Wick, and playing on camera. I think that hit the tone of John Wick pretty well.

The choreography of their big fight is incredible, but I imagine that was quite difficult to film in the glass room with angles and reflections and things like that…

We had done a mirror room on number two. I mean, on number two, we had a much, much smaller budget than on this one. My original conception…I love architectural art, and I read this Architectural Digest magazine years ago about a guy that built an entire house out of glass – his stairs, his bathroom, everything was glass. I thought that was fascinating. And that was my original concept for number two. I just couldn’t afford it. So I did the mirror room instead. And this time, I was like, “Fuck it, I’m going to do this.” I thought it’d be great. Because now we have a storyline. We have ninjas. So where’s the hardest place for ninjas to hide? A glass house. Most magicians nowadays for live shows use glass and refraction and reflection of light. It’s basically old matte paintings. That’s how they shift perspective. It’s kind of a cool trick. So we researched a lot of magicians techniques, how to bend images in glass, and did it that way. It gives it a really ethereal look, which we really liked.

There are quite a few sequences that involve animals. Choreographing people must be hard enough, but how do you choreograph horses and dogs?

If you want to erode yourself emotionally and your ego, and just slowly commit career suicide – do a lot of animals [laughs]. I come from a very different background than most directors. I came up through the trenches. I was the guy that people would go to, to solve these problems, for years and years and years and years. So if somebody said, “I want this to happen” and you have no fucking idea how to do it, you become very good at researching how. You’d go find the experts. Because no one’s done it before, it’s never had a process before. So you have to find the experts to figure out what that process is, and reverse-engineer it.

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When you see a horse running through something, the horse has been trained to go through explosions and stuff; to react to the stimuli around it and be comfortable with it. But the horse doesn’t know it’s a movie. I mean, it’s not a human being. And you only have so many takes. A human can get up, and you can say, “OK, Bob, one more time. You’ve got one more take. You can do it.” A horse, when he’s done, he just goes, “Fuck it. I’m going to go sit.” There’s no negotiation. You have to realise how many takes you have the animals for, and what they’re conditioned for, and when they get bored, and what the mindset of the animal is, and how to make them feel comfortable.

How did Halle Berry find it getting involved with the action and working with the dogs?

When you want to do a sequence with dogs and firearms and a lead actress that hasn’t done this before, you have to start a year in advance. We found Andrew Simpson who, in my mind, is one of the best animal trainers I’ve ever met in the business. He does all the wolves on Game Of Thrones. He went across the US and found five Belgian Malinois and started the training. And about five months out, Halle Berry started her training. Because we shoot really wide, with no cuts, you can’t hide the trainers. So when you see Halle on screen, commanding the animal with a word, that’s Halle commanding – or calling – the dog to do the performance. She had to be trained, not just as a cast member and to do the choreography and the fight scenes, but she had to be trained to train the animals.

So after all the other stuff that everyone else had to do, and the physical training and the martial arts and the firearms, she had to go spend two or three hours a day with these dogs. The first part is just the first two months where the dogs have to get used to you. They have to care about you. You have to be an alpha in their life. You can’t be a background player. You have to be the ones training them and giving them food and feeding them. Sometimes it’s just brushing them for an hour so that the dogs know that you are the caretaker, and you are the important person in their life, so that they’ll listen to you. It’s like if you have a child or your own pet – it takes time. A lot of time.

How do you set about realising these kind of crazy in-camera stunts on this scale?

Honestly, there’s no big secret to how we achieve some of the sequences we do. It’s all about preparation and collaboration. Everyone has to be involved – you can’t just expect everybody to do their own gig. It makes no sense to spend a million dollars rehearsing a sequence on a great set-piece and do all this stuff and rehearse just with stunt guys. Unless the cast is in rehearsals, and the cameramen are in rehearsals, and your cinematographer is in rehearsals… Most cinematographers don’t see the fight until a couple of weeks before, and most cameramen don’t see it until the day. So you’ve just hinged a million-dollar sequence on a guy that’s trying to shoot it who doesn’t know what’s coming, and you wonder why you don’t get half the fight scenes.

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My departments are all on 10 weeks out, and they’re all going to rehearsals. That sounds like a big expenditure, but how else do I get 50 set-ups a day? The dog sequence you saw would take most people two, three weeks. I did it in less than four days. That’s why we shoot the way we shoot, because my cast is so good, my stunt team is so good, and all my crews had been through six weeks of rehearsals by the time we shot that. Everybody – from the PA, to the wardrobe guy, to the craft service guy – knows that fight as good as the stunt guys. That’s how they all work, and we work so efficiently. Everybody knows what’s next. They don’t have to go to the AD and go, “What’s next? What are we shooting? What is this dog thing?” They all know the process and the methodology. We’re a pretty cohesive unit.

How much do the actors genuinely get involved in the stunts?

Look, not to dispel and destroy the Hollywood image for everybody, but no one does their own stunts. I mean, I don’t want to break the myth. The reason it’s called a stunt is because there’s a probability or an unknown factor in it that could either be too time-consuming, too financially inefficient or – I won’t say dangerous, but there’s a probability, or a chance that something goes wrong. Even the best of us – I got hurt as a stunt guy. Everything can be rehearsed 20 times, but it’s wet, it’s slippery, you’re on ice. There’s a chance, and you can’t financially risk it. That’s deemed a stunt.

Now, when someone says, “I do my own stunts”, what they mean is “I do my own action”. Now, you can do two things as a choreographer, director or stunt coordinator. The action can exceed the capabilities of the cast member, in which case that becomes a stunt, and the stunt double steps in. But if you have someone like, say, Tom Cruise or Jackie Chan or Keanu Reeves or Matt Damon or Hugh Jackman – people who are very physical and very efficient – you can choose to choreograph at their ability. Like, you know, Jason Statham – he has a great understanding of fight scenes. So you choreograph within his realm. Is he going to jump up, do a double backflip and do the splits? No. If you want that, that becomes a double, or a digi-double.

Or you choreograph it slightly to his limitation, and do cooler moves within the realm that he can do. And that’s kind of what we do with Keanu. We taught him to what I feel his limits and his capabilities are, within judo or an ensemble of the arts that we do to make it cool. And that’s the same with Halle. So when you see them doing all their own action, they are. Halle did everything but one move. Keanu does his own shoulder rolls and his own falls now. He gets up on the cars and gets spun off. That’s really Keanu Reeves. That’s Keanu Reeves on a horse.

We do the doubles to line things up, and to do the rehearsal, and to figure it all out. But every shot of Keanu on that horse is Keanu on that horse. Every shot of Halle with that dog is Halle. Because we were smart enough and took the time to develop and choreograph the action to their ability.

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You’ve been working with Keanu for a very long time – how has his involvement in the action changed over the years?

He’s actually gotten better. I think he’s phenomenal. What impressed me about him on The Matrix was his persistence, dedication and commitment. And I think as a martial arts fight guy, he’s only gotten better with age. But now he puts in the creative aspect of: how do I make it not just an action scene, but how do I make it a character-driven scene?

Keanu understands action and choreography so well, and he’s so relaxed physically because he knows what he’s capable of now. He’s one of the few people out there that know the golden rule, which is that story and action are not independent. I think that’s Hollywood’s main thing now, from superhero movies to action movies. It’s: “Story, story, story. OK, stop! Bring in the action team.” It can’t stop.

Keanu is an incredibly collaborative partner. I’m not just telling him, “Stand here, do this, punch-kick this guy, throw this guy, throw the knife at this guy.” The bit where he gets up and fights with the belt in the glass house – that’s all Keanu fusing himself into it. And the whole knife scene came about because of that collaboration. When you see movies where a good guy throws a knife, it always hits. That never fucking happens in reality, ever – even the best knife throwers miss. Keanu was throwing and he kept missing, so we said, “Let’s just work that in.” So he brings that to the table. And that’s where he’s gotten even better. He’s become a filmmaker.

This is the third movie in the series and it’s left with a bit of a, shall we say, open ending. Do you think you’ll come back for a fourth?

We don’t write any of these to have sequels. They’re just written, and the ending is kind of fluid. Even on number three, we had a very different ending, and it just wasn’t working, so we went and redid it, and it just ended like this. The ending of number two was never meant to be a cliffhanger. We never write these to have another thing. Look, the whole thematic of the film is fate and consequence and karma – whatever you want to call it. How the fuck are we going to end it? John Wick kills 300 people, and he’s going to ride off into the sunset? There’s no happy ending for John. There never will be. He survives. So even though he’s overcome one mountain, there’s going to be another one the next day. We wanted 1, 2 and 3 to be exact continuations. I think that’s interesting. But certainly now, if there was going to be a number four, I think John would need a little healing time because he’s a little fucked-up.

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John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum is out in cinemas now.