Thomas Harris chats with John Wick: Chapter 2 director Chad Stahelski about all things ‘gun-fu’ and ‘car-fu’…
I left John Wick: Chapter 2 with a bloody nose and a limp that refuses to be shaken off. It’s a ballet of bullets, a grand opera of all things “fu.” Alongside a few others, I had the pleasure of talking with director and veteran stunt man Chad Stahelski about Keanu, Chan and forcing friends to fall downstairs.
SEE ALSO: Read our review of John Wick: Chapter 2
WAS THAT THE MOST DIFFICULT SCENE (an opening sequence involving a “gang bang of cars” as Wick attempts to steal back his own) TO COORDINATE?
Actually no, it was pretty easy. When you come from that background-one of my best friends Darren Prescott, our stunt coordinator for that-we started doing stunt work way back in 1992 and he did a lot of the Bourne films. Our team are specialised in martial arts choreography and design and his specialty was cars.
When they put sequences together, it comes down to two things; time and money. The big car chases, some of those are shot over weeks with permits which is why you see the same block twice. To lock up a city is phenomenally difficult and add into that-which is why most car chases are day time-if you can imagine what it takes to light this room (a suite in Claridges), it would take hours to light. Now imagine what it would take to light a city street. You might look at a great city, like London and think that it will look great but then at night it’s a black hole because you have two or three street lamps. So if you see the opening car chase, we had to shoot in Montreal in place of New York because they have a speed limit of 35mph on public streets which is really weird. That’s not very exciting. It’s basically going back in time. We drop a motorcycle in the first scene and NY are worried about the streets so we had to shoot in Montreal.
The point is, when Darren and I sat down to design something-which is why you see car chases at the docks or a warehouse-it’s because you don’t have to deal with the cops, or passers by. So many times in car chases, you can’t really lock up a city, there’s always gonna be some questionable human that thinks it’s a good idea to walk across a street and we’ve had a couple of close calls. That’s one thing, controllability.
Two, we didn’t have much time or money. We shot this movie in a day less than we did the first and it’s three times the movie. So the pace you have to work out is essential, especially when you’re working with cars, guns, puppies, sometimes it’s not really up to you. So you try to chalk up your probabilities, your odds with certain controllable factors. Going to Captain America: Winter Soldier, that car chase, they go on for blocks and blocks in Atlanta in the day time crashing cars. That would have taken four to six weeks between first and second unit and a lot of it is ahhhhhhhhhh (he waves his hands in the air). We just didn’t have that time.
So we went to Darren and said, “no money, no time, three day, how do make this fun?” If we just had John being chased around a warehouse all of us including myself would’ve been bored out of our minds, I would’ve hung myself.
IS THAT ANOTHER REASON YOU CHOOSE TO DUMP THE CAR AFTER THE SCENE, ROAD WARRIOR STYLE?
We wanted to be like look, it’s not a movie to take seriously, we’re gonna do this whole thing, he’s gonna get his car back, he loves his car and the gag is he doesn’t give a shit about his car, it’s the card in the car, he just wants his wife back. We all have those trinkets from the one we love. It’s funny, I still have the very first card my wife ever gave me and it’s by far the sweetest because it’s from before she got to know me. So that goes into the lucky notebook wherever you go. And Keanu had something very similar. So we thought to beat up all these guys to get the car back and Darren was in on that conversation and he said “lets just fuck up that car, like shot 2.” Also, with continuity, if you ding a car-and there’s a high probability of dinging a car in a car chase-if you ding a car you’re gonna have to deal with the continuity. You have to VFX out the damage so we thought lets just get rid of that too. We called it the car gang bang, we’ll just have it get hit by five cars and we didn’t have to worry about continuity. So we put all the logistics and the funny into the car. I had an idea for a shot during the credits where we’d cut to the car spluttering and totally destroyed and that would be a cool gag so we reverse engineered it back to the start. It’s really getting a guy like Darren who just wants to do car-fu, “it’ll be great, John doesn’t run from anybody, he smashes them.” That’s a good idea, he’s not gonna shoot anybody, he’ll just hit them with doors. So we came up with every way we could possibly ram something and also we figured that Keanu’s a very good driver, he actually races motorcycles-he’ll play it down-but he’s actually got some rally skills, he’s as good as most stunt men in a car, maybe even a little bit better so when he whips around the corner-you call it a sliding drift-that’s really him, the door’s off so you can actually see him. That’s him doing the reverse 180, that’s him doing it all, it’s cool.
But you don’t really get to see him smashing, so I told Darren, “take him out to the bumper cars and we’re gonna have Keanu Reeves smash into stuff.” That’s really him hitting the dude in the car, that’s really him doing the head on, that’s really him backing into the guy. We just really wanted to see Keanu Reeves smash into things. You put the right harness in, teach him how to tuck his chin, then knock yourself out. So the whole concept was to train Keanu as a stunt guy. The best way to fake being good is just to be good. Unfortunately it takes time and money and a great deal of commitment and perseverance so you start with a cast member that will give you five months of their life, they don’t care about the money, I’ll live in this gym. It comes down to planning and conception. The car chase in Bad Boys 2, it’s a pretty good car chase, it’s got some great gags in it, but the greatest things about it is it’s internal, it’s Martin Lawrence and Will Smith talking shit, that’s the fun thing about that car chase, that’s why it stands out so much. Indiana Jones: Raiders of the Lost Ark, it’s Harrison Ford trying to get the driver out. They drive all the way round then back to the start. You have to come up with the hook and the gag and that’s good action design. So if you have someone like Darren and our stunt team-which is probably the best performance martial art team in the business and Darren’s driving team is the equivalent-so to have those guys working together, it goes off pretty quickly. Like, he has shot so many car chases, it’s amazing. So when you get that level, and people that just want to be there, it is one of the easier-creatively-things to do. We had it planned, we had it prepped, and when you have Olympic level talent, it’s just great.
What you see in that opening shot is called a flying drift. It’s not easy, you’ll see some of the best rally drivers do it but the guys do it in open space. We had to go to driver Jeremy Franco and say, “we’re gonna do it once you go through the door.” “Great it’s gonna be fun.” “We’re gonna build the ramp it’s gonna be great.” It’s never been done on film before, would be great, a little bit of a show off for John Wick. If you turn the car sideways, you can clear it by eight inches on either side which is when it got a little bit quiet. So that was take two that you see in the movie, the first take literally sheered the car in half. The car has to turn sideways. A flying drift is when you wet the ramp, he has to actually turn the car so he drifts before he hits the ramp. You can’t steer the car in mid air, so he had to set the drift before he goes. If you bump the ramp you can get kicked in a direction-if you’ve ever lost control in the rain and you over steer, it’s just simply physics. When you do car stunts you just gotta go, there’s no half. I mean there’s certain physics and speeds you’ve go to obey so he sets the drift, he goes and the back end hooked just a little bit which forced it into the hood side wall which literally cut the car in half, it was awesome. Jeremy the driver, you could just see his head down groaning and Darren to his credit was like “lets get the next one!” We only had four Mustang’s for the entire film so one had to go the crashes, one had to go to the motorcycle gag, so those are already locked up. So when you take one away and you still need the performance car, the hero car, we couldn’t fuck it up. He fucking nailed it and Jeremy is like the Zen Buddhist of the driving community in American stunts and to get a smile out of the guy is a big deal and we kinda got a wry smile out of him. He knew he nailed it, it’s not an easy gag. It seems simple in the movie but that’s one of the hardest things we did in the whole movie was to do that and not fuck up all the ’69 Mustang’s. So that was kinda cool, but other than that, it was pretty easy.
HOW DO YOU UP THE ANTI FOR CHAPTER 3?
Don’t tell Keanu because he’ll shit. None of this really works-the gun fu, the long takes-it only works when you’ve got the guy. Every action movie has the scene where the two guys in suits are talking about “John Wick, he’s a Navy Seal, he did this blah blah blah.” As action designers we fucking hate those things, or you’ve gotta do it as a montage of pull ups, a quick punch bag, so we’re supposed to infer that he’s a bad ass. You ever see one of those in a Jackie Chan movie? No. You just see Jackie fucking Chan doing it. You don’t need that scene in a Chan movie, or a Jet Li movie. You just watch it and don’t know anything about martial arts but you know that’s a bad ass. When you’ve seen him get hit by the ninth car and get thrown out of the window, you buy it, that’s a bad ass.
We had that approach with this. We’re not gonna tell you anything about John Wick, you don’t have to know his backstory. If you don’t know what the tattoos mean, if you don’t know the religious connotations or where he’s come from, you don’t need to know. When you see a long twenty second take where he wipes out a bunch of guys and it’s Keanu Reeves at every twist and turn and it’s him spinning the car, hopefully you get it, it’s the real guy.
Give me the name of a Jackie Chan character in any of his movies (no one can.) You can’t do it, most of it’s Jackie just out of simplicity because no one gives a fuck. How about his occupation other than a cop (no one can.) Do you care why a chef, a photographer, a regular everyday Joe can do things he can do? What do you care about? I bet you can’t ever describe the plot to half of his movies. You can’t, but you believe in the guy. Same with Clint Eastwood’s Sergio Leone movies. The point is, what we tried to do with John Wick was a character driven plot instead of saving the world, giant robots, spaceships. With big action movies, there’s always a second unit, reshoots because someone didn’t get it right. It’s usually tone. Someone says, “we’re gonna make a big action movie, it’s gonna be about a martial arts tournament, it’ll be Blood Sports all over again. But then we gotta save the girl and his daughter will get kidnapped because blah blah blah,” and they just try to make it something else that it’s not. So then you spend sixty pages of the script about the daughter, the backstory, about the dad feeding her cereal, do you care? If it’s a character study of course but we just wanted to do something like the man with no name, you don’t need to know where he’s come from, we just want you to see who the character is. I don’t want to tell you anything. John Wick walks through a room and people say “oh Jesus,” that should tell you something but you get to see it twenty minutes into the film.
The believability comes from Keanu Reeves again. If you can’t have Keanu do it, you won’t believe John Wick can do it. That’s where the whole theory of action design comes from. But it only works if you have a guy that can take the abuse, and it’s legitimate abuse at that point because you have to go on a diet, go the gym etc. To do a five hour gym session is no joke, Olympians don’t train that hard during the day, you have to take rests, you have to have time to recover. So half the stories you hear from Hollywood are kind of exaggerations, so it does take time. If I put any of you in a room for five hours you wouldn’t make the first day, you’d be so fucking sore you’d be useless to me for a week, that’s just the way human beings are. So you have to train to train. It takes me a week to get you into shape for the next week. And that week has to be built on two hours a day to get to the next level. It takes ramp up time. When they say “I had six weeks of five hours a day,” they probably slept for four of them. After six moths of ramping up, that’s when you start.
Lucking Keanu stays in shape between films, he just has a love for it. He drives, he has his motorcycle, so he’s the perfect guy because he’s already in shape to start the training and then it’s just getting him to that level. Rather than training him as an actor who learns twenty moves, we just made him a stunt guy. We’re gonna teach you how to fall down, we’re gonna teach you how to get hurt so we don’t have to worry about cuts and edits and we’re gonna do all these memory games. It’s much more like dance, dance is about remembering. We’re not gonna switch stunt guys, the stunt guys you’re gonna rehearse with for three months are the stunt guys you’re gonna fight which builds up that trust and the rhythm. If something goes wrong, you’re not gonna stop and do it again, you’re gonna go on and if the gun jams, you’re gonna clear it and reload. We’re not stopping, that’s the commitment we’re making. We’re not gonna cut, there’s no B-camera, there’s no close up, no stunt double. When you get that’s sort of mentality and that drive, you know how to push through.
THE STORY MOVES FORWARD WITH THE ACTION SET PIECES LIKE A MUSICAL WHERE THE SONGS MOVE EVERYTHING FORWARD. WHERE DO YOU COME UP WITH EACH HOOK – KEANU HAS ONE GUN/SEVEN BULLETS?
That’s the choreographers and myself. I can picture the beats. And I have a team that’s worked with me for ten years so they get it and we pull from different things. Honestly, you gotta keep about 80% pretty hardcore, we know where this is going. But then there’s that magic 20% where Keanu starts walking it which allows it to evolve. Choreography starts one way three months out but as he starts walking through it there are quite a few changes because he gets better. Then you find a location then that changes a few things, maybe there’s a different corridor, or a waterfall.
I had seen a sumo match right before we started shooting and I knew we needed a sumo player and that’s where we got Yama (Yamamotoyama Ryuta). Currently he’s the largest Japanese human recorded, he’s 602 pounds. He was doing a promo in LA so I met him and he came up and almost bent the spring floor in the studio and although he didn’t speak much English, he told me to him which I did and I felt myself sink in then you hit just a hit a wall of muscle and bounce back out. It was the weirdest thing, I’ve never made contact with a sumo guy before and I fought a lot of people back in the day and it was pretty eye-opening. So how do you fight a sumo guy? So that little bit of magic evolves and when you get there, Yama tells you to jump on his back.
WERE THERE ANY SEQUENCES IN THIS THAT YOU DIDN’T GET TO PUT IN?
We had a whole other pencil fight that just didn’t have a story point. We had a whole sequence in China Town as well.
IT FELT LIKE YOU WANTED TO DO FOUR PENCIL FIGHTS, BUT THERE’S ONLY TWO.
Well we purposefully did two because in the original scene, it was in a bar in China Town, there we’re three men in a bar with one pencil and it was cool, but we thought we’d be a little less on the nose and we’ll just do two. We did it to fuck with you.
WAS THERE ANYTHING YOU WANTED TO STICK YOUR TEETH INTO?
Once you turn 40, getting hit by a car sucks. But we have a load of 28 years olds doubling up for Keanu. Jackson and Danny, the two guys that did the stairwell fall, they’re two of my best guys. We had walked down the staircase when we were walking back from the coliseum and we looked up and said, “that would suck…lets do it here.” They got pumped up, they saw it as awesome, they couldn’t be happier, they were high-fiving each other before hand, shouting this is gonna be awesome. And you just look at them and think, this is gonna suck. They did it twice, they did it all the way down once and they got up a little slow.
In the movie, you can hear voices when they come down the stairs. They stand up and they go down again and you can hear the guys go “come on fucker lets go.” That’s actually Jackson because they knew that if they stopped, they’d have to do it again so they make up their mind that whatever happens we’re going down. So you actually hear him pick up Danny. We listened to it in editorial and my editor Evan Schiff thought it was the funniest things he’s ever heard, “we’ve gotta leave it in the movie.” So we got the sound guy to dial it up a bit.
YOU HAVE AN OBSESSION WITH MIRRORS. WERE YOU TRYING TO ONE UP ENTER THE DRAGON?
I love my reflections. Yeah, we were thrown the glove down on Robert Clouse and he stole it from Lady From Shanghai and from Orson Welles too. The Giana scene, the bathtub scene, there’s a great scene in Citizen Kane with the two mirrors in the hallway and you can see him walk from forever away and I thought that was just cool. As with Last Tango In Paris.
We thought we’d do that with the Giana scene, we’d have these to wall mirrors and that would be a great reveal for John and that shows a certain obscureness. I love reflections. Every scene has a mirror, or a puddle, or a glass reflection. When he opens the door for Santino, you see him first in the reflection. Directors get wacky because we get bored on sets all the time so you put some meaning into everything you do, at least I wish everything had real meaning.
It was just from the very first shot, I wanted you to see the bike before it comes into shot. The last scene in the movie was a mirror room scene which I thought would be funny, boy this guy is full of shit. I love Enter The Dragon, I wanted to do a mirror room thing, I thought that would be a cool thing to do with a gun fight and that was probably the first fight scene I had conceptualized for the film. In fact it was something I wanted to do in the first one but we couldn’t afford it. It was a big deal to build it, took months in fact.
LOGISTICALLY IT MUST HAVE BEEN A TOTAL NIGHTMARE.
Little tricky. People told us you could just do it in VFX, but if it’s just a mirror it would be easy to wipe out the camera but with a parallex, one reflection becomes up to 164 in a mirror room. So if you take out the blue screen that you’d have to put in, you’d have to shoot from all the different angles. So we did it practically. When we actually had to do straight on perspective shots, that’s when we used VFX, but we had panels of glass that we’d hide people behind to bounce reflections. Again, I’d like to claim some sort of genius for that but it was literally three months of every week rehearsing it in a hall of mirrors.
HAVE YOU GOT OVER YOUR MIRROR FIXATION?
Nah I still love it. When you bounce light through it you have this shine and I love that. It just takes the mundane out of some shots. It was incredibly difficult, there wasn’t a day when I thought this wasn’t a good idea. I have to be financially accountable so when you build a ¾ of million dollar set, when you budget half a million for VFX, you don’t know, you have to be careful. So you have to justify it. “So let me get this straight, you guys want to do a gun fight in a room with mirrors but it’s gonna be coloured red, blue, purple and there will be these video screens so there will be no way of editorially matching it because of the video flicker and you want water and an infinity staircase that bounces light in the other direction and you want us to pay for it?” Yup. And you have no idea if it’s gonna work. But you have a feeling and somehow they said yes.
Many thanks to Chad Stahelski for taking the time for this interview.