Chad Stahelski spent most of his career being the guy filmmakers swap in when a stunt is too complex - or life threatening - for their actors to perform. Can't hit your actual star with a car? Get Stahelski. An actor can't believably fight ten guys at once? Get Stahelski.
Stahelski became such a go-to secret weapon for action movies that he stepped up from stunt man to second unit director, overseeing the stunt-intensive action scenes on movies like The Hunger Games, Ninja Assassin and Captain America: Civil War. But in 2014 Stahelski and his longtime collaborator David Leitch stepped fully into the spotlight to direct John Wick. Audiences instantly fell in love with the result.
So if you've been wondering why John Wick has such incredible action in it, it's because the minds behind it have truly spent decades living, breathing, and bleeding action. Stahelski knows what works. He knows how to pull off the impossible. And now he's done it again with John Wick: Chapter 2, which is somehow even more action packed than the first movie.
We recently spoke with Stahelski and his stunt coordinator J.J. Perry about raising the bar for the sequel, the wonder that is Keanu Reeves, whether or not their seemingly indestructible hero is actually human, and what's next after gun-fu.
Movies.com: Have you guys figured out the exact body count in John Wick: Chapter 2 yet?
Stahelski: I have, but I'm not giving it out yet. You'll have to count.
Jordan Perry: We killed more people than the Ebola virus.
Stahelski: I don't know if we killed quite that many, but it's definitely north of the first movie. But we didn't set out to do body count, it spurs from how we want to shoot. We want to do longer takes. We don't want to do what the stunt guys call dribbling, which is when you do a quick cut and the two stunt guys you just killed get back up and go to the next section. We do a long take, we see John Wick combat against 20 guys, there are 20 guys there.
Movies.com: On the first movie, Keanu Reeves told us he didn't actually work to specific choreography. Did that change here?
Stahelski: Take The Matrix for example. It was prepped so well, and the sets were all custom made. So you could tape them out, you could know everything to a T when you rehearse. On the first John Wick, which was a very, very small budget and had no time to prep, we looked at it and went, 'We are never going to know our location. We're never going to have the sets built in time to rehearse. What we're going to do is a totally different thing.' Our company, 8711's milieu is the best way to fake being good is to just be good.
So rather than train Keanu in thirty moves we're going to do, we're just going to make him a badass. We're going to train him in fifty moves and you're going to be able to do them all great. We didn't have the time or money to prep locations, so when you get there, we're like, 'Okay, Reeves, come in the kitchen, we're going to figure this out.' And so if the fight is twenty moves, he may never have done those moves in that order, but he knows all twenty moves.
When it came to John Wick 2, we expanded his skill base but kept the same mentality. We said, we're going to train you again as a high level stunt performer. And from that we evolved into the choreography. We're not move to move specific. We didn't know we were going to be in the catacombs of Rome until we were in the catacombs of Rome. J.J. And I go to Rome and we're walking around the tunnels and he's laughing like a fool at all the opportunities, and I'm wondering how the hell we're ever going to shoot down here. He was a kid in Toys 'r Us.
Movies.com: Was bringing it out into real locations a big part of the sequel's plans? Was it always going to be in Rome?
Stahelski: We wanted to be like an old Bond movie and take people to places they've never been. We talked about a lot of other different places, but logistics weren't really a concern. We wanted to go back to our roots and do what made sense in our world, so where are people going to look good fighting in suits? What feels ancient, what feels like it has mythology? The Roman empire. You can do gun fights in tacticle wear, but we wanted to do it in Armani suits.
Movies.com: Is John Wick human?
Stahelski: Absolutely. In fact, he's way too human. He is flawed, to say the least. If you really think about it, John is only in this mess because of John. Because of his force of will and his adherence to his personal code. In the first film, they stole his car and killed his puppy and 84 people paid for that with their lives. Obviously he takes it to the extreme, but that's retribution for what matters most to people, memories and loss of loved ones. His code is not only his strength, but it is by far his biggest weakness. I think that's what's interesting.
What's the term, metahumans? I think they're so one sided. The ones who interest me, the ones who make for the coolest superhero movies out there are the ones who are good for the wrong reasons, or bad for the right reasons. Those are the ones that are fun. The conflicted ones are good for people like you and me.
We have a lot of military friends. Do you know how many dog people are among them? How many action stars do you think would read this script and go, 'Yeah, I'm going to bawl my eyes out over a dog and then go do a fight scene in my boxers with Adrianne Palicki'? They'd look at me and go, 'What the f—k are you trying to do? You're trying to make me look as uncool as I'll ever look in my career.' Keanu? He goes, sure, I'll cry my eyes out. I'll be as vulnerable and exposed as possible.
Right before we were supposed to do the hotel fight in the first one, Keanu comes up to us, and he's like, 'I love the vulnerable thing. I want to be more vulnerable.' We were going to have him in sweat pants or PJs. He's like, 'Who sleeps like that? I sleep in my boxers. Can I do that?' That, to me, is human.
Movies.com: Have you found in the past that a lot of action stars are afraid to be vulnerable?
Stahelski: I'll put the caveat in that anyone who is incredibly successful understands what they bring to the character, they don't try to mold the character to how they feel. We all have our own residual images, and some think 'I'm an action star. I've got shades and leather jackets and I don't make mistakes, I don't spill my coffee, and I've always got a line for the girl.'
But why do you think Peter Parker is so popular? Nerdy kid, he doesn't get the girl, he's got a job, he's always working, he's always stressed, he's got to get his homework done. Yet he does the right thing. Who is the better hero?
Another example, we do a lot of work with Hugh Jackman. What a career! He'll do song and dance and then he'll be the most badass X-men of all time. He is going to jump into the character. He's going to bring something to the character, but he's not going to make it what Hugh Jackman thinks is cool. Keanu doesn't come to John Wick and go, 'I want to be cool and on a bike!' We talked for months about how the whole hook is John Wick loves his wife. And it's a sad love. It's not just do a great sex scene to show he's in love. And it extends to the puppy after her death.
Movies.com: Where do you set your limits of what John Wick is capable of doing, and capable of enduring?
Stahelski: First, I'll let him explain how we train the cast.
Perry: As far as helping with the choreography, I always think of the worst case scenario and that's what we do to him. So my job is to constantly present him with ideas, he's going to pick and choose what's best for the character, and refine it. And in training the cast, making Keanu, Common, Ruby-- anyone from our cast – as good as they can be in judo, jujitsu, sambo, and three-gun work, which is rifle, shotgun, pistol. We give them as much enrichment as possible, so I don't have to worry about them come game time. I was in the army for a while, and it's all about prepare, execute, recover. You have to train how you plan to execute. I take that same process into how I train with the actors.
Stahelski: We call it the dial to 11 theory. Have you ever seen a movie where the character starts as a plebeian and doesn't have anything? Say it's a sword movie. He starts and is barely practicing with a sword, then he goes off and by the end of it he's fighting like he's f—king Zorro? That wasn't earned, and I think the audience can tell it's dishonest.
Mike Tyson in his biggest day still got punched. He knocked everybody out, but he was still sweating at the end of it. Say you're the fastest sprinter in the world and I ask you to run, you'll win the race, but you're still sweating your ass off. We can't go at it like, 'John Wick is a badass, he's so good, he shoots and he never misses.' I believe in having a threshold. John Wick can be as good as he is, but he's got to get cut, shot, and bled. He's at 11, but it takes every ounce of his soul to be at 11. I think that's what creates honesty with the character and the audience.
Movies.com: One of the surprising, and lovable, things about this movie is how it connects the dots between silent movies, modern action, and high art. What's the Buster Keaton movie that's projecting on the side of the wall in the opening?
Stahelski: It's Buster Keaton in The General. We just want you to know it's a stunt movie. We want to be exactly like a silent movie. It's extreme worlds. What Buster Keaton created is what we're creating now, we just have the benefit of dialogue and cool music. That image in the beginning is just a cue to signal people to sit back, relax, and see us do something fun.
Movies.com: You guys have perfected gun-fu and car-fu, what's the next fu?
Stahelski: Oooh, great question.
Perry: It's top secret.
Stahelski: It's only top secret because we haven't thought of it yet. I promise we'll come up with something.
John Wick: Chapter 2 is in theaters February 10, 2017.