Stuntman-turned-stunt coordinator-turned-stunt-choreographer-turned-director Chad Stahelski‘s latest installment of the “John Wick” series is another resounding critical and financial success. “John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum” has become so popular, that Lionsgate has already announced a May 21, 2021 release date for “John Wick: Chapter 4.” Stahelski and his ‘John Wick’ star, Keanu Reeves, are a dynamite creative duo, working together decades, beginning during Stahelski’s days as Reeves’ stunt double. Their vision of the expansive universe in the ‘Wick’ franchise, the fight choreography, and the eccentric characters harkens back to famous silent film stars, dance choreographers and artists, martial arts actors, their favorite directors, and characters from their favorite films and books.
“John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum” follows John Wick (Reeves) after he is excommunicado after killing a member of the High Table, resulting in a $14 million bounty on his head. His quest for survival takes him to exciting new locations across the world, where he encounters new characters and forges new storylines for the franchise’s wide audience.
Recently, I spoke with Stahelski about his unique career trajectory, the franchise’s expansive universe, his creative inspirations for the invigorating fight choreography, Asia Kate Dillon‘s fantastic portrayal of the Adjudicator, “The Continental” TV series, “John Wick: Chapter 4,” and much more.
You were initially Keanu Reeves’s stunt double in the “The Replacements,” the “Matrix” trilogy, and “Constantine.” Is it surreal coming full-circle and directing him the ‘John Wick’ franchise? Not many people can say they’ve had that career trajectory.
When you go through something like we all went through on the “Matrixes,” it’s a bit of a bonding thing. I went more into action directing and second-unit directing for about 10 years. And I had stayed in touch with [Keanu]. And he had stayed in touch with myself and my partner, Dave. So, it’s something we always wanted to do. Preface all that by saying Keanu got to direct first. He directed “Man of Tai Chi.” When it came time for him to do that, he reached out and asked if me and some of my team wanted to go work with him and choreograph some of the action alongside Yuen Woo-Ping over in Beijing. You cut to a year-and-a-half later, where he’s off on a project and puts me forward to direct.
It’s that tight little Hollywood community, and it’s working with people that you really love, and respect, and that you have a good creative process with. It’s very cool. It’s fulfilling. If you look at the crew names, you see a lot of people from the old “Matrix” days. And you’ll see a lot of us that have been together since the first “John Wick.” It’s a great opportunity to actually be able to choose the projects and choose who you work with, both cast and crew. And that’s probably the most amazing thing about it all.
What have been some of your main inspirations for the choreography of the fight scenes in the “John Wick” films?
There’s two fronts to it. There’s the mise en scène of things, and then there’s the actual performance. If you’re talking about solely the action part of it or the performance part of it, it’s Asian cinema and Japanese anime. It’s Jackie Chan. It’s Jet Li. It’s Donnie Yen. It’s Sammo Hung, Yuen Biao. The people that really help put down the foundation of, at the time, Hong Kong cinema, now Asian cinema as well as Japanese animation. Those are the big ones.
On a secondary level, I’m a massive silent movie fan. You gotta watch early Harold Lloyd or Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin. You’ll see setups and stuff. Maybe they hadn’t figured out all the composition and the actual mechanics of filmmaking, at the time, because they didn’t have the same gear we have now, but they made massive leaps forward with the action genre. And no one really gives them credit for it. And Akira Kurosawa back in the ’50s. You watch “Yojimbo.” You watch “Ran.” You watch “Seven Samurai.” Cut to the ’70s, Sergio Leone, go to the “Man with No Name” series, which is a massive influence on the “John Wick” series. And then, if you go to the aesthetics, it’s about the action. They don’t have much time and money. So, a hallway, a warehouse, a room, an elevator, anything that we can do the choreography in is what you try to get.
Then you study dance choreography. Most of our techniques and our methodology comes from dance, professional ballet, and stage work. I studied a lot of Bob Fosse, Jerome Robbins, Fred Astaire, Danny Kaye, all these great dance musicals. And you realize what had to happen and how intense the training rehearsals were. You look at Fosse and you go back to “Cabaret” or “All That Jazz,” he had to put that together in his head. No one was showing him how to take live stage work and the excitement of seeing a live performance brought to screen. He was one of the first big guys that pulled that off and kept the emotion of what he was trying to do in his choreography.
Is there a think tank among the ‘Wick’ writing team set aside solely for the purpose of coming up with new ways to elevate Wicks’s badassery?
No. As we speak now, I’m in a little office in Manhattan Beach studios down in Manhattan Beach, California. I got my computer on before you called, and I was just looking through the internet. I got my two notebooks here. I have a wall full of cool pictures and ideas of things I’d like to try. I fill up my notebook. I go see my stunt team every couple of days, and we talk about it. It’s that simple. I got kicked by a horse as a stunt guy. Great idea. We throw knives all the time. I have an archery target. We have gun ranges. We have knife throwing boards. You know how many times knives actually stick in when you throw them the first time? I’m really good. I’ve been practicing for 20 years, and I miss about 50%. In action movies, this hero always lands the first shot, and it’s a dead kill. We thought it’d be funny to show a little reality [laughter].
I have my three or four main choreographers, we’ve been working together for 20 years. And everybody’s got a very twisted sense of things and a very aesthetically-pleasing sense of things. So we get together, and we just start playing. It’s like everything else. You got to practice. You got to explore your ideas. It’s like painting. You got to mix your own paints. You got to come up with a vision. And you have to execute it.