John Wick is a movie that seemingly came out of nowhere in 2014 and took everyone by surprise. It had been a long time since anyone had seen an action movie of that caliber grace the big screen and there were a lot of elements that made it work. For one, it had been years since audiences saw Keanu Reeves do anything like this, and it is very clear that this is right in his wheelhouse. But perhaps the real thing that makes John Wick, and the upcoming John Wick: Chapter 2 so great is director Chad Stahelski.
As a man who has been working as a second-unit director and stuntman in the industry for more than two decades, he understands action and how to execute it. That is why Lionsgate‘s John Wick was the perfect vehicle for him to jump into the world of directing and why John Wick: Chapter 2 was the obvious and perfect follow-up movie. There are a lot of risks associated with making a sequel to an instant cult classic, but once you see John Wick: Chapter 2, you will see that Chad Stahelski was very much up to the task.
Chad Stahelski co-directed the first John Wick with David Leitch, but he had to fly solo this time around. David Leitch has now moved onto directing Deadpool 2, so they are both finding their own path to success. Stahelski is also moving on to do the Highlander reboot now that his sequel to John Wick is in the can, so he has definitely made a big name for himself in a very short period of time. Even though he didn’t have David Leitch to help him out this time around, John Wick 2 doesn’t skip a beat, and that speaks volumes about how well he understands how to execute action on screen.
While Chad Stahelski may not be a household name, make no mistake, he has a ridiculous amount of experience in the industry and has probably been a big part of making some movies you really love. He has been working as a stuntman since the early 90s on absolutely massive movies and even worked as Keanu Reeves‘ stunt double on all three Matrix movies. In the 2000s, he started working as a second unit director on massive blockbusters like The Hunger Games, The Expendables 2 and even Captain America: Civil War. All of that experience clearly served him very well once he transitioned into the world of directing.
I recently had the chance to talk with Chad Stahelski about John Wick: Chapter 2. We talked about the challenges he faced while making the upcoming sequel, how he was able to transition so smoothly into directing and why working with mirrors is really difficult. Also, he talks a little about what major franchise he might like to take a stab at in the future.
So I want to congratulate you on making a perfect sequel. I think there was just so much to love with this movie. It feels like you guys really went all over the place in this movie, in terms of locations.
Chad Stahelski: We like that. We try to shoot as much working on location as we can. I don’t like working on sets too much, only when we really need to. Like, the mirror room was obviously a set that we had to build because it didn’t exist anywhere.
How was shooting in that mirror room by the way? because I feel like that must have been a pain.
Chad Stahelski: Pain in the ass. The set, it was slightly ill conceived. It sounded really cool. We’re gonna make a martial arts dojo! We’re gonna build it here, but we wanna see the beams, but we’re shooting on anamorphic so everything looks crunched so we want the ceilings down like, eight feet so we can see the heavy wood beams over the actors. But then we wanna do wire work and you can’t do this, so you have to do this and it just becomes a nightmare logistically. We designed the mirror room, there’s a reason there’s a staircase, what we call the Escher staircase…we wanted height, we wanted perspective. I wanted to use high-angle shots, I wanted to balance mirrors on ceilings. So, the set was designed to be conducive to the shots we wanted in there. Then you build certain sets and you shoot them and you go ‘this kind of looks like shit!’ There wasn’t one time in the mirror room, as tricky as it was to hide things and do things, I don’t think we ever did a take or did a setup where we didn’t go ‘this is f***** cool.’ I tried to milk that set for all it was worth. As hard as it was, it was worth every grey hair that I got.
With the first John Wick there was a bit of a slow burn, but then when it gets going it just goes. But with this one you started out with this enormous action set piece. It’s kind of hard to amp things up when you’re cranked to 11 the whole time, so how did you manage to work around that for the sequel?
Chad Stahelski: You’re talking with guys who shot most of the action in some of the biggest shows out there and it as an absolute thing. There’s some really creative people out there. There’s some really great ideas, but sometimes even great ideas become smothered with overwhelming. Meaning, okay, you’re doing, insert superhero name. ‘We’re going to blow up the city in the first act!’ We just leveled the city? What are we going to do in the second act? ‘Well, we’re going to make it about a personal struggle between X and Y.’ Okay? ‘And then we’re going to blow up the city again in the third act but with a big monster!’ What creativeness went into that? So, you can either go the bigger, better route, but you have to make sure that if you do bigger, better here, that means you have to do bigger and better in your next scene. It’s a vicious cycle.
So you sort of wind up chasing your tail.
Chad Stahelski: As long as you deliver that’s a workable thing. If you don’t deliver, nothing is more obvious to the audience. How many times have you watched that last scene and went, ‘Oh, they ran out of money there.’ It’s obvious in these big shows. We just went, ‘Okay, we don’t have a lot of money so what’s everybody got? Give me all of your smart people ideas.’ And I bet if I asked you right now, ‘What would you want to see in John Wick 3?’ And you gave me three or four ideas, I bet you at least half of them would be pretty good f****** ideas, because that’s something that you want to see. That’s how we approach it. We loved Enter the Dragon. We wanted to do Enter the Dragon better. I can’t blow up a city. I don’t have any giant robots. What am I going to do? I just shot, and I won’t give you the kill count, but I just shot a lot of people in Rome. I just shot a few people in New York. I’ve done sumo guys, I’ve done street musicians, I’ve killed somebody with a pencil! I don’t want to kill somebody with a pen now and I don’t want to kill a puppy, so let’s be creative. Let’s change the venue. Let’s do something that’s a little more psychological. You try to be more creative than just bigger and better.
You’ve done a ton of second unit directing and you’ve been in the business for a really long time. A lot of times people transition out of writing or whatever into directing, but I don’t know that there are a lot times where you get a guy that transitions from stunt work into directing. So how has that transition been for you?
Chad Stahelski: It’s a happy coincidence. A little bit of luck. When I was doing the second unit stuff, I got to work with very good directors. Spending 10 years with the Wachowskis on The Matrix trilogy was the Harvard of film schools. It didn’t take much to realize that if I want to be a filmmaker, shut up and watch how these directors work. I learned so much from them it was absolutely ridiculous. I’ve worked with Guy Ritchie, Quentin Tarantino, (Steven) Soderbergh. The list goes on and on. It’s a who’s who of directors. From Ang Lee to the Russo brothers. Just name a big time director and we’ve probably shot with them.
So you went to film school with the best people imaginable?
Chad Stahelski: Yeah, yeah. Even if I didn’t pay attention, I think through osmosis some of the aesthetics rub off on you. I’m lucky we did pay attention. I have a very strong belief in what I like. I have a very strong belief in what I like, or a very strong opinion in genre films that I like to watch. That and I think my dad, who is fairly successful at what he does, he built a business from the ground up and he has his little axioms. Get your hands dirty, that’s number one. Delegation is fine but be involved, make decisions. Make a call and stick to it and trust your instincts. And the big one is never be the smartest guy in the room. If you’re crew is smarter and better than you, you’re in good hands. Just always learn. You can sit back and bullshit your way through it and be dumb your whole life. Or, you can seem dumb once, ask a question and then be smart.
That’s probably really great advice when it comes to anything.
Chad Stahelski: I chose to be dumb early on, ask questions and get smarter as we go. And continually I’m still dumb and I’ve gotta say, If I put in these other chairs, if you brought in my department heads, you would quickly realize that I’m on the down end of the intelligence scale.
But movies are such massive things. It is no one person that makes it happen.
Chad Stahelski: If you have department heads, a crew and a cast, and I consider Keanu (Reeves) to be the head of the acting division, if you can get them on the same page, if they read your mail, if they you can get them to see what’s in your head and you communicate what you want and they are good at their jobs, you will get what you need. If at any point you have egos or any stuff like that, or you see that they’re doing it for their reasons and as a director you’re a shitty communicator, like, ‘Just do what I say!’ You’re going to end up with something that is not what you want it to be.
The first John Wick felt like it sort of came out of nowhere and then I saw it way later. I remember when I finally watched it I was really upset that I didn’t see it in theaters. It was really one of those word of mouth things. I think it was really clear that people loved that movie, so were you a little hesitant to come back?
Chad Stahelski: Yeah. I mean, it’s odd coming from a former stunt man but yeah, I was scared shitless. Of course. It’s the curse of the sequel. You do something original, so by definition, how do you do something original again when you’ve already done it? And it’s also, Keanu is a good friend so you don’t want to screw up his career. You don’t want to go in for a cash grab and go, ‘Yeah! Let’s just go shoot more people! It’ll be fine.’ We stalled and stalled. The studio came back right off the bat and goes, ‘Look, this is good. People like it. We should do another one.’ And we were like, ‘We would love to do another one! But only if we can come up with something.’ We all looked at eachother and said well, ‘How hard can it be?’ We started in January and it wasn’t until June of being constantly asked, ‘So do you have something?’ It took months to figure out, let’s just stop thinking about the plot and let’s go with the character. Let’s just show people what they want to see in the world.
Wow, so they wanted one right away and it was you guys who sort of put a pause on it? That’s cool that you took the time to get it where you felt it needed to be.
Chad Stahelski: They were very understanding. To their credit, other people might have gone, ‘Just shut up and make it! We’ll make a lot of money, let’s just shoot a lot of people in the head.’ They were patient with us, which was very understanding of them.
I think a lot of that kind of shows on the screen.
Chad Stahelski: The creative producers that we were dealing with got that. I don’t know if they completely understood our hesitation, but they got that like, if we let these guys figure it out we will have something that could be expanded upon, and I think that was a good call.
To speak the expanded thing a little, I think one of these things, particularly with big superhero movies, it seems like every studio is trying to cobble together some sort of cinematic universe of some kind. But I think if you look at Marvel that started with one movie that was good.
Chad Stahelski: We have a lot of similarities with them. We’ve worked for them, we understand them. It’s a very solid process.
With John Wick there is all of these fascinating questions you ask yourself when you watch that movie, and I think it was clever that you guys did that. So do you see this as something that could be expanded way out, beyond following Keanu Reeves’s story? Where you could just follow all kinds of threads in this world?
Chad Stahelski: Yeah. You know, right after John Wick came out, my partner David Leitch and I got involved in a project in the TV world and we ended up getting hooked up with two writers; Mark Abrams and Chris Collins. They had a background from Sons of Anarchy and a few other shows. We spent a good year developing something with them and kind of learning how the new TV vibe was going. And they were very, very instructional about how to really build suspense and tension. Im sure you watch a lot of TV. It’s not just about the plot. It’s about the expansion and it’s a slow burn. The more and more we got into working with them, the more I was like, ‘Wow! That’s a really cool thing.’ You don’t have to try and fit a trilogy into one movie. Just let it relax. Cut to John Wick 2 coming out, or when we were trying to come up with something and we started with that feature mentality. Let’s stuff as much as we can into the bag! And thinking back to what we had done with Mark and Chris it was like, ‘Just follow the guy. Let the guy go.’ So your question, do we think this? Can we do all of this? I believe in their system of like, follow the guy. Let the guy take you down the world. There can be ten John Wicks. There can be one John Wick. It’s not important how deep you go in the world, it’s how deep the character takes you in the world. If you enjoy John and you take that route, you’re always going to be invested in him.
So I’m a huge James Bond fan, that’s like, one of my things.
Chad Stahelski: Same.
When I saw John Wick: Chapter 2, there was the excellent silent henchman, there are all of these parallels. Is that something you would be interested in? You know, because Sam Mendes isn’t doing another one. If someone ever came to you and was like, ‘Do you want to do James Bond?’ Would you do it?
Chad Stahelski: I’m interested in projects where you can world create. To jump back into somebody else’s world where it’s already been around for so long would be scary. But if there was one property, that wouldn’t be a bad one to try and invest yourself. Especially because of the ebb and flow of the Bond universe right now, I think the timing is good for a slight reinvention with a different perspective shift. Bond has gone from completely serious to totally cheeky to really fun again, to emotional, to serious, to internal, to external. I would love to give the pitch and if they got my wacky version of it, and it fit, yeah. That’s almost a dream too big.”
In case you are one of those who missed out on seeing John Wick in theaters, it is available now on DVD/Blu-ray and digital. The movie is written by Derek Kolstad and is directed by Chad Stahelski. John Wick: Chapter 2 is set to hit theaters on February 10.