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Chad Stahelski Interview: The John Wick: Chapter Two director talks us through the film.

John Wick: Chapter Two launches in cinemas today. The film continues the story started in John Wick and follows our eponymous hitman now that he is out of retirement. It really is a fantastic sequel, equal to, if not better than, the first.

We were lucky enough to speak to the director of the film Chad Stahelski and he gave us an incredible amount of insight into all stages of the production. Here he talks through everything you could possibly want to know about the production. Be warned, there are spoilers below:

On Getting the Right Guy…

Don’t tell Keanu cause he’ll shit, but Keanu’s very talented. This doesn’t really work – the gun-fu, the long takes – it only works when you got the guy. Every action movie has the scene with the two guys in suits going ‘you know it’s John Wick, he was a Navy SEAL, he did this, he did that’, you hear about it. As action designers we fucking hate those scenes. Or you gotta do a montage of a pull-up, a quick punch on the bag…so we’re supposed to infer that he’s a badass.

You ever see one of those in a Jackie Chan movie? What do you see? Jackie fucking Chan. You see him doing it. You ain’t gotta ask, you don’t need that scene in a Jackie Chan movie. You just watch it and go I don’t know anything about martial arts, but that’s a badass. When you see him get hit by the ninth car and thrown out of the window you’re like, ‘he’s a badass!’

You like Jackie Chan? You seen at least two or three movies of his? Give me the name of his character in one movie? Can’t do it can you? Most of it is Jackie just out of simplicity because no one gives a fuck what his name is. Can you tell me what his occupation was other than a cop? Do you care why a chef, why a photographer, why a regular everyday Joe can do the things he can do? What do you care about? You don’t even care about the character and what his drama is. I bet you can’t even tell me the plot of half of his movies. You can’t, but you believe in the guy.

We had that approach with this. It’s like I’m not going to tell you what the tattoo means. If you don’t know the religious connotations of what we’re trying to tell where he came from, you don’t need to know. You just need to see this guy. When you see a long twenty second take and he wipes out a couple of guys and it’s Keanu Reeves in every twist and turn. It’s him spinning the car, hopefully you get it. It’s the real guy.

The believablity comes from Keanu Reeves doing it. So if you can’t see Keanu doing it, you’re not going to believe John Wick can do it. That’s where the whole theory of what we call action design comes from.

On the truth behind Hollywood fitness regimes…

You’ve seen the stories ‘I’ve trained for eight hours a day!’ Dude, I’m a professional athlete and stunt guy, and I never trained for eight hours a day. You train for an hour here, go eat lunch, have an hour there. To do a five hour section is fucking no joke. Olympians don’t train that hard. They have to take a rest, you just can’t recover otherwise, so half the stories you see in Hollywood are kind of exaggerations. It does take time.

If I put you in a room for five hours you wouldn’t make the first day. You have to start small, 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 you to the next level. You still can’t jump into ‘I just did five hours a day!’ I couldn’t make that, it would kill you. It takes ramp-up time. So when they say ‘I had six weeks of five hours a day’, they were probably sleeping four of them.

On re-making Keanu as a Stunt Man…

The whole concept was to train Keanu Reeves 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. We started with a cast member who said ‘I will give you five months of my life, I’m not going to take another job, I don’t care about the money, I’m going to live in this gym. Whatever you tell me to learn, I’ll learn.’ That’s the uniqueness that he brings and at the same time he can act.

Keanu luckily stays in shape in between films. He’s practising Jujitsu for just a love of it. He shoots. He drives, he rides his motorcycle, he’s got a great motorcycle company. He’s the perfect guy because he’s already in shape to start the training. Then it was throwing him in with world champions to get him into that level. Again, rather than training him as an actor who learns twenty moves, a big difference between how we used to do things and the stunt guys now, they just make them stunt guys.

We’re like, ‘we’re gonna teach you how to fall down and not get hurt so we don’t have to worry about cuts and edits. We’re gonna improve you and we’re gonna do all these memory games because it’s much more like dance. Dance is about remembering and dancing with you partner. We’re not going to switch stunt guys on you. The same guys you’re going to rehearse with for three months are going to be the guys you fight. That builds up that trust and rhythm. You’re gonna learn how to fall, you’re gonna learn how to adjust. If something goes wrong you’re not going to stop and go ‘oh we’ve got to do it again’ you’re gonna re-grab with another grip and you’re gonna throw that fucker right on his head. You’re gonna go. If the gun jams then you’re gonna clear it and reload, fight, we’re not stopping. This is the commitment we’re making. We’re not going to cut, we’re not going to use the B camera, there’s no out, there’s no close up, there’s no stunt double – he’s out having vacation right now so get it through your head – we’re doing this.

On that opening car chase…

Darrin Prescott, was the stunt coordinator. We started doing stunt-work together way back in like ’92. He did a lot of the Bourne movie’s. Just like our team specialises in martial art choreography and design, his speciality is cars.  If you get someone like Darren and the stunt team, I’ll brag a little bit, I think our 87Eleven stunt team is probably the best performance martial art team I think in the business right now. Darrin’s driving team I would say is the equivalent in that world. So to have those guys all working together, it goes off pretty quickly. He has shot so many car chases, as many as I’ve done fight scenes, so when you get that level of people who just want to be there, it is amazing. It’s one of the easier, and I don’t mean logistically, I just mean creatively, it was one of the easier things to do because we had a real plan. We had it prepped.

On the logistics of shooting on city streets…

When you see those big car chases, some of those are shot over weeks, with permits and stuff. That’s why you sometimes see the same block twice, to lock up a city is phenomenally difficult. Add into that, that most car chases are in the daytime. Can you imagine how long it takes to light city streets? You might look at a great city like London and go ‘this place looks great, we’ll shoot at night and it’ll be great!’ and at night it’s a black hole because you only have two or three street lamps.

The opening car chase we actually had to shoot up in Montreal because there’s no way we could have done what we did up in New York. They have a speed limit which is really weird. You can’t drive past 35 on public streets, which I don’t know if you’ve ever driven at 35, but it’s not very exciting. It’s basically going back in time. We drop a motorcycle in the first scene and New York is also worried about the streets so we had to go and shoot the opening in Montreal.

That’s why you’ll see car chases at the docks or in a warehouse or something, because it’s a controlled environment. You don’t have to deal with the cops, you don’t have to deal with passerby’s. So many times in car chases you can’t really lock up a city. There’s always going to be some questionable human that thinks it’s a good idea to walk across the street. We’ve had a couple of close calls like that.

Go back to Captain America, the car chase with Samuel L Jackson, they go on for blocks and blocks and blocks in Atlanta, in the day time, they’re crashing cars. That was four to six weeks to shoot that sequence between first and second unit. Just to show you the massiveness of what we have to do. We just didn’t have the time so we went back to Darrin and go ‘here’s the idea. We’ve got not time, no money, we’ve got three days’ (laughs). How do we do this and keep it fun?’ If we had just had John being chased around a warehouse, all of us including myself would have been bored out of our minds.

On Car-fu…

Darrin just goes ‘let’s just do car-fu, it’ll be great! John doesn’t run from anybody, he smashes them!’ I thought that was a good idea. He uses the car. He’s not going to shoot anybody, he’s just going to hit them with doors and cars. We came up with every way we could possibly ram something.

Keanu’s a really good driver, I don’t know if you know he actually like races motorcycles – he’ll play it down – but he’s also actually got some real rally skills. He’s as good as an average stunt guy in a car, maybe even a little bit better. So when he whips around the corner, they call it a sliding drift, that’s really him. The door is off so you can see him better. We knocked the door off so you can see ‘oh look it’s Keanu Reeves’. That’s him doing the reverse 180, that’s him doing a few other things in it. It’s good, Keanu can drive and it’s cool. You don’t really get to see him smashing [in the first film] so we told Darrin to ‘take him out to the bumper car thing, we’re gonna have Keanu Reeves smash into stuff. We’re gonna hit guys with cars.’ That’s really him hitting a dude with the car at the beginning. That’s really him doing the head on. It’s really him backing up into the guy. We just wanted to see Keanu Reeves smashing people. You put the right harness in and stuff and he was good. We taught him how to tuck his chin and not knock himself out.

On continuity amidst car carnage…

You know how continuity works, where they shoot in order? Sometimes if you ding a car, and there’s a high probability of dinging a car when you do a car chase. You ding a car, you have to deal with the continuity. You have to VFX out the damage and we were like ‘let’s just get rid of that too.’ We called it the car gang bang. We’re just gonna have Reeves jump in and hit him with five cars, then we don’t have to worry about how the car looks.

On the hardest stunt in the movie…

In the opening scene we have something that is called the flying drift. It’s not easy. You can look up some of the really good drift rally drivers on You Tube, those guys do it in open space…We had to go to stunt driver Jeremy Fry and go ‘okay we’re going to do it and we want you to  go through a door’, he goes ‘great, sounds fun’. We tell him ‘we’re going to build a ramp, it’s going to be great, never done on film before it could be cool. It’s a cool little show off move, a good thing for John Wick…little thing, if you turn the car sideways you can clear by eight inches either side.’ That’s when it got a little quiet. (laughs).

So that shot in the film is take two. First take literally sheared the car in half. Doorway, there’s a ramp and the car has to go sideways. A flying drift is when you wet the ramp, he actually has to go into a drift so he goes sideways before he hits the ramp. If you go the other way… you know you can’t steer a car in the air? He has to set the drift before he goes in the direction. You ever lose control in the rain? You can feel the over steer and you just go, it’s simple physics… When you do car stunts you kinda gotta go, there’s no half. There’s certain speeds in physics that you have to apply by. So he sets the drift, and he goes and the back-end hooks just a little bit, and forced it into the hood side wall. Literally cut the car in half, it was not awesome.

Jeremy the driver, you could see him head down going ‘urgh, messed up’. Darrin gets to me and goes ‘Get the next one!’ We only had four mustangs for the entire film. We had to do a little tweak with the brakes on the next and we were like ‘Jeremy, it’s good, no problem, don’t let it get to you man, don’t let it get to you…but don’t fuck this one up.’ That’s the take in the movie. He fucking nailed it! Jeremy is like the zen Buddhist of the driving community and American stunts. To get a smile out of the guy is a big deal…he knew he’d done good. It seems simple in the movie, but that’s probably one of the hardest things we did in the whole movie.

On John’s love for his car…

Hopefully everybody know what kind of movie this is – it’s fun right? Please do not take it seriously. So we’re gonna do this whole thing and he’s going to get his car back, he loves his car! The gag is he doesn’t give a shit about the car, it’s the card in the car. He just wants his wife back. We all have those little trinkets from the ones we love. It’s funny, I still have the very first card my wife ever gave me. It’s by far the sweetest, because it’s before I think she got to know me. That goes in the lucky notebook, wherever you go you’ve got to take that. Keanu had something very similar in his life. We just thought it’d be cool that he’s gonna beat up all these people to get the car back.

On how John Wick differs from other action movies…

What we tried to do with John Wick was a character driven plot instead of saving the world from giant robot spaceships, ‘the over complicated story’. Every action movie sometimes forgets. It’s a big thing when you go in as a second unit director. You’re usually brought in to choreograph the action and [in some cases] you’re brought in to fix it. They bring you in after they shoot the movie, you shoot the additional re-shoots, somebody didn’t get it right.

It’s usually tone or they’re trying to make something they’re not. Meaning they’re trying to go like ‘we’re gonna make a great action movie! It’s gonna be about martial arts in a tournament! It’s gonna be Bloodsport all over again! But then we’ve got to save the girl and his daughter gets kidnapped and…’ You try to make it something else that it’s not. Then you spend sixty pages of the script about the daughter, about the backstory, about the dad feeding her cereal. Do you care? You don’t get to learn what you really want to see.

We just wanted to do something like a man with no name, you don’t need to know where he comes from. We want you to see who the character is. I don’t want to tell you about it. John Wick walks through and people go ‘oh Jesus’, that should tell you something.

On John Wick versus Sumo Wrestler Yama…

I had seen a sumo match right before we started shooting again. I was like ‘we need a sumo player’. That’s were Yama [Yamamotoyama Ryuichi] came from. Currently Yama, is the largest Japanese human recorded. He’s 602 pounds. He was doing a promo thing in LA so I met him. He came up and I was like ‘oh my God!’ We had the spring floor and he kinda bent the floor a little bit (laughs). He didn’t speak any English, but he told my to ‘hit Yama.’ Yama is 6″6 so he’s a little bigger than me at 600 pound, and he wanted me to hit him. I literally felt myself sinking in and then you hit a wall of muscle and you bounce back out. It was the weirdest. I’ve never made contact with a sumo guy before and I fought a lot of people back in my day. It was pretty eye-opening. I was like ‘Holy shit! So how do you fight a sumo guy…?’ Then I was ‘oh Keanu can get on his back and go like this’ [mimes fighting]. So that little bit of magic evolved. Yama turns up to set and he says ‘jump up on my back, it’s no problem.’

On what was left on the cutting room floor…

There’s a whole other pencil fight that didn’t make it. It just had a different story point. We had a whole sequence in China Town that was in an early trailer… We purposely did two pencil deaths cause in the original scene we did this bar in Chinatown which was three men in a bar with a pencil. We actually literally did it [the story]. It was cool, but then we were like ‘lets be a little not so on the nose, and we’ll do two’.

On keeping away from stunts himself…

I was adamantly against me doing anything (laughs). I’m older now. Once you hit forty, getting hit by a car sucks. The stunt team that I had, they love that stuff. You’re twenty eight years old, you’re doubling Keanu Reeves, it’s Neo! Jackson and Danny, the two guys who did the staircase fall, they are two of my best guys. We had walked down the staircase when we were coming back from the Colosseum in Rome. We looked up and went ‘oh that would suck…lets do it here.’ They got pumped. They couldn’t have been happier. They were high-fiving each other beforehand, ‘this is gonna be awesome!!’ You’re looking at them thinking, ‘this is gonna suck.’

They did it twice. They did all the way down once and then we had to do another; one little thing we did didn’t work so they had to do it all the way down again… They got up a little slow. That really is them trying get up. I’ll give you a funny little insight. Those voices when they come down the stairs, they come down the first set, they stand up and they go down again. You hear the guys go ‘come on fucker, let’s go!’ That’s actually Jackson. They knew that if they didn’t stop it’d be good, but if they stopped they were gonna have to do it again. They kinda made up their mind; Jackson’s like ‘no matter what, we’re going down’. We actually hear him pick up Danny, the double for Common, and go ‘Come on Fucker!’ and throw him against the wall and you hear Danny  go ‘No! No! No!’ and then he goes ‘Yes we’re going!’ It was so fun. We listened to it in editorial over and over again and editor Evan Schiff thought it was the funniest thing he had ever heard. ‘We’ve gotta leave it in the movie,’ I was like ‘alright’ so we got the sound guy to dial it up a little bit and now it’s in the movie. That’s really the stunt guys talking.

On a tight shoot schedule…

We shot this movie in a day less than the first movie and it’s three times the movie. The pace you have to work at is accentuated. When you’re dealing with action and cars and puppies and children, it’s not always up to you – trying to get the dog to sit. You try to chalk up your probabilities like in Vegas, you try to up your odds with certain controllable factors.

On Enter the Dragon… 

Huge fan obviously. Our mirror scene was throwing the glove down to Robert Klaus. He stole it from Lady of Shanghai, he’s very open about that. I love Enter the Dragon and I wanted to do a mirror room thing. I thought that would be a cool thing to do with a gun fight. That was probably the first action scene I had conceptualised for John Wick 2. In fact it was something I wanted to do in John Wick 1 with Dave [David Leitch], but we just never got to it. We couldn’t afford it. It was a big deal to build and prep that. It took months.

On Pitching that mirror sequence…

You’re financially accountable, so when we build a three quarter of a million dollar set, when you budget half a million dollars for VFX, you don’t know if you’ll need it, but you have to put the money aside so you don’t spend it. You have to explain it, you have to justify it, ‘let me get this straight. You guys want to do a gun fight in a room with mirrors, but it’s gonna be coloured reds, blues and purples and you want a video screen so there’s no possible way to edit and totally match it because of the video flicker. You want to do this and you want water in it too, but then you want an Escher staircase that’s an infinity staircase that bounces light in the other direction. And you want us to pay for it’… ‘yeah.’ You have no idea if it’s going to work. It could be a complete disaster, a complete cluster fuck, but you have this feeling. They had obviously seen our other stuff and had a little bit of faith in us.

Shooting the mirror hall sequence…

It was a little tricky. If it’s just a mirror it’d be easy to wipe out the camera out of it. You forget that with Parralax one reflection is actually about, it can be as many as 164 in that room. And its all from different angles so if you take it out, the blue screen implement that you’d have to put back in, you’d have to shoot from all the different angles. The VFX guys were like ‘it’s not what you think it is, don’t get too crazy in there.’ So if we could do it practically, we did it practically. When we actually had to do straight on perspective shots that’s when we used VFX because it was the most effective to use. Most of it was just, we had these panels of glass, we’d just hide people in them. We bounced reflections. I’d like to claim some kind of genius for that, but it was literally three months of every weekend going up in the rehearsal hall with mirrors. It was incredibly difficult, but there wasn’t a day that I went ‘oh this is a bad idea’.

On a Love of reflections…

I love reflections and all of that stuff. So every scene got a mirror, puddle or glass reflection. When he opens the door for Santino, you see Santino in a reflection first. That was a very conscious thing. Directors get wacky man, because we get bored. So you try and put some meaning to everything you do. I wanted you to get the idea of where things are headed. There’s all these little hints that the last scene in the movie is going to be this mirror room scene.

John Wick: Chapter Two is in cinemas across the UK now. 

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