Chad Stahelski is a name that's been known at the top of stunt lists in Hollywood for decades. Now, thanks to the sky-rocketing fame of the John Wick franchise, the stuntman-turned-filmmaker is now suddenly one of the most-wanted filmmakers for action flicks in Tinsel Town. To date, Stahelski has helmed three Wick movies and is attached to several more, including the highly anticipated Highlander reboot, something the director says is very near and dear to his heart.
Then, within the past week, he was named as the director for Arcana, an action flick from Lionsgate that's equal parts Wick, Fight Club, with an added hue of magic. But it doesn't stop there — Stahelski also co-owns 87eleven Action Design with Deadpool 2 helmer David Leitch and within the past year, the two have spun off 87eleven Entertainment, a production house with a first-look deal at Lionsgate.
Suffice to say, the director is as busy as one can be and we recently caught up with him to chat all things Wick, his immediate filmmaking plans in a post-coronavirus world, and more. Keep scrolling to see our full chat with the John Wick helmer below!
ComicBook.com: I talked to Derek [Kolstad] not too long ago, and he told me this cool story about how he and Keanu pored over the initial script for hours, prior to even having the movie picked up. At what point did you come along? When did you get attached to the world of John Wick?
Chad Stahelski: Keanu had met with Thunder Road, the production company, who had optioned Derek's script I think originally called Scorn. They got Keanu involved. I think you know the story. Originally, the guy was like 65. He was like a grandfather. Keanu got attached. They aged it down to more of a man, a middle-aged man.
Keanu and I hadn't seen each other. He'd been off doing shows. I'd been off doing a lot of second-unit stuff. It was a while. It was like six to eight months we hadn't really seen each other or really spoken for that matter other than "Hey, how you doing?" And he had heard through a couple other people that I was looking for a project to direct. So, being the sneaky dude that he is, he called me up. He's like, "Hey, would you read this script we're looking at? Could you help us with the action? It's a smaller budget action movie. Could maybe you and your company help out with the action and the stunts?" I'm like, "Yeah, send me the script."
I think he sent it to me on a Friday and I read it maybe that day and thought about it over the weekend. It was much more contained. I think only three people died in the original script. Two were in a car crash. It was very, very minimal, and it was slightly different. I read it, and I'd always had this idea about Greek mythology and how to tell more a fablestic kind of story, make a surreal action movie so it wasn't so grounded and gray, just something different.
So I called Keanu back on Monday and said, "Look, I don't want to waste your money or your funds or your time with bringing somebody ... They might come in to do second unit. It's overkill for what you have. But, I tell you what, hey, I will do this for nothing. I would love to try at least to give you a pitch on directing it." He's like, "Really?" And I was like, "Yeah that would be cool."
And I literally got together with my partner, Dave Leitch. I think we pitched Keanu on a Tuesday, pitched Thunder Road on a Friday, got the gig that week, and then went around trying to shop around to the different studios. It happened really, really fast.
So yeah. It came to cash after that and then I had to sell them on the whole idea of gun-fu and dogs, and we're not going to add a lot, but we're going to make it the best DT we can and we're going to make it really shiny and fun. Yeah. Everybody was on board. It was a really fun process.prevnext
You bring up an interesting point with the three kills in the original script. Obviously, there's the John Wick kill counter, which I believe is hovering right around 300 through three movies. Previously, you've spoken to paying attention to reviews and what fans are saying.
Is that something you're in tune with while developing these movies, making sure that the kills increase with each passing movie?
That's never been a concern. People joke about it, but the way I choreograph with my guys and stuff, we just choreograph motion and set pieces and we try to get this balletic kind of dance, live performance feel to everything. It's just when you shoot people in the head, they can't get back up so you can reuse a stunt guy.
Every time Keanu moves, he does two half circles. He's killed five guys. So I got to keep using more and more stunt guys. I think, just by nature, because Keanu's gotten so much better with the choreography and the martial arts and the motion and we change weapons so much and we get bigger set pieces, that, just by its very nature, because the scene grows, the body count grows.
But it's certainly not ... We don't start off going, "Okay, what was in number three? How do we beat it for number four?" We just choreograph and it happens.
Speaking of choreographing fight scenes and such, one scene I always go back to — I think I watch it several times a week — is in the first Wick during the bathhouse and dance club scene. I'd love to know your process from script to screen, because, in this moment, the movie had been pretty toned down so far.
Then you introduce one of the only pieces of music with words in the entire franchise. The shots are even to the beat, and there's even a moment where the lyric says, "Think of me," as Wick is looking at Alfie Allen's character. He could take the shot and end it all right there, but he doesn't. So I'd love to hear your thought process, not only introducing music to the fight and how integral that is to your planning process, but just how you dream up something like that.
I've come up with a bunch of different choreographers. I came up with a lot of different directors, and I've second-unit directed or action-directed for a lot of different directors. Everybody has their process.
It's funny. Some directors are very much into blocking. They'll do two weeks of rehearsals with a dialogue scene, then they'll actually do it on a mock-up set, and then they'll do it on a real set. And they'll work with the camera and they'll put a lot of tone, and they know it's just going to be an atmospheric or no music or a lot of music. They have that all blocked out.
A lot of times it'll come to action, and it's just more about capturing a list of who Keanu moves.
I learned very early on that when you choreograph an action sequence, you should treat it just like a dialogue sequence. What's the emotion? I mean, I certainly don't get overly wrapped up in any one aspect of it, but I do know ... Look, a bigger picture way is when you first start off your movie and you sit with your cinematographer, if you're going for a specific look of your film or something like Wick where there's a lot of different colors, we'll put up big still shots and we'll go, "Okay, in this scene, we're going to use oranges and reds. In this scene, it'll be earth tones, and this scene is going to be at night so we're going to highlight whites and blues." We do this whole palette thing.
And I do that with fight scenes too. I go, "Okay, the opening fight is going to be in the house. It's going to be a lot of shadows. It'd be a little bit noir. Then we're going to do this little scene outside the club where he's just going to come out of a shadow. Then we're going to do all reds and flashy lights, and then we're going to go neutral to go back into the flashy reds."
I don't ever try to rely just on the moves. I want color. I want color changes. I want bad guys to be in different clothes. I want the music to change or set these necessities. I want the vibe to change. Whether my character is tired or exhausted or hurt or angry, I try to put the emotion into it.
So even if I do the same five moves, every action sequence should feel different. Does that make sense?
So I believe in change and variance. So as I map all those out, we go through that. "Okay, so the red circle club scene, okay. First, it's going to have heart-thumping music. I want you to feel in your chest. We're going to choreograph the gunshots to fit into the downshifts of the music. Oh, we've gone to the spa? We're going to use Kaleida and it's going to be the opposite of the violence. It's going to be him just staring people down." When he stabs the guy with the knife, he's got those snake eyes. Keanu's got a really intense look. It's a little bit more subtle. He looks at Alfie and he knows ... John's not there to just kill Alfie. He wants to terrorize him, and he wants to scare him. He wants to affect him emotionally before he shoots him. That's why he doesn't shoot.
So we build that into the moves so that you have legitimate after moments. You have Keanu moments, the look, the stare. Sometimes you choreograph the moves and you try to get to the moves so fast, you take away the actor's ability to give you what you really want to see, which is acting, so we try to always build in the moments.
That's why you see a lot of struggling or the judo or the grappling, so you can see Keanu thinking and thinking and emoting what he's trying to do, or close quarter stuff.
So we start between the overall look, the vibe, meaning emotionality or is it super fast is it super slow, the story. He's got to go get the guy that's behind the guy that's got the bomb. And then we work the choreography around all that stuff. It's a lot of layers. It seems like just punching and kicking, but we do put a lot of layers into it.prevnext
Storytelling Through Fights
If I understand it correctly, you're classically trained in martial arts and such, right? At what point in your life did you realize that stunt work and fighting is just as impactful to storytelling as a script?
A couple answers to that question. Remember, I have an advantage over all the other stunt teams, all the other choreographers. I'm the director. So, at the end of the day, you can only show and help guide the director, but it's still the director's choice. You can show him the most vicious fights in the world shot by the best actually guys out there, and the director can go, "Yeah. That's cool, but I'm to do it my way."
I'm the choreographer. So, as I'm choreographing, I can think in my head how I'm going to shoot it. I know what the music's going to be. Basically, I'm the nexus. Everything goes through me, and that's a huge advantage. So I'm putting together in my head from step one.
Most directors, because they're not the martial artist stunt backgrounds or anything like that, they have to culminate all these other people's ideas and then make a decision from there. So I have a huge advantage having that background, having everything come through me, so I can plant it much earlier.
That's not to say you can't do it. I think it's an unfair thing because I can begin from the ground floor.
Second thing is, I came up from people that have that exact philosophy. I came up under the Wachowskis. They're the ones that opened my eyes to some of the greatest action directors are not stunt related. Between Spielberg and Nolan and Fincher, Sergio Leone. People forget Akira Kurosawa was a black belt in Kendo and Japanese sword work. He started when he was like eight. There's no wonder he was doing samurai movies. You know what I mean? People forget that about him. Leone was classically trained in classical music and Italian opera. That's why his movements were so flowing in live performance. Some of the best acting directors have a background that suggests they would be good at something else.
And I guess the important thing that no one really gets is martial art choreography, at least in film, is not martial arts. The big thing was after I worked with Woo-Ping and did all this stuff on Matrix, is the way they choreograph ... and I had a lot of friends at the time that studied classical dance. I choreograph. My team choreographs. We train casts based on the way a ballerina or a professional dancer or a live show person would train. Real martial arts, you don't need memory to remember 500 moves. We do. We need to know how not to hurt. We need to make the other person look good. We need to like strategize about how to get sequences in, how to incorporate all the different tools that filmmaking between visual effects, breakaways, special effects. So it's a lot more like stage performance than actual fighting.
So we take all these great guys that are backgrounded in martial arts and literally retrain them like professional dancers. We're currently training a bunch of casts just like that. It's muscle memory. It's heavy repetitions. But then we're working their memory every day. First week is five moves. Next week it's 10 moves. Even if it's the exact moves or not the exact moves they're working on their memory. They're working with the guys they're performing with.
You go to a live show, if you've ever been to a live dance performance or ballet, that's an hour and a half to two hours, and you never see a dancer make a mistake, and that's far more complicated than really any fight scene that we do. There are people out there, they can't remember five moves. Our guys are trained so that they can watch something and go, and that's how we train the cast.
Specifically, I think we do a fairly good job of training people, because we know we're doing. We're training performers. We're training performance, not just martial arts.
And I think, when you realize that, then you go back to that stage-directing mentality of every ballet, every dance performance has a story, has a thing, and that's how we took our philosophy about martial arts choreography from literally live dancer, live theater.
You bring up the length of ballet performances. What with Sam Mendes in 1917 or if you watched the Marvel stuff on Netflix, it's all about the extended one-take scene. There's the 11-minute Daredevil fight scene. As a stunt performer, is the art of the one-take fight sequence something that intrigues you, that interests you, or do you prefer more traditional routes of filmmaking?
Two answers. I'll give you the first answer as an individual, as just an audience member. Yes and no. If I know it's like Tony Jaa and it was an actual performance, like when he's going up the staircase in that movie, that was a literal one-take. There was no digital stitching. That was live. There's no hidden wipes or hidden movement. Yes. That's impressive to me as an individual, as a martial art guy, that you could get through that. And the stunt guys did a good job and how they did the boxes and how they did the falls and the stunts. Very impressive.
As a director, that's a choice. Personally, I love the one-take sleight of hand stuff. Children of Men is my favorite example, both good and bad. I like the opening of Children of Men. I love the way Clive Owen walks out of that coffee shop and they blow it all in one shot. It's unnerving. It makes me go, "Wow." And it makes you go the randomness of violence in that movie. I think it says everything. That one shot has so much meaning. Later in the movie, when the motorcycles are chasing them in the car, they do the chase all the way around, I think technically that's an incredible shot. I love the way they did it with sidecar. I wasn't half as impressed with that story-wise as I was with the opening one, and that's not to say it wasn't a great feat. That was more of like, "Hey, we're going to show you a cool gag," as opposed to, "We're going to show you a shot that meant something to the story." That's all.
It depends on your opinion of 1917. If you think the one-shot helps tell the story, I'm all for it. If that's all you got and you're telling me, "Hey, I'm going to do this whole movie in one take," that doesn't really get any tided, because I know it's, one, let's be honest, it's not one take. It's thousands of takes. One take is when the camera rolls and doesn't stop rolling till you're done. With the digital stitching of digital technology today, yes, you could do hidden wipes all day long. If that enhances the story and the movie and it gives you some shock value, like in a horror film or like response and action, a car movie, that's great. If that's all you're coming with, it's like, "We got an average story, but we're going to do it with a really cool camera gag." Again, if you pull it off, it's great.
So I can go either way on it. It depends on how the director uses it. I respect the work that goes into it. Some work. Some don't. As for myself, I enjoy editing. I think that's one of the greatest things about film. Maybe if it's serving a certain project I was on, if I wanted to do something really cool, but I don't think I'd ever just go out in a show and go, "Yeah, I'm going to do this whole movie." That's just not my thing, but I totally get it when other people do their thing.prevnext
Future of Wick Franchise
John Wick: Chapter 4 has been been announced for quite some time, and then Lionsgate just announced John Wick 5. How far along in development are you and the team, on those?
That's a tricky one for me. There's the studio business side of things that, of course, I think they think Keanu and I are getting on in our years, so they're going to try to do to two back to back. That's interesting. It's very flattering. I'm psyched that I have a studio behind me that wants to keep making John Wicks.
Creatively, we're pushing forward, trying to do as much as we can. The way Keanu and I approach it with our writing team is, "Look, we have ideas, but it's not like I'm working with two sets of writers on two movies." We're going to write a really good number four. If a really good number four feels solid to Keanu and I, we'll make that one. That doesn't mean we won't plan on a fifth or start writing five, but we want to make sure we have a solid story. The worst thing you can do is "I got five ideas. I'm going to put two in number four and put three in umber five." I don't want to try and stretch into two movies. I want to have solid ideas. So we're attacking number four with everything we have and if there's anything left on the table, we'll fully attack number five.
We have lots of ideas. We're just in the process where we feel really good about where we're going with number five. I mean number four. We feel like we have a pretty good idea, working hard on the script. We have some great action ideas. Keanu's really excited what he can do with the character for that.
And from there it's "Okay, great." Now we're starting to look at "Okay, where would this character be after this movie happens?" But it's hard to start talking about a five until you really sussed our four.
I'm just being safe in my answer because I want to make sure we have a rock-solid four and then we have a rock-solid five, and it's not just some "Hey, let's make a big announcement about having a lot of movies."
So, John Wick 5 is on the table pretty much if you guys want it. Obviously you've talked Keanu a lot. If the ideas are there, do you want to go past five or did you see an end in sight for both you and Keanu?
Look, if I was fortunate enough to only ever work with Keanu, I'd be stroked. He's a great guy, great creative partner.
Again, because the studio is generous to let Keanu and I control the creative path of the franchise, the limit of John Wicks is the limit of our imaginations. It's not like we run out of days and go, "Okay, what's the episodic mission John on now?" Yeah, I'd get bored of that. But because we can expand or contract the world as we see fit to carry the character, there's no existing property, so you don't have to hold true to what superpowers he has or doesn't have. We make it up as we go.
We both thought we were satiated after number three, and we both thought, "Okay, I'm good. We did three. Wow, they turned out pretty good. Wow, we dodged a bullet. Thank God." And we were both like, "Well, we're done. We did a good job. What's next?" And then we were on the publicity tour for it, and we were both sitting in Japan having a drink and we just smiled at each other, going, "What do you think?" He's like, "I don't know. I think maybe I want to do one more. I was like, "Yeah, me too."
So we had some ideas that we didn't get to use in the first three that we really want to try and do and expand the character and the world, and that makes perfect sense.
So short version of the answer is, look, as long as it's interesting, I have no problem working. There are other things Keanu and I both want to do, but we feel very good about John Wick. Do I see an end? My response is always John's in a world that you do bad things, bad things happen to you. So I don't know if John Wick's ever going to get a happy ending. He may have happy moments, but I don't know. We'll see what's in store for John Wick.
Absolutely. You bring up the world. There's the Ballerina spinoff and The Continental TV show. Are you still attached to the TV show? Do you still plan on directing the pilot?
Yes. The writing team has passed in their vision of what they would like to do, the pilot script, all that stuff. We're still in later development with that, but yes. If everything works out as good as we all hope it is, that'd be something I'd be very, very pleased to direct the pilot on.prevnext
Moving to other stuff real quick. Birds of Prey. What was the extent you worked on Birds of Prey with?
I'm friends with a lot of guys at Warner Brothers. I was friends with some of the cast. Honestly, they had shot pretty much all the movie. Cathy [Yan], the director, and Warner Brothers felt like they wanted to punch up one of their action scenes and add a secondary scene.
Because of my relationship with some of the guys at Warner Brothers, they asked, "Hey" ... It was more like, "If you're not doing anything, we know you're directing, but if you're not doing anything, would you like to sit down and do some riffing with Kathy, her creative team and, and Warner Brothers?" I was like, "Yeah, sounds fun. I'm a big fan of Margot Robbie's. I'd love to." I love Walter Hamada, who was the one running at the time, and Toby at Warner Brothers. They're all great people.
So we set out. We ran some ideas. We came up with some thoughts. Again, brought my team in, helped choreograph it. And just really collectively, we all developed the two sequences that we were brought in for and just helped them bring it to fruition.
There's Birds of Prey. You did stuff on Captain America: Civil War as well for Marvel. Are you licking your lips to get back in the world of superheroes again? Do you want a Marvel movie to call your own?
Good question. Look, I've done a lot of work with Marvel or at the time, Marvel. Everybody over there that I had worked for in the second-unit capacity and the action-design capacity, they were really cool people to work with. I've always had fun. My team has done so many Marvel movies I can't even keep count. Good people to work with and for, good people to collaborate with. Me, Darrin Prescott, David Leitch, we all worked on Civil War because we like the Russos. We love Marvel. We like the people involved. We know the cast fairly well. They're just good people to work for.
That's usually how we take a lot of our jobs. Is a job challenging? Are the people we work for fun or work with fun? Do we get to be creative? Do we get to work with smart people? That checked all the boxes, which is great.
As far as doing my own, I'm not a gigantic superhero guy, but I enjoy the movies. I love the Avengers. I loved Captain America. I like James Gunn's take on Guardians. I really dig him as a director and what he's done with that. Ragnarok I felt was really funny. I thought that was clever. I've come around.
If the opportunity ever came, the one that really jumps out to me would be like Blade. If they were going to redo Blade or something like that, just because I feel that one, for some reason, the vampire martial art action vibe. That would be a cool one to stretch and try and reinvent.
Other than that, it's like, look, I've got the John Wick stuff. I'm really curious about what I can do with Highlander and how I reinvent the hero worship stuff. Those fascinate me a lot. I just like more of the original properties that you can grow from as opposed to step into a number five or a number six. That's all. Just choice.prevnext
You mentioned Highlander, and then hot off the presses is Arcana. What could you tell us about Aracana? That's completely an original property, right?
Yeah. I believe it was Mike Finch and the guys put that together. I feel bad. I'm going to kind of hack the plot together real quick. If you had, I don't know, maybe John Wick, Fight Club, and magic all put together I guess. It's pretty cool, intense action. I hate to say magic, but preternatural and supernatural elements all rolled into a magical world of different factions. It's edgy and tough, and they did a good job coming up with this whole different kind of reality, which I really liked.
That's awesome. Final question: what's up next for you? What are you working on right now? What's the next thing you're going to shoot?
Shooting, who knows. With the world the way it is, you'd hope everything opens up. John Wicks aren't very contained. We're open. We have a lot of extras. We have a lot of stunts, so it's hard to gauge that. That's slightly what I'd like to do next.
Highlander is very, very near and dear to what I want to do next. And then I have a production company that we're trying to dabble pretty heavily into the TV room, so shooting pilots would be a fun way to spend some time with it.
Ballpark idea, do you have any idea when you want to start John Wick? Matrix 4 is getting close to completion, right?
Yeah. I reckon they finish by the end of the year. Keanu will probably want a small rest I would hope. We're fairly active in John Wick right now. In a best-case world, if we were shooting in spring, that'd be great.
What's your favorite John Wick flick? What superheroes would you like to see Stahelski tackle? Let us know your thoughts either in the comments or by hitting our writer @AdamBarnhardt up on Twitter!
Cover photo by Axelle/Bauer-Griffin/FilmMagicprev