John Wick Chapter 4 has been a box office hit for the past two weeks. I recently had a chance to chat with filmmaker and stunt coordinator extraordinaire about working on this franchise and how it feels to create something that just keeps getting more and more successful with each new chapter. Our full interview is below:
Chad Stahelski: Hi, Scott. How are you?
Scott Menzel: Good, Chad. How are you doing, man?
Chad Stahelski: I lost my voice a little bit the other week, so if you don’t understand me, let me know, and I’ll speak again.
Scott Menzel: I’ll yell at you, “How dare you lose your voice after doing all this publicity work?”
Chad Stahelski: Oh, usually I just yell at a few people a day.
Scott Menzel: Haha. But seriously how are you holding up now? I know you have done a ton of press.
Chad Stahelski: Good, good. It’s lucky to be here. It’s always fun working with Keanu, so that’s been incredible. It’s great seeing a lot of the cast again, press has always kind of… You feel the buzz. You feel a little bit of excitement, and it’s… I don’t know. Watching it so many times in the last two weeks, it’s like you have this swelling sense of pride that no matter what you think of the movie, or good or bad directing, I love my cast. I don’t think there’s a bad performance in the movie. I love my crew. Again, whether you blame me or not, I’m very proud of what the stunt team has pulled off. I’m very proud of my cinematographer. I’m very proud of my post team and editors. Super proud of Kevin Kavanaugh, our production designer, and the fact that Louise Rosner, my production designer, managed to help us get five countries, and a hundred nights, all those actions set pieces for below what most people spend on a thriller, I think we’re very proud of… So that’s good. I have a lot of pride in my crew, so if nothing else, I have that.
Scott Menzel: You should be so proud. Let’s talk about the reality of this, you’ve created a franchise and a franchise that will be grounded in pop culture and will probably go down in history like the Die Hard franchise in a lot of ways. But the thing that’s different about the Die Hard franchise compared to the John Wick franchise is that the Die Hard movies got worse, and your movies got better.
Chad Stahelski: That’s nice of you to say, I hope so. We’ll see. Right? I don’t know. You would hope, right? If you returned to articles you wrote nine years ago, you’d hope you’d gotten better, right?
Scott Menzel: Yeah, I would hope so.
Chad Stahelski: So I think that’s what we all try to do in our careers is get better and move on. But it’s also like I’m sure if you love to write, you’re not going to stop writing in between gigs, right? You’re writing your own thing, you’re trying stuff, or you’re at least reading. You’re reading other people’s writing because you love it. You want to expand. First, you imitate, right? Like anybody, you try to emulate or imitate, copy, and then you try to create. So it’s always that process. So the original John Wick is a little bit of us creating, but it’s a lot of us imitating. It’s a lot of us going back to what we love, and then slowly you keep trying to imitate what you think is creative, what you think is great, what you think is… What you want to be, and then some in the middle, you start creating your own version of it and start going there.
So that’s I guess the natural evolution of creativity, or I always like to say I’m a craftsman. I understand the movie, the mechanics, I understand the logistics, I understand communication of it, and what it takes to make something good or something bad. I understand the money part of it reasonably well. To become an artist, that’s what you got to fill in the gaps. Push all that stuff aside, the craftsmanship, and given the right opportunity with enough practice with the right people, you slowly start to become a little bit more of an artist. And that’s always the journey, right? So I don’t know if I’m there yet, but it’s nice that each time I’ve been given the opportunity to expand a little bit and try new things and try to work with the best people I can to equally get better.
And I think that’s why the John Wicks, at least I’m told, feel and seem a little bit better or bigger each time because I believe it’s not about one more explosion or one more big set piece or doing some kind of gag casting or something like that. If I get this much better, if Dan Luastsen gets this much better, if Keanu gets this much better, with more skillset, if we just do our work in between the John Wicks and do the job, we all get that much better. And if we all get one inch better, collectively we’re a mile better. That’s just the secret, I think, to keep improving, expect this much more out of everybody, including yourself.
Scott Menzel: Yeah. I mean, it kind of tied into a question that I had. I was going to ask you, what do you think the secret sauce is to the John Wick success story?
Chad Stahelski: Been asked that a few times. I’ll take a stab at it.
Scott Menzel: Sorry, I know you’ve probably gotten every single question on anyone’s list at this point.
Chad Stahelski: But you’re asking the cool introspective ones, which make me think, which is always a good thing. Again, you look back and it’s easy for me to come up with some cool artistry answer for you or something like that, but the truth is you don’t know at the time. You’re just trying to do what you like. And I think the special sauce is… Okay, let me break it down into three parts. One, Keanu and I love what we do. What’s the phrase? If your dreams are mountainous, you better love the climb. It’s not about reaching the summit, it’s every inch. It’s the pain and suffering you take every inch of that step. I love figuring… I love painting myself in a corner to figure out how you like… If you can tell by our choreography and the logistical things I do, you got to know that I may be terrified to come up with ideas like the Arc de Triomphe or the waterfalls or that, but the excitement level of trying to figure them out overrides the fear of trying to do them.
Most people try to avoid challenging obstacles, whereas in John Wick, we embrace the hard because we know that’s going to lead… We call it like the Jackie Chan sequence, right? He doesn’t want to do the easy fight scene. He wants to handcuff himself and give himself a limp and be blind. And now you don’t… That’s hard to choreograph. But the hard is what makes it great, that makes it unique. So we’re trying to paint ourselves in the corner purposely so we can paint out. And that is the complete opposite, literally every other, I guess, action show out there. What’s the easy and the fresh or what’s the easiest way to get the fresh way? But never, what’s the hardest way to do the hardest thing? We kind of embrace that.
Two, again, what I said before, Keanu and I love every inch of what we do. We love being on set. We love the journey far more than… The rewards of doing a good job are great, but it’s sitting the other night in a personal cast and crew screening, where it’s just the people that made the movie just looking at each other going, “Awesome. I love you. I never want to work with anybody but you.” That’s a great feeling when you’re with your peers, I can’t even tell you. It’s so emotional to be in that room, be so proud of those people. We have that special sauce. We have that vibe where everybody, no fucking excuses, we want to get better, and we’re going to push each other to do it. And we learned that through the Wachowskis and all The Matrix trilogy about how hard we were pushed by long… Thing is, I guess we simply give a shit more than everybody else.
We put that line in the movie as a kind of a fuck you back to all the people that said no over the last 50 years, was pretty much how you do anything is how you do everything. We were taught that from… If you look at the book, the glasses, the table, everything matters, every extra, every background player, every stunt, every weapon, it’s all the same. Everything deserves your love. If you can’t handle putting that much of yourself on screen and worrying about every little detail, then that’s not directing is it? It’s telling other people to do shit or guessing. We want to put it all there.
There are no accidents in John Wick, you know what I mean? Except for performance. But as with my set deck and the action that’s all planned. Performances, yeah, we want the happy accidents. That’s why we do cars and dogs and waterfalls and shit that there’s no way we can control. So you want these happy little accidents and try to build up performance that way. But we’re both embracing the chaos, and the obstacles, and we plan more than anybody else. So you take that magic mist of control and chaos and you get John Wick.
Scott Menzel: I think that’s a perfect summary of everything. So, I’m a dog lover, and I have to talk about the dog. You have somehow made a part of John Wick a dog redemption story within these four movies. And what I want to know is how do you craft making dogs vengeful or seeking vengeance, and yet somehow still make them lovable? That is something that’s impressive. Like, “Here, dog. Attack this person.” But yet simultaneously, you’re like, “Aw, don’t hurt the dog.” And my God, when you have that scene where the dog is thrown at the freaking car, I was like, “Holy shit. How did you get away with that?”
Chad Stahelski: Oh my God. A lot of questions there, man.
Scott Menzel: I know. I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I’m hyped up because, I mean, you’re such a unique filmmaker, but I think you’re making movies, and you’re doing shit that no one else in this industry is doing.
Chad Stahelski: No, look, let me start with a 10,000-foot answer. We never write them as movies. We write them as love letters. You can see a hundred references in any one John Wick film. And I don’t just mean to other films. I have a museum fetish. I have a stigmata fetish. I torture people’s hands in every movie, right? John Wick, apparently his kryptonite, our car hits the stairs. Walk by stairs, falls down stairs, that’s what John Wick does. My musical interests, my compositional interests, my modern art and renaissance art, and every piece of art are all evident. I love cars and martial arts. Again, there are no accents. I cast the people I love. People I love on TV shows or movies, whether it’s Clancy Brown or Natalia Tena from Game of Thrones or from Highlander.
Keanu loves horses and motorcycles and cars and magical shooting. He loves Shakespearean dialogue. He loves non-verbal acting. He loves doing his own stunts. So I guess the way we do things at Wick, we don’t write them to be movies. We write them to be things we love. If I can turn the camera to the side, you would see that we have a whiteboard the size of a small football field in the next room where we write down; everything we love and everything we hate. We avoid what we hate about action movies. We write and do what we love. So about the dogs, I love that my mom and dad grew up breeding Irish Wolfhounds. So from age two to 20, I grew up with Irish Wolfhounds. Cut to when we finally get a script from Derek Kolstad, first time directing, and it has a dog in it. Not only does it have a dog in it, but it’s also the weirdest use of a dog you’ve seen since Old Yeller, right?
And the reason we took the gig was that it was genius and not in the way that everybody thinks. It had nothing to do with the action. It’s like, what’s one of the biggest problems in action movies? You have a guy that’s fucking pecked out. He shows no empathy. He’s got to be the hard man. One punch knocks somebody out. And then somewhere around the road, the actors and the director realized, “Well, we got to make this guy human. He’s got to save the little girl. Or he’s got to save the country, or he’s got to sacrifice himself. And it’s an action thing, or it’s a CIA file of what he did. He lost his wife, so he’s got this edge.” And we’re like, “Well, we want to show it, don’t tell it.” So how do you start with this almost stoic sigma male and make him approachable?
Because no one can be empathetic with someone that kills for a living. Like, nope, we don’t grow up… It’s like, that’s why I like body stunts. It’s hard to empathize with someone that jumps out of an airplane because we all haven’t done base jumping. It’s hard to sympathize with somebody that is in a spaceship. But we’ve all slipped on ice, and we’ve all fallen down the stairs, and we’ve all been bumped in a car. I try to keep it where you can relate to the pain, which is the kind of stunt work I like. There isn’t a human I know that hasn’t gone “Aw” at a puppy or a kitten.
So we use animals as a reflective board, as a mirror to show a different side of a character that we couldn’t see. If I take the puppy out of John Wick, it’s a very stoic character. That one scene with John in the bed and when he buries that puppy, that’s all you need to know. Now, it’s like, “Fuck you, game on. Kill as many as you want.” It was the easiest way to show a human thing, to get the audience on the same ride as John. I don’t want you to watch John. I want you to be John. Does that make sense?
Scott Menzel: Totally.
Chad Stahelski: We all love our dogs. We all love our dogs. So when that dog gets hit by the car when Chidi or Marko Zaror’s character throws the dog, is about the shoot him, and John saves him, we all cheer. And you’re not just cheering for John, you’re cheering because you’re in the back of your mind like, “If someone touched my fucking dog, that’s your ass…” So animals are one of the easiest ways instead of the dead wife or save the daughter, they’re a great way to reflect on a character that will never, under any circumstance, show you that human side of himself, but he’s forced to because no one’s looking, and it’s with an animal. And that’s how you get behind him. That’s why we took the gig.
Scott Menzel: That is fucking brilliant. I love that you analyze all the action movies, and you kind of like, “What’s something that everyone’s going to connect with?” Because you’re right, because you can take the dog and change into a cat, and it’s going to relate to somebody else, and it totally makes sense.
Chad Stahelski: And again, let me give you the big secret about action. People ask, and I’ll have you analyze my films, so we’ll keep it in the John Wicks. Do you see any camera work, or do you know any kind of editing style that’s just fucking genius, next level? Like we’ve outdone Paul Greengrass on Bourne? Like, no, I shoot on a dolly. I shoot very simple. I do simple editing. I do very clean shots and very clean editing, very simple, very meticulous with geography, but nothing groundbreaking. We do it well because we spend all our time and money on what’s in front of us, right? So you can see that Gene Kelly and Singin’ in the Rain is nothing if it’s not Gene Kelly. Not a lot of stunt doubles in that. Do you know what I mean?
So all that was a dolly on a giraffe crane. They come up; they come down, they get off—three cuts in the whole sequence, the most famous dance sequences of all time. We’re very much in that mode. It’s not really about hiding things. It allows the performers to do what they’re great at and do it in a very interesting and beautiful way. That’s all that goes into my thought process for that. It’s all about the prep and how we get it, and the skillsets. But again, the secret of action is not the action. If it wasn’t… I mean, I would think you’ve watched Singin’ in the Rain.
Scott Menzel: Of course, yes.
Chad Stahelski: If anybody other than Gene Kelly, because he’s not [inaudible] in there like that’s not… It’s Speed Two Electric Boogaloo. It’s not… There’s a bit of… It’s all charisma. There are no complex dance moves in it, and it’s just done and executed well. I mean, that’s what John Wick is. If you had anybody else making the same moves as Keanu, the choreography is not that impressive. But it’s Keanu Reeves doing it, and he’s selling it in his acting. So you’re not watching the choreography; you’re watching Keanu Reeves do the choreography. A better example is if Jackie Chan came on screen and started spinning a teacup in his hand, you’d observe that for 30 seconds. Go, “Okay, teacup, what’s he going to do? What’s he going to do?” You’re already in. He could do nothing, and you’d go, “No, that was cool. He spun a teacup.”
Do you know what I mean? But it’s Jackie. But if anybody else, if I came in and started doing it, you wouldn’t give a fuck. You’re like, “What is this guy doing? What are you… You’re wasting my time.” So what’s the moral of the story? It’s if you love the individual; if you love the character, you’ll love what they do. That’s why we spend 40 minutes setting up John Wick 4. You love Rina, and you love Hiroyuki; you love Donnie. They all get it. I took time with the intro. I knew it would be a little slow, but by the time I unleash it, you’ll care about everyone.
So when Rina finally kills the last guy on the staircase, you’ll cheer. When Hiroyuki dies, you’re going to be sad. Do you know what I mean? When Donnie Yen sips the soup, you will go, “Oh, fuck yeah.” You can’t wait to see what’s next. It’s the buildup. It’s the setup. You spend time and love for the character. And then, when it’s time to go, just don’t let the audience down. Give them some… But they got to love the person first.
Scott Menzel: I think that’s a perfect example. That’s why there are movie stars, right? Because you have to love the person. You have to love the actor. You have to fall in love with that person. And that’s the same way great characters are made and why they’re part of pop culture or film history.
Chad Stahelski: Any great action hero that you can think of, I guarantee you, before they did the action, you loved or liked them. There was something about the character before they did the spin hook and before they did the sword fight that you gave a shit about. I mean, Bruce Willis in Die Hard, by the time he’s barefoot running through the glass, you’re just like, “Fuck it.” Whether it’s Run Lola Run by the second time loop, no, you’re in it with this person. Sigourney Weaver, by the time she’s gone on that elevator tying the headband around herself, going for the alien, you’re just like, “I’m with this person.” That’s the key.
Scott Menzel: Absolutely. Well, Chad, they’re telling me to wrap. I want to end with one last thing. It’s not a question, I want to say that I run the Hollywood Critics Association. We’ve been honoring stunts since the very beginning. We feel it’s a significant craft to honor. I have already had conversations with Lionsgate about doing something for this film for next year. So I just wanted to let you know that I want to make it happen because I believe that stunts are something that every organization that celebrates films should be highlighting. And these movies keep upping the ante. So we want to do something to highlight this and the greatness of the work that stunt coordinators do.
Chad Stahelski: Any help we can get, we’re trying to push that through. I’m trying to be one of the spokespeople to help the stunt community come forward with that. Look, if you need anything like that, you get ahold of David, and you’ll get me on the phone the same day. So if there’s anything I need to do to help that in the lead-up, you want to do any screenings, you want to come in and talk, anything like that, I’m a hundred percent behind it. So please, I can introduce you to even more people. Feel free to contact me anytime, and I swear to God, I’m way on board with you.
Scott Menzel: All right. Appreciate it, man. Thank you so much. Have a great day. Thanks for talking to me.
Chad Stahelski: You bet. See you, brother.