Interview: 'John Wick: Chapter Two' Director Chad Stahelski Discusses The Man, The Myth, The Legend

John Wick: Chapter 2 isn't a sequel that delivers more of the same. There are familiarities, but it's more like the same engine in a slightly bigger, more stylish, and more aggressive car. The simplicity of the first movie remains, but the titular character finds himself in a larger and more dangerous world this time. The world, which takes a few ideas from Arthurian mythology, grows along with John Wick in the sequel.

Director Chad Stahelski, who co-directed the first movie with the uncredited David Leitch (Deadpool 2), shows audiences a different side of the character, while also delivering on the quality action sequences audiences now expect from a John Wick film. The director ups the stakes and increases the scale in the sequel without ever abandoning the titular character's arc during all the beautifully orchestrated madness.

We recently spoke with the 87eleven co-founder at the press day for the sequel. We discussed finding the right story to tell, the film's opening and closing action scenes, the influence of Buster Keaton, workshopping scenes with Keanu Reeves, and more with the filmmaker. Below, read our Chad Stahelski interview.

How did you decide on John Wick's introduction in the sequel? 

We're big fans of silent movies, or silent storytelling, or visual storytelling as opposed to just exposition. So I had to reveal what we've already determined is kind of a mythological figure. Once again, let's just stick to what we know, we'll just do it with ... When I say action I just don't mean stunts, I mean let's just tell a story [visually]. It's a wacky city.

I was trying to make a movie that was a good introduction to those that hadn't seen the first film. So how do you introduce that wacky world that half the audience is in on and the other half is not in, and satisfy both? So we're like, all right, let's do a little bit of action. Let's figure out what would be an interesting way to show them you're not in for a Bourne or a reality-based action movie. It's a little wacky, so let's start with some wacky aerials. We'll come down, and as a little nod to our established audience, we want everybody to know that we're making fun of ourselves. We're gonna start with Buster Keaton.

I went to Montreal on a scout for something different. Up there they had all these great projections going as part of an art thing in Montreal. We went to New York, and we saw all these kids from the NYC film school, and it was awesome, they're just walking around with his little projector on a little red wagon. It was really funny. With a little generator, they're projecting all these silent movie images up on buildings and taking pictures, and that was part of their art project. Like, that's f***ing genius. Yeah, I just talked to the kid, "I'm gonna steal your s***, man."

So I was like, I'm gonna get the right to a Buster Keaton film, and I'm gonna project it on a wall, to let everybody know out there we're making a fun action movie. We're gonna tilt down off that, we're just gonna see it f***ing crash, and we're gonna get right into it with "What the f*** is going on?" And then we want to do what I call The Shark and The Fish. We're gonna design the music so it's, "Da, da, da, da, bo, bo, bo, da, da, da, bo, bo." So you see this little guy, "Why is he being chased by this car? Ahh!" And it's like, "Oh my God, the shark's chasing the fish. What's going on? What's going on?" And then we're just gonna slam them in the car, and everybody goes, "Whoa." And then John Wick's gonna get up. All right cool, that sounds like an interesting way of doing it. But that's not it, we're not gonna show his face, and you're gonna go, "Who the f*** is this guy?"

And then we're gonna get into, let's see who can we get? We need a very mythological, we need an orator, we need an Ian McShane. And Keanu is friends with Peter Stormare, and like I'd work with Peter on Constantine, and we're like, "He'll never do it. I know he'll never talk to us." And Keanu's like, "Actually, Peter came up to me in the gym the other day and goes, "Why am I not in John Wick 2?" So, I'm like, "You're kidding?" Keanu's like, "No, no, I'm serious." I'm like, "Don't f*** with me. You're serious?" He's like, "No, no, no, really you should call him. Call Peter." "[Stomare voice] Chad, what's going on, my friend, I'd love to be in your movie." We're like, you're s***ting us. I said, "Okay, well I tell you what, you're gonna be the orator, you're gonna introduce John Wick to us in this."

Derek, I, and Keanu all sat down, and we wrote, "The man, and the myth, and the legend." And we wrote this little intro about how to recap the first movie. "He killed my brother, my nephew." We wrote that. We're just gonna do it as a cool little intercut.

What did it take to get the rights to the Buster Keaton film?

Phone call.

Just a phone call?

I have a great line producer, a guy named Jeff Waxman, who literally went in and said, "Are you're sure about this?" I was like, "Yeah!" A couple of phone calls, and we paid the licensing rights, it was very, very easy. Actually, I was shocked, too. I was like, "Really, it was that easy?"

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Derek mentioned some other story ideas for Chapter 2. What other ideas did you all discuss? 

Oh my god, brother, you don't have enough time. I think we started talking about a sequel in January, like literally right after the holiday. The movie opened in October. We were working on different projects at the time trying to finish our second unit career. We didn't know the first one was gonna do good. So that Basil Iwanyk, the producer, got us all on the phone and said, "Look, we gotta start talking about this. The studio is very interested in a second one." We had committed to engage it should we find an idea that was was worthwhile. It wasn't gonna make a mockery of what we had done in the first one, which is always the f***ing danger, right?

Right after the holidays, we started getting together. We all had ideas of cool characters and stuff, that was no problem. The world development, great. I already had like ten pages of notes. Storywise, was John Wick saving a cat, were we killing a dog, were we rescuing a baby, does he fall in love? We really got into the plot side of things. And to tell you the truth, six months later in June we still did not have a coherent plot. We were kinda s***ting our pants. The studio was kind of pressuring us to start shooting that fall. And we were adamant that like, look we're  – and I mean everyone, even the studio — not going into this with just a B action plot, like it's gotta be something that fits our world.

The ideas that had been chucked were anything from comical, to absurd, to kind of cool, just not us. Like, in any other action movie that was grounded it probably would have made sense. You know, about money, about taking over the city, about all ... it just felt false to us because it wasn't mythological. It didn't sound larger than life.

Then we were bitchin' to Keanu one day going, "F***, dude." He's like, "Look, what did you like about the first one?" "What do you mean? You know what I like about it, you were there. What are you talking about?" He's like, "What did you like?" I was like, "It was super simple, and it was based on a myth. It was a Greek myth. It was, you know, dog, love lost, karma, go kill people who killed dog." He was like, "Enough said. Figure it out." You know, yeah, the f***er's right. Keep it simple.

So Derek had introduced this idea about a marker, about a story we had told about in the stunt community, and it had happened once when I was in a stunt group. One of the older stunt guys had passed away, and they did something called a remembrance coin. It's about a silver dollar size, it has the guy's name printed on it and says, "In loving memory of 'individual's name.'" And when the stunt guys would go out and drink, one guy would pull out the coin, whoever didn't have the memory coin would have to buy the round. Just a, you know, goofy way of remembering somebody, whatever it is.

And Derek took that a step further to something called The Marker, and we took that as a bond on life. So it was like a favor, it's a bond, it's a check you write with your life. It was taken in a different way. He wanted to use it in a different way, and we're like, we love that idea, there's something mythical that it's a talisman. There's something cool about that. You trade your life for a favor. And we're like, well, wait a minute. John Wick got out. We're not doing a prequel. We wanted to, just didn't fit quite where we were at. We're like, okay, he gives that for the favor he did to do the impossible task to get out, and we're gonna hold that. So if the first one didn't have it, and the second one didn't have it, that's very karmically apt to what the kind of mythology we're doing. So we just kind of ran with that in creating a very, very simple story, like John owes someone a favor.

The sequel builds on ideas from the first movie. It's not like some of the standalone Bond films or other sequels. Do you see these chapters telling one story?

What you're talking about is the episodic theory, like Magnum P.I. The story is Magnum's doing something, bad guys do something, solves the case by the end of the show. Or, nowadays TV is it's three seasons of day to day to day continuing the story. I'm a fan of both ways, depends on the project. This I see 1, 2, and 3 is part of the same ongoing story, where we find him now. Granted, 1 and 2 take place within the same week. Number 3 may be a little bit more of a duration for John to get lost in the world then come back.

We basically almost have a prequel written, but we'd save that for other aspects of the property. Lionsgate is very interested in doing a John Wick TV show, and that seems very appealing to us to give those creative ideas to that entity. I think that TV could really expand on what that is, great, than we could in just a two-hour film. We'd like to wrap up the story we're telling now and then maybe save all our prequel ideas and our impossible tasks for that medium.

You mentioned you had pages and pages of notes before Derek started writing. Were there any memorable ideas in those notes that didn't make the movie? 

Oh my god, about nine pages of it. Nine or ten pages, so plenty for number 3. One of my favorite things, and definitely Keanu's favorite scene, happens in Rome. Before he goes to all the other assassins, he goes to a very Vaticanesque-looking building where he asks permission from certain clergy, religious clergy. We've tied in the ancientness and the mythological world of religion into our thing. It just bumped a little bit on the overall plot, because it was a little too ambiguous, so it was taken out. We also had a B-plot when we shot the film about how Santino was trying to control the flow of gold coins. Tied into those scenes,  there's a great scene between Riccardo Scamarcio and John Leguizamo.

Unfortunately, when we thinned down and really streamlined the plot, that B-plot didn't fit, so we had to lift the scene. It was a really fun scene between John Leguizamo and Ricardo Scamarcio, but that scene didn't quite make it. It was in Aurelio's garage. John Leguizamo gave a fantastic soliloquy that unfortunately, we didn't get to keep in the film. There are two characters that I can really expand on in the third one, one is John Leguizamo's character, Aurelio, because he's such a big part of the first film, and Lance Reddick character, as our concierge in The Continental.

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The major second act action scene in Rome is almost exhausting, in a good way. What did it take to prep that sequence? 

One thing, I love music, to the point of ridiculousness. That's why we did the club scene in the first one. I think music is a great motivator, especially when you're in a, not just a club scene, but music in general I think can tell a lot of the story. It can give it tone. And number two, we have a s***load of classical music that's been electricized a little bit. Like, the last scene in the museum is Vivaldi's Four Seasons Summer, I think. That was done through synthesizers and actually done with firearm percussion, instead of drums. We use Haydn, we use Chopin... there's a ton of different classical music in this.

I always wanted to do like an opera, but when I said opera, I think the producers thought I meant more classical opera. No, I want to do like Tommy, like a rock opera, and I want to do a gunfight. I don't want to do a club scene, like the first movie, I want to do a coronation, and we wanted to design something that was about live performances, and only for our underworld. Whereas in Collateral, Tom Cruise would fire a gun and everybody would run for cover, this is all our world, so if somebody's shot in the head, they'd cheer. This is like surreal, and like everyone's staring at me like, "What the f***? Is this a Dr. Seuss f***ing LSD thing?" I'm like, no man I want to do a rock opera.

Cassandra [Nostalghia], the girl we see doing the opera, she's the girl that did the vocals in the first movie for a lot of the soundtrack, for a lot of the score. So I asked, "How'd you like to do the performance?" And the wacky guy playing the guitar, that's Tyler Bates, he's my composer. He's the one who did all the sound effects for Guardians of the Galaxy, 300, and John Wick. I was like, "So, why don't you guys fly to Rome? We're gonna put you on stage for the concert, you're gonna do that, and in the middle of it, John Wick's gonna come through and we're gonna have a gunfight." They're all staring at me. And on top of that, it's gonna be in 2000-year-old ancient Rome. It's like, you're never gonna find a place [like that]. It's like, ah, get my line producer, we'll fly over to Rome, we're gonna talk to everybody.

The Colosseum was off limits, the Vatican was off limits. We go to Caracalla Baths, which is one of the oldest ruins in Rome. Our local producer there, a lovely man, took us in to meet the curator. They have a lot of events there. The Boston Symphony's been there, The London Opera's been there, so we thought maybe there's a chance.

As she's walking us through it, we're like, "Look, we would like to do a big stage right here. We want a lot of light towers. We want to put 500 people in here, and then we want our lead character to run through this." She's like, "Oh great. What's he doing?" "Well he's going to be running from bad guys and he's gonna be shooting two, three dozen people in the face the whole time." She's like, "Okay that's great, that's great. Just try not to step on those ruins coming through the grass here." "Okay. Oh ... you sure?" She's like, "Oh, yeah, yeah, that's great. Sounds fun." "[Confused] Okay, um. We were also looking for this place. We kinda had this image of him going through Ancient Rome, the sewers, the catacombs." She says, "Oh yeah, come with me right downstairs." "What? In the same location?" "Yeah, you're standing right above them."

So where you see that stage in the movie, directly, in the real world, those catacombs are directly under that stage. In movies, that never f***ing happens. You gotta do like three or four locations to put it together on film through editing. We're like, "Really, we go around that stage, step through this hole, we're in the ...?" "Yeah." "All right well down here we want to kill two or three dozen more people, but with automatic weapons and a shotgun." She's like, "Yeah." "How old are these?" "Oh, 2,000 years." "Okay, well this isn't ..." "Oh yeah, this is one of the oldest places in ... This a sacred place." "But you ...?" "Yeah, yeah, try and just ... You can't dig. You can clear, but you can't move any ancient stones." "Can we put lights on here? Can the stunt guy... But you don't understand when you shoot something ..." "Oh yeah, it's been here 2,000 years. You ain't gonna break it."

Like, we couldn't move a leaf in Central Park. But now I can throw 20 stunt guys against 2000-year-old ruins with a shotgun. That's kind of how that sequence came about.

To me, it was one of the funnest moments ever in my film career. Standing on that stage looking out over, having Tyler Bates and a real rock band behind me, playing music as all the extras are having a good time. Just kinda like, "Holy s***, somebody pays me to do this."

When John Wick goes underground in the tunnels, it's dark but, unlike a lot of action scenes set in the dark, you can tell what's happening. 

We have a fantastic cinematographer, Dan Lausten (Brotherhood of the Wolf), who spent two weeks down there with the action team coming up with a lighting scheme that was ... I like shadows. I like dark, but as you brought up, sometimes dark means you can't see. We did movie dark, which means you can see, and we did that with different shades of blue and green, as you saw down there. So you can see into the black.

The movie is gorgeous, by the way. 

Dan and I spent about four months designing the colors. I learned more from that man in a show than I've learned in my whole career.

What did those four months involve? 

I do something called the lookbook. I do pulls. I go on the internet, and I found every art, photography website that you can possibly access in the time allowed to a normal human being. Bring out colors, and palettes, and set pieces that are aesthetically very pleasing to me. Then I hand, literally, 8,000 photos to my cinematographer and we spend weeks going over each one. Then we devise a color chart, and what the scene means, and where we want to do it. Dan and I get on every plane and find these locations. He starts designing, and designing, and designing and then he's gotta make it happen on the day. He's worked a lot with Guillermo del Toro, who in my estimation is one of the best world creators in the business. What was the Guillermo del Toro movie came out right before we came out?

Crimson Peak.

Crimson Peak, yes, thank you. I didn't overall love the film, but the look of the movie and what he had done with color, and how everything could be so black but yet you could see so deep with the little of blue or red. I was just mesmerized. Again, we look a little too critical at things, so you can't really enjoy the film. Sometimes you're so busy looking at how it was done. I remember watching Crimson Peak completely taken out of the movie by how good the lighting and the world was. I was mesmerized, like who the f*** lit this thing? It's beautiful, and it was Dan Laustsen. I was like, how do I get this guy? I was amazed. I figured if he could do that with just simple set pieces, what could he do with old ruins and action?

Dan was an incredibly collaborative man who just loved to light, what we call now, in camera. There's a lot of lighting process being done post, in something called digital intermediate. You know, computers. Dan lights as if he's lighting for film, very, very much in camera and on the day. So when you're looking through the camera, you're looking at what you will get. To find that kind of artistry nowadays is fairly rare.

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How about the final action sequence? I imagine with those reflections and those tight spaces it was a challenge. 

Six months of prep. From development to actualization, and then another six months of post, meaning visual effects on how to get people out of reflection. It was a little tricky. We absolutely knew it was going to be difficult. It was a huge process between myself, Dan Laustsen, cinematographer, and Kevin Kavanaugh, our production designer. I could tell they were the right guys when I hired them.

I said I wanted to take Enter the Dragon and twist it on its head and add in lights and color, and neither one batted an eye. Like they go, "Ah, cool. We should do this." And Kevin was, "All right, well let's do it three dimensional. Put a stair, you know, [M.C.] Escher ..." A very famous architect, or conceptual drawing artist. We want to do an Escher staircase, an infinite staircase. I'm like, "Well that's a great idea." And Dan was like, "Well, mirrors are boring, let's put LED lights everywhere, and we'll change the color, and we'll project.

We all went to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and there was this video exhibition. We're like, well not just lights, let's put a video in there that'll change colors and flash and make it all weird. We're like, yeah, it'll be like a disco. It was just a bunch of really smart, creative men putting their heads together and coming up with something really cool.

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Are there any scenes without action that took extra time to get right in the editing room?

I really like, and I don't think it was the hardest, but I like the Gianna bath scene, just because it was so uncomfortable, and to try to do it tastefully. You know, the whole point of that, even the music, was meant to make you feel uncomfortable. When she slits her wrists and all, it's supposed to be, "Ooh, I don't want to look at this." But, it's cool, and it's also making you see a little inside to who John Wick really is.

You see him be compassionate. 

Yep. To bring something out, yet hard but soft ... It was tricky. That was probably the hardest thing for me to nail tonally. I'm happy with he way it came out. Did it work? We'll see. The Central Park scene was fun.

You're as interested in that character as the world, which is a part of why I think that scene works.

And that holds a lot to ... I find that interesting about Keanu, and anything he does. The trick is now that I know Keanu has a quality that people like to watch, how do you express it? Dan and I were very, very aware of that and how we shot Keanu, and how we wanted to track with him, and how we always wanted to put him in between things, and how we wanted black to go as red and red to go as black. You know, we're very self-aware of that, and hopefully, that comes across.

How do you and Keanu Reeves prepare for a scene like the bathhouse scene? Do you both have many discussions beforehand? 

Yes, but it's usually not on the day. Again, being a newer director, I wasn't sure on the process. Keanu gave my partner Dave and I a great deal of education on the first movie. Pretty much, "Hi boys, I love you, but this is how you talk to actors." Because we were used to stunt talk, which was, "F*** you, move your ass. Hit this mark. Don't f***in' miss. Left, right, up, down, now." Very direct so you cannot be misunderstood because people's lives are at stake. That's not the best way to talk to actors.

Keanu taught us how to workshop, and how to really work a scene, meaning, for the Gianna scene, Claudia Gerini the actress, we brought her to set a week ahead of time, showed her the set roughly before it was really built, brought her back to the hotel and spent the next two days just going over [the scene], rehearsing, just in the hotel room, and talking and laughing, and figuring the best way to do it.

Before that even happened, Keanu, Derek, and I had spent weeks working on the scene, what's important to say, what it is. The scene was much larger. What you've seen is the whittled down, right to the point version of it, which I think is even better. We usually start with much bigger scenes and try to get through what is important and what helps the audience stay true to the character and what rings true to the audience.

Keanu is very, very good at workshopping. He's very good at talking about a scene. When you engage in Keanu Reeves, or with Keanu Reeves, from day one of development 'til this coming Monday when we premiere, he's involved. We may be shooting the Laurence Fishburne scene, but when he's on break, he's like, "Okay, now let's talk more about the Gianna scene." He's very, very involved, which is great. So by the time you do show up, just like the action, we know what we want to get out of it. Then if something's not working, again, you're not trying to get it done, you're trying to buy yourself time creatively so that you're not getting it done, you're creating it, you're getting it better, you're workshopping it.

By the time we go there Keanu can come up and go, "This isn't really working for me." "No, it kinda is, but maybe we should just shorten it, and maybe you should try to walk over here, say this, and then hit him with that line." Then that may not work, but then it gives Claudia an idea to go, "You know what, that may not work, but what if I took off my dress here and I give the line about Helen here, and then I get in the bath." And Keanu goes, "Great. And then I'll walk ... Okay, I get it. So rather than me say it, let me come over and hold your hand." And that's how that little piece [went], you know. Rather than anything else Keanu wanted to sit by her, but look, he's changing the gun hand, and then he holds [her hand], and then he still shoots her, without changing a facial expression. Those are ideas that are all in there, but how they get developed is through a lot of talk.

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John Wick: Chapter 2 is now in theaters.