'John Wick' Franchise Director Chad Stahelski Talks Shooting Action And Building Characters In A Spoiler-Heavy Interview

The summer movie season will remain abuzz after the triumphant arrival of John Wick: Chapter Three – Parabellum. If ever a movie could be a mic drop, it's the latest chapter of everybody's new favorite killing machine and dog enthusiast, John Wick. The sequel has it all, starting with another performance from Keanu Reeves that leaves a big fat mark on pop culture.

Director Chad Stahelski attributes the success of the franchise to Reeves, whom he's been working with ever since The Matrix. When Stahelski says the actor is giving every frame his all in this movie, nobody could ever question that. Reeves brings a believability to the poetic and ridiculous action, a sincerity to the drama, and a powerful presence and sense of ownership to the role. In another actor's hands, John Wick, as we've come to know and love him, wouldn't be John Wick.

During our wide-ranging interview with Stahelski following the franchise's biggest opening at the box-office yet, he told us why audiences connect with Reeves as Wick, how he always goes for beauty in his movies, how he shoots action, and more.

Telling John Wick's stories in chapters rather than a trilogy, what sort of freedom does that give you? Is it less restrictive? 

If you're familiar with any of the other films, we try to do storytelling a little different than just having a plot-based film or a three-act. We often joke saying we have two acts: man and mission. I'm a big fan of the Kurosawa stuff, I'm a big fan of Sergio Leone, which instead of plot it's more about journey. You follow a week in the life of an assassin, and John Wick takes you through our world.

Rather than doing this whole massive character arc, we try to stay to thematics, and it's about grief and consequence, so that's really where the conversation starts. What are our options? What would John Wick actually do? What would we do if we were John Wick? What's the normal thing? Try to turn it on its head, and react as if you're really in the story. That's kind of how we get the endings we do, and how we get John's motivation. That's really where it starts is dealing with that.

Since they're chapters, it's not a third movie that needs closure, him dying or him finding peace and living in a cabin. But another ending at one point was considered, right? What was it? 

We're talking way back in development. Nothing that was actually scripted. But originally, we were trying to break the timeline, and there's a little joke behind the cameras, we didn't have any plans other than one film at a time. When we did John Wick 1. My colleague, Dave Leitch, and I, we figured that was the end of it. We'll be lucky if we can get a directing job again. We did Chapter Two, and it was the same thing, so Keanu and I were like, "We'll never work again."

Whereas Chapter Three, we're like, "Oh, okay." We just look at it like, "Okay, the guy's done this incredible journey. He killed hundreds of people. There is no way this guy rides off into the sunset. It's not going to be a happy ending." There'll be an ending and moments of levity, but any comedy's a tragedy, any tragedy's a comedy, depending on where you look at the endpoint. And then we were like, "Okay. Where is the only way out this guy can go?"

When we started conceiving number three, we're like, "Look, dude, you can't beat the High Table. You can't beat karma. You can't beat fate." Now, in how it ends, there are remnants of our idea in the speech with Winston in the glass house. You know — it's not about who do you choose to live as, but it's who do you choose to die as. And that was the theme we were going to try to end the movie with John Wick's choice of not who he wants to live as, but who he wants to die as, and he wants to die as somebody honorable, somebody that his wife can be proud of.

With the ending, I like to think he's going back to who he once was, the old John Wick. To you and Keanu Reeves, who was the old John Wick? 

In the first movie, when he goes into the bathhouse, that was remnants of who John Wick was before he met his wife. Someone that, whether on purpose or mistakenly tried to live his life with that coldness and harshness, that determination to carry out a task, as opposed to filling it with love and passion. Yeah, it's been dwelling in all of us. How do you fill your day, with love and hate, hate and remorse, or is it hope and value and honor? It's all those many things mixed into a very simplistic journey of a guy to finding who he is. He can see all the mirrors and the reflections, so there's always going to be some level of duality.

John Wick before now is probably a very empty person inside, too. Lots of talk, lots going on in the mind, but an empty heart. After that, he's experienced and has something they're jealous of, but you get a common consequence, and he can't fully realize that. Where we kick off in the first movie, I'm sure he's very conflicted about who he is or who he should become. So hopefully, the John Wick you see at the end of the third film, he's a completely new character than you saw in the beginning, middle or end of either of the first two movies.

John Wick Chapter 3 Clip

You feel the punches he takes in this movie. The brutality has a little more sting to it, like the knife in the eye or something more subtle like a dancer peeling her toenail off. What made you want to go a bit harder with the violence?

I get that, and I totally see where you're coming from. I've been choreographing so long, and I don't mean to sound like it's dehumanizing or I'm insensitive to it—there are levels of movie violence that I don't wanna experience. I have my limits as well. The action in the movie, I'm not really looking at that. I'm not looking for gore, I'm not looking for shock value, I'm not even looking for psychological torment. I'm just looking, okay, a guy gets stabbed in the eye because it's fragile. Any special forces guy, law enforcement, military knows the headshots are very, very prevalent in current gun work. So, we just do what normal people do real. You run out of bullets, shoot people in the head. So we try to do that.

If you get in a knife fight the head, the neck, the throat, things that you don't really see in movies, those are legitimate targets and those are things that they do, so we just do that. We weren't conscious of trying to up ourselves in terms of violence; we just choreographed and then we spawned the effects and the consequences due to what we choreographed.

In terms of the theater of pain and the toenail, that's my Nietzsche coming out. Our pain, life is suffering, I totally believe that. One hundred percent I believe that. I'm a big Nietzsche fan. I believe in the Joseph Campbell, fractured hero, put the guy in a theater of pain. The more you beat him up, you feel like John is paying for what he's doing. You can only shoot so many people. Because he does this stuff, he's actually paying for it. Karma is slapping him back and that makes it more justifiable what we do with John.

Also, it's a little tribute to a lot of dance choreographers like Bob Fosse to ballet choreographers I get great influence from. Martial arts choreography for film is a hundred times more like dance than it is about competitive martial arts, combative martial arts. So, if you've ever gone behind the scenes and watched ballerinas training and watched the abuse, they're some of the toughest athletes on the planet in my mind. So, it's not just the soft tippy toe stuff — they're freaking hardcore athletes and you just wanna show what they go through, and breaking off toenails was one of them. It's also a character trained to shoot, you're gonna deal with the Russian Ruska Roma, the Russian gypsies mob or assassins or up and comers, then that's the level of toughness you're gonna have.

Was the school John returns to at all inspired by Jackie Chan's childhood at the Peking Opera School?

Yeah, it's a good analogy. It's been brought up several times to me over the film. Great comparison. Was it really inspired that way? I think it's a good comparison, I wish it was. I wish I was that clever.

[Laughs] Since this is your third film and your second sequel, what are the biggest logistical and creative challenges in making a successful sequel, especially in regard to Chapter Three?

There are logistics: how much money, how much time. We trade money for time. You start with so many days and then because you want to do New York and you want a glass house, you start neutering certain resources to put other places, and that is always a challenge, but certainly not the biggest. Every film goes through some logistical and scheduling frustration.

We're basically creating an original property; it doesn't have a comic book or a book. Literally me, Keanu and one of our department heads or one of our writing staff coming up with ideas to build this world out. It started small and we kinda grew, but there's the temptation to revert back to what people laughed at in the first one and bring back the same characters and do the same gags. Play it safe, do the same kind of action, and then there's the challenge of, can we do better? Can we do something a little different? They call it the curse of the sequel. They love the first movie because it's original, but by its very nature, the sequel can't be original in the same way as the first one is because it's a sequel [Laughs]. So how do you become original, how do you keep the audience invested in what they love and at the same time, show them something new? They want to see it again, but they don't want you to repeat exactly. It's that fine line, and for any filmmaker doing a sequel, whether it's their own original thing or stepping into somebody else's shoes or following in someone else's shoes, that to me is probably the biggest challenge.

To tell you the truth, it scared me shitless. There's not one of these I haven't been on literally feeling nauseous every day on set. Am I doing enough? Am I doing too much? Am I going too far off the track by expanding this? And that's always the thing in a John Wick movie. No rules, but at the same time, you gotta keep it contained but still open. It's the weirdest feeling ever creatively, and that's absolutely the biggest obstacle.

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The world expands with just the simplest suggestions. Without explicitly talking about Wick and Sofia's past, it makes the world bigger. With Wick's relationship with her and other characters, how much do you guys talk backstory and how much actually needs to be said?

It's a mantra between Keanu and I, "Less is more, show don't tell." You always see a scene in most action movies where there are two cops or somebody's at the bar and they're showing you the folder of the assassin. "This guy did this the other day, he killed this many guys." They talk about it. When you finally see the guy do something it's like, "That's the badass he was talking about?" So we try to cut out scenes and rely on subtext. I want you to see John Wick be a badass and no one ever has to say he's a badass. They just have to go, "Oh, John Wick. Shit. That's not good." Or you see Keanu do something and you're like, "I get it. He's a badass, you don't have to tell me."

Same with backstory. Halle [Berry] can look at John with the anger, the love, and the look and stoicism and still agree to help, and that should tell you there's something there. I don't need her to say, "I love you. We were together for five years." If you've gotta say that, you got the wrong cast or you've gotta drop the writers. I think Keanu can say a lot with a look, and the audience can see a lot of action. I mean, you've seen a lot of action movies, right?

Yup.

You might still get the gist. You see Keanu in the desert, how many walking shots do I have to show you how this ends up? Same thing, I made the decision how I tell the story, not just what the story is. You can have a great story, but if you're not telling it right, it's not the same. If you have a great character but the action's not there you're not helping the character, it's not helping the story.

The other thing is, my audience chooses to watch my films and they're smart, they're clever, they get it. They get what we're trying to do, so do you want a movie explaining what you can already surmise? No. Wouldn't you rather just see these two great actors and characters sit there and really zone each other out and really fill each other out and agree to it? I love that. I love the Leone "Man With No Name" stuff. When you see Pale Rider... go back and watch that and tell me how often Clint Eastwood says anything about his past.

The mystery is more satisfying. It lets your imagination run wild.

Yeah, exactly. And what do you and I talk about forty years late? We're talking about that character. And why? Because you have your ideas, I have my ideas. People ask where's this tattoo from? Where's John from? I drop a lot of hints where he could be from, but nothing I enjoy more than some guys like yourself trying to tell me where he's from, what his tattoo's from, what you got out of it. The mystery of it is what makes it fun.

As many moving pieces as you have in an action scene like the one with Wick and Sofia, there's such a clear sense of point-of-view. How do you accomplish that? You don't shoot much coverage, do you?

What you see in the movie is exactly what I shot. There are two cameras. We consider both cameras a camera. They're from different perspectives, but usually, the same lens while differentiating just a little bit to help put the glue together if there's a big stunt going on. But mostly we shoot one, maybe two cameras at most. I shoot everything like a live performance, just like you'd shoot a theater. You start wide.

Next time you sit in front of a live show, concentrate on what you look at. You see everything with your eyes, but you focus on the center, and as you start to get a sense of things you start following around the character, the performer or the actor that interests you, or what the main theme is. And that's how I do stage blocking, stage choreography. They want you to take it all in, and at certain moments, to focus on the lead or widen back out your vision and see the whole chorus off.

We treat it very much the same way. So, you talk about perspective, I always try to gain a perspective of either that video game thing where you're following the guy or the live performance thing where you're sitting in the middle seat and you're watching it all. I just hold true to the perspective and let good people do good stuff. It's really way more technical than that, I'm super simple. I want you to see what I want you to see, and I want you to see everything. There you go.

So editing it wasn't as difficult as I thought either? 

Not difficult to put things in order or pieces in order. Difficult to find the magic blend of pacing. Pacing is always the thing you hear with editing. "Okay I could have five minutes of great action and I could make that feel like ten minutes of slow action or I could make that feel like two minutes of great action." Knowing it's gonna make it out, knowing when to elongate, knowing when to have a little rhythm, because every action movie has that rhythm. If you just go, go, go without a commentary, without a pause, maybe too much inter-cutting between the two characters... Sometimes fast editing slows things down, sometimes vice versa. It's just that magic effect that editing can add and sometimes that takes a while to play with.

You really let the audience take in the beauty of the choreography, especially in that knife fight. 

I go for beauty. I love dance. My background's martial art choreography, so obviously I like to see human beings doing the stuff. Your mind when you watch it, I guarantee you didn't really think John Wick was doing it, you thought Keanu Reeves was doing it and you're like, "Oh fuck. That's Keanu Reeves doing it." Right off the bat, that connects that gap in your mind: Keanu Reeves and John Wick are the same guy. They're doing it. This is real, because of that.

The second thing is, you want it to be beautiful. You want it to be aesthetic, you want the thrill, you want to gravitate so when you get done, you may not even know why you liked the moves, but you know you loved the fight. The overall effect is achieved then. And the third thing is subversion. You've seen a hundred action movies, you've seen probably at least thirty or forty knife fights. Have you ever seen an actor miss with a knife?

I don't think so.

Exactly. You're a dude. You probably stole mom's kitchen knife and threw it at a tree in your backyard, right?

Yeah, I tried. Terrible.

How many times did it stick in?

Not once.

Yeah, and that's not better for even us, and we practice a lot. You start getting distance down, but we figured, would it be funny if John Wick got in a real knife fight? They're just gonna throw many knives and every third or fourth one sticks. Some bounced off, some froze, and once you hit you kind of go in. We're treating it like a snowball fight. You hit, you move, you miss, you move, but you throw like crazy. And that's kind of how we found the concept, a regular knife fight.

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For Chapter Two, you considered getting Keanu Reeves on a motorcycle for some action, but you got to do it in this one. How does shooting a motorcycle set piece compare to car action?

We're a vehicle movie just like we're a dog movie. We like muscle cars. To do a big car sequence like on Marvel level, that's four or five weeks with the second unit, plus the car unit, plus the first unit guys on the green screen. It's anywhere from two, three, four, five upwards of almost ten million dollars for great car chases. It just takes time. We don't have the time or money, so we went with demolition derby stuff in number one and number two. Like, John would just use the car to bash it.

We thought we did a pretty good job in number two, so we didn't want to duplicate ourselves and we said, "Okay, let's just go on a motorcycle." And then we started thinking about all the stuff we could do, like, that's fun, that's fun. But then we're like, "Eh, crashing a motorcycle, yeah, we're still costing ourselves a little bit..." I love ninja movies, I love Joe Catucci. We wanna do ninjas, and we had this idea for Zero. And we have this little chase through Grand Central and I'm like, "Eh. That's not really working so good either with a sword." They suggest let's just do the sword fight on motorcycles, and we're kind of joking with ourselves. Then we had seen the movie The Villianness and we said, "Okay, they got it right. Fuck it. That's so good. We were so impressed by that. We'll try to do the same. We'll pay a little tribute, rip 'em off, see what we can get, and see if we can do a better job."

We combined all the ideas together and then it kind of gravitated. Keanu can ride. We had a great choreography team and we had a great special effects team that built these motorcycles gimbals that were safe enough to put the actors on and move them around and have them drive and actually sword fight. That was probably one of the most fun things to figure out, trying to put that sequence together. Just straight up logistics, trial and error, smart people figuring things out. It was a blast.

This series has been so consistently good with its adversaries for John. That final fight between John and Zero, what did you and [cinematographer] Dan Lauston want those reflections and colors to bring to that showdown? 

This is the second film I've done with Dan. He did number two with me as well. He was the first guy I really talked about doing the whole fight sequence in a mirror room. He's super cool, didn't even miss a beat. I'm like, "How are we gonna do it?" He's like, "Have no idea, we'll figure it out though." "Okay, great, we'll film the reflections." What I really wanted to do with number two is what I did in number three: I wanted to build a glass house. The idea was already in my head. We just couldn't afford it at the time, we couldn't get the logistics down, so we ended up doing the mirror room, which I thought was pretty cool and a tribute to Enter the Dragon.

We built the glass house this time. Ninjas in a glass house, they can't hide anywhere, which is really cool. All this lighting in the fore, Dan was like, "Great, let's figure it out." He's the one that yelled let's put a video screen in. "We'll do this, we'll get lights in here and we'll keep changing the sequence for every fight scene." Dan is one of those magic cinematographers that still loves to light in-camera. He believes that lighting is still one of the main characters of the film, not just a part of the mise en scéne. He's very active in helping to choose the color palettes and guiding me through why they all look the way they do; he's a guru with lights.

So I base a lot of choreography on the character, and they're the ideas and opinions Dan tries to light with, and I think that's cool. Our lights, teals, reds, oranges, you look at the subtitles, they contradict the background. Dan's very good with the overall palette of the film. And again, he's just incredibly collaborative and honestly fearless. You want more black, you want to do things in alleys, you want to do things in tunnels, he just smiles and goes, "Great, okay." Most fearless guy in the light crew.

The movie and series have such a wide variety of action, so I was wondering, with Chapter Three, was there anything you finally crossed off your bucket list for what you wanted to see in an action movie?

John Wick is an amalgamation of everything Keanu and I love about film. We have a tribute to  Steve McQueen and Bullitt with the turtle neck. We have Kurosawa references, Bernardo Bertolucci references, Spielberg references, and obviously, Wachowski references. Everything we love about film, art like Caravaggio, or music from [Antonio] Vivaldi to [Joseph] Haydn to [Ludwig van] Beethoven to Da Vinci, it's all in there.

So you asked is there a bucket list, yes, I'm slowly crossing it off. The great thing about John Wick is the probably the no boundaries and we invent as we go. Everything I love about westerns or martial art films I put in for people that enjoy the same things I do. I have a notebook with a couple more pages of ideas that I'd be happy to see in a John Wick project either as a TV show or a feature. I'd love to see that.

You've definitely made the kind of movies where you can feel it's packed with a director's obsessions and interests, and I think that's a part of what gives these movies such a unique, strong identity. 

I would say, yeah. Keanu's a pretty confident guy, and I mean, confidence in we know what we like. We know we made a film that we like, but you always get nervous, like, do people get what you're trying to say, do people like the same things you like? It's not just getting a job done because it's just like you said, it's baring who you are, it's showing your personality to the world.

I'm not gonna lie to you, it makes you a little nervous on opening weekend because if you don't like the show, I get that, but they're also saying, "We don't like what you like, we don't like how you did it, we don't like how you tell stories. We really don't like you." I guess that my insecurity, but I don't know another way to do it. I'm a new director, so I don't know how else to express a story without putting your own personality in the storytelling. So, of course, it reflects what's going in, I haven't learned not to do that yet. I would agree with you.

If Chapter Three was the end of this series, would you have been completely satisfied, like, "I did everything I set out to do and I'm happy?"

I felt really good after the first one, like holy shit, I did it. Keanu's a great friend, he stuck himself out for me twice now. When I was a stuntman he helped me out in a really great way. When I was a director he helped get me and my partner, Dave Leitch, on the first job, and that's what really started my career. To have something from a small action movie go to a number one film in America and be coded as one of the better action trilogies of cinema or changing the way they do action, just having a little bit of influence on the overall of cinema, those accolades are staggering. It's a little overwhelming.

You just put it aside and go, "I'm really happy for my cast." Those guys, everybody, from Anjelica Houston to Michael Nyqvist to Willem Dafoe to Asia Kate Dillon to obviously Laurence Fishburne, everybody we used in all three films, they trusted us in what's, to say the least, a weird project [Laughs]. So, the fact that it's successful and they feel fulfilled and they feel like we took good care of them and that my crew worked so hard to come up with a product that people like, that's pretty fulfilling. That's always the way I look at it. I'm happy. I'm happy that they're happy. Is it enough? It's probably enough two movies ago, so the answer would be yes. You get a little greedy because you like the love, and I love being with the people I make these movies with, so in that aspect, I'd always love to do more, but yeah, the answer's yes. I feel very good about what we've done.

Before we end, I just wanted to say – this is random – but my aunt texted me before this call about how much she loved the movie, and I just thought, it's great how all kinds of people love this character and world. 

And the last thing I'll say to you as well is look, that's super flattering, but when you talk to people who are into it, ask them why they like it, and I think a big part of it is, and this is not to be underestimated... Look, I try to do fun stuff, we try to have cool action, but at the end of the day, it's Keanu Reeves. I'm trying to bare my soul and who I am and how I tell the story, but never underestimate that that is Keanu Reeves up on screen giving it his all. If you saw the guy work it would choke you up. He leaves nothing on the table. This guy is putting everything into every shot. Doesn't leave set, last guy to leave the gym at night, always comes with ideas. This is his gig and this is his franchise. This is him pouring himself onto that screen. So, just the love he puts in, I think that's a big part of the magic sauce that makes John Wick such a brilliant thing to so many different types of people.

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John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum is now in theaters.