'John Wick' Director Chad Stahelski Explains How Real Life Inspires His Beloved Assassin Franchise
Gun jams, stunt training and a quest to portray absurd reality have all been key to lighting up Wick
Published May 16, 2019Since John Wick first emerged in all of its face-pummelling, gun-brandishing, dog-avenging glory in 2014, fans have been desperate to know — is John Wick based on a real person? Does The High Table actually exist? Where can we get some of those weird coins?
"That's pretty funny," director Chad Stahelski says, referring to the bizarre obsession Wick fans have with the possibility of the character being real. "He's real in my mind. How's that?"
With the arrival of John Wick: Chapter 3 — Parabellum, Keanu Reeves' sharp-dressed action hero continues to reach new heights of ass-kicking. While John Wick may not be a real-life assassin, the reason we love him so much is that everything he does is based on reality. In fact, in the same way that his fighting style is a composite of different martial arts and gun techniques, his persona is also inspired by real people.
"I came up in the action world," says Stahelski, who had a long and storied career as a stunt coordinator before he started directing with the John Wick franchise. "My stunt team is made up of a lot of professional martial artists. We incorporate guys that have been Tier 1 operators and special forces guys that are now into the Hollywood scene. We've taken creative leeway of course — no one does what he does. No one can stand in an open field and jiu-jitsu people to death. But a lot of the stylistics and the attitude and the mentality behind it comes from influences for sure."
That real-life experience is something Stahelski always wanted to show onscreen, manifesting itself in the often ludicrous scenes that give the John Wick movies their patented blend of humour and violence. One such scene is an absurd knife fight in Parabellum. "The knife fight is an inspiration [from when] I threw knives as a kid," he says. "Eight out of ten come back and hit you in the face. And we wanted to show it. But in every action movie, the hero throws a knife and it sticks dead on. It never fucking happens. I know professional knife throwers that miss fuckin' seven out of ten. You know what I mean? So we just wanted to show the reality of that. And then you have a snowball fight with your brother, what does it look like? It looks like that knife fight. That's what it does."
Another source of triumphant absurdity in Parabellum is a scene where Wick slaps a horse's ass in order to make it kick a bevy of baddies. It's a completely bonkers sight to behold, but again, Stahelski says it's rooted in truth. "I think that little taste of reality is what's funny," he says. "We don't go out of our way to make a gag. We don't write any slapstick. I would ask the horseman, how do you get the fucker to kick? 'Well you could kick him or you could slap his ass.' Well I'm not going to kick a horse, so we're going to slap his ass and get him to kick. We just took reality and bent it."
If there's one common thread between Stahelski's quotes, it's that the wackiness works in Wick because it's based in reality. But he had to fight to make sure that was the case when the franchise was first born. "If you think about it, 90 percent of what the general public knows of gun fighting is in movies, and 90 percent of what movies do in gunfights are wrong," he says. "People are like, 'Wow, he's reloading.' Well everybody has reloaded since the beginning of firearms, they just didn't want to show it because they didn't want the actors to look goofy. Because reloading does take skill. Keanu's really good at it, but it's really funny. But the first John Wick, everyone was against this. They wanted us to cut that out because it was too slow. And we're like, 'No we're going to show what it really takes.' And when you really grab somebody, it takes a couple of seconds to throw them. We're not going to cut. You're going to see if Keanu falls on his ass, he's going to fall on his ass.
"There are so many mistakes being made. Half the time you see Keanu clearing a jam, he's actually clearing a jam, because the gun is jamming and we're not going to cut it. And Keanu's so good that he'll clear a weapon, he'll reload, he'll clear the chamber and put another mag in and just keep on going. You'll see the bad guys do the same thing. We're going to run with this. And that is what makes it funny."
If it sounds like Stahelski's calling the shots with the studio suits, that's probably right. "To be honest with you, at the age that Keanu and I are both at and having had a fairly successful career up until this point, you develop a bit of a fuck-you attitude," he admits. "You know, we're going to do it our way or we're not going to do it."
Stahelski and Reeves' way means making sure the entire cast and crew are on board with every single stunt — a methodology born out of working on productions where stunts came second to storytelling. "If you look at a typical studio budget, I spend twice as much in prep," he explains. "I take the hit, and I bring my cameramen, my production staff, my wardrobe people all in for stunt rehearsals three months out. So by the time they get there, they're all part of the action team. It's not this isolated little bit where just the stunt guys work with the actor, and then the camera guys see the fight on the day and try to figure it out. That's bullshit. Every minute I have on set is a chance for the actor to get another take, to get another try at it."
That's a far cry from the industry standard, where action scenes are hardly prioritized in time management. "What happens is, the way they prep, the lead actor will get three months, the B actor will get two months and the other guy will get a month," Stahelski says. "The stunt team will get two months to choreograph, but they don't show the actors. The wardrobe people don't see it until we start production, the director very rarely sees it more than a few times, and the camera guys don't see it till the day. So you tell me how that's fucking supposed to work? We're going to pull that off? The DP's seeing this for the first time so he's trying to light. So the first three hours of the day are watching him light. You think you're going to pull of something great? What the fuck are you guys thinking?
"When we show up, I'm shooting scenes in this movie in three or four days and I've had shoots with similar sequences that take three or four weeks," he continues. "So where do you want to spend your money? 400 people sitting around waiting for the actor to throw three or four punches and figure it out? Or do you want to spend it on prep where everybody's there learning. I'd rather spend it in prep. Financially we arrive at the same budget, but at least I'm spending it the right way. So you give me $20 million, I'm going to spend it the right way exactly how I just told you. You give me $120 million, I'm going to spend it exactly the same way. I'm just going to build bigger sets."
John Wick: Chapter 3 — Parabellum opens wide on May 17.