I you may have gleaned from Quint’s interview earlier this week, JOHN WICK: CHAPTER 2 director Chad Stahelski and stunt coordinator JJ Perry, this film is one of those rare instances when the sequel manages to grow and expand the material from the original film without simply relying on going bigger and louder. Instead, the world of John Wick is opened up to us. We learn what Wick’s life was like when he was the king of the assassins and where his life is going to be if the series continues (not in a good place, I promise you).
I chatted at length with Stahelski a couple weeks ago, and we dug into the process of where to take Wick’s storyline from the first one. Many bad ideas were discarded, and what we’re left with is something that manages to be both finely polished and really ragged around the edges.
If you need a reminder, Stahelski went from being a martial artist fighter to stunt performer in this mid-20s. His first big break came from doubling for Brandon Lee in THE CROW, and was instrumental in helping that film get finished after Lee’s tragic on-set death. He followed that up by doubling for Keanu Reeves in THE MATRIX and thus began a long-lasting friendship that draws a straight line to Stahelski getting his first break as a director on JOHN WICK after years of being a stunt performer and coordinator. The director is one of the good ones, I promise you. And he’s the kind of no-bullshit guy who will let you know just how good or how bad things got on his movies. And if things go as planned, his first non-JOHN WICK project will be the reboot of HIGHLANDER, so mull that one over. With that in mind, please enjoy my talk with Chad Stahelski…
Chad Stahelski: Hey, what’s going on? How you doing?
Capone: Good. With this film, you had so many directions you could have gone in to start off a sequel. You opted to open with this day-after scenario, which when you see it makes complete sense, it feels right, but how many ideas did you discard before you got there, and why was this the best way to work this?
CS: Oh, Steve. So may ideas we tossed. When you do a sequel, I always say you’ve got two choices—and I don’t mean any disrespect to the properties, these are just examples—you can do the TAKEN version, TAKEN 1, 2, 3—kidnap the daughter, kidnap the mom, kidnap the whatever, and you re-tell the same story under different circumstances. Or you do like James Cameron did with ALIENS, when you start with a great thriller and make it a great action movie. He did the Catholic Church, man; he changed the situation. You’d already seen the alien, so you just expand it. So we chose something that was going to expand the world.
John Wick could have saved the baby, he could have saved a cat, he could have killed a cat, he could have fallen in love again. We try to avoid all the tropes of sequels and do something a little different, which is just keep going down the rabbit hole. And rather than work to a resolution where there was the evil bad guy or the evil robot or the evil alien trying to take over the world, we just went “You know what? John Wick’s going to get himself into trouble. If he hadn’t come back in the first movie, there wouldn’t be a second movie. There will be direct repercussions.” John Wick is an urban myth. I’m sure you heard the story of how we took Greek mythology and kind of transferred it to an assassin film, and we tired to stay true to what we thought was that, which was comic debt and mythological consequence. You’ve seen the new movie, right?
Capone: Oh, yeah.
CS: No one in the movie breaks the rules. Not Ruby Rose’s character, not Riccardo Scamarcio’s character, not Laurence Fishburne’s character, not Common’s character. The only one that breaks the rule what comes out of it or whines is John Wick. He ignores the marker, he kills someone on Continental grounds he disobeys. Everyone else is considered fairly honorable within their profession, and we always thought that was very, very interesting of having a non-bad guy and just having a situational comic debt by the lead character. So at least on paper that sounded really cool to us before we started. So we went through and forced all the burden onto Keanu’s shoulders.
Capone: One of the things you did in the first film was tease this bigger underworld, so I don’t really even thing you had a choice but to show us more of that this time.
CS: Yeah, we opened our mouthes early. We had to dive into what they call world expansion, which was fun. It was challenging. I flew myself to New York and just spent days walking the streets and checking out, whether it was garbage men or the homeless situation, or taxi cab drivers. I spent a lot of the time down by Wall Street. I ended up having dinner with quite a few hasidic Jews, so that gave me some ideas. Just really immersing myself into the worlds of New York and Rome, and how we can cut and paste that over to our John Wick world.
Capone: This has to be the greatest gig imaginable as a filmmaker, because in addition to world building, there are no limits other than what you, Derek [Kolstad, screenwriter], and Keanu dream up. It feels like you guys are in this special place right now where you can do whatever you want.
CS: You couldn’t have nailed it any better. I think you nailed the whole reason why I took JOHN WICK 2 over other properties. Creatively, it was the most satisfying, crew and cast wise, definitely the most satisfying. To be honest, nobody really understands the wackiness of it, so they left me alone. They were like, “Let me get this straight: you want garbage men, homeless men, hasidic Jews, and a sumo wrestler?” “Yeah, pretty much.” “How is this going to be cool?” “Don’t worry about it.” “Well, okay Chad, you must know what you’re doing.”
Capone: And not to jump to the end, but you do end in such a way that you pretty much demand a third film at this point. You don’t really give us a choice but to kill you if you don’t give us that.
CS: Yeah, pretty much. That’s my own inner weaving.
Capone: I didn’t know how long the film was when I sat down to watch it, so I thought you were about to launch into the final act of this film, and then it just ends.
CS: [laughs] Yeah, we didn’t want you to get bored. Cliffhangers are always slightly frustrating, but at the same time, I don’t like clean resolves. The first one didn’t end clean, and I didn’t want this one to end clean.
Capone: This is the first time we see Wick on a proper assignment as a killer, so we actually get the preparation sequence that we really didn’t get on the first film. We get him visiting specialists to get weapons, get clothes. We’ve seen sequences like this in other films, everything from the Bond movies up to KINGSMAN. How did you want to play with that idea of John Wick getting geared up?
CS: I think it was more about showing the world that we’re showing the gig, meaning with both Bond and KINSMAN, both I think are very similar. I think they’re very well executed in both cases, but in both cases, it’s more about the gadgets. I like the idea that there’s a guy, a sommelier, who he goes to that’s so educated in the gun world—we call it porn. We have car porn, we have jujitsu porn, we have tailor porn, we have gun porn, I’ve got music porn. I like that. I like getting into the details of it, so this isn’t just a device that shoots knockout gas. This is like “We want you to look good, but at the same time, this is body armor
It’s more about the execution and the etiquette and the people involved getting him the gadget. In Bond movies, it would be Q. Everybody loves the character Q. We wanted to come up with a whole slew of Qs. John Leguizamo is the Q for cars. Peter [Serafinowicz] is the Q for the guns. We wanted Luca Mosca to be the tailor, who was actually my costume supervisor on the movie, believe it or not. Wee have these great guys who have these special skills. We wanted you to fall in love with. Yes, this world does exist. It’s not just about a technical gadget. It’s about the etiquette, the personal. It’s your consigliere, it’s your concierge, it’s your sommelier’s that make up the world.
Capone: There’s definitely no one I would rather have as my gun pornographer than Peter Serafinowicz.
CS: I love him. It was a schedule thing for him, and at last minute, we literally had him on a plane in 24 hours. I love his work so much, and that was not an easy gig, because I don’t think he’d seen the first movie. A sommelier to guns. I’m like, “Just think of the bartender in THE SHINING. You’re that guy.” And Peter’s go the best eyebrows in the business. I love him.
Capone: Once you had the premise figured out for this film, did you set any missions or goals for yourself that you wanted the sequel to achieve or maybe avoid?
CS: It comes from an action-design background. Do a great job on the first one; don’t look back. Do a good job on the second one, treat it as it’s own thing; do better, try not to re-tread. We try not to get bored with our own work. Stunt men, at least the stunt teams that I work with, have a very shorthand way of conversing with each other. Their honesty is almost spiteful [laughs]. It’s pretty much “Yeah, that’s good or that sucks. Guys, come on, we’ve seen this 10 fucking times already.”
I’m a director that does a job every two years. Stunt guys work on 10 jobs a year. We’re working on so many projects right now. We’re still highly involved in martial art choreography on some of the biggest shows going on right now, and you don’t ever want Aquaman to move like Superman to move like Thor to move like John Wick to move like Jason Bourne. So it has to be part of our milieu that we don’t replicate. We always try to be the spearhead of aesthetic design, and I think that’s the main thing. We just don’t want to re-tread; we want to show you more of the world, so that deals with action expansion and world expansion.
Capone: You’ve worked with Keanu for so many years now. What is it about him that is perfect as an action hero. You haven't just worked with him many times, but each of the action films that he’s been in have been stylistically unique.
CS: He is incredibly intelligent, and he is the most persevering and tenacious professional I’ve ever worked with. He just does not quit, and he’s open. He comes in and is like, “For JOHN WICK, you want me to learn judo, jujitsu, three-gun tactical work, and how to slide cars around and hit people?” We’re like, “Yep.” And he’s like, “Okay. When do I start?” No hesitation. He’s like, “Fine. I’m in. I’ve never done any of that before, but I want to.” And we get him the best professionals, and he just puts his prime in, but he just doesn’t rep it out. He learns as much as he can.
We found out a long time ago the best way to fake being good was just being good, and true action makes it more believable on screen. If you look at any of the old action stars—Steve McQueen raced motorcycles, so when you see him in THE GREAT ESCAPE riding a bike, that’s fucking Steve McQueen on that bike. You see him in BULLITT. He was an Indy driver, and that’s what you see him doing. Keanu followed the same action. He was like, “You want me to look good at jujitsu? I’m just going to get fucking good at jujitsu. You want to see me do judo? Okay, I’m going to work with Olympic-level judo guys and I’m going to get good. You want me to be a tactical three-gun guy? Watch this.” We hooked him up with Taran Butler, and for the better part of four months, he was firing anywhere from 500 to 1,000 rounds a day to be the real deal, to be a fire arms person. So if you take that sticktoitiveness to any professional who’s intelligent and loves his job, you’re going to get something different.
Capone: Overall, was getting CHAPTER 2 a little easier on you than the first one, just because you had a better idea as a director and show runner what you were doing?
CS: Yeah. I don’t know if you’d say easier, but I was definitely more comfortable by having the experience of the first one. It’s not even having really the confidence, which I’m sure I don’t lack in confidence, I can tell you that. My ego is just fine. It’s just you realize what problems you’re going to run into and you can anticipate issues that cause more, so you’re a little bit smarter in how you solve things and how you work around things, and you focus a lot more on what you know is going to be a lot more important. And that’s just having directorial experience. I think that’s very, very important. Also, doing a sequel, you do benefit in that way, I wouldn’t call it pressure, but it’s that little nagging in the back of your mind going “How do you be original in a sequel?” Because by definition, you’re not original. People love JOHN WICK because it was original—the emotional hook with the action, but that’s been done, so where do you go? So again, that’s always in the back of your head.
Capone: One of the ways you can be original in a sequel is by bringing in new cast members, and I wanted ask you about a couple of these people. I think my favorite fight scene is the one in the subway car with Common. I’ve never seen Common play somebody this cold hearted before. What did you dig about working with him?
CS: Originally, we tried to divide up the action. It all came from the action design. We didn’t want one bad guy to take the spotlight, and that would be the one guy he’d fight at the end of the movie. We’ve done that so many times. We wanted trials and tribulations and that gauntlet feeling for Keanu, and one of the parts of that was, we wanted to create this character called Cassian, and our definition of Cassian was if John had stayed in the business, what would he be? Who would he be? How good would he be?
And we had this massive casting thing, and it was more about finding a guy who had the class and the etiquette and the presence, not just physically but had a little bit of that empathy but aloofness and could project that, and I was a fan of Common from some of his other work, and it was suggested to me that I take a call with him, and about two minutes into the phone call, I was like “This is the guy.” And the guy looks fucking great in a suit. He brought an honesty. He’s very soft spoken, but he has presence. That’s what we were looking for in John Wick—soft spoken with a presence. And we didn’t want a lot of dialogue from this guy either. We wanted presence, we wanted charisma, and I think Common really projects his character.
Capone: I like that he’s been in the business maybe a little too long and he’s dead behind the eyes too. A little bit of his soul is missing now, and it’s perfect for that part. You also have the queen of franchises right now, Ruby Rose, in here, and you don’t let her speak. Talk about creating that character and working with her.
CS: That was a tricky sell. I had to get an actress on the way up who gets the project but not really. No one is really honed the JOHN WICK wackiness. We have a fairly good reputation with action design and taking cast members and making them bad asses, so I think that was very interesting for her because I think she enjoyed the physicalness of roles. She’s also very outspoken. She’s a very charismatic young woman, and then to be told “We’re going to do all that great stuff that you want to do but you don’t get to talk.” She was a little taken aback, I’m sure. And I’m sure you can have fun asking her about my reactions and her reactions. I’m like, “Look, it’s just the same-old same-old. I just don’t want to cast you in a pseudo stunt role where you were just given these lines because we feel like you have to talk, you have to say these things that are already obvious to the plot. Why don’t we make it something different?”
In our world, we use a lot of subtitles. John Wick and everybody flows in and out of the different languages, depending on our clientele or our location. I’ve always wanted to do something in sign language because I think it’s very strong, it’s very forceful, and we could have a lot of fun with it. And I think she left it going, “I’ll think about it.” And a couple of days later, we talked more and we talked more, and she and I and Keanu talked and all thought “Okay, we don’t quite believe in it yet, but it could be fun, so we gave it a try.” So I would like to thank her for trusting me to make something fun of it.
Capone: When I saw the sign language, I thought “This is just to prove to us that John Wick really does speak every single language on the planet, including sign language.” You also have Franco Nero in this, which blew my mind.
CS: Of course. The original Django.
Capone: What does he represent to you? Why was it important for you to get him in this?
CS: In this movie, we tried to expand the world to let you know that there’s a Continental Hotel in each of the great cities on the planet, and each of those great cities have a manager like Ian McShane, the oracle that prophecies, the goal keeper of everything. We broke the mold with Ian McShane being Winston in the Continental of New York. Who do you get that has presence like Winston that has the gravitas that Ian McShane has? And we were in Italy and we had to know that Franco Nero lived in Rome, and I’ve been a fan of his ever since I saw FORCE 10 FROM NAVARONE and all his other stuff. We’re like “What the hell? Let’s give him a call.” We sat and met and talked and talked hit it off, and Mr. Nero thought “I like Keanu. I like what you're trying to do. I’d be more than happy to participate.” And that’s how it happened, so we’re very fortunate to him.
Capone: Now that we know there are Continental hotels all over the place, it feels like the sanctity of those hotels has already been desecrated by John in this film. I feel like that’s the next step. Could that possibly be a part of the third film? Do you have some ideas for the third film?
CS: We do. We have quite a few synopses and plot points already written down. We’re still developing. We still haven't nailed anything down yet, but we’re in a good spot with what we hope to achieve in it. The whole point of the second film was to take everything away from John, to introduce the audience to the world, to all the service providers, and then by the end of the film take everything away. In fact, the whole meta-reality we created is now against John. We thought that would be interesting for the third film. Rather than one bad guy, let’s just have the whole world after him.
Capone: Are you still involved with this HIGHLANDER reboot?
CS: I am. I’m in current development for it right now.
Capone: Do you think that’s going to be the next thing you’re going to do? What’s the order here?
CS: We’ll see. Hollywood with its schedules, it’s got its own ebb and flow. So it’s a project that I’m actively developing at this time.
Capone: Do you have any thoughts about what your approach or emphasis is going to be in your version of it?
CS: I’ll say as much as, I am a gigantic fan of the original property. There are things about it that I think every fan gravitates to and really sticks and holds true for every person that’s a fan of that project. My intention is to hold true to what you love about it while improving on the other stuff that looks like it may need improvement.
Capone: Chad, it was great to talk to you. Take care.