Chad Stahelski and David Leitch have been pals since the days they both worked as stuntmen on "The Matrix" series. But being on those -- and many other -- sets, got them interested in directing. They started working toward that by landing gigs as second unit directors, but kept waiting for the right project to come by that would make them take the leap to the directing chair. They ended up doing that first one together, co-directing the offbeat action film "John Wick" in 2014. Then the offers began rolling in. So many of them that they decided to head out on separate directing careers. Leitch is currently finishing up his first solo project, "The Coldest City," and Stahelski made "John Wick: Chapter 2" (which both guys also coproduced). Stahelski spoke about continuing on with the character and story of Wick, the newest action anti-hero played by Keanu Reeves.
Q: How does someone who's doing stunts manage to learn how to be a director?
A: There was a lot of not going out and not drinking and not chasing girls, and a lot of being with the right people and showing a little bit of interest and taking a whole lot of notes. I was very fortunate to work for some fantastic directors. I spent 10 years with the Wachowskis (on "The Matrix" trilogy) which is, I would say, the Harvard of film school.
Q: How did "John Wick" end up being your first film as director?
A: I met Keanu back on the first "Matrix," and we've been friends and professional teammates for a long time. Cut to 12 or 13 years later, and I'm doing my second unit career. Keanu was aware that my directing partner, Dave Leitch, and I have been interested in directing a film. But we were waiting for a project where we could do something different and use our strength: Telling stories through action. Cut to a Friday afternoon. Keanu Reeves gives me a call and says, "I came across this script, something I might be interested in doing. It's just a low budget action movie, but I'd like you to read it and give me your thoughts." By Friday night we decided this was the one we wanted to take a crack at, and by Monday morning we were pitching to Keanu our take and our perspective on how to spin it.
Q: At what point did talk of doing a sequel first come up?
A: It was probably a month after the film opened. It had fairly decent financial success, but more importantly, it got good critical response. By that time we had been acquired by Lionsgate, and they said to us, "This is something we believe there's an audience for, would you like to do a second one?" And without missing a beat we said of course. But we also said we didn't want to do something just for the money. If we can come up with a take that we can get behind, we'll do it. If we can't, we'll pass and you can do whatever you want with the property. Cut to a couple of months later, and we felt we could do a version where we could focus more on the characters and not just the plot.
Q: You do that really well in "John Wick 2" by revealing pieces of different characters' pasts and by referencing things from the first film. But the relentless action is still the focal point. How did you go about pulling off those insane action scenes?
A: The methodology was answering the question "What do we want to do with this sequence?" We want to tell you something about the character. We want to show that John Wick can take on 50 guys in underground tunnels. We know we're going to do longer takes, so Keanu needs to be able to perform long takes, the rehearsals have to change, the style has to change. It's close quarter work; it's judo and Jiu-Jitsu; it's pistol, rifle, shotgun. We need the best stunt team, people who remember their moves, and can hit their marks without cutting. We need cameramen who've been trained and can carry their cameras through the tunnels and get all the shots. It was a lot of rehearsals.
Q: John Wick uses a real gun technique called Central Axis Relock, that has to do with how a gun is held and how your body is situated. Does that also include shooting people in the head, which he does constantly, or is that something you made up for the film?
A: That part is called the Mozambique Drill, which is two in the chest, one in the head, for finality. John Wick's not gonna shoot a guy in the arm. You don't see blood splats, you don't see laser dots. You just know people go down, and John Wick wants to make sure they stay down, and that's why he'll put the finishing touch on. What you're seeing is a very practical and tactical reality that we just sensationalized a little bit for the film.
Q: It's safe to say that you've set up another sequel. Is the next script already started?
A: We're in talks right now and are working on a treatment. We're going back and forth with all the creative entities. We're not greenlit yet, but the studio has asked the creative team to come up with something for a third one.
-- Ed Symkus writes about movies for More Content Now.