Chad Stahelski, director of all four of the John Wick movies, got his start in a way that’s not typical for budding Hollywood directors: He spent more than two decades working as a stunt performer and, later, stunt coordinator for such action classics as The Matrix, Spider-Man 2, and V for Vendetta. Having spent the past five-plus years researching and writing a book about Buster Keaton, another auteur who got his start doing stunts, I was especially curious about the Keaton homages sprinkled throughout the John Wick series, as well as the evident love, on the part of Stahelski and star Keanu Reeves alike, for the intricate sight gags and jaw-dropping practical stunt work to be found in silent slapstick comedy. So I hopped on a Zoom with Stahelski for a conversation about fight choreography, the art of messing with the audience’s heads, and whether John Wick is quietly a comedy franchise. Our conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Dana Stevens: It’s not hard to catch the overt Keaton references in the John Wick movies, like the projection of a scene from Sherlock Jr. on the side of a building at the beginning of the second movie. Or John falling out of an upper-story window and having the awnings break his fall on the way down in John Wick 3, a gag that comes straight from a Keaton film, Three Ages.
Chad Stahelski: Keaton’s also in John Wick 4. When Keanu’s walking to the Osaka train station, there’s a projection of Keaton going on in the background.
Ah, since I only got to see that once on the big screen, I didn’t get to rewind and catch that.
You’ll have to check it out.
So there are these references seeded throughout, but there’s also a spirit of slapstick comedy that infuses almost all the fight choreography in these movies. You’re one of the few directors who started out as a stuntman, just like Keaton did. That’s an unusual trajectory toward the job. And so I would like to hear about the DNA of slapstick in your own stunt work and how that’s influenced your filmmaking.
I grew up in Palmer, Massachusetts, a very small town. My mom and dad were borderline professional athletes. Me and my brothers were very athletic. I tried baseball, basketball, football, hockey, and for some reason I was horrible with all of them, probably because I had zero interest. And then one day I saw a Bruce Lee movie with my dad, and I just knew that was the thing. So I started martial arts when I was about 10. And then I stayed in judo and karate and jujitsu till I was about 16. I came out to California to go to the University of Southern Cal. And out there I started training at the Inosanto Academy of Martial Arts.
Dan Inosanto was probably, at the time, the most famous instructor on the planet. He was known for being Bruce Lee’s training partner. And after Bruce died, Dan Inosanto took over that legacy. A lot of Hollywood top stunt people would work out there. So here I am, a little 17-year-old, and at the time I didn’t know it, but you’re bumping elbows with some of the major stunt coordinators.
And through that gym, I met Brandon Lee, Bruce Lee’s son, who unfortunately died on the filming of The Crow. Brandon was getting into acting, and he got a little group of us that all clicked. And on weekends we’d get together at the gym and practice fight scenes and try to figure out how not to hit each other.
I get to be one of Brandon Lee’s doubles on The Crow and, through this, got introduced to Jackie Chan and to Sammo Hung and Yuen Biao and Chow Yun-fat and all these great early John Woo movies or Tsui Hark movies. So now on weekends, in our fledgling stunt careers, we’re trying to do all the Jackie Chan stunts, which wasn’t a good idea because we weren’t as talented and we were usually landing on our heads.
You’ve got to remember, at the time, The Matrix hadn’t come out yet. So martial arts in American cinema was looked down upon. As a stunt person, you made your money falling or driving or doing a stair fall or fire burns. Anything but martial arts.
The Matrix comes out. I get a gig doubling Keanu after I turn it down a few times. I was one of the few 6-foot-1 guys out there that had a gymnastic, martial-arts background. Next thing you know, I’m doubling Keanu Reeves on The Matrix. And who’s doing The Matrix? Yuen Woo-ping himself, the greatest fight choreographer alive today and probably that’s ever been around, and now I’m learning with his team for the next 10 years. And through that time, I’m working with Jackie Chan, Donnie Yen, Jet Li, and being introduced to the best of the best in the industry. And you start talking to Jackie Chan a little bit, and who’s one of his biggest influences? Buster Keaton.
Back up a couple years: My grandfather, for whatever reason, had a ton of 8 mm films of all the old silent comedians. He liked to play Charlie Chaplin in the background. So I’ve already seen Little Tramp, I’ve already seen Buster Keaton, I’ve already seen Harold Lloyd. I’ve already seen it, but it’s not clicking yet until I have a couple conversations with Yuen Woo-ping and his team. And then I meet Jackie Chan for the first time, and he’s telling me how it came about with him.
Of course. Right.
And then you go another generation forward. Now I’m directing. So now I’ve got Keanu Reeves, who I’ve known for a fair amount of time from being his stunt double and his stunt coordinator. And Keanu and I have the talk of what we’re trying to create. We’re taking Steve McQueen, a little Paul Newman, Toshiro Mifune. We’re taking more of the stoic, Clint Eastwood, man-with-no-name kind of mentality with this character because we’re trying to make it hard-boiled. And Keanu says something really interesting to me on the first John Wick. He comes to me and he goes, “Look, just so you know, little bit of advice, when you edit, once a week, you should see the edit on the big screen.” And I’m like, “OK, we’ll try.” Later, alone with him, I’m going, “Well, why?” He’s like, “I’m a big-screen actor.” And I had no fucking idea what that meant. I thought it meant a movie star. And he’s like, “No, no, no, no.”
And he started talking to me about nonverbal acting, like gestures, motions. And he’s like, “Look, when you see me on a little monitor and I give this little look, it’s one thing. But when you see it on a 40-foot screen, that look’s going to say a lot. That’s what I want to play this guy as. So just please be aware of it, so when we punch in on the close-ups, it’s going to mean something.” And it kind of really clicked for me right there.
I’ve always been fascinated by nonverbal gesture, body language. Keanu would go through and strip his dialogue down. It was like, “No, no, nope. I’m just going to cuddle the puppy.” In the first John Wick, he doesn’t talk for 32 minutes. Try to sell that one to a studio: You have Keanu Reeves, and you’re not going to let him talk. I think in John Wick 4 he says, I don’t know, less than 200 words. I forget what it is.
It was 380, which actually seems high to me. And my question, when I read that number, was: Does that include the foreign languages he speaks?
There’s a lot of yeahs, right? But we did that on purpose, because we’re both fascinated by this. A lot of times I’ll be on Keanu when another cast member’s talking, so you can see Keanu slowly react to the words being said. Go back and watch Seven Samurai and watch how much nonverbal stuff is done. So we took that from the Kurosawa world, which ultimately I think derived from silent films. They didn’t have words.
You watch Buster Keaton, he had to give the looks—like, when he’s in love, the twinkling eyes. You go back and watch any of the Harold Lloyds or the Buster Keatons, and are you kidding me? They’re selling whole stories without a word. I don’t think people appreciate how fucking crazy that is. They were getting across love, fear, astonishment. They made you laugh with the shrug of the shoulders. You have to pay attention to that.
So our whole philosophy that we got out of the silent-movie mentality was a lot from a little. In every action scene, I can suspend it for about two minutes. Then I got to change the set piece. I got to change the color. I got to change the opponent. I got to change the weapon, and I got to get you to laugh. No matter what I do, just when you think it’s over, I’m going to throw him down the stairs. Just when you think it’s over, the dog’s going to come in. Just when you think it’s over, I’m going to hit him with the car. Just when you think it’s over, he’s going to run out of bullets. That’s our big thing in karate: subversive, subversive, subversive. You think it’s one thing and it’s another. But again, that’s a silent-movie trope. They know how to do excess well. And John Wick is excessive. That’s the whole silent-movie gag, right?
It reminds me of Cops, Keaton’s Cops, right? Where there’s excess…
The joke is the excess, but there’s minimalism within the excess, and that’s what draws your eye.
Thank you. If you could tell that to all my critics, that’d be awesome.
The slapstick gags and stunts and falls and things like that are everywhere, but there’s also the simple fact that the John Wick character has a really strong resemblance to that unnamed Keaton character that Keaton always played in his silent films. They both have that quality of being really minimalist, incredibly laconic. They have a kind of melancholy about them, and you never learn their backstory. This is a huge thing that makes John Wick work, I think. I hope that we’re never going to learn what the “impossible task” was.
No, not yet. We like talking about it, but I swear to God, every time somebody tries to put it in there, I’m like, I don’t ever want to know what it is. Ever.
In a recent interview with you and Keanu together—a fun little thing you did for Vanity Fair where you were responding to John Wick fan theories—Keanu described a process where he gets the script and proceeds to act out all the parts. And then he said something to you like “You create the world, I just play in it.” What is that process of play like that kicks off the planning of the movie? And to what extent is the script, when you get started, somewhat vague? Does it say things like “John Wick fights,” or does it start to lay out the choreography and the gags already in the script?
I’d say half the writing is from the outside in, just random ideas that we’re going to try and put into our story. Like, I always knew I wanted to get Scott Adkins in a big man suit. And the other half is from the inside out, as we’re trying to make John’s journey interesting. But it all starts with: Where’s our beginning? Where’s our end? And everything else in the middle we kind of throw together.
It’s interesting—that is exactly, almost word for word, how Keaton used to describe putting his films together. He said that once he and his team of gag writers came up with a beginning and an end, “we always figured the middle would take care of itself.”
We knew John was going have to conclude his journey.
Right, right. And when does Keanu get involved in that process? Is it after the script exists or does he come into …
Before I even put pen to paper he’s like, “Hey, wouldn’t it be cool if …”, and we riff back and forth. I don’t think there’s a single scene that we locked into the script that he hadn’t read and commented or given notes on. This time was weird, because I think he was finishing up Bill and Ted, then he had to do Matrix 4 as we’re doing this, so he was out of town a lot, but we were always on a Zoom or call at least once a week. And then when he is in town, he’s in here two, three times a week, literally acting scenes out and writing the dialogue. He’s incredibly involved.
Unlike a lot of action franchises that have underlying deep mythologies the way John Wick does, and that get bigger with every chapter the way John Wick does, I mean—those are two things that tend to be red flags for me: This is going to get self-serious and ponderous at some point. But the John Wick movies avoid that, and I’m curious about how they do. I think the main way they do is that they just always maintain a sense of humor about themselves. With John Wick 4, I really feel like the locations themselves have become funny. Paris has become this chessboard, an abstract space for the High Table to play out its games. So I’m curious both about location scouting and how that gives you ideas—and also to what degree you conceive of these movies as comedies?
Oh, a hundred percent. Of course we’re very self-aware. But it’s supposed to be a gag. We’re making fun of action movies. I’m trying to prove the point that you don’t need $200 million to do an epic. I’m trying to prove a point that action movies don’t have to be ugly. I’m a hard person to work for. I want it to be beautiful. I want my cinematography to match anybody up there. I want my wardrobe to be equal to anything at the Oscars. And the last thing I want to hear is “Well, it’s just an action movie.”
When I knew I was going to shoot in Paris, I watched Le Cercle Rouge, I watched Le Samouraï with Alain Delon, I watched Amélie, of course, and I watched one of my favorite short films, Le Ballon Rouge.
I want you to feel like you did with the old James Bonds. When you see James Bond in a luge in Austria or in the Alps of Switzerland, you go, “Oh my God, I want to go there.” Even on the first movie, we did this little spa in Tribeca. I want you asking, “Where’s that in New York? I want to go to that spa and I want to be on that street. Where’s that alley?” I have a location fetish: I want you to travel. I went back to the desert, I went back to Aqaba, because I’m a huge David Lean fan. Lawrence of Arabia is one of my favorite films of all time. I want you to want to go to that desert.
Laurence Fishburne blowing out the match—probably one of the most famous edits in all of cinema history is Peter O’Toole doing it. Of course, at that point, excuse my language, but yeah, I’m fucking with you. I’m ripping off the most famous edits in cinema, blowing out the match. Of course, it’s a goof. When I throw somebody down 150 steps, we’re having a go. The trick is making all the characters grounded in their reality but at the same time letting you know, yes, sit back and enjoy.