Like all John Wick movies before it, John Wick: Chapter 4 is built around action sequences designed to challenge the way movie action is normally choreographed and shot. Director Chad Stahelski was a stuntman for many years and then a stunt coordinator before making his directorial debut with John Wick in 2014, and he turned the franchise into a showcase for ambitious fight scenes.
In John Wick 4, one of the most stunning battle scenes in which battle-weary assassin John Wick (Keanu Reeves) runs from room to room through an abandoned, dilapidated building, the camera following his progress in a long, continuous shot from above as he shoots the attacker after attacker. It’s a particularly surprising shot because it moves so fast, with so many collisions and quick changes of direction. And John Wick uses incendiary bombs, setting some of the combatants on fire and letting them burn as he goes along. Polygon talked to Stahelski and his stunt crew about how they got that shot.
This interview has been edited and shortened for clarity.
Scott Rogers, director of the second unit: Chad Stahelski, our fearless leader and director, used to be a real fighter, just like in the ring. And he didn’t hit hard enough to win, he hit as hard as he physically could. So every John Wick movie he makes the best movie he can, and then within the movie he makes the best scene he can.
So those of us in charge of doing the action, that’s what we do in every scene, whether it’s the club scene with the falls, and the fights, and the water, and the dogs, and all that, that is no less or more challenging than the cars hitting the people. There were none where we were, Oh, this one’s easy, we’ll just call this one throughor We’re taking a break on this one. While you’re shooting a scene, you’re rehearsing one scene and preparing another scene. So it all happens at once.
Stephen Dunlevy, Stunt Coordinator: Once we started shooting, it was 100 days of just continuous action. We were working on the sequence in Osaka while preparing the top shot in France, and we were also trying to find time to get Keanu riding. And from the series in Osaka, we went straight to the Berlin nightclub, and then to Jordan, in addition. So it all became one giant, constant action sequence.
Rogers: Chad had this vision: He showed us a promo for a video game. It was “I want to do this – this is cool” because you see all the characters, and in narrative terms, it allows you to see for the first time what John Wick is up against and what he’s up against, before he sees it. So there’s a little foreshadowing – you see the guys coming from every direction, rather than being horizontal (lined up) where you don’t know what’s around the corner.
Chad Stahelski, director: The game was called Hong Kong massacre. I love game culture – I’m not a big gamer myself, but I love the storylines. I like the visuals in it Ghost of Tsushima, Assassin’s Creed, all these kinds of games. And we know a lot of people in that industry. I think it’s interesting that between video games, animation, manga and Asian cinema, we are all related. We all steal from each other, we all see how crazy the other is going to get.
Rogers: That whole set was built for that specific purpose. We flew with a camera that was designed – and the camera movements were designed – in conjunction with the choreography. So we spent a week with camera(operators) and stuntmen. And this amazing French stunt coordinator, Laurent (Demianoff), developed the fight choreography and the movement, while we worked on the camera moves to get what Chad was looking for, and to also stay in the Wick world, which is basically what Keanu is doing. doing is the work.
Stahelski: I knew I wanted to get a top shot. I’m not a big man – I don’t really believe in that unless there’s something to offer, if you can look at things from a different perspective. We did some testing; I wanted to do all the muzzle flashes in a vertical plane, so it felt different. I went down the rabbit hole to find references, so I (went online to) type in like “aerial photos”, “top photos”, just to see what everyone’s were like. At the top was Steven Spielberg’s Minority Report.
So I tried “video games top shot” and at the very bottom it was Hong Kong massacre. And I (watched footage) and liked the way they did it. They did a lot more speed ramps, which I thought was really cool. I loved it for that. Only, if you’re already dealing with a two and a half hour film, I had to be careful where I did my slow motions.
Rogers: It was so complicated. It was like doing a musical because we had a count. And the camera was in a very specific place at a very specific time when (every action beat) had to happen. So as we taped it, Steve yelled, “Forty-eight! Fourty nine! Fifty!” And everyone knew, “We’re on 20, I have to be here on 25, I have to be there, because the camera is going to be in a very specific place.” So it was really linked to (the camera coordination) – there was not much room for change once we got things going.
Dunlevy: It was the most painful part of that sequence for everyone, having to listen to my voice, just count. And if you say words for so long, they no longer make sense. The numbers just didn’t add up to me, I said the same numbers over and over. But every beat (was crucial), because you have people on one side of a wall and Keanu on the other, and they have to do a dance. Everyone had to know where they had to be to match the camera on a certain beat. I think we’ve gone over 200 from memory.
Rogers: And they had to pretend they didn’t know what was happening. So there’s a whole choreography where before coming into contact with Keanu, they had to be in front of the camera, like they’re looking for him, not knowing where he is. So there are a lot of intricate, smaller moments that you have to look at a lot to pick up on.
Stahelski: We are definitely inspired by various games and movies, along with our own aesthetic. I mean, we’ve done a lot of top shots, just never this extensive. Most people don’t have that option, because they have to switch to (stunt)doubles, or fix the wirework because of the SFX, or the practical effects. Here, those are real guys getting set on fire. That’s not an easy thing to do and have the man lie perfectly still while he’s on fire. So if a stuntman messes up, we have to start over. So it’s what you would call a director’s show-off shot.
Rogers: The funny thing about the shot is that for the most part you’re on top, you’re looking at the top of Keanu’s head. It really could be anyone. But it wasn’t. It was Keanu – he really wanted to do that whole, whole sequence.
Stahelski: I’m trying to show you how good my stunt team is, how good Keanu Reeves is. And by that time in the movie, I didn’t want you to have action fatigue. So I’m trying to change it visually. We did it partly because we thought audiences would love it. And we’re doing it partly because I really believed me and my crew would love it. We are also fans.
John Wick: Chapter 4 is in theaters now.