Why the Director of 'John Wick' Is Obsessed With Ballet

“You need to see what goes into it,” says director Chad Stahelski. “You will have new respect for these people.”

If you love action movies, John Wick: Chapter 3 — Parabellum director Chad Stahelski has an assignment for you: Watch ballet.

“I have seen the New York City Ballet a dozen fucking times in my life,” Stahelski tells Inverse.

It’s a gloomy Sunday in Manhattan and I’m sitting before Stahelski, a 50-year-old stuntman turned action movie director. “Fuck” comes naturally from his mouth, as he sips honey tea between breathless explanations of how he sicced Belgian shepherds on his stunt guys (the secret: the dogs think they’re just playing) and what directing John Wick has meant to him these last five years.

“We were one of those odd little properties that got really fucking lucky in today’s market of superhero big budget stuff,” he says. “To come from a tiny, $18 million, kill-20-people-over-a-puppy to where we are now, we’re very thankful.”

A clip from the trailer for 'John Wick: Chapter 3'
A clip from the trailer for 'John Wick: Chapter 3'

I don’t know how Stahelski arrived at the hotel, but it’s not hard to imagine him getting off a Kawasaki Ninja by the curb. He looks like he belongs in John Wick’s world of assassins; salt and pepper hair, chiseled features, and a pair of sharp black eyes with only two settings: Detect bullshit or intimidate target. They’re flipped on the latter when, after learning I’ve seen his newest movie, John Wick: Chapter 3, he challenges me: “What did you like about it?”

He sips. I stammer. I tell him, honestly, that he stuck the landing in ending John Wick’s story — never mind he’s already said he’ll direct more if audiences open their wallets — and he gives an affirmative “Hmm.” He sips again.

I half-imagine a scenario where the movie actually sucked. Thankfully, it rules, and I don’t risk getting punched in the face.

I have a laundry list of questions, ranging from completing a trilogy to something I’ve scribbled as “dog fu?” But the conversation turns to ballet. Stahelski swears dance has played a far more important role in shaping his craft than any martial art.

“Everything in John Wick 3 — every frame, every color, every reference, from Buster Keaton to Sergio Leone, to Akira Kurosawa to Tartakovsky, are things I love,” he says. Sip. “But mostly, it’s what I love about theater, dance, art. You see Caravaggio in there. The music is Vivaldi. I love live theater.”

John Wick Director Chad Stahelski
Chad Stahelski, on the set of 'John Wick: Chapter 3 — Parabellum.'

Out in theaters on May 17, John Wick: Chapter 3 — Parabellum stars Keanu Reeves back in the role of the relentless assassin, John Wick, in a blood-soaked escape from New York City after a $14 million bounty is placed on his head. While the franchise is far from over — a spin-off series on Starz is in development — Parabellum is a marker that ends a five-year period when the films were a Hollywood underdog with a vicious bite.

Stahelski’s career began a little over 27 years ago, in a low-budget, direct-to-video martial arts movie titled Mission of Justice. At the time, Stahelski was an instructor of Jeet Kune Do — Bruce Lee’s martial art — at the Inosanto Martial Arts Academy in California. He was a friend of Lee’s son, Brandon, and served as his body double on 1994’s The Crow after Lee was killed in an on-set accident.

He spent the next twenty years working as a stunt double and coordinator on some of the biggest Hollywood action movies, including The Matrix, Mr. And Mrs. Smith, and 300.

In 2014, Stahelski co-directed John Wick with creative partner David Leitch. The film was a no-holds-barred showcase for their action studio, 87eleven, which also worked on movies like The Hunger Games and The Wolverine.

Though Stahelski is a martial artist, he insists his films, most of all John Wick, doesn’t “do” martial arts. “People think we do martial arts. We don’t. We do dance,” he says. “It looks like martial arts. It looks like fights. But it is dance.”

Stahelski’s love for dance runs deep. “I’ve seen real ballet. It is not what you think,” he says. “Behind the scenes, behind the grace, the beauty, it’s fucking pain and suffering. They’re some of the toughest athletes I’ve ever met, gymnasts and ballerinas.”

Parabellum partially takes place inside an underground Russian ballet academy that trains its students to become assassins. (Stahelski’s beloved company, the New York City Ballet, gets a cameo.) In the movie, John Wick sees the next generation of killers almost off themselves through their training. In a close-up, a ballerina’s toe nail peels off like an orange.

“You need to see what goes into it,” he says. “You will have new respect for these people.”

John Wick Chapter 3
Keanu Reeves (left) stars in 'John Wick: Chapter 3.' Opposite is Anjelica Huston, who plays "The Director," the head of a Russian ballet school that is secretly training students to become assassins.

Stahelski’s passion for theater plays a tremendous role in the architecture of his films.

“My choreography team, I’m insistent they study from dance,” he says, which he says shares more in common with cinema than competitive fighting. “In choreography, you have to make the other guy look good. You have to leave space to flip and fly and be ahead of them. You have to have an incredible memory.”

The John Wick films, unlike other action movies, average fewer editing cuts than the typical action movie. Stahelski has “no problem” editing fights, but he prefers long takes shot in wide angles because, like theater, it’s how he demands attention.

“The longer takes are meant to immerse you,” he says. “If you watch a dance, a play in a theater, I’m not flipping perspectives on you. I’m giving you the experience. You’ve never watched a New York City Ballet performance going, I wonder where the wires are.

Stahelski says his style is unpopular with choreographers, but that his results are indisputable. “A lot of choreographers don’t like doing wide shots. You can’t hide the hits or misses when the guys are swinging, punching, and kicking. We do grappling and ‘gun fu,’ so I can show you angles that most fight guys don’t because I don’t have to hide as much.”

John Wick Chapter 3
'John Wick' director Chad Stahelski says he never choreographs his fight scenes like martial arts, but as an intricate dance. Consequently, the 'John Wick' film series has received critical praise for its action and stunt work.

Another habit Stahleski lifted from the world of dance is a devotion to rehearsal.

“You go to a two-hour ballet where 20 people never miss a beat. Do you understand the rehearsal time that goes into that?” he asks. “It’s taken five fucking months of eight-hour rehearsals for people to be that good.”

And so, Stahelski rehearses with everyone, including his cameramen. “99 perecent of film out there, they don’t invite cameramen to rehearsals. They don’t want to pay for them. I bring cameramen two, three months out with the stunts team. The camera guys are rehearsing. If the camera guy doesnt know the moves, what fucking good is it?”

Stahelski says he’s been on sets that spend millions training the cast and stunt team and building elaborate sets, but producers are unwilling to “spend a couple thousand bucks” for the camera operators to show up. “Are you fucking kidding me?”

He continues, “When producers give me shit about that, I’m like, pfft. You built a ten million dollar house but you won’t spend $500,000 to put a roof on it, and it gets ruined in the rain. That’s the fucking idiocy going on with some of the action design nowadways.”

In set visits to John Wick: Chapter 3, Stahelski told the press his new movie is a “Fuck you” to other action films. It’s not that he’s abrasive, but he’s trying to prove what it means to actually put in the work.

“No one tries to make a shitty movie,” he says, putting down his cup He’s finished the tea. “There’s a million reasons why things fuck up, just like in real life. But my ‘fuck you’ is the methodology of the industry. My ‘fuck you’ is, sharpen your fucking game. The process is not that fucking hard. It’s just how you learn.”

John Wick: Chapter 3 — Parabellum hits theaters on May 17.

Media via Lionsgate Movies, Lionsgate