When you talk about paying dues, nobody fits that bill more than Chad Stahelski. The man behind the John Wick series started in the “trenches,” as he calls it, performing stunts in down-and-dirty indies like Nemesis 2 or Brain Smasher…A Love Story. He went on to become Keanu Reeves’ stunt double in the Matrix series, and finally worked his way up into second unit on everything from The Hunger Games to Captain America: Civil War. For more than a decade, it was Stahelski’s job — whether as a stunt performer or second-unit director — to figure out how to craft an action sequence given to him by a director.
“I was the guy that, for 15 years, if somebody gave me a page, I’d have to pull it off,” Stahelski tells Inverse.
“By the time I hit mainstream filmmaking, I had already been in the trenches.”
Taking all of that knowledge, he leapt into the director’s chair for a little revenge thriller called John Wick. Four movies later, he wound up revolutionizing Western action as we know it. It was more than his stuntman accolades that built John Wick into a bona fide action phenomenon. Stahelski gives just as much credit to casting world-class martial artists with larger-than-life personalities, who took the art of onscreen fighting from “Keanu Reeves versus Anonymous Stunt Double” to “Keanu Reeves versus ‘Where has the guy been all my life?’”
“My goal is always to sprinkle in these great performance guys,” Stahelski says.
Sitting down with Inverse, Stahelski details at length just why it was so important to cast actors like Donnie Yen, Scott Adkins, and Marko Zaror in the John Wick franchise, teases the “notebooks and notebooks” of ideas he has for future John Wick sequels, and reveals what he, and maybe even John Wick himself, are up to next.
This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.
You have a strong relationship with DTV, starting off your career with someone like Albert Pyun. Could talk a little bit about what it was like working with him and on films like Nemesis 2 and Brain Smasher?
You’ve got to remember, this is the late ’80s, early ’90s. So, the martial arts thing, it wasn’t mainstream at all. There was no Brazilian jiu-jitsu yet, no UFC, no Internet, no YouTube. I got hooked up with this little group of martial arts guys that would just get together every Friday or weekend and work out. And one of them was this guy named Burt Richardson. He was an instructor at the Inosanto Academy [and] was a pretty big name at the time. And that introduced me to Dan Inosanto’s school, the Inosanto Academy, which had a lot of stuntmen working in it. My main instructor had always wanted to get into a movie. So, he had gotten in with an Albert Pyun movie.
I was one of Burt’s main guys. I was 6-foot-1. I was the right size. I had a lot of gymnastics and martial arts skills. They hired Burt and me as a package, and that happened to be Albert Pyun. And the job was in Moab, Utah, for this movie called Knights with Kris Kristofferson and Kathy Long.
Albert took a liking to me, and I was still competing [in martial arts] at the time. So, I’d do a movie, and then I’d go get kicked in the head for a while, then he’d come back and do a movie. Whenever Albert did a movie over the next two years, he’d call me. I ended up doing four or five films with him in a row. By the time I hit mainstream filmmaking, I had already been in the trenches. By the time I was 24, I had been in five Albert Pyun movies. That’s where I met Gary Daniels. It's through that world that I met Mark Dacascos and Marko [Zaror]. And then I met Brandon [Lee], and I did The Crow with him.
“I have to find people that build that up. So, my goal is always to sprinkle in these great performance guys.”
Gary Daniels and Mark Dacascos were populating the lower-budget martial arts world at that time. Now, for a certain action fan, when a guy like Scott Adkins pops up in something, for guys like us, we’re probably like, “Oh, well, that’s the best that’s going to get on a big level,” but then they have a great moment for half a second, and they’re gone. But in your movies, Scott’s a major presence in Chapter 4, or Dacascos and Yayan [Ruhian, from The Raid], have a huge presence in 3. Are those the kind of guys you have in your head when you’re casting these movies?
I’ll tell you the biggest secret of action right now. You’ll run into a lot of choreographers that’ll tell you, “You’ve got to put story into the action. He’s got to tell a story.” Yeah, that’s cool. That’s definitely a part of it. I would argue that it’s the story you tell before the action that makes the difference. By the time Bruce Willis does anything, you’ve got a barefoot cop in a tank top who’s trying to save his marriage, who’s got his feet cut with up a glass, and then, “OK, I’m in. You got me.”
You got Scott Adkins, who does five pages of dialogue in a fat suit, and you don’t even know it’s him. And next thing you know, OK, this guy’s throwing spin hook kicks. That’s how you hook the audience. You got Donnie doing three scenes before he even does a punch. You have to build these guys up, and you can’t just do that with something. So, I know when I’m writing a sequence, I know that’s the magic rule. I have to find people that build that up. So, my goal is always to sprinkle in these great performance guys.
You can tell Donnie’s having fun in that movie. He’s having a blast. You can tell Scott is going for it in that prosthetic suit. You can tell Marko is just twirling his mustache. They’re all having fun because people are letting them try different things.
That’s something I really love about your films, the levity you bring to the action. You see and feel a ton of influence from Buster Keaton and Jackie Chan. There’s such a strong throughline through the history of martial arts and stunts of having comedy wrapped up in them. How important is that to you to lighten things up here and there?
The subtext of all the John Wicks is supposed to be that ’70s brutal, hardboiled kind of stuff. But I want you to laugh because I want you to know: Keanu and I are in on the joke. We know how ridiculous killing 80 guys over a puppy is. Believe me, we know. (laughs) When you read a critic saying, “Well, that’s not real. And John Wick would never survive.” Dude, neither would Bugs Bunny; I totally get it. We’re in on the joke. That’s why we’re killing 300, not three. We’re in on it.
In a John Wick movie, you’ve got to let the audience know that we’re sitting with you. We want to laugh. But I don’t think you should try for a laugh. I just think the situational brutality of the situation should give you a laugh and a comfort one. If you fall down 10 stairs, it’s brutal. If you fall down 200 stairs, it’s funny. You beat a guy up with a knife, it’s one thing, but then you throw a tomahawk from 50 feet away. It’s the accent. Having a dog attack somebody can be brutal. Having a dog attack his groin is way more brutal, but it’s way more funny, and we don’t know why. I think you need that psychosomatic response to action and violence to make it fun.
With The Continental out now, there are all these questions about the ending of Chapter 4 and people wondering about how definitive it all is, especially with how Chapter 4 ended. How do you feel the series can survive in a post-Wick world? Do you see spin-offs as a possibility, or is this something that you’re just trying to move on from, and you're happy to let other people take it and run with it?
As far as John Wick 4 goes and the ending, if you go back and you watched — God forbid — all four in a row [laughs], it’s supposed to be a bit of a fever dream. You can see how the first one starts fairly grounded. The second one’s a rock opera, and the third one’s a kung-fu classic. The fourth one is this weird western samurai film. They get more ridiculous as you go. They get more anime as you go… It’s supposed to be a myth. It’s supposed to be a tale. Some people miss that. It’s supposed to be these mythological tales of gods and men and what happens in fantasy and fate. Did John Wick die? The meta is did John die or “John Wick” die? What’s freedom? What’s fate? And that’s not a gag. I didn’t do it to end a franchise. Keanu and I didn’t map it all out. We did John Wick, ended it. We did 2, ended it, and we waited six months to a year or two; we had an idea, and we went.
“I have notebooks and notebooks of shit behind me, John Wicks 5, 6, 7, 8, 9.”
We just rationalize that any Greek hero like Odysseus or anybody else over a long enough timeline, every story’s a tragedy. The hero always dies. You just don’t know when. And we also know if you’re a bad guy, you do bad things, bad things happen to you. That’s just the way it goes. So, we always had that hard, hardboiled sensibility. And we got done with 3, and we kind of knew when we were doing the press tour, we’re like, “Fuck. We didn’t really end it. We didn’t stick the landing.” And we had a couple of ideas. And Keanu and I put some things together, and that’s how we built No. 4: “OK, this is the swan song.”
I have notebooks and notebooks of shit behind me, John Wicks 5, 6, 7, 8, 9. We have ideas for days. We just don’t have the story locked. I have no interest in doing the cash grab of bringing John Wick back for something. Is he a character I like? Of course. And if I did a couple of John Wick movies, great. Keanu would do one again in a second if we had a good story. We leave that open-ended. I know that the studio would love us to say we have another one.
Keanu and I are always interested in that, but we leave it hanging out there a little bit to figure out if we have something that we’d want to watch. Second, we have a studio that’s very enthusiastic and not just financially motivated, but they’re just interested in seeing what we could do with it. So, they’ve been super cool of us this year about branching off. I know the term is “spin-offs” or “ancillaries” or whatever you want to call it. Keanu and I both went back, and we all said, “Look, we have ideas for the John Wick world, other characters that aren’t John Wick-centric. Would you guys be interested in exploring that?” And they were super cool, and they said, “Yes, we’d be very interested in that.” Characters that weren’t in any of the movies that had fallen to the sidelines because they just didn’t fit in our storylines, and some existing characters that we’d like to see other things.
Now, as far as you go, I’d love to hear what you’re excited about next. I know press releases come and go with names being attached and everything, like Highlander or Ghost of Tsushima, but what, if anything, can you talk about?
Highlander is something I’ve been involved with for seven years. That’s a massive deal. We’d like to do what we did with John Wick, with Highlander. We have Henry Cavill attached. He’s a fantastic guy, a busy guy, but he’s fantastic, very athletic. I think that world is incredible in what you can do with it.
Ghost of Tsushima is one of my favorite properties. I just love the story. I love the samurai, but the story with Jin Sakai is fascinating to me. I love his character arc and the other ancillary characters in that world. I normally wouldn’t be attracted to the video game world, but I think Sucker Punch and Sony PlayStation nailed this one. We have a TV show called Nemesis, which is a kaiju thriller, and we are going to do our take on Godzilla a little bit. Super stoked about that. And then you have Rainbow Six with Michael B. Jordan. And Michael B. Jordan’s one of the coolest guys I’ve met in the industry. He’s one of the hardest-working cast members ever bumped into. It’d be a real pleasure to work with him.
They’re all in different stages of development, and because of the strikes and all that stuff, there’s obviously a wait… But those are all projects that I’m very proud of, that if you had to put a gun on my head and make any one of them tomorrow, I’d throw myself into.