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'John Wick 2' Director On 'Hong Kong Approach' To Filmmaking

Feb 18, 2017
Originally published on February 18, 2017 8:47 am
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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Chad Stahelski is a stuntman turned director is changing the way actors prepare for action scenes. His idea is, if you're choreographing an action film, train your actors in everything from jiu-jitsu to self-defense with a pencil. Well, reporters do that. Reporter Beth Accomando explains how Stahelski and his "John Wick" movies are changing the genre.

BETH ACCOMANDO, BYLINE: Three years ago, "John Wick" won over audiences with its tale of a hitman played by Keanu Reeves who comes out of retirement to avenge the death of his puppy. "John Wick: Chapter 2" picks up a few days later as John recovers his stolen car and tries to remain retired. But the harder he tries, the more bodies pile up.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "JOHN WICK: CHAPTER 2")

LAURENCE FISHBURNE: (As character) You're not very good at retiring.

KEANU REEVES: (As John Wick) I'm working on it.

ACCOMANDO: At 52, Reeves is great at making John Wick look like an efficient killing machine. And the reason for that is stuntman turned director, Chad Stahelski.

CHAD STAHELSKI: We throw every penny we can into training the cast member. And we just don't train them to memorize moves. Keanu was trained on this one to be a practical three-gun firearm technician. Basically, we just trained him to be a stunt guy.

ACCOMANDO: That's the Hong Kong approach to shooting action. Stahelski learned it from working with Yuen Woo Ping on "The Matrix," the first American film to introduce Asian action to mainstream Hollywood. Stahelski says, in Hong Kong, they take a holistic approach.

STAHELSKI: The Hong Kong teams - their cameramen were ex-stunt guys. Their editors were stunt - like, from the editor to the director to the performers that link or that production line was all on the same page. They were all at rehearsals. They were all there.

ACCOMANDO: Stahelski successfully put those practices to work in his directorial debut, "John Wick," says Bey Logan, author of "Hong Kong Action."

BEY LOGAN: The best thing you can do if you have choreographers who know what they're doing is get out of their way and let them do it, which is the foundation of the Hong Kong filmmaking approach.

ACCOMANDO: But that Hong Kong approach runs counter to what Hollywood tends to do, says Stahelski.

STAHELSKI: A lot of times you get an action sequence that shot and executed not so much to show things but to hide things, to hide imperfections.

ACCOMANDO: That's why Stahelski and partner David Leitch founded 87eleven, an action design company. Logan says what they did was an innovation in Hollywood.

LOGAN: You really want to see what somebody is doing in frame. And, hopefully, you want to see them doing it or at least if you're going to double somebody, that they're doubled in a way that the audience is going along with the ride, and they're not going, oh, my god, look, that's a stunt double or it's a special effect.

ACCOMANDO: Stahelski didn't start with the goal of becoming a director. It was just a natural progression as he got more involved in the shooting of films, such as "300" and "The Hunger Games: Catching Fire."

STAHELSKI: The best way to bring what you created or what you choreographed to fruition is being the director. You know, you can control how it's edited. You control how it's shot, which gives you a truer version of what you want to do.

ACCOMANDO: That's where Keanu Reeves came in. Having worked with Stahelski on "The Matrix," Reeves had confidence this stunt guy could direct. Reeves praised his director in a studio interview.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

REEVES: Chad brings such a experience to physical production in terms of shooting action. He was a stunt man at a very high level, so he understands the cinema of action and what it takes to put that on screen.

ACCOMANDO: Common co-stars in "John Wick: Chapter 2" and trained for more than three months to play a rival hitman.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

COMMON: I knew we were doing long sequences and long shots. I was all for it. Keanu is the same way. That's why when you see "John Wick" or "John Wick 2," you see Keanu doing the stunts. You see him doing the work. And, for me, it keeps you in the movie.

ACCOMANDO: Plus, the action advances the story and defines the characters, says Stahelski.

STAHELSKI: Keanu can sit in, you know, one of our action meetings and go, John Wick wouldn't run. He'd just ram you with a car, and his mentality is not evasion, it is destruction and collision.

ACCOMANDO: Defining character through action is easy when your actor is well-trained. Common said he was prepared for anything they could throw at him.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

COMMON: He has different ways of, like, when you're utilizing the gun, and he combines that with certain martial arts techniques. Yeah, he comes up with this thing called gun fu.

ACCOMANDO: Gun fu is an invention of Stahelski's, and its winning over audiences around the globe. "John Wick: Chapter 2" opened last weekend to double the box office of its predecessor, and chapter three might be next. For NPR News, I'm Beth Accomando. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.