In case you haven’t heard, John Wick is the second greatest action movie of 2014. Seriously. (Don’t take my word for it? Here’s FSR’s official list.) It’s an especially impressive feat as the film is from first-time feature directors Chad Stahelski and David Leitch. The pair has worked in the industry for over two decades as stunt men, stunt coordinators, fight choreographers and more. Stahelski’s first job was actually as a double for Keanu Reeves on Point Break.
That relationship continued over the years, bringing us to this film starring Reeves as an ex-assassin forced out of retirement by some thugs with poor manners. It’s a fantastic movie with some fun characters and impressive world building, but the pair’s background also makes it into a spectacular action film. They recognize that truly memorable action/fights are dependent on the performer’s dedication and a trust in shots that run longer than half a second. The movie recently hit Blu-ray/DVD, and the duo recorded a commentary that shares their knowledge, interests and pure joy experienced on the production.
John Wick (2014)
Commentators: Chad Stahelski (co-director), David Leitch (co-director)
1. The opening scene went through a few incarnations, most of them longer, but they decided to trim it back to leave the mystery of Wick’s character intact.
2. Wick’s house is a real home in a New York suburb. The owners were really excited to see their home onscreen, but they weren’t as thrilled with the number of people who had to come traipsing through.
3. Their first “director’s cut” was two hours and twenty minutes. That’s thirty nine minutes longer than the film’s theatrical cut.
4. They acknowledge that in the real world a retired assassin probably would have changed his name, but they like the idea of this world being similar to that of a comic book.
5. Reeves encouraged more scenes of Wick’s human side including moments you wouldn’t normally see from an action hero. “He emotes quite a bit, he gets to cry, walk around in his PJs…”
6. The daisy motif is all over the early scenes ‐ on the card, on the mug, in the hospital room and in the puppy itself named Daisy.
7. The puppy wasn’t trained to rush Reeves’ face in that morning shot, but “you let a puppy loose, rub some bacon on Reeves’ beard and let it happen.”
8. The dog poop is CGI costing them around $5k. “They wouldn’t let us give laxatives to the puppy,” says Stahelski.
9. They had to fight for Wick to be bearded. “It’s not normal for mainstream producer types to think you can cover up your lead actor’s face in a beard,” says Stahelski, “but it’s our little throwback to a ’70s vibe.” “It was one of those battles we fought for,” adds Leitch, “and everyone responded to.”
10. They had two of the Mustang cars, and they weren’t allowed to damage either of them. The scene with Wick driving aggressively around the airport is 85–95% Reeves behind the wheel. The final shot with the car stopping centimeters away from the trucks was left to a professional.
11. They also received studio notes suggesting that maybe the dog didn’t need to die. Think about that for a second… and then wonder how any good movies get made these days.
12. A producer friend of John Leguizamo’s asked if he’d like to be a part of the film, and the actor came by, read the script, said yes and gave them a fifteen-hour day to get all of his scenes done.
13. They were heavily influenced by the style of graphic novels and attempted to capture some of that in the colors, framing and angles.
14. The scenes with Iosef Tarasov (Alfie Allen) bringing Wick’s car to Aureilo’s (Leguizamo) shop and Wick’s arrival afterwards were originally written in chronological order. They decided they didn’t want Wick offscreen for too long, though, and instead intercut the two to maintain the tension. The same occurs during the scenes where Viggo (Michael Nyqvist) tells the tale of the boogeyman and Wick recovers his weapon cache from beneath the cement floor.
15. The Peligroso Tequila was included as product placement that should have netted the directors some free booze, but the company was bought by a big distributor, and it never arrived.
16. “Dean Winters is always drinking, smoking a cigarette or saying fuck, fuck fuck,” says Stahelski. Leitch also points out the scene where Avi (Winters) ashes his cigarette on the mob boss’s wooden floor. “We couldn’t get around it in editorial,” he says.
17. Reeves did four months of hardcore training, judo, jujitsu, guns and physical fitness. “He loves it and he hates it,” says Leitch. The training included time with Los Angeles S.W.A.T. and some of the directors’ Navy SEAL friends.
18. They credit Reeves’ dedication and talent with their ability to do long takes during the fight scenes. “I think we really only cut for impact,” says Stahelski. “We didn’t really cut to get around moves, we didn’t cut to speed things up. We wanted you to see what happens before, during and after.” “You’re not using long lenses to hide bad action,” adds Leitch.
19. David Patrick Kelly and Winters were hired on the spot at their auditions.
20. They love seeing people’s reactions to the gold coins, the cop (Thomas Sadoski) at the front door and other unexplained sequences. “A lot of people don’t give their audiences credit,” says Leitch. “You can leave it a little mysterious. They can think about it.”
21. Marcus’ (Willem Dafoe) second appearance led to discussions about how he should seem at home. Per Stahelski, Dafoe was pretty confident that “I see me in a bathrobe, juicing.”
22. They used a Marilyn Manson song as a temp track, and their music supervisor offered to introduce them to the performer who ultimately gave them a track off his new album to use in the film. “It was at [composer] Tyler Bates’ house who we kind of wanted originally anyway,” says Stahelski. “And that’s how we all met with a bottle of absinthe.” The spot in the film was originally going to feature Johnny Cash’s “God’s Going to Cut You Down.”
23. There’s a rare silence on the commentary when Adrianne Palicki appears onscreen.
24. They credit over a decade spent with the Wachowskis on The Matrix films, Speed Racer and others for helping teach them composition over simply moving the camera from A to B.
25. Ian McShane arrived with his own wardobe and props. “We could listen to this guy read a laundry list and he’d probably be great,” says Stahelski. I’d say he probably meant a grocery list, but who knows how Hollywood folk do their laundry.
26. Neither director can recall the name of the band performing at the hotel’s special club in the basement. They both feel like dicks about it.
27. Perkins (Palecki) was originally a man in the script.
28. Allen was unaware that he would have to run through a club crowd in a towel and was worried about all the pie he ate the night before. “He got a lot of numbers from the extras that night,” says Stahelski.
29. The fight scenes in the VIP room and balcony of the club we’re filmed over two days when Reeves had a fever and the flu. “You couldn’t even get him to sit down,” says Stahelski. “He just did take after take.”
30. Daniel Bernhardt plays the lead bodyguard protecting Iosef, and this film serves as a reunion between him and Reeves; they previously worked together while fighting on the second Matrix film where Bernhardt worked as a stunt man.
31. The scene where Wick is attacked in his room by Perkins originally had Wick in his suit, but Reeves suggested he should be in his boxers instead. “’I want to feel vulnerable,’” he told Stahelski.
32. They originally wanted to have Perkins’ nose broken after her big fight with Wick, but the studio suggested that would be going too far. “They’re like, you have two women in the movie, one is dead,” recalls Leitch. “Do you really want to break her nose?” They did but were out-voted.
33. Viggo’s “Cool it cool it cool it!” was improvised by Nyqvist. The actor also suggested that Viggo calmly roll a joint to quell the inner demons of knowing that his son is being killed by Wick.
34. The directors helped shovel snow out of a background shot. “Yup, breaking union rules,” says Leitch. “We had one prop guy, said okay, you can help, just don’t tell anybody.” Oops.
35. They couldn’t afford a full-on car chase through the city streets, but their 2nd unit director Darren Prescott pitched them a “car fu” sequence with Wick using his car and gun together as he takes on two SUVs alongside the dry docks.
36. The end fight was originally longer, but they acknowledged that Viggo shouldn’t really pose a big physical threat to Wick… who we just watched kill dozens of far fitter bad guys. This is part of their belief that certain action elements should ring true ‐ they kept count of their bulllets, they refused to blow up cars that fell two stories ‐ even as the world itself feels like it belongs in a comic.
37. Eva Longoria produced the film, and the directors are repeatedly asked about her involvement. “Never met her,” they say, “but we thank her for writing a check.”
38. The end credits feature them layering praise on their cast and crew and drawing utter blanks at the various producer names (aside from Longoria).
Best in Commentary
- Stahelski: “This is our first commentary, so bear with us.”
- Stahelski: “Throughout the movie, whether it’s the angles, the wardrobe or the quirky dialogue or the framing we always tried to give these visual hints that we’re not in the real world.”
- Stahelski: “If you get tired going through the movie and counting how many people John Wick shoots in the face you can always go through the movie and count how many times Viggo takes off his jacket.”
- Leitch: “We have a lot of John Wick walking. In cool shots. There’s a ton of great shots on the cutting room floor that’s just Keanu walking in cool environments. Here’s one of them.”
- Stahelski: “Interesting social note, Adrianne Palicki is now engaged to Keanu Reeves’ stunt double.”
- Leitch: “We’ll see you on John Wick 2.”
Stahelski and Leitch offer up a fun listen featuring anecdotes and details as to how several shots were created. They’re also giant martial arts nerds as evidenced by their banter during some of the fight scenes where they list off the various moves, and it’s clear that their time in the directors’ chairs hasn’t lessened their interest in the physical rigors of film-making.
The commentary leaves you impressed with the duo’s affection for their crew and cast as well as their dedication towards crafting an action movie where action is king. Now how do we get Eva Longoria to write them another check?