Chad Stahelski has established himself as one of the go-to action experts in Hollywood. With a career spanning thirty years, tracing back to low-budget martial arts flicks leading up to tent pole hits such as The Matrix saga, no one has been elevating the craft of stuntwork like Stahelski. Within the last decade, he made the jump from stunt performer/choreographer to full-fledged director, with the aid of longtime collaborators David Leitch and Keanu Reeves. Their baby, the John Wick franchise, has since become an incomparable adrenaline-filled staple within modern cinema.
Using the moment from John Wick, Stahelski just ramped up 87eleven Entertainment, an offshoot from 87eleven Action Design (co-founded by David Leitch). The production company is seeking to make more of the unconventional, yet high octane cinema that Stahelski is now known for. Stahelski signed a first-look deal with Lionsgate last year, and he is already in full gear for his next directorial work after the next chapter in John Wick, a new iteration of Highlander.
We were lucky enough to have Chad Stahelski for an exclusive interview. Before mass film production shutdown due to the pandemic, Stahelski was hard at work at John Wick 4 and Highlander. Fans most recently saw his unique touch with action sequences in DC’s Birds of Prey. He was also even lending a hand with action beats for the upcoming Matrix sequel. We reflect on his year so far, what’s still to come, and what the state of the stunt industry is going to look like post-pandemic.
We know of the projects that you were working on before productions shut down. How have you been coping in quarantine? Are you using this time to hone in on your creativity or taking some time to relax?
CS: Relaxing gives me the creeps, makes me feel not good. Look, the whole situation is bad, we all get it – it’s what you do with it, you know? Most of my family is back East, so you do what you can to stay connected to them. I have some really good friends here in LA. Obviously, my crew and my team are my friends, we all check in on each other. Creatively, before this all happened, I signed a first look deal for 87Eleven Entertainment for features with Lionsgate. We knew we were going to do something like this and my two executives, Jason Spitz and Alex Young, we’ve been putting together projects for a while now anticipating the start of the company.
When we went into lockdown, we were kind of already in development mode. So that’s been very good. Aligning properties, developing them, getting writers and newer directors to cut and package our properties that we’re very interested in, hopefully, coming to fruition. Aside from directing and being creative on things I would like to direct, I’ve now taken on the role of a developer, creative-exec, and producer. That’s been really fun. It’s been pretty time consuming with who much I’m involved, but it’s been great. Thank god for technology where we can phone call, Zoom, Skype, and all the other good stuff to stay creatively attached to all the people that we’re very, very interested in working with – working with our different writing teams to be as creative as we can. Throw into that mix, I have my own training facility. We use it for most of our many casts. So again, within the confines of everything that’s going on, I have access to keep my head busy in the choreography world as well as the creative development world.
It sounds like you’re taking “working from home” to a new level.
CS: Yeah! I live in Manhattan Beach in California and if you have to be stuck somewhere, it’s there. I have a very cozy place. It’s by the beach. I have two great dogs and if I’m not in my private office, then I’m at home developing something. All things aside, it’s at least been a productive experience.
So you’re very busy developing all these projects, but considering when movie theaters open again and the industry goes back to some kind of “normal”, things are not going to be the same. Do you think the stunt industry roughly over the last decade has improved for the better? Or perhaps when we open up again, there needs a lot more work to be done?
CS: You could apply that same question to any of the main departments, like hair and makeup and cinematography. We’re all involved in the entertainment industry. I stay in contact with three or four very close friends who are all cinematographers, they’re working on their craft. I have a great friend that’s a production designer and an art director. It’s the same with the stunt people. If you’re great at your job and you love what you do, you’re staying on top of it. Like they’re researching. They’re looking for different locations. They’re trying new camera things. They’re doing their research – what could be fun to try on the next show?
It’s the same with the stunt people. People that are in my social and professional circle, they’re going to do something with it. They’re either choreographers or conceptual stuntmen, not just performers. They want to choreograph, they want to action direct, they want to keep elevating and taking the act or the physicality of stunts and progress. They want to go through the evolution of becoming a creative force, asset, or collaborator. Men and women that are really into it, this is what they want to do. They’re reading, they’re researching, and they’re watching other shows. They’re making notes. They’re keeping their bodies in shape but at the same time, they’re keeping their minds in shape as well.
Anybody that is doing good with this, they’re going to come out of this with some more information and hopefully, slightly ahead of the curve. If you put that on top of the industry at large – whether streamers, TV, or stay at homes trumps going to the theaters or whatever it is, the product, give or take the quality level, is still going to have to get made. You’re still going to need the professionals to make it.
Stunts, in general, are progressing because of technology. The logistics, communication technology and safety-wise, meaning the visual effects levels that have come up and how we can composite, layer, and do morphing now. How we can do face replacements now, that does make the industry a safer place. To answer your question, stunts are always going to keep getting better, with the right people driving the industry, which I think we have, and the technological advances that the entire industry is open to. I don’t see us going backward in time.
Right, it wouldn’t make sense to go back.
I’m still actually blowing real things up.
Are there some things that you would like to see change in the stunt industry? To this day, the field is robbed of major scale recognition, such as with awards and accolades. Are there also any potential improvements you would recommend from what you’ve seen in the actual work environment?
CS: Look, that has an overview answer and a personal answer. Personally, I think everyone’s experience in the industry is based on when, what, and who you’re working with. The crews, producers, or the studios you work with. I would say 98% of all my personal experiences have been either a great or positive learning experience. Overview for the industry-wise, again, I couldn’t even call this a professional opinion – it’s an opinion from being around. It makes sense on a logical nature that if nine other departments are awarded Oscars, that yes a legitimate full-blown department for stunts would be acknowledged or considered. If there’s ten of you and nine of you are getting a treat, it makes sense that at least ten of you would get a treat too. I think that’s a very logistical comment.
If wardrobe, hair and makeup, certainly all the creative departments here are considered for Oscars, then yes, it makes perfect sense that the stunt department would be considered for an Oscar. Now on a personal level, being a former stuntman, second unit director, and all that stuff – for all the generations that were either before me, trained me, or current now – I don’t know a single person in my 30 years of work that got into stunts to win an Oscar.
That truth is quite telling.
CS: Apart from all that, as a stunt community, I don’t think we’ve ever been held back. I think we’ve done pretty f*cking good without being motivated by an award. It’s always been a bit of a stunt person thing to be like, “Look, I’m not doing it for the thanks”. You are, according to the song, the unsung hero. We’re not doing it because we want to be celebrities. I have three or four friends that I think are some of the best stunt performers on the planet. When they come to me and say, “Hey, good job” or “Hey, we liked your movie; we thought this is really cool”. On a personal level, that’s all I need. I’m good.
For the people I respect, for my peers to think I’m doing a good job. I think that’s always been the main motivator for most of the tier one stunt people that I deal with or have dealt with. But again, that’s all we’ve ever known. That’s for anybody that really loves what they do. If I was a painter, a sculptor, or if I could carry a tune – I would be happy doing whatever allowed me to create an outlet, just to say what I want to say or express what I want to express. Whether or not you got an award for it, I mean I don’t want to go into it with, “I think we deserve anything”.
No, of course not.
CS: I know some people you talk to are like, “Oh we deserve this”! Everybody that works on a movie set, from the craft service guy to hair and makeup, yeah they all deserve something because we all make the movie. Everybody deserves a pat on the back. But I don’t think anybody I’ve ever worked with in any department does it for the award. At least the cool people don’t – they just want to make something great! I would like to think when I pass on from this little world, that somebody is still watching a movie I worked on. That’s pretty cool, I entertained somebody.
Most of the people I know, that’s all we’re looking for. Now, do I think it’s fair? No, we already said that. I think it’s fair that everybody is considered. But again, I don’t know any people, at the level they’re at, that are going to stop what they’re doing for a second just for an award or not. They’re going to keep going. But you know, I think it would be nice. It shows recognition professionally. The stunt community in general, they’re super professional. They’re the best they’ve ever been in 50 years. And again, I think they should, but I don’t think a single person I know needs that. And that says a great deal about their character. I’m very proud to know those people.
To switch gears, before the pandemic went into full effect, the last thing people got to see your work in was Birds of Prey. You also previously lent a hand to the Russo Brothers for Captain America: Civil War and your partner David Leitch even found comic book success with Deadpool 2. Taking all of that into consideration, is the comic book film landscape one that you could see yourself thriving in or returning to?
CS: There are two levels to that. Our involvement in certain things, not the directing, but like going in for choreographing and action directing, like for Birds of Prey and Civil War. Helping or just collaborating with the directors, to put a different spin or take. Or to exchange ideas about action design – that’s something I’ll always love. I’m a stunt guy and a martial artist. I am a choreographer, I love choreographing. I also have 30 years in the business and Joe and Anthony Russo are friends. Walter Hamada who works for Warner Bros. and runs DC, he’s a friend. So part of your question revolves around me having these relationships. There are also some people out there – if they called, I wouldn’t miss a beat. Even if it was to carry their bag to the car. Maybe I owed them. Maybe I just love them to death for their continued knowledge and input or just that they’re good f*cking people. So there’s that side of it. Especially with stunts, where you learn very quickly that your word, your wellbeing, and your respect is all very important. It’s a character thing. So most of us are pretty loyal to the people that have helped us in the past. There’s always that relationship.
On a creative thing, I mean god I don’t know what you would say. After the first couple of Iron Man films when Marvel really started to blow up and the superhero thing in DC expanded, I mean superheroes have been around since the beginning of cinema. It’s just conditioned to love or to have hero-worship, especially in a hyper-real kind of way that hopefully finds the best qualities about humankind and having to tell that story. So yes, that’s always there. Now is a superhero movie always about a superhero? No.
CS: If you talk about hero-worship with Joseph Campbell hero’s journey, yes I’m all in. That’s part of every film or every product I’ll ever do. There will be some kind of hero or f*cked up anti journey. If you can make me cry man, I will love you forever. I think that’s the greatest emotion you give somebody – to be touched that deeply, that’s awesome. You know but we’re not all Aaron Sorkin that can write dialogue like that. Sometimes I have to save puppies. I have to cheat a little bit (laughs).
As far as a director, would I find it interesting to go back into that world? I’ve never directed a superhero movie technically. I have been in that world. I’ve been in that process and I’ve done a lot of the action. My stunt team works almost, I would say at least 80% in that world because of the action and designs needed. I think it’s fun. I am a huge fan. I watch it all the time. Personally, whether I’m right or wrong, I don’t think I’m that great at that world. I don’t have the same love for that and this is nothing against anybody that ever directs superheroes. I just think there are so many great people out there that are doing a great job on superhero movies – how they direct them and all the things within that process. I think the industry has got that pretty well covered.
From my personal background, I like doing things that are maybe a little off-center. I like to swing for the fence and I truly believe that I would rather try something different and fail gigantically than try to go back into a process I’m not super passionate about. What I guess I’m saying, I think I’m a better fan of superhero movies than I would ever be a director of one. So I’m going to stay in the outer periphery of that. Look at the projects in the past. I love John Wick. Is that kind of a superhero? Yeah, in a kind of hyper way absolutely. You look at Highlander. Yeah, that’s kind of a different thing. It’s a little bit more grounded, but yes, you could see the hero in that. If you look at the other projects I’m attached to, they all kind of have heroes in them. Just not with capes and kryptonite.
Going on from this, Netflix’s Extraction was directed by Sam Hargrave who is also a stunt coordinator that previously worked with the Russo brothers. You know him personally. His movie became the most-watched original film on Netflix upon release. What are your thoughts on more stunt coordinators like yourself taking the leap to become fully-fledged directors?
CS: To be completely politically open, whether from my personal experience or from a female, young, old, any ethnicity, any department – it’s an individual thing. There’s been a time where writers were big in directing, and they still are. There was a time when VFX supervisors became the next big thing to direct. Now, it’s kind of the stuntman thing to direct. Look, if you have the creative desire like Sam Hargrave, Dave Leitch, and myself, all former stuntmen – we all come from somewhere. But if you looked at the statistics, we’re probably all over the place. There are film students that go right into directing, whether if it’s Michael Bay or Zack Snyder or some other guy that came from the commercial or music video world. There was a time when you only got directors from music videos. McG is another example, it was a big thing for a while.
If we went back to the early 90s, the top five movies on IMDB were Charlie’s Angels and such. When you look at that roster, they all came from music videos. Is that an accident? Is that where you should go all the time or is it an individual thing because that’s what you’re looking for? Our interviewer, yourself, could be a great director. It’s up to you to punch out or should you only focus on interviews because you’re great at it? Dave and I did it. No one was looking to hire a stunt guy to direct John Wick. We just wanted to direct. We found a project. The movie-gods thought it was okay for us to succeed. We did a good job. All of a sudden, the spotlight shines on us going, “Hey, Hey, Hey”!
And I got news for ya, I know Sam very well. If Sam was a prop master, he would have directed a film. He could’ve been a craft service guy. Trust me, that guy has always wanted to direct since the day I met him in his early 20s. He has always wanted to tell stories and direct. He was shooting on his video camera when we first met him. That guy has always wanted to direct. He’s always had the passion. He’s always had a knack for it. What I’m saying is directing is always an individual thing. Now by Sam doing it, by us doing it – does that give inspiration to other people in the industry? Yes. Does that give inspiration to everybody? No. Just the ones that wanted to direct anyways. So if it’s helping somebody and we motivate people, great. But that shouldn’t be an exclusive thing for our department.
Considering that Sam’s film was so successful on Netflix, and you’ve stated before that when you’re trying to make a movie, you’re trying to make the most cinematic experience possible because that’s what you love. Do you think that’s something that you could personally find within streaming?
CS: I’ve thought about that quite a bit because that’s a very viable option for most of us that direct. My company has deals in projects with those folks right now. At least now, I wouldn’t choose a director’s gig based on format. I’m going to read the script and ask myself, do I want to make this? I want to have fun. But as a viewer, I grew up with drive-ins and theaters. My romantic vision of what I do with storytelling and movies is on a big-screen format. Like the first time I saw John Wick projected on a big screen I almost sh*t myself. “Yeah, this is pretty cool”.
We had no money. We had to watch dailies and edit on this small TV. So the first time we saw it, I really thought, wow. One, you realize how many mistakes you made. Two, you realize wow this is really cool seeing it on the big screen. But that’s the romantic, nostalgic thing I grew up with. Today, audiences are so used to streaming and sitting at home being comfortable and stuff, so who knows what’s going to happen. But again, I’m going to go with story and project first and then the format is the followup for me.
You brought up Highlander earlier and it’s also the first film you’re going to direct that’s not in the John Wick franchise. You already mentioned how busy you are developing projects, but how are things going with Highlander right now? It’s unlike anything you’ve done before.
CS: We’re in heavy development mode on Highlander. Tweaking the scripts, writing, conceptualizing sequences, how we’re going to do everything. We probably have a lot more in-person kind of things, but it hasn’t slowed down our development process at all.
To close it off, what advice would you give from your own personal experience to any aspiring filmmakers or creatives trying to succeed right now?
CS: Well, there’s a great quote from prison, “You do the time or the time does you”. How do you want to handle it? Anything creative again, personal team, anything creative starts with passion. You can’t stop passion no matter where you are. It’s just how you exercise it. So if you want to exercise your creative muscle and express your passion, then okay maybe we can’t go and do that. But like every good director I know, especially the newer generations, not having money or locations, it never stopped them. They would shoot a movie on their iPhone, they would get into photography. What’s stopping any of us from picking up our iPhone right now and doing a stop animation thing? Like we got nothing else to do! I could sit with one of my two dogs and take pictures, put it together, do a little thing in Photoshop, and make some stop animation. I’m sorry, but there are no excuses today anymore.
If it was 1950 with no iPhone, no internet, you couldn’t afford a camera. You don’t have anything to develop stuff with. You can’t go on location, etc. The logistical boundaries and limitations are going to keep you boxed in a little bit more. But you could still write, you could still sketch, you could still imagine. Now we have, Oh my God, laptops, desktops, how many different Photoshops, Final Cut, Premiere, like what VFX do you want to learn? If you can’t get other people, you don’t have dogs or cats as I do, then okay make little clay people. Cut up little people from a little notebook – work your stop motion animation.
Hey, If that’s too much for you and you’re not that kind of guy, get on the internet. Start watching movies. Go watch every Sidney Lumet interview out there. Go watch the David Rose show 20 times. Go watch specials on Aaron Sorkin, figure out how his dialogue is so good. Go back to John Ford, watch The Searchers and figure out how he did all that stuff. Go watch the 90,000 different interviews with Sergio Leone. Look into what made these directors great. Get involved. If you can’t at least research and understand why someone who did it has already done it – no excuse for sitting on your butt anymore. Do you want to direct? You direct. That’s it. That’s the bottom line. You want to do it? Do it. Now, directing is like 10 different things at once. So I would hope that you could find one of those things to do.