Director Chad Stahelski just cemented himself as one of the greatest action filmmakers of our time with John Wick: Chapter 4 – a cinematic feat that needs to be seen to be believed. From the humble beginnings of an independent production that was by all means a studio gamble, the John Wick franchise has now reached a slew of new milestones with this fourth chapter, including its highest rating on Rotten Tomatoes and its highest opening weekend at the box office. And as more fans get to really sink their teeth into John Wick: Chapter 4, they’ll discover that the sequel also holds the records for highest body count and what could be the longest action sequences from the entire series. Suffice it to say, Chad Stahelski, star Keanu Reeves, and the team at 87eleven Productions have created something that we’re going to be talking about for years to come.
John Wick: Chapter 4 presents our titular character with what he’s been searching for throughout the entire series: a final way out. Now recovered and from the final events of Chapter 3 – Parabellum, John is ready to take on the entire High Table with help from The Bowery King (Laurence Fishburne). But even his plan of simply killing them all leads to nowhere, as there is always another body in line ready to take a place at the table. Thus, Winston (Ian McShane) returns with a certified plan that benefits both him and Wick, and it goes all the way back to the ancient ways of the High Table. John can win his ultimate freedom with no strings attached through a classic one-on-one duel, but his opponent is the cruel Marquis de Gramont (Bill Skarsgård) – a French High Table member who’s tasked with collecting Wick’s head.
To make matters further complicated, the Marquis de Gramont has called upon the elite blind assassin Caine (Donnie Yen) to take John Wick out. John and Caine are actually old friends who share one thing in common: an unrelenting love for family. Caine has pledged his life to the High Table in order to keep his safe, and must put all feelings aside if he is to complete his mission. Though he’s not the only hitman on the hunt, as the international bounty on Wick’s head increases in the millions by the day. Thus, writers Shay Hatten and Michael Finch set the table for a globe-trotting epic that also features the likes of Clancy Brown, Scott Adkins, Shamier Anderson, Natalia Tena, Hiroyuki Sanada, Rina Sawayama, and the great late Lance Reddick.
John Wick: Chapter 4 seemingly pulls off the impossible with such a large cast ensemble and action-packed story. Chad Stahelski, however, has never been one to turn down a challenge. DiscussingFilm has been lucky enough to sit down with the famed stuntman turned director twice before, the first time to discuss stunt recognition in Hollywood and the second to dive into his growing career as a producer on Netflix’s vampire action flick Day Shift. In our latest conversation with Chad Stahelski, we dive into John Wick: Chapter 4 and cover everything from anime and old western influences to nailing the film’s final 2-hour and 38-minute runtime. The director gives us a hilarious message for any fans who might be trepid about the film’s lengthy runtime and, as an extra treat, reveals a fascinating update on his upcoming live-action adaptation of Sony’s Ghost of Tsushima.
Exclusive interview with director Chad Stahelski for John Wick: Chapter 4
So jumping right into John Wick: Chapter 4, how do you, Keanu Reeves, and your team keep raising the stakes and cinematic spectacle each and every time? What do you think has been the biggest key in achieving this?
Chad Stahelski: That’s probably the most common question we get. Look, there are so many different parts to that answer. But what we don’t really concern ourselves with is that very question. We never really go, “How do we do bigger, better, stronger, faster?” It’s more of an organic process of like, “We’ve done this. Okay, let’s put that aside. Now, how do we get better?” In order to get a better movie or better action, I have to get better, Keanu has to get better, my camera team has to get better, my stunt team has to get better, etc. Our stunt team at 87eleven is a good example. Our guys are required to train twice as much as everybody else when they’re not working. When they’re working, we do maintenance workouts and we focus so much on the film.
But when the movie ends, that’s when we really go to work because we want to explore new options. We want to learn different martial arts. We want to improve our skill sets. So the same thing goes for me when the movie ends. Instead of taking the 10-week vacation that my partner would probably love to take (laughs), it’s more about, “Let’s roll up my sleeves, I should have, could have, would have – I should have been a better storyteller and I wish I could learn more about camera. Now, it’s time to go to work.” So after John Wick 3, as soon as we decided to commit, we began researching. What are the new skill sets for Keanu? I have to learn more about lighting and have to call my cinematographer asking, “What’s the new technology? What’s the new camera? How do we get better?”
Hopefully, you’ll see that as filmmakers – myself included, my crew, and Keanu – regardless of which John Wick film is your favorite, you’ll see that we’ve tried to evolve and have at least a positive evolution of getting better at what we do and learning. A movie takes 2-3 years out of your life, so it’s not like I can direct like this every day. I direct intensely then I have like two years of prep. So, I wish I could get more repetition. I wish I could be a better filmmaker for the audience. But it just takes time to get better. That’s why you see so many first-time directors get overwhelmed by the first one and then don’t get the second shot.
We’re trying to build a career where I’m getting better and learning more. And you do learn little tricks. Every time you choreograph, every time you do an action sequence, you learn it’s very hard to go to the gym and rehearse if you have a 50-car, 20-30 stuntman action sequence. You can’t just pull up and go “Okay guys, today we’re going to do some push-ups and we’re gonna drive 50 cars!” You don’t really get those chances until you’re really on set – until someone’s given you the opportunity and the money to do it. You just milk that for everything it’s worth and try and learn what you can. So you can have a bigger mindset, bigger imagination, and the logistical savviness and craftsmanship to pull it off in the next one.
I think most fans will agree that John Wick: Chapter 4 is operating on a whole other level than the previous sequels.
Chad Stahelski: And we like that! I mean, some people feel shy about it and say, “Well, I don’t know if this one’s better than the last one.” There’s definitely an opinion of which of the four films you like more, but I think technically, this is by far the best one. You know, with our imagination and the total craftsmanship we put in, I like to think, craftsmanship-wise, this is the best film I’ve ever done. So we’re very proud of it in that aspect. My crew and my cast have done a great job. I just hope I didn’t screw it up too badly (laughs).
I don’t see many people walking out of this film thinking that. You can really see the collaborative effort on-screen, and this franchise has now taken us all over the world because of that. I wanted to ask, which was your favorite location to shoot in this time around?
Chad Stahelski: It’s surprising because a lot of the places in the movie I’ve been to many times, like Paris or New York. I’ve seen different aspects of New York just being able to shoot so much of the John Wick franchise inside the city – you really get to see all the little nooks and crannies. So I’ve learned New York better. The ability to go to Morocco, which I had never been to before, or Jordan like in Chapter 4 I’ve never been, is amazing. I’ve been traveling to Japan since I was very, very young. So it’s always nice to go back to Osaka or Tokyo. So in this movie, I loved Japan. I have friends over there. I enjoy the culture. I enjoy learning a lot about their mythology. I love Osaka, so that would be one of them.
I’m a huge David Lean fan, so I wanted to do something from Lawrence of Arabia as well. It’s one of my favorite films of all time, I’m a huge geek about it. So I wanted to shoot in Aqaba. I was willing to endure really any situation to get those shots, to go to that kind of world. But when we interacted with the Jordanian Film Commission and their crew and the Crown Prince who’s the head of the film commission, and then the King himself who actually took part and came and met us, they couldn’t have been more helpful. They were so supportive in just the short time we were there.
It was one of the most pleasant filming experiences I’ve had in my career, to be in Aqaba and to be in Jordan with their government, Film Commission, and their crews. When you step into that environment, there’s no digital enhancement. That’s all real Jordanian desert. We shot on the actual rock where Peter O’Toole stood too. When you stand there, as the sun goes down and you see the shadows, you’re like, “This is magic.” So while I like New York and who doesn’t love Paris, right? I love Berlin. I love everywhere I’ve shot. But when you’re standing in that Jordanian desert… that was just a very unique experience.
Now that you mentioned Lawrence of Arabia, I can definitely see that influence. On that note, what particular influences did you use for the Osaka Continental set piece?
Chad Stahelski: I’m a huge Japanese anime fan. You know, Cyber Japan or Neo-noir, whatever you want to call it. Japanese anime has had a huge influence on me in terms of composition and color. John Wick is a weird spillover of anime, manga, graphic novel sensibility as well as Wuxia films, Chanbara films, Samurai films, and Westerns. It’s got this weird transference. I mean, I love to see films that take a crack at trying to be anime. It’s just I think The Matrix is really the only one that has nailed it. It’s always been my aspiration to somehow make this live-action anime. But, you know, we’re grounded by the senses of reality. So I’m trying the best I can!
So let’s talk about the runtime of John Wick: Chapter 4. When it was revealed that the film is almost three hours…
Chad Stahelski: Hold on, the movie is 2 hours and 38 minutes. Then there are 10 minutes of credits because we shot in five countries. So 10 almost 12 minutes of that runtime is credits. I have to stand up for my movie!
Right, of course, but an action film like this being that long still caused some divisive reactions online.
Chad Stahelski: These are the same people that will go and binge a whole season of television on a Sunday afternoon.
Chad Stahelski: I think myself and again, you have [Christopher] Nolan and [James] Cameron, like come on, really? Everybody goes out and watches three seasons of TV on a Sunday, or they will watch whole five episodes of Game of Thrones at night. And because you’re on your couch that makes it different?
I think the other side of the argument comes from the big challenge of getting audiences back into theaters.
Chad Stahelski: Yeah, but I also watch movies all over the world. Literally, I agree with Cameron saying Americans are the only ones that are uncomfortable with getting up and taking a bathroom break. “I don’t want to get up so I have to hold it and now it’s way too long!” Like, just stand up. I got something for you, for anyone watching John Wick: Chapter 4, after the water scene in the club, I did that to make you want to go to the bathroom. That’s a good time to go to the bathroom and come back, and you would be fine (laughs).
That’s a great response because I was actually going to ask if you had anything else to say to those fans?
Chad Stahelski: All I have to say is: enjoy it. It’s funny, you hear “We want more movies, we want the cinematic experience.” I shot this movie to be seen on IMAX. That’s why you see the anamorphic lenses, the colors, we push the contrast, we push the size, we want you to enjoy the cinema! I’ve tried to go out of my way to make beautiful and interesting characters, so enjoy it. Sit back, eat your popcorn, and if you have to go to the bathroom, go to the bathroom. I’m not on a mission to do a two-and-a-half-hour movie. We just wanted to expand the world, expand the characters, and we had a 135-page script.
The original cut [of John Wick: Chapter 4] was 3 hours and 45 minutes – we cut an hour out! But we feel the movie we released is the best version of itself. We tried a 2-hour and 15-minute version, a 2-hour and 20-minute version, and a 2-hour and 10-minute version. And I just thought the movie was terrible in all of those. It didn’t land right, it didn’t emotionally sit right with me – it just felt weird. In the final version, I feel like I’m good. I feel like I’m satisfied. I feel like I got the action in. I challenge it back to the fans. “Okay everybody, be a director, what would you cut out? What bores you? Too much action? Not enough action?” (laughs). So I throw it back at the fans to just enjoy it.
That’s the thing too because, after all, you can never truly make everyone happy.
Chad Stahelski: Here’s to every other critic out there: if the biggest critique you can give me is that it felt a little long, I’m good! If you tell me something like, “It was really bad, it felt like four hours but somehow I made it through” okay I get that. But, honestly, as a director, if I’ve entertained you for even part of that time, I’m very proud. And I’m proud of what our movie came out to be.
Despite this being the fourth film in the franchise, it feels like we’re only getting started with the Ballerina spin-off and The Continental TV show on the way. What are your thoughts on the future of the John Wick universe and on another potential film?
Chad Stahelski: Look, the way we do these things is one at a time. Keanu and I always, as I mentioned earlier, need that little rest time to try to get better at everything. So we’ll see how the audience reacts – if people like it at the studio, and I guess if we’re fortunate enough to have people come after us and say “We would like to do another one.” We’ll give it some thought, there’s always a possibility to do more. A lot of that is up to what the fans want, what Lionsgate is willing to support us with, and if we have good ideas. I think with what we’ve done with all four films, Keanu and I feel pretty satisfied. But I don’t know, we could wake up tomorrow and be completely done or we could wake up tomorrow like, “I got an idea!”
Before I leave you, I would be remiss not to ask for updates on Ghost of Tsushima and how you’re currently planning to approach the project?
Chad Stahelski: That’s a good question. I love Ghost of Tsushima, it’s one of when my favorite properties. I’m lucky to be attached to a couple of really cool properties right now, from Rainbow Six to a few other things. Ghost of Tsushima is a really interesting story if you really dive into the tale of Jin Sakai and what the film is really about. And you tie him to these amazing visuals. You can already tell from the John Wick films that I love color and I love composition. To really try and not only live up to but exceed what the game has done with its visuals is completely fascinating to me. So that’s something we’re currently researching and working on. Like, how can you push the color palette? How can you bring that world to life in a very realistic and grounded way?