How did Ian McShane's Winston Scott and the late Lance Reddick's Charon come to rule over New York's assassin-friendly Continental hotel in the John Wick movie franchise? You can find out the answer by checking in to the three-part limited series prequel The Continental: From the World of John Wick which premieres on Peacock Sept. 22. Set in the '70s, the show stars Colin Woodell (The Purge TV show) as young Winston and Ayomide Adegun (the upcoming The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes) as a comparatively wet-behind-the-ears Charon.
"We go back and we establish who Winston is at the time and who Charon, his concierge, is at the time before they formed a partnership," says filmmaker Albert Hughes (Menace II Society, The Book of Eli) who directed two of the show's episodes. "And there's this big group of interesting characters around that help. Or don't."
Starz Entertainment Ben Robson in 'The Continental'
One of those characters is Winston's brother Frankie, played by Ben Robson (Vikings), who kicks off the plot by robbing the Continental of a box, the contents of which Hughes declines to elaborate on. "As Hitchcock used to say, it's a MacGuffin!" explains the director. "The MacGuffiin is an object that the audience doesn't really care about, they just know that the characters care about it." Hughes and the show's action director Larnell Stovall are happy to discuss the mayhem which ensues as Frankie battles a small army of gun-toting security guards on a winding staircase as he attempts to make his escape.
Hughes explains that while he is the credited director on the first and third episodes of The Continental and oversaw the work of Charlotte Brändström (The Witcher) on the second episode, many of the show's fight scenes, including the staircase sequence, were effectively directed by Stovall. "We had this weird baton-handoff thing going," he says. "I would shoot the intro to the scene, then Larnell would come, shoot the action, and then I would shoot the outro of the scene, right? And sometimes we'd work together, especially in episode 3. Larnell would be there while I was shooting his action design, because I got more and more into shooting some of it."
Starz Entertainment 'The Continental'
Stovall admits he felt the pressure when he was designing the show's first action sequence, aware of the high standard set by the franchise's four Keanu Reeves-led films. "This is our intro into the world of The Continental, this is our first big action sequence," he says. "We knew that this may affect the audience's anticipation for whatever comes up in the future by how well we nail this one. The main thing from Albert was filming style and length. Albert is a big fan of not overstaying your welcome, because you want to leave people wanting more."
"That was the big thing," agrees Hughes. "I didn't want to run into the problem of action fatigue. That was a constant creative ebb and flow with Larnell, God bless him. I would always see these stunt [visualizations] and go, 'Goddamn it Larnell! It's a one-page scene and this scene's going on for six minutes that you're showing me!'"
Katalin Vermes/Starz Entertainment Colin Woodell in 'The Continental'
Stovall is a longtime fight coordinator and stuntman at 87Eleven. Founded by John Wick franchise director Chad Stahelski and Bullet Train filmmaker David Leitch, the company specializes in designing spectacular action sequences and physically training actors so that they can participate in the scenes as much as possible. Stovall says Robson got what he describes as "the CliffsNotes John Wick sequence of training, because, with film and TV, there is a difference of length of time that you may have access to the actors." Turns out the "CliffsNotes" version of training still meant a lot of hard work for Robson even before he went in front of the cameras for the show, which was shot in Budapest. "Without exaggerating at all, I believe Ben might have had three weeks of training to get ready for a sequence like this," says Stovall. "He gave it all concerning how to handle his gun work, how to maneuver in a tight stairwell, remembering the choreography. But what the producers did, which was great, was they allowed us to practice at the actual location. Because Ben's around 6'4" and that can be very challenging, going up steps, with a camera following. You're trying to make sure you don't hide the other guys coming at him."
Those "other guys," the ones playing the security guards, were local performers, Stovall reveals. "That was part of our Budapest stunt team and they did an amazing job," he says. "Some people were recycled. Someone got shot from the front then shot from the back. But, yes, shout-out to the Budapest stunt team. They killed it, awesome guys."
Stovall describes the fight style of Robson's character as coming "from a survival standpoint. Frankie has a military background but we had to find that fine line of saying, hey, we're in the '70s, so we have to be careful we're not looking too modern day. We wanted to make sure he was [in a] quick, efficient, more survival mode, kept track of his ammunition at times. You can see, when everything was empty, he made sure to either get another gun [or] get another clip. And we always wanted to remind the audience that there were assassins coming from above and there were assassins coming from below."
Katalin Vermes/Starz Entertainment Ayomide Adegun in 'The Continental'
In the sequence's most jaw-dropping beat, one of the security guards is shot and falls from a high floor to the ground below, a moment captured by a cameraman who followed the stuntman as he hurtled through the air. "That was not CG," says Hughes. "That was a cameraman I had called Mikey Lehr, who was also the stunt [visualizations] editor. So, he's editing, and then he drops that, grabs a camera, and gets harnessed in, and actually goes down with that guy. The only visual effect in that shot was, I had to add a bullet hole to that guy's head and have some blood as he was falling down."
Stovall was able to shoot the sequence in just 10 hours, which still amazes Hughes. "What shocked me about the shoot-out in the staircase was how efficient Larnell and his team are," says the director. "Normally, if I was shooting that scene, I need two-and-a-half, three days. They did all that in under 10 hours. And we cut out a floor. There's a whole floor [they shot] we cut out. There was another gag going up another floor where they were killing more people and I was like, this is just too much!"
Stovall reveals that, technically, he didn't quite manage to wrap up shooting in 10 hours. "The final two guys Frankie kills before he exits the door, we shot that with me requesting two minutes of overtime," he says. "I said, 'Hey, give me two more minutes, I need to perfect this shot.' I had it, but I knew I could get it better."
Starz Entertainment Katie McGrath in 'The Continental'
On the show, Frankie escapes from the hotel by crashing through a high window and landing in a pile of garbage. He is picked up in a taxi by Yen (Nhung Kate), another of the show's main characters, after she runs over a machine gun-firing security guard, the pair making their getaway as yet more henchmen spray bullets after them. For this concluding part of the sequence, Stovall handed the directing baton back to Hughes, who directed the moment outside the production's massive exterior of The Continental later in the shoot.
"The hilarious part is, the line producer and the production designer was like, 'Albert, we don't think we can have this thing built by episode 1. So can we just push the shoot?'" says Hughes. "I eventually agreed to wait, and let them build it, and they built it huge, I mean huge. So I get time to shoot not only my scenes from episode 1 but also some establishers for both 1 and 2 and then some of 3." The problem? Hughes had to work quickly because the Dune: Part Two production was arriving to use the studio. "Then they're rushing me, they're saying 'You have to finish this by Monday because Dune's coming in to tear this down and build a Dune set!'" Hughes recalls with a laugh. "I'm like, wait a sec, you guys told me to wait, now you're telling me to hurry up!"
Hughes teases that the staircase fight scene is just a taste of the action to come on the show and that the third episode in particular should be an out-and-out treat for action fans.
"Everybody was in utter fear of doing episode 3," he says. "From the studio, to the writers, to the production, everyone was freaked about that episode. It's non-stop."
The Continental: From the World of John Wick premieres on Peacock Sept. 22.