In a world dominated by prebranded blockbusters, the John Wick series stands tall as the rare film franchise that isn't based on preexisting intellectual property. But to hear director Chad Stahelski tell it, Keanu Reeves's ace assassin wasn't expected to become a globally recognized hero on the level of Batman or Spider-Man when he made his cinematic debut nearly 10 years ago.
"You have to remember that in 2014, nobody knew John Wick," Stahelski tells Yahoo Entertainment about the run-up to the first movie's release. "Keanu was doing smaller films. We, Honest to God, believed no one was going to see the movie. We thought we were going straight to video."
Instead, John Wick blew up big time, begetting three sequels that steadily increased in scope, budget and box office returns. When the fourth — and maybe final? — installment premiered in theaters last March, it was the longest and most expensive entry yet, and also the most successful, banking nearly $450 million worldwide. "It's been a wild ride," Stahelski says.
Along the way, Stahelski came into his own as a filmmaker with a distinctive take on what action movies can look and sound like. Prior to John Wick, the 55-year-old Hollywood veteran had logged numerous hours as a stuntman, stunt coordinator and second-unit director. And while the first film was the product of what Stahelski calls a "synergistic effect" between himself and co-director David Leitch — as well as screenwriter Derek Kolstad — the subsequent installments became a reflection of his own sensibility. (Leitch has since moved on to direct such hits as Deadpool 2 and Bullet Train, but remains an executive producer on the Wick films, and the duo continue to run their all-purpose production company 87eleven Action Design.)
"You can see who I am as a director and a storyteller from all three of those movies," explains Stahelski, whose upcoming projects include a Highlander remake and an adaptation of PlayStation's samurai-era video game, Ghost of Tsushima. "I'm kooky and big — I love taking ninjas and putting them with dogs!" But he also has a deep love for Old World totems, be it Dante's Divine Comedy and Sun Tzu's The Art of War.
That's a passion that he shares with his leading man, whose well-cultured words of wisdom regularly go viral. "Keanu and I love to travel, we love museums and we love [historical] locations," says Stahelski, adding that they keep a running checklist of their shared areas of interest on whiteboards that are still displayed in the director's office. "We've done a lot in the last 10 years to cross off what we love from food to weapons to martial arts to cars to sunrise shots and sunset shots. It's a massive list! I'd say we've carved out a good 80 to 90% of it. So we're doing OK."
John Wick (2014)
Talk about impostor syndrome. When Stahelski arrived on the John Wick set for his first official day as a director, his appearance didn't fit his job title. "I showed up in jeans and a T-shirt and was just standing there," he remembers. "The key grip — who I hadn't really met before — said, 'Hey man, would you grab those sandbags over there?' I started carrying the sandbags, and everyone thought I was part of the crew! Eventually, I told him, 'I'm the director.' It was pretty funny, and he's now a good friend of mine."
In fairness, Stahelski didn't feel like a director during those early days. "By the third week, David and I realized we had no f***ing idea what we were doing," he says candidly. "You can react to that in two ways: You can hide it with arrogance or you let yourself realize, 'I'm a newbie; teach me everything.'" The duo picked the latter road that some would be afraid to travel by, and that made all the difference. "The worst thing you can do as a director is miss an opportunity because of indecision or arrogance," Stahelski says now. "I want to try everything, and that's what's consumed me since."
Looking back on the first John Wick now, it's notable that the movie begins with the title character in his most vulnerable moment. Newly widowed and long-retired from the assassin's life, Wick is ambushed in his pajamas by a group of burglars who beat him mercilessly and kill his dog in front of his eyes. Over the course of four movies, we've seen Wick bloodied and bruised... but we've never again seen him that defeated, that helpless.
"I loved getting him there," the director says. "At that point, John had been out of the life for a good five years, and it wasn't that he couldn't have defended himself — it's that he just didn't have the will. He was an average person and we needed the audience to see and feel that. And it was a great choice for Keanu to acquiesce and be that vulnerable."
Stahelski also credits Reeves with ensuring that John Wick's adorable puppy stayed dead, a plot point that the studio would much rather have seen dropped. "Keanu's the kind of creative partner that goes, 'No. I want to cry. I need this. This is the key... Let's tough up and get this done. And he was right."
"We weren't trying to be cruel to anybody or anything," Stahelski adds. "Dave and I are both big animal lovers. There's not a John Wick movie where I don't have as many animals as I can on it! I also like trusting the audience to not just tell them everything and let them figure this guy out a little bit. That's what we tried to do with the puppy."
John Wick: Chapter 2 (2017)
In another universe, John Wick: Chapter 2 would have served as the franchise's first chapter. And in that universe, Stahelski thinks it's highly unlikely that he would have ever been able to make a sequel. "If I had gone ahead and just tried to do Chapter 2, I would have failed. I would have come up short on resources and I would have put in too much mythology that would have confused people. The slow burn of the first movie and the grounding in reality gave us the creative license to blow it out in the second."
And Chapter 2 definitely goes big early and often, plunging the audience into a wide, wide world of assassins, sanctuaries and High Tables that are only hinted at in the foundational installment. It also was the training ground where Stahelski honed a flair for physical comedy that pays off in big ways by the fourth film's riotous climax on a Parisian staircase. Chapter 2 opens with a direct reference to silent screen star Buster Keaton, whose preference for wide-framed slapstick informs moments like the scene where an out-of-ammo Wick hurls his empty gun at a charging bad guy.
"It's like any great gag, right?" Stahelski says. "Buster Keaton would show you the environment and even though you didn't know it was coming, you'd see it and be like, 'Oh, got it.' I can get pretty intense with the [action] choreography and blood, so if I can get a bit of a laugh, I like to take the pressure off the audience."
Speaking of laughs, John Leguizamo reprises his role as John Wick's mechanic Aurelio in Chapter 2, which is also his last appearance in the franchise. Over the years, the actor and comic has teased a deleted fight scene, but Stahelski indicates it wasn't an elaborate bout that was cut purely for time. "He had a confrontation with Riccardo Scamarcio, the villain from Chapter 2. I love the character of Aurelio and we had written in two or three more scenes for John and he did great."
"But John Wick is about John Wick," the director continues. "I was trying to be very greedy with my world-building, and that was me being an inexperienced director at the time. I had all these ideas about other assassins and I wanted to show more of the chop shop and more about the weapons. But the first cut looked like I was being a tour guide through Disneyland! So unfortunately I had to trim things down."
John Wick: Chapter 3 — Parabellum (2019)
The power of John Wick fandom was on full display when the third chapter doubled the domestic gross of Chapter 2 and tripled the gross of the original installment. So it's only appropriate that Wick's primary Parabellum opponent is... a John Wick superfan. "We're making fun of ourselves pretty hard there," Stahelski says. "It's like, 'Why do you like us? We don't understand why we like us!'"
But the director isn't joking when he insists that Zero — the latest assassin tasked with bringing John to heel — wasn't initially conceived as an in-joke. "The character was originally written for Hiroyuki Sanada," he reveals, referring to the celebrated Japanese action star who later appeared in Chapter 4 in a different role. "But he had blown out his Achilles tendon, and couldn't continue to work."
Under the gun, Stahelski turned to an old acquaintance, Mark Dacascos, the Hawaiian-born martial artist perhaps best known for overseeing Kitchen Stadium on Iron Chef America. Within a week, Dacascos was rehearsing the role... but something was off. "He tried to read it like Hiroyuki — very serious and stoic," Stahelski remembers. "But Mark is one of the most positive, happy guys! He's got almost this bird-like twitch to him, and to see him not let that out felt like we were fighting ourselves."
At a loss for how to proceed, Stahelski asked Dacascos if he had any ideas on how to revise the character to suit his skill set. "Mark started doing this riff and he said, 'In my mind, Zero's a fanboy.' As soon as he said that, we started laughing! It was like, 'Are we going to be this crazy?' Sure enough, running the scenes back with the fanboy dimension made all the difference. "I give Mark credit for that. After that night, we worked on the script for a weekend and went, 'F*** it — we'll go meta.'"
Parabellum ends with John Wick being shoved off of a high-rise and plunging to what seems like certain death... but instead turns out to be the first break he gets in three movies. "The first three films take place over a week or two," Stahelski says of the ultra-compressed Wick timeline. "I think all of them happen in five days, just pounded out. And then, there's a good six months between three and four. It would have really taken six years [to heal], but we go with six months! It's like Bugs Bunny."
John Wick: Chapter 4 (2023)
Fortunately for John, the weary assassin has a more permanent rest waiting for him at the end of this franchise-concluding chapter. Clocking in at an epic 169 minutes, Chapter 4 feels like the culmination of Stahelski's artistic ambitions for the franchise, although the director stops short of calling it a "mic drop" movie. "I don't want to drop the mic," he says. "I'm not ready. I want to keep screaming at the top of my lungs until I'm bashed down by my own sense of accomplishment."
Reeves, on the other hand, is ready to at least put the mic back on the stand. Stahelski says that it was the star's wish to bring the curtain down on the grand opera that was John Wick's life. "He's the one that came to me after Chapter 3 going, 'I think John Wick should die,'" the director emphasizes. "[For him] it's always about what's best for the character. He's always come at if from who John Wick is, and he's a very different person from John Wick."
Still, Reeves did acquiesce to the studio's pointed suggestion that Chapter 4 replace the original, more pointed depiction of Wick's death with a version that leaves the door open for a lucrative return. It was a compromise that Stahelski was willing to make as well.
"I'm happy to try other ways as long as it doesn't cost me the creative price of not getting something that I think is better," he says. "It's interesting — my relationship with the studio isn't always easy to read. We made some really weird anti-studio choices throughout the series, but between Chapter 3 and Chapter 4 we started clicking a little bit more. It was a lot more of a partnership."
Not for nothing, but for the price of tweaking the ending, Stahelski got to keep a much more valuable moment: a long, unhurried shot where John Wick's associate, Winston (Ian McShane), strides across nearly the full length of one of the Louvre's many galleries. Inspired by a famous walking shot from John Boorman's 1967 thriller Point Blank, that scene has everything that makes John Wick a Chad Stahelski joint: high culture, wide framing, humor and an overall vibe that's just plain cool.
"It's definitely my little ego shot," Stahelski admits. "But when you're actually shooting in the Louvre, you milk it for every second."
The first three John Wick movies are currently streaming on Peacock; John Wick: Chapter 4 is currently streaming on Starz