[INTERVIEW] Director Chad Stahelski blends pathos with punches in ‘JOHN WICK: CHAPTER 3 – PARABELLUM’

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Chad Stahelski on the set of JOHN WICK: CHAPTER 3 – PARABELLUM. Courtesy of Lionsgate.

Courtney Howard // Film Critic

Director Chad Stahelski has outdone himself yet again with the third installment of the JOHN WICK series. The stunts have gotten bigger. The themes have gotten deeper. And the aesthetics have gotten more immersive.

JOHN WICK: CHAPTER 3 – PARABELLUM shows our beloved eponymous hero (played by Keanu Reeves) dealing with the fallout from his brazen act of killing a member of the High Table inside the sacred grounds of the Continental – a rule that’s strictly verboten. He’s been marked as “Excommunicado” and is on the run through the dangerous terrain of New York City and the dry deserts of Morocco.

At the film’s recent press day, I spoke with the affable auteur about everything from casting for athletic acumen, to the double-edge sword of paparazzi and social media, to his continued plight of pitching the franchise’s trademarked spectacle.

Do you have to evaluate the newcomers’ skills with a physical aptitude test before they’re cast?

Yes and no. I have a pretty good sense of the character and what level of performance – that means action and acting – I’m looking for. I cast a little differently: I cold-call and put the feelers out to see who loves the franchise. I’ve never hired anyone who doesn’t love the franchise. I think that comes across in the film.

And, yes, a bit of an aptitude test. We take them into our facility in Los Angeles and say, “Look. If you want this action role, we need to be honest here.” There’s a level of commitment we require which is borderline athletics. For someone like Halle, that needed to be know. For people like Cecep [Arif Rahman] and Yayan [Ruhian], obviously come from a background where that’s part of their milieu. Mark Dacascos comes from a very, very big action and martial arts background.

Halle really wanted to prove something. By the time I met her, she had done so much research and watched all the behind the scenes, spoken to agents, managers, and people who had worked with us before. She came in with a wealth of knowledge. She researched that role, which told me she was willing to go through with it. We gave her a week of aptitude test. Not only did she not quit, she barely sat down. She came in amazing shape just to get ready for JOHN WICK, which says volumes about her level of commitment.

Was there a physical quality you wanted to tap into and bring out with the way Halle Berry’s character fights to either differentiate her character’s plight, or draw similarities to John’s?

Yeah. Not to use a pun, but she’s cat-like. She’s got a swagger to her that, for a woman, exudes confidence and security. Even in my first meeting with her she never broke eye contact. When she talks to you, she’s talking to you. She holds your gaze and has charisma. If she can get that from me by just talking in a room, I had no doubt she’d bring that to the table with the type of choreography that we like to do. Power, security and confidence is all part of it, yes, but to have that frailty and fracture that she brought to the character and her daughter and the avatars of the dogs for the daughter was, how can you go wrong?

Halle Berry and her pup in JOHN WICK: CHAPTER 3 – PARABELLUM. Courtesy of Lionsgate.

Was working with dogs in a fight capacity something new for you?

Oh, I think it was new for everybody. We had never done that before. It took almost a year of prep. By the time we got the dogs, trained them to do what we needed them to do, acclimated the crew and Halle to be a trainer with them… When you see her giving them a command on screen, she’s literally giving them the command. That’s pretty unique. It took a lot of time. I love dogs and to get them to go like that and get them to do something fresh and new involving the cast was one of the high points of the shoot.

I know silent films have influenced these films. Technology has probably rapidly advanced since then, but do you also try to employ in camera tricks filmmakers like Chaplin had done?

Uh-huh. I think any technique is good. Again, we get associated with practical effects and that we don’t use CG. I’m not against any of that. One little rule is that I try to do things like a live show. I love theater, dance and musicals. So when you sit in the center seat of the theater and you’re gonna see a show, you never once think about the lead ballerina having a stunt double, or if there are wires, or digital dancers, do you? That’s the kind of experience I try to bring cinematically.

I try to cut as little as possible. I try to keep the camera moving in shots. I want you to see Keanu Reeves and Halle Berry doing things that you think are behooven of the characters. If you believe Keanu can do it, you believe John Wick can do it. I’m just trying to bring a level of immersion and that’s a good way to do it. I don’t think there’s a separation between action and story. Now if I can do that with CG, or do it with wires, or in camera tricks, great! It just sometimes works out better to have the cast do it.

Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons” has played a role in both Wick sequels. Your use of “Spring” in Chapter 2 was classy, but here your use of “Winter” makes a passionate statement.

Thank you. I’m a huge Vivaldi fan. I tried to change it out so many times, but that’s actually the temp music I use – both pieces. Every time we took it out, I didn’t smile. I love the absurdity of both pursuits and the way John is doing it, it just… I love strings. It’s got power. It’s got emotion and subtleties that go on for days.

What was on your inspiration board to give your cinematographer Dan Laustsen?

We just kinda took JOHN WICK 2 as our own inspiration, to tell you the truth. How could we improve. We leaned a little more into the psychoanalytics of what colors mean – how colors can make you feel. We wanted it to be a bit more punchier and expressive in layers. Instead of one real palette or look, there’s up to five different color palettes in one scene. So we went for depth. You’ll see references to Caravaggio – my favorite Renaissance painted. The layers he did with black are really our biggest influences in 2 and 3.

Keanu Reeves rides a horse through the streets in JOHN WICK: CHAPTER 3 – PARABELLUM. Courtesy of Lionsgate.

When you’re on set, or in the editing room, do you allow yourself to this same gleeful audience experience? I would think it’s an important facet to your job, but do you have those “pinch me” moments?

[laughs] Look, I’m not gonna lie to you even after a hundred times. Yeah, are you kidding?! They pay me a lot of money and they give me a lot of money to make these wacky things happen.

Think about these ideas on paper: John Wick enters into library and kills guy with a book, goes to stables, kills a guy with a horse. Do you understand what the studio looks at me like?! They think I’m out of my fucking mind. And then weave in these Greek mythological values about finality and what do you mean the hero has to chop off a finger for his dead wife?! Do you think those things go over well? It doesn’t and it’s a shit fight. For every sequence you saw there, I’m met with 90% resistance and at the end of the day, they throw up their hands and say, “Here you go. Don’t fuck it up because we have no fucking idea what you’re going to do.”

But me, Keanu and our stunt team are laughing like you wouldn’t believe. Keanu and I act out to the stunt teams to go choreograph it. “We want a snowball fight with knives!” They’re like, “What do you mean?!” and we’d show them. We’re like, “We don’t want the knives to stick.” “What do you mean?! In every movie, the hero always lands the knife.” “Yeah but we want everyone to miss.” They are like, “What??!” “Just watch it!” They are really going through serious lengths as they are really trying to kill each other but we’re laughing because nothing is sticking.

Yes, it’s a serious moment – a guy dies when he gets kicked in the face by a horse, but like way to use a fuckin’ horse to kill a guy!” That kind of weird surrealness I like in action, because then it’s not about violence or trying to kill somebody – it’s about the surrealness and it makes you smile. It’s more intellectual than a gut reaction.

This seemed to be more of an issue in this chapter than in previous ones, but do you think the paparazzi and social media sort of ruining the fun of discovery? Like Keanu riding the horse in the street was everywhere.

Yeah, I have mixed feelings about it in today’s day and age. I’m old so I grew up without all this stuff, where that one trailer you saw was enough to pique your interest. Now, everyone demands it so much where the studios spend a lot of money on these things. They want to put asses in seats, so how do you get asses in seats? Awareness. A great movie – a $100 million movie – can go unnoticed really quickly as there’s so much more product. When there’s only 5 movies for two months, you don’t have to be as methodical in how you get it out there. Now, there’s 20 movies every day that want to get their money back so that’s how they do it.

Even with JOHN WICK, the three trailers, the poster campaign, TV ads, I’m constantly trying to hold back stuff and they’re constantly putting more stuff in every trailer. Yes, on a personal level, I hate that. As a filmmaker, it disturbs me to no end. But from another standpoint, it’s just the deal with devil you make, to get your movie out there, in order to make another JOHN WICK. Yes, I agree with you that it does ruin some of the discovery, for sure, but the conundrum becomes, what’s more fatal to a project? Ruining discovery or ruining awareness? That’s something I’m not prepared to answer. I’m not even sure how to answer that.

It’s a double-edge sword.

Exactly! As an audience member, “Fuck! Yeah, I’m interested.” But as a director, I’m thinking, “Please just go see this. I want to make another. I don’t want to go work at a gas station. I don’t have too many other skills.”

JOHN WICK: CHAPTER 3 – PARABELLUM opens on May 17. Read our review here.

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Courtney Howard

Courtney Howard is a LAFCA, OFCS and AWFJ member, as well as a Rotten Tomatometer-approved film critic. Her work has been published on Variety, She Knows and Awards Circuit.