109: How Chad Stahelski And 'John Wick' Are Changing American Action
February 11, 2017 7:01 p.m.
Episode 109: How Chad Stahelski And 'John Wick' Are Changing American Action
Stuntman-turned-director Chad Stahelski is raising the bar on American action with his "John Wick" films. I speak with Stahelski, actor Common, and author Bey Logan about what these changes are all about.
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Related Story: Podcast Episode 109: Chad Stahelski And 'John Wick 2' Raise The Bar On American Action
Beth Accomando: Welcome to another addition of listener-supported KPBS Cinema Junkie podcast. I am Beth Accomando. Today, we are going to kick some ass.
Audio Clip: Cars, guns, knives, just basic stuff. You got to know how to make an omelet, right?
Three years ago, John Wick served up a simple premise. Hit man comes out of retirement to avenge the death of his puppy. It rose above all the other action films because it was brought to the screen by a pair of veteran stuntmen Chad Stahelski and David Leitch of 87Eleven. Not only did they know how to showcase their stunt team and star, Keanu Reeves, but they also knew how to tell a high-octane revenge story. John Wick: Chapter 2 picks up a few days after the first film as John adopts a new dog, recovers his stolen car and attempts to return to retirement.
Audio Clip: You’re not very good at retiring.
Audio Clip: I’m working on it.
But no matter how hard he tries, the bodies just keep piling up.
Audio Clip: So I guess you have a choice. You want a war or do you want to just give me a gun.
Audio Clip: Somebody, please get this man a gun.
I’ll speak with Stahelski and with Common who plays one of Wick’s adversaries and with Bey Logan, author of the seminal book Hong Kong Action. Stahelski credits actor Keanu Reeves with whom he worked on the Matrix for providing him and 87Eleven with the opportunity to do an action film right. And that happened because Reeves had confidence that Stahelski was ready to move from stuntman to director. Reeves talked about working with Stahelski at a press junket for the film.
Keanu Reeves: Chad brings such an experience to physical production in terms of shooting action. He was a stuntman on a very high level, so he understands the cinema of action and what it takes to put that on screen.
Beth Accomando: Part of what it takes is actors like Reeves and Common, who are willing to train extensively before shooting even begins. That allows Stahelski to shoot longer takes from wider vantage points so that the audience can appreciate that it’s really the actors on screen engaged in the action.
Keanu Reeves: You have to do longer takes, the expectations is longer takes and that’s demanding. It’s really demanding as fights go, fighting goes, movie fighting goes. Longer takes is, again, that’s the complexity footwork, cooperation. So, it’s been cool to be able to have time to train with Common and with Ruby to try and get the dance.
Beth Accomando: And that’s precisely what it is, an action dance and Stahelski choreographs it with intensity, innovation and cleverness to create what he calls gun-fu, a mix of martial arts and tactical three guns and whatever else you might find lying on the set.
As an action junkie addicted to Hong Kong and Asian cinema, I appreciate what Stahelski is doing. When I began my interview with him at the London Hotel in West Hollywood, I tried to convey to him how excited I was by the opening stunt sequence. First of all, it began with a nod to the stunt work of the silent clowns of Hollywood cinema. As the scene of chaotic, black and white slapstick comedy is projected on a New York building, just before John Wick comes speeding into the frame, as wide shot after wide shot held on the action, I slipped closer and closer to the edge of my seat because it was so refreshing to see action not done with hand-held shaky cam and a succession of rapid cuts that don’t allow you to see anything or appreciate the skill of the stunt work. I began by asking Stahelski about how he approached that opening action sequence.
Chad Stahelski: I think like my background comes from action directing and what they call sucking and directing in Hollywood. Our company, 87Eleven, deals with something called action design. There is stunt coordinating, there is stunt choreography, there is action choreography which is choreographing the movies much like a dance sequence or a musical and then there is the orchestration of the stunts which most stunt coordinators do and then there’s action design. Action design goes to the next level of why you are in the strip and prep face, how is this sequence going to be executed, how is it going to look, how is it going to be designed. And when we did the first John Wick, we kind of executed what we have always wanted to do in film and I think in Hollywood, style, tone like the-- of every project comes to fruition in the dialog scenes and the photography and the lighting. Very rarely does it come together with action sequences.
But then again you have like, I think the way Steven Spielberg executed the opening sequence of Saving Private Ryan. Nailed the tone, nailed the – stayed with the character, told you something about the characters. It was incredibly well designed. It was well thought, it was well executed. It tied directly into the story, fantastic, shot the way you wanted, shoot to give you the fanatic energy and keep you with the character. We are very similar on how we want to design our genre action films whether it’s martial arts or cars or motorcycles and explosions, we want you to learn something from the character, we want you to appreciate the tone and we want you to see the action. So, yes, we like wider shots, we like seeing real professionals where there are acting performers or stunt performers execute the choreography or the stunts that we want you to see.
There are a few exceptions I’m going to say, but nowadays action is looked at as the execution only. It’s not where we are going to do this, we’ll let the second unit guys do the stunt goes because they don’t want to spend the money on prep or they want to spend the time shooting it the first thing that gets crunched and budget worse, which everyone has to go through, is either prep or days to shoot. So, a lot of times you get an action sequence that’s shot and executed not so much to show things but to hide things or hide imperfections. If the cast member hasn’t had enough time to train, you shoot him tighter, you won’t see as much because you don’t want to see the imperfections of technique or choreography. If you use a stunt double, you are going to want to hide the doubles. If you’re doing a lot of over the shoulders or super wide shots or super tight shots, you’re trying to hide things. If you don’t have the time, if the guns don’t work or the weapons don’t work or the car doesn’t start, you can’t go fast enough. It’s more about hiding and not showing the audience as opposed to a lot of lot of prep.
Great professionals executing at a very high level that had been thoroughly rehearsed and I mean rehearsed with the camera teams, the actual on-camera performers, your cinematographer has lit away the entire shoot, not just esthetically but the lights will be hidden so you can shoot wide shots. Pretty much the whole crew isn’t on the action. Pretty much it’s how the rest of Hollywood does, dialogues scenes, I don’t know why they just throw it to the wind when it comes to action sequences. We just put the same care into our action scenes that we try to put into our acting or dialogue scenes. It’s not hard, it’s the same process most directors use for all their other scenes, for some reason it just doesn’t translate to action. I don’t know it’s always a mystery to us.
Beth Accomando: Well, I have to commit I fell in love with action films through Asian movies especially Jackie Chan and Chow Yun-fat, people like that and I had a chance to interview Jackie Chan and he talks about one of his big influences was Jean Kelly and learning how to shoot action through that. Is that something that you also appreciate?
Chad Stahelski: I’ll do you one better. I’ve worked with Jackie and his team quite a bit and Donnie Yen and his team and Jet Li and his team, huge influences. I love the Asian cinema, love it, especially the eighties with the Hong Kong action stuff as well as Japanese animation and you go back a step further to Akira Kurosawa. If you would go look at John Wick or John Wick 2, you would see an amazing similarity and composition to Sergio Leone, Bernardo Bertolucci and Akira Kurosawa. We just like that. But I think our true influence is almost back to silent film. I love Buster Keaton, really enjoyed Harold Lloyd and Charlie Chaplin. If you can tell a story with the volume down and you can still get what the movie’s about and you can still see the emotion on the character’s face, if you can still see the chasing and get what’s going on I think that’s a big part.
My partner and I, David Leitch on the movie really tried to do a silent film. That’s why Keanu’s character says very little and so all done with emotion side. I think that’s a good way to tell the story and half the dialogue and everything else is back up and really say thing it means something when they mean something. But it’s just like that’s what appeals to me.
Beth Accomando: It seems like too from Asian action films that they do value the time put into that stunt work and is that something that you also got when you worked with Yuen Woo-ping on the matrix? Is that something kind of you got to see on a Hollywood film and did that inspire you in any way?
Chad Stahelski: Well, what we really liked about working with Yuen Woo-ping was the methodology behind this action; the amount it was rehearsed, the amount of training that went into the cast. Most stunt teams rehearsed a great deal with stunt doubles and a stuntman and a little bit with the actors. We go absolutely, we throw every penny we can into training the cast member. And we just don’t train them to memorize moves, Keanu was trained on this one to be a practical three gun firearm technician meaning he was trained in rifle with live fire, in a very safe environment and a professional shooting range as well as trained with SWAT and military personnel. And then brought to the choreography teams who accentuate that. Our best Judo and Jiu-Jitsu martial art people were used to train him. So, rather than fake being good we just trained Keanu to be good. Basically we are just training him to be a stunt guy, so he could learn on the fly.
Now, we got that from very much the Hong Kong thing because it allows you to shoot differently. If your cast member is just a rock star and can do all the choreography that we want, you don’t have to cut or you can choose where the cut goes. It’s more of a directorial edit to give you pacing or to give you emotion or to give you some kind of storytelling ability as opposed to our actors only trained to do three moves at a time which forces the edit. Or I have to use a stunt double which forces the angle. Or I can’t see because the other stunt guys haven’t been trained or the cameraman hasn’t been on rehearsal so the camera’s, got an 80 pound camera on the shoulder trying to keep up with all that – it always comes through again trying to hide what’s not there. The Hong Kong teams, your cameramen or stunt guys or editors were something like from the editor to the director to the performers, that link or that production line was on the same page. They were all at rehearsals, they were all there.
So, in John Wick 1 and 2, our editor was here, our cinematographer was at the stunt rehearsals, our stunt teams, our cast members were over trained and that’s what you got it. Now take that, when we worked with the Wachowskis, they took the attention to detail of other directors in acting, lighting and were paying attention to stunts. And they are the ones that put it all together and like one thing you get which I completely agree with, they didn’t see a distinction. At the time, even myself and probably Yuen Woo-ping and the other action teams that were involved, with the acting scenes and then the action scenes, the Wachowskis saw no difference. They were one and the same and they really truly believe that. That’s why there really was not a giant second unit on the Matrix. It was our first unit directors carrying story right through. The dojo seen on the first Matrix is a literal dialog scene. It is an actualization of Keanu and Laurence Fishburne coming to terms with who Neo is becoming. Just because you are doing Kung Fu, they might as well be sitting at a table sharing a drink. It didn’t make any difference to the directors. They just continued the story and the action was just another set piece. And that was a huge eye-opener at the time, like you should never stop. The action is the story, the story is the action.
Beth Accomando: And when you were choreographing stunt scenes or deciding to shoot them, how much do you plan in advance in terms of like storyboarding it out or planning the choreography and then how much of it is reaction to the actual location once you get there. I mean do you also allow for some amount of improvising in terms of what you find there?
Chad Stahelski: It’s absolutely unique to every situation. We have a standard, I guess, unfortunate, I have a background in action, background in directing, and background in storytelling, background of-- so it starts with me and I conceptualize what I want this character to be. We know we want John Wick to do a different kind of gun work. We wanted to do close quarter work. Okay, now I go the stunt scene, which what martial art fits this best and we’ll develop our own martial art based on Jiu-Jitsu or Judo or Sambo or tactical three gun work or how the Navy Seals clear houses. We’ll come up with that and we’ll kind of steal from everybody.
Our stunt team will go out and play, shoot videoviz or shoot test footage on video of what we want this to look like with our stunt teams. From there, if it’s a gun fight in this, okay, what environment gives us the best way to make this look cool? For a tactical gun work or close quarter gun work, the way we want to shoot, maze, hallways, tight quarters kind of thing, museums, catacombs, warehouses, and so we look for those locations and then once we find a location where I go, oh yeah, this is great. I bring in my stunt teams and they spend two or three weeks at adapting all the stuff that we have already conceptualized and conforming it to the locations. Throw in if you are going to do big car sequences, that’s a little harder to just go out and videoviz. So, if you do a car scene which is a big cranes or explosions, that becomes more storyboard or animatic, that helped to complement what we do live action wise. So, depending on the scale and the size of the sequence, that determines the methodology that we prep it.
Beth Accomando: You brought up car stunts, they were amazing car stunts in this film it looked like it hurt.
Chad Stahelski: The benefit of having 20 years’ experience in the stunt business is you know all the right guys. So, having been a second unit director for so long in my career, the question is, okay, now who is going to be my second unit director? And I brought in two very close friends to be my main stunt coordinator was JJ Perry, martial art choreographer and designer in his own right and a very good friend of mine Darren Prescott, who I considered to be the best second unit car action sequence designer. And we don’t have a lot of money or time which car chasers can be. You have no time to waste just driving around the block really fast, so I go to my friend Darren and said, look, I want this to be the equivalent of gun-fu but with cars. So, he’s like, okay, that means we are going to hit a lot of stuff. I’m like, yep, I don’t want any car left untouched. Sat down, we go through and design all these sequences and train Keanu to actually drive because we want, just like we want Keanu in the gun sequences, we want Keanu in the car sequences. And Keanu is already a pretty handy driver when we got hold of him.
Darren is driving down to Jimmy Fry, will go out and teach how to drift, how to spin, how to lock and how to crash vehicles. So, now we have Keanu Reeves not just in the gun fights, we have Keanu Reeves actually crashing in the cars and hitting people which he does. He actually runs over a couple of stunt guys which is great.
So, it’s the same kind of process, get the right guy, somebody that’s creatively apt. And again, sometimes being creative doesn’t cost more or take more time. It’s just brain power, it’s sitting down with the right creative individuals and coming up with stuff that is financially independent of what you really want to do creatively. And Darren designed I think a very interesting sequence in the beginning and a very interesting sequence in the warehouse.
Beth Accomando: It was great stunt work because I mean I see a lot of action films and I really appreciated how it surprised me because you’re getting used to certain kinds of stunts.
Chad Stahelski: Again, it’s just even for us it’s a challenge. Again, this is my second directorial adventure. So, you try to take the same attitude that we take to our other films. We try not to just duplicate. It’s very easy to be, okay, we are known as a martial art choreography company. We could take and I have so many fight scenes already choreographed on video. I could take the same ones and just use them over and over again. What we try to do is take principles and attributes of certain things that we love and carry those throughout in our method and our process. But the actual we try not to look back, so John Wick was done, we’re like okay, we can use nothing from that film. Next, how do we re-invent, I’m not going to lie to you, it’s difficult, it’s hard, it’s frustrating and there is always the temptation to go back to what you know, you just can’t. You really can’t because you’d be bored and you’d regret it the rest of your career when you watch movies. So, it’s like what didn’t we do? What haven’t we seen? And again you can’t waste time. Rather than drive the car really fast and try to mimic something like civil war, who has six to ten weeks to do a car chase. We have six days. How do we make it interesting? It’s just not about going fast, it’s like what does he do with the car, what is he-- and again, it comes back to story. Because again, I’m very fortunate I have a cast member that is very, very collaborative. So, Keanu can sit in one of our action and he’s go, John Wick wouldn’t run, he’d just ram you with a car. We’re like, great. That one sentence is what we’re going to put. John Wick, he’s going to try to get out because he doesn’t want a fight, but then it’s like, it’s not really about the car and his mentality is not evasion, it is destruction and collision. So, we are going to base it on that. So, John Wick just, if he can’t shoot you, he’s just going to hit you with a car and that’s kind of how we designed the sequence. That’s simple.
Beth Accomando: Let’s talk a little bit about 87Eleven and when you started this company with David Leitch, was your plan initially that you were going to move into directing or was that something that kind of came up later?
Chad Stahelski: It was kind of a two prong thing. Dave and I have always wanted to, at least action direct, since fairly early in our stunt careers. As soon as we found out that that was a thing, I was like, that’s something I’d be interested to do especially because I love martial arts, I love martial art choreography especially, again, like we talked about from Asian cinema. And the best way to bring what you create or what you choreographed to fruition is being the director. You can control how to edit, you control shots which gives you a truer version of what you want to do. So, I think that was always there.
At the same time, after working so much with people like Yuen Woo-ping and the Hong Kong stunt teams and the Chinese stunt teams was like, okay, there is a need in the western cinema for something very – not just, most people don’t know how stunts work or the stunt community works. Suzie, the producer hire stunt coordinator who kind of oversees it, maybe hires a fight choreographer, a fight coordinator. They hire the guys three four days out from the sequence, maybe a week out, they get a little bit of rehearsal time with the actor, they train them, martial art instructor trains them or personal trainer. And then they kind of just teach the actor to memorize the moves and hope that they are going to get something good out of it. Very few times is the cinematographer or the cameraman brought into rehearsals.
We kind of get on more with the Asian cinema methodology like we have explained where we want everybody involved. In order to control that, we needed to be slightly higher up the ladder and slightly more experienced. So, we just focus on that and try to really specialize in that. So, the two naturally just kind of come together if you get where we fit in the process and people come to us and go, well, we want this look, because again so many times in modern day actions and big, big movies, you can feel the division between story, story, story, okay cut, action scene, everybody go home while the stunt team sit like you can feel it’s almost jarring to us a lot of times. How can they spend so much money and not care about the-- we knew our greatest obstacles one day when I did the first movie was like, okay, they are stunt guys how are they going to do story, how are they going to work with cast. They don’t realize that and second unit you deal so much with cast and you do so much with story because we are trying to execute the vision of a very, most of them a very, very successful director already.
So, you know, we spend and did our due diligence as much as we could, we put much love as we could into all-- the story, the lighting, we wanted people to know that we are not just concerned with action. We are concerned about the story A to B as any good director should, which is a bit of a wacky kind of and none of them we’ve seen nowadays because so many directors are very interested in that stuff. Like they’ll tell stories of whatever lines but they won’t learn anything about actual the second unit go, we learned about storytelling, you guys can learn about action. It would make a better film, don’t give on the action, that’s my biggest wish and the audience should not accept that. Make the directors go back and learn their ABCs of action. They should have an opinion, they should have it’s going to show. You can’t just shake the camera around and hope your editor will figure it out 10 weeks from now. Like that is a – when someone like Paul Greengrass did that, that was an esthetic choice. He’s on plenty of films we know, and that was a fanatic choice to wake the audience up a little bit. And I thought it was a good choice the first time I saw on the second Bourne, I thought it was a very creative choice. Most people do it now a days to hide like we talked about and I think that’s a directorial mistake. Like if that’s your style, great but if that’s your fallback, get on the jail free card I think you’ve missed the bus on what you really need to do.
Beth Accomando: So, then how did you move from being a stunt company to actually getting John Wick made? Was that a difficult process, do you get back or just to say like yeah let’s let this stunt guys actually helm a film?
Chad Stahelski: Before there is John Wick, there is two or three offers made to each, Dave and I, of different kind of films, easier, low budget on medium budget action film that we serviced. It when we say action I prefer genre action. I like martial sequences or I like what we call meta-realities or hyper real worlds, like your bombs where it’s not quite real. John Wick is a great, I mean of course is a great example because we wanted to do. It’s a hyper real world that doesn’t really exist, but we make it feel like it almost could. That’s a core, it’s world creation. We like that kind of thing. Peter Jackson did it with Lord of the Rings, George Lucas did with Star Wars. There are same old methodological tales we just did it modern day rather than period or sci-fi. So, we are looking for something like that something that would let us do something different. If someone hands you a Navy Seal war script, you’re stuck in that world to be tactically correct and you tried to ring a true vision and you could still tell a good story, just for what we want to do with action or what we want to do with the visual style. Say, like an anime or a graphic novel style. It wasn’t the right fit.
So we kind of held off and held off and held off and actually it was Keanu that was just out of the blue phone call going, hey what’s going on, how have you been? Good. You? Hey, I got this script, I want to send it to you. Read like the guy in it but it needs a little bit of – it needs something, would you mind giving it a read. And I think that was on a Friday and by Monday, I was telling I want a pitch on this, I want to director it and I think Keanu had specifically known that because he knew we’re the one trying to direct it. And I think he just found it and he put two and two together and he is really the reason it all came together. He was already attached at that point. So, in answer to your question, it took a lot of faith and trust on his part to have a first time director come in and pretty much being in control of his career for show because it could have gone bad too. Luckily it didn’t, but he had the faith and trust in us to direct a film so we have Keanu Reeves, who’s, I think a legitimate Hollywood star. Say hey, would you want to direct a movie with me. It was a long wait and it was hard to get over certain humps and hard to get trust but we were fortunate we had somebody like him pushing us up the ladder, so it wasn’t that hard.
Beth Accomando: Well, it seems basically what you are talking about it is it was a payoff for all the care you were taking along the way that he trusted you that you could bring this to fruition.
Chad Stahelski: However you want to explain karmic death is fine, but yeah look karmic death whatever, it’s all good. I’m lucky.
Beth Accomando: And what else does 87Eleven do you besides your particular directing projects and work because you guys have a whole stunt company.
Chad Stahelski: Yeah, we have a stunt company; we specialized in the training of martial art stunt teams. I think we have a very allied martial arts stunt team that deals solely with training cast members to become profession in certain skill sets that are used for on-screen performance. And we are an action design company which means you come to us and we will help you write a great car chase all the way from words to paper to cars to pavement.
Beth Accomando: And it seems like with the John Wick 2 that you are taking opportunity to develop more as a director as well, I mean not just the stunts kickass, but it seems like you’ve kind of up your game there too.
Chad Stahelski: Yeah, I get bored really easy. So, I considered it like it’s a great opportunity if you are going to be 15 hours a day somewhere. Again, I had this mantra that I learned from my father, my grandfather is like if you are the smartest guy in the room, you are in the wrong room. So, I try to keep people much, much better than me and much, much smarter than me on my crew. My cinematographer Dan Laustsen, my editor Evan Schiff, production designer Kevin Kavanaugh, all far more talented at what they do than what I do. So, to challenge to keep up with them and try to expand what weird pictures at my head, how do I get them out and learn as much as I can from them. So I think as a filmmaker if you are not doing something like that and challenging other people, they won’t challenge you back. So I think it’s a good, I don’t know – I enjoy learning.
Beth Accomando: With the success of John Wick and now John Wick 2 coming out, do you think you’ve proven to Hollywood to a certain degree that they will trust you to use kind of your model of filmmaking that says yes, let’s take more time doing this and maybe in a great action sequences more. Do you think there’s a little more of a proven track record now that maybe you could get something else made that you really want?
Chad Stahelski: Yeah, that’s a good question. I find most and any sense of the word established order is always a slow learner to evolution. I will just say that. So, I am sure there are many out there they will get it or I’m sure there’s many out there that would get it once they heard the words and I’m sure there’s many out there that get it but just haven’t found a way to process or how to execute it. Hopefully because like again always fun to be the spearhead, to be the first guy to do it, but then it’s really great. Nothing would make me happier than see some of the director or some other thing inspire me by doing a better job than we did that would make us do a better job. I’m very competitive, so it would be fun to see that. That would be great.
Beth Accomando: Do you think it’s going to be easier to do the kind of stunt work, the combination of – because it doesn’t seem like there is that dividing line between the stunts and the directing that it’s one continuum. And do you hope that that’s going to be something you will be able to do easily in the future?
Chad Stahelski: I think in our process or in our thought on a planning, I think it’s easy to always write down. I think execution is always tricky. So, hopefully it will never be that easy. I would hate to take it for granted, but it’s always challenging. Again, the more you get into Hollywood the more scripts you read the more pro-- everyone’s got its own uniqueness to it. So you have to apply. We might have your standard actions, I am going to it this way but it completely changes. The cast can change or the crew can change the location can change, the people you are dealing with can change. So I like to hold true with that mentality right now. I don’t know interview me after the next film and I’ll see how it goes.
Beth Accomando: So you say like challenges and you don’t like to kind of rest back on things you’ve already achieved. So, what do you see for the future of yourself in 87Eleven?
Chad Stahelski: I’d like to see us continue to expand. I’d like to see us continue to take projects that are a bit more challenging, that are a little bit more defining. I consider The Matrix are very defined. I’ve had a chance to working in like I would say three fairly defining projects in my career whether it was a stuntman or stunt coordinator, second director or a director. I was fortunate to work with a good friend of mine name Brandon Lee on the movie The Crow which I thought Alex Proyas did an amazing job with bringing. I think that was one of the first times we ever saw a graphic novel as film successfully executed in the way it was intended by its original author. I was fortunate enough to work obviously with the Wachowskis on The Matrix which I thought was a defining moment of the time period for action, about bringing martial art action and choreography into or Hong Kong styles cinema or Japanese animation into mainstream Hollywood because before that it really wasn’t.
I got to work with Zack Snyder on 300 which I consider visually again the next level in graphic novel exposition. And then I consider John Wick at least an action to be a step ahead of most of the contemporary action kind of films. I would like to see us continue to do that kind of thing to work with people like the Wachowskis or Zack Snyder or like David Fincher or Spielberg, people that had want something more and something different than status quo. I mean if we can continue to work with those kind of people and that kind of clientele, I do really have…
Beth Accomando: What do you think has been the key to your success with 87Eleven? Do you think there’s some sort of defining characteristic about you guys that made you so successful?
Chad Stahelski: Probably, political correctness, apathy and stubbornness. We do, we love fortunately what we love to do is something that is esthetically pleasing to other people. We like creating cool choreography, we like cool action. We just like it and that’s what we all grow up with. Every member of both our stunt teams enjoys that. I think if our facility and our company did not exist our 20 or so stuntman would still be doing what they are doing, just in barns and parking lots and all gyms. I think we’ve got the right group of people to do that strive to be good at whatever they do. I mean we have a lot of type A personalities and professional athletes that don’t know how not to succeed or know how not to be creative. I think that’s the driving force behind this.
Beth Accomando: Maybe a little like John Wick 2, you have a very singular vision of moving forward and not taking obstacles.
Chad Stahelski: Yeah, I don’t know what you would call that, unbalanced lifestyle I guess. We love what we do. I don’t think any of us could tie our shoes but we are very, very good at what we do professionally. So, that’s good, I don’t know it’s just to drive you like up at the morning and again fortunately we like going to work like, work phrases and expression, the people we want to be. So I think that’s a big thing, it’s not a job.
Beth Accomando: Are there any action stars or any actors that you would really like to partner with on a story?
Chad Stahelski: Again, over the last 20 years we’ve been super fortunate. I can tell you one thing, we’ve never worked twice with someone we didn’t like, so that’s good. If you look at our company’s resume, we’ve worked with some amazing people. I mean everyone from Sylvester Stallone to Arnold Schwarzenegger to Jason Statham to Steven Seagal to Hugh Jackman, Matt Damon, Keanu Reeves, Brad Pitt, Chris Hemsworth, Chris Evans, Scarlett Johansson. I mean the list goes on and on and on, Jason Momoa, and with now Common, Joel Kinnaman, who was a real player. I mean they are awesome. They are some really, really awesome people out there. And to find those people and actually to get them into our facility and see the professionals on the drive and how much they care and just know that you’re helping create a hero, you’re helping create a character that 30 million people are going to see is kind of a rush.
Beth Accomando: I know you’ve inspired quite a few other stuntman and filmmakers. So, what kind of advice would you have to people who kind of want to follow in your footsteps or at least be able to exercise their craft in a more effective way?
Chad Stahelski: Two things. Let say one, and I never says it, but I believe in don’t quit, don’t ever quit. Opinion is just as that as opinion. When I was going to school I say, don’t go to karate class, don’t go to karate class, you’ll never – okay, karate class is paid for a couple of houses. So, it’s done really well. The other thing is ask once, ask twice and then learn if you don’t know something and you feel like you’re stupid you asked it once and you’re only stupid that one time. If you don’t ask you never going to know and you have to fake being smart, just asked. Don’t be ashamed of not knowing something ask and learn. Everybody is yelling said just learn, learn, learn, learn, learn because you only have to be done once. So, just keep going, keep going, keep going. Learn everything you can about everyone’s job, talked to everybody and just never give up.
Beth Accomando: I take it that’s what you did on a lot of your films?
Chad Stahelski: Yeah, I’m tenacious.
Beth Accomando: So, have you ever thought about doing an action film that centers more on female?
Chad Stahelski: Probably that’s my biggest box to check. I’d like to do not so much a female John Wick or anything like that. But I’d like to do something where I took a really, really talented actress that wasn’t associate with action and transform this. I was a big fan of the first Bourne Identity. Matt Damon at that point was considered very good actor, but he wasn’t considered an action star in anyway. What that movie did for him, no one saw it coming actually did to him more. I’d love to find a great actress that really wanted this over time, make some of the guys do and become this and I’d like to be a big part of it. I think that’s primary number one goal right now.
Beth Accomando: Well, that’s good to hear and I’m really glad to hear you said you didn’t want to just do a female John Wick.
Chad Stahelski: No.
Beth Accomando: Because the gender swap things doesn’t work. Well, I want to thank you very much for your time.
Chad Stahelski: Yeah, my pleasure. Thank you very much.
Beth Accomando: That was stuntman turned director Chad Stahelski. After seeing John Wick: Chapter 2, with its expanded universe, elegant international locations and slick production values. Well, I think the Bourne franchise should seriously consider asking him to do the next installment. Common worked with Stahelski for the first time on John Wick: Chapter 2. He braved the snow in New York to come to an NPR Studio and speak to me by phone. I asked if he had seen John Wick before accepting his role in Chapter 2, and if he went into the sequel, knowing what to expect.
Common: I saw the first John Wick when I first had the opportunity to become a part of the Chapter 2. It was like, I heard about John Wick but I hadn’t seen it. And I watched it because my agent had called me and say, hey, you may potentially be up for a role in John Wick 2. And I watched John Wick and I was like thoroughly impressed. It kind of caught me by surprise because it was like it had the elements of what I love in movies where it’s just fun sometimes, not every movies has to be serious. So it was fun. But I love the lead character in it and it didn’t take yourself too serious. It’s just with the vibe to the movie. So, yeah I saw the first one, I really, really enjoyed it.
Beth Accomando: And tell me about the character you played, Cassian in Chapter 2?
Common: Well, Cassian in Chapter 2, a chief of security for one of the top bosses in this underworld. And my character is like a rival to John Wick as far as his skill level, him being an assassin, his intelligence. He’s just at the level of John Wick. So, and my character speaks Italian which was a lot of fun for me as an actor just to getting to speak in Italian especially as we filmed in Rome. Just, you know, traveling around Rome, knowing I knew a few words is just exciting. But Cassian is a smart guy, like he goes by the code that these assassins lived by and he’s an honorable person. He is not like a bad guy. So, well my friends always asked me like you’re playing a bad guy in John Wick? I’m like no. I’m just playing this assassin when called to do his job he does it and does it very well.
Beth Accomando: And you guys seemed to share a certain sense of professional courtesy?
Common: Yeah, we definitely have. It’s a reverence and a respect there. For John Wick and Cassian. I look at it as two rivals that that really don’t dislike each other. And Keanu and I discussed at one point they probably had work together on a certain missions, but when it’s time these two professionals they do take care of their business. They do have respect for the culture of being assassins and taking care of that well. And yes, so we honor each other, but when it’s time to go to work, we go to work.
Beth Accomando: Now, in this particular film, it’s not like the film stops the story to do action. And it seems like the way you guys fight and the way you guys participate in these action sequences helped to define your characters.
Common: Yes. I truly was informed even more about my character as I started training and learning different techniques. It was like it helped me to shape my character and so he just won’t be this physical guy. He had to be a well-rounded individual and as you said, you could tell by – within the fights, we try to keep those stories too like we try to keep those like a scene and a journey and you do get to know these characters more and you get to know not only their force but in different ways how they maneuver, how smart they are. That’s all part of the being of who these people are. Yeah, the fights definitely move the story along.
And we looked at John Wick because we do enjoy, you don’t see an artist action but it also has to be something for me. Like I just go into the world and can enjoy and connect to some of these characters in different ways. And for surely, when I watched John Wick, I relate to John Wick and I wanted that same feeling with Cassian where you could respect him and feel connected to him.
What I found about Chad is that he really knows how to create a world. He was really like, you know from my first conversation with him, he let me know that the intensity would be there when it came to training and I told him I was all for it. My heroes are like Mohammad Ali, and people who were mentally strong and sometimes had to be physically strong. So, he really gave us a direction of how to really shape these characters and also like the details and whether it was typing or whether it was a watch – and the way you would hold your cup when you’re having a drink. We discussed all these details and I think that’s what I saw when I saw the first John Wick and that’s what you get with John Wick: Chapter 2 is you really get this world and Chad knew how to create the world where you could just, you can let go. And when you go to a movie, you go to movies, some movies you go to, to escape from the world some you go to, you hope will help change the world. And this is definitely a movie where you can escape into the world of John Wick. And yeah, Chad was really just from the beginning through every moment was really particular about the details and had a vision and was able to communicate that vision and we also were able to collaborate.
And one thing about him too was like he would step in and started showing you the fight moves himself, because he’s equipped to do that. He’s a very skilled fighter and martial artists. He has been doing this for a while so he was able to do that. But along with that he is one of those guys as like we will rehearse and he’ll love it, he loved the rehearsals. And we get to the set and he’ll come up with new things for you to do, which is sometimes challenging but fine.
Beth Accomando: He does bring a different sensibility to how he does action scenes different from what most American films are like. So, how was that in term of, you know, when you actually came to the scenes that required intense fighting or gunplay?
Common: Well, it turned out for me like it turned out to be a wonderful experience and it definitely had its intensity because sometimes when you’re filming those scenes, there’s many other things going on outside of just the scene, where there is like time, you’re fighting with time just because the daylight maybe coming, because we were filming a lot during at nights. We just don’t have time for whatever reason. But what he was really able to do was like, okay, well, we have this choreographed and this is what takes place. But he was able to get into when we got to the scenes be able to say hey, let’s change this here. Why don’t you try this?
When things went wrong he was able to really flow with it and create – I felt that it was a real creative process when it came to just like whatever, whether it was dialogue scenes or just action scenes. He kept it very creative and a spontaneity that actually is dangerous as it can be because when you’re doing all these action if you’ve rehearsed it, that’s the safer route. But sometimes when you get there and it needs something new and you feel something different. He was able to bring that and be present and I think it brought life to a lot of what we did.
Beth Accomando: He also seems to like employing these long takes, wider angles which puts a lot more burden on you as the actor because you are expected to do a lot more of the fighting yourself.
Common: Yeah, well I mean I actually take pride in doing the fighting. I mean I’m the guy that’s – I’m always saying, I want my stunt guy to work. I want my stunt double to work. I mean I want to get paid but I don’t want them to have to be on the scenes. I’ve really take a pride in that being me on the screen. And I told Chad that when we first got on the phone to talk about me playing this character, I was like, look I want to be one of the great actors that can do action scenes and deliver and I know you are at the highest level. I know 87Eleven, his company is at the highest level when it comes to that. So, I’m willing to do whatever the work and I’m letting him know I was capable.
So, I knew we were doing long sequences and long shots. I was off or I didn’t, you know, Keanu is the same way. That’s why when you see John Wick 2, you see Keanu doing the stunts. You see him doing the work. And for me it keeps you in a movie, it keeps you like in the world of John Wick and you believe these characters more. If you start looking at other people doing the work then it can take you out of a movie. And I think everybody that Chad decides to bring to the table is the actor who can deliver the work, deliver and do their own work and own stunts. And I love the long fight sequences because one of my favorite movie is when it comes to fighting and action was that movie called The Raid.
Beth Accomando: Oh yeah.
Common: And I was always like, man I want to do something like at that level and I felt like we were stepping into that zone with John Wick: Chapter 2.
Beth Accomando: So, what kind of training did you do and what kind of work did you do with 87Eleven?
Common: Well, it started with just basic conditioning and like flexibility exercises. And then it matriculated to martial arts, Jiu-Jitsu, some Kung Fu. And then I started doing knife work and some gun work. And I would implement what Chad and 87Eleven like to call knife-fu and gun-fu. We would implement that into the fight sequences. So, it started with the basics and then I just progress and once I got everything to a certain point where I could like go out and do it in the scene then I started to work with Keanu. Initially it was like working with a partner who was part of the stunt team. But then I prepared enough to get to work with Keanu and we went from there. But it’s definitely a lot of martial arts and it’s like learning new languages, like it really is because I never would never really knew much about Jiu-Jitsu, I would see it, see the words and ride past places that where people trained doing Jiu-Jitsu. But I never knew what the language was, languages as far as fighting.
Beth Accomando: What Chad does is often referred to as fight choreography. So, is this really kind of like a dance for you when you get into these fights?
Common: It truly is a dance. It has the rhythm of – you have to have a rhythm to it and you learn your partner’s rhythm. The thing is sometimes tricky is you may train a lot with the stunt double and then once it’s time to get into the scenes you work with whoever your partner is, mine happen to be Keanu. And thank God he was doing a lot of rehearsals because we get our rhythm down and got our dance together. But I guess the difference lies in -- it’s a certain intensity when you’re throwing a punch or throwing an elbow, giving someone a knee that takes away from the dance like aspect of it. But it’s still the overall pitch is a dance.
Beth Accomando: So, in terms of your training like how many hours were you doing and how much kind of training did you do before you started shooting?
Common: Well, I know I did at least three to four months of training. And it was probably just from nine to three each day. And from there I would have to go home and work on it too in the mirror like, okay, let me get this together. Let me work on it, I mean definitely when we were filming in Rome, I couldn’t remember going to my hotel room just really working intensely on it. So, it was months of training and definitely hours throughout the day.
And that’s what it takes. And at that point like I say, you do all the training to prepare so that you can get those scenes and the choreography right. And if Chad, everybody works with him knows he’s going to throw you a curve ball. So, he’s going to give you something different to do. No matter how much he says he loved the rehearsal and he loved what he saw on tape, what we’ve done from the rehearsal, he’s going to come up with something new. I can remember like filming in Rome and it was the start of the scene where my character Cassian hits John Wick with the car and then we had to figure out what was the next step. And he wanted me to jump over the hood of the car and slide with a gun. And the first time I couldn’t get it right and I was like, oh man, I felt like I was letting the whole team down, but eventually my adrenaline just got in I just was, I can remember jumping over the hood and Chad was like, wait, you know you just jumped over the hood. I was like what? And then he’s like, it looks good though, it looked good and so I was happy about that. But working with him, you just have to be – you have to go through your training so that you could be prepared to do anything.
Beth Accomando: Well, I get the interview him and I have to say, he seems like the kind of guy who always likes to raise the bar?
Common: Yeah. Oh, yeah he definitely likes to raise the bar. And it’s funny I mean he and Keanu go way back since The Matrix days. You know I could tell Keanu and Keanu would say this to me that he wanted to make sure Chad was happy. Like we would do certain takes and we felt pretty good about it, but if Chad didn’t come over and show the smile or just give us the energy that that was excellent then we both felt like no, we want a do it again, like we got to deliver. So, he is the person that sets the bar high. And I want to deliver at that high bar level because it ultimately comes out to make the film great, to make people love the movie.
Beth Accomando: And did he talk at all about kind of the influences that he had in terms of what he was trying to do? Did he talk about how Hong Kong action films were kind of showing him a different way of shooting?
Common: He didn’t speak much about that but he did tell me he enjoyed some of the films and what they would do in the Hong Kong action films. He would joke with me and talk to me about how it feel like when we were kids and you just get into, you would Bruce Lee or someone doing something and you want to do it, you want to imitate those things and it’s like you get to be that kid that can do it now. I could see how much of a passion he has for martial arts and actions and really movies. As much as I can say, John Wick obviously is the action movie. It’s still something that you like about the characters and he makes sure these characters are live and you connect to him in some way or another.
So, I think his passion for movies comes out for him to watch those Hong Kong films and know that this is the next level as to me is really cool. And I think that’s the world that he’s able to kind of like conjure up. It’s like taking those elements and taking the joy that he had as a kid, like watching these movies and his experiences from working on the Matrix and all his other films that he’s done now bringing all that and saying I’m going to raise the bar.
Beth Accomando: Have you seen the finished films because I’m curious if, you know, how shooting those scenes compares to seeing the finished product on the screen?
Common: I’ve seen the finished product and I was very pleased that – it’s hard when you’re watching the movie for the first time because it’s so critical. Especially when you as an actor first get on the screen it’s like, oh man, you’re critique in everything and your heart is beating like what, oh man. But watching the scenes and just watching the film itself, I was like I was very pleased and also the work that you put in, you see it at another level because obviously they cut and try to keep the best takes and sometimes some things you like, oh I wish I could have done that better. But when I look at the film I definitely felt, I felt grateful, I felt pleased and I was like, man this really looks good, really I felt we had moved along in the John Wick story and the John Wick saga. We moved it along and respected and gave homage and respect to the first John Wick. But it also took you deeper into the world and the fight scenes highness is growing, it’s getting better. So, I was happy with it. And, you see some things that make it cut but a lot of my stuff didn’t get cut so I was happy.
Beth Accomando: Well, I was just curious if you felt like his approach to doing the action from the shooting stage, if he felt like on-screen it really paid off and deliver something that seems a little bit fresh and new.
Common: Yeah, his approach truly seeing it on-screen, I felt like this is a fresh take on what I’ve seen in action movies in a long time, in a way that like really honestly probably since the last John Wick, but even more like it’s some of the things that we did and some of the things that he accomplished in his films, I was like man this is the highest level. I was really looking it like I’m excited. I can’t believe I’m in this movie. I was like, oh this is really great. It felt like he brought something really fresh to this genre of movies and that’s what we want to do, we want to make it, we want to see it grow, we want to see how we could push the envelope. And a lot of people enjoyed things in a new way.
Beth Accomando: So, I understand he calls kind of the style of action he does is kind of a gun-fu?
Common: Well, this is the thing. He has different ways of like when you utilize in the gun and he combines that with certain martial arts techniques, he comes out with this thing called gun-fu. And then like I was utilizing a knife and he would put that with these different techniques of martial arts and that’s where the knife-fu came from. So, I mean it sounds funny but I mean probably if you’re using the pencil like John Wick does, that’s the pencilfu.
Beth Accomando: Well, it seems like I’m a big fan of Hong Kong action films. And it seems like what he brings to it as he takes all that martial arts action but then he adds in kind of more American weaponry to it as opposed to swordplay or something.
Common: Yeah, I think that’s where the freshness comes in because you get somebody who studied. But he’s not – like when we were working he study some of the Hong Kong techniques, but I was looking at tapes, they would send me tapes of MMA fighters and I was like they have me study fighting like I never watched before, boxing. So, he definitely takes from some of the Asian influence, but Americanize it and comes up with his own vision and style and I think that’s what gives the audience something new to look at.
Beth Accomando: And how do you think he was different as a director because of his stunt background? I mean do you think that made him better at kind of putting together in action film?
Common: Well, it’s just because of his stunt’s background he knows what works, he knows how it’s going to translate in films and when you’re watching the story. He knows that the action has to have a story to it, and he told me that he was like, you know, we want this to have a story to it. He knows that – and he has an instinct that really it’s like something that’s not working, he knows how to reenergize it like I can remember him like really talking to us about keeping this intensity up in his fight scene right before we crash through the windows at a continental; John Wick and Cassian before we crash through the windows, he said, this has to be an intensity, you got to be to the point where you want to rip like his heart out, like you just – because once we go through the windows, we can’t fight anymore and when we end up in the scenes sitting at the bar it kind of makes it funny, it brings a different dynamic.
So, I think he is able to see, hey, I got to bring this intensity, bring these different type of colors to these fights. But also in the path of the story, this is where it will work and this is how it works and that stunt background definitely helped him to experience that, see that. And also when he has the actor he knows how to draw off their strength or whatever their strengths are, like Ruby Rose used to box. So, he knew that or he didn’t know it initially but as she was working out with, he was like, wait you boxed, okay. So, he let her character has some of that as the strength. So, he knows that and he can step in and he knows what the experience is. Also he could push you to the level, to the limit not try to hurt you but he knows like, okay, we can go another one. It’s like when you hear about certain coaches are really good because they play the sport and I think that’s what he brings.
Beth Accomando: One of the fights I really liked was the one you and Keanu have on the subway, because I love when confined spaces kind of help to define how the fight goes.
Common: Yeah. That fight was, it was really – we had that choreographed really in a strong way and I think I was happy with the way it turned out because in that small space it was difficult – because in the rehearsal space, we try to estimate how much space we would have on a train. Once you get on a train and there’s cameras and there’s people there the space became smaller.
And it was just like, okay, we got to get this done. And it’s something about the energy of being in a small space of having to fight in a small space that is something that brings out the animal in you like, well, you have to go and you all have knives and you have these techniques that you’re supposed to do. But I can remember that night being very intense and Keanu and I, we didn’t get it right, Keanu was – if he didn’t get it right, if I didn’t get it right, I was definitely not happy with it but eventually we got it there and I think, yeah, at the same time it definitely had intensity to it.
Beth Accomando: So, what do you think was the biggest challenge and the biggest satisfaction you got working on this film?
Common: The biggest challenge, the biggest challenge I would say, would be really working out the choreography and then having to execute it like 04:00 or 05:00 in the morning. Just because the scenes were so – we were filming scenes throughout the night. So, it was a little challenging, we’re dealing with that, some of the changes that came up, but I looked forward to the challenges. That’s part of it and I think it brings some element of reality to us and when it’s cold, it’s cold and there is nothing you could do about the cold. So, those challenges like I don’t know, for me they helped me and then I feel like the reward is when I see it on the screen and is like, we can’t fake being cold, you are fighting in a cold. That’s just another element that this brought to the story. They make the story even more raw, you’re on a cobblestone of Rome, you can’t fake that like that cobblestone hurts, you are rolling around in that cobblestone. So, those challenges turned out to be things that brought out the best and I think brought more life to all of the scenes.
Beth Accomando: And which part of the stunt work did you find the most challenging? Was it like the gun work, the knife work, the, you know?
Common: The stunt work I found most challenging was the Jiu-Jitsu because as a kid I took martial arts for, well, I took karate for like a year or two. I never got up there in belt, but kicking and punching is something that’s kind of natural in that way, but Jiu-Jitsu is like a different language when it comes to fighting and just the spinning and you know the work you do over your shoulders and the sweeps that’s you are doing is like, man I didn’t know they even do this to fight. So, that was the most challenging and difficult when it came to the fighting.
Beth Accomando: So, do you feel that the training that he gave you, kind of gave you this toolbox to go into so when you’re going to these fights, it’s just like oh, which tool do I use on this part of the scene?
Common: Yeah, I feel like I can go conquer the world. I feel like a superhero. I’m like man, I’m looking forward to the next project that I have to do and is dealing with action. I’m not saying that it won’t be some new things to learn, but I feel like I’ve been given a tremendous foundation, a phenomenal foundation from working with Chad in 87Eleven and Keanu. It was just, you know, the base of having 87Eleven and knowing that I can access them and then I’ve worked with Chad, I feel like I have worked with some of the greatest and one of the greatest to ever do it. So, I’m ready, I’m like oh, man bring it, come on.
Beth Accomando: All right. Well, thank you very much for taking the time to talk to me.
Common: Thank you. I appreciate it, Beth, and now have a great day. All right, peace.
Beth Accomando: That was Common talking about his experience making John Wick: Chapter 2. To get some perspective on what Chad Stahelski is doing to push the envelope on American action films, I spoke with Bey Logan by phone from his Hong Kong home. I let him explain how he became involved in martial arts and then obsessed with Hong Kong action films.
Bey Logan: I mean from when I was very, very young growing up in a city called Peterborough in England, I was absolutely fascinated by a moving image and all its manifestation, TV, films and even comic books which are kind of a moving image, then martial arts or what martial arts were available at that time which was the Avengers TV series, not the Marvel’s Avengers, but Mr. Speed, in the M-Appeal, the James Bond movies and later the Kung Fu TV series. And I was absolutely fascinated by every aspect of Asian martial arts and beyond that Asian culture. And other friends of mine I think in the ‘70s had similar fascination and later move on to other things. For some reason for me, it stuck and I’m remained devoted to Asian martial arts both in terms of practice, research and it’s kind of the core of my filmmaking. I also am very involved – I love film and involved with film in every aspects of, every aspect of it. I’m a huge devotee of cinema beyond just Asian martial art movie.
Beth Accomando: You do martial art yourself, correct?
Bey Logan: I do, I’ve been training in various martial arts most to my adult life. In recent years, I’ve been focused on a style called Hongaku and Honga Kung Fu, which is from the South of China from a city called Foshan and the most famous exponent of that style is a person called Wong Fei-hung, who’s been depicted in more movies than anybody else ever has. I just found that fitted my body type and my disposition so now I have a school and I support my teacher to run classes and I also teach private students myself here in Hong Kong.
And for the last 20 years or so, after moving to Hong Kong, I’ve been involved in the film industry and I think as far as I know I am the only white guy, that might sound politically correct, but I might be maybe the only non-Chinese, I’m the only white guy working in Hong Kong as a script writer and film producer. And I’ve been doing that for 20 years now and have the honor of working with lot of my heroes along the way; Jackie Chan, Sammo Hung, someone like Donnie Yen who I think is more than a hero of mine obviously become a very good friend and he and I worked together over the years. So, it’s been quite a ride.
Beth Accomando: Now, what is it that you feel Hong Kong action films do that’s different from what American or Hollywood action films do?
Bey Logan: I think there’s been, a definitely Hong Kong was ahead of the curve and has become in the area of screen combat been hugely influential on the development of American cinema. And I remember I used one of my jobs in England before I moved to Hong Kong was I was the editor of a film magazine called Impact. And we would see the big American movies of the day like the very early Batman became batman movies or the Warner Bros action films like Tango & Cash, and these kind of films and every aspect of them would be state-of-the art, the special effects, the production design, and the scripts are very good. But the martial art action was really lagging behind and I was always evangelizing and saying that American studios should hire someone like Sammo Hung or Corey Yuen or Yuen Woo-ping to go to do the action on its movies and the other aspects they can handle themselves, but not as good in doing martial arts combat. And of course the choreographers, some of the American choreographers when they heard about this were up in arms and they would say well, you know, American audiences will never sit still for all of that flying on wires and leaping around which is what they perceived the Hong Kong style to be.
What I think was different and is different about the Hong Kong approach is it’s a holistic approach in that, there is a tendency in America, or there was in the past more to when you had a martial art fight, you would basically shoot a wide shot and grab what you could of two people swinging at each other. There was a sense that you just had to put it together in the editing room, having shot from very basic angles or a more recent and even more unpleasant phenomenon for me is the idea that you have two people fighting and so to make the audience feel like they are involved, you shake the camera like the poor cameraman have talking into something and that style.
And when you look at the Hong Kong way of filmmaking, look at the way that a Donnie Yen or a Sammo Hung will look at the fight sequence, an action sequence, they would be looking at it with a very specific sense of space and time. What angle to shoot from? What lens to use on the camera? What camera speed to shoot at? Where to cut and they would be editing the fight in their head and the camera would be a participant in the action. And sometimes that would mean quick cut, different angles, to cover what you need and sometimes it would just be locking the camera and having the people move within the frame, whereas which American fights, you just shoot from two angles and cut it together in editing room and hope it look okay.
With Hong Kong filmmakers, they will use many more angles and the analogy I’ll sometime uses that their fights were the reason that the fights in even classics Hong Kong movies, movies shot in the ‘70s, the fight looks so great today, is it was shot in a form of 3D, there was a 3D approach to them. Not that they were using technical 3D, but there is like a three dimensional angle to the way that the fights are shot and covered. Whereas with the American equivalent, it felt more like 2Ds that you just lock and set the cameras in certain place, you got what you could. With Hong Kong filmmakers, they were so brilliant at shooting with the right film speed, with the right edit points that if you go back to classic movies of Sammo Hung and Donnie Yen and Yuen Woo-Ping, they stands out today because of the craftsmanship involved in the way they would approach covering that kind of action. And it was a very different mindset.
Now, of course, many Hong Kong filmmakers have worked in America and many American filmmakers have studied and borrowed from Hong Kong filmmakers. And now I would say that on the better American movies not all, but on some of the better American martial art action films that in certain kinds of action they are pretty close, particularly contemporary action.
Beth Accomando: Would you say that The Matrix was kind of a turning point for American films?
Bey Logan: Oh, absolutely. It’s interesting I was working at a company called Media Asia at the time The Matrix, just before The Matrix came out theatrically. And my then wife was working at Warner Bros and both offices were on Canton Road in Hong Kong. And she gave me a very early video with a VHS, that’s how far back it was of the very first trailer. And I just looked at that and said this is, it is going to be the paradigm shifting film, this is the turning point. And we knew Yuen Woo-ping had done the action for the movie but nobody knew quite the degree to which he was going to be allowed to realize his vision. And I remember showing it to my boss, they showed it to my senior colleagues at Media Asia and they were like, they thought it was a cool-looking trailer but, is it really such a game changer. I said, yeah it will be because Americans have never seen the style before.
I mean there were two; there was like The Matrix, which was the film that really delivered a new kind of contemporary martial art action. And then of course you had Couching Tiger; I was present for the world premiere of that film in Cannes. And again there was this stunt reaction from the non-Chinese audiences. Of course, if you are a Chinese audience, you would have seen a lot of that stuff before maybe not with the scale of Matrix and perhaps not with the style of Crouching Tiger as a film. But you would have seen that style of action, so you maybe wouldn’t be so excited. But if you, the defining films were; there was a movie that Warner Bros did called Soldier with Kurt Russell and Jason Scott Lee, a few months before The Matrix. And I mean, Soldier really looked so slow and so clumsy compared to The Matrix. But that was the old god leaving and the new god arriving within a few months. And it was a Warner Bros’ who had done Enter the Dragon years earlier. I have to give credit to Warner Bros, they tend be ahead of the curve in terms of martial arts action. But that was, you’re obviously right, The Matrix was the real paradigm shifting film. And after that American, not all of them delivered it on it, but all American movies had the potential and the promise of delivering something close to Hong Kong style action.
Beth Accomando: And are you familiar with 87Eleven and Chad Stahelski?
Bey Logan: Very much so, yes, I am sorry to say I’ve never met any of the people involved that we have many similar friends. David Leitch, he is one of the guys that I think we have had some exchanges previously maybe like e-mail or something. But I greatly admired their work and have always thought that what they did with movies action in before John Wick, what they do on movies, what they were responsible for the action was really extraordinary. The two things I would mention about that; one is that what’s interesting a lot of the times when you have a movie that is a Hollywood studio film, even though the choreographers had done their job, the director on the studio and the special effects and the editors everybody get involved with the process and sometimes when we look at the DVD, the behind the scenes video, the choreography looks amazing. But what’s in the finished film is not as good.
I mean a case important will be a movie like Ninja Assassin with the rain, where there’s been all that time training this guy to be an amazing martial artist. And it, to me you don’t really see that in the finished film because of the way it was shot. But that wasn’t the fault of 87Eleven; that was down to people making the movie. So, it just didn’t, to me anyway, I was disappointed because you are going to call your film Ninja Assassin, I expect to see a guy, a ninja assassinating people. I want to see some slam bang martial art action.
But with John Wick, they were directing the film themselves with the partners in that company so they could call all the shots and that’s why everybody thought John Wick was amazing, best the best thing you can do if you have choreographers who know what they are doing is getting out of their way and let them do it, which is the foundation of the Hong Kong filmmaking approach. The other thing I would mention is that people say to me, oh well, you know the Americans are doing martial arts combat on screen as well as they do it at Hong Kong as well as they do it in China. I would say for certain kinds of contemporary fist and foot fighting and gunplay that’s absolutely the case. I still think that we do Kung Fu fighting whether it’s Ip Man style, grounded, seven fist or the crouching tiger, flying in wires style. I still think we did that better in Hong Kong, we got better in China than anybody does in America, but for the contemporary action they’ve absolutely caught up.
Beth Accomando: I think that Chad Stahelski does a really nice job of getting a lot of the elements from Hong Kong action, right? Because Hong Kong action a lot of the things that to me symbolize it is like fighting in confined spaces, using anything as a prop, letting you see the whole action in a wide shot and he seems to be doing that kind of thing well?
Bey Logan: I agree, you cannot dismiss these guys and say oh, they are just ripping off Hong Kong filmmakers. They have their own vision, their own style. And the John Wick films looked different to the equivalent Hong Kong movie. They are different films than would be made in Hong Kong because those guys bring that American sensibility to the project just as American filmmaker would, just as a Korean filmmaker would because there’re definitely some really underrated contemporary action films in Korea as well these days.
But they brought their own esthetic and their own look to the films. But what they have done is really important and sounds so obvious is, you really want to see the technique, you want to see what somebody’s doing in the frame and its hopefully you want to see them doing it or at least if you are going to double somebody that the double in a way that the audience is going along with the ride that they are not going oh, my god look like a stunt double or just special effect. So, if you have people like I believe Keanu Reeves now is trained to extraordinary level for an actor, I mean, that you can see his movements in the film and you just go this, you know you see a wide shot, the camera followed him doing a long sequence of motions and the audience is stunned to see clearly everything that’s going on.
And you have another style which maybe the Bourne Identity style where they choreographed it and when they get on the set they just shake the camera up and down and you almost think maybe really into bothered. And there is another disturbing phenomenon which I witnessed that’s on xXx, right before on Fast & Furious, when they do the action scene, they want to use high shutter speed so you get this kind of simmer effect and you don’t need it. I mean none of the great martial art movies in Hong Kong has had that effect. Recently I’ve seen it creeping in here as well. And I don’t see why you need to enhance what’s already extraordinary, which is the physicality. What you are selling, what you should be selling is the physicality of the people in the frame whether it’s the actors or their doubles. But that’s what you are selling to the audience if you are doing martial arts on screen.
And if you are doing, if you are showing a spaceship, if you are showing people location, if you are doing a drama scene, then you got different requirements. But if you are actually having a martial art fight sequence whether it’s one person against one or one versus a bunch, you should be following clearly the action. And it’s interesting because you look at a movie like xXx, which I mean Donnie Yen’s stole a movie anyway, but I don’t think the way that the action scenes are conveyed are appropriate because of the shutter speed, this kind of flicker effect that they have. But when you look at a movie like The Accountant with Ben Affleck, who’s a great actor but he’s not 100 some martial artist that Donnie is. In the end fight, it’s fantastic and the action in that movie looks really good because you can see what’s happening and I want to see the guys fight. That’s why it would be going to have a MMA fight and they put strobe effect on all the way through an MMA match. And you’d be going why are you dazzling me with the lighting effect? I want to see two guys go out at it in the cage. Well, that’s what you are seeing if you watch some martial arts fight scene in a movie. To my mind the responsibility of the filmmaker is to show the two people in combat in the most clear and dynamic way possible. And that’s always been the hallmark of great Hong Kong action filmmakers. And now more and more people in the Hollywood are signing up for that same esthetic.
Beth Accomando: Well, the other thing is the overcutting as well.
Bey Logan: Yes, Well, I mean sometimes, look I mean the fact is sometimes a shaky camera, the blurry effects the lighting being dark, the cutting, it’s to compensate for the fact that maybe the actor can’t do much with this doubling going on or that the action itself doesn’t look particularly good and you need to somehow ramp it up in the editing room. So, these reasons why you make choices that you make, I’m really aware of that. It’s less acceptable if you have someone like Tony Jaa in Fast & Furious, who we know can move really well. And he’s subject to kind of bad lighting, bad edit and similar effects because you don’t need that because you can cut him loose and he can do a lot of lot stuff. I am a little hesitant because I mean I don’t know it’s like if you are a maker of films, I think this is the setting trend everybody has a second career as a critic of films, but I suppose having worked in the business as long as I have, I can at least tell you my case when it comes to the aesthetics about action filmmaking because I have been involved in the industry so long both as an active participant and as a devotee of the genre.
Beth Accomando: Well, it also seems like in Hong Kong and other places in Asia that they value it as part of the filmmaking process because they actually have awards for action choreography which is something that they don’t have here.
Bey Logan: Well, it’s amazing to me that on the major action movies, martial arts action movies that get made that the action is right to the stunt coordinators don’t get a front card credit on Hollywood films. I think giving more Yuen Woo-ping did on The Matrix which I mean if he hadn’t it would have been outrageous. But with some of these films you are thinking apart from the stunt and martial art action sequences, why would you be bothering to watch the film? And yet the stunt and action coordinator rather get relegated to the back credit and you get 19 producers at the beginning and by the way I’m sometimes one of those 19, so I am not going to take away the producer credits, but if you are going credit 30 producers at the beginning of a new image movie, which doesn’t require, that is produced by one person, surely you put the choreographer and showed the choreographer’s name upfront as well. So, whereas in Hong Kong, you absolutely right, I mean in the old days director, action director swat roles very casually which doesn’t happened so much in Hollywood. But it was very common for directors to direct a movie action, direct another movie or even direct that action directed the same time on two films, during the golden days of Hong Kong filmmaking.
But we knew that was out of stock in trade. That was something we did back to anybody else in the world, so that became the focus, that a big thing would happen in Hong Kong that time is they were not shooting live sound. So, you would shoot the dialog in like a day, and then you have a month to shoot the action, which is great; whereas in America, it turns to be reversed. You get like a month of even on these big action films when I argued the script to [indiscernible] [01:23:13] of Shakespeare, you get like a week of drama and then you get told do like – you have to cover fight in a day. And that’s another difference in the approach. So, I mean for Hong Kong people, we always thought they were movies. Hollywood for a long time was into talkies. We were into movies. We would move, the camera would move and the films would move at a good clip and the idea was that what people buying when they went to see a Hong Kong movie was action.
Beth Accomando: And so, do you see that what Chad Stahelski as doing as like a positive move for action films in America?
Bey Logan: Absolutely. I mean, I think it’s fascinating, the cross pollination because I think you are going to see people in China and people in Hong Kong doing a similar kind of movie with Chinese people in Chinese because it’s definitely – one cannot say oh, this movie is just a frame-by-frame remake of that Hong Kong movie. They take it something at the Hong Kong aesthetic, but they have added what is specifically their own to quote Bruce Lee. So, I think that anybody who is working in the field, who works to high level, will first of all, the work hadn’t has integrity onto itself at that advances the whole of the form; and secondly, I think we are living in a world where you have to be, I don’t use that the word globalization but I mean there is a sense that art forms now wouldn’t know no boundaries and you get people like, for example, in my own tradition of the Honga-ku and there was definitely more focus and more dedication on the path of the non-Chinese students than there is on the Chinese and most the people in Germany, the people in Italy and American who practicing the style are far more dedicate overall than the people in Hong Kong these days.
So, similarly I think that Hong Kong obviously, Hong Kong action filmmaking has been transformed into Chinese action filmmaking or Chinese filmmaking, but it’s definitely not at the same level as it was its heyday. And so the fact that there’s opportunity for Hong Kong filmmakers in America and the fact that America filmmaking is absorbing some of the Hong Kong style, is really great because I mean, I don’t know, Hong Kong filmmakers have work primarily in China but I don’t know if anybody would argue that the increase budgets and the increased platform means the movies made in China now are as great as the movies we made in Hong Kong in the golden eras, I don’t think they are. And I think that definitely there is a case to be made American-Chinese audiences seem to want to watch American movies more than anything else, so another way to perpetuate what I considered to be my art form maybe the kind of the absorption of Hong Kong style action into mainstream Hollywood movies.
Beth Accomando: Okay, well I want to thank you very much for making some time for me.
Bey Logan: My pleasure. I am happy to talk about it.
Beth Accomando: Oh I really enjoyed talking to you and hopefully we will talk again.
Bey Logan: Thank you.
Beth Accomando: All right.
Bey Logan: Absolutely. Take care. All right. Bye-bye.
Beth Accomando: Bye.
That was Bey Logan, author of Hong Kong action. Thanks for listening to another edition of listeners-supported KPBS Cinema Junkie podcast. If you haven’t seen John Wick 1 and 2, go see them now and maybe this discussion will allow you to watch these films with a new found appreciation for all the work and innovation that’s gone into them. Plus, there’s just ridiculous fun and it looks like Chapter 2 leaves an opening for Chapter 3. So, we have something to look forward to. Although I am not sure how much more abuse John Wick can take, all this talk about actions makes me want to queue up with Jackie Chan or John Woo films before heading out to see John Wick: Chapter 2 again. So, until our next film fix, I’m Beth Accomando, your resident cinema junkie.