<I>John Wick: Chapter 4</I>
Issue: March/April 2023

John Wick: Chapter 4

The un-retired hitman is back, with the goal of finally defeating The High Table of crime lords, who’ve put a multi-million dollar bounty on his head. Keanu Reeves returns as the franchise’s namesake — a role he’s held since its initial release in 2014, and subsequently in John Wick: Chapter 2 (2017) and John Wick: Chapter 3 — Parabellum (2019).

Laurence Fishburne resumes his role as The Bowery King, the head of an underground intelligence network, as does Ian McShane, who plays Winston, the owner of the New York Continental Hotel, which is frequented by the world’s most accomplished killers. Lance Reddick, also a regular in the John Wick storylines, is the Continental’s distinguished concierge, Charon.

87Eleven Entertainment’s Chad Stahelski is both a producer and the director of John Wick: Chapter 4. He, too, has been an integral part of the series’ success, initially co-directing the 2014 film, and acting as sole director on the follow-ups. His relationship with Reeves dates back to The Matrix series, for which he worked as a stunt double for the star, and continued with the Reloaded and Revolutions releases, as well as with Constantine. But it’s the world of John Wick that keeps him so interested in this franchise, including its highly-stylized lighting, nighttime city environments, and the fact that the sky’s the limit when it comes to what Wick is capable of.

Here, Chad Stahelski shares insight into the challenges he faced while making the Lionsgate feature, which runs just short of three hours, including its editing style, original soundtrack, color treatment and most challenging visual effects sequences.

What is it about the John Wick series that keeps you coming back?

“Good question, We did the first one, my partner —  Dave Leitch and Keanu — we had all been friends from The Matrix (films), and Keanu knew that I was trying to direct. You can imagine the kind of scripts we were getting — a lot of special forces blowing stuff up, or car chase/assassin things. But we were looking for something that was a little bit of different — something you could put a different spin on. 

“We always had this mythological idea about, ‘How do you do a modern day fantasy kind of thing?' So when Keanu sent us the script on the first John Wick, we’re like, ‘Oh, we have a take on this. Can we do it more like this hidden world within a world thing?’ And he kind of dug it, and that became the first film. But we thought that was a one-and-done, and we were happy with what we did. We had no money, no time, but we’re pretty happy with the result. 

“Surprisingly to us, the movie was a bit of a success, and the studio came back and asked us to do another one. And that’s really when the work started. Then we got to come up with our own stuff. We hadn’t built a really-massive backstory for the world. We didn’t have like a diagram or a flowchart about every city having a Continental, where all these assassins were coming from. So that’s really where we went to work. 
“It wasn’t far into the second Wick, we kind of realized, ‘Oh, we can go as big, as broad — aspirationally speaking — like a good fantasy film, like Tolkien or anything like that, where you can really build worlds, and the sky’s the limit as long as we kept it hyper real…And once that hit us, that became very attractive because now we’re not beholden to any original IP. (There’s) no former superhero powers or a fan base that put limitations on us.

“That’s the fun thing in a way. Wicks allow us to be as creative or uncreative, I guess, as we want. And on top of that, John Wick uses nunchucks. He can ride a horse. He can do anything. So from an action standpoint, the sky’s the limit. My imagination and Keanu’s physical abilities…that’s the only limit we have.”

How long was the shoot, and what did it mean to have director of photography Dan Lausten come onboard again?

“I think 103 days, and I think 100 of them were nights. So even when I saw interiors, I was on a night schedule. And when you have 100 of those, that wears out anybody. I love nights personally, but I don’t know if my crew loved me for loving nights. 

“One thing about Dan and I, we’ve always talked about ‘world creation.’ If you look at Dan’s work, for Guillermo del Toro (Nightmare Alley, The Shape of Water), or Brotherhood of the Wolf, or some of the other things he’s done, it’s always got this ‘neo noir’ (look). It’s heavy shading. It’s the use of blacks. But we do it with neon. We try to carve it out, and a big part of world creation is the look of the film. Hopefully you saw we put a lot more time and money and love into the cinematography in this one than anybody else that’s out there in the action game? We want that to take you out of the world you’re in and put you in the world that we want you to be in. And that’s why we push color so much. And the easiest way to do that, I think, is night. Cities take on a whole different look at night — New York, Paris, Osaka — they’re what we would consider ‘lit cities’ — cities with a night vibe. Dan and I both believe at night, you can carve light. You can shape light. You can shape the world where we want it to be, as opposed to daytime.”

Nathan Orloff was your editor on this film. How was he working in relation to your shooting schedule and locations?

"Wicks, being my main directorial experience, it’s like I’m trying to change the process every time and learn more of it. You’re always trying to get better. Nate, I think, was my youngest editor ever. I think he had like one credit behind him — Ghostbusters: Afterlife. But when Nate and I originally met, all the same things — between Japanese animation, old Westerns — Nate got both. The aesthetic of editing the Wick (films) is very symmetrical — wide, medium, tight, stay on the tight, push out — very, very symmetrical to make you feel like it’s a live performance...That’s why we’re shooting anamorphic, and the colors. You [get] the aesthetic for the technical side, but you’ve also got that it’s a character-based thing. This time I was trying to get better with story and character: The power of the close up…save that one shot. Let is savor. And he got that as well. 

“When I’m shooting, I’ll scale through the dailies, but I think I’ve spent so much time in prep that I don’t really sit and study dailies. I’m not trying to cut as I go. Nate is assembling as we go, and he’ll drop me a question, but I don’t spend a lot of time on that when I’m shooting. I think we know the movie so well, and I got it good enough in my head that I can keep moving it at a pretty good pace. 

“Then, on weekends, I’ll catch up with him a little bit and he’ll show me a little piece, and that’s great, but we won’t go into detail too much because for me, I found out I want to finish the film. I want to make sure I have the coverage I need. I want to finish. I want to get my head around this. So much changes in production, and Keanu and I are always rewriting. We’re always redoing. We’re always restructuring, re-choreographing. And then when I get done, I take about three weeks off. I don’t even go near Nate. He does his assembly. Then the post process really starts for me after that. 

“I think our assembly was three hours and 45 minutes. And the way we do it is, we start slowly hacking away at the main thread. We stay with the John Wick story. Then we’ll do the other stories, almost like three or four different little mini movies. And then we start the Rubik’s Cube of putting the sequences together. And while Nate is working on specific scenes, I’ll be working on the action scenes as well. So then we’ll start putting our stuff together. It’s very much a 50/50 process with my editorial team.”

You’re actually editing?

"I have my own Avid system, even though the boys lock me out so I can’t mess it up too bad. Interestingly enough, just to give credit, on all the John Wick (movies), I’ve always had the editors do their passes of the action. Some people think it’s always just me doing the action. If I did, everything would kind of look the same. I want other people’s opinions. Nate and my assistant editors on this are phenomenal. 

They’re really great, with good eyes. I want both my assistants and my main editor, Nate, to do their own version of an action sequence. I’ve made them all edit each action sequence at least two or three times, plus me working on my thing, because there’s always that different perspective. I come from a very stunt/action background, so I’m looking at different things, where my editorial team, they’re looking at it from a character (perspective). They see things completely different than I do. And there hasn’t been one time in four movies, and literally dozens of action sequences, where someone hasn’t added a little something that I wouldn’t have seen. I think that you have to keep a fresh perspective, even in the action.” 

Do you recall what camera Dan Lausten was using for the shoot? 

"I think we had the (Arri) Alexa LT. It was right before we got the Alexa 35, which I hear is a step up. Dan, right now, is working on a show and he’s using the Alexa 35, which I think he prefers. I’m fine with the Alexa, as I’ve always had a pretty good pretty good relationship with them. You can beat them up. They don’t really die. I think the new ones are getting so much better with the color range, which we like…but I’m definitely more into the lenses, and definitely more into my DI process.”

Where is editorial taking place?

"I have Nate and one of my assistants with me on-location, so they’re setting up in the cities I am setting up. And then the main group is back in LA.”
Let’s talk about visual effects. I understand the Arc de Triomphe sequence took weeks alone, and was actually shot at an airport?

“We did a lot of plates, a lot of LIDAR. So we did have film units go to the Arc de Triomphe and film the heck out of it — both aerial drone and on the ground. The real VFX come in with putting it all together. I mean, that’s Keanu Reeves driving a real car. That’s stunt guys getting hit by real cars. That’s Keanu and Marko (Zaror) weaving in and out of real traffic. They are all of our main stunt drivers — we call them ‘interactives’ — the things that we actually hit and touch. And then we have some digital background cars to fill in the set piece. So you have to put the digital cars in the background. You have to put the plate shots of the Arc de Triomphe. And then you have to put the real interactive and the cobblestone in. Rodeo, the VFX company, did the majority of work. It’s just putting it together, you know, defeating the parallax problems that you always have in these situations. It took a way longer than we thought. We felt confident we could do it, having done the early tests, but there were problems we didn’t anticipate. A lot a lot of work went into it.”

What other studios provided VFX services?

"I think, by the end…we had 13 total. I think there were 11 main vendors throughout the movie, and I think we had the 13 at the end because we had so (many) overflow shots. It ended up being 13 total throughout the film, which is quite a bit for a movie our size. I don’t want to mess up, but I know the good call outs are Rodeo FX, Mavericks VFX, One of Us, Atomic Arts.”

There’s another shot that’s interesting. It’s is kind of a ‘god’s-eye view’ in a building, where the action moves from room to room. 

"That was fun. That was a little tricky...We’re doing it on a four-point flying system. It’s like a cable camera like the NFL uses, but, when your roof is only 40-feet high — it’s the only soundstage we could get — and you build a setup 18 feet, and you have a staircase in it, and you have to put the rafters up…you run out of space really quickly. It took weeks to figure out how to build the sets and put it all in. And obviously, you have Keanu, who’s got to remember 100 moves. And the stunt guys — some of the stunt guys are being lit on fire! You don’t want to miss because every time you miss, things can go wrong.”

Can you talk about the original soundtrack?

"Tyler Bates and Joel Richard, with Dylan England, who does a lot of the club music for us — an independent composer that comes in between those guys. I think this is my favorite music yet with all the themes. I love the tribute to the Spanish guitar, and we mix it up…The Rolling Stones to some pretty classic French stuff.”

Yet, the soundtrack comes across as having a very modern feel?

"We want that. That’s what Tyler’s note was like: ‘What’s Tyler Bates 2025, not Tyler Bates 2014?’ It’s always asking like, ‘What’s Chad’s next movie?’ That’s what’s good about Tyler. If you look at his work, it’s always building — some kind of atmospheric world building. There’s always a tone and an atmosphere to it. Almost like the Blade Runner theme — it’s taking you out somewhere and it’s very unique to the movie. I think that’s why I’ve always kind of restrained from needle drops in the past, because you want to be iconic and you want to be unique to your project. I’m proud of my composition team.”

The color grade really helps create this stylized world.

“My colorist, Jill Bogdanowicz at Company 3, she is one of the biggest people in my post life, because I have to know how far I can stretch these things. Dan gives me the great foundation, but it takes Jill and DaVinci Resolve, (which) has come so far. There are colors in this movie that I couldn’t even have done in the last movie.

“Dan and I talk about that a lot. Dan gets me. I would like to think Dan loves me, but I push. Most DPs, if they are getting ten setups a day, that’s a big day for them. I’m pushing to 30 to 50 setups a day…plus a look (that’s) better than most action movies…I will spend four months working on our color palettes. We know that we’re not going to get purples and pinks on the day, but if Dan gives me the shape and he pushes his reds or magenta that way, I know a DI can crank it. I know I can bring up Dan’s blacks even more. Look at the set pieces. I’m in massive convention centers and museums. I have to know my DP’s limitations. Dan can’t put flags and hard cut lights on these these massive, wide, anamorphic shots. I know I’m going to have to just take that shape and enhance it. But then, when I get into the character studies and the close ups, Dan’s in there and he’s really shaping. You can tell, the Keanu half-face and half-lighting, and all that stuff — that takes a lot of work and time.”

In hindsight, what have you learned as this franchise evolved?

“I think it starts with me. It comes out of me thinking, ‘I should have foreseen that. I should have done something. How do I get to be better?’ It’s just, how do you do better at everything? How do you see it clearer in your head? How do you pay more attention to do certain things on-set? 

“I think the thing I learned the most is, everything matters. That’s the greatest thing about this job — every little thing you learn, every little thing you read or you see, or every interpersonal interaction you have is a case study…I guess the biggest concern is, pay attention, attention to everything. Don’t be too limited. Just pay attention.

"I do John Wick (films) because there’s no other gig that I’ve been offered that allows such freedom, and it allows you to evolve.”

Do you get a break or are you on to your next project?

“We’re always working on something. That’s the best part of having really-good people working for me. The answer is: I’m going to jump right back into work.”