You might not know them by name, but David Leitch and Chad Stahelski are responsible for some of your favourite action sequences of all time. Through their day jobs as stunt coordinators and second unit directors, the smiling and energetic Stahleski and the laid back and witty Leitch, were responsible for some of the most memorable fight scenes ever committed to film. One of which was when the two stunt men met actor Keanu Reeves on the set of The Matrix Reloaded to film the memorable fight between Neo and an army of his nemesis.
That collaboration led to a friendship with Reeves that brings the duo to their first feature as first unit directors, John Wick, the tale of a retired hitman who seeks revenge on the Russian mob after the son of a Don kills his puppy and steals his car – the two things that kept him happy in life. It was a low budget production, helped along by Reeves’ participation, flexibility, and physical prowess. They needed someone who could still learn new tricks, and in the now 50 year old Reeves, they found their guy.
Leitch and Stahelski talked to Dork Shelf during a recent trip through Toronto about calling their own shots, why everyone needed to be on top of their game, and why doing second unit work isn’t such a bad gig.
Dork Shelf: This is an awesome film, and you’ve worked with Keanu before and you know these kinds of films really well, so it seems like it wouldn’t be a huge jump for you guys to take off and do your own film. So what’s it like to finally go out and make your film your own way and not have to take marching orders from anyone else?
David Leitch: First of all, you never call them orders. You call them “notes.” (laughs)
Chad Stahelski: (laughs) Yeah, you still get “notes” when you’re directing the first unit or the second unit, but it was really refreshing. It was just time. We’ve been mentoring under a lot of really great people. We’ve been shooting a lot of big action sequences for a lot of other people for a long time, and it was just time. It was cool to finally be able to tell a story from beginning to end and arc the character within not only in the action scenes, but also in the dramatic scenes. It was nice to finally have control over the character and not only the production.
DS: One of the coolest things about John Wick is how detail oriented it is. You have the cool car, the hotel, the symbolism, all these side characters, and you know just enough about them to be interested, but you aren’t bogged down in too many specifics. But there are so many specific details that make up the characters. Was that something else that attracted you to wanting to arc these characters, as you put it?
DL: There is a kind of mystery to it, as you put t. Early on we decided we always wanted to show John Wick and not just talk about him. If you see him and you aren’t going to openly talk about his backstory, you should feel it, understand, and know it’s there if it isn’t expressly being brought up. They mystery is part of the world. We tried to create a world where everyone has this backstory. You don’t need to go into what John has done for the last twenty years. Let them hear it and see everyone else’s reaction to it.
The thing about the world creation that was so great was that we had great teachers. We came up with The Wachowskis, David Fincher, Zack Snyder, all these really great storytellers who know how to create worlds in the details. People always say that the writing is in the details, and that’s always true. In action – in our day job whether it’s stunts of second unit directing – it’s all about the details in how we accomplish things, and that translates into how we tell a story. It’s easy for us in a stunt scene to just pick up a gun and shoot it, but it’s nice to know what kind of gun that is. How many bullets does it hold? How much does it weigh? What’s the context in which it’s being used?
Fights in movies used to just be “swing and punch and swing and punch” and you just move the camera around so much that you just hope something connects. (laughs) Martial arts has become such a mainstream thing now that you can’t fake that kind of thing. There will always be someone now watching a fight scene that knows how they work, and they’ll be thinking, “I don’t know if I would do it that way.” So it’s nice to infuse martial arts that people can actually do, that’s appropriate to the situation, that’s done properly, and to have a cast that would be willing to go through the training to make it seem real. They can reload and fire a firearm. They can operate vehicles and do the proper manoeuvres.
I mean, that’s what people remember about the movie, right? You remember the gold coins. You remember how he reloads. You remember how he swings the car around. You remember some of the Ju-jitsu. That’s what makes all the difference.
And you know what the best part is? Details are free! (laughs) That’s the best thing about them. You just have to put them in and make sure the audience shares them.
DS: Some of the fights I saw in the film reminded me a lot of one of my favourite fight scenes in any movie, which was the high school hallway fight in Grosse Pointe Blank…
CS: Yeah! That’s fight is great! The one by the lockers with Benny Urquidez!
DL: Benny the Jet!
DS: But what I like about that fight and the fights in John Wick is that they’re the kind of slightly dirty and gritty kinds of fights that two professionals who know their craft would have. It looks great and everything has a great amount of impact, but it’s not a polished, traditional looking movie fight. Is that something that you take into consideration when you stage a fight sequence?
CS: I mean, it’s really fun to be able to have the freedom to choose that style. I mean, going back to the first question between second unit or stunt directing and main unit directing, on second unit you’re always fitting into someone else’s box and trying to fit yourself into whatever supports the movie or another director’s vision. This movie was our vision from beginning to end. We’re fans of that kind of choreography. We’re fans of letting the performance the grittiness just live and not accentuate it with a shaky camera…
DL: …or unnecessarily heighten it…
CS: … yeah, or heighten it, because you don’t necessarily get the performance.
DL: One of the notes we always got on other films was that we had to make things faster.
CS: Yeah, fast editing was a decision we didn’t want to make here to keep the momentum. We didn’t need it because the performances were good physically and dramatically. We went in knowing Keanu could deliver and we just trained him up to make sure he could deliver everything we needed the way we needed it.
DL: It’s not like you can say, “Let’s just send everyone to fight school.” Those schools don’t exist for actors who just want to learn a couple of things. You have to go out and do it. I’m mean, you look at every stunt person that is that can fight certain ways, and you’ll find that some of them are qualified for certain things and some of them are not. It’s like any other aspect of life. We knew we had to go the extra mile. Keanu wasn’t only going to know the moves, he was also going to know the art. He was trained by the real deal in Ju-Jitsu, Judo, Brazilian Ju-Jitsu, tactical gun trainers, and professional drift drivers. Some of the beat teachers and professionals we knew trained him for everything. He was trained like a stunt performer or a martial artist so he could transcend just memorizing what he had to do. If you know this stuff, you then become free to just make things up as you go and feel things out.
DS: I just got done talking to Keanu, and that was one of the things that he said he liked the most, was being able to improvise within the fights and action scenes.
DL: Yeah, and you can’t do that with just anybody. That’s what makes him so special. We talk about it with Keanu like that’s nothing, but we kind of abused him a bit. (laughs)
CS: Yeah, we definitely took advantage of that and used it. (laughs)
DL: But we trained him like that! (laughs)
CS: It’s a great ability to have on a movie like this where the budget was smaller. We didn’t have a lot of time to shoot. Sometimes we only got locations two days before we were supposed to shoot in them. The choreography always had to be adjusted. On big budget movies, the sets are built, and the locations have been scouted to death, and you have choreographed everything to fit the location, and you have gone back to build a mock-up of that location so you could train the actors on the choreography. We did not have any of that luxury, so Keanu had to be responsive and flexible in what we were designing. We were confident in that space and in Keanu, but we just had to sharpen his tools.
DL: He would ask, “Is this the fight I’m learning?” And I’d say, “ABSOLUTELY… kind of…” (laughs) “Great, so when are we shooting it?” “We’re just waiting on you, we’re lit, ready to go, and we have to do it now!” Those were typical exchanges. (laughs)
One of the things that we talk about is how on most films directors will hand things off to a stunt or action coordinator, but very few of them will go out, put on a pair of sweatpants, and learn what we’re training the rest of their cast. Fortunately, we’re both still in the physical condition where we can do that. We’re nowhere near the shape as Keanu’s in (laughs), but we did the same training and learned the same skill sets so it’s easier to interpolate that on camera and in the moment.
DS: Was it important for you guys to push yourselves to try things that you have never tried before in terms of the action, or was that a necessity of having a lower budget?
DL: I mean, you definitely think in terms of strengths and weaknesses, for sure, but here you also have to look out for conditions and limitations, not just ours but finances, logistics, and what your cast and crew can take. We have a lot of experience in doing that from doing second unit stuff because you’re always expected to do twice as much with half the money and resources.
But with ourselves, it’s more that you have to think differently. It’s not about getting it good, it’s about getting it great. It’s not about what the cool action sequence is, but does it fit the story or move the characters? If you can think in those terms of big directing versus action directing, that’s probably the biggest step you have to make.
DS: You guys are the quarterbacks for this film, so it seems like more of a pleasing challenge since second unit work doesn’t often get much credit for what they do.
DL: But, I mean, in a way that’s also one of the benefits of second unit directing, too. A movie could do good or do bad, as long as we deliver, and help out the studio, and deliver a great action sequence, and you help the film get made, you get more of a foreman position than the inventor position. By that same token, the anonymity is a great plus, you know? It’s a good living. It’s a great job. You get to travel all over the world, and you can jump to a lot of different genres and shows. One day you’re in Africa riding elephants. The next day you’re doing blue screen. The next day you’re shooting a car chase in Toronto. You never know what it holds.
It’s not as thankless as you’d think, but you don’t get as much credit as the first unit, but if you work on the first unit you have to be prepared to get blamed or thanked for everything. Both are good. This are nice, though.