Let’s just get this out of the way—John Wick is awesome.
You mention Keanu Reeves nowadays and some people will get misty-eyed for the years of old; others will giggle and think of new backgrounds to place Sad Keanu On A Bench. (Yes, that’s a real thing.) There's absolutely nothing for Keanu to be sad about now, though. John Wick—about a retired assassin on a bloodthirsty revenge mission after some goons kill his dog—is a slick, big-hearted body count bonanza that deserves the largest audience possible.
And to help sell the film, we got Reeves to come up with his own hashtag:
I'll go off of the character, because I think of [John Wick] as a revenge tale, but I also think of it as [a movie about] reclaiming your life. So... John Wick, #RECLAIM!
In Austin, Tex. last month (for the essential genre film bash Fantastic Fest), Complex senior video director Jonathan Lees hung out with the film’s directors, David Leitch and Chad Stahelski (both of whom are veteran stuntmen), co-star Adrianne Palicki, and the “sad boy” himself, Keanu Reeves, to chat about New York filmmaking, memes, stunt work, and the best reason for revenge ever.
First, I want to talk about the action movies of old. What inspired you, David and Chad, to return to the '60s/'70s school of lean, mean action thrillers with astronomical body counts?
David Leitch: One of the biggest inspirations for the film was Point Blank. We watched it on a loop in our office and there are a couple homages to that [in John Wick].
Chad Stahelski: Charles Bronson, Steve McQueen, Lee Marvin—we’re big fans of that whole time period.
What’s the little special touch in those films that you transitioned into the world of John Wick?
Stahelski: Streamlined minimalism. The shots are simple. It's all about the character and you see what he’s going through, but it’s also about the pauses, the uncomfortable silences. Not cramming a character’s story down someone’s throat, which I don’t think we’ll be accused of.
Leitch: No, we’re stripping out a lot of the story and just making it about the character. I mean, it’s called John Wick—it’s really about this guy’s very simple journey. We just didn’t want to clutter it. It’s gratifying it in its own right, in its simplicity.
While watching John Wick, I related it to comic books and graphic novels—every person in the film has a backstory that we're not seeing. Whether is was Adrienne’s character, or the hotel lobby guy, everyone has a story.
Stahelski: Everybody knows John Wick. We’re very concise about learning about John through everybody else. And just through the way Adrienne looks at him, the way [the character] Nyquist talks about him, the way Ian McShane talks to him. You should learn about John through everybody else’s reaction to his name, and how there’s a respect, yet fear.
Speaking of comic books, Adrianne, your brother writes for comics, right?
Adrianne Palicki: Yes, my older brother is a comic book writer. We actually just wrote one together recently, and we're trying to make it into a TV series as we speak. This movie feels very genre, comic-book-esque. Just the style, the coloring, how it moves. It does feel…
A little surreal?
Beyond your love for comics in print, are you attracted to that kind of material as far as movies are concerned? To where you're like, “Yes, sign me up”?
Palicki: Yes, I love doing action films. It’s fun to get to play such strong female characters, and in the comic book world the female characters are very strong. It kind of goes hand in hand.
Leitch: In terms of all the other characters, there are hints of a bigger world but we didn’t feel like we had to explain it. We wanted to leave it mysterious, and, like a comic book, leave it open for future incarnations of John Wick. We don’t insult the audience; they understand there is a world and they have rules. We don’t have to explain the minutia. It’s actually cool that we just open the door and you get to peek in voyeuristically.
Stahelski: Look at Clint Eastwood in The Good, The Bad And The Ugly—there is so much back-story unsaid there. We’re big fans of leaving it to your imagination. We just give you some gold coins, and then it's, “Where do the gold coins come from?” We’ll get to that. Have your imagination do some work there.
As far as Adrianne’s character is concerned, she is gorgeous but also very evil.
Palicki: Ms. Perkins is so evil! As far as an assassin, she’s the epitome of what you think. She's soulless and ultimately will just do anything for the check. But then you have somebody like John Wick, who you’re absolutely rooting for, and you’re like, "Kill everyone!"
Yes! Keanu, there’s something I gotta tell you: I’m a beagle owner.
Keanu Reeves: Oh, this must be tough. This movie must have been hard for you.
So tough. It's the best reason for retribution ever.
Reeves: Having the dog that your dying wife gifted you so that you wouldn’t be alone killed in front of you by home invaders and then they steal your car!
Yeah, stealing the ‘69 Mustang is whatever, right? It’s all about the dog!
Reeves: I think it just lets us forgive John Wick for all of the berserking that goes on after that.
Oh, you mean the 185 people you kill?
Reeves: No, I think I only deal with like 75 people. [Laughs.]
David and Chad, you guys both worked with Keanu before on The Matrix. You’re both stunt coordinators and stunt actors. So to up the ante, you want to bring it to a level that maybe you guys hadn’t reached before. What kind of boundary-pushing techniques did you guys want to achieve in John Wick?
Leitch: Basically we torture them in training for three months. [Laughs.]
Palicki: It was hard for me. I can’t even imagine how it was for this guy, Mr. Keanu Reeves—he was in every scene. I had plenty of prep time to get ready, learning judo and jujitsu, I had about two weeks to learn the choreography for our huge fight scene, and he comes on like four hours before, because he has no time to learn anything. He’s in every single scene and he learns the whole fight sequence in about four hours.
Reeves: The bar got set really high, which is great. They were interested in integrating into this film what they call "gun-fu," working with the weapons, and with jujitsu and judo. You can do that close quarters, also be thrown, throw people, and some of the MMA stuff is, again, jujitsu-oriented. They were interested in seeing transitions, seeing escapes, seeing locks, seeing holds, and get there in inventive ways.
Stahelski: Coming from a stunt coordinator background, you can go big action. Like, you can stunt double anybody. You can make the action insane, you can have them jump off 30 story buildings, and through fireballs. Our goal was to make great action with Keanu. Big difference. So, in order to do that you need a cast member who's going to go through the torture. You’re asking a regular human being to become superhuman in a couple of months.
There’s no trick to it—it’s a guy living in a gym six to eight hours a day, living on a diet, basically getting the crap kicked out of him through every jujitsu, judo, and martial art coach that we could pull from our deep, dark cavern of talent. He had to survive that, which means no drinking. That’s getting on the treadmill, that’s stretching everyday, that’s choreography after choreography, after choreography. It’s a big deal. Not a lot of guys can do that.
Leitch: And when we knew we had Keanu, we knew we could we could do it. He’s gone down that road before and he’s not scared.
When you learn all these techniques, do you kind of feel like you’re going to snap in real life and accidently use one of them?
Palicki: I definitely feel stronger walking down the streets at night in Los Angeles. [Laughs.] My brother and I always battle whenever we see each other. Coming home recently was the first time that I could throw him over my shoulder, which he’s been doing to me for years, so to be able to get him and throw him on the ground was awesome.
Stahelski: Choreography is different than real martial arts.
Leitch: Yes, in martial arts you learn to have restraint.
Stahelski: Keanu is really proficient in a lot of his things, and he takes it seriously. In his downtime he's still interested in his martial arts and cinematic martial arts, which is great.
Reeves: There’s, like, that cool slide into a guy, into a scissor lock. I’m throwing him down, then shooting someone in the face. They really gave some opportunities for some specialized training. Their hope was just to have me have these skills and go do it in a day.
What was the knockout scene for you as far as execution?
Reeves: I think it’s that sequence in the nightclub with John comes through the doorway and clears the room. Performing that was a real challenge, but fun.
Russian bathhouses get such a bad rap.
Reeves: I know but...the champagne, the hot water, the girls, the ambience. That sequence for me was really cool.
I want to talk a little but about New York. You guys chose to paint it up a bit and take us out of the realism. Can you talk about the difficulties of filming in New York nowadays, and why you wanted take that approach?
Stahelski: We chose New York. New York was central to the story. Due to budgets, we looked at all kinds of different cities. But with the mythology vibe, we wanted an underworld. If you're really thinking about when you walk around downtown Manhattan, it's subterranean. If you look up it’s a vertical city. Our DP was insistent that we shoot there; we wanted to do anamorphic shots and stuff. It's the only place that you can be above ground and feel like you’re below. What other city has that kind of vibe? Visually it’s stunning.
Leitch: It’s very difficult because of the rules and regulations in New York City, and rightfully so. Shooting there is becoming a political issue; people don’t want trailers and cars blocking their streets. They don’t want gunfire in the streets, so it’s hard to do an action movie there.
Stahelski: We can’t use what we use in LA. We can’t use full loads of blanks; we had to do a lot of CG muzzle flashes.
Leitch: You can’t go over the speed limit even if you block off the street. That’s hard if you’re trying to do a car chase. You go to a city and you lock down the streets, and you have the stunt drivers go bananas. That was not happening on John Wick.
Stahelski: And it’s very expensive, super expensive.
Leitch: Speaking to the surreal nature of it, I think the film's visual style was intentional to keep the tones, so we can go along on this ride. It's sort of glorified violence, but we're in a fever dream, this wish fulfillment fever dream and we're watching John's experience, but it's kind of fun. We're letting the audience off the hook.
Stahelski: We wanted a hyper-real world. Our big thing is that we wanted to create a club where New Yorkers would go: “Where’s that club? I want to go to that place. Where’s that bar? Where’s that spa?” We looked forever to find those places, and through the combination of all these locations we wanted to build that. We wanted Viggo’s place, which was an empty loft when we found it, to look surreal. We didn’t just want that mansion out on Long Island—we wanted this really trippy high-rise that we had to piece together with three different locations. New York is insane—we just had to bring that out.
Leitch: So many opportunities and so many problems, but it’s worth it.
You have very well-dressed people in this film. How hard is it to fight in those amazing suits?
Stahelski: Luca Mosca was our costume supervisor and he was great. They’re modified—they look great, but they’re functional. But, jeez, I don’t know. It was hard to fight in suits.
Leitch: As stuntmen we fight in those suits all the time. But talking about visual style, it was one of those things that gave us this classiness that we wanted through the whole movie. Who really puts on a suit to kill 12 to 82 people? John Wick does it.
Palicki: If I were going to go kill someone, it’d be in jeans and a T-shirt. [Laughs.]
Stahelski: We wanted panache. We wanted something special.
Keanu, you’ve obviously been the focus of Internet memes recently. What do you think the one for this film is going to be? I know my personal one.
Reeves: What’s that? Let’s hear yours!
”Don’t Fuck With Keanu’s Dog!” I guarantee you there will be GIFs.
Reeves: I’ve to get a dog then. [Laughs.] Don’t fuck with John Wick’s dog!
But you know they’re gonna put your name in it.
Reeves: Yeah, alright, but hopefully they just enjoy the show.
What would be your own hashtag for this film?
Reeves: I'll go off of the character, because I think of it as a revenge tale, but I also think of it as [a movie about] reclaiming your life. So I would say it’s #RECLAIM.
That’s it! Simple, yet effective.
Reeves: Yeah! "John Wick, #RECLAIM!"