Like all the John Wick movies before it, John Wick: Chapter 4 is built around action sequences designed to challenge the way movie action is normally choreographed and shot. Director Chad Stahelski was a longtime stunt man and then stunt coordinator before making his directorial debut with John Wick in 2014, and he’s turned the franchise into a showcase for ambitious fight sequences.
One of the most stunning combat scenes in John Wick: Chapter 4 has battle-weary assassin John Wick (Keanu Reeves) charging from room to room through an abandoned, decaying building, with the camera tracking his progress in a long, unbroken shot from overhead as he guns down attacker after attacker. It’s a particularly startling shot because it moves so quickly, with so many clashes and quick shifts in direction. And John Wick is using incendiary rounds, setting some of the combatants ablaze and leaving them to burn as he keeps moving forward. Polygon spoke to Stahelski and his stunt crew about how they pulled off that shot.
[Ed. note: This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.]
Scott Rogers, second unit director: Chad Stahelski, our fearless leader and director, used to be an actual fighter — like, in the ring. And he didn’t punch hard enough to win; he punched as hard as he physically could. So every John Wick movie, he’s making the best movie he can, and then within the movie, he’s making the best scene he can.
So those of us that are charged with doing the action, that’s what we’re doing in each scene, whether it’s in the club scene with the falls and the fights and the water and the dogs and all of that, that’s no less or more challenging than the cars hitting the people. There were none where we were like, Oh, this one’s easy, we’ll just phone this one in, or We’ll take a break on this one. While you’re shooting a scene, you’re rehearsing a scene, and you’re prepping another scene. So it’s all happening at the same time.
Stephen Dunlevy, stunt coordinator: Once we started shooting, it was 100 days of just continuous action. We were doing the Osaka sequence while prepping the top shot in France, and also trying to find time to get Keanu driving. And from the Osaka sequence, we went straight into the Berlin nightclub, and then Jordan on top of that. So it just all became a giant, constant action sequence.
Rogers: Chad had this vision — he showed us a promo for a video game. It was [like], I want to do this — this is cool, because you see all the characters, and in storytelling terms, it allows you for the first time to see what’s coming to John Wick, and what he’s got to deal with, before he sees it. So there’s a little foreshadowing — you see the guys coming from every direction, as opposed to being [set up] horizontally, where you don’t know what’s around the corner.
Chad Stahelski, director: The game was called Hong Kong Massacre. I love game culture — I’m not a big gamer myself, but I love the storylines. I love the visuals in Ghost of Tsushima, Assassin’s Creed, all these kinds of games. And we know a lot of people in that industry. I think it’s interesting that between video games, animation, manga, Asian cinema, we’re all kind of related. We all steal from each other; we’re all seeing how crazy the other one’s gonna get.
Rogers: That whole set was built for that specific purpose. We flew a camera that was designed — and the camera moves were designed — in correlation with the choreography. So we spent a week with camera [operators] and stuntmen. And this great French stunt coordinator, Laurent [Demianoff], was developing the fight choreography and the movement, while we worked on the camera movement to get what Chad was looking for, and to stay also in the Wick world, where Keanu is actually doing the work.
Stahelski: I knew I wanted to do a top shot. I’m not a big oner guy — I don’t really believe in that so much, unless there’s something to offer, if you can see things from a different perspective. We did some testing; I wanted to do all the muzzle flashes on a vertical plane, so it felt different. I was going down the rabbit hole of trying to find references, so I [went online to] type in, like, “aerial shots,” “top shots,” just to see what everybody else’s were like. At the top was Steven Spielberg’s Minority Report.
So I tried “video games top shot,” and way down at the bottom was Hong Kong Massacre. And I [looked at gameplay footage] and liked the way they did it. They did a lot more speed ramping, which I thought was really cool. I loved it for that. It’s just, when you’re dealing with a two-and-a-half-hour movie already, I had to be careful where I did my slow motions.
Rogers: It was so intricate. It was like doing a musical, because we had a count. And the camera was in a very specific place at a very specific time when [each action beat] had to take place. So as we were shooting it, Steve was calling out, “48! 49! 50!” And everybody knew: We’re on 20; I need to be here at 25. I need to be there, because the camera’s going to be at a very specific spot. So it was really linked into [the camera coordination] — there wasn’t a lot of room for change once we set everything in motion.
Dunlevy: It was the most painful part of that sequence for everyone, having to listen to my voice, just counting. And when you say words for so long, they stop making sense. The numbers just made no sense to me, saying the same numbers over and over again. But every beat [was crucial], because you’ve got people on one side of a wall and Keanu on the other, and they’re having to do a dance. Everyone needed to know where they needed to be to match up with the camera on any given beat. I think we went up to over 200 from memory.
Rogers: And they had to act like they didn’t know what was happening. So there’s a whole choreography where, before they were going to interact with Keanu, they had to be on camera, acting like they’re looking for him, not knowing where he is. So there are a lot of intricate, smaller moments that you’d have to look at it a lot to pick up.
Stahelski: We definitely were inspired by several games and films, along with our own aesthetic. I mean, we’ve done tons of top shots before, just never extended like that. Most people don’t have that opportunity, because they need to switch to [stunt] doubles, or fix the wire work because of the SFX or the practical effects. Here, those are real guys being lit on fire. That’s not an easy thing to do and have the guy lay perfectly still while on fire. So if any one stunt guy messes up, we have to start from the beginning again. So it’s what you’d call a director show-off shot.
Rogers: The funny thing about the shot is that for the most part, you’re at the top, you’re looking at the top of Keanu’s head. It could really be anybody. But it wasn’t. It was Keanu — he very much wanted to do that whole, entire sequence.
Stahelski: I’m trying to show you how good my stunt team is, how good Keanu Reeves is. And by that time in the movie, I didn’t want you to have action fatigue. So I’m trying to change it up visually. We did it partly because we thought the audience would love it. And we do it partly because I really believed me and my crew would love it. We’re fans as well.
John Wick: Chapter 4 is in theaters now.