“John Wick: Chapter 4” is here. And it is blowing everybody away, as is evidenced by its bone-crunching, franchise-best $70 million+ opening weekend.
There’s a reason for its oversized success; in the fourth entry of the franchise that follows disaffected assassin John Wick (Keanu Reeves) as he traverses a vast network of underworld weirdos with mythological overtones, the movie takes on a grander, more elegant expanse. The sequel clocks in at close to three hours, without a moment wasted. John travels around the world, trying to clear his name and get out from under the High Table, the villainous governing body responsible for so much of his pain. Director Chad Stahelski, a former stuntman and second unit director who has been with the series since its inception, pushes the movie (and John himself) to the absolute breaking point.
TheWrap spoke with Stahelski shortly after those opening weekend numbers came through, about whether or not he’d be game to return for another entry, what his reference points were for this film and the importance of dogs in the franchise. (Stahelski is a big dog lover.)
Light spoilers for “John Wick: Chapter 4” follow.
Lionsgate has already made noise about wanting a fifth movie. Where is your head at?
Drew I’m in Manhattan Beach in my office trying to just get my feet back on the ground. Keanu and I, on the opening weekend, we just kind of veg out. I woke up Sunday, it was like 7 am, and I went right to “The Good, The Bad and the Ugly,” “Man from Nowhere.” And did a bunch of “Ted Lasso” and then ended the evening with “Up,” “Ratatouille” and “Shrek.”
And then you wake up Monday and we still think of ourselves as a little action movie that is just a love letter/tribute kind of thing that no one’s going to see. And you wake up to the box office that, you know, we’re very fortunate to have had, with a critical – and more importantly, audience reviews – which was awesome. You do something that you love. I’ve watched the movie 100 times and I like it because it’s all the genre-mashing, obviously, that we did. And just to let other people nerd out on the same stuff, it’s cool. Feels like we got some company in this little world of ours. You just take it in for a sec. It is incredibly surreal to do something that you love, regardless of what the overall response is. And then you have some success in it.
Keanu and I got together yesterday, we found this really nice bottle of Hibiki 30-year-old Scotch and we always say, if we have finished the movie, it’s a sip. If you get a good opening weekend, it’s a sip. If we hit the number that we’re supposed to hit domestic, we have finished the bottle. I’m happy to report we had our first sips yesterday. And it was a little early, but it was good.
That’s just the approach we always take. It’s just, you know, let’s not get too ahead of ourselves. We’re not trying to create universes and franchises; we just want to do a good movie. And it’s weird, like Keanu has rubbed off on me so much in the last 20 years as someone that endearing does. You hear so many stories about him in Hollywood about what a nice guy is. You know what it is, he’s f–in’ pure. He just loves what he f–ing does. And that’s so related to the audience. There’s a reason he’s so f–ing nice to everybody. He is truly grateful. He knows every one of those people that wants an autograph or a picture is [part of that audience]. He loves that feedback.
Keanu loves that energy. There’s nothing in “John Wick” that we do or shoot that he or I don’t love. We love deserts. We love museums. We love martial arts. We love cars. It’s just a love letter. When you have, you know, I guess what you call a successful response, you feel incredibly grateful. But then you just look at each other like, thank God, you know, the last 10 years have been magical. I wish I had words to tell you. It’s a weird feeling.
Is there a thought that you might be pushing your luck if you come back for one more?
I don’t know. We haven’t had time to think about it. I’m sure after you do like one of your interviews or your articles, I’m sure you can look back in your career a little. What would your three milestones be? I guarantee you they’re not going to be a Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday of the same week. There’s the opening salvo, the first time you got a shot or a break. And then there’s the time you stepped out on your own, you did your own thing. And then there’s a time where you did something that you didn’t see coming, but you did it and it made a difference to you or someone you love or to someone above you that helped you out, and they were all spacious. Why do you think that is? It’s not just timing, it’s because you evolved as a human you got better.
Everybody’s got a good movie in them but you’ve got to get through the 100 shitty ones first. I’ve got to get through all my shitty stuff too. You see me do a “John Wick” every three years. What do you think is going on during those three years? I’ve got to get better. How many franchises do the same movie over and over again? Can you really see an improvement in the director or the cast between the movies? The best compliment you could give us is you go watch the first “John Wick.” You think it’s cool. And you see “John Wick: Chapter 2” and go, “Holy f–k, they learned something.” And “3” and “4.”
You should go back and watch the first one or”2” and you go, “Okay, well, at least he figured lighting out. At least he figured out multiple storylines. At least he figured editing, at least you figured out the music a little bit better.” I’d like to think that we evolved. In order to evolve, I need space and time. And you know, it’s been a day. There’s a reason we didn’t do “4” and “5” back-to-back. It’s because I’m not a good enough director to give you two individual cool movies. I could have given you one four-hour movie, but it would have been the same f–ing thing think cut in half. I don’t think that was fair. I’m just not that good. I’m sure other directors are. I wouldn’t know what to do. I’d be bored out of my f–ing mind. If you asked me about “5,” it’s like, if you put a gun in my head right now, you might as well pull the trigger, I need a little time to figure this out.
Can you talk about some of your references for “John Wick: Chapter 4?” It’s fun to watch a movie that feels inspired by both “Barry Lyndon” and “Grand Theft Auto.”
Tell me if I get too philosophical. But when you start directing, like I was a second unit guy… I was focused so much on becoming a director, but I really wasn’t sure what that meant. The term changes the more you do, and again, you’d have to ask way more experienced guys than me what it means to them. But every little thing matters. Hopefully in “4,” you see the attention to detail. We do a lot of nonverbal communication. So every gesture means something. Look at how Keanu or Bill move their eyes. We’re very aware of when to use a close-up, we’re very aware of when to pull back on that wide to see Ian walk across the Louvre. Those are all very conscious choices, from the kind of whiskey they drink to the swords to the firearms to the angles to the timing on the jokes in the stair falls to the wardrobe. Bill’s special knot, that triple Windsor knot. What paintings are in the Louvre. All these little things are a lot to pay attention to. Picture for three years your attention to detail on everything and all your influences.
“Barry Lyndon” was just one. I think I have like over 300 references in this movie. From “Barry Lyndon” to David Lean to Tarantino to Spielberg to “Zatoichi” to Kurosawa with “Yojimbo,” “Seven Samurai.” Pick a Leone movie – “Fistful of Dollars,” “For a Few Dollars More” with the watch. They’re all in there. You have this thing going and then the movie stops. But your brain doesn’t stop working that way. I finished “3” and I’m trying to learn to be a better director from all the other people that are my mentors. But in that time I stopped directing. Where does that attention go? I sit at a coffee shop and I watch. I watch a family for like hours. Hopefully not too creepy. But I just love the way people sit. I love the body language, the gestures, I walk around everywhere. I was just in New York and I was at the Met for an entire day. My only day off and I was at the Met the whole day. Just people watching and looking at sculptures and art and stuff.
The point is, the more you direct, the more that affects your worldview and the more it affects how you see life. And that’s the true gift because I was asleep for most of my life. Like you just live your own life. You don’t give a f–k. Now I see cars go down the street and I’m just at a stoplight watching the reflections come off the puddle or how a windshield wiper goes or how a guy is hanging out the window smoking and how he flicks the ash. I just know everything I see could be in the movie. When you’re doing movies like “John Wick,” literally every martial artwork that I do, every time I teach Jiu Jitsu, every time I see a sword instruction, or I go shooting at the range with competitors, I know everything I see if I pay attention, there’s going to be these little things that are going to make my next film better. You know what I mean? All this comes down to like, I love that time. I see the world differently now being a director 10 years later. And that’s the most incredible part. I read books differently. Everything has affected my life and directing. If you asked me what my favorite project is going to be, my answer is going to be an obtuse whichever one I do next. What’s the next one? It’s going to be the most interesting one. I guess I just want that time to be a little nerd again and go figure it out.
Let’s talk about the dog in “John Wick: Chapter 4.”
I had some really good mentors about how to develop character, whether or not you think I’m very good at it. But I had great instruction. And it’s always the dilemma. You have like look at the problems of action. You’re trying to build up this incredible badass. This individual who cares nothing about human life. He’s apathetic but yet you’ve got to show a soft spot, like he’s got to love his kid or he’s got to fight for the cause but he’s out for redemption or whatever you want to call it. How do you get this in? And like we’re in “John Wick” obviously – we’re big on the show don’t tell, silent movie nonverbal communication thing. We have signs all over this place that say show, don’t tell.
We’re like, Well, how do we immediately endure endear the audience to this guy who is going to go kill 86 people? In the original script, what hooked David Leitch and myself at the time we read it was the fact that, not that we had a puppy or the ridiculousness of a dog, was it was a genius way … Like being dog lover. If you’re not a dog lover or a dog owner, you won’t get it. You are a different human being with that dog. Like I am this Hollywood action director guy. My movie’s opening and people are saying it’s this great action movie. You know what I was doing Sunday morning? I was picking up dog s–t. That’s the big action director persona. My point is you are a different human being with that animal when you come home no matter what your day is and how badass you think you are. You start baby-talking and you couldn’t be happier when that dog comes wagging his tail to you.
We thought it was a genius idea to get inside a character by using the puppy. It’s much like looking at a love interest or a child or a newborn or anything that projects innocence and purity. That’s how you get a reflection of who the guy really is. If we didn’t put a puppy in the first one, he’s just a killing machine. Yes, it’s a bummer that his wife died of natural causes. But there is no one out there that questions the catharsis or the catalyst that starts that rage when the puppy dies. It’s not about keeping the dog gag alive in “John Wick.” If I don’t do that dog gag with him saving the dog with Shamir [Anderson, who plays a mysterious figure known as The Tracker] looking on… That one moment let you know who John is, who Shamir is, what their relationship is. It’s so much more than just a dog gang. It’s like, “You were my f–ing brother. And if nothing else, you’re a f–ing dog lover and f–k this guy that hurt this dog.” When Chidi dies, you f–ing cheer. The entire movie is meant for that one moment. All three films build up to that moment, when John chooses to save a dog. That’s redemption over four films right there. That’s why.
“John Wick: Chapter 4” is in theaters now.