‘John Wick: Chapter 4’ Cinematographer on Painting Beautiful Carnage

“The action sequences aren’t thought of as fights but like a ballet, as if we’re watching actors dancing together,” Dan Laustsen told TheWrap

John Wick 4 First Look Photo
'John Wick 4' (Lionsgate)

In a time when the question “Why do movies look so bad?” is a main point of online media discourse, Lionsgate’s “John Wick” franchise stands out not just because of its genre elements, but because each sequel raises the stakes in terms of raw production value and cinematic splendor.

The latest movie, “John Wick: Chapter 4,” takes place not in empty warehouses, poorly lit apartments or barely populated streets, but in bustling and beautiful locales worldwide. Even an extended exposition sequence deigns to take place in a gorgeous art museum where supporting characters rattle off plot points while walking in front of giant paintings.

Considering the constant challenges of delivering big-screen spectacle while working under COVID-specific restrictions, as well as having a budget that is large but well below the stereotypical MCU installment, TheWrap wanted to know how and why “John Wick: Chapter 4” looks like one of the most visually beautiful Hollywood action movies ever made.

Cinematographer Dan Laustsen, who also shot the last several live-action Guillermo del Toro films, focused on making a visually spectacular action-adventure movie that blended arthouse razzle-dazzle with grindhouse action. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

John Wick 4

What choices did you make to make this film look and feel different than the previous three?
Dan Laustsen: We knew we would have to go big because “John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum” was so cool. I shot the first two sequels and each time you must make it bigger, more powerful and more colorful. We had a lot of discussions about which way we should go with the colors. The last film was mostly set in New York, which has its own life. This time, we were shooting in Berlin and in Paris. Those cities are pretty dark at night so we wanted a strong color palette. Director Chad Stahelski and I decided to focus on green and amber.

It is one of the most gorgeous-looking Hollywood action movies I’ve ever seen.
Thank you so much. It’s Chad, me, Keanu Reeves and [production designer] Kevin Kavanaugh doing the concept. We don’t have to go to the studio [for permission], we are doing this [as a] piece of art.

What choices do you make in terms of where to put the camera and what to cover during the many action scenes?
It’s a collaboration between myself, Chad and Keanu. Chad is a master in terms of blocking, knowing how to move the camera, how to do the stunts and how to get the shots. Our goal was to move the camera as little as possible and to have wide shots when Keanu was doing his thing. However, for example, the sequence in the car garage, we weren’t going handheld but were leaning more into Steadicam.

It’s a much more classical way compared to some other [action films] where you’re shooting everything from the shoulder and you’re not actually sure where you are. We wanted to paint with a camera and painted the light, as well.

One thing which has impressed me is how the franchise has grown in scale and visual opulence. 
For Chad, the action sequences aren’t thought of as fights but rather like a ballet, as if we’re watching actors dancing together.

You previously shot the second and third pictures. Was there a part of this film that stood out as like “We can’t believe we pulled that one off”?
The end of the movie, where there are like five consecutive sequences. We shot those sequences night for day in Paris because we wanted to keep the sunrise consistent. You cannot do that on-location.

Also, there’s a sequence involving a fight in a nightclub amid a waterfall where most of the water is real. We wanted to use as little CGI as possible, so the challenge was lighting for the camera and shooting on cranes and handheld under a big waterfall. It was really complicated, with huge lighting setups. I felt that “Wow, this is this is actually ‘John Wick.’”

There’s a big action scene that plays out like a living approximation to a famous video game. I literally sat there wondering “How did you do that?”
A lot of that is the visual effects team helping the stunt people, but it’s still a huge lighting set-up. We wanted to be able to shoot it 360 degrees, and a lot of the shots are Keanu in the car driving around, which were close-ups. Chad knows exactly where he wants the stunt going. Still, the difficult part was that everything was moving. The camera was moving, the car was moving and the actors were moving. It was complicated, but there were a lot of discussions, a lot of prep and a terrific crew from Germany.

There’s a sequence that is basically conceived as one take where it’s an overhead shot of John Wick going from room to room shooting people.
We shot it in a studio we built in Germany. It’s shot as one take with all the light coming from outside the set. It was one of those sequences where Chad said what he wanted to do and everyone said it was impossible. We did a spider cam shot and the visual effects department helped. It’s one crane shot and one spider cam shot where we are starting on the stairs and flying around.

How many tries did it take you?
We did eight or ten takes. The light must be outside the set. We see the whole set. That’s the challenge when your shots are wide and the entire set is in view.

What do you have coming up next?
I think we’re going to do “Frankenstein” [for Guillermo del Toro and Netflix]. That’s the plan, I can’t wait for that.

“John Wick: Chapter 4” is now playing exclusively in theaters.