Having already met with rave reviews from its Fantastic Fest premiere, the Keanu Reeves-led action thriller John Wick lands in theaters and IMAX later this month. If you’ve already seen the trailer for the sleek and stylish revenge thriller (if not, check it out right here), you may be surprised to learn that it marks the very first feature from directors David Leitch and Chad Stahleski, who also own and operate 87Eleven Action Design, a Hollywood choreography studio that builds fight sequences and trains stuntmen for some of Hollywood’s biggest blockbusters.
“I’ve been shooting my own little fight scenes as long as I can remember,” Stahleski tells us on a recent visit to the 87Eleven facilities. “[David] has been shooting his own movies since before we were even stunt guys.”
The early ’90s, Stahleski recalls, was a very different time for Hollywood stuntmen, particularly for those like he and Leitch, who specialized in martial arts.
“When we started stunts,” Stahleski says, “if you said you did martial arts, you were the nerdy guy. Now, you’re the cool guy. Now your girlfriend does it, your sister does it, your brother does it, your little niece does it. There’s a junior MMA. It’s a very mainstream thing now.”
That’s due, in part, to the influence of one very key film that left its mark on pop culture in the late 90s and that Leitch and Stahleski had a significant hand in.
“All of a sudden,” says Stahleski, “we hook up with these guys called the Wachowskis. We did the Matrix movies with them and that’s how we started second-unit directing Then, when ‘The Matrix’ came out, everyone was like, ‘We need fight scenes! We need fight scenes!’ Somehow we had that perfect storm in timing. Martial arts guys from birth who love Japanese animation and Hong Kong movies. We were trained. We had really good stunt coordinators train us when we came up. We were very lucky.”
Today, the pair say, there’s not a movie that hits the screen that doesn’t contain some element of martial arts, even if it may not seem like it.
“Jesus,” laughs Stahleski when asked about the most unusual skill his team has been asked for. “I just had a guy come out of an elephant’s vagina. I just had a guy ride a zebra.”
Between the pair and their team, 87Eleven has training in roughly a dozen different martial arts styles, making use of a group training process that, by encouraging multiple people to learn multiple techniques, makes training go exponentially faster. That’s very important when designing fights for an audiences with discerning taste.
“Audiences have gotten a lot smarter in terms of story,” says Stahleski, “but in choreography as well People want more out of their movies these days. I know I do.”
“It’s choreography,” says Leitch, “It’s all in the tone.”
“Martial art style? The actual moves? That doesn’t define it,” Stahleski explains. “It’s the tone that defines it. If you have Jet Li do, say, Snake or Eagle style, that guy can make it look like a ‘Bourne’ movie. He’ll pull it off when he finger-jabs nerve points all of you. Maybe, Arnold Schwarzenegger couldn’t. Arnold Schwarzenegger with a battle axe? Then he can.”
“Shooting a fight is like shooting any other scene,” adds Leitch. “You have to tell a story using a very specific choreography.”
“There’s also the question of whether it should be funny or not,” Stahleski continues. “Jet Li and Jackie Chan have, essentially, the same moves, but it’s a question of what travels over.”
John Wick, which balances extreme violence with deadpan humor, is clearly designed for an audience well-versed in big screen action.
“We wanted to set a tone of the movie where you could have fun and you could experience the violence of the choreography we wanted to show in a non-threatening way,” says Leitch. “It was really important for us to find beats of humor and to make sure the world was heightened and had a comic book sensibility so that we could get away with the choreography we were trying to demonstrate.”
“Shoot one guy in the head?” asks Stahleski. “Not so funny. Two guys in the head? Not so funny. 84 guys in the head? Pretty funny! We purposefully put the guys in red shirts. It’s meant for people that ‘get it.’ If you’re taking it too seriously, you’re not going to get it.”
During our visit to 87Eleven, Leitch and Stahleski allowed this reporter to get up close and personal with their craft. Following a training session and some choreography rehearsal, they allowed me to act out a choreographed sequence with their team. The video, which you can check out in the player below, also features an original score by DJ Dylan Eiland (Le Castle Vania), who scored John Wick with Tyler Bates.
Also starring Michael Nyqvist, Alfie Allen, Adrianne Palicki, Dean Winters, Bridget Moynahan, Ian McShane, John Leguizmo and Willem Dafoe, John Wick hits theaters and IMAX on October 24.