In 2014, Keanu Reeves surprised pretty much everyone with John Wick. The story of a hitman who comes out of retirement to take revenge on the Russian gangster who killed his puppy and stole his car, Wick is a violent, kinetic, pulpy tour de force. Basically, John Wick kills everybody he runs into, in the most stylized way possible.
For the sequel, John Wick: Chapter 2, Reeves reteamed with director Chad Stahelski and writer Derek Kolstad. While the stakes are less personal in Chapter 2, the action and violence is bigger, with Stahelski and stunt coordinator J.J. Perry capping the film off with a fight sequence inside a museum exhibit made of shifting, shimmering mirrors. It’s a bullet-happy nod to the iconic Bruce Lee scene from Enter the Dragon, but as Stahelski and Perry explain, putting this much chaos on film requires an incredible amount of planning and precision.
The following interviews have been condensed and edited for clarity.
Chad Stahelski: [The mirror-room fight] is is one of the first ideas I wrote down. Didn't even have a story yet, but I just went, "Yeah we're going to re-do Enter the Dragon. We're going to do Bruce Lee and Mr. Han in the mirror room." That's where it all came from. So, I was like, "How can I make a mirror room better?"
There's a lot of people that were in charge of logistics and money, that were [saying] "You don't want to do that. It's going to be too much money. You're going to kill yourself.” It’s like when you tell them you want to do a scene in the rain. Everybody tries to talk you out of it, because it's more expensive, it's slower, everyone's miserable. It's like, "No, I think I want to do it." Why do it the easy way, right? That's not the John Wick way.
When I hired Dan Laustsen as my cinematographer, we all sat down for the first time, and I go, "All right, I’ve got this wacky idea. Here's what I want to do." I had pulled up everything from fun house mirrors to exhibitions to live art in parks, and we pull up every kind of reflection gag we could think of. If you look in John Wick, I think we did something like 39 scenes with reflections. Every scene opens with a reflection, whether it's in a mirror or in a puddle.
I like duality. John, from moment one, is having an identity crisis. Is he John [the grieving husband], or is he Wick [the assassin]? That's the way we look at it. That's why there's reflections. John's always looking at himself, people are always looking at him as two Johns.
STAGING THE SCENE
Stahelski: We ended up buying two or three dozen dance mirrors, movable mirrors on wheels. When we rented our rehearsal spaces, the stunt team and me, we'd go up there every weekend. We'd move mirrors around, and hold mirrors, and try to figure out where to hold the guns, and all the different gags we could do with it.
J.J. Perry: We're huge fans of Bruce Lee's, but none of us had ever filmed in a room like that before, where you're constantly looking out for your reflection. [The actual set] was in New Jersey, and we were staying in New York. So for about a week and a half, my team and I would have to go out to New Jersey after work and spend a few hours in that [set], because we wouldn't be able to disturb the construction of it. We'd have to go after hours and figure out angles. You're looking into a reflection that is a reflection that is a reflection of the real people. So we were trying to find those kind of targets for Chad, way back in preproduction.
Stahelski: The worst thing you do is come up with what I call “fragment ideas.” "I want to do a fight with a mirror room. Okay, now you guys go figure it out." I know when I want to do a crane shot. I know this piece of choreography is a top shot. Well, if the ceiling's only 10 feet high, and it's four feet to get the camera and the head of the crane in there, you have to be subterranean to shoot a six-foot-tall actor doing a fight scene. So we devise the choreography and the shots [together]. Everyone was on the same page. We started prepping all of our action sequences three months before anybody even unpacked a camera. And unlike a lot of other crews, my cameramen were in rehearsals. My cinematographer went to stunt rehearsals. My production designer came to the stunt rehearsals. Everybody knew we were making an action movie: "What can we do to make it better?"
Perry: In preproduction, when we're training Keanu in those three and a half months of prep, we've already come up with, let's say, 30 moves that we love. Each one of those moves is plug-and-play. Little bits that are great throws, that transition to another move, that we know we want to be in the movie, and that no one's done before. So we train Keanu on those, even if we don't know where they're going to go.
Now we go on the location scouts. So when I got to the museum with Chad, he chose what he thought would visually be the best. Now I've got to come up with a motion path. [Wick’s] going to shoot this guy, this guy, this guy, this guy, this guy. And we do what's called a previs. We just take a DSLR and shoot it and we put it in the computer and we cut it, put muzzle-flash in it, and blood-splatter.
We get Keanu's double to do that with the same stunt guys that he's going to use on the day [we shoot the final scene]. So those guys have already had a dry run. It takes four or five takes to get one take right, so those guys have a hell of a lot of rehearsal time getting it right. So when Keanu comes, he gets a few rehearsals on that specific take, and then we just plug-and-play that. There it is. That would be the recipe.
So we strategically place one of those 30 iconic throws or transitions somewhere in the choreography, and then we string it together with some great gunplay, and that's how we weave together one of those action sequences.
HIDING IN A ROOM OF REFLECTIONS
Stahelski: The gunfight itself was the easy part. Choreographing how to hide the cameras, with the acting, the gun parts, Keanu just walking and stalking… It was the better part of three months to get all [the blocking] done.
Perry: That was a really difficult one, because that's uncharted territory for all of us, having to deal with reflections. How to use the mirrors better, and being creative. So there was a lot of swimming around for that.
Stahelski: I’d say it was a 60 / 40 split [between practical and digital effects]. We did as much as I believe was humanly possible [in-camera]. We used old-school tricks of putting people [in a spot, and] moving mirrors behind other mirrors to refract that; people hiding under black. I mean, as much practical as you could, from back in the day, where Orson Welles did it in Lady from Shanghai. We stole ideas from [director] Robert Clouse in Enter the Dragon, all the way up to modern-day VFX, like Zack Snyder did in Sucker Punch, or in Contact. We searched every little gag we could, and pretty much emptied the bag and invented some of our own.
I think we were done shooting [the sequence] in five days. I shot the entire film in less than 50 days, so you cannot miss. The problem is what most people do is come in, and you can shoot for 75 days, but you get there and only get five [camera] setups a day, because your guys don't know what's going on. It’s an 8 o'clock call, and by 10 o'clock, you're still trying to figure out your shot, because no one's done their research. You didn't do the good location scouts. You didn't do your homework.
You’re never going to break the mold, you’re never going to do something better, if you’re struggling to get it done. Keanu's very aware of this. The more time I spend fucking around, the less takes he gets: in acting, in action, in mannerisms. He knows that the better I have my shit together, and the DP's got his shit together, the more time he gets to nail it. We're protecting our on-camera team, who get in more time. That what prep does for you.
So… John Wick: Chapter Three?
Stahelski: From a filmmaker’s perspective, pretty much all I can take from it right now is, I love Keanu Reeves. [J.J. and I] love our crew. They're guys we've been working with for 20 years, and it's so cool to work in this capacity with people that you love.
So to spend two years of my life on a project, would I go back and do it again? Absolutely. Do I love working with Keanu Reeves? Yes. Do we love the property? Yeah, it's a fun world. We can do whatever we want. It's actionized; we can do a fist-fight in helicopters. We can do whatever we want. We're not bound by any rules. It's our world to make up.
Perry: Remember I told you I have 30 moves per person? I’m at about 15 or 16 already [for the sequel]. I’m ready to go.
Stahelski: We're film buffs. We're genre lovers. Could we spend another year and a half with Keanu Reeves doing cool gun-fu moves across the world?
Perry: Fuck yeah.