In his 25-plus years in the film industry, stuntman-turned-director Chad Stahelski has seen every variation of fight sequence imaginable. So with each instalment in the John Wick action series – starring Keanu Reeves as a seemingly unkillable hit man who leaves an endless trail of bloodied bodies in his wake – he has tried to do something fresh and different.
That went triple for the just-released third film, subtitled Parabellum, which boasts the highest kill count of the franchise so far and some of the most balletic and flat-out bananas fight scenes in recent cinematic history.
“I get asked a lot, ‘Do you sit around trying to figure out how to top yourselves?’” Stahelski says. “Honestly that’s not even part of the thought process. Keanu and I and my stunt team just get bored very easily. So we try to be non-repetitive in all our work.”
In the case of the film’s opening fight scene, avoiding repetition meant pitting Wick against a supersized foe – played by 2.20m NBA centre Boban Marjanovic, who plays for the Philadelphia 76ers – in the unlikeliest of settings: the stacks of the New York Public Library.
Here, Stahelski, stunt coordinator Jojo Eusebio and Marjanovic break down what went into the scene.
Warning: spoilers ahead.
Early in the creative process, as Stahelski, Reeves and the rest of the film’s creative team were starting to spitball about where Wick’s story could go, Stahelski would wander through New York, looking for ideas.
“I spent a lot of time in the New York Public Library trying to do some work because it’s quiet,” Stahelski says. “One day, I was down in the stacks and I thought, ‘This would be a great place for a fight scene.’ ”
A simple brawl in the usually hushed stacks of a library wouldn’t be quite gonzo enough for the Wick universe, though. So to up the ante, Stahelski and his stunt team struck on the idea of making Wick’s opponent a kind of real-life Goliath to his David.
“Chad and I come from a martial arts background and we grew up watching martial arts movies,” Eusebio says. “This was kind of our homage to the (1978) Bruce Lee movie Game Of Death, where he fought Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.”
“A lot of people would avoid using the stacks because it’s difficult to shoot in and it would limit their choreography – you can’t do big flying kicks and stuff like that,” Stahelski says. “We’re kind of the opposite: We think, ‘What’s the hardest situation you can put someone in? And are we smart enough to figure it out?’”
At first, Stahelski was not sure where he could find someone who could tower over Reeves, who at 1.86m is not exactly short. Then producer Basil Iwanyk, who’s a die-hard basketball fan, thought of Marjanovic, who acted in a handful of films and commercials in his native Serbia and radiated a natural charisma.
“Basil goes, ‘You need Boban.’ And I’m like, ‘OK, what’s a Boban?’ ” Stahelski says. “I know absolutely nothing about basketball. But as soon as I heard he had the biggest hands in the NBA, I knew this was the guy I wanted to use. I just imagined him cupping Keanu’s head with his big hand. I was like, ‘OK, make contact and see if he’s interested.’”
Marjanovic was stunned when he heard the John Wick filmmakers wanted to talk to him about doing a scene in the movie.
“One morning I went to practise and there was this message,” Marjanovic says. “I’m like, ‘Are you spelling this right? Is this really John Wick?’”
For the fight sequence, Stahelski knew he wanted to take full advantage of Marjanovic’s imposing size and reach, so he put the 76er through the paces in his stunt studio, 87Eleven, to see what he could do.
“We gave Boban range-of-motion tests, tried a bunch of different moves on him, saw what he was comfortable with and what he was good at, and then we choreographed around what we thought made him look great,” Stahelski says. “Of course, you want to do a lot with hands. So he cups Keanu’s head a lot, holds him, shoves him, Keanu wrenches his finger. I didn’t want to oversell the gag, but I think we did it just enough to make you realise, ‘Oh, this is a big guy.’ ”
In the end, Stahelski and Eusebio designed a complex sequence – which was filmed over the course of one night in the actual New York Public Library stacks – in which Marjanovic’s assassin tries (and, needless to say, fails) to kill Wick, at one point stabbing him in the shoulder with a knife.
“I really stabbed him,” Marjanovic says. “It’s not just a movie. I took my role very serious.” (He’s joking, of course. In reality, the stunt involved a trick half-knife with a digital extension).
The final kill
A key element in devising the sequence was figuring out how the otherwise unarmed Wick could use a simple library book as a deadly weapon to fell his adversary.
“That’s one of the funnest parts of my job – literally we go in every morning and think of what to do with things,” Stahelski says. “When I was in the library with my fight coordinators, we started picking up books and twirling them and coming up with moves. At one point, one of the guys was talking, and I shoved a book in his mouth just to pretend to shut him up. And we’re like, ‘That’s good. Then we’ll turn it and break his jaw.’”
At the climax of the fight, Wick shoves a thick book deep into Marjanovic’s mouth before breaking his giraffe-like neck over it in a final deadly flourish.
“Boban can actually stretch his neck like that, which is fantastic,” Stahelski says. To really sell the stunt, though, involved a bit of subtle CGI and some carefully crafted sound effects.
“When you see the dislocations of the body, there is a little digital enhancement there,” Eusebio says. “But a lot of it was done practically. We try to do everything as in-camera as possible. So we used a soft foam prop book and the guys learned how to fight with it.”
“It tasted so nice,” Marjanovic says. – Los Angeles Times/Tribune News Service