‘John Wick’ Guns: How the Franchise Balances Creativity and Safety
The “Dragon’s Breath” ammunition is real, but the nose flares are VFX – in the world of wick, led by director and former stuntman Chad Stahelski and his team.
Of the many weapons used by the legendary assassin John Wick to kill hundreds of bad guys over the course of four films (a book, a pencil, a wire, a car door, a horse, an axe, a drum), the gun is still the best. it defines him—and the series.
“No one guns more than us,” says John Wick director Chad Stahelski, a former stuntman. With four films in the franchise, Stahelski has taken “gun-fu” (a balletic blend of martial arts and gunfights) to new commercial and creative heights, even as the use of guns on set has been hotly debated since the death of “Rust.” ” cinematographer Halyna Hutchins.
“John Wick: Chapter 4” was set in Paris when the incident took place in October 2021, but while there were strong concerns from those involved, the “Wick” set was not shaken — mainly because Stahelski went out of his way to create it. a culture of safety and preparedness around weaponry.
“There’s no reason to have a functional gun on set,” says Stahelski. “Playing live on set is a crime. There is no weapon on our device that can be loaded with a cartridge that can fire.
The subject is particularly close to Stahelski, who was a stunt double for Brandon Lee, who was shot and killed on the set of “The Crow” in 1993. Stahelski refrains from talking specifically about Lee or what happened in “Rust,” but says there is an industry problem. “Ninety percent of rental guns are practical firearms,” he says. “So you’re asking the industry to release all their rents and inventories. Not that it shouldn’t happen.”
Still, the “John Wick 4” production blended dozens of stunt actors, hundreds of firearms and thousands of rounds of ammunition into 14 action sequences across four continents while creating a unified voice for a coherent narrative without offending anyone. weapons.
“The bottom line is we give a shit—better than anyone else,” Stahelski says with Wick-like bluntness.
While most productions bring in stunt crews four to eight weeks before production, Stahelski brings in his six months. Most actors train for six to eight weeks; Reeves trains for six to eight months. Extra effort and diligence is expected from the film crew and everyone on set.
“They train for months to master the movement and the flow, not a sequence,” says “Wick” gunsmith Rock Galotti, who worked on “The Matrix Reloaded” with Stahelski, who was the stunt coordinator at the time. “That when you put the gun in your hand and something happens in that moment, they can change and the action evolves.”
Nothing exemplifies this more than when Reeves’ gun occasionally jams during filming, such as when the shell casing gets caught in the slide. In most productions, the actor stops and waits for the weapon to be changed or repaired. But not the man who plays John Wick. “Keanu’s gun manipulation is like seeing what’s wrong and releasing the slide or changing magazines on camera,” says Stephen Dunlevy, stunt coordinator for “Wick.” “So some magazine changes are not in the script. This is really how John Wick would handle a weapon malfunction.”
“Keanu is the most firearms-focused actor I’ve ever worked with,” says Galotti, who spent months with Stahelski developing weapons for “Wick,” including brand new firearms like the Pit Viper handgun and painstaking retrofitting. he shot dueling pistols at something cool.
On set, Galotti expects “everyone to pay attention” when he speaks. He advises the crew on where to position the camera and where the actors should stand when bullets are fired. For every shot that uses a gun, the gun is checked by the first assistant director, the stunt coordinator and Galotti, who hands the gun to the actor and, while maintaining eye contact to make sure they understand, goes over the important things, e.g. keep your fingers off the triggers and how many shots to fire.
“I work on movies so I don’t make friends,” says Galotti. “I work on movies so that no one gets hurt.”
On an industrial level, Galotti played a role in just that, having developed so-called “solid plug load” or just “solid plug” guns while working on John Woo’s “Face/Off” in 1997. What do plugged weapons sound like: No hole for anything to come out of. But the charge—or shell casing—can still travel through the chamber, and the gun manipulates the slide to eject the brass, making it appear as if it’s functioning like a real gun. The gun and brass can still get hot, but there is no danger to life. There are also dummy guns, and in rehearsals the actors and stuntmen sometimes use Airsoft guns, very realistic toy guns that only shoot plastic bullets.
“Four ‘John Wicks’ and hundreds of thousands of shots,” says stunt coordinator Scott Roger. “And no one ever got hurt because of them.”
Stahelski admits that his team’s skills and experience with weapons also have the benefit of a budget that uses visual effects to make their weapons look safe and terrifying. All the muzzle flashes and the sliding of the rubber guns and the ejection of brass are visual effects, while the sound department inserts all the gun sounds in post-production.
“I’m all about visual effects,” says Stahelski. “Are you joking as a former stuntman? To make it safe?”
What matters to the “Wick” team is that the effects never get in the way of the storytelling. John Wick is not a superhero. There are no computer-generated versions of Wick swinging from tall buildings. When he falls down 222 steps, as he does in front of the Sacrè-Coeur Basilica in Paris, a real human being (stuntman Vincent Bouillon) falls down the steps. (In four steps.) “Keeping it grounded and real hides the illusion,” says Rogers.
According to Stahelski, the cinematic charm of “Wick” comes from the “aesthetic” he built on the four films. “Wick” is steeped in various traditions — the gun-toting wild west, anime, kung fu movies — and feels like a fairy tale, with its own set of rules and reality. “We try to do it with a little humor,” says Stahelski. “It’s about tone.” This makes the blood a little too red. We try to make it look like a manga. We try to let the public in. There’s a reason we kill 50 (bad guys in a scene) instead of 20. We want you to know that we’re in on the joke.
One such joke is the bulletproof suits that Reeves and others pull over their heads to deflect bullets. “Once you get moviegoers to buy — like the absurdity of a bulletproof suit — you can sell them almost anything,” says stunt coordinator Scott Rogers. “Funny. So we will.”
Few elements in the world of Wick are more entertaining than the introduction of new weapons – not unlike the gadgets of the James Bond series – that Wick enjoys wielding. The most impressive firearm in “Wick” 4 is the ridiculous-looking Genesis 12 shotgun, which fires massive projectiles seemingly set on fire.
The thing is, loaded with incendiary ammunition called “Dragon’s Breath,” the shotgun is real. (Watch it on YouTube.) Echoing Dragon’s Breath’s fireworks-like display during production, two of the kills are actually propane pellets fired at stuntmen who are “charged” so that when the propane blows, the man finds a squip body and engulfed in flames. By the way, the visual effects team filmed the actual Dragon’s Breath and then digitally added it to the weapon and recipients.
For Stahelski, there is nothing unfair about such gunplay because it is an integral part of the film. “We want to make things cool and change things. We wanted something that would elevate the aesthetic,” he says.
Watch Stahelski explain why he teaches Reeves and others dance choreography, not stunts, in the video below.
“I’m on the move. I’m a Bob Fosse fan,” adds Stahelski. “We develop an aesthetic that makes you feel like it’s a dance.” His reference points include Akira Kurosawa’s films, manga and ‘The Matrix’, as well as one of his favorite films, ‘All that Jazz’.
Stahelski’s coveted heights are evident in what the “John Wick” 4 crew calls a “top-shot,” a sequence in which the audience’s point of view is almost entirely down from the ceiling. We watch as Wick walks up a flight of stairs and through several rooms, facing various attackers and killing them with Genesis 12. There is no “Texas switch,” the term used for a sleight of hand in filmmaking where misdirection allows a stunt double to step. to the actor in the middle of the shot. It’s all Keanu in one long shot.
It’s a feat of filmmaking reminiscent of Martin Scorsese’s long Copacabana shoot in “Goodfellas,” but with gun-fu. Recognizing the filmmaking art of such a sequence goes a long way toward understanding not only Wick’s appeal, but perhaps why the franchise has largely avoided the national debate about gun violence.
Not that some haven’t tried — when “Joker” was criticized in 2019 for potentially inciting violence, director Todd Phillips asked why “Wick” was being held to a “different standard” than his film.
It’s not an unfair question. But if you think of “Wick” as a self-aware, gun-toting Bob Fosse number rooted in the over-the-top kung fu genre, you can empathize with Stahelski when he says, “I’m no different than ‘Lord of.’ the Rings or Jackie Chan or a musical. I’m just here to create aesthetics.”
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