At its core, beneath the endless headshots, neck snaps, pencil stabbings, and katana motorcycle chases, the John Wick franchise is all about the dogs. It was the murder of the beagle pup Daisy that sent Keanu Reeve‘s retired assassin back into the killin’ game in the first film, and it was Wick’s new best pitbull bud that was running beside him when he was declared “excommunicado” at the end of the second. For John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum, the dogs are getting in on the action like we’ve never seen before, according to director Chad Stahelski. While visiting the filmmaker in his John Wick: Chapter 3 editing bay, Collider’s Steve Weintraub asked Stahelski about the dogs glimpsed in the trailer alongside Halle Berry‘s Sofia.
As it turns out, creating the story of John Wick 3 involved five months of dog auditions alongside Game of Thrones wolf trainer Andrew Simpson, and then extensive training to create a stunt-dog environment like no other.
“When you see a dog attack on screen or in a film, the dog doesn’t know it’s a movie. It’s an animal attacking a human in the mentality of ‘I’m gonna bite and chew this person up.’ So we wanted to find a trainer who was willing to take younger or adolescent animals or puppies and train them so that…the interaction with the stunt people was fun. It was a game. It wasn’t life or death, it wasn’t an animal protection himself or anything like that. Lo and behold, we were able to find someone who was willing to go through that. We found these beautiful animals, five Belgian Malinois dogs, five Belgian shepherds, that all had above average intelligence and physical abilities. We actually had dog auditions for a couple months. Found them from all around the United States, brought them to Los Angeles, and for five months trained the dogs to do interactive stunts with stuntmen.”
According to Stahelski, Berry herself was involved every step of the way. The Oscar-winning actress took time after her equally arduous stunt and gun training to spend time with the dogs, essentially becoming a trainer herself to maximize the realism of what you see on-screen. When a dog listens to Berry’s Sofia, it’s the real thing.
“We didn’t want a trainer hiding behind a set piece or a prop or something like that. We wanted Halle—or, Sophia, our character—to be our on-screen dog trainer. So it wasn’t acting like these were her dogs, these actually were her dogs. When we cast Halle we had the big talk. Halle actually came, after all her fight rehearsals and gun rehearsals, she would go sit, and work, and play with the dogs for months on end so the dogs on-screen actually obey Halle. They’re not looking at a trainer. That was really fun.”
The puppy in the first movie, was symbolic of his wife and his loss, the dogs in Parabellum are symbolic of someone that Halle has lost. That’s our tie in. Rather than being passive like a puppy, these dogs are a little more active in the storyline.
All five Shepherds—all of which had distinct personalities, Stahelski says, shout-out to Santana the goofy one—acted as their own stuntman on set. Which meant the dogs got to get in on the franchise’s trademark long-shots.
Stahelski dived deep into the process of making a dog stunt look good:
“Process-wise, what’s digitally removed is, the stunt guys put on a special kind of padding. It’s colored green. It’s almost a really bright green. The dog has been trained, “Go after the green toy. Don’t bite anything but the green toy.” So wherever the stunt man put the green toy, or our little green chewy toy, that’s what the dog would go after. So if we wanted a groin hit, the stunt man would wear a velcro green on the groin. If it was forearm, it’s on the forearm. Back on back. We’d come up with all these straps so the dog knew, “When I see green, get green.” As long as you didn’t wear green on set to work that day, you’re doing great. So there was no green allowed on set for the crew…We’d do rehearsal, the doggy would pull off the velcro green chewy toy. He’d have to go in his quiet box. The dog would calm down, it was like a two-minute, ‘Woo, okay. It’s fun. It’s good.’ Then he’d come back in and do the second take. Once you realized what was best for the animals, the dog and the process of how to get the most takes and the most precise takes out of him, we just reverse engineered back how to put it into choreography. We wanted to show that in the movie. So just like our John Wick version where we don’t cut a lot, we tried to do longer take that track with Halle and see the dogs actually doing it, so you know we didn’t just cheat and do an insert of a dog chewing on something.”