Few non-Marvel sequels are as highly anticipated as next year’s John Wick: Chapter 2, a rip-roaring continuation of the uber-violent, turbo charged action flick that put Keanu Reeves back in action and spawned legions of passionate fans thanks to the film’s intense and inventive gun-fu and non-stop energy. Surrounding the titular John Wick, a once-retired hitman who finds himself drawn back into the murderous game after the unjust killing of his (super adorable) pup, John Wick 2 has promised to pick up just a few days after the conclusion of the initial film, and if the teaser trailer’s any indication, will deliver just as much door-busting action as its predecessor.
Collider had a chance to sit down with the film’s director Chad Stahelski, who first met Reeves while working alongside the Wachowskis on The Matrix, about the sequel’s new location, the pressures of matching the quality of the first film, working with new additions Ruby Rose and Common, and his plans for John Wick 3.
So how are you feeling? What did it feel like to finally unleash that footage on everyone, and such a large amount of people?
STAHELSKI: I’m probably a little bit older than you, but I grew up watching movies in the theaters and in the drive in. So I wanted to make a movie that people would want to watch in a theater. So yeah it’s very cool, it’s great to get an instant reaction. I was an action director and a second director for ten years, so that’s always in the front of my mind.
That’s amazing! So, going into number two, how do you balance expectations? You guys have like very rabid fans with their own expectations but you also have to do your own thing.
STAHELSKI: Keanu [Reeves] and I we met on the first Matrix which was a pretty special experience even by the best of Hollywood standards. The Wachowskis [Lana and Lily] were right in between us age wise so we were all about in the three year mark of age. It was a huge learning experience in term of being exposed to that level of creativity and genius. When we got back, we all knew that that was going to be something special. It wasn’t until a year later when I really realized everyone thought it was a big deal. We couldn’t have been happier. Like my contract runs for three years – 6 months of prep, for two years of filming two and three back-to-back and having training.
Point being is, I asked the same thing when I was with the Wachowskis. We’re so excited we go back to San Francisco to prep and set the stages and one night we’re all sitting around having and a drink and we’re all saying, “This is gonna be great! This is gonna be great!” both of them sour. I was like, “Why what’s up isn’t this the best thing ever?” They were like, “Well it’s kind of the curse of the sequel.” The reason people love you so much sometimes is because you’re original. John Wick was an original twist on a classic tale, with a fancier look and a different way of telling the story. More like a Greek myth rather than your typical action movie. So you give away your whole hand with that, you give away originality. So how do you compete with yourself? And it’s gonna be hard. Some of the things I’ve done in scenes and shit has been awesome. Having 20 years as a stunt man nothing’s more terrifying than comparing yourself against yourself.
Comparing yourself to Marvel, compare yourself to DC, compare yourself to anything to be the expectation sometimes it’s almost an analysis for affinity. We decided to stop competing with the first one. Once we stopped worrying about ourselves it was fun. I mean is it as good as the first one? I don’t know. Did we go better in some ways? Yes. Did we experiment with the characters more? Yes. Everything there is better. Is the enjoyment better? I think the enjoyment is there, but it’s different. All the other director friends I have don’t like doing sequels or don’t like doing other people’s sequels, which is even worse I think. But then there’s other examples. I think the best example is Ridley Scott. He did the first Alien. James Cameron created Aliens. Cameron, I think think is a genius for that. Going, “I’m not making the same Aliens again, I’m just gonna make it.” If I could be so bold as to take that similarity then so be it.
Is that, then, the thought process between the distinction that it’s “Chapter 2”, not just John Wick 2. Does that allow it to be its own thing?
STAHELSKI: It was a completely conscious decision. That’s why we named it Chapter 2. It was a like a chapter in a book. Where, if you pick up a book, you don’t have to read the beginning, you can just jump into a chapter.
And you changed the locale a bit, yeah? I’m assuming you shot on location?
STAHELSKI: Yeah, I grew up with the old James Bond films that made me want to go to Paris or London, wherever. And we wanted to show people a new side of John Wick, so Italy. Other than two or three little bits it was all on location, but a good two-thirds of the movie is still in New York, yeah.
In term of your newcomers, I know you wrote one of the roles with Laurence [Fishburne] in mind. Did you write Common’s role with him in mind?
STAHELSKI: Common’s role was made, we’re basically writing, what would John Wick be like if he stayed in the business? If he didn’t retire. We went through a lot of very cool actors, I thought all very different. I didn’t know much about Common, to tell you the truth. Everyone told me good things about him. When I met him, he had so much energy. He walked in a t-shirt and jeans, and he had class, as you probably saw today. He was incredibly polite, incredibly humble, very articulate and we were like, “Oh shit, it’s John Wick.” We literally cast him on the spot. We didn’t have to do a screen test we just knew this guy is in it. We met Willem Dafoe in the first one like my partner and I Dave [Leitch] and men like Lance Reddick, Willem Dafoe and John Leguizamo, it had nothing to do with the job. We met them, they saw our artwork, and they wanted to be on the movie.
I would imagine the work is hard enough that there are other jobs are easier to do if you’re just looking for a part.
STAHELSKI: [laughs] Yeah John Wick is pretty demanding. Every film is two years a project so you better like the project, you better like the people, and you better like the set. There’s a lot of love in there, so let’s see what happens.
I know you said you weren’t thinking of a sequel but when the opportunity came up, and I know you’re working on other projects. How did you decide to kinda lock in on this one?
STAHELSKI: When we finished the first John Wick it was successful by its own standards. The studio asked us to do another one, and we didn’t really know what to do. We hadn’t give it a thought. We thought this was like a one off. There were other offers for other jobs, but sometimes there’s agents and managers and everyone’s saying you gotta do this, go do an action, go do a serious drama. I sat with my wife and we just had a long talk…. To spend every day with those guys, it was a lot of fun and I just realized it was the best choice.
It’s way too early to be asking about a third one, but I’m going to ask about a third one.
STAHELSKI: Yeah, the studio has asked us to put our heads together and see if we can come up with something. Winston’s [McShane] is a big part of the next one, so is Lance Reddick. We’ve got some ideas. Love Lance, Lance is great, fantastic actor super great guy and we have a good cast. I keep saying that, we have a really great cast [laughs].
Oh, I do want to ask about Ruby Rose as well. She showed up on Orange is the New Black and now she’s like an action star. What dynamic is she bringing to this?
STAHELSKI: I saw her, and at first I really liked her. We wanted to write this character called Ares, and we wanted somebody that wasn’t necessarily predictable. She’s not mainstream, but talking to her she got it. She was interested and to come into a film like Wick that is not cookie cutter.I don’t know if she was expecting Wick to be as kooky as it really is, but she’s mute in the movie, she does the whole thing in sign language. She was nervous for the first couple days, and then she just went for it. She’s good, and she took a risk most actresses wouldn’t have taken, so kudos to her.
John Wick: Chapter 2 will hit theaters February 10, 2017.