‘John Wick’ Guns: How the Franchise Balances Creativity and Safety
Dragon’s Breath ammo is real, but the muzzle flashes are VFX – set in the Wick world, led by director and former stuntman Chad Stahelski and his team.
Of the many weapons that mythical assassin John Wick used to kill hundreds of villains in four films (a book, a pencil, a wire, a car door, a horse, an axe, a drum kit), one weapon still stands out as the best defines him – and the series.
“Nobody makes more guns than us,” says “John Wick” director Chad Stahelski, a former stuntman. Across the four films in the franchise, Stahelski has taken “gun-fu” (a balletic hybrid of martial arts and shootout) to new commercial and creative heights, though the use of guns on set has been hotly debated since the death of “Rust” cinematographer Halyna Hutchins.
John Wick: Chapter 4 was being produced in Paris when the incident took place in October 2021, but although those involved had major concerns, the Wick set was not shaken – largely because Stahelski went to great lengths to to create a culture of safety and readiness around guns.
“There’s no need to have a practically working weapon on a set,” says Stahelski. “Having a live turn on a set is criminal. There isn’t a gun on our set that you could put a cartridge in that would fire it.”
Of particular interest is Stahelski, who was the stunt double for Brandon Lee, who was killed by a gun on the set of The Crow in 1993. Stahelski, however, refrains from going into specifics about Lee or what happened on Rust, saying there’s an industry-wide problem. “Ninety percent of the rental guns are utility guns,” he says. “So you are asking the industry to dump all their hires and stock up. Not that it shouldn’t happen.”
Yet the John Wick 4 production brought together dozens of stunt performers, hundreds of firearms and thousands of rounds of ammunition in 14 action sequences across four continents, while also creating a consistent tone for a coherent narrative without ever hurting anyone from the guns.
“The bottomline is that we don’t give a shit — more than anyone else,” Stahelski says with Wick-like bluntness.
While most productions invite their stunt crews in four to eight weeks before production, Stahelski brings his six-month sabbatical with him. Most actors train for six to eight weeks; Reeves trains for six to eight months. The extra effort and care is expected from the camera crew and everyone on set.
“They train for months to master not a sequence but the movement and the flow,” says Wick armorer Rock Galotti, who worked with Stahelski, the stunt coordinator at the time, on The Matrix Reloaded. “So that if you pick up the gun and something is happening in the moment, they can change and the storyline evolves.”
Nothing exemplifies this better than when Reeves’ gun occasionally jams during a take, such as when the cartridge case gets caught in the chute. In most productions, the actor will stop and wait for a replacement or for the gun to be repaired. But not the man who plays John Wick. “Keanu’s weapon manipulation is such that he sees what’s going on and lets go of the slide, or he changes magazines in front of the camera,” says “Wick” stunt coordinator Stephen Dunlevy. “So some magazine changes are unscripted. This is actually how John Wick would deal with a gun malfunction.”
“Keanu is the most focused actor with guns I’ve ever worked with,” says Galotti, who spent months with Stahelski developing the weapons for “Wick,” including all-new guns like the Pit Viper pistol, and tediously silly ones Shot single dueling pistols into something cool.
On set, Galotti expects “everyone to listen” when he speaks. He advises the crew on where to set up the camera and where for the actors to stand in the event of shell casings being released. On any take where a gun is used, the gun is inspected by the first assistant director, the stunt coordinator and Galotti, who passes the gun to the actor and, while maintaining eye contact to ensure he is understood, the important discusses, including hands off triggers and how many rounds are fired.
“I work on films to avoid making friends,” says Galotti. “I work on films to make sure nobody gets hurt.”
On an industry level, Galotti was instrumental after working on John Woo’s Face/Off in 1997 when he developed what he called Solid Plug Load or simply Solid Plug pistols. Plugged guns are what they sound like: there’s no hole for anything to come out of. But a charge – or cartridge case – can still travel through the chamber, and the gun manipulates the slide to eject the brass, allowing it to function like a real gun. The gun and brass can still get hot, but lives are not at risk. There are also rubber dummies and during rehearsals the actors and stuntmen sometimes use airsoft guns, very real looking toy guns that can only shoot plastic bullets.
“Four ‘John Wicks’ and hundreds of thousands of shots were fired,” says stunt coordinator Scott Roger. “And nobody was ever hurt by them.”
Stahelski acknowledges that in addition to the skill and experience his team has with guns, his team also has the benefits of a budget that can use visual effects to make their guns safe and awesome at the same time. All muzzle flashes, slide movement and rubber cannon brass ejections are visual effects, while the sound department adds all cannon sounds in post-production.
“I’m really into visual effects,” says Stahelski. “As a former stuntman, are you kidding? To make it safe?”
It is important to the “Wick” team that the effects never stand in the way of 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, like he does in front of the Sacrè-Cœur Basilica in Paris, that’s a real human (stuntman Vincent Bouillon) falling down those stairs. (In four takes.) “Keeping it grounded and real hides the illusion,” says Rogers.
According to Stahelski, the film magic of “Wick” is based on its “aesthetics”, which he has built up over the four films. Steeped in different traditions – gunslinger wild west, anime, kung fu films – “Wick” feels like a fable with its own rules and reality. “We also try to use a bit of humor,” says Stahelski. “It’s all about the tone. That’s why the blood is a little too red. We try to make it like manga. We try to let the audience in. There’s a reason we kill 50 instead of 20 [bad guys in a scene]. We want you to know we get the joke.”
One such joke is the bulletproof suits that Reeves and others pull over their heads to deflect bullets. “Once you’ve got moviegoers buying – like the absurdity of a bulletproof suit – you can sell them almost anything,” says stunt coordinator Scott Rogers. “It’s fun. So let’s do it.”
In the Wick world, few elements are more enjoyable than the introduction of the new weapons – not unlike the gadgets found in the James Bond series – which Wick wields with glee. In “Wick” 4, the gun that makes the biggest impression is the seemingly ridiculous Genesis 12 shotgun, which fires massive shells that appear to be laced with fire.
The thing is, if the shotgun is loaded with incendiary ammo called Dragon’s Breath, it’s real. (Check it out on YouTube.) To reproduce Dragon’s Breath’s fireworks-like display during production, two of the kills are actually propane pellets shot at stuntmen who are “fueled up” so that when the Propane explodes, a squib hits his body and bursts into flames. Otherwise, the visual effects team filmed real Dragon’s Breath and then digitally added it to the weapon and its receivers.
For Stahelski, there is nothing useless about such shootouts because they are an integral part of the film. “We want to make things look cool and make a difference. We wanted something that could improve the aesthetics,” he says.
Watch the video below for Stahelski to see why he teaches Reeves and others dance choreography, not stunts.
“I’m on the move. I’m a Bob Fosse fan,” adds Stahelski. “We want to create 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.
The lofty heights Stahelski is aiming for is evident in what the “John Wick” 4 crew calls the “top shot,” a sequence in which the audience’s gaze is almost entirely directed straight down from the ceiling. We watch Wick as he goes up a flight of stairs and then through several rooms, taking on various attackers and killing them with the Genesis 12. There is no such thing as a “Texas switch,” the term used for filmmaking’s sleight of hand, where a stunt double can kick through misdirection in the middle of a take for the actor. It’s all Keanu in a long shot.
It’s bravura filmmaking reminiscent of Martin Scorsese’s long shot of Copacabana in Goodfellas, but with gun-fu. Acknowledging the cinematic artistry that goes into 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 2019’s ‘Joker’ was criticized for potentially inciting violence, its director Todd Phillips questioned why ‘Wick’ was being held by ‘different standards’ than his film.
It’s not an unfair question. But if you think of “Wick” as a self-assured, gun-toting Bob Fosse act 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 an aesthetic.”
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https://www.indiewire.com/2023/04/john-wick-4-guns-chad-stahelski-interview-1234823769/ ‘John Wick’ Guns: How the Franchise Balances Creativity and Safety