God bless John Wick. In a movie-making era when everything is about being bigger and more epic, this action franchise keeps it real like no other, emphasising insane martial artistry and stunt-based practical effects.
Star Keanu Reeves and his Matrix stunt-double-turned-director Chad Stahelski remain admirably committed to old school bad-assery, and movies are better for it.
And then there’s the ever-expanding mythology the series keeps doubling down on. It gets even wilder in the third entry, bringing in new characters such as The Adjudicator (played by Asia Kate Dillon from Billions), The Director (played by screen icon Anjelica Huston) and a killer sushi chef named Zero, played with fanboyistic glee by martial arts legend Mark Dacascos (Crying Freeman, Iron Chef).
But the most prominent new addition to the John Wick franchise is a spin-off friendly character named Sofia, played by Halle Berry. With a $14 million contract out on his life, John goes to Sofia (and her attack dogs) for help in reaching out to the High Table, who run the rule-laden assassins guild that controls their world.
Flicks recently got the chance to hear from Reeves, Berry and Stahelski in New York. Here’s some of what they had to say:
On how the new film expands the John Wick mythology
Keanu Reeves: In the first one we went to The Continental, in the second one we came with the High Table and the idea of a Marker expanding the universe, and now in Chapter 3 we kind of go a little bit more into the High Table. And so we have The Adjudicator, we have the idea of The Elder [played by Saïd Taghmaoui]. And then we also see a little bit of John Wick’s early history. So by opening up the idea of the High Table we could introduce other characters that are bound to the systems that we’ve been introducing—the rules.
The High Table is almost an extension of the rules, but then there’s [the concept of] fealty—what is that? It’s even more than a rule, it’s almost handing over your soul, your personhood. We introduce characters like Sofia that are moving in all of those worlds. She’s running a Continental. I have her Marker. And she’s working for people in the High Table. And I’m looking to get out, so what do I do? I’ve got to go to Sofia. So it was fun to create these situations that were organic to the plot but also coming from the creative well-spring and ambition of the storytelling. That’s what’s really fun for me about participating and collaborating with Chad and being in these films.
On joining the John Wick universe
Halle Berry: I approached it just wanting to earn the right to be in the same room with Keanu and to fight alongside him, because he was one of the reasons I loved the series because he really did all that fighting himself and I knew that, so it was a lot of pressure. When I thought about my character I wanted her to be a force of nature to deal with and being a woman, I thought that was a very important message that we send with this film and this character, being a woman of colour and being a woman of a certain age, I thought it was really important that she be fierce.
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But also the way I saw my character she was like an Earth mother and I tried to incorporate that into the action and Chad has taught me through this experience that it’s not the drama and then the action, but it’s all connected so even while performing the action, there’s so much drama in the action.
On how she prepared to play the role
Halle Berry: The training was like nothing I’ve ever experienced in my whole career. And I’ve done a few action movies before. I trained for Catwoman, I learned capoeira, I’d done Storm and Bond and I was a gymnast as a child, so I had a great base, but I was not prepared for…well, I was prepared, because I saw Keanu doing it, after I saw John Wick 2, I researched how they did this and I saw many videos of Keanu in his training, so I knew how hard it was. Just to be in it was life-changing.
I don’t think I’ve ever worked harder or longer to prepare for a part in a movie. I learned parts of jiu-jitsu, aikido, I learned how to fire a gun, I’d never worked with firearms really in that way before. I became a dog trainer. I went through the gamut. I don’t have a black belt or anything, I didn’t get any belts in this training, but if someone thought they were gonna snatch my purse on the street, they better think again.
On keeping the action of John Wick grounded in an era when action movies are defined by epic CGI destruction
Chad Stahelski: I’m certainly not against digital effects, I’m not against using them to make things safer or more elaborate or bigger, just with John Wick, we’ve always considered the action to be character-based. We’ve always considered it to be more of a live performance, that’s why you see the longer takes and the wide angles that we use. We want it to be immersive.
All three of us have gone through the Wachowski school of filmmaking at some point. The Matrix films were a big influence on me, how the Wachowskis really built their world in The Matrix, and that sunk in from everything from a prop to a set to lighting or anything like that, so one of the most immersive ways we use in John Wick is to ground the action, when you see Halle and Keanu doing it you quickly dismiss that there’s a separation between character and cast. You believe they’re doing it because you see them, so naturally you believe that John Wick and Sofia would be able to do that. I think that’s very very immersive.
When you go to a live theatre and watch a ballet, you’re not looking for stunt doubles, you’re not looking for wires, you’re not looking for CGI or cuts, you sit back and relax and you watch the performance of great human beings doing cool stuff, that’s just the attitude we took. You’re gonna see cool humans doing cool things and hopefully that’ll immerse you into the character and the world.
On Keanu Reeves
Halle Berry: I don’t think there are many actors that can really be so alive and so captivating on film without saying very much at all, but Keanu has that gift, and it’s a real gift. There’s some quality, I don’t really have the words, but I know how I feel when I watch someone on screen that just forces me to watch them whether they’re talking or not. And it’s not just because he’s doing cool ass fighting scenes, it’s just something about his person that makes you wanna watch him no matter what he’s doing and go wherever he goes, without saying, usually a word, and I think that’s charisma.
On Halle Berry
Keanu Reeves: From all the performances I’ve seen there’s a quality that when you’re on screen I lean in, I’m interested in that person. There’s something about when you come on screen there’s like an authenticity, an intimacy, a strength, but there’s mystery. There’s always a mystery to you, she’s right there present but there’s always something else and I want to know. So when you’re on screen that charisma of your humanity.
On what she learned making the film
Halle Berry: Just surviving Chad and [his action design company] 87 Eleven training taught me that I can probably do just about anything. I broke three ribs in my training. I worked probably five weeks with three broken ribs before I even knew they were broken, then I came back even better and stronger after breaking those ribs. This process really taught me what I’m made of, it was really good for me to learn that.
On the evolution of the John Wick franchise
Chad Stahelski: When Keanu and I did the first one, and we finished, I don’t think we expected a sequel, we were already looking for other jobs. It’s a bit odd when you kill 84 people over a puppy, so we didn’t know how that was gonna go over.
When we got asked to do the second one, we were very interested but we said, ‘Well, let us get together and we’ll talk about it and if we come up with something we’d like to do, we’ll do it’. We finished the second one and thought, ‘Oooh, we dodged that bullet, we did another good one, okay great’. We were very happy about that.
When we were asked to do a third one and we did the same thing, we got together and had a drink and said ‘I don’t know, do we have a story to tell?’ In either case, we were always willing to walk away if we didn’t have more of the world we wanted to share, but every time we’ve come back to the table, Keanu’s come with just a tonne of ideas and we both thought we wanted to spend more time with the character and I think that’s kind of the magic, even now, we’ll see how this one goes, and if there’s more to tell…there’s always talk of sequels, especially on the business end of things, and yes we wanna do more.
If my crew was solely living in the John Wick universe, I’d be very thankful for that, that’s why we keep choosing to come back with all the other options out there. It’s fun, there’s no limits. We’re allowed to create our own mythology. It’s not anything other than our own original intellectual property from Keanu, myself and the other creators, that’s what makes it fun. It’s an interesting story, there’s an ethos there with the characters that we really love, and there’s a mythology that I think is attractive. We have our twisted sense of chivalry, our code of ethics, our world-building elements and we all like dogs, horses and kung fu.