In the film John Wick, Keanu Reeves masterfully takes down bad guy after bad guy with an impressive combination of grappling, kung-fu and gunplay. The film is chock-full of inventive takedowns and sleek kill shots, courtesy of directors David Leitch and Chad Stahelski– the men behind 87Eleven Action Design. While you may not know the name 87Eleven off the top of your head, if you look at their history, you have definitely seen a fight scene they’ve built. From The Hunger Games and The Expendables, to Dracula Untold and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, 87Eleven has become the go-to fight and stunt design team in Hollywood.
After seeing their latest operatic ode to violence in cinema, I traveled with a few other journalists to see firsthand how these masters of mayhem build a scene at their workshop next to LAX. We were told we would get an opportunity to learn how to handle a gun properly and choreograph a cinematic fight. It didn’t take much persuasion to get me on board.
In the video above you’ll find the fruits of our day’s labor. With music by DJ Dylan Eiland aka Le Castle Vania, the short that I lovingly refer to as “Sweating Bullets” shows a quick sampling of what the team can do with an amateur such as myself. The directors worked with Keanu for 4 months to train him for playing John Wick, but I was given 30 minutes and a bottle of water. While the video is ultimately me playing “pretend” with six guys, it was enough to get me excited for what the team does on a daily basis.
When we finished creating our own personal shoot ’em ups, my fellow journalists and I were able to chat up David and Chad about the company they’ve been building with 87Eleven and their feature directorial debut in John Wick. The co-directors have been working with Keanu off and on for almost two decades, first as his stunt man and now his directors. Over those last two decades, the stunts and fight scenes in our favorite action movies have been getting more and more complex.
Outside of some terrible films in the Canon library and imported Hong Kong fair, there actually wasn’t very much in the way of martial arts on screen in the US. Chad explained that the blocking was always very stage combat-based. That changed in a massive way in the mid-’90’s. TV shows and movies like Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Blade, and the Matrix forever changed the landscape of fight choreography by integrating eastern martial arts into their scenes.
“Martial Arts wasn’t mainstream. Most people think there are places like this all around Hollywood, and we’re the only one that we know of,” stated Chad as he explained the shift. “There are a few other gyms, but we’re the only fully functioning company with a full time team. The Blades and The Matrix come out and now, not only is martial arts an element of film, it’s a staple of film. There’s not an action movie out there without some level of martial art ability.”
The two stunt men were in a prime space during the millennial martial arts boom. Chad and David were both regularly filling in for A-list actors and they had skill sets that allowed them to do more than just take a fall for who they were doubling. The two formed a group of fighters that would choreograph fights on weekends with other stunt fighters. Stahelski continued, “I was doubling Keanu, he was doubling Brad Pitt. Some of our other friends were doubling George Clooney. The main clique of our guys that had a martial arts background just started getting together on Saturdays. We rented a small facility in Culver City and we said, ‘Oh, we’ll just practice, practice, practice, practice.’ That evolved into just full time teams and they would call up Dave or me and say, ‘Hey, get you and your guys and show up,’ Because we could do it faster and better.”
The pair bridged their success as stunt men to 2nd unit directing when they were called upon to by the Wachowskis to work on the Matrix sequels. David admits that when they started down the path of martial arts, he didn’t see being a filmmaker as the end goal. The director explains, “I didn’t think so at the beginning. You fantasized about it, because you watch Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan and you’re thinking about the movies – learning this library of martial arts techniques that you will never ever use. There’s so much of martial arts that’s not practical, but we know it. You’ve trained it. So once we became proficient at that level in a diverse amount of martial arts, it was like, ‘What can I use this knowledge for? Oh, movies.’ In movies, you need this diverse knowledge because every movie has a different need choreography wise. We were just blessed to have a diverse knowledge of martial arts.”
Stay tuned to Nerdist.com for more with the directors of John Wick. The film is in theaters Friday, October 24th.