Exclusive: ‘John Wick’ Stuntmen On Training Keanu Reeves And Filming Extreme Action Scenes
“A fight scene can’t be just kill, kill, kill…You’re telling a story.”
Not everyone appreciates the subtleties of ramming a pencil through an eardrum. Jonathan Eusebio does.
“A fight scene can’t be just kill, kill, kill,” he says. “There’s a rhythm, an emotional arc to it. You’re telling a story.”
Eusebio is a core part of 87eleven Action Design, the team of martial arts virtuosos behind the John Wick films. With director (and black belt) Chad Stahelski at the wheel, 87eleven has crafted an action series that masterfully combines the balletic elegance of The Matrix with the gut-wrenching savagery of Fight Club.
It’s an aesthetic of violence that’s truly in a class of its own—brutal, beautiful, and undeniably badass.
So with John Wick: Chapter 3—Parabellum hitting theaters today, Maxim reached out to the stunt professionals behind the series to find out how they train for and execute some of the most daring stunts and combat sequences ever captured on film.
Jackson Spidell, stunt double for Keanu Reeves in all three ‘John Wick’ movies
At the beginning of John Wick: Chapter 2, John gets hit by a car. What was it like to execute that stunt?
We in the stunt business have a funny saying, kind of a running joke. We say, “Well, gotta pay this rent”—and then we just go for it.
For this one, Chad [Stahelski] wanted the hit to be as blind as possible. He was like, “I understand if you have to look right before it hits you—just don’t react too early.” And I was like, “Okay, I’m not looking at that car at all.”
The car was driven by Danny Hernandez, one of my teammates. I was the first person he’d ever hit with a car on film, so we’re getting ready, and he’s like, “You good?” I was like, “Dude, just put that fucking gas pedal down.” We bump fists, give each other hugs, and slap each other in the face.
[So we go to film it.] I was looking at the person in front of me, using my peripherals, and then—bam!—got cleaned out. Danny was kinda booking it, probably going 15 to 17 miles an hour. I ride the hood, he brakes, I roll off… and they’re like, “Cool. Moving on.”
The funniest thing about that take was that there was a huge stunt pad in the back of the shot that someone forgot to move. Chad was like, “The take is too good… We’ll have to paint it out.” He goes, “Someone [just made] a multi-thousand-dollar mistake. Thanks for that.” And I was like, “Well, I’m gonna have to thank the visual effects department for making it so that I don’t have to get hit by a car again!”
Jonathan Eusebio, fight coordinator for ‘John Wick’ and ‘John Wick: Chapter 2’, stunt coordinator and fight choreographer for ‘John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum’
What was it like to train Keanu for his role as John Wick?
He’s an absolute workhorse. Usually, we take like eight weeks to train for a movie. But he’ll train eight hours a day for like six months. It’s amazing. He’s over 50, and he can do things that some stunt guys can’t do.
If you watch Jackie Chan, Sammo Hung, or Bruce Lee fights, it’s all long, beautiful shots—you can see all the choreography, and that’s because they can physically do all those moves. Sometimes you have to cheat if [actors] can’t do the stuff—[the camera] goes to a close-up, or to the back of the double. But there’s no reason to turn the camera away from Keanu, because he does 98% of everything—and the other 2% are things that insurance won’t let us do.
As for the martial arts training, we made judo and jiu-jitsu his base styles. For his empty-hand stuff, we used a lot of karate-based blocks and strikes. We were also using sambo and shoot wrestling, and then the knife stuff—and the pencil stuff—was from our training in kali, a Filipino style.
In this new movie, John is fighting many different types of opponents. Chad [Stahelski] wanted to see his judo and jiu-jitsu versus kung fu, versus karate, and versus silat. So the [question] was always, how does someone with that skill set deal with these other, equally lethal skill sets?
In the first [two movies,] John was mostly fighting one-on-one, but this time he’s fighting multiple opponents at the same time. So we also used a lot of aikido-esque movements—a lot of circular movements and wrist locks, not as much striking. There’s a lot of absorbing force and redirecting it, so the footwork and evasion tactics are very smooth.
At the end of the day, fight choreography and dance choreography are all the same. You have movements that have to be matched by both partners—it’s a dialogue, a whole visual language. So when [Keanu learns] the choreography, it’s just as important for him to get the mindset or the intention of what he’s doing, because that’s what people are drawn to.
Jon Valera, fight coordinator for John Wick and John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum
In Parabellum, Halle Berry’s character fights alongside combat-trained canines. How does it feel to be attacked by a dog?
So you wear this pad on your chest—almost like an impact vest—and the trainers tie this fluorescent green tug to it, which is like a chew toy. Then you stand in front of the dog, the trainer taps the tug, and these dogs, Belgian Malinois, have to lock eyes on it. But some of them zeroed in on your eyes instead, which was kind of scary.
One of the dogs was named Sam, and they said he had ADD because he was always looking around everywhere. But when the dogs [are preparing to] attack, their eyes can’t wander—they have to stay locked on the tug. So if Sam started looking around, the trainer would go back to the tug. He’d go, “Sam,” tap, tap, tap, “keep your eyes here.”
Now the dog is basically a missile—the [instant] you see them leave the ground is literally a second before you get hit. The trainer always told us, “When you feel the hit, go with it. Don’t stonewall or try to fight it, or you could hurt the dog.” They think of it as play, so if they get hurt, they won’t want to attack again.
The tug is tied and reinforced so that when the dog clamps down on it, he can’t get it off, and it looks like he’s really ripping into us. Then once they yell “Cut,” the trainer throws a bouncy toy, and the dog goes after it.
There were also groin hits, so all of us invested in steel cups. [Fortunately,] the tug for those hits was not right at the groin, but just below the beltline. And the trainer would be sitting there tapping it: “Right here, right here…”
I’ve had my fair share of injuries in stunts, but for some reason my fear just turns off on set. And we had already trained with the dogs for two months, so I treated each one like just another training partner. Like, “Hey, I trust this guy.”
I’m just so proud and honored to be a part of this movie… Wait till you see it. You’re gonna be blown away.