‘John Wick 4’ Stairwell Scene: The Making of an Action Classic
‘John Wick 4’ Stairwell Scene: The Making of an Action Classic
The following post contains some minor spoilers for John Wick: Chapter 4.
John Wick: Chapter 4 is the culmination of an almost nine-hour story about the very sad and very violent life of its title character, a former hitman who just wanted to live a humble life with his puppy dammit, but cannot seem to escape his past as a killer for hire. And most of those nine hours have involved action scenes of every imaginable kind: Hand-to-hand combat, shootouts, sword battles, knife fights, along with chases on motorcycles, cars, and even horseback. How do you bring all of that to a close and top what you’ve done before, all at once?
By walking up a flight of stairs, of course.
Ah, but this is no ordinary walk up some steps. John Wick: Chapter 4 concludes with a dazzling sequence where John (the seemingly indefatigable Keanu Reeves) must arrive at a Parisian church by dawn in order to participate in a duel with his sworn enemy. If he does not make it in time, he will be executed. And so said enemy sends what seems like half of Paris after John to delay his arrival.
After making his way through the city, pursued on foot and by car, he finds himself at the bottom of an enormous set of stairs. There are hundreds of steps and dozens of enemies, and he’s got only a handful of minutes to make it to the top. And once he gets to the top … he gets knocked the entire way back to the bottom and must make a second climb at an even faster pace.
I’ve only seen John Wick: Chapter 4 once (so far), but I am absolutely certain this stairwell sequence — and especially that moment where John Wick tumbles down dozens upon dozens of stairs only to get up and start to climb again — will go down in history as one of the greatest action sequences of the 21st century. When I had the chance to interview the movie’s director, Chad Stahelski, I decided to focus on just this scene: How he conceived it, what inspired it, how he shot it, and how this sure-to-be legendary scene fits into the film as a whole.
Stahelski, who directed or co-directed all four John Wick movies and has spent decades in Hollywood working as a stuntman, stunt coordinator, and fight choreographer, says that there are essentially two approaches to the creation of an action sequence: Inside out or outside in.
“When you choreograph martial arts, we call it ‘the maze,’” Stahelski explains. “Picture Jackie Chan. He’s always running and fighting; that’s how you suspend disbelief when he’s fighting multiple attackers. You don’t just stand a spot and let them come to you. That was more like a Bruce Lee mentality. Jackie does the running fight scene. And if he’s fighting a tall guy, he’ll go into a phone booth. There’s an environmental element to it, a set piece element to it. That’s more the school of thought I’m from.”
That approach is all over John Wick: Chapter 4, particularly in the jaw-dropping sequence that precedes the stairwell fight where John fends off enemies around the Arc de Triomphe. “We had this idea,” Stahelski says, “that we wanted a movable set where you’re fighting the environment as well as you’re fighting people … an ever-changing set piece. We’re like ‘Well, how do I get the set to move?’
From that initial impulse, Stahelski and his team gradually settled on a fight involving moving cars. “But just an intersection would be boring,” he observes. “So we’re just gonna make a roundabout and we’re gonna have 200 cars keep circling. So the walls are always changing, and we’re just gonna fight in the middle of that, and the cars aren’t going to care, they’re just gonna keep moving. So now you have to worry about the set piece and you have to worry about the opponent. That’s an example of inside out; that was a concept that we had to build outward and figure out how to do it.”
The staircase sequence was an example of the opposite approach; the outside in method. Rather than wanting to shoot a scene on a staircase, Stahelski and his team found the stairwell first and that in turn inspired the fight that they created.
The all-important French church that John Wick must reach is Sacré-Cœur, one of Paris’ most iconic landmarks. Stahelski’s desire to shoot Chapter 4’s climax there came from a somewhat surprising place.
“I’m a big fan of Amélie, believe it or not,” Stahelski says. “And that film’s third act starts at Sacré-Cœur. So I put on all my location scout lists; ‘I want to see Sacré-Cœur!’ And on the second day, we saw Sacré-Cœur, and we walked up the main steps, and I‘m like ‘Oh, that’s cool, we’ll figure something out here.’”
Stahelski says the feverish race to the church also drew inspiration from High Noon, the 1952 Gary Cooper Western about a lone sheriff who must decide whether to flee his post or stand and fight when he learns that an outlaw he sent to prison is coming to kill him. (Cooper’s High Noon character is named Kane, while Donnie Yen’s character in John Wick: Chapter 4 just happens to be named Caine.) Stahelski claims he also thought a lot about Buster Keaton, the brilliant silent comedian and filmmaker who, like most of Stahelski’s actors, did his own stuntwork.
“All I could think about was Buster Keaton,” Stahelski reveals, “How would Buster Keaton do it? Buster would walk all the way up, he’d fight his way up, he’d trip at the top step, he’d fall all the way back down, then look back up and go “F—.” I always look at it from a silent film perspective. And that’s how it all came about.”
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Initially on that fateful location scout in Paris, Stahelski and his team walked up Sacré-Cœur’s front steps. But then they began wandering around the site looking for potential spots to shoot. That’s when they made the discovery that sparked everything you see on screen.
“We walked around, and we came to these other steps,” Stahelski continues, “and all I could think of was William Friedkin’s The Exorcist. That stair fall in that film. And I’m looking down — it was at nighttime — and I saw the fog, and I’m like ‘Oh no, dude. John Wick’s going down this.’”
“My stunt coordinator, Scott Rogers, says ‘That’d be a bitching stair fall.’ I’m like ‘No, no, no, we gotta run him up it. Because Keanu, he hates stairs. Just to make him suffer, we’re going to make him walk all the way up. And before he gets to the top step, I’m going to knock him back down and we’re going to do the biggest stair fall you’ve ever seen. And I’m going to make him climb it up again with Donnie Yen.”
Longtime John Wick fans will recall that this is not the first time the character has taken a tumble down some stairs. In the middle of a fight between John and Cassian (Common) in John Wick: Chapter 2, the pair threw each other down much smaller set of steps, then got up and kept fighting. It’s one of several callbacks and homages to earlier John Wick movies sprinkled throughout Chapter 4, which make the whole film a bit of a curtain call for the franchise, something Stahelski confirms was very much intentional.
“We’re very aware of that,” he says. “And that’s the silent movie gag of it all; repetition, making fun of ourselves, letting you know we’re in on the joke. I think that is important, because you can have some pretty serious thematics and emotional content, but at the end of the day, we’re audience members, too. And that makes us laugh.”
Shooting the Biggest Stair Fall Ever
Stahelski scheduled five days to shoot the stairwell sequence outside Sacré-Cœur. It ended up taking seven, in part because Stahelski prefers to shoot action scenes in order, which takes longer.
“I’m sure every other director you talk to, they all say we shoot out of order. I’m incredibly anal about shooting in order as much as I can,” he explains. “Obviously, there’s lighting, there’s environment, or it starts to rain, you have to bail, the actor’s unavailable. But as much as I can, I don’t try to abide by any schedule other than trying to make great shots happen. And if it makes people sit around for a little bit, or if. it makes the crew relight a little more … I think what f—s up action sequences sometimes is one unit’s doing this, another unit’s doing that. There needs to be an organic flow.”
Stahelski also notes there is something of a misconception about how fight scenes are achieved, at least on John Wick movies. There is intricate choreography that must be rehearsed and memorized, but that doesn‘t mean when Stahelski arrives on set he knows exactly what he’s going to do, or shoots things exactly according to the initial plan.
“People are always shocked when I tell them Keanu doesn’t know all the fights. He knows all the pieces,” Stahelski continues, “He can perform anything. But he comes to set going ‘Okay, what’s Chad going to change today?’ And by the second day in a fight scene, it’s flipped on its head and everybody’s like ‘What the…?’ and we’re choreographing on the spot. You can ask my choreographers, I drive them bats— crazy.”
For Stahelski, fights, like any other idea, “should evolve … I thought the [stairwell] fight was going to turn out one way, and then realized that I was wrong. We had a plan, but that plan lasted two days and went out the f—ing window when we saw how cool the stairs were. So yeah, you try to stay in order and you create as you go so you don’t backend yourself. I’m a big fan of that.”
The Man Who Fell to Earth
The ultimate moment in this bravura sequence comes when John Wick finally, after minutes of shooting and running and punching, makes it to the top of the Sacré-Cœur stairs only to immediately go tumbling all the way back down in a series of long takes. It’s brutal, painful — and kind of hilarious. So I had to know: Who took that fall?
“Vincent. We’re talking about Vincent [Bouillon], the French stuntman who was doubling Keanu most of the time,” Staheski reveals. “We had two main doubles for him. Vincent is the one that did the stair fall you see in the movie.”
It might seem like a delicate matter to ask someone to fall down hundreds of stairs — or, even worse, to ask them to do it a second time so you have more than one take to work with in the editing room, but Stahelski says that doesn’t really factor into the process.
“You’re with some of the best stunt people in the world and you’re all standing looking at a staircase. What do you think is going through their heads?” he laughs. “They’re not thinking ‘What’s the easiest way down there?’ They’re thinking “F— me, we’re about to create a legend!”
The Art of a Stunt Fall
Part of what makes Stahelski such an outstanding director of stunts is that he’s been a performer of stunts himself. (He famously doubled Keanu Reeves on the original Matrix movies.) So I asked him: How do you take a massive fall like the one in John Wick: Chapter 4? Is there an art to falling so it looks good but you don’t kill yourself? The secret, he told me, is something called “kinesthetic sense” or “air awareness,” along with a total lack of concern about one’s own welfare.
“You can’t hold back,” he adds. “You have to not worry about getting hurt. It’s a mindset more than physicality. Granted, our stunt team, our fight guys or stunt doubles, they’re some of the best in the game. As much as I spend time on casting, I’ll spend as much time casting the stunt people because I know what I’m gonna put them through. There’s got to be a genuine we-want-to-do-better-than-the-people-before-us kind of thing. So we get those kinds of mindsets. You need to have the physical ability and the mindset of ‘No, I’m going to do this. We’re going to make something special.’”
That same mindset comes in handy when things don’t quite work out as planned on the first take. As Stahelski notes, on Vincent Bouillon’s first attempt at the stair fall, he didn’t get very far.
“Take one: [Bouillon] did the big kick, landed, but he got hung up in the railing literally in the first ten steps. So it was a cut. He took a beat, and I’m like ‘F— dude, that was awesome. You all right?’ He’s like ‘Yeah, I’m ready to go again.’ The second take is what you see in the movie. That’s legit. He goes and he goes. That’s a hundred something steps. As far as we know, it’s the longest one we’ve seen. All in one. There’s no stitching. It’s an honest to god one-taker.”
But even after getting a great take, and possibly the longest stair fall in the history of movie stunts, the crew wasn’t done.
“It’s funny,” Stahelski laughs, “I don’t know if I was being a jerk, but I was like [to Bouillon] ‘Look, it’s just not enough.’ Like it was fun, I get the gag, but the whole thing needs to be subversive. I want the audience to clap and go ‘What the f—?’ But at the same time, how do I get them again? And then Vincent and this guy Florian [Beaumont] who was doubling the [main villain] character, came up and said ‘We’ve got an idea for you: I’m going to go down again. And I’ll go all the way down.’ And I’m like ‘Okay, let’s see it.’
This time they wanted to add a “tabletop” to the fall, where before Bouillon fell down the stairs, he’d spin and hit a light post first.
“Dude, there’s no way,” Stahelski replied. “You’re not going to be conscious.” But the stunt team insisted they could pull it off.
“So they do this second one,” Stahelski told me. “First take — it was a one-taker. They threw Vincent, he wrapped around and hit so hard. If I played you the real track, you can hear half the crew groaning. Like, they turned away. And then he goes down three more sets of stairs. I never thought he’d make it past the first one. So that’s what’s in the movie. That’s people doing what they love.”
A Stairwell That Isn’t Just a Stairwell
John Wick: Chapter 4’s stairwell fight works as a great moment of visual excitement, pathos, and humor, but it’s more than that. Starting from the bottom of this insurmountable obstacle, filmed from an angle that makes it seem like John Wick is so far underground he might as well be in the pits of hell, only for him to climb to the surface (where, of all things, a church awaits), lends the entire sequence some major religious overtones.
The stairwell “just fit with the location, the story, the theme. It all just came together,” Stahelski concurs. It sequence also works, in his words, as “a metaphor for the movie as a whole.”
It works as a metaphor for filmmaking in general too; every movie is a bit of an impossible journey against long odds and endless hurdles and hindrances. Once you solve one problem, two more crop up to knock you all the way back down the proverbial staircase again. Stahelski says the John Wick team knew the sequence was good while they were shooting it. And the response from audiences so far has confirmed that instinct.
“We’ve been doing the tour here,” he notes, “and I think it’s eight times now that we’ve screened the movie. There hasn’t been a single audience that hasn’t either cheered or gone ‘What the f—!’ We knew on the day we were gonna show people something special. I think that’s our obligation to entertainment.”
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