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Influencers: Chad Stahelski and David Leitch Turn Action Into Storytelling

The "John Wick" directors and stuntmen are two of IndieWire's craftspeople shaping the art of cinema today.

Chad Stahelski, left, and David Leitch, second right, co-directors of the film, "John Wick," demonstrate holding techniques during a training session at 87Eleven Action Design in Inglewood, Calif. Stahelski and Leitch have a shorthand when it comes to shooting sprees, mixed martial arts throw-downs, crazy car crashes and all kinds of explosions. After two decades performing, choreographing, coordinating and directing movie stunts together, Stahelski and Leitch have become experts at big-screen thrills. Their new movie starring Keanu Reeeves releases in theaters on Oct. 24"John Wick" Portrait Session, Inglewood, USA - 7 Oct 2014

Chad Stahelski, left, and David Leitch, second right.

Casey Curry/Invision/AP/Shutterstock

You likely know them as the directors behind films like “Hobbs & Shaw,” “Atomic Blonde,” “Deadpool 2,” and the three “John Wick” films, but Chad Stahelski and David Leitch made their mark on action films long before they became A-list directors. In 1997, the ambitious stunt performers started action design company 87Eleven with a dream of becoming leaders in practical action.

Keanu Reeves, whose collaboration with the duo dates back to when Stahelski was his stunt double on the first “Matrix,” has watched how his creative partners in the “John Wick” series built their business.

“When they started the company and then started to get a reputation for second unit directing, it’s because they brought that storytelling into it,” Reeves told IndieWire. “The way that they go about doing action was very story oriented with the characters: What’s the situation, what’s the story the director wants to tell? And I think they’ve been exceptional at delivering that.”

Over the last 22 years, however, Hollywood has moved in the opposite direction with the rise of green screen and action-as-special effects spectacle filmmaking. “It’s often so counterproductive,” said second unit director and stunt coordinator Darrin Prescott, part of the 87Eleven team. “Depending on the director or the production, a lot of times we’re fighting for the emotional logic of an action scene, and they’re fighting for trailer shots.”

In addition to action-story integration, Stahelski and Leitch have built their company on the power of practical action (their motto: “big action films demand real action stunts”) and the belief that doing it right means experience, specialization, time, preparation, and training. For directors who agree, like James Mangold (“Ford v Ferrari”) and Edgar Wright (“Baby Driver”) — both of whom relied on Prescott for their practical car race/chase films — that oasis of expertise, knowledge, and storytelling approach is invaluable.

Yet at the heart of the 87Eleven philosophy is the performer, and their bread-and-butter is training Hollywood’s elite thespians. It all stems from building the stunts and fights around what the actors can do and what they can be trained to do. No pyrotechnics can ever replace the months of training that Reeves and Halle Berry, two actors in their 50s, put into preparing for “John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum.”

“[They] are definitely of the school of, ‘Let’s put the actor in the position we wouldn’t normally put them, and through that evaluate and see what they could do or what they could help train me to do,” said Reeves. “[On ‘John Wick’], I thought of myself at the limit of the vision. So Chad and Dave would have a vision, the more I can do and the more we can see of their vision.”

Much like shooting on celluloid has seen a comeback, practical action has become cool again. However, the 87Eleven-ers warn that few are willing to do the pre-planning and carve out the time to do it right, but the company has continued to find its way into many of the biggest franchises, helping move the needle with every project.

There maybe no better example of than the MCU rise of frequent 87Eleven collaborator Sam Hargrave, who started off as Chris Evan’s stunt double on “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” and “Civil War.”

“He was Cap when it wasn’t Evans, and so much of the physicality came from Sam,” Marvel Studios president Kevin Feige told IndieWire. “And as Sam was elevated to [stunt] coordinator position and began to design the stunts – the actors trusted him, Chris trusted him, we trusted him. That influence began to expand to entire sequences and of course, now Joe and Ant [Russo] have hired him to direct a movie they are producing.”

 

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