When director Chad Stahelski began work on the fourth “John Wick” movie, his ambition was to create an action epic in the mode of Sergio Leone’s “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly.” That meant that by the time the film got to its climactic set piece — a spectacular chase scene involving muscle cars racing around the Arc de Triomphe — that set piece had to live up to every previous action sequence in the franchise.
Second unit director and stunt coordinator Scott Rogers, who was responsible for all the car material in “John Wick: Chapter Four,” had a simple guiding principle to motivate the complicated choreography: “It’s what’s happening in the car that makes what’s happening outside of the car interesting,” he told IndieWire.
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To that end, Rogers knew that seeing his lead actor as much as possible was paramount. “There’s a reason Keanu Reeves is a movie star, because we want to see Keanu Reeves do what Keanu Reeves does,” he said. Inspired by the warehouse chase in “John Wick 2,” (Rogers didn’t come onto the series until its third iteration), Rogers ripped the doors off of Reeves’ car so that he would be more visible as he shifts, operates the brakes, and engages in various complex forms of gunplay while driving. That placed extra pressure on Reeves to learn how to do as much of the stunt driving as possible and created what Rogers said was his biggest challenge: “How do you get your star actor to drive a 500-horsepower car that’s specifically designed to slide and drift through oncoming traffic at 60 miles per hour safely?”
The first step was putting Reeves together with professional race car driver Tanner Foust, who taught the actor how to drift and execute the other complex moves required to accommodate Rogers and Stahelski’s concept. “Keanu comes with a skillset already, and you just add to that foundation,” Rogers said, noting that the sequence became a collaboration with Foust as well as Stahelski and Reeves. “Tanner said, ‘Wouldn’t it be cool if, since the door is off, he drifts the car and reaches out and picks up a gun?’ So Tanner figures out how to do it, teaches Keanu how to do it, and then we figure out where to put it in the movie.” All of this work, in which the set piece evolved step by step, was done nearly a year in advance of production in keeping with Stahelski’s practice of spending the bulk of his resources on prep and rehearsal to get the most out of his budgets.
Figuring out the action is one thing; figuring out how to shoot it is another. While the interplay between cars and guns in the Arc de Triomphe sequence is extraordinary, what really makes the set piece a classic is the way it’s shot, with the camera weaving in and out of the action in long takes that preserve the unity of space and make it clear that Reeves is doing a lot of his own driving and shooting. According to Rogers, a great deal of the scene was shot with a drone. “We developed the shots and then Tanner would train with the drone, getting the drone guys used to his driving,” Rogers said. “Then Tanner would train Keanu, and he would add his performance to the moves and we’d add the drone back in.”
Covering all of this action safely without compromising the suspense created yet another challenge for the filmmakers. The key was using lenses properly to either compress or expand the space to create the illusion of danger without risking anyone’s life. “If you shoot with a long lens from far away with both background and foreground action, everything looks more compressed,” Rogers said. “So in the Arc de Triomphe scene, we have foreground cars and background cars going in opposite directions, and it creates a strobe effect. Even though there are 10 feet on either side of Keanu’s car, it looks like he’s right in there.” Rogers’ team also placed yellow cones that the camera couldn’t see around the path where Reeves was intended to drive so that the other stunt drivers knew not to get in his lane. “When you shoot that in profile, it looks like the other cars are much closer than they are in reality.”
The filmmakers also used wide-angle lenses for certain shots to increase the perception of speed. “When you get a wide-angle lens and place it on the ground, it takes something that’s close and makes it look farther away because of the nature of the lens,” Rogers said. “Then, when the car drives past the lens, it traverses that space more quickly than in reality and it looks like it’s going much faster.” The result is a car chase that ranks right up there with classics of the genre like “The French Connection,” “To Live and Die in L.A.,” and the “Bourne” movies, and that beautifully achieves Rogers’ primary goal: “Shooting something that looks death-defying but isn’t death-defying at all.”
“John Wick: Chapter 4” is now in theaters.