John Wick: Chapter 4 is a masterclass in action cinema. Despite being nearly three hours long, the action extravaganza maintains momentum by letting the audience breathe between intense set pieces as we follow Keanu Reeves’ John Wick fighting for survival yet again. But it is the French-set action set pieces that electrify the last third of the movie in incredible ways, and were my focus of conversation with stunt coordinator and second-unit director Scott Rogers.
With the film earning much-deserved acclaim in year-end consideration, I caught up with Rogers to discuss what his role is in layman’s terms, how they shot the Arc de Triomphe sequence, the experience of working with Keanu Reeves, and whether he sees a future in directing.
The Film Stage: How are you today?
Scott Rogers: I’m great. How are you?
I can’t complain. I got to watch John Wick 4 again last night.
Oh, all right.
Yeah. Not a bad way to spend the evening.
So how many times have you seen it?
In theaters? Twice. I watched it one more time since then. So this would be number four.
Alright. So 16 hours of John Wick.
Yeah. [Laughs] Okay, So let me jump in here. If you meet someone new and they ask you what you do, what do you say?
I mean, generally, I make action. I was a stuntman, like Chad [Stahelski]. Chad and I came up together, so we went from stunt man to stunt coordinator to second-unit director. So I’ve been in the business making action movies for 30 years.
It would be easy for me to say that, in a way, it seems like you handle everything that is non-combat. So if there’s hand-to-hand combat, that’s not your realm. If there’s someone jumping, if there’s some kind of car event or some kind of set piece like that, that seems to be where you kind of take it over. Is that correct?
Yeah. What I tell people when they ask this is: I just do the traditional stunt stuff. You know, all the fighting and all that is handled by the wonderful [people]. I mean, Chad himself is one of the premier fight choreographers in the world. He’s trained-up a bunch of people and then he brings up a whole slew of people. So––as you correctly assumed––they handle all the combat stuff. Even the gun stuff, that’s sort of all in their purview. When you get into the horses and the motorcycles and John Wick falling and smashing into things and that type of stuff––what we call traditional stunts––that’s where I come in.
What’s funny about that, though, is because John Wick is such a unique franchise, they’ve blended a lot of things. So they’ve come up with the “gun-fu,” where it’s: here’s the stunt coordinator or here’s the weapon’s master, then there’s the fight coordinator. Now they have to interact to figure it all out. I imagine there’s a little bit of interplay with you as well, because the cars in particular have now become a part of the action to the point where they’re slamming into people. He’s driving it in a certain way that it’s become choreography as well.
We’re all in the fight. We’re all a big team. When I did John Wick 3 and I was telling the producers––even though I was the stunt coordinator––I go, “You know, I’m not the head of my department.” “Well, of course you are.” “No, Chad is.” I mean, ultimately we all answer to him. Rarely do you work for a director that has done your job. Not rarely––never do you work for a director that has actually done your job before. So it adds a different element to it. He knows what’s possible. But my experience is different than his. Chad came up in the fighting world, so that was his thing, and I came out of the rigging world––the Spider-Mans and the Bournes and stuff like that. So I think our skill sets complement each other. But having done so much of it, we try to blend it all so it doesn’t look like separate set pieces––that it all fits in the John Wick world.
I would imagine, with most stunts on other sets, does the director look to you like, “Hey, do you think we nailed that stunt?” And I imagine Chad has a different kind of attitude to that, right? He’s more in-tune with whether we can do this better or whether that was a great take. How much is that kind of conversation happening on set?
Quite a bit. But it is different just because I think Chad and I have a shorthand that maybe I wouldn’t have with another director. And yes, he does know. So if you do something and it’s like, “Go again,” he’s going to have his opinion. And I’ll even say, “No, I think it can be better,” because I’m the one––specifically with the traditional stuff––rehearsing it. I know who we’re working with. Specifically with John Wick 4, you had such an international stunt team. I mean, it was Bulgarians and French and Japanese and German and an American––it was all over. And the interesting thing about it was––Chad knew them all, but you obviously couldn’t get to know them.
He didn’t get to spend that much time with them because he had to direct the movie. So he was looking at his lieutenants, which would be Jeremy Marinas with the fights and Laurent Demanioff. He really relied on them. “Can we get it better?” Because everyone has their limits. Chad is going to know more about what’s possible than any traditional director.
For the Arc de Triomphe sequence in particular, one of the things that sets it apart is actual vehicles on that set. You shot that at an airport to serve as a double of the Arc itself, but the car hits are so visceral and there’s a great interplay of the foreground and background. You said it was supposed to look like they were getting hit at 60 miles per hour, but it was actually 30- or 20-mile-per-hour hits. How much of that effect is on set vs. in post-production?
I’m not in the edit at that point, but it is a balance––that’s for damn sure. Because we all like to make visceral action that looks, on camera, bone-crushing––gets a reaction, gets everyone to kind of hold their breath or be shocked. But in reality, these are still really humans. Cars weigh 2,500 pounds. There are definitive limits. So we had to come up with ways to mitigate the real risk. I’m very proud of the entire team and everything we did because, despite all of that, I think one guy tweaked his shoulder, another guy sprained an ankle. And that’s about it. When you’re hitting somebody with a car, there are real risks there.
We brought in [stunt drivers] Tanner Foust and Jay Lynch. You have some of the premier drivers. You have guys that traditionally just do fights and then you have stunt guys. And a lot of the guys we had there did both and they were willing to do this car hit once they trusted in the drivers. “Drivers, you’re going to come skidding in, so you’re going to come in at 25, 30 miles an hour.” But he’s going to be skidding in and he’s going to hit this exact mark. So you see him coming fast, but they’re really coming to a stop as you get hit by the car.
And once they each knew that they were going to hit their marks, they really started to be able to push the limits. It really started with trust and everybody working together and taking the time. And we put in a lot of effort. I think that’s one of the things that separates John Wick––you get to spend a lot more time on some of these, prepping some of these scenes [versus] traditional films would let you do or would spend the money with 15 stunt guys.
You know, the Top Shot [Dragon’s Breath sequence] that everybody loves, we spent five weeks with 15 guys or so prepping that thing. No movie would do that for two-and-a-half minutes of film. There’s a real cost to it. But then, at the end of the day, it’s actually really pretty cheap.
Let’s be honest––you’re looking at the top of [Keanu Reeves’] head most of the time, but he wanted to do it so you couldn’t have him do a 45-second take and be the guy that screwed it up, right? So everyone had to be on-point. It’s the same with the car sequence with Keanu Reeves going to grab a guy and throw him into the car. Everybody had to be rehearsed. Everybody had to know their spots. You’re not asking a guy to get hit by a car more than he needed to, and you’re not asking Keanu, at his age, to run through cars and do all this and then fight, fight, fight, and do these long takes that are synonymous with John Wick.
So that’s where a lot of the rehearsing comes in with the team: to make sure that you’re not exhausting Keanu because he’ll just keep going and he will almost never say, “No.” Everything around him has to be ready so he can be comfortable to do his best.
At what point do you end up having to step in? “Hey, we do actually need to have you sub out a little bit on this stunt or that stunt?” How much do you have to have that conversation with him? Or is he pretty understanding of: this is going to take another couple of weeks of prep time or we can have the stunt guy come in and nail it?
No, I think it’s pretty obvious. I’ve seen interviews where he puts it really well. He goes, “I do action. I don’t do stunts.” I’ve heard him tell people, “If it’s better for the movie for me to do it, then I’ll do the best that I can. If it’s better for the movie for the professional, then they’ll do it.” He really just relies on Chad and myself and the fight team to tell him, “No, we need you to do this.” He does more than most actors, that’s for sure.
But you don’t want him to hit the ground. You got to get him through an entire movie. You do a big, huge fight scene in the first few days of a 100-day shoot. In John Wick 3, he tweaked his knee, I think, the second or third day of shooting. And I remember thinking, “How are we going to get through this whole movie?” But he just keeps plodding along. And that’s why we love watching Keanu Reeves be John Wick.
I listened to an interview with Chad where he was saying how critical he is about safety and how much he thinks about it beyond just, “Hey, we have prepped and everything is safe.” He always thinks of it two steps ahead. “Okay, well, if this car does X, Y, and Z and we’re all over here, is there still risk there? Okay, let’s move the crew.” How much of that kind of bleeds into you from him?
I mean, my job is to make sure he doesn’t have to worry about that. Chad, historically, gets on set sometimes as much as an hour before call. So he kind of walks around the set and looks at things. But I’d be remiss if I showed up and it was all set up and he looked over and goes, “What happens if this goes bad? Why are those people there?” That obviously means I’m not doing my job. So having done John Wick 3 and 4 with minimal incidents, I like to think I’ve done a pretty good job. You never stop. It’s part of our DNA to think about people’s safety because that’s where we came from. But that’s ultimately my job: to make sure everyone goes home, whether it’s the crew or the actors or the stunt people. Everyone goes home at the end of the day and comes back ready to work the next day.
Chad has this background as a stunt coordinator and as a second-unit director. You have now taken some of these second-unit director gigs. Is that a future that you see for yourself?
I spent most of last year directing second-unit. So it’s sort of a natural progression. My mentor was this guy, Dan Bradley, who is a generation ahead of Chad and I. He was a big, huge second-unit director along with Simon Crane and some of the other big names out there. It’s a natural progression. So, to be honest: I much prefer directing over stunt-coordinating. It’s very stressful. Specifically when you want to do something that’s never been done before, something that’s really interesting or engaging in the action world––especially if you’re doing it for real––it’s stressful. Takes a lot out of you.
So to be directing that versus coordinating that. [Laughs] It’s a lot easier to direct it, let me put it that way. So yeah, hopefully my career will continue to move that way.
In terms of assembling your crew, what comes under your purview as stunt coordinator?
Again, as you pointed out earlier, I really handled the traditional stunt stuff. So when it got into rigging, we got in the cars but it’s still a team effort. We had [Stephen] Dunlevy kind of under me. And cars. I’ve done a bunch of car stuff. Tanner Foust, I brought him out.
Darrin Prescott, who is a really close friend of both Chad and I, did the first three John Wicks. He was a stunt coordinator and second-unit director on the first one and then just the second-unit director on two and three. He usually had Jeremy Fry do a lot of driving but Jeremy wasn’t available, and that’s when we got Tanner. And then you really lean on those guys. They live in that world. That’s just what they do. As the sequence was developing, “We’re going to need ten drivers.”
You let the guys that live in that world pick. And I’d be like, “Hey, let’s make sure we get Jay Lynch.” Because there’s a difference between driving when you’re responsible for you in that car. Like Jay Lynch, who’s done a lot of the [Fast and the Furious] movies and he’s done a lot of car stuff with hitting people and stuff.
Because when you got to drive and hit a person, that’s a whole different level of stress. Just like writers or just like doctors or anything else. Not everybody’s created equal and some people are better at things than others. And Jay Lynch is one of those guys. It’s just extraordinary, that part of it, handling a car in and around people. You just start developing the team and that’s where all the prep and everything comes in. It just takes time, you know?
What’s the overall prep time on a big studio movie versus John Wick?
Well, right before John Wick I did Uncharted, and I’d come in replacing somebody and coordinated and directed second-unit and basically did the whole movie with two weeks of prep.
Oh my gosh! [Laughs]
So John Wick takes months of prep. A lot of it’s training. It’s just very different. Like the motorcycle sword fight in John Wick 3––I mean, that took months of developing. You had to figure out how to build the bikes and you’re making phone calls and you’re looking at the way things have been done before and “how do we do that better” and finding the right effects guy to make it.
So it’s just very different because you have the studio, the producers––everybody knows, because of Chad, you’re going to get what you need to get. In an Uncharted situation, they’re like, “Well, this is what you have. Do the best you can with this.” So it’s a little different.
John Wick: Chapter 4 is now available digitally and on home video.