Out of Exile
Filmed in New York City and nearby Rockland County, John Wick captures some of
the area's most iconic landmarks and locations, from the idealized pastoral
vistas of John's marital home to the cavernous concrete canyons of Manhattan.
The settings, say the filmmakers, are meant to be familiar, yet not of this
world and, perhaps, not quite like any world audiences have seen before.
"This movie has real style," says producer Basil Iwanyk. "There is an intensity
to the visuals that is based on some of the iconic conventions of the graphic
The filmmakers invented two separate and contrasting worlds for John Wick.
First, there is the very private, rural world of John's life with Helen. "That
is very organic and warm; very cinema verite real," says Leitch. "Once he
crosses back over, he enters the hyper-real world of the assassins, where the
situations are heightened and the characters are a little over the top.
Everything in that world is pushed a bit."
Production Designer Dan Leigh jokes that there were not two worlds, but two of
everything on John Wick. "There were always a couple of opinions," he says. "I
approached the story as more of a fable, which ties into the graphic-novel idea.
The visual manifestation of that is something that transcends reality. The light
is a little bit different. There's texture in the air. There are unexpected
"Derek doesn't provide a lot of details about the world, which is one of the
things we liked about it," says Leitch. "He provides plenty of clues, but
there's still so much mystery."
The clues include gold coins that serve as currency and the exclusive
institutions that shelter the assassins and their assets. "We've constructed a
very specific, interesting, well-rounded world," says Iwanyk. "Everyone wears a
suit. Everyone looks sharp."
It's a world that takes patience and cunning to gain entry into. "Most of it is
never seen by other people," says Nyqvist. "It exists not just in New York but
also in Rome or Paris, wherever you go. It has different rules than the regular
world. You have to know who is who to get in, and once you are there, it's like
a very brutal chess game. This world is very hard and very strict. It's a
The hub of the New York underworld is the aforementioned Continental, an uber-stylish
hotel and bar. "The Continental is the meeting place for all the high-end bad
says Stahelski. "It is the Switzerland of the movie. You go there to make your
contacts and your deals. Anything off those sacred grounds is fair game, but
when you are at the Continental, you behave."
The strict formality of the underworld appealed to Reeves. "Everyone is really
sophisticated. We deal in gold coins. Ian McShane's character, Winston, runs the
Continental Hotel and speakeasy where the assassins go to relax. It's a very
tasteful safe house. The whole world has romance and civilization."
The Continental is not a hotel that can be found in tourist guidebooks.
Production Designer Leigh had to construct the elegant hostelry from several
sources. "We had to put together different elements that added up to what Chad
and David envisioned," he says. "They wanted the exterior to look like the
Flatiron Building, the iconic three-sided building on Fifth Avenue. We found a
similar facade for the exterior and we didn't have to do much to it. Inside was
a different story. We used a classic early-1920s art-deco lobby and updated it
with different kinds of textures and patterns and lighting that are very
contemporary. The result is a very stylized idea of a lobby, as opposed to
something that's completely realistic."
Every visual element was selected with the utmost care, according to Leitch. "We
are trying to create an entire world by choosing the right costumes, choosing
the right hair-in really making things feel a little off."
Working with Director of Photography Jonathan Sela, the filmmakers developed a
signature style that depends on the scope and depth of anamorphic widescreen to
create larger-than-life panoramas. "Using the anamorphic format helped us find
the right feeling for both worlds," explains Leitch. "In the more organic early
world, we have beautiful landscapes on these epic frames. In the assassin world,
we created great flares and sprawling city views. We didn't do any of the things
we normally do cinematically. There aren't a lot of fast cuts. We didn't use a
long lens or a shaky cam and there are more long takes. Because Keanu could do
the stunt work himself, we didn't have to try to hide stunt doubles."
Stahelski and Leitch took an active role in developing a hybrid fighting style
for Reeves' character that involves martial arts and gun work, working with
87eleven's top stunt coordinators. "It's something we don't think people have
seen before," says Iwanyk. "We like to call it 'gun fu'."
As skilled as Reeves is, the training for John Wick was among the most intensive
Stahelski and Leitch have ever implemented. "On a movie this size and shot in
this way, we
had to be able to change things as we went along," explains Stahelski. "It was
essential for him to be proficient in a variety of techniques. He spent four
solid months getting in shape, learning judo and jiujitsu. We wanted to use
practical grappling martial arts and mix in guns, so we created a new style of
Playing an assassin opened up an enormous toolbox for Reeves to reach into. "In
terms of weapons, I had the chance to work with tactical pistols and long guns,"
the actor says. "The action sequences are really ambitious. Chad created longer,
mise-en-scĂ¨ne scenarios instead of using just quick cuts, which I was really
excited about. The choreography became very complicated. It's bang, bang, bang
and then throw someone, stab them-all sorts of fun stuff. I also did some stunt
driving with the wonderful and amazing Jeremy Fry. I got to slide a car around
and do some drifting."
The training took place in 87Eleven's dedicated training facility. "There are
weights, wires, weapons, green screens and trampolines for training," Reeves
says. "It's a dojo of action design."
The actor's commitment to training was awe-inspiring, says Iwanyk. "Without
question he was more committed to physical training for the movie than any actor
on any movie I've ever worked on," the producer adds. "He started months before
shooting began, five days a week, eight hours a day. He carved out his entire
summer to become John Wick."
When shooting finally began, New York City provided a dramatic backdrop for the
high-style, big-action story. "We always knew this movie had to take place in
New York," says Iwanyk. "Manhattan just naturally feels hyper-real. The
buildings, the architecture, the scale of everything and the variety all worked
"New York is an important element in the underground experience," adds Reeves.
"There's something gothic about the city, mysterious and beautiful. We found
locations that are hyper-New York because of the framing, the lens and the
Similarly, when John transforms back to John Wick, the visuals lead the way. His
sharp black suit is the first signifier of his return. "If we speak about John
Wick's suit, we have to speak about our Costume Designer, Luca Mosca," says
Reeves. "He gave the clothing so much subtle meaning. All the different shades
of black that Luca used gave it a lot of overtones. It's funereal and it's
priestly. It's also very chic, but it doesn't call attention to itself. When I
put the suit on, it definitely affects me."
Mosca brought an inspired touch to the elegance and sophistication the
filmmakers asked him to incorporate in his designs. "People in this movie dress
extraordinarily well," the designer says. "It's a little bit of a fantasy world,
visually speaking, with beautiful homes, extreme money, sophisticated objects
and fine art. I had to make a statement with every character.
"For John Wick, we needed to find him a sort of uniform to be worn almost
throughout the entire movie," Mosca continues. "Then we had to tailor it
perfectly and make it sleek and timeless enough to fit into this perfect world."
Looking back on the experience of directing John Wick, director Stahelski says,
"Making a movie is actually fairly easy. Making a good one is much harder. It
was a huge learning experience and I'm very proud of it. We stretched our
schedule to the absolute limits. We fought for what we believed in, and chose to
make a story-driven, character-driven action movie. That's why I chose to do it.
This was an opportunity to do something that wasn't just about cars, explosions,
fire and fights. Yes, John fights; yes, he shoots guns; and he drives a car very
fast, but the focus was always trying to do something cinematically different."
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