Welcome to Awards Contenders. This month, SYFY WIRE is talking to the actors, directors, designers, and craftspeople whose work was featured in the best movies and TV offerings of 2019, and who are now leading awards nominees. Today, we're speaking with director Chad Stahelski about John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum, nominated for Best Action Film at the Critics' Choice Awards.
John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum is, like the two Wick films that preceded it, a cornucopia of spectacular stunts — the knife fight, the book fight, and the horse-fu, to name but a few. But the most significant one is the last one in the film, in which Winston shoots John Wick on the roof of the Continental Hotel and we watch as Wick falls off the top of a five-story building and slams into a fire escape and a metal awning on his way down into an alley (from which he later appears to disappear). Many viewers thought that fall was all CG, but it's not. Although it was augmented by various effects, the fall was real, and director Chad Stahelski explained to SYFY WIRE how it was done.
"They're supposed to be down in the New York financial district," Stahelski says. "So we scouted the buildings down there and realized that just throwing John Wick off of a 60-foot-tall roof required too much suspension of disbelief."
Instead, Stahelski and his team realized that they would have to break Wick's fall into sections — into what he called a "chip fall."
"John 'chips' off of things on the way down," Stahelski says. "Which is like the compound fall often done in Hong Kong movies, although not at this height. John is bouncing off one thing to another thing to another thing." Those pieces of the fall are then reassembled via visual effects.
To make this work, the production constructed a mock alleyway — a whole side of a building, a foam rubber fire escape, and a slanted awning protecting some air-conditioning units. It looked like typical New York scaffolding except for the huge blue-screen panels.
"We couldn't find the perfect alley," Stahelski says. "So we did a 3D mapping of an alleyway, and then visually bent it around our scaffolding into what you see in the movie, which is a digital environment based on real locations."
The first piece of the fall is Keanu Reeves' stunt double Jackson Spidell sliding off a slanted extension of the roof and landing in the first impact zone, the collapsible fire escape. (It gives a bit, but it's still a hard landing.) A digital frame match overlaps the hitting of the railing, so Wick can continue falling on screen, even if Spidell does not.
"It's pretty impressive," Stahelski says. "Jackson Spidell is a very good acrobat, and he trained and rehearsed to do this as a free-fall for the first 40 feet. No wires."
The second piece of the fall is the aftermath of that first landing. After John Wick slams into the fire escape, he ricochets off of it to hit the metal canopy over the A/C units on the other side of the alleyway, before bouncing from there to the ground. "It's about 18 feet onto a really soft mat, which looks like the street," Stahelski says. "Then we digitally erase the edges on the padding, so it looks like real street."
Stahelski estimates that the John Wick films spend twice as much time in prep and development as most big action movies. "At the end of the day, we're trying to create the illusion that everything we do is somewhat or mostly practical," he says. "And this particular fall delivers a big impact. We shake the audience up. It looks like, 'Ooh, that must have hurt!'"