One Take. Three Days. A Painstaking Dance.

Here’s how the explosive John Wick: Chapter 4 Dragon’s Breath shoot-out came together.

Photo: YouTube
Photo: YouTube
Photo: YouTube

Over three ultraviolent, neon-lit, mythologically elaborate films, we’ve seen Keanu Reeves’s reluctant assassin John Wick do it all. How to (maybe) wrap the franchise with a final installment that gives audiences something new? A trio of white-knuckle action sequences in John Wick: Chapter 4’s final hour seemed like the answer. All are set in Paris — the first one in the traffic circle around the Arc de Triomphe, the last hurling Wick down the 222 stairs leading to the Sacré-Cœur Basilica. But the sequence in the middle, an apartment-set shoot-out, posed a problem.

“The staircase I knew I could own because it was a metaphor for Sisyphus rolling the boulder up the hill and being knocked down. We had that dialed in; we had the Arc de Triomphe dialed in,” director Chad Stahelski says. “The apartment fight wasn’t clicking. It was just a fight in an apartment. And I’m like, How do we shift perspective?” The former stuntman, who has helmed every John Wick installment, found the “special sauce” of inspiration in the 2019 video game Hong Kong Massacre, which unfolds from a bird’s-eye view. “There was a visual there that shouldn’t have made sense but did,” he says. “It was part video game, part anime, part cinematic experience.”

Stahelski and the crew turned this shoot-out into one of the most visually arresting segments of the entire John Wick franchise. The camera’s smooth movement, the explosive bursts of light from the Dragon’s Breath ammunition, the choreography required to nail the one-take shot — it all combines into what cinematographer Dan Laustsen calls “a really good gag.”

“You want it to feel natural”

Photo: YouTube

Stahelski shared clips from Hong Kong Massacre with the crew, and together they began brainstorming how to apply its camera approach to Chapter 4. Two components were key to making the sequence work: the top-down perspective that lets viewers see the foes before Wick does and the flammable destruction of the Dragon’s Breath rounds, which provide a dazzling layer of tension and chaos.

A crucial detail of production designer Kevin Kavanaugh’s plan for the seven-room apartment set (built at Studio Babelsberg in Potsdam, Germany) was its height — the walls had to be tall enough for the camera to track Wick up a stairwell into the first room and then continue floating and settling above him.

“You want it to feel natural so you’re not all of a sudden just in this weird top shot,” stunt coordinator Scott Rogers says. “That really became our biggest challenge: the lack of height.” The production team worked for a month to build a space with 12-to-14-foot walls, though “if we had a ceiling that was 20 feet higher,” Rogers adds, “everything would have been easier.”

Meanwhile, as French stunt coordinator Laurent Demianoff choreographed the scene’s hand-to-hand and firearms action, Stahelski, Laustsen, and Rogers ran through “probably a dozen different concepts” of how to get the shot in one (seemingly) uninterrupted take. (“There’s only one seam in there, and that’s before we light the guys on fire in the kitchen,” Stahelski explains. “The rest is all one take.”)

All that prep came up against a tight deadline. “The set was literally built and finished on a Sunday night, and we started shooting Monday,” Stahelski remembers.

To film the scene, the crew used a Spidercam system designed and operated by Laustsen and his team. Often employed to film professional sports, the Spidercam is suspended between four wires attached to different corners of the set and is remotely controlled by an operator with a joystick. It can tilt and pan at the same time, allowing it to move down closer to the actors as necessary — and when Wick steps into the apartment’s entryway, the action properly begins.

“Okay, that means I can’t mess up”

Photo: YouTube

John Wick: Chapter 4 is the longest film of the franchise, and maintaining fluid pacing is one of its foremost priorities. “If John Wick does nothing else exceptionally well, there’s a rhythm to it,” says Rogers. “It’s a dance, and there’s a rhythm to the dance, and it builds and builds, and it comes down, and then it builds.”

At the center of that dance is Reeves, who continues to perform the majority of his own stunts in Chapter 4 — even for the apartment scene, which almost exclusively features the top of his head. “We could have done it without him; you never see his face until the camera comes down,” Rogers says. “But he was like, ‘No, I want to do it. I want to do this.’”

Stahelski remembers explaining his idea for a one-take shot to Reeves. “Okay, that means I can’t mess up,” he recalls the actor saying. “He just looks at me and goes, ‘Cool, I got to go to the gym. I better practice more.’”

Demianoff spent three weeks on the scene’s choreography, while the stunt team put together a proof of concept that Laustsen used to coordinate the lighting and the Spidercam’s exact route through the apartment. The stunt actors playing Wick’s enemies were tasked with executing complicated choreography with painstaking precision. “Every time one person messes up, you’re back to the beginning, and it wasn’t an easy reset,” Stahelski says.

To capture every detail of the shoot-out — every Wick reload, Dragon’s Breath ember, and Tracker’s dog racing across the furniture — as vividly as possible, Laustsen changed the cameras and lenses to “bigger format, bigger sensor” options from those he had used in the second and third John Wick films.

“It’s shot much wider and tighter. We took all the middle sizes out,” Laustsen says. “We were thinking a lot about Once Upon a Time in the West,” the Sergio Leone spaghetti western famous for its sweeping shots of Utah’s Monument Valley and its close-ups of stars Charles Bronson and Henry Fonda.

Finally, late in the German production schedule, it was time to go from rehearsal to reality. It was bumpy at first. “The camera guys have rehearsed, the stunt guys have kind of rehearsed, Keanu’s kind of rehearsed, but we’ve never done it all together,” Stahelski says. “So the first day was by far the roughest. But then you kind of get your rhythm and everybody comes in sync.”

“How beautiful can I make it?”

Photo: YouTube

When the scene begins, the space is so bluish black that Wick and his assailants look almost like silhouettes — until the first Dragon’s Breath round explodes. The searing light from the shotguns is entrancing and creates new shadows and distractions.

The set was lit by a mixture of tungsten, LED, and neon lights placed outside the apartment (“Each room had to have a different character,” Laustsen says), while the explosions created by the Dragon’s Breath rounds were created digitally. Stahelski held on to the idea of using the flammable ammo specifically for the top-down shot to add life to a scene that would otherwise be spent “looking at the same color floor.”

Without the Dragon’s Breath, “the shot would be a lot more boring. It wouldn’t last half as long,” explains Rogers. (Stahelski recalls Laustsen’s similar reaction to the top-down idea: “What are you, crazy? That’s going to bore the crap out of people.”)

Stahelski asked himself, “How many different colors can I put in this scene? How beautiful can I make it?” The eureka moment: “Screw it. I’m just going to light people on fire.”

The crew couldn’t use actual Dragon’s Breath rounds, so Laustsen and his team used a flame gun to create a lighting reference for the visual-effects department, which later added the sparks and flares. Visual effects also helped maintain continuity when Wick’s assailants catch fire in the apartment’s kitchen (done practically by the stunt team) and when the scene briefly cuts to some ground action of Wick fending off attackers.

But the rest of the scene was shot as a oner. Stunt coordinator Steve Dunlevy kept the beat, counting from 1 to 60 on a microphone so everyone could hit their marks at the right time, from the staircase opening and initial camera drift, through the kitchen fire — which took more than 30 takes, Stahelski says — and ending with Wick and the Tracker chasing each other through the apartment before the former jumps out a window. “We shot the whole thing in less than three days,” Stahelski says.

At the wrap, the cast and crew knew they had something special — an “entertaining” and “ludicrous” effort, as Rogers puts it, that captures what makes a John Wick movie a John Wick movie. But in the editing room, Stahelski found himself fighting to keep the sequence in. He’s glad he won.

“When you see the top shot without all the cool effects and you don’t see any of the Dragon’s Breath coming out with the muzzle flashes, what do you think is on the cutting table? Until pretty much the end, that was on the list that a lot of other people thought we should cut,” Stahelski says. “It wasn’t until we put in the temp visual effects that people go, ‘Oh, fuck. We didn’t think it was going to be anything like that.’ And I’m like, ‘Good thing we didn’t cut it.’”

Additional reporting by Vulture senior reporter Chris Lee. 

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One Take. Three Days. A Painstaking Dance.