Situated in a row of studios in the industrial district of Inglewood is a place where some of this last decade’s best action films have been hatched. This is 87eleven. Founders Chad Stahelski and David Leitch have created an all-purpose stunt school, and, here, Hollywood stars are trained to flip, fall and shoot, using any number of the hundreds of movie-set weaponry pieces — guns, bayonets, battle axes — that line the walls or fill the big barrels all over the room.
The team, which is responsible for the choreography of every punch and kick in The Hunger Games movies, The Expendables 3, and Jurassic World, ventured into creating their own movies back in 2014 when Stahelski took the director’s chair for the ultra-modern revenge flick John Wick, starring Keanu Reeves. Stahelski had been stunt doubling and choreographing for the Matrix actor since his first action film, Kathryn Bigelow’s Point Break, and John Wick was a chance to finally do an action sequence as Stahelski had always dreamed. And it was a hit. Now John Wick 2 is ready to K.O. the box office.
But what is it that makes the John Wick movies so unique?
“With us, it’s about process. It’s about protecting time to be creative…to do a good job,” Stahelski says. In a typical action film set, “The stunt team does their thing, the director just kind of sees the video, the cinematographer never sees the rehearsals, camera guys don’t show up to rehearsals, so you all show up on set, and even though the actor may know the moves, none of the other important people [do].” Stahelski says that leads to a host of problems that make action films feel disjointed, like poor lighting and a shaky cam and too much editing to cover up the director and cinematographer’s lack of knowledge on the stunts.
“We’re very, very thankful that we’ve all worked with Jackie Chan and his team, Jet Li and his team, and Yuen Woo-ping and his team, and we actually learned the synergistic effect from them,” Stahelski says. “They’re very, very good on having everyone on the same page … People forget that a lot of the matrix and our modern-day choreography aesthetics come from ’80s Hong Kong action.”
To develop John Wick’s fighting style, Stahelski turned to JJ Perry, whose time in the Army influenced the character’s abilities in close quarters combat. “It’s practical, tactical, CQC. Reality plus 10 percent,” Perry says. “Stay in the realm of what could happen. It’s not Superman. It’s reality-based.”
“There are no wire work or backflips in John Wick,” Stahelski adds. “But it does take a certain level of skill from our actor. We can bend the rules a little bit and still make it feel grounded.”
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Stahelski and Perry also draw inspiration from less likely sources.
“Harold Lloyd and Buster Keaton,” Stahelski says. “If you watch the first John Wick, no one talks for the first five minutes. Same with John Wick 2. I love silent film. If you can tell a story without the volume, and you still get it, I think you’ve done a great job as a filmmaker.”
With all this success, the 87eleven team is poised to reinvent American action movies. If Hollywood takes note, they may jump on board the “synergistic” style these guys have employed. And while these muscled fellows have every right to be getting a big ego right now, Stahelski and Perry know they’re standing on the shoulders of giants.
“If I ever feel cocky, I’ll go back and watch anything Jackie Chan from the mid-'80s or Hero, and watch the sword spear fight from Jet Li and Donnie Yen,” Perry says. “It’ll slap me right back down to reality.”