Though it hasn’t reached the fever pitch of absurdity of The Fast and the Furious franchise just yet—a series that began as a Point Break riff but now includes nuclear submarines and Pontiac Fieros in space —the John Wick saga has certainly expanded from its humble beginnings. Produced independently and shot in New York on a budget in the mid-$20 million range, the original film found its titular assassin (played by Keanu Reeves) emerging from retirement to avenge the death of his dog.
Four chapters later, Reeves is hopping between New York City, Osaka, Berlin, Paris and the Wadi Rum desert in Jordan with a $100 million budget as he slashes through hundreds of hitmen on his way to a showdown with new villain Bill Skarsgård, who plays an emissary of the High Table tasked with eliminating Wick.
The running time of the latest chapter has also expanded accordingly to a robust 169 minutes. Editor Nathan Orloff spoke to Filmmaker about wrestling the film down to its final length, why you have to cut Keanu Reeves and Donnie Yen differently and how a kick is like a line of dialogue.
Filmmaker: This is your first film in the series. How are the rules for cutting a John Wick action scene different from other contemporary action set pieces? The basic philosophy seems to be to keep things as wide as possible for as long as possible.
Orloff: One of the reasons [director/producer] Chad Stahelski wanted to hire me—and he told me this late in the process—was that I didn’t actually have that much experience cutting other action films. He didn’t want other styles of action cutting being applied to John Wick footage. He gave me films for reference at the outset and that included old school musicals like Singin’ in the Rain, where you don’t use the edit to punch up the dancing. You edit around it: They finish a move, they finish a beat, then you cut and start a new bit. John Wick was very much that. I don’t need to use an edit to make Keanu more impressive. I don’t need to use an edit to make any stuntman in John Wick look better. Getting out of the way of the actors and stuntmen is the hallmark of the series. And it’s something that I wanted to honor because it’s so well done in the previous films. We want to put forth that these people are really doing these things. That’s why we use wide shots., that’s why we use long takes.
Filmmaker: How much does the way these films are covered on set dictate how you edit? It’s not like you have a bunch of handheld tight shots to get you out of trouble.
Orloff: Honestly, that was one of the biggest challenges. There were not a lot of ways to cheat. Normally, the ways that you can cut time out of action scenes is either large lifts or cross-cutting to other scenes. And with John Wick, like you said, you can’t just use a handheld shot to cut around a problem. Even the B-Cam shot is an elegant wider angle. It’s usually maybe waist or knee up, while the A-Cam is the full head to toe, and often the angle is like you’re watching it happen onstage from the best seat in the house. You have to find clever ways to smoothly get to the next wide shot. It was really a challenge.
Filmmaker: What was your general philosophy, then, on when to cut? Because Stahelski doesn’t like to cut mid-action. He doesn’t want the edit point to be the middle of a punch.
Orloff: I think of action like dialogue, where basically a kick is like a line of dialogue, but it’s different in that I can’t just pick out the takes with my favorite lines. My favorite take might not work, because you’re dealing with stunts, and they are going to land at different places in different takes. So, the place where the next shot needs to start might not match right with how they did it [in the take I liked best]. That’s one of the reasons I was [on location] during shooting, so that if something was a problem, I was there to flag it.
Filmmaker: How often did that happen?
Orloff: Only once.
Filmmaker: Let’s hear the story.
Orloff: It’s the beat—and it’s not even an action beat—in the exhibition hall sequence where Keanu and Caine [played by Donnie Yen] meet for the first time. The camera pulls back and (John) has his nunchucks, then [it cuts to] Caine and the shot pulls back and he has his gun. So, it’s this contrast between the gun and the nunchucks. The first time it was shot, the movement didn’t match. The pullbacks didn’t match timing. It was not going to work. I came to set and showed Chad the cut on my iPad and was like, “We need a wide shot. I need to see these two characters facing each other.” And Chad said, “Alright, let’s go back to that beat. Nate says we need this.” And we used that shot in the movie. It’s actually a great western-esque moment. But that was the only time.
Filmmaker: One of the things Chad became known for when he was a stunt coordinator was shooting these “stunt vis” sequences during prep. He’d essentially shoot the scene in his training space from the angles he thought it should be filmed from, then cut it together as a template of what the scene could look like. Did you look at that stunt vis at all or did you prefer to go in fresh?
Orloff: I was willing to do whatever Chad wanted to. This being the fourth film, I wanted to respect his process. So, it was Chad’s choice, but he never gave me any of that. He would sometimes show it to me on set on his laptop or phone, just to be like, “Look how cool this is.” But once they get on location it changes too much anyway and Chad really didn’t want me to have my impressions colored. What Chad does with previz—and it’s ingenious—is make sure the cut will work. If we do it this way, the cut will work. It’s a checksum for him versus something that has to be adhered to.
Filmmaker: The final running time is around 170 minutes, but at one point you had a pretty fine cut that ran about 15 minutes longer. What was your favorite thing that you had to cut from those 15 minutes?
Orloff: The thing I loved the most that we lost was a sequence in Berlin where John goes and gets a gun from this really adorable shop owner, this older German lady. He wants to buy a fancy gun and can’t because he doesn’t have any money. So, he gives her his watch and she gives him a shitty gun. There are people coming after him and he gets the gun just in time to shoot them. It was a really cute scene and I put this fun little piece of old German music in the back of it, but it was like 10 minutes, and nothing really changed [in terms of moving the story forward]: he got guns during that scene, that was pretty much it. That’s the reason he shows up at the church with three weapons. He killed three people and took their guns. That was the thing that I loved that we lost just because it was adorable and fun, but ultimately it was unnecessary.
The most challenging thing was just the general compression. Compression without losing the soul of the movie is the hardest thing as an editor. If you compress too much, the scenes become bad and when that happens the movie can actually end up feeling longer even though it’s shorter. Those last 15 minutes just became a matter of, “Let’s lose this stunt from here. That’s two seconds. If we lose these lines here, it’s another 10 seconds.” We were scraping as much as we could and sometimes breaking the movie, then putting it back. Nothing wholesale was removed in those final 15 minutes. It was just compressing lines, removing lines, removing action that wasn’t as up to par as other action.
Filmmaker: You mentioned Berlin, but the movie also takes place in four or five different settings. You don’t use onscreen text to tell the audience when the location shifts. Sometimes, it’s pretty obvious, like if the Eiffel Tower is in the background. But in general, how do you elegantly acclimate the audience to a new location as you’re hopping around the globe?
Orloff: To me our approach mirrors how unapologetic the movie is in general in terms of not spoonfeeding the audience information. If you hadn’t recently seen the first three films, there’s no catchup, no one summarizing at the beginning of the movie. That’s Chad’s style and I respect it so much. And, ultimately, the important part is John’s journey. For example, when he goes to see Winston (Ian McShane) in New York, it’s not really important that it’s New York. What’s important is the emotionality of the scene. It would be so easy on the wide shot of John in the snow as the camera booms up to have text say “New York,” but—and I’m going to sound pretentious here—it would break the visual poetry. John is this black obelisk in a sea of white. There are these black trees pointing like an arrow to one destiny. Putting text on the screen would ruin that.
Filmmaker: You lean into that visual poetry in the opening scene. You’re crosscutting between close-ups of Keanu punching this rope-covered board and a soliloquy from Lawrence Fishburne. Then you pay homage to Lawrence of Arabia as Fishburne blows out a match and you cut to a desert sunrise.
Orloff: I did my due diligence. I looked at Lawrence of Arabia and studied how many frames there were exactly after he blew out the match before cutting to the sunrise. It’s a testament to what kind of film Chad was making. Each John Wick film has been a spiral that gets bigger and bigger and Chad is pulling in more and more of the influences that he loves. That cut is basically this mission statement that says, “We’re not this indie film shooting in New York anymore. We’re making an epic here.”
Filmmaker: It’s certainly an epic cast for an action film. You’ve got Keanu. You’ve got Donnie Yen. You’ve got Scott Adkins. Do each of them have their own distinct rhythm or style that influences how you cut their action scenes?
Orloff: Absolutely. I approach cutting them in completely different styles. With Keanu it was very much the traditional John Wick style. I’m not using the editing to punch him up. I’m using the wide shots to show what can do. But with Donnie Yen, I was a little more playful because he was so vicious and so quick that the editing had to do that too. The cutting had to match how fast he was going.
Filmmaker: Let’s talk about a non-action scene, Bill Skarsgård’s introduction, which features Ian McShane, Lance Reddick and a ticking timebomb in the form of an hourglass. What are your rules for cutting a scene like that as opposed to an action scene from the film?
Orloff: I like that you said rules, because with dramatic scenes I usually create little rules for myself, and they differ from scene to scene. For this scene, it was rules about when to be intimate and go in and when to be wider, and also when to cut to the hourglass. I realized very early on in the assembly that I needed to treat the hourglass as a character. I just pretended it was a person standing there tapping on their watch. My favorite moment, cutting wise, is the moment where the Marquis [Skarsgård] takes the sugar with the spoon and is just spinning it and spinning it [in his cup of coffee] and making a really uncomfortable sound. It’s moments like that you have to fight to keep in, because to me that’s the charm of the scene and what defines who the Marquis and why you hate him so much.
Filmmaker: Let’s finish with the final duel outside the Sacré-Cœur Basilica in Paris. Chad has referenced Barry Lydon as one of the movie’s inspirations, which make sense once you see the final dual. There are also some spaghetti western vibes.
Orloff: That was the one scene where, once we got back to L.A. [to start postproduction], I looked at my assembly and was like, “No.” I threw it all out and started from scratch. I just built it brick by brick and, again, I created these rules where each of the shots fired [during the duel] had to be covered and cut completely differently. I created this mirror system where I wanted to mirror each shot. So, it’s one character’s footsteps, then the others’; gun and then gun, eyes and then eyes. Then at the very end, instead of that mirroring, I did these punch outs. We created this symmetry so that when we broke that rule, the reason is important, and the audience notices it.