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The action challenge - Editing John Wick: Chapter 4

A rare moment of reflection for Keanu Reeves in John Wick: Chapter 4. Pic: Lionsgate
4 minute read
A rare moment of reflection for Keanu Reeves in John Wick: Chapter 4. Pic: Lionsgate

Actions have consequences Mr Wick. John Wick: Chapter 4 Editor, Nathan Orloff, proves you don’t need experience editing action to pull off editing a wall-to-wall action movie.

A massive ‘car fu’ chase and fight around the Arc de Triomphe is arguably the highlight of John Wick Chapter 4. While the stunts themselves are as real as ever with physical crashes, stunt performances and Keanu Reeves driving, this all took place on tarmac in Berlin. The Parisian backgrounds are virtual but piecing the geography of it all together was a complicated task for movie editor Nathan Orloff.

“The Arc de Triomphe sequence is one that I'm really, really proud of, especially since this is kind of crazy and difficult to put together because all the hits [of the cars] are real,” Orloff says.

“The way I look at geography is that you should be able to explain every shot to a blind child very quickly. What I mean by that is that in the simplest fashion of ‘John runs, stops, looks around’ that's the story and it’s two seconds long, but it's a story beat and it's important to convey.

“If you're cutting too fast, if you're just punching things up for the sake of punching things up, you're confusing the audience. You're disorienting them. Sometimes you want to do that intentionally but those moments should be incredibly selective.”

Action as dialogue

He talks of approaching such kinetic action scenes as he would a dialogue scene. There may be no dialogue per se but John Wick is interacting with the bad guys albeit with cars or guns or nunchucks.

“It's a conversation between villains and heroes, and it's just as important as is a dialogue in terms of following what's going on,” he says.

Getting to the final version, Orloff had to whittle down take after take of cars hitting each other, hitting John Wick, until he had the mix of performance, pace and story that felt.

“I did this massive trim pass and was kind of ruthless in removing some stuff and reimagined one part. We lost one car hit so that we got to the one that we wanted to show earlier.”

Even to get to the Arc de Triomphe there’s an extended street fight which Orloff had to blend into each other so there’s no break in the action.

“The question was how do we want to make that flow as one? Because it could become very clunky.”

A clue to the puzzle lay in the music. “To me it became essential to cut to the DJ, how the needle drops change, to keep the energy flowing across scenes back-to-back.”

This is all the more impressive given that Orloff is not only new to the franchise, but green when it comes to action movies. That’s precisely why director Chad Stahelski picked him when regular editor Evan Schiff proved unavailable.

“Chad told me he interviewed a lot of different editors and I think one of the reasons we gelled was that I haven't done a big action movie like this before. I wasn't bringing something to the table that said ‘I've done this before.’ I was bringing an approach to learning something new and being open to new ideas.”

Orloff had worked as an Assistant Editor on J.J. Abrams’ Star Trek: Into Darkness, as well as a Digital Intermediate Supervisor on Abrams’ Star Wars: The Force Awakens.  He was an Associate or Additional Editor on such projects as Tully and The Front Runner, both directed by Jason Reitman, and more recently sole editor on Reitman’s Ghostbusters Afterlife. 

“He wanted a blank slate of someone that would find the style within the movie instead of sort of putting their own stamp on it,” Orloff says.

Stahelski seems to have trusted Orloff to find his own rhythm to depict the film’s wall-to-wall action sequences.

“I didn't get a lot of direction during production about how to put these action sequences together,” he says. “It sort of was like out of necessity, how do these pieces fit? So it was kind of cool and a little bit validating that when we got back to LA that most of the stuff we did was just trimming and removing versus reconstruction.”

Musicals and slapstick

Stahelski did though give his editor a number of films to study. Those films include Sergio Leone’s Dollars westerns, Kurusawa’s The Seven Samurai and Singing In The Rain. 

In films like Singing In The Rain the camera stays generally static and wide with minimal edits so the viewer can take in all the brilliance performed by the film’s stars.

Another influence is the slapstick comedy of silent screen legend Buster Keaton. A clip from Keaton’s The General appears in John Wick 2. Keaton famously devised and performed his own extraordinary stunts.

“You're watching Buster Keaton do these crazy things and you're just going, that is unbelievable. Similarly, there was an influence of these big wide shots. They made sure they could capture everything in shot.”

Keaton or Chaplin aren’t the only comic styling. The absurdity of the situation where John Wick can be repeatedly shot or bounce down stairs, albeit protected by a Kevlar suit, makes the film a sort of Looney Tunes for adults.

Tick tock, Mr Wick

John Wick – Chapter 4 clocks in at 169 minutes, more than an hour longer than the original. The first cut came in at 3 hours 45 minutes. Stahelski and the edit team gradually cut that down but even if they took out just 30 seconds, they would watch the whole film beginning to end, to ensure the pace of the film stayed intact.

“There is definitely a risk of overkill if something is too similar to something else,” Orloff says, “but going back to the music was a huge help in alternating what we were doing to avoid things feeling the same.”

A three-and-a-half hour runtime was no deterrent to audiences watching David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia, a point that Stahelski has made in interviews.

In JW 4, he pays homage to that film’s famous ‘match’ cut, one of two (along with the bone to spaceship time-jump in 2001: A Space Odyssey) of the most celebrated in cinema history.

“I wanted to make sure we did the exact number of frames when the fire was blown out before cutting to the sunrise,” Orloff says. “I wanted to do it justice.

“Chad told me he’d rather swing and miss than do the same thing over again. And so that match cut is indicative of [telling the] audience what we're aiming for.”

Tags: Post & VFX Movies Editing