How the Cinematography of John Wick 4 Makes an Action Flick Look Like an Arthouse Film

Over the course of four films, the “John Wick” franchise has established itself as the most gorgeous series in the history of action cinema, with vibrant colors and gliding camera moves that provide a counterpoint to the gritty, handheld camerawork of the “Bourne” movies. Cinematographer Dan Laustsen, who came on board for “John Wick: Chapter Two” and has shot every “Wick” film since, had a clear mandate from director Chad Stahelski upon their first meeting. “He said, ‘I want to shoot “John Wick” like a Bertolucci movie,’” Laustsen told IndieWire. “That was his briefing for me, and I thought, ‘That doesn’t sound bad at all.’”

“John Wick: Chapter Four” represents the peak of Laustsen and Stahelski’s collaboration, with set piece after set piece shot in long takes that showcase the elegant choreography of the action and a color palette that Stahelski acknowledges owes more than a little to not only Bertolucci but another of his favorite directors, Wong Kar-Wai. “When I watch ‘In the Mood for Love,’ I’ll talk with Dan about why the color red punches up a scene or why a certain color makes me sad,” Stahelski told IndieWire. “We’re always exploring these things, so when it comes time to do the waterfall scene, the Scott Adkins character will be in Wong Kar-Wai red and then John Wick is blue, applying these theoretical ideas about color.”

Stahelski knew Lautsten was the right director of photography for the “John Wick” series when he saw the trailer for Guillermo del Toro’s “Crimson Peak” and noticed not only the vivid use of color but the detailed depth of field that Lautsten applied to his frames. It was precisely the type of layered look Stahelski wanted, upon which he and Laustsen have elaborated in each successive “Wick” movie. “Every time you want to do it stronger and bigger and better,” Laustsen said. “When we come into the hotel at the beginning, for example, we need to go further than the big hotel lobby shoot-out we had in [‘Chapter 3’]. That was green, so here we make the greens stronger and move the light so that it’s getting dark and bright and green at the same time and responding organically to the location.”

“John Wick: Chapter 4”

©Lions Gate/Courtesy Everett Collection

The decisions about which colors certain scenes should be in are generally made ahead of time and then modified in response to the sets and locations, but once they start shooting, Laustsen and Stahelski commit to the palette. “When we find the colors, we keep them,” Laustsen said. “It’s not like we’re changing the color in the DI. We try to keep it as consistent as we can.” Per Stahelski’s mandate, the resources on “John Wick” movies are weighted heavily toward pre-production and preparation so that by the time Laustsen arrives on set for his pre-light, he has a fully realized vision of what the scene should be, formulated in collaboration with Stahelski and production designer Keith Cunningham. “A lot of the painting with light takes place in the pre-lighting because you have to see everything through the camera,” Laustsen said. “You can’t just put it down on a piece of paper and say that’s how it’s going to be.”

For Stahelski, one of the pleasures of making a “John Wick” movie is that the world has been established as expressionistic, meaning that he and Laustsen have no obligations to naturalism — it is here, perhaps, that the Bertolucci influence is the most direct, given that he and cinematographer Vittorio Storaro were the filmmakers who really introduced the idea of unmotivated camera moves, color, and lighting to mainstream cinema. “This is a project that allows us to try stuff,” Stahelski said. “There are ninjas and motorcycles, so if we can have that, we can have a sun flare for no reason, right? Does there need to be a reason why everything’s red? Let’s just try red today. I think having the freedom to do that is exciting.”

“John Wick: Chapter 4”

©Lions Gate/Courtesy Everett Collection

For all its bold choices, what really sets “John Wick: Chapter 4” apart is the subtlety of Laustsen’s lighting in the close-ups, especially when it comes to the film’s many nighttime exteriors; even when John Wick is in a black suit in a black space, he’s clearly defined in the frame by Laustsen’s gold rim light. Working with the large format ALEXA LF, the cinematographer finds details in the eyes that Stahelski says are the “John Wick” franchise’s version of the photography of the classical Hollywood studio system. “This movie is not just about guns and bullets and martial arts,” Stahelski said. “Dan’s using flags and cut boards to shape the light so that when you watch Keanu, you always see both eyes. Then you see Clancy Brown with no eyes, then cut to Bill Skarsgård with one eye [lit]. It’s like shooting Rita Hayworth in the ’40s: How do you bring out that eye light in the ‘John Wick’ style? Well, it’s a red light, it’s a flare, it’s a tube…we just try to do our thing with it and go down that nerdy hole of lighting.”

Both Lautsten and Stahelski consider one of the great joys of making “John Wick” movies to be the back and forth as they, Cunningham, the stunt team, and others construct the scenes. “It’s super tough to do these movies,” Laustsen said. “A lot of night shoots are hard for everybody, but that’s what I love about moviemaking. There’s a lot of teamwork, and our people like to do it and fight for it and have faith in it.”

“Having people around you that want to go into the minutiae of lighting and get deep into detail is exciting,” Stahelski said. “We’re always trying things, to push the highlights and the contrast and the color and see where we can go with it and how it makes you feel.”

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