Designing the Deadly with the Action Director and Production Designer of ‘The Continental’

If there’s one thing a John Wick movie is known for, it’s the action. And when creating a show like The Continental, the latest project in the John Wick franchise premiering on Peacock September 22, it’s important to keep true to the look and spirit of that action.

But what folks don’t realize is the way production design and action choreography go hand in hand makes a huge difference in creating this franchise. And thankfully, through a special demonstration at an exclusive event, we were able to get a glimpse of what it takes to marry the two elements to create the world of John Wick, with action director Larnell Stovall and production designer Drew Boughton

During the event, we were given a special treat. Boughton brought over a replica of a phone booth from the set of the show, and Stovall coached eager members of the press on how he was able to pull off one of the most unique fights in the entirety of the event series.

THE CONTINENTAL: FROM THE WORLD OF JOHN WICK — “The Continental’s Behind the Stream: Interactive Junket” — Pictured: (l-r) Drew Boughton, Production Designer; Larnell Stovall, Action Director from the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel — (Photo by: Todd Williamson/PEACOCK)

Boughton discussed the challenges of creating the phone booth, but having to make it big enough for the fight scene, and yet small enough to look like a realistic phone booth. Stovall spoke about how they had to practice the fight choreography that would eventually take place in the phone booth in a studio with the stuntmen practicing their fights in boxes made of strategically placed tape on the mats. He then showed us a demonstration of how this looked using a few of our volunteers (including friends of The Nerds of Color, Law Sharma and Dana Han Klein):

Stovall also demonstrated with one of his team members, named Jennifer, a snippet of the full-speed fight.

Following the incredible demonstration, Boughton and Stovall sat down with us in an exclusive round table to discuss their work on the show.

When asked about the tricks they took to connect The Continental to the John Wick universe, while having it retain its own sense of identity, Stovall had this to say:

“Okay, well first off, respect the audience and their expectations,” Stovall began. “Whether it’s the gunplay, the fighting style, the filming style. So what we do is we look at it and say, okay, they’re known for being wide, they’re known for not having many cuts, they’re known for making sure the action is seen with the actor a lot. So that becomes a template for me to say, okay, we’re not depending on editing. We want to put the edit in the camera, and we want to make the action a star. So you pick the style, you train the actor, you make sure they catch on, do what they can, and then you stick to the story. And then hopefully from there you put a little magic, a little sauce on top of that, and here we are.”

Boughton was then asked about what the biggest challenge was from a set design and action choreography perspective to allow for maximum safety but full creative freedom in the most John Wick way possible.

THE CONTINENTAL: FROM THE WORLD OF JOHN WICK — “The Continental’s Behind the Stream: Interactive Junket” — Pictured: Drew Boughton, Production Designer from the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel — (Photo by: Todd Williamson/PEACOCK)

“So I think there were several sets that were built, most of them really, that had special things for different stunt sequences,” he began. “One of the…most complicated ones was the one in the very beginning where the safe door breaks through the multiple floors. And then there’s an engine coming down through the hole, which is amazing. And that theoretically goes down to the train where the hook is going to grab onto the thing. And so we built a three-story set which is always risky. It’s going to make sure everybody stays safe. And then make sure that when the guys are up there working, we put walls back in so that it indeed was safe. But then take the walls out so that we might be able to look at it like this and go up and down and see going through the floors of the building.”

When asked a follow up on the timing it took to film the series’ opening action sequence, Boughton replied, “The combination of the actual shooting and the safe and putting that together, I want to say about a week. Between the two. It doesn’t feel like a lot of time. The play is for like 30 seconds.”

Stovall added, “Here’s what’s funny, the whole stairwell sequence, we shot that in one day… Usually I don’t discuss how long something has taken, but I just think with due respect to this behind the scenes and welcoming to our world, I think the audience needs to know the difference between feature film and TV. Feature film, that same stairwell sequence, four or five days. We’re going to take out time, we’re going to do this with the crane, we’re going to do this with the drop camera, we’re going to do this, and we’re going to put this right in. Plus, it probably would even bigger. Because when you have more time, you do your best to fill up that time. So, what you saw would have been expanded times three. Numbers of guys, maybe railings might have broke, maybe more gunplay would have been involved, you know. It would have got more intricate. But, knowing we have one day, we have to be really careful how much action we’re trying to combine in probably a 10-hour shoot.”

THE CONTINENTAL: FROM THE WORLD OF JOHN WICK — “The Continental’s Behind the Stream: Interactive Junket” — Pictured: Larnell Stovall, Action Director from the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel — (Photo by: Todd Williamson/PEACOCK)

Boughton then began to describe the hard work of his teams and what was built physically versus built using VFX. “So, I was sort of talking about…what’s actually real and what’s not real, which is increasingly… all visual effects. And so, you know, the thing that I would share in this instance is we built a huge back line set, it was physically real up to, like, 40 feet, and then it was CG, sometimes in the background it would be CG, but so that, all that effort, all that physical construction, all the artists, the painters, the carpenters, the architects, the different people who are doing all these things are. There’s hundreds of people, and I think that, you know, we’re sort of representative of that invisible group of the hundreds of people that do it, and so that, I think, is a beautiful opportunity to sort of celebrate them. And in our case, in Hungary, we had an extraordinary Supervisory Art Director, Suzy Gizmari-Lechner, and extraordinary groups of people who came and built this for us.”

When asked about how much emphasis they put into making The Continental as consistent as possible with the existing John Wick installments, the duo stated this:

“I would say that I’m echoing what you’ve said in some earlier versions of this, where it’s like the script kind of gives you this gift, you know?” started Boughton. “Kurt Kulich and Albert’s direction, kind of gives us sort of…the action and the elements and the storytelling has a crucible of consistency within, from the Wick world. And so you have that…They created a bible, you know, of the kind of artistic qualities of the Wick films. And then, you know, in my case, I have to take that and stick it into like a 1970s garbage can…And they go, ‘okay, let’s see how this goes.’ And so, the opportunity, of course, is like stripping away everything that’s consistent to the visual slickness of it, if you will, and then finding the sort of like, really grungy, 70s, analog, stylized thing. But it’s still the essential storytelling of the events that are happening, and the vengeance…And all of that is already there to work with.”

“Well, mine’s real simple for me. Make sure the fight scenes don’t suck,” Stovell joked. “Because once someone has set a blueprints and a template, you know, we all want our own individuality, you know…So for me, as a storyteller, because, you know, yes, my title might be an action designer, but I have to tell a story in these fight scenes to make sure that you mean something. Because I watch Asian cinema, I watch Korean films, I watch Japanese films, I watch German films (subtitles, of course). But what it does is it expand my view of things…when it’s time to create, when there’s a template there, I say, ‘okay, here’s the template.’ Yes, there’s pressure. Yes, there’s expectation from the audience. But you eventually have to move that aside and say, ‘hey, I’m here to do a job. Here’s my job, let’s kick ass. Let’s make sure it’s something memorable. Let’s put our own flavor, our own sauce on this. And what is that sauce?’

Sometimes it’s as simple as the actors, because I can say, ‘here’s the moves.’ But then the actor may breathe a certain way, stand a certain way, look, you know, look a little hesitant in the eyes, look a little ferocious or something,” Stovell continued. “Something that wasn’t my job to create, but I was to give you an area to play in, and that’s the same thing with John Wick…when Keanu does a lot of his action, he looks intense, but he doesn’t look angry. Think about that. Right? You never even pay attention to that, huh? Because there’s something still vulnerable about him while he’s going through his action…that’s one level of intensity and emotion that eventually will phase…I’ve been doing this. This is what I do, I’m the ghost on the Baba Yaga, you know…And I want to make sure that the audience enjoys my journey, I’m not robotic, so for us, we made sure the characters didn’t feel robotic, concerning their fight design and how it’s presented.”

Given that the series has always found a way to incorporate unconventional weaponry into the brutal fights, the question about what their favorite prop to use as a weapon was for the series.

THE CONTINENTAL: FROM THE WORLD OF JOHN WICK — “The Continental’s Behind the Stream: Interactive Junket” — Pictured: Atmospheric from the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel — (Photo by: Todd Williamson/PEACOCK)

“The iron,” immediately stated Stovell. “That was a jacked up scene. The iron. What I love about it is, you know, once you put us in a sort of 70s setting, you got to think about what weapons were like, you know, where you had brass knuckles, you had switchblades, you know, those were the common thing, but when you put us in a house, a kitchen, a fight scene, it’s like, ugh. But, I say, let’s not use this normal thing. Oh, he’s going to crack a plate, cut you with the edge of a plate. Okay, here’s a knife right, come on. Here’s an ironing board, which means there’s an iron around, and in the 70s, the way they were built then, they looked more pointy, you know, and I just looked at it like, oh yeah, we’re going to use that, but I’m grateful for something like Albrecht and Kirk, that, you know, we didn’t go gory, if that makes sense. Yeah, but what we wanted to do was, you know, if you think about it, the 70s was a violent time, and the way action cinema was, did like, you know, Charles Bronson back then, you know, Death Wish and stuff like that, man, you know, I’m telling my age. Okay, but, you know, it was, violence was just running in your face, so we wanted to respect that, stay in that same formula, and find cooler things we could use, but that one stuck out to me, because I’ve been wanting to use an iron at some point, you know, so I’m happy, and this is where we’re working together. As soon as the word iron gets, oh yeah, then it’s like, we’re going to make a rubber iron, and we’re going to, you know, oh, and there’s an in-sync area where the guy’s got to stick his hand down here. Like a sniper. And what you may not catch is, and this is where teamwork has come into play, he builds a rubber version, and as she starts to swing at him, there’s a stopping point, because then you’ve got to blend the half version into the back of the head, and then he has to snap his head and go down to make it seem like this never stops. And it went to the head and went down, so there’s a seamless blend between, because he was like, oh, how are y’all going to pull this off, because we did it in the stunt viz, and sometimes what we do in the gym, people go, oh, what you did in the gym with your stunt guys, can you do it with an actor, the sex, different cameras, and under pressure, with the whole team working together. So yeah, that was a memorable scene, I’m happy it came off.”

The Continental debuts on Peacock September 22.

And keep your eyes posted to The Nerds of Color this week for more coverage of The Continental!

*This event was conducted during the WGA and SAG/AFTRA strike. To support the strike, please donate to the Entertainment Community Fund.*