Danish cinematographer Dan Laustsen discusses just how to turn the colour up to eleven for the latest instalment of Keanu Reeves’ gun-fu franchise, writes Adrian Pennington.
It is fitting that scenes in the latest John Wick movie are set in a cathedral since the look of the film is often that of light through stained glass.
This is the work of cinematographer Dan Laustsen ASC, DFF who also shot numbers 2 and 3 in the franchise in the same vein and whose goal with Chapter 4 was to dial up the colour. A lot.
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“Everything we do in number 4 has to improve on the first three - better story, more powerful images, stronger colour,” he told IBC365. “The nice thing is we can do what we like. Nobody is interfering so we can try to do some things in a new way.”
Behind the Scenes: John Wick: Chapter 4 - lighting
Neon-soaked darkness is indelible to the series’ brand and something that Laustsen, with director Chad Stahelski and production designer Kevin Kavanaugh, discussed at length before shooting.
“Chad knows that Keanu looks so good when lit by single light sourcing. His face is so strong with a single source that this became the whole concept of John Wick. We don’t want to be afraid of the darkness so we use colour to lift it up while staying black, black, black.”
Stahelski picked Laustsen to shoot John Wick: Chapter 2 in 2017 after seeing the trailer for Crimson Peak which the Danish cinematographer had lensed for Guillermo del Toro. His direction to the DoP at the time was to shoot action like a Bernardo Bertolucci movie. The Italian director’s most praised films were photographed by the legendary DP Vittorio Storaro.
“Chad wanted bold colour and subtle movement,” said Laustsen by way of explanation. “Colour is an incredibly powerful asset but there’s a thin red line between getting it right and going too far in one direction. The danger is that it gets cheesy and out of control.”
In Chapter 4 Lausten chose to emphasise green and amber (“burning rust,” he calls it) in contrast to the blue and magenta that play in JW2 and JW3.
“Colour is integral to the story and each city has its own palette. We drew on colours from street photography in Hong Kong or Japan.”
The production travelled from New York to Osaka, Berlin and Paris. “Whereas Guillermo likes to be in the studio much more, Chad likes to do it for real,” he said.
“We were shooting the Louvre, where there are so many restrictions as you imagine, and I woke up the next day scarcely believing we had been allowed in there.”
A scene set at the famous Sacré-Cœur was scripted for sunrise but was shot night for day lit by giant lamps on cranes of the type that only a big budget can afford.
“The first time we see Bill Skarsgård (who plays Wick’s nemesis, the Marquis de Gramont) it is at sunset and we had to have this feeling of golden light.”
A massive brawl shot at the Kraftwerk nightclub in Berlin was the most challenging scene and required weeks of prelighting and discussion about how colour and light should interact.
Scenes set in Jordan’s Wadi Rum desert and in snow with leaden skies drain the palette and provide contrast with the neon saturation of the rest of the film.
“Some scenes were very green and when I started shooting I got nervous,” Laustsen admitted. “You have to trust your instinct that it’s the right way to do it but I am happy with the result. What we film is the final palette. We’re not changing colour in the DI. Windowing, yes, but the concept of colour is the same from dailies to final movie.”
With Reeves performing most of his own stunts Laustsen deliberately keeps the camera fixed on him, often in long takes. It’s a style of restraint that the filmmakers have learned from Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West and The Good The Bad and The Ugly.
“These classical westerns are touchstones for the blocking and the framing of big wide shots,” he said. “A lot of action movies use handheld to give the action more energy or use cuts to hide some of the action but we are not that movie. Chad told me from the start that Keanu is so good I want you do shoot more wide and not go crazy handheld.”
Behind the Scenes: John Wick: Chapter 4 - cameras
Stunt coordination is Stahelski’s expertise (he was Reeves’ double in The Matrix) and they typically shoot 3-4 takes per fight sequence.
“We try to do as few as possible but he and Chad are perfectionists and won’t stop until it’s right.”
Laustsen changed up the camera package from ARRI Alexa XT with which he shot JW3 to Alexa LF and a set of ALFA anamorphics.
“It was very important to shoot anamorphic since the XT’s larger sensor means the depth of field will be shallower and we want to get powerful close ups of Keanu.”
They carried five LF bodies including an A and B cam, one on a Steadicam another on a crane and another shooting higher frame rates but never rolled with more than two at a time. Almost everything was shot by the main unit; “It’s nice to do everything yourself,” the DP said.
Most cinematographers take still photographs of everyday things that catch their eye but for someone with such a pronounced sense of colour it’s a surprise to learn that Laustsen’s stills are all black and white.
“For me, it’s important to make the most powerful image as possible if that is what the scene suggests, or to make it softer or grittier as appropriate for another scene.
“If we make another movie [a fifth in the series has not officially been greenlit] I would have the same feeling as after ‘3’ when I wondered how it was possible to go further than shooting in a glass house.”
The climactic sequence of Parabellum takes Orson Welles’ The Lady From Shanghai shootout in a hall of mirrors to a whole other level.
“Maybe we go to the North Pole,” he mused, “and everything will be covered in snow and pure white and we go in the opposite direction.”
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