Since the very first film starring Keanu Reeves in 2014, the “John Wick” franchise has delivered four movies to date, and has earned more than $1 billion around the world. The story focuses on a network of assassins that revolve around the supposed sanctuary of the fictional Continental hotel chain, and follows a criminal underworld bent on control, self-interest, and stopping at nothing in their battle to either take lives or avenge those that have already been taken.
Now, the world of John Wick is set for a three-part prequel—The Continental that hopes to answer some of the questions regarding the origins of the Continental hotel, and how some of the sagas’ most established characters were shaped. M&F sat down with Larnell Stovall, who served as an action director and stunt coordinator on Peacock’s new mini-series (which premieres Sept. 22), to find out how he went about bringing the action to a universe that is already known for some of the best sequences on screen.
Larnell Stovall is the architect behind many of film and televisions most exciting scenes. He’s contributed to existing franchises such as Fast & Furious 8, Creed, Captain America, Escape Plan, Titans, and a list of projects so long that it would need its own feature. He’s also a 5th dan blackbelt in Shotokan karate and a former world champion in fighting, weapons, and forms. It’s not surprising then, that his extensive experience with martial arts provides a solid base for the drama and action that he is able to wow audiences with.
What is Kata and How Does it Inform Projects Such as ‘The Continental’
“Kata is a series of pre-arranged movements that can be applied to live action demonstrations, or different techniques for ‘what if?’ situations, because that’s what martial arts is, a lot of the time. It’s a lot of ‘what if?’” Stovall tells M&F. Kata means “form” in Japanese, and is a series of moves that are choreographed, practiced, and exhibited either individually or as a group. Kata can be seen at work in numerous martial arts such as judo, kendo, and karate, or in taekwondo where it is more known as “hyung.” There’s no questioning that Stovall has a deep understanding of the mechanics of fighting. He won the Kung Fu Nationals in his hometown of New Orleans in 1992 in the kata division, and went on to win USKA Kickboxing titles in 1994 and 1995. As a martial arts champion, Stovall didn’t just look up to Bruce Lee, he would later follow in his path of choreographing sequences to be captured on film.
By putting the characters within his projects into different life and death situations, Stovall has been able to consistently keep his action scenes fresh by understanding the varying ways that each of those characters would react. “Being that (different situations will) force your body to move in unique ways; from stances to chops, to blocks, to punches, to strikes etc, to grappling, to defensive moves, laying down, all of that becomes part of kata sometimes,” he explains. “Now, when it came time to transition that into what I will say is fight choreography, [I] have all these moves in [my] head already. How can I incorporate these moves into a live action fight scene? Keeping within the context of the story, keeping it entertaining, and keep it fresh, that’s the payoff, because you have a grounded base of kata’s and now you can have fun.”
Just like the John Wick movies, The Continental includes high-octane, full throttle action that owes much of it’s slickness to the techniques of various martial arts. “It was very exciting,” shares Stovall. “I mean, look, to have a chance to be a part of this universe that fans have fell in love with and has been very successful … it was great to hop in and work with a great team.”
Larnell Stovall praises the cast of The Continental
While M&F won’t be dishing out any spoilers, we can share that the premise of The Continental is to go back to the 1970s, before the advent of the John Wicks films, in order to find out how Ian McShane’s character “Winston Scott,” played by Colin Woodell, and the late Lance Reddick’s “Charon,” played by Ayomide Adegun sank to the depths of New York’s criminal underbelly. Expect epic thrills and spills, including an insane sequence on a staircase and a gripping getaway attempt to name but two notable moments.
Initially, Stovall would demonstrate the movements to the cast in what is known as a pre-stunt or a pre-vis in order to illustrate to the actors how a particular sequence would work out.
“Everybody had a chance to have their own time with learning their characters movements and us refining it based on how they are catching on to the training,” says Stovall. “Everyone had their own bootcamp and we had consistent training throughout. When you are on a tight schedule, my goal is to keep (the whole process) efficient and effective. If I know you don’t have a fight scene until three months from now, it gives us time to give you the basics, it gives us time to get you grounded, understand some principles of martial arts, so that way you truly understand where we [as the directors] are coming from. But, if you’ve got a fight scene three weeks from now, then that makes a big difference. Our job is to make sure you stay safe, make sure you stretch properly, and learn the fight scene wholly, because that’s what you have time for. You do the fight scene over, and over, and over, just like your lines .. if all you know is that one fight scene, and you look like a bad a**, and natural, then boom. Well done, job accomplished.”
Fortunately, Stovall found himself working with a stellar cast, devoted to giving it their all. “Everybody really did bring something special to the table,” he shares. “Because, it was all very unique and new to them; this world, and styles, and the commitment to this training. It was a joy watching them grow. We got to commit to these huge sequences but also give the same commitment to the smaller sequences. Whether it was Ben [Robinson], Jessica [Allain], Kate [Nhung], Colin [Woodell], Mark [Musashi], I mean everybody, I really can’t pick anybody, some people came in with martial experience and some people came in with no martial arts experience, but the love and commitment was the same for everybody.”
Another huge cast signing, appearing in The Continental, is action movie icon Mel Gibson, whose Lethal Weapon movies are another action franchise phenomenon. Here, Gibson portrays the role of “Cormac,” perhaps best described as a complicated father figure to Winston and Charon. “He’s a pleasure to work with,” says Stovall of Gibson. “Obviously, an acting veteran, and intelligent, savvy, you don’t really have to tell Mel what to do, he understands what do to because he has that natural instinct and experience. You know, he really just sat back and made suggestions for anything that involved any type of physicality, and then he adds his little flavor and brings it to life. What more can you ask for?”