Action director Larnell Stovall opens up about the demands of his role and reveals how he created the fight sequences for The Continental, Prime Video’s miniseries prequel to the John Wick film franchise.
Launching last month on Prime Video, The Continental is a three-part feature-length prequel to the John Wick tetralogy that first introduced the former hitman to the big screen in 2014.
The Continental explores the backstory of titular hotel in New York City, a focal point of the films that acts as a neutral space for the underworld, where criminal business is forbidden.
In particular, it centres on the young Winston Scott – the hotel’s future owner – as he’s dragged into the hellscape of 1970s New York to face a past he thought he’d left behind, leading him to chart a deadly course through its mysterious criminal underbelly.
While John Wick himself (played by Keanu Reeves) doesn’t feature in the show, being part of the same universe means The Continental does share the films’ fondness for jaw-dropping action sequences. One example from the first film is the opening fight scene that takes place entirely in a stairwell.
These standout moments throughout the three episodes were the responsibility of action director Larnell Stovall (Altered Carbon, Titans), who worked alongside directors Albert Hughes and Charlotte Brändström to create stunning scenes that also fed into the story they were trying to tell.
Here, Stovall tells DQ about the intricacies of his role, how he sets up the key action sequences and why he always likes to keep viewers guessing.
Tell us about your role as action designer on The Continental.
I was responsible for not only shooting the action but also helping to choreograph the action, how it’s designed and what stories we’re telling, working with [lead director] Albert side by side and being an extension of his vision. And then just trying to deliver something really cool and stay consistent.
How have viewers’ expectations changed when it comes to watching action sequences and how do you try to raise the bar on every new project?
What’s interesting about audience expectations now is you have to ‘separate and combine.’ Separate the fact there is an audience that will watch these films who are fans of action but aren’t martial artists, and the purists who are martial artists who are going to be looking for technique, looking to make sure you execute as certain styles well and proficiently. Now you’ve got to combine those worlds together because, if you get too complicated, you’re going to make the person who doesn’t understand what’s going on possibly check out. But then if you don’t execute the technique properly, you might lose the purists, because you didn’t do your research.
Then you also have to film it properly. Independent film – that’s where I come from – is a good playground. It’s a place to grow, it’s a place to learn. It’s also a place to find out how you could do action in a short amount of time. That translates to now, where we are what I would consider ‘feature TV.’ We have feature quality, we have feature design and the look and feel of a film, but we still have somewhat of a TV schedule. A sequence like the stairwell on a film might have four to five days. We had one day, and the audience would never know that. All they expect, which they have the right to, is the John Wick level of quality and action.
What were your ambitions in terms of what you wanted to bring from the films and how you wanted to make the series stand on its own as well?|
Well, ambition-wise, it was, ‘Let’s respect what’s there, what’s been seen already.’ We understood that when we film these fight sequences, we’re going to be pulled back, we’re going to be wide, we’re going to show you the action. We’re not going to try to hide anything. I don’t believe in interchanging stunt doubles too much because then you’re not connected to the character anymore. You want to see the actor’s face, so that became part of it, as well as discussing the training and how much time [the actors] needed.
How do you break down the scripts to find where the action sequences appear?
The scripts have what I would call ‘placeholders’ for action. My job is to look at that placeholder and think about what can be created that’s not there, essentially. For example, with the stairwell scene, there was no telling how many people were going to be a part of it. The point was Frankie needed to get out of there and get out of there as fast as he could. Once we lay that out and say ‘We have to stay on the move, our job is to go up. We’re going to go up to jump out,’ how many people we killed in between, we determine on each level and say, ‘OK, four people here, six people here.’ He shoots down, he shoots up, to remind the audience that they’re coming from below, they’re coming from above, so we wanted to make sure we reflected that.
That’s not in the script, of course, but we do what’s called a stunt vis [visualisation], where we get stunt guys and do our own version of the sequence. Sometimes I was able to let the actor do the stunt vis because that became like a rehearsal for that actor. That way they already had a full practice from top to bottom of how this sequence is going to go. We show it to our director, we show it to our producers, they sign off on it, and then we move forward and hopefully film it better when it’s time to actually shoot it.
How long are you choreographing and planning these sequences before you get to shooting on set?
It depends time-wise. For example, let’s say there’s a fight scene coming up on October 26. It’s now October 2, and because either the script is still being rewritten or sometimes the location affects how we choreograph, we may take two or three days to choreograph it. It may take another week to shoot it, edit it, give it to our producer and they approve it.
The actor might have three weeks, and within those three weeks they have to learn the sequence. If they’re truly not ready, we might either decrease the difficulty of it or I may have to use a stunt double for certain parts of it just so the actor stays confident and can focus on the parts he or she knows how to do well.
How much of the stunts are actors are allowed to do themselves?
My job is to make sure the audience stays connected to the action sequence by using the actor at least 85% to 90% of the time. If you execute in that percentage, I believe you stay connected to the fight scene. When I put in a double, you may not know or it may happen so fast that you don’t disconnect from it and check out, so we try to reward them for all their training by saying, ‘Hey, I’m going to film you. I’m not going to develop angles so the audience don’t see that it is you.’ So it helps them commit. It gains them more respect for the training and it also gains trust.
Do you get dedicated rehearsal time with the actors or are they preparing while shooting other scenes?
Everybody gets somewhat of a bootcamp. Then I try to talk to the AD [assistant director] and say, ‘Hey, if possible, could we give them a smaller sequence first to get their confidence, to get their rhythm going being in front of camera doing a fight scene?’ Then that gives us more time to train them and rehearse the bigger sequences coming up later. If the schedule can allow that, cool. If not, we do our best to work around it.
And then what’s it like when it comes to the day of shooting a big sequence?
Consistency and rehearsals, I can’t stress that enough. If they give you time to rehearse and the effort stays consistent, then there’s a chance you can make some magic. Now, when you’re on set, things change, whether it’s the atmosphere or the clothing. That’s why sometimes we try to actually have rehearsals in full costume, so they know how the shoes or the jacket fit, just so they’re comfortable and can do the moves. But then things still can happen. Be 90% prepared, but leave 10% room for some magic and you may find something really interesting you didn’t think of throughout all your rehearsals. That’s going to happen when those cameras roll.
Is there a secret to creating ‘wow’ moments for the audience?
I’m not going to say it’s a secret, but I believe in variety. If you try to keep something different happening with each action sequence then, at the end of the day, the audience has a better overall experience. If somebody does like a cool move in the air and they spin one time, that’s cool. Then if the next person spins two times, the average person may go, ‘It looks the same. It’s just a spin.’ But if someone went high, go low next time. If someone went left, go right. If the camera angle was above, let’s try below. Let’s be underneath something. Try something unique. Give the audience a different view.
What are some of the challenges in your role?
Time. If a feature film has four days, I may have one. The audience will never know that, but still, when you watch the final product, you have to say, ‘OK, we’re an extension of the John Wick world. Will the audience truly embrace us? Will they accept our version of action in the 70s that’s a reflection of what’s to come?’ My job as an action director is to dot those i’s, cross those t’s and hope for the best. Tell a great story and try to put some memorable moments on film. Then sit back, let your baby out into the world and let the audience speak for it.