“The notion that Wick is a Sambo guy is super cool. Sambo players around the globe should be jazzed about that!” Stephen Koepfer
The John Wick franchise is known for its creation of an underground world of assassins and fighters, an off-kilter parallel universe that carries on around us, occasionally bumping our lives.
John Wick 3, as well as giving us more of the rules and structures that prop up this world, also gives us some backstory about John’s childhood – including one scene in a Sambo training hall, where we find out that John trained there as a youngster, under the eye of the academy Director (Angelica Huston).
Sambo expert and stunt performer Stephen Koepfer was brought in to help manage this Sambo scene. It took two months of planning, casting, and working on authentic clothing, followed by two days’ filming.
I interviewed Stephen about his work on John Wick 3: Parabellum, working with Keanu Reeves and director Chad Stahelski, Sambo’s origins and how it fits into the Wick Universe, and the New York stunt scene. (You can read my review of John Wick 3: Parabellum here and watch one of Stephen’s Sambo videos.)
You had some behind-the-scenes involvement on John Wick: Chapter 2, but your role in John Wick 3: Parabellum was bigger – can you talk us through what Parabellum involved and what your timelines were?
My role was bigger, but still relatively small when one looks at the larger picture of such a huge production. But, that is filmmaking – a HUGE team effort with lots of small moving parts that need to align perfectly. For me, it was the largest role I have had on a film production to date, so I was thrilled.
And it was John Wick Chapter Three! Not to mention that it was awfully exciting to help put the martial art I love onto the big screen and into the John Wick universe.
Essentially, Chad contacted me and explained that one of the “breadcrumbs” they were going to offer with regard to Wick’s origin story had to do with Sambo training at the academy where he was raised. As any fan of the films knows, Russian culture is a large part of the universe with regard to the criminal element Wick is associated with. Sambo would be an expected fight skill in that culture.
Sambo is a martial art born out of the Soviet Union’s desire to create a comprehensive hand to hand combat system for its military and police in the early 20th century. Like most martial arts that start out as strict military systems, a sport version eventually manifests. Today, Sambo is an international combat sport. This is what you will see in the scene I worked on.
Chad explained that there was going to be a scene involving a Sambo training hall. My role was to assist the stunt department, casting and wardrobe in making this as authentic a scene as possible. I was also lucky enough to appear in the film as a Sambo coach. Quite a stretch – a Sambo coach playing a Sambo coach!
So, over a period of about two months, I worked directly with the casting directors, Chad and Jonathan Eusebio (one of the two stunt coordinators), to orchestrate the auditions where we would select the special ability Sambo fighters for that scene. “Special ability” performers are essentially a small step up from background players, but with specific skills needed for a particular scene.
Being as involved in the Sambo community as I am, I was able to reach out to many Russian, former Soviet and Eastern European coaches so we could have the best casting options with regard to look, a wide variety of ages and skill level for potential fighters in the scene.
In the end we held two auditions and cast approximately 20 Sambists, aged 10 – 25. On set, I coordinated what the special ability players were doing in the background with regard to their training choreography. I had no idea Chad was going to ask me to do this when I showed up to set, but since they kept the scene, I suppose it all worked out pretty well!
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How did you make sure the Sambo guys looked the part on-screen?
When working with the wardrobe department, I assisted in obtaining authentic uniforms and really helped the team understand what the training culture is like in Russia (where I have spent quite a bit of time training myself).
It seems like a simple thing, but one of the big concerns was how to make the Sambo uniforms look properly aged. I brought in several styles of uniform for them to examine, in various state of wear and tear – some very old and worn out, others quite new.
Sambo jackets (not that different from Judo jackets) are either red or blue, and have a very distinctive look and faded color when they age, so they really wanted this to be accurate.
Crazy that all this went into a scene that lasts about 20 seconds!
Was it daunting working with people like Chad Stahelski and Keanu Reeves? How did you feel when you were asked to take on this task?
I definitely had some butterflies in my belly. Who would not? Honestly, my work on John Wick: Chapter 2 was really on the level of a quick internship or an audition – this time around there was much more responsibility, and more at stake.
It was not working with Chad and Keanu that created a sense of pressure for me though. Keanu is super chill and truly makes you feel like you are more important than he is. I was comfortable with Chad and felt he trusted me to get the job done. What was more daunting was the weight and importance of such a large production depending on my not screwing this up.
Even for what amounts to be a very small scene, there is a lot riding on getting it right. There was definitely a lot of problem-solving that needed to happen, right up into our days on set.
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During the process did you ever think “what have I taken on?”
I think that every day of my life! I am definitely a “bite off more than I can chew” kind of guy. I always juggle a lot in my life. Do first and ask second is kind of my motto. But, I guess that is why I get things done.
The Sambo training scene, in a theatre which appears to be the fiefdom of the Director (Angelica Huston), tells us more about Wick’s origins – including that he trained there himself as a child. It’s obviously important to John and also falls under the auspices of the High Table. World-building is a huge part of the expanded Wick World – what was it like to be part of that?
It was very cool to help add a small piece of the puzzle to the Wick Universe and John’s origin story. The notion that Wick is a Sambo guy is super cool. Sambo players around the globe should be jazzed about that!
But, people should also not confuse what the character “John Wick” does and what the actor “Keanu Reeves” and the stunt team do. While the film suggests that Sambo training is part of Wick’s origin, the actual choreography is a mix of what works best for the fights and the scene: Judo, Jiu-Jitsu, Sambo, Aiki-Jitsu, or any combination of them. The choreography is no particular style, except for the “Gun Fu” that 87 Eleven has made so famous.
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Working on a film like John Wick 3 were you aware of how the story was going to unfold, how the world was expanding in other ways? Or did you only find out about your own scenes?
I really had no idea about any of the story arc, except for the scene I worked on. When I saw the film for the first time, I was just as in the dark as everyone else.
So what was it like when you went to the John Wick 3 premiere in New York – seeing the finished film for the first time, especially your contribution? And did the movie match your expectations?
All I can say is that the movie was incredible. It is a rollercoaster ride from beginning to end. I don’t want to say too much, or put out any spoilers, but I really loved this film. The fact that Sambo got some publicity was icing on the cake: a cake sitting atop the High Table! It did not disappoint.
Being part of the movie-making process for John Wick 3, what was the atmosphere like on set? Was it like a family? Business-like? Time-driven and focused?
Every set is time-driven and focused. Delays mean money lost. I really enjoyed my time on set. Everyone was cool, friendly, collaborative. There was a real sense of being part of something bigger than just an action movie.
Working with the Sambo players was great. Especially the kids, who were so excited to be there. Keanu clearly loved working with the kids as well and made time to take a picture with each and every one of them. But, there was a schedule that was very important to keep since we were working with minors, who can’t work more than eight hours a day.
I also got to work with two incredibly talented young Judo players, Nik and Si Collier. They are the two guys throwing the crap out of each other in the scene. They are great young talent and sponsored by 87 Eleven. Watch out for these two, they are going places! I was a big fan of their Instagram (Collier Judo Method) and it was very cool to meet and work with them. I am really glad they were a part of the scene.
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You had to find these young performers, audition them and then work with them to ensure the scene was authentic. Was this something you’d done before for film or TV? How did you go about it?
I had cast a few small indie projects and was a technical adviser for a couple of TV episodes that focused on Sambo in the past (History Channel’s Human Weapon and Travel Channel’s Dhani Tackles the Globe), but nothing at all on this scale. It was trial by fire.
But I am organized to a fault – it is almost pathological. So I had that going for me. Regarding advising Sambo authenticity, I have 20+ years of experiential reference material in my head. And aside from what I described earlier, I also provided videos to the production from my time training in Russia, Ukraine, Serbia, etc, as reference material.
Did you find that you had to compromise on anything, for example to make the Sambo look good on screen?
Honestly, my job is to follow direction and help give Chad and the production team what they want in the most authentic way possible. I am not the creative mind behind the Wick Universe.
While I felt completely respected and never felt like any suggestion I made was dismissed, my first priority was to help the production achieve what they needed to tell the story they were trying to tell; not to do what I wanted. My desires always took a back seat to the overall goals of helping the team tell the story they wanted in the way they wanted. Even if the scene only turned out to be 20 seconds of a two-hour movie.
I think the end result is a pretty accurate representation of a Sambo training hall.
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What was Chad Stahelski like as a director on your scenes? Obviously he’s the action expert, but is he into the tiny details or is it more that he finds specialists and lets them do what they’re good at?
I can only speak about the scene I was involved in, which was not a heavy action sequence. That day, he was generous enough to put me in charge of coordinating the special ability guys. There was a moment where Chad, myself and the Collier brothers sat down on the wrestling mat and he spelled out to us what he wanted the flavour of scene to be. He then introduced me to Dan Laustsen (the Director of Photography) and explained the camera positions and shots they were looking for in the scene, where the principals’ marks would be, where the cameras would be, where they wanted the special ability guys, etc. Then Chad grabbed a production assistant, introduced us and simply said to me “you decide who is doing what, go make it happen.”
After a bit of time to work it out, and a few rehearsals, it was go time. I received very little technical direction after that, save for changing marks, camera angles, a few interactions with the principals they wanted, or things like that.
The training actions they did specifically was up to me. If they messed up and threw each other onto Angelica Houston, that was on me. Thankfully, that did not happen! I think coming from a background as a stunt coordinator, Chad is likely used to bringing in the experts he needs from a particular field and letting them do what they do best.
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Your first involvement with John Wick was actually your role in John Wick: Chapter 2, behind the scenes. What were you doing then?
My role in John Wick: Chapter 2 was extremely minor. I was fortunate enough to be brought in by Chad Stahelski to work with stunt coordinator J.J. Perry and the stunt team for a few days. I was there to offer some options for dynamic Sambo style throws (my martial art expertise) that could be used in fight choreography.
This was early on in production, just as the shooting of previz (pre-visualisation – a video storyboard for production) was beginning. It was a great learning experience for me to be a fly on the wall with the 87 Eleven team, and see how they built the choreography specific to the story and Keanu’s various capabilities. Even after I was technically done with what I had to contribute, I was invited back a few times to watch rehearsals and learn.
I will always be thankful to Chad and J.J. for the opportunity they gave me. J.J. shared quite a bit with me and never shied away from sharing thoughts about why and how things were done. As small as it was, it really helped me solidify for myself how much I wanted to be involved in this business.
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In 2017 you co-directed the short film about the growing stunt scene in New York, Concrete And Crashpads. Is the industry still expanding? Has the success of the John Wick franchise helped or is that just happy coincidence?
My sense is that growth in New York has slowed down a bit for several reasons. However, I am also much more involved in the stunt community than I was when shooting Concrete and Crashpads in 2016, so my perspective is a bit different as well.
We are still one of the top two markets with regard to scripted television production (after California), so there is plenty of TV work being shot here. Seems you can’t walk around the city without stumbling upon a film or television shoot. Nationally though, there is a general slowdown as more and more productions go global. This is an issue for all North American markets, not just New York.
New York is less of a hot spot for big budget films, but we do get them, John Wick 3 being an example. We do have a very thriving indie scene though. In some ways, I think that is a strong suit of our market, especially for up and coming filmmakers. The intimacy and close-knit nature of the city and film community fosters indie film makers in ways other markets may not.
New York has its own style and energy as well, so we will always be a location of choice for productions that want that. Our legislature just renewed our TV & film production tax incentives for another five years as well, so this also will make us very attractive as a location.
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When we spoke back in 2017, you classed yourself as a rookie stuntman – how has the stunt performing side been going? Do you want to focus on that or do more of what you’ve done on John Wick 3?
I still consider myself very much a rookie in this business. I have had a very good few years since we last spoke and have worked a lot in television in New York, and every set I am on and coordinator I work with teaches me something new – as well as how far I still have to go.
I learned a tremendous amount last year working on Season 6 of Ray Donovan as stunt double for Eddie Marsan and Zach Grenier. Working for an entire season under the direction of stunt coordinator Doc Duhame was like going to stunt college for me. He is an incredibly generous and supportive person. I could not be the stunt professional I am today were it not for everything I have learned from Doc.
Still, there is much more I don’t know than know. In this regard, I have been laser-focused and have weeded pretty much all other responsibilities out of my life (except for running my Sambo gym, which also houses Breakfall Studios) to focus on learning and growing as a stunt professional. It is easy to get overwhelmed with so much to learn. But, I have a very specific set of skills I am working hard to improve upon (rigging and driving for example) while still developing my screen fighting and choreography ability. My goal at this point is to be the dependable utility guy.
I do enjoy the production side of things as well, and definitely will continue on as a filmmaker too when the right projects appear.
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Read my review of John Wick 3: Parabellum, or check out my Stunts section. You can also see Keanu Reeves, Chad Stahelski and fight/stunt coordinator Jonathan Eusebio taking about the “motorcycles with swords” action sequence from the film here.
Watch a Sambo demonstration with Stephen and one of his students, Victor Severin (Victor is also one of the special ability fighters in the scene in the film):
Sambo Demonstration from Stephen Koepfer on Vimeo.
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