Keanu Reeves’s Fight Choreographer Talked to Us About 'John Wick'

Fightland Blog

By Pedro Olavarria

For movie goers to suspend disbelief, fantasy must have verisimilitude; a tea spoon of medicine makes the sugar go down. In the Avengers, one of the reasons we believe Black Widow defeated a multidimensional cyborg alien, despite lacking super powers, is because she was using rubber guard. Enter Jonathan Eusebio, the fight choreographer for Avengers, the Expendables Trilogy, 300, the Bourne Ultimatum and the Keanu Reeves action extravaganza, John Wick.  With over 63 film credits to his name, Jonathan was gracious enough to sit down and answer some questions regarding fight choreography and how mixed martial arts has changed the way it’s done:

Fightland: Which martial arts have you trained in and who are your teachers?
Jonathan Eusebio: Growing up I trained in Tae Kwon Do and Hapkido but it wasn't until I trained under Dan Inosanto where I was exposed to a wide variety martial arts. There I trained under Guro Dan in the filipino martial arts and Jun Fan Gung fu. I learned boxe francais under Nicolas Saignac, Muay Thai under Chai Sirisute, Shooto under Sensei Yori Nakamura. One of my "older" brothers at the academy was Erik Paulson and I trained with him on a regular basis.

Your teacher, Dan Inosanto, was trained in Jeet Kune Do by Bruce Lee; to what extent have Escrima and Jeet Kune Do influenced your style of choreography?
Everytime I choreograph some type of concept from those systems is evident in my work. The filipino martial arts gave me the mindset of how do I use this object as a weapon? Weapon based systems have the same angles of attack. The body mechanics change due to the shape of the weapon, the weight of the weapon where the attacking point of the weapon is, etc. This is very useful when I have a scene where a fight involves picking up a random object and using it to defeat an opponent. The concepts of Jeet Kune Do / Jun Fan Gung fu allowed me to cross train in many different disciplines and its philosophy of absorb what is useful and reject what is useless is helpful when I develop a fight style for characters onscreen. I first assess what physical attributes an actor has and then with the director discuss how his character would move or fight. To make it believable i essentially have to remove certain habits and make new ones.

Jonathan Eusebio

In John Wick, your fight choreography features many techniques which have successfully been used in professional mixed martial arts; which particular fights or fighters inspired you when choreographing John Wick (Keanu Reeves) and his nemesis Mrs. Perkins (Adrienne Palicki)?
When we were coming up for fight styles for the film we were watching a lot of judo and sambo competitions. A lot of Isao Okano footage. The struggle in trying to apply a technique was more important than the actual throw or submission technique. The scramble or transitions to position was what we wanted photograph in film.

Are there any martial arts moves that you want to use on film but haven’t yet? 
With the advent of MMA and information readily available on the Internet, I don't think there are techniques people haven't seen in one form or another. So the biggest challenge when putting things on film is trying to find new and interesting ways to apply these moves. What makes fights interesting is the drama and story behind the confrontation.

How do you draw the line between the realism (shoulder locks, arm bars from the guard) that allows us to suspend our disbelief and the fantastic moves required to make it fun? In other words, how do you mix fantasy and reality, in a way that isn’t too realistic or too fantastic?
I always like to root choreography to something that is real and applicable. The function of a technique has to be recognized as something efficient and justified in its application. The world audience is well versed on combat due to MMA and other combat sports. They need to believe this technique will work. On the other hand, most of the time ,the most effective strategies and techniques are quite simple and not flashy by movie standards. Film combat requires understanding what looks good for the lens and a good understanding of pacing and editing. It is a mix of having real technique and understanding the factors involved with filming fights.

To what extent does the personality and background of a character and the actor portraying that character influence how you choreograph a fight?
The audience has to believe that the person onscreen has a real set of combat skills. The choreography has to be tailor made for its actor. It means find the movements they look strong in and build on that. Knowing the background of the character and his/her personality helps decide the fight style you are creating. Is he military, law enforcement, street thug, boxer, etc. What motivates his actions ? Is he ruthless , passive, aggressive, etc? The fight style has to reflect all these things. The physical limitations as well as the mental ones.

Of all the actors you’ve worked with in over 63 productions, who are the top three actors you think would have made the best MMA fighters had he or she chosen that path?  
It's hard to narrow down which actors would be the best MMA fighters. Some are very physically capable and some have the mentality to be a fighter. Jason Statham has the athleticism to be a MMA fighter. Hugh Jackman has the height and reach and training ethic to be one also. Keanu has great aptitude to be a good grappler. It's a hard thing to say who would be a MMA fighter because there are so many factors involved with being a fighter. Being a fighter is just as complex as some characters in film.

Look for Jonathan's work in the upcoming Hitman: Agent 47 and The Last Witch Hunter, both due in 2015.



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