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Not Just Puppies: How ‘John Wick: Chapter 3—Parabellum’ Turned Animals Into Action Stars

‘Parabellum’ builds entire set pieces around dogs and horses—a strategy that required a lot of training (and a good amount of protective gear)

Summit/Ringer illustration

Not long into John Wick: Chapter 3—Parabellum, our titular assassin, running from a $14 million bounty on his head, is asked a simple question that cuts to the core of this unlikely movie franchise’s existence.

“All of this, for what? Just because of a puppy?”

“It wasn’t just a puppy,” Wick responds, without a whiff of humor.

Neither character is wrong. The foundation of this dark and stylistically violent series is built upon a home invasion that occurred in John Wick, in which Russian gangsters knocked Wick unconscious, stole his Mustang and unnecessarily snuffed out his baby beagle, a gift from his belated wife. The heinous act compelled Wick to reenter the assassin underground, but it also reinforced the practical and symbolic value in having a canine companion.

Jump ahead two chapters and the franchise has remained loyal to its domesticated friends. Wick’s pitbull, which he saved from being euthanized at the end of the first movie, returns in Parabellum as his dedicated protector and running buddy. But the third installment also expands its animal roster to include two Belgian Malinois shepherds and a stable of several horses, all of which lend their speed, hooves, teeth, and claws to a few violent sequences that enable Wick to stay alive in the midst of bullet-spraying madness.

In order to effectively create these scenes, which feature the movie’s stars, Keanu Reeves and Halle Berry, director Chad Stahelski enlisted the services of Tad Griffith, a third-generation equestrian gymnast and self-described horse master, and dog and wolf trainer Andrew Simpson. Both of them prepared intensively for months before shooting, working closely with the actors and stunt coordinators, all to keep Wick’s kinship with these majestic animals plausible and, more importantly, exhilarating.

“It was a matter of what we could create that we could accomplish safely, and how we could do some awesome stuff that had never been done before,” Griffith said. “I think we accomplished it.”

Without the grueling amount of planning and effort, detailed below, none of these elaborate set pieces—spanning from New York to Morocco—could have been possible.

Hind-Leg Weaponry

When Stahelski tapped Griffith to coordinate the horse scenes, he wanted something practical and innovative at the same time. “What could we get away with that would look more like using a horse as a weapon?” Griffith remembers the director asking him.

What Stahelski got was a cartoonish solution that still worked on a realistic level. As Wick darts into a barn full of horses early on in Parabellum, he uses them as a shield, sliding underneath and spinning around the spooked equines. Then, in a very efficient and technically savvy move, Wick positions the rear of one horse toward oncoming gunmen and taps its flank, causing an instantly violent back kick that sends the bad guys flying out of frame. “Everyone knows to stay away from the back of a horse,” Griffith said. “If you surprise the horse, it will kick, so it made sense.”

Pulling off the swift nature of that trick was another story. Griffith brought five of his 80 horses from his family-owned ranch near Santa Clarita, California, to participate in the movie. Before any training could begin, he needed to pick the right horse breeds, with the right experience, to pull off the variety of stunts needed. For the barn scene, Griffith chose an Arabian named Rogue, beginning prep in California to block out the sequence and then rehearsing more once the team got to New York.

He worked with Reeves to move the horse on command so they could effectively line up its hindquarters in the right spot. In reality though, a simple tap doesn’t turn Rogue into an instant weapon. “When you touch a horse in the tummy or touch him on the top he’s not going to kick. That’s not normally how you make a horse kick,” Griffith said. The execution needed to be multifaceted.

“He’s trained to where it’s on a voice cue, where I can just say, ‘Annnnd kick!’” Griffith explained. “We’re doing a dance. Keanu spins him around, I know when the horse is physically in a position to do it, I see Keanu start to cue him with his hand and then I tell the horse to kick. All three of those things kind of have to come together. Even though it looks seamless and it looks easy, it’s still a dance where I have to keep Keanu safe. I have to get the best kick and performance out of the horse at the exact moment in which Keanu’s cueing him on film.”

Notably, Rogue’s hooves didn’t actually connect with any stunt performers. The gunmen were composited in later on the exact marks where the horse’s hind leg finished its momentum, in order to look like it was all one fluid shot. “It’s not as easy as it sounds, especially on the double kick, because the timing has to be perfect,” Griffith said. “So they probably shot those kicks for the guy on the ground 15-20 times to make it match.”

The entire barn sequence took three nights to shoot, but without the weeks of preparation and the right trick horse, the scene never could have developed in a timely fashion. The success of the scenes also relied on Reeves’s personal connection with the animals, whom he trained with each day.

“He was very kind to the horses at all times,” Griffith said. “People just get on them and treat them like a prop. That’s the history of the industry, but that’s not what he did at all. He was always concerned about their welfare and how they were feeling and he’d always talk to them, which goes a long way because that’s exactly how we do it.” All of that came in handy for the more industrious riding scenes that would follow.

Who Needs a Motorcycle?

“No matter where our technology goes, no matter what the movies are about, the presence of a man on a horse still puts a man above other men,” Griffith told me with pride. “He looks different when he’s on a mobile throne.”

Long before footage of Reeves galloping beneath elevated train tracks spawned dozens of memes, he was training intensively at Griffith’s ranch three times a week, for more than a month before production moved to New York. Although Reeves had acquired riding experience over previous projects, most recently in 47 Ronin, “we went to a whole other level with this,” Griffith said, noting that a horse-riding scene is much more difficult when it’s part of a motorcycle shoot-out.

In Parabellum, as Wick gallops out of the aforementioned stable and dodges traffic, he’s pursued by a couple of motorcyclists who swerve around his horse. To avoid oncoming fire, Wick crouches down the side and belly of the horse, completely off the saddle, and fires bullets around his horse’s neck, still bobbing at full speed. From Griffith’s perspective, it was one of the most impressive and technically challenging sequences he’s coordinated.

Building the sequence, once again, started with having the right horse breed. Based on the way Stahelski, who had worked with Griffith before on 300, wanted to shoot the scene—primarily in front of the horse, with all the action running toward the camera rig—Griffith needed three different horses to execute things properly. The first, an American saddlebred named Marley, was used as the main cast horse, escorting Wick between action sequences without anyone in pursuit. For the actual motorcycle chase, Griffith brought in two American morgans named Nip and Tuck.

“We had to pick the right horse initially before all the rest of the training could proceed,” Griffith said. “I couldn’t really make a trick horse into a riding horse as quickly or as competently, so we went the other way. That’s one of the challenges—you never know exactly what the sequence is going to call for. That’s why we have such a grand herd because we can’t make the horse do everything … When I’m talking to directors or DPs, I say I’m dealing with an eight-year-old child, except they don’t have a voice, they don’t tell me whether they want to work or not.”

During training, Reeves worked in lock step with all three horses, which were introduced gradually to the sounds of gunshots, the engine revving of motorcycles, and the noise pollution of a busy city. “We start with them standing still and then drive the motorcycles around,” Griffith explained. “Then we’ll ride the horses as the motorcycles drive around them. The slower the introduction, the more gradual it is, and as they look at the thing, and their ears come up and they snort at it, that’s when you have to give them reassurance it’s not going to hurt them. You have to walk over and smell, look at it, get used to it. So it’s a process.”

Eventually, Reeves and Griffith started reading the body language and reactions of Marley, Nip, and Tuck with similar intuition. Just by riding a certain horse, Griffith explained, Reeves could tell which ones cantered when, which ones were stronger, bolder, and faster than others—and he could adjust his riding style accordingly.

Before shooting anything, Griffith and his team laid down large rolls of rubber tarps, 400 feet in total length, and fitted the horses’ hooves with rubber horseshoes. “I firmly believe horses will only run as fast as they know they can stand up,” Griffith said. “The last thing you want to do is to get to set and the horse is barely moving because he’s scared … the rubber was mainly so that the horses could maintain their balance when they’re running fast and stopping immensely.” With a limited runway, Stahelski curtailed shots to about 10 seconds of galloping, capturing a burst of speed before resetting and using the same few blocks over and over. “A lot of people would run for a mile trying to get three seconds of magic—I like to run for a football field for six seconds of magic,” Griffith said. The horses take about 10 seconds to run the length of a football field, the trainer continued. “So if we get 10 seconds, I can almost guarantee six seconds of great stuff.”

Filming this process required a truck, racing 18 feet ahead of the horse, with rigging attached to a large bed. Rods extended over Nip or Tuck so that wires could be strapped to Reeves’s body, should one of the horses inadvertently stop or fall. Griffith also had a separate line that extended past Reeves and under the saddle to attach to the bridle. Griffith is able to drive and manipulate the horse from 13 feet up in the air. “I can’t talk to the horse,” he explained. “I can talk to Keanu, but it’s really loud and we’re going really fast and we have to rely on the prep that we’ve done.”

Much of the motorcycle chase relied on Nip and Tuck, used at different times, to keep a 25-miles-per-hour pace with the truck in front of them and motorcycles beside them. “They had to be forward, they had to be ready to go and pushing into the bit,” Griffith said. The motorcyclists had to be prepared, too, and needed to learn how to hold their arms and keep their balance with enough distance from the horse. “There may be notes: ‘You want to get into the trick a little sooner, might want to back the motorcycle up,’” said Griffin. “There’s a lot of things that change on the day, but basically we’re running the same length.”

Like the barn sequence, the entire scene was shot over three nights. Now that the movie’s out, months after shooting ended, Griffith remains impressed with the way Reeves handled the horses, his dedicated training, and his fearlessness.

“You can watch the footage with him riding the horses—when he’s stopping at the end, he reaches down and pets the horse,” Griffith said. “Cut has been called, it’s over. No one had told him to do anything, but we had worked together quite a bit on relaxing the legs, telling the horse he did a good job, and petting him no matter what happened, so that at least the horse came back the next time. It was really genuine, the way he cares for animals. That may be part of his character in John Wick, but it’s truly something that I believe he feels all the time.”

Don’t Look Them in the Eye

After its horse-laden first act, the action in Parabellum moves to Casablanca, Morocco, where John Wick travels to collect a favor from his old friend Sofia (Berry), who’s running a branch of the Continental. For this section, Stahelski wanted two dogs to be featured—aids to Wick and Sofia. He envisioned the dogs mauling a horde of assailants, as Wick and Sofia shot their way out of trouble and fled to the desert. But he needed an experienced dog trainer to conceive and choreograph the very roughly sketched and violent sequence.

He eventually found Andrew Simpson, a renowned dog and wolf trainer, to take the lead on the project. Like Griffith, Simpson’s primary task was to find the right breed capable of executing Stahelski’s vision, which would require lots of jumping and attacking. Together, they settled on the Belgian Malinois, a shepherd breed used by Navy Seals and other military groups, and began scouting the country for the right ones.

Simpson sent Stahelski photos and video until they found two dogs that could play the leads. “We wanted two dogs that had a look that was captivating to the audience and intelligent, but also two looks that were slightly different,” Simpson said. “Once we agreed on those, then I went back and found doubles to match [their look] to do all the stunt work.”

Finding the right stunt dogs provided its own challenges. To work with actors and take commands on a hectic movie set, the dogs that Simpson chose needed to have the right temperament. The first litmus test for a prospective dog in a situation like this is how it reacts in the kennel. “We find the ones that are willing to interact with you as a complete stranger, just through the cage,” Simpson said. “Then we take them outside for a walk, see how they are, see if they’re crazy for little birds that fly by, introduce a ball to them—see if they’re ball crazy, which is good for us doing all the stunt stuff. If you chuck a tennis ball and they’re not really interested, then they’re probably not going to be the action stunt dog we need.”

Simpson ultimately chose five dogs with similar-looking features—the two main cast dogs, Santana and Tai, along with three stunt dogs, Sam 7, Boyca, and Ikar. He and his team brought them to downtown Los Angeles, where they trained for the next five months inside a multi-level warehouse. The dogs started off learning simple “hits,” commands to run and jump or target something. The training became more complex once Simpson’s staff established better relationships with the dogs. “What I’d do with Chad is every week: I’d think up gags, I’d think up stunts and then we’d videotape it,” Simpson said. “Then we’d have his input and we’d adjust on our end so we were on the same page. By giving him weekly videos, he’d know exactly how the action was going, how the choreography was going, and then he could work it into a more refined sequence on the pages.”

Because Stahelski likes to film longer takes in action scenes, Simpson knew it would be paramount that Berry become a proxy trainer herself. She joined the crew after the dogs had trained for three months, and spent a few weeks initiating herself with all five of them. “They took to her very naturally,” Simpson said. “It wasn’t something we had to force, it wasn’t something we had to struggle with. She understood dogs, she was quick to get down on the floor and roll around with them, do what she had to do, and it was cool for us—sometimes, with actors, you have to force the issue. She was just a natural, so that sped up the process greatly.”

After a month, Berry graduated to giving commands, using a training pouch with treats and mirroring a dog trainer beside her. That led to the more complex choreography seen in the movie, in which Berry shouts directions to the dogs in the midst of an all-out gunfight. “She’s fighting, Keanu’s fighting, and these dogs are jumping over things going between her legs and taking out bad guys right beside her,” Simpson said. “It’s a very complicated dance that they do. The only way we can get that successfully is to have the time to train it.”

Since the scene required both dogs to attack and kill assailants in the midst of chaos, Simpson spent a lot of time and money designing protective gear for stunt doubles to wear under their clothing. For the scene’s victims, he attached a bright green foam substance to various parts of the body to create an easy target for attack. “It’s covered in thick fabric so it’s soft when the dog would bite,” Simpson said.

Once the entire crew moved to Morocco, everything had been planned and practiced, so rehearsals didn’t last too long. The sequence was shot in the late hours of night for about three weeks, and every dog trick, Simpson confirmed, was real—even the one in which a dog uses Berry as a springboard to climb a nearly 30-foot wall. “Yeah, that’s a real shot,” Simpson beamed. “That’s a real body, that’s a real dog going up a real wall. It’s old-school filmmaking—it’s not a Marvel movie with a bunch of CG and green screen. Everything we did was real and practical.”

Halle Berry, on-set trainer Greg SmithAldridge, and stunt dog Sam 7 filming in Morocco
Andrew Simpson

Because Wick has no prior relationship to Sofia’s dogs, Reeves wanted to spend as little time with the shepherds as possible. He was very conscious that they belonged to Sofia, and that Berry should be the one in control at all times, Simpson told me. “He wanted them to be more standoffish and weary towards him character-wise in the movie. He would say, ‘Anything I can do, anything I shouldn’t do?’ So we used to say to him, ‘You know what? Have a look at them, but don’t get right in their face and look in their eyes. They’re gonna be interested in you, and then they’re going to start to like you, and then they’re going to start to build a bond with you, and it’s going against what you’re trying to do for your character.’”

If eye contact was made for a prolonged period, though, Reeves was never in real danger. “They [weren’t] gonna rip him apart,’” Simpson noted, a helpful clarification.

The only unforeseen hiccup during shooting came from the natural opponent of man’s best friend: cats. In Morocco, it’s estimated street cats match the human population, and since Parabellum was shot beside fishing villages (where cats pick on seafood scraps), crew members remained diligent in making sure the set was clear before rolling. “You can have the best-trained dog in the world, but when a cat runs in front of a dog, his instinct takes over,” Simpson said. To prevent cats from distracting the shepherds, local construction workers built little boxes to keep them contained. “When a cat came through, we’d pick up the cats, put them in a little cat condo, give them sardines, close the door and at the end of the night we let them all out and they’d go back home,” Simpson said. “It was quite comical.”

A Lot of Slobber

While Wick’s rescued pitbull doesn’t pull off any circus stunts, she helps bookend the movie as a less vicious, lovable palate cleanser. And though most of Simpson’s work required time away from New York, he still oversaw each scene featuring Wick’s loyal friend, played by two females named Cha Cha and Princess.

The opening scene takes place in a New York City downpour, as Wick scrambles through Times Square with his pitbull by his side. “The dog is, constantly, not just trying to keep pace with Keanu, but dodging other people,” Simpson admitted. “They’re dealing with New York—the energy there, the lights, the honking, the traffic, and probably 90 percent of the stuff the pitbull had to do, was in the rain. ‘Why do I have to go through a rain tower when I could just go around it?’ You can’t have that conversation with a dog, so it takes a lot of time.”

For example, before finishing a tandem scene in a taxi cab, Cha Cha got into some trouble. As she and Reeves turned a corner, Cha Cha locked eyes with a pedicab horse and started to chase after it. “It wasn’t anything serious or malicious, it was just one of those moments where a dog sees something and dog’s mind takes over.”

Arguably the funniest scene of Parabellum takes place near the movie’s finale at the Continental, when Wick is sitting in the lounge and is greeted by his dog after a long period of separation. For about 10 seconds, the pitbull, also played by Cha Cha, licks Reeves’s face while he tries to have a serious conversation.

“That was one of the hardest shots for the pitbull,” Simpson said. “You know, a standard dog jumps up on Keanu, licks his face—OK, got it, moving on. But we shot that from many different angles, many different times.”

Simpson said they put a little butter on the side of Reeves’s cheek to initiate the licking, but luckily Cha Cha was in an affectionate mood to keep going when needed. “The dog’s mind is going ‘OK, I go up here, I lick your face,’ and then the actor removes the dog, pushes him away. For the dog to keep doing it take after take with so much enthusiasm was a testament to the heart of the dog..”

Once shooting wrapped, Simpson said that each of the dogs—the pitbulls and the Belgian Malinois—returned home to a different trainer, which is standard procedure. He had the pleasure of taking home Santana, who joined his several rescues and wolves, including the one who played Ghost in Game of Thrones.

“Yeah,” Simpson shrugged. “The food bill is pretty high.”

Jake Kring-Schreifels is a sports and entertainment writer based in Washington, D.C. His work has also appeared in Esquire.com, GQ.com and The New York Times.

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