How does the sound design of John Wick: Chapter 4 stand out in the franchise?
The fourth installment of the John Wick franchise is a shining example of why these films are exciting to watch over and over again. While the films continue to push the genre boundaries of an action film. Many refer to the franchises genre as “gun-fu,” a subgenre of martial arts film from Hong Kong action cinema, as the titular character, John Wick (Keanu Reeves), tries to escape the criminal underworld he had previously abandoned.
In the fourth film, Wick doesn’t have much to say (with Reeves cutting down his lines to only 380 words) and prefers to fight his way out of any situation. This means that most of the film relies on sound design to translate the tone, character development, and pace of the film. Led by Supervising Sound Editor Mark Stoeckinger, his team, which includes Re-Recording Mixers Casey Genton and Andrew Koyama, constructs a sonic landscape that captivates audiences and keeps them enthralled, from the sound of gunshots and explosions to the thumping bass of the music score. His meticulous attention to detail and collaborative approach to working with other members of the filmmaking team are invaluable assets to the franchise‘s success.
Stoeckinger, Koyama, and Genton sat down with No Film School over Zoom to break down the sound design of John Wick: Chapter 4, how they added a level of realism to this otherworldliness of John Wick’s fight against the High Table, and what stock sound effect you will never hear in the franchise, and for good reason.
Editor’s Note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
No Film School: I want to say congratulations on John Wick 4 being out. I assume it’s the last of the John Wick films, so big congrats on that.
Mark Stoeckinger: Although, you can’t ever assume that with John Wick.
Andrew Koyama: You never know.
NFS: I can never assume. I’m curious about how you all got started on the John Wick franchise and what made you excited about this fourth film.
Mark Stoeckinger: Well, Andy and I worked on the first John Wick way back in the day. It was a small, independent, not studio-supported film, and we can see where it became. So I have a post-production friend who has been the post-production supervisor on all four of them. There was another movie I wanted to work in, and he said, “Well, I don’t think I’ll be able to get you on that, but here’s one you might be interested in.” Well, the rest is history. We all have been fortunate to work on it. And Andy, myself, there are a couple of others, too, that have been on all four of them.
Casey Genton: I joined the franchise by invitation from Mark. Mark and I did a movie two years ago called Day Shift, and it was sort of an introduction for both of us to work together. We got along really well and had a lot of the same sensibilities. When the opportunity came up for them to need an effects mixer and Mark asked me to join, I was really… I mean, I love the Wick films. There’s no better genre in our world for sound, I don’t think. I was ecstatic about joining.
I would say that all expectations of working with Mark and Andy and Chad and everyone else involved, the film far exceeded anything I could have expected. The people are amazing. The crew was great. And the film, I think, turned out really, really cool. It’s a unique film in the franchise. It really sort of goes to another level. As all of them do, right? I mean, for the most part, every one of them just ups and ups and ups. And after the third, you kind of wondered where it was going to go and it found a place to go.
No Film School: Yes.
Koyama: It’s funny that Casey and I met for the first time on this film, but the chemistry was amazing. We had so much fun with this crew.
Stoeckinger: Yeah. When you work with the same people over and over again, you really sort of developed that, especially if it’s the same film too. You really get this great working relationship.
NFS: I think it is truly a sound design film. With the endless action sequences, the different types of guns, the number of shots, and the type of weapons that are being used, there is so much happening. How you track these shots and how you find the perfect sound for each weapon that’s on-screen.
Stoeckinger: It is slightly difficult to answer because the perfect sound’s whatever feels right. John Wick, as you know, in most of these running shootouts, he doesn’t always have the same gun. So it always changes and it follows him. So sometimes the sound of the gun evolves with him, but it’s not like the old Western theory where the good guy always has the biggest gun necessarily. It’s really whatever makes sense. In finding that sound, you want a palette of gun sounds that sound good yet are different from each other in various ways. Basically, what we all do is there’s a lot of layering of sounds that will give it different characteristics, because strangely enough, almost every gun sounds a little bit different, particularly in the caliber. The caliber of the gun and the length of the barrel, I think, are the most distinguishing characteristics to give a gun a different sound.
Koyama: Then you guys have to make… If there’s a volley of like seven or eight shots, they can’t all be exactly the same sound or it sounds silly. So these guys have to manipulate each gunshot separately to give it variety and interest.
Stoeckinger: Otherwise it’d be like a gunshot loop of bang, bang, bang. And that’s not what this movie’s all about.
Genton: There’s also another layer to that too, I think, is like, with all the layers that we get, Andy lays down the music and there’s this sort of baseline of that being the character of the sound of the film. Then we have all these elements with the guns and fight material that needs to fit in that sort of world. There’s a lot to consider when it comes to the perfect sound of weapons when it comes to music and effects playing in harmony.
Stoeckinger: I mean, we’re talking about the guns, but ultimately dialogue and music come first. So you work on how it’s going to sound based on that, and then you start adding the sounds and then keep reworking it. It’s like kneading a bit of clay. It takes a while to get it into the shape you want.
NFS: I know there are so many really great sequences that just highlight sound so beautifully. I think of the one where we’re in Japan and John Wick’s laying on the broken glass, trying not to move because Caine can hear everything. I know that a lot of the fighting sequences were done practically. Do you decide to keep those noises that the actors make on set in the sound mix? Or what is your process when it comes to that?
Koyama: In this film particularly, as opposed to a lot of action films, a lot of that production sound remains in the mix. There’s a lot of movement. And a lot of times there are vocalizations from the stuntman. Leaving all that production sound kind of adds to the reality of it. It just feels more visceral. In general, we like to try to keep as much production sound as we can because it just adds realism to the film.
Stoeckinger: It’s quite the challenge because as you can imagine there’s a lot going on that gets in the way of the sound that you want to hear of those actors. There’s a lot of work from Andy and dialogue editors before him to get it to sound that way. Every now and then there’s added sounds peppered in where needed or replaced where needed. But it’s production. So hats off to the production sound mixer that was able to capture all that.
NFS: When you are finding that perfect balance of background noise, sound effects, and music, how do you make sure that it doesn’t overwhelm the audience but still keeps them engaged during those long action sequences?
Koyama: I think firstly, the effects department, music department, and dialogue department will get their ducks in a row. Then, what we do is we put them all together. I think it’s very collaborative. We sit back and we go, “Oh, maybe that background is a little distracting. Maybe my breathing is too loud on John Wick because Caine will hear him.” And then we all think about it collaboratively and it’s a team effort.
Mark Stoeckinger: You can imagine there’s so much sound going on and we’re all looking to be as specific as possible, that you need collaborative ears to offer up suggestions and ideas and work back and forth.
Genton: The sequence that you just mentioned, Alyssa, was interesting because you may actually think that the tones and the backgrounds in that moment are actually music because they’re this… Mark and his team did these really cool, I don’t know, singing harmony, sort of tonal backgrounds that sounded a lot like music. But I think that that’s actually a background that’s playing at that moment. A lot of what Andy and I do is, I think, watching the screen and really finding what is driving the moment and how best to… what sound should be upfront. In that moment, it’s sort of like we have these cool tonal backgrounds too sort of gradually just dip away, and then it starts to feel almost a little bit like Wick’s going to get away. And then there’s that glass snap that just kicks it into the next phase of the fight.
Stoeckinger: Basically there are a lot of subconscious sounds that are going on in Wick too. I mean, there are a lot of the obvious ones for sure, but that’s part of the real fun, manipulative aspect of the soundtrack, like what Casey just said. There was nothing there and it seemed like it needed something. In Japan, there’s some monk chants that are sort of slowed down with some reverb and what have you that don’t sound like that, but they make the sort of low-frequency undulating background that creates a mood.
NFS: Are there distinct sounds for each location in the film? Do you have distinct sounds that categorize each location from New York to Paris to Japan?
Stoeckinger: Most definitely, because the whole idea is to create an environment. There are certain sounds that are unique to that environment. As a matter of fact, one of the sound designers on this movie is in France. Since so much of it took place there, was like, just run with it, just make it sound exactly how it’s supposed to sound. Then, if we want to elaborate from there, at least we have a good basis. There was a lot of that. Even New York and Osaka have their own unique experiences, too. In Osaka, a lot of background sounds are usually like when we’re on a rooftop and it’s wind, but it’s got a distant kind of motorcycle that reflects off buildings. But it sounds like this kind of tonal thing that is just fun in the scene. So it’s part of what makes Osaka, yet it’s a real sound, but it might not come across as a real sound. Just comes across as something interesting for the moment just to give it a difference.
Genton: I think it’s interesting because, to me, one of the things that make the Wick film special is that there are action films and then there are action films like Wick that have a tonal element to them. Like there’s a moodiness to it. You don’t get that often with action films. Typically, it’s just like a popcorn blockbuster or whatever. There’s not that much sort of thought and feeling put into every little sound where when we’re establishing these locations, a lot of what drives the specific sound of a location is really how it makes you feel versus maybe what’s realistic.
Stoeckinger: We all think of Wick as an action film. On many levels it is. But I would say maybe 40 percent of the film is action and the rest is not. The rest is open-source story building, character building, and location establishment.
NFS: What equipment or programs do you frequently use on the Wick films?
Stoeckinger: Pro Tools, Pro Tools, and Pro Tools. And anything that supports Pro Tools. Somebody will say, “How did you make… It sounds like with plugins.” After a while, it’s hard to be specific on what it was unless it’s only a couple and it was simple and it’s consistent. So Pro Tools is primarily the tool that we all use. Even the music.
Koyama: Those are our tools. I’m an addict. I own all of them.
Stoeckinger: But you think of a mix. Andy is not using a gazillion faders like it used to be in the old days.
Koyama: I’ve got this huge work surface remote controller in front of me. I use like three faders. And everything else I do mouse and keyboard now. I’ve gone fully to the dark side. The old-school guys are more on the console, they’re reaching for EQs. But I’ve just… For ergonomics, I’m just mouse and keyboard. I don’t have to move very much. My shoulders and back thank me at the end of the day.
NFS: When did you transition to those different inputs?
Koyama: When I first came to Formosa Group, it was going to be a completely in-the-box facility. I came from Sony and Soundelux and Universal before that where we’re on real consoles. I had to figure out how I could adapt my workflow to in-the-box mixing. So at that point, it’s like 2013, somewhere around there. I had to do everything I normally do, but not use a console. I was kind of forced, but I’m very happy. I’m much more comfortable now. I think I have better precision. I can do better-detailed work. I just love mixing in the box.
NFS: There are so many sequences I would love to break down, but I think there’s one sound I would love to ask about. It’s the Wilhelm Scream. I thought I heard it a few times–
Koyama: Oh it’s not.
Stoeckinger: You did not hear it once.
NFS: It isn’t?
Koyama: It’s not the Wilhelm Scream. It’s one that sounds a lot like it. But it’s not the actual one.
Stoeckinger: I have an aversion to the Wilhelm-
Koyama: I think it was actually a group performer who did it specifically for this film when the guy in the suit tumbles down the escalator. But it’s actually a group performer who just did a panic scream, although it sounds Wilhelm-ish. It is not a Wilhelm. I dislike Wilhelm.
Stoeckinger: Some editors will use a Wilhelm scream, but we do have an aversion to Wilhelm screams as they get overused.
Koyama: Yeah. It’s a little corny.
Stoeckinger: So somebody in the group did an homage enough that we wouldn’t-
Genton: Kudos to that group person, by the way. I mean, to be able to pull off one of the most… A version of one of the most iconic screams of all time.
Koyama: Well, it’s like twice as long too. It’s about twice as long as the Wilhelm.
Genton: It’s really funny. I love that you brought that up. That’s great.
NFS: I think I’m just attuned to hearing it, or thinking that I hear it, because it is often used in most action films that I watch.
Stoeckinger: You don’t think it gets overused, huh? Because that’s… I don’t know.
NFS: I think I see it as a big filmmaking joke. So when it does happen, it makes me laugh a little bit. I see it as a joke within the sound community.
Genton: I’m not saying I’m not for or against the Wilhelm screen, but I do think that there’s something about it that connects the audience to the film that’s like they feel like they’re a part of the joke, which I really like about the Wilhelm. I know that sounds… People will hate me for saying that, but I get that. I think that it does have its place in our world to connect with our audience, I think, sometimes.
Stoeckinger: Recognizable sounds can be your friend sometimes. Yeah.
NFS: Do you all have any advice for anybody who wants to start working on sound teams on film or TV productions?
Stoeckinger: I’ll say, well, do it. What I mean by that is there is so much media in the world right now in every way, shape, and form, especially the younger generation probably knows that far better than I do. There are all sorts of places to apply that trade, that interest, that passion. So it doesn’t have to be in film necessarily. It could end up being film, but ultimately anywhere where somebody needs post-production sound, ideas, and creation, that’s where they should start. And I wouldn’t try to define it more than that, for me personally.
Koyama: They only learn by doing.
Stoeckinger: Yeah, you got to do it.
Genton: I agree with that statement. I think that it’s totally about doing it. So much of what we do is not technical. There are technical aspects to it, but that’s easy to learn. If you’re dedicated, it’s easy to learn on the job jumping in and starting to do it and figuring out what makes what sounds and how to create the things that are in your brain and be able to realize them. The real world is all of it. Jumping in and just getting into it. That’s it. And find people that you respect and love and stick with those people. They’ll always guide you in the right direction.
Koyama: Keep knocking on that door even if they don’t answer it.