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What does a knife to the eyeball sound like? Just ask the ‘John Wick’ sound team

A scene from “John Wick 3" with Keanu Reeves fighting amid a knife exhibit.
One of sound designer Martyn Zub’s favorite scenes in the John Wick franchise, starring Keanu Reeves, is in “John Wick: Chapter 3 — Parabellum” when a fight breaks out in an exhibit space displaying knives. “They end up smashing all the glass and throwing knives at each other.”
(Niko Tavernise)

When director Chad Stahelski’s third chapter of the “John Wick” saga arrived in theaters this past May, critics and general audiences fell for its amped-up, well-choreographed fights, stunning backdrops and the return of its mysterious protagonist portrayed by Keanu Reeves.

Also playing a crucial part in making Wick’s world come to life was the film’s sound team, which has worked together on all three movies.

“We know this world pretty well, and we’ve developed a shorthand with Chad over time,” says sound designer Martyn Zub, whose wide-ranging credits include “Frozen,” “Nightcrawler,” “Atomic Blonde” and “Deadpool 2.”

“We know what he likes, and his main directive is to make it bad, cool, angry, mean and loud — and also lots of fun. We also need to keep the mystery around John Wick, because he is the legendary hit man known as ‘The Boogeyman!’”

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Here Zub talks about building the soundscapes of “John Wick: Chapter 3 — Parabellum”:

The world of Wick expands dramatically in the third movie. How did that impact the aural tasks?

We had to establish John Wick in a foreign country, which was great fun. For example, when they are running around in Morocco, shooting in a city square, we spent a lot of time building soundscapes off the screen, so while we see the main characters in camera, we can hear a battle going offscreen as well. So we know where John Wick (Keanu Reeves) or Sofia (Halle Berry) are at any given time in the actual sequence. When one of them looks over their shoulder, they can hear the other one shooting and blowing people up.

Our dialogue supervisor also recorded Moroccans who live in L.A. to create an authentic, busy soundscape for the sequence reflecting the hustle and bustle of the street markets. In addition, it rains a lot in the movie, so we had to deal with rain machines. Our dialogue mixer, Andy Koyama, spent a bit of time cleaning up those lines of dialogue because they had rain machine sounds all over them.

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Keanu Reeves in “John Wick: Chapter 3 — Parabellum.”
( Niko Tavernise)

It wouldn’t be a “John Wick” movie without dogs. How did you work on the scene with Sofia’s canine friends?

Sofia’s dogs are beautiful, but as soon as they are put into action, they become street killers. The sounds of animals in general are hard to cut, mix and design. When the dogs attack the bad guys, we wanted them to sound as violent as possible. In addition to the dog growls and aggressive barks, we added sweeteners of bears and wolves noises to make that impact more violent. When we mix those elements in, we create a big separation between the actual lunge of the dog and the impact of the dog onto the body, so we have more clarity in the sound. The hardest thing is to get the clarity in such a busy film like this.

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John (Keanu Reeves) and Sofia (Halle Berry) in “John Wick: Chapter 3 — Parabellum.”
(Mark Rodgers)

The interiors also seem to have a hypnotic atmosphere. What about the Continental hotel where many of the confrontations take place?

Once you are outside the hotel, you hear the city sounds and the chaos around John Wick. But inside the Continental, we have this type of Muzak playing in the background. It’s really a funny juxtaposition because we are in this foyer with a room of killers, and there’s this ambient type of elevator music playing. There’s also a sequence that takes place in the clock room, where we can hear an undercurrent of a wooden clockwork ticking along, which adds another layer of tension.

The “John Wick” movies are famous for their brutal fight scenes. Which scene stands out in your mind because of the sounds you created for it?

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One particular scene that is my favorite in the whole franchise is where John Wick is fighting some bad guys in this museum space, and there are all these knives in display glass cabinets. They end up smashing all the glass and throwing knives at each other.

As a mixer you have to make sure each sound plays and creates the impact that you desire to tell the story. Wick has this bad guy in a headlock. Then he grabs a knife and pokes it in the villain’s eye, and you can hear the eyeball pop and slide through the flesh and hit the back of the skull. We needed to get a lot of clarity on all the sounds. It’s so powerful that everyone cringes. The whole fight leads up to that, and that’s the payoff for me.

We used glass smashing and add records of us banging into doors, but we also added other elements, like various synthetizations on those glass elements to make them more impactful. We also mixed in a lot of debris and glass elements that were created by our foley crew.

What would you say makes the “John Wick” world so unique?

It’s such a moody, mysterious world. At any moment, it could turn one way or another and things can get very violent. The beauty of our films is that there are moments that can be very quiet, and once the action gets going, it can get extremely loud, but not too loud. It’s warm and textured and in your face and has a certain energy to it. It’s not quite New York City. It’s a sinister world of killers, bubbling under the surface of the city — a place we don’t get to see every day.


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