The inside story of one of the most infamous and tragic Hollywood on-set deaths

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Chad Stahelski.
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Chris Pizzello/AP

Chad Stahelski is going through his usual press rounds for his new movie, “John Wick: Chapter 2,” when one topic stops him in his tracks: the death of his friend Brandon Lee.

“Wow, that’s a heavy one,” he said when asked about the subject, collecting his thoughts.

Before the first “John Wick” movie in 2014 made him a sought-after action director, Stahelski was a veteran stuntman and one of his first jobs was on the movie “The Crow,” in which he was a stunt double for Lee, the star of the movie.

Stahelski was a friend of Lee’s at the time of filming. Then a twentysomething instructor at the Inosanto Martial Arts Academy in Marina Del Rey, California, Stahelski bonded quickly with Lee, the son of martial arts superstar Bruce Lee.

“I remember we would work out on Saturdays at the gym, try to film our own stuff with old VHS cameras afterward, and then read graphic novels,” Stahelski told Business Insider. “Cut to a year later, Brandon comes in and says he’s going to be in ‘The Crow.'”

Lee had been building his credits in TV and action movies, but “The Crow,” an adaptation of a cult-favorite graphic novel about a murdered man who comes back to life to avenge his dead fiancee, was going to make him a superstar.

But then it all went very wrong. During filming of “The Crow” in March of 1993, Lee was accidentally shot on set during a scene in which a gun was fired at him. The gun was loaded with a blank round, but there was still a dummy bullet left in the barrel, so when it was fired at Lee, it came out of the gun with nearly the same force as if it were a live bullet. The bullet hit Lee in the abdomen, mortally wounding him. He was only 28 years old.

Stahelski was on set the day Lee died.

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Miramax

“When you see something like that happen and you’re close to it, it’s surreal,” he said. “It’s impactful.”

Stahelski went on to become one of the top flight stuntmen and second unit directors in Hollywood, working on everything from “The Matrix” movies to “The Hunger Games: Catching Fire” and “Captain America: Civil War.” But he never forgot what happened to his friend – which has become one of the most infamous on-set accidents in the history of the movie business – and Stahelski admits he’s become a taskmaster about safety on set.

“You think about the absolute stupidity behind the reason why it happened and it makes you angry at the amateur bull—-,” Stahelski said of looking back on Lee’s death. “It was all because everyone gets yes’d and no one wants to hurt anyone’s feelings. So I decided very, very early on that there can be no political correctness when you’re dealing with safety. It’s just ‘F— you, that’s wrong, I’m doing it my way.'”

While “John Wick: Chapter 2,” along with the first movie (which Stahelski codirected with his fellow stuntman David Leitch), may be thrilling and is shot in a way to showcase how much of the stunts star Keanu Reeves really does himself, there is a precision to it so everyone on set is safe.

That’s even more challenging now given that these movies are shot in less time and have smaller budgets than studio action movies used to command (Stahelski said the “John Wick” sequel had around 40% more in budget than the $20 million original).

No better example is the opening of “John Wick: Chapter 2,” in which we see Reeves as Wick retrieving the Mustang that was stolen from him in the first movie. But Stahelski didn’t settle for Wick coming in guns blazing to get it back. Instead the scene involves a twisted metal-on-metal battle between bad guys in taxis and Wick in his recovered Mustang and ends with all vehicles demolished.

“The note to our second unit director and stunt coordinator was, ‘These are the cars we got, don’t come back with anything,'” said Stahelski, who notes that the four Mustangs and numerous taxi cabs for the scene were all smashed beyond repair at some point in the remarkably short three-day shoot of the scene.

The scene doesn’t just feature Reeves doing much of the driving (Stahelski said the crew had his driver-side door ripped off so it was clear to audiences that it was really him driving), but also when Reeves is out of his car, he has to dive away from oncoming cars that suddenly rush into frame.

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“John Wick: Chapter 2.”
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Niko Tavernise/Lionsgate

But the fear of anyone getting injured was always in the back of Stahelski’s mind.

“My stunt coordinator and second unit director on this film are friends of mine and I micromanage them, I’m not going to lie to you, I’m a complete dick sometimes,” Stahelski said. “It annoys them, but they know I’ll say to them ‘Sorry, I didn’t mean it,’ and they get it. They haven’t lived through the same things I’ve lived through.”

Stahelski has no problem being the bad guy when it comes to everyone’s safety on set. Along with witnessing Lee’s death, he said he’s had to deal with three other “tragic moments” on set in his career.

So even though he has notebooks filled with ideas for unique action sequences he wants to put on the screen, like for his remake of “Highlander” that’s he’s currently developing and the inevitable “John Wick 3,” Stahelski will never compromise people’s lives for the sake of pulling off his dreams.

“Losing a friend like Brandon was heartbreaking, but you also know that he and his fiancee were four or five weeks out of their wedding when the accident happened, you look at what they had, and you feel even worse,” Stahelski said. “You don’t ever want to feel that again, because at the end of the day, it’s just a f—ing movie.”

“John Wick: Chapter 2” opens in theaters on Friday.