Six years and three movies later, the John Wick franchise is one of Hollywood's most prominent action franchises. Despite going up against titans like James Bond and Universal's Fast and Furious franchise, the world of John Wick continues to pump out features critics and fans alike rave about. Originally dreamt up as a movie titled Scorn by screenwriter Derek Kolstad, John Wick landed Keanu Reeves and served as a catalyst for the revival of the career for the fan-favorite actor.
Between the three movies already released, the franchise has grossed $573.29 million worldwide for Lionsgate's Summit Entertainment against a production budget of $110M for the trilogy. Even with the most creative forms of Hollywood accounting, the franchise has made enough to become a tentpole for the Lionsgate stable and barring any disasters, the studio will likely continue funding however many films the creative team so desires.
We recently caught up with Kolstad to talk all things Wick, from the tense discussions that were had behind the studio and creatives about that heartbreaking dog storyline to telling adequate stories through shootouts and fistfights.
See what he has to say below:
Keeping Busy in Quarantine
ComicBook.com: How's it going out your way? Have you been keeping busy?
Derek Kolstad: Yeah, it's pretty nutso, outside of what we're all dealing with, and every conversation begins with 10 to 12 minutes of that. Development has been insane. Everyone wants a script and needs a script or wants a package and is ready to go. All of us are trying to figure out what the starting pistol for true production looks like, which is why, to their point, wisely, the studios will come back saying, "What do you have like Alien or The Descent or John Carpenter's The Thing?" It's things you can shoot in a hermetically sealed set. It's just weird. I think we're going to see a lot of contained horror or contained thrillers. I love those, but the first movie that comes out with a bunch of people at a bar hanging out and chilling will be like, "Thank God."
Right, right. Does that mean you're working on quite a few things at the moment?
Oh yeah, yeah. I love to write, man. I know a lot of writers don't, but I love it. Outside of any number of specs that are set up looking forward, Nobody got moved — which is my Bob Odenkirk action thriller — to next February. At any given time I have, probably, two dozen things moving about. When the kids go down late at night, I just love opening up a final draft and going page one and just seeing where it goes. I'm always working and I feel blessed in the fact that I worked hard to get to the place where I could work hard.
Oh, absolutely. I've got to ask this and get it off my chest, you're born and raised in Madison, Wisconsin. Does that mean you're a Badgers guy or what?
I am. My parents went to UW-Madison. They've been Packers ticket holders for years upon years. They retired to South Central Wisconsin, around the Wausau area, so yeah. We used to make it back a lot more, but as with anyone else, flights are elusive, at best. I love Wisconsin, man. It was good to me and it's still a little bit of home.prevnext
I'm a Hawkeye through and through. Born and raised in Iowa, but that's beside the point. Obviously, John Wick's kind of at the forefront of the whole Hollywood action world. You're talking about all these blockbusters that cost hundreds of million, then there's John Wick.
I saw the initial script with the Wick character initially had him in his 60s as the retired assassin. What served as your initial inspiration for this? Because this wasn't your first screenplay, but it is comparable to some of your other action flicks.
Oh, it's the nitrous for the vehicle that is this career. We had watched a couple of movies one night and they were fine, but I just realized that for a guy who loves genre, I had never done a revenge movie. I always write with dead actors in mind, so this is my Paul Newman in his 70s with a 16-year-old dog. That first draft, as most writers attest, tends to be fast, rude, and messy. I did it in less than a week, gave it to the guys and the funny thing is, looking back on it all, to me it wasn't about the dog. The dog was a part of it. It was about The Continental. It was about the world. It was the man with no name and a fist full of dollars.
But over time and over development, I'm a lover of dogs, and suddenly that became much more central and key. When you think about when I sold that, I think I sold the screenplay at the end of February and we were shooting in November of the same year. It's a sh-t ton of work, but more importantly, when it works like that, you just consider yourself blessed.
So the dog was a part of it since the very beginning.
Yeah, the dog was. It's funny, because to me, everyone read it differently. To me, it was the dog, because of the connection to his wife and because the animal is the only thing that ever really, in his current state of affairs, loved him. But to other people, was the dog just an excuse to do what he did before? And even when we talked about this going into production, Chad [Stahelski] and Dave [Leitch] and everyone else was very much akin to, "No, it's the dog." But there was this pushback and pushback from all different angles until that first screening. We were watching the audience. As soon as the dog died, and seeing their reaction and then seeing the siege in house, we were like, "Yep, we were right."
But a lot of times, you go into these movies, after so much work behind the scenes, and people take it differently. You kind of have to roll with it. But this was one of those rare situations where we kind of fought with our gut and it turned out to be right.
Would you consider it pretty serious pushback? You're killing the dog.
But that's the thing. Serious pushback is you're spending money on a movie with Keanu Reeves. I'm 46, I grew up with the guy. I love everything he's done. I think that they wanted to do it right, and so there were elements where, "Let's cut the dog out. Let's just focus on it's an assassin coming out of retirement." That kind of thing. But without that dog connection and without that underlying soul and the heartbeat of that character, and also the levity it brings the character and the levity it brings the humor, it was key. At certain points, Chad and Dave, they fought for it, they got it and they were right. They continued to fight for the way they see certain stories playing out elsewhere. They've done quite well with that. They're talented cats, man.prevnext
No doubt. You said you wrote with dead actors in mind and you had Newman in mind for this, when did you know Keanu was coming on board?
Well, we didn't know. It had sold to Thunder Road and they had initially gone out to directors first. It was the big genre guys, but a lot of them came back with, I think everyone came back with, "It can't just be a dog. It has to be his whole family," which we've seen before. It was a Friday at around 11, and my producer called me and he was like, "This is weird. I just got a phone call from Keanu Reeves. He asked to read the script." And so they couriered it over to him and then I got a call at one. The producer was like, "What are you doing?" And so I drove up to Keanu's house, and for a guy who is as massive as he is and as wealthy as he is, it's just a nice little postmodern place up above Sunset. Best view I've ever seen of downtown Los Angeles or Hollywood, that area. It's amazing, but he was just, upon walking into his house, he looked into his office and I sh-t you not, there were 250 f-cking scripts on his desk.
He reads scripts voraciously. For the next four or five weeks, it was him and I discussing. And he's a brilliant dude, so we're going over every line of dialogue, every line in the script. Interior, exterior, to the point where after five, six weekends in a row of Friday night, Saturday night, Sunday night, he finally signed on. If you look at that character and you look at the beard of that character, you can't see John Wick shaven, and yet the goal was always to get him shaved until Chad and Dave were like, "Actually..." Because they were doing a fitting in one of those really super expensive suits, and I saw the picture on a cell phone and it was the first image of John Wick with the hair, with the beard. We're like, "Yeah." Now granted, there was again, pushback from the studio, because, "Dude, no. It's the star, clean-shaven, handsome, cool." But can you imagine without it?
Exactly. You mentioned earlier that the rapid production process, we're talking what? Five months or so, was there any hesitation on your part — were you afraid of everything moving a little too fast?
No, not at all, because I think there was this general feeling with the first one that we were all not only playing in the sandbox, but we had built it and filled it with sand. In everything I've ever done, and this goes back to when Mom and Dad and Grandpa and Grandpa said, "The best idea wins." And when you go into it that way, a script is a ripple effect. But one little note can... If you change one line in 12 seconds, it could cost three weeks worth of work. And yet, if it moved the needle, even a little bit more, make it a better pic, then we'd all do it.
I don't know how many drafts we did, but it was all of us in the trenches and it just felt good. It was hard. Anytime you do a movie of any sort, at a certain point, it's no longer a screenplay, from my standpoint. It's an algorithm, it's a mathematical equation and you're trying to jam numbers and getting the answer that you need and are looking for. But by the time I got to set, you got to see Keanu do his thing, striding about in character, it was just worth it.prevnext
Fights + Filmmaking
Absolutely, no doubt. You mentioned the siege earlier. Then the one that always stands out to me — I joked the other day about how I wanted to do a TED Talk on it, actually — is how great the fight in the bathhouse and club is in the first Wick. It's just an incredible piece of filmmaking.
This sequence is super, super layered the way it is. First of all, it's one of first scenes in the entire franchise that actually uses a song with words rather than a piece of Bates' score. That song is all about this heartbreak, and it's John massacring this whole entire club. But it's not just murder for the sake of murder — it tells a story about an incredible amount of pain and suffering he's been through.
There's a fair amount of blockbusters that have explosions and gunfights, just for the sake of blood and gore. But with Wick, every single move tells a story. The brilliant fights here tell John's story. How much of the fight scenes do you actually write, especially when you have guys like Chad and Dave involved, who each have incredible resumes in the world of stunt work?
By the way, the song, that's Chad and Dave. That was their idea. Even that's kind of the graphic novel, lower third of it all. When they pitched it to me, I was just like, "Hey, I trust you guys. I don't see it." And then we see it and you're like, "Yes!" We were like 13-year-olds who snuck into an R-rated movie, jumping up and down in your seat, giggling and clapping too loud. I write a lot of action in my screenplays, just because by the time you get there and you're invested as a reader, you want to have some fun. There are ways that you can kind of go, they give as good as they get. I don't know how many times I break legs so that they bend at unnatural angles, just to take you out of the boredom sometimes, of action.
That is them. That is their belly of death. That is their gun-fu. I just get excited when I see a scene and, for instance, like in the Red Circle scene in the first one, I did write the scene where John shoots the guy's foot and he leans forward and then he shoots him in the head. I did not write the scene where John grabbed the guy's head, slammed it on the table and shoots him four or five times. When I get to see the cut, I'm excited. I do what I can, but again, going back to the best idea wins, Chad and David are just poets at this.
During the siege, my favorite little anecdotal image is when John and the gunman are on either side of the wall and the gunman goes to shoot and John does this crouch spin, shoots behind his back thing. I just giggled, going, "Oh! There we go!" and that's them. But if you can write action in a screenplay, and an actor and a producer and a director and a studio and everyone else can read it and just have that grin of, "Oh, I can't wait to see that," and then it becomes different on set, it doesn't matter, because the script got it there. What it ultimately becomes, in the best possible ways, is just the same kind of energy.
These guys, I think of, even on the first John Wick, walking into the production offices at one in the morning, seeing a bunch of stunt guys in a circle looking down at the ground, and they had all these matchbox cars. They're designing the "Car Fu" that they were shooting in the next couple of days. Everyone was just all cackling and grins and, "Can you believe we do this for a living?" I hear about people and I've read it every now and then, once the director and actors are signed on, I'll just put a little standpoint in, in regards to action, but more often than not, it's fun to see Kung Fu on the page.prevnext
Future of the Franchise
That's great. Obviously, now it's safe to say it's a franchise. It's this whole world. When did that realization come to you? Did you have a treatment for where you wanted to see everything from the get-go, or are you a movie-by-movie guy?
I think I'm somewhere in between, because when you even look at some of your favorite movies as a kid, a lot of them are standalone. The movie I bring up all the time is, I f-cking love Ronin. There's one of those and that's totally fine, but if there were six or seven of them, I would be their biggest fan. And so when we were getting up to shoot the first one, and it's Hollywood, you got to make sure that you're ready for that sequel should it hit, but that you're ready respectfully, because it should always be the "chapter two of it all," not a remake of the first one, but a homage to the first one and evolution to character. Even in the genre space, even in horror space, just change things. Paint yourself in your corner and fight your way out.
I was talking to Keanu and he just kind of looked at me and he was like, "How many of these do you have in your head?"
I was like, "Probably nine."
He's like, "Whoa, whoa, whoa." Okay, let's start here. I just started talking about where the character goes, but I was talking like you would an old radio serial. "Tune in next week," that kind of thing. He got this huge grin, because he knew what I was doing. Because in these movies, Clint Eastwood did it best in all of his Westerns, less is more. You don't need a lot of plot. You need a cool character and you need to marinate liquid cool. That's what's been the most fun about it.
Absolutely. You guys are working on four now. Do you think that nine is still a reasonable number? Do you think you and the team would entertain that number?
No, we're not Fast and the Furious. I think the other thing, too, is to his credit and to his career, he's done very few sequels. He found something very special in John Wick that is very important to him, that is both spoken and unspoken. I don't know how many more there will be, but I think the plan right now is, at the very least, four to five. The idea being of if we can... Shoehorn is the wrong word. It's very negative, but if you can look at four and go, "Is it one long movie, or do you take your time, let it breathe, be its own creature as four and five?" I think that's where he would be incredibly happy. He's taken ownership of this character. He's made it his own in the best ways possible, and so it isn't a matter of deferring to a guy like Keanu. It's a matter of all of us excited to play again.prevnext
How far along are you guys on number four? I know it got delayed. Does that help your cause a little bit?
Not really. Because you look at The Matrix of it all and you look at the way Hollywood is moving about right now, it's just the nascent stages. And yet, at the same time, looking back at John Wick One, who's to know when that starting pistol fires and fires fast? I think it's one of those things too, where it's not a matter of since you're looking at the fourth and the fifth and you're looking at capping off the series in a satisfying way, where all the loose ends are wrapped up and your hero gets to ride off into the sunset. Be it Gene Autry or Shane, there's no rush. There's always a rush. It's Hollywood, it's a business. There's money to be spent, money to be invested and film to shoot, but when you get to this stage, it is both a luxury and a curse.
Totally understand. Do you guys have a naming plan? Obviously we had Chapter Two and then when we get to Chapter Three, it's titled Parabellum, which actually comes from the movie itself. Is four going to follow a similar path to three, or is it going to go back, just to John Wick: Chapter Four?
I have no idea. Parabellum was Chad's and I love it. Chapter Two was, I think, I might've just put it in the heading. The only reason it's called John Wick is Keanu kept referring to it as John Wick. Marketing was like, "Dude, that's four to five million dollars in free advertising so far, so it's John Wick instead of Scorn." I can't imagine it being Scorn now, but I think everyone out here has been a little bit rattled by what productions are going to look like, what movies are going to look like. And yet, when you look at IP, when you look at a successful franchise, it becomes all the more important and all the more important reason to do it well.
Speaking of IP, speaking to world-building and stuff, obviously The Continental is still out there for STARZ. How did that idea come up? Did that come from you and Chad or did STARZ approach you two?
No, I'm not involved with The Continental that much, if at all, in a non-writing EP, because when John Wick came out, I'm a baby writer. That was my first theatrical. I had done some direct to DVD and that kind of stuff beforehand, but I know very little about that one and yet I give it my blessing, because how fucking cool is that? When you think that you can, in the television space, have a playground that characters from its own space can enter and exit at any given time, depending on the strength of story, that's awesome.
Back in Chapter Two, there's that insane scene where Keanu and Common shoot at each other with silenced pistols. It's just so bizarre. I've got to ask, what's the status of The High Table and assassins in this world? Are these people aware that they're assassins and they just kind of let them do their assassinating, as long as they don't get involved with the masses, or what's the deal?
The High Table of it all, the machinations of that, it's kind of what we were always wanted to do is allude to complexity while presenting as simplicity. One of the things I loved about that silent gunfight is Chad always wanted to do something like that. Both Chad and Dave have these invisible back pocket leather notebooks of ideas. For instance, like in the third one, when John comes across the piece of the gun, the homage to Good, Bad and The Ugly, it's something Chad always wanted to do. I think with the silent gunfight, it's the same.
But we always loved the idea that these two worlds are completely detached from one another. The only cops you'll see are the ones that kind of tow the line between the two, the ones that rarely balance upon a divide. Citizens are just... They have no idea what's going on. That makes it much more fun. You can do whatever you want. Even in the third one, John just kills that guy in Grand Central Station and people just keep on walking by. I think there's a surreal notion to all of that, where it's the levity of the humor. These people are playing out in the open, but no one's paying any attention because the focus is on their own lives. I think that's much more fun.prevnext
What's the future look like for you? You said you're developing stuff. You're on Chapter Four. After we get off the phone now, what are you working on?
Well, I am doing A Company Man for David Leitch. I'm doing A Map From Nowhere for Chad Stahelski over at New Line. Both of them are remakes of movies that I f-cking love. I've got A Darker Shade Of Magic, over at Sony, which has been a joy, with Victoria Schwab. I'm going out with a pitch for a television series based on the My Friend Pedro video game, as well as for Bendy and the Ink Machine. I am playing any... It's funny, the reason I'm answering it this way, literally, I have these PostIt notes on my computer of, "This is what I'm working on today."
To be honest, I love it all. Those are at the forefront, but at any given moment, people are jumping on the horn and we're talking The Janson Directive or we're talking Death Machine, we're talking actors with IP, sound men. I got to tell you, man, I'm still a little kid at this and I f-cking love it. If I can emulate and replicate any success I've had with John Wick elsewhere, I'm going to be that 11-year-old that snuck into an R-rated movie, giggling.
You built John Wick from the ground up. Then obviously there are reports you dabbled with The Falcon and The Winter Soldier. Is there one property you would love to take a stab at?
That's an awesome question. I grew up with noir, so the Raymond Chandler, Phil Marlowe is a dream of mine. Anything in the realm of Tinker Taylor Soldier Spy or The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, anything with Alistair MacLean, like Guns of Navarone, any of that. Sea Witch would be a dream. But at the same time, I'm not one of those guys who would kill for a fill in the blank type movie. I really like getting involved with directors and actors and executives and producers who have that and I can be a catalyst to get them where it needs to be.
I'd much rather you go see a movie and be pleasantly surprised, or not, to see my name as written by, or story by, because I like that kind of comradery in the trenches. And to be honest too, what happened with John Wick, I'd like to do again. Even though IP is king, I spec all the time. It's hard to land a spec, regardless of who you are. It's harder, still, to even make a go, but I've got a couple in the wings that would be my dream of this character that inhabits my dreams late at night and my nightmares and haunts me. To see them up on the screen again, that would be great.
You mentioned you weren't too involved with The Continental, and obviously there's that Ballerina movie that's in development out there, as well. Are you thinking about potentially pitching any other Wick spinoffs at all?
Not really. Because when you look at having been a part of establishing and building out the foundation of this world, you sign that first contract, I'm a nobody. And so I am part and parcel with both a part of it and not, and yet you just want to give it your blessing and have them play and have them play well. I'm not like a George Lucas in this capacity. I am the guy who wrote the spec that got made and I was blessed enough to be part of three, and hope, in a certain respect, to be a part elsewhere. The studios reminding me again and again that it's become bigger than me, but that is as iconic a studio line as you can hear. And yet, it's been a fucking joy.
Well, everyone enjoys it. They get better reviews with each passing movie. I think the third was 90 plus on Rotten Tomatoes?
That's correct. The first one got... Again, you can correct me, in the 70s. We were all like, "Holy shit!" There's usually no love for genre, and I'm a guy who f-cking loves horror movies. When that happened and then each one got better, just give credit where credit's due. Everyone shed the blood, sweat and tears, crafted something that is special and I owe a great deal to and would love to accompany it, in some capacity, with a resume down the line. Come the end of it though, all the stories are true. Keanu Reeves is the nicest dude in the world and Chad and Dave are the new wave. Think back even six, seven years ago, we didn't know. You'd go into it thinking, okay, you're keeping the lights on. Maybe this will give me another job instead of to where we are now and you're like, "Holy crap and holy sh-t!" Little kid from Wisconsin. Little kid from there.
John Wick: Chapter 4 is due out May 27, 2022. The first three Wick movies are now available wherever movies are sold.
What's your favorite Wick fight? Think it over and let us know your thoughts either in the comments section or by hitting me up on Twitter at @AdamBarnhardt!
Cover photo by Albert L. Ortega/Getty Imagesprev