Interview: ‘John Wick: Chapter 2’ Screenwriter Derek Kolstad on Expanding the World and Paying Homage to ‘Open Range’
Posted on Friday, February 10th, 2017 by Jack Giroux
In 2012, screenwriter Derek Kolstad was working on a spec script called Scorn. Soon after he finished it, three offers came in. Kolstad took the lowest offer from Thunder Road Pictures because they were adamant about making the movie as soon as possible. Within a few months, the title was changed to John Wick and Keanu Reeves was onboard to star as the unstoppable dog-friendly assassin.
It was Reeves, by the way, whose idea it was to call the movie John Wick.
Two and a half years later, we’re getting its sequel, John Wick: Chapter 2, which has a slightly different tone and pace but is still pure John Wick. It’s bigger, more stylish, and more personal. There’s still a dilemma for the titular character that isn’t half-baked. Can a guy like that ever truly leave behind his past? It’s a question Kolstad and director Chad Stahelski take the time to explore in the visual splendor of John Wick: Chapter 2.
At the press day for the sequel, Kolstad discussed world building, his favorite action movies, writing for Keanu Reeves, and more with us. Below, check out our Derek Kolstad interview.
I imagine there were a lot of directions you could’ve taken this story in. What made you decide this story was right for Chapter 2?
It’s funny, because we went through a half-dozen iterations, and scripts, and treatments. Everyone liked them, but I remember the first one I turned in, they were like, “This is awesome, but might be the third or fourth movie.” The one thing that never changed was the idea of the marker, the idea that this movie takes place two weeks after the original, but more importantly the idea that if you walk away, they’ll let you, but if you peer out from behind the bushes all the debts come back to haunt you. I think those three things were always at the forefront.
Chad, in discussions with him, he’s the guy who encouraged me to come up with a Bowery King (Laurence Fishburne). He’s the guy who encouraged me to come up with the high table. It’s like all of our favorite movies. When you look back to — and I turned 43 this year — the original Star Wars, or I bring up Ronin all the time, or a lot of noir, they’ll bring up one person, and you’re like, during the first Star Wars, “Who’s Jabba the Hutt?” That kind of stuff, but over the course of 20 years looking back, it’s like, “Holy shit! I get it now.”
We planted some seeds in the hopes of revisiting, like the high table. What exactly does a marker entail? Where does John go from here? Like, who was he? It’s funny because the question they always ask us is, “Are you gonna do a third one?” And I said it downstairs, “I’ll do as many of these as you can.” Simply because of Keanu. He throws himself into these roles to the point where… I can’t do the action he does. He says he doesn’t know kung fu, it’s only Hollywood kung fu, but I would argue you throw any football linemen and get him flipped like a dozen times and try to get up. I mean, it’s pretty badass, dude, so it’s been a joy.
The world was well defined in the first movie, but it’s much bigger this time. Were there any ideas you didn’t use for the first film you included in the sequel?
You know, the sommelier (Peter Serafinowicz). One of the things we’d always talked about was the Continental had all of these different departments, or things to offer, like the tailor and the sommelier is the second one. We talked about those in the first one, and there were certain iterations, and so we realized we’re not doing a TV series, we’re doing a movie. It’s the kind of stuff that comes down the road. When I was a little kid watching the old Bond movies, whenever Q showed up, you loved those scenes, but it’s two minutes. In the first one, we wanted to stay with John. The second one, and from here on out, we can tap into the world of what does a tailor look like, and the greatest thing about, I don’t know if you know this, but the tailor in the movie, that’s his tailor, like in real life.
He’s great, and he dressed Keanu in the first one, and he did all the design, the clothing, and they were trying to figure out who the tailor would be, and Chad had him read, and he’s the tailor in the movie. I think it’s so great. He deserves a little bit of the press because he’s such a great guy.
That’s great. Knowing Keanu Reeves is playing John Wick, did that affect how you wrote the character the second time around?
Not really. When you think about it, the screenplay was sold the first week in February, on a spec sale, and the movie came out in November. That never happens. And part of the reason that happened is he came on board, and I worked with him so much on the script. Paragraphs of his dialogue became “uh-huh,” or a look. What we loved about the character of John Wick is he walks into a room, and there’s this unspoken notion of volumes of dialogue.
I think the screenplay for John Wick 2 was 86 pages, which is on par with The Raid, and the reason being is it allows Chad and Keanu, the DP, and the editor to shine. From a writer’s standpoint, you gotta look at the setting and the look as the dialogue. It harkens back to our favorite westerns. We brought up everything, and it’s like, “Remember that scene from Pale Rider? Remember that scene from Open Range?” A lot of that’s in there. That’s why it was so much easier this time around to write for Keanu, but so much more difficult because, how deep do you want to claw at the world? It’s like, you don’t want to show the shark, but you want to get a glimpse of it.