Interview: 'John Wick: Chapter 2' Screenwriter Derek Kolstad On Expanding The World And Paying Homage To 'Open Range'

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.

Really?

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.

Keanu Reeves in John Wick Chapter 2

It's funny you mention Open Range because there's a scene in Chapter 2 that made me think of the scene where Costner shoots the guy mid-sentence.

Oh, yeah. Open Range is one of those movies I tell so many people about. Here's what's really funny, though, it's so slow, and it's like an old samurai movie where they talk about ... He brought in a gunslinger, and then it's like, "You the gunslinger?" He walks up, "Yeah," and he just shoots him in the face. That to me is one of the best western moments ever, and it came up in conversations all the time. I told him, "Go see this movie," and sure enough that's an homage. I'm a big fan, too, of killing in the middle of a sentence because in real life you never wait for the guy to end, you know?

[Laughs] When John Wick hangs up on somebody, it spares him and the audience of a monologue, too.

It's an Incredibles joke, but we always joke about, "Okay, he's monologuing." Even today when you watch a movie and people just start telling you the backstory, you're like, "I don't wanna know this." It works rarely. When it does it's like the USS Indianapolis story from Jaws. Ungodly believable. That's one of the best scenes ever, but it's so rare to do it right, and so in this like, like I said, "Do I know you by way of the German?" It's all you need. Something like, "Holy shit, there's a world beneath a world."

You mentioned the script was 86 pages. How many of those pages were dedicated to the club sequence in Rome? How much detail do you go into with a sequence as big as that one? 

I feel blessed in the fact that when you watch the first John Wick, when you had the assault on his house and then the classic club scene, I loved that there are a couple of scenes in there that I wrote in the script. Like, there's one [bit] where John shoots him in the foot, and then shoots him in the head, and that's in the script. There's another scene where he was going to shoot a guy, and he's empty, and he reloads in front of the guy and shoots him. That was in the script.

Italy was hard because we didn't know how many days you're going to get, and at one point we had a motorcycle chase with Keanu's Arch connection, but really what it came down to was Chad saying, "I really wanna do something with a tactical shotgun. I really wanna do something where, as John goes in, he plants these guns."

A lot of times when you read my action is I write out the beginning and the end of action. The rest in between is like, "And John's on a rampage." Because you both want to assist the second unit guys, but not get in their way. 87Eleven, they're the premier stunt crew out there. They know. A lot of times when I'm sitting down talking and meeting with them they have better ideas. I mean, I'm a writer, and I can write something that sounds cool, but then when you see them do it it's like, "I don't know if you can write that."

[Spoiler Alert]

Before that action scene, seeing John Wick act compassionately towards Gianna (Claudia Gerini), it's a great scene. Did that scene come naturally or was it tough to write?

Oh, no, it took forever. John never changed in that scene, it was always her. We initially wanted her to be a little bit like Monica Bellucci, kind of insane, a little bit more ... Not the Joker, that's too far. But like she's fucking John by killing herself, that was the initial [idea]. Then we realized it didn't feel right because she... A lot of the characters are emulations of John, they're reflections of John, and so in this moment, she's giving him an out, but also cursing him. What we liked about that — and we brought it up all the time — it is the duality of man. We do certain things in our life because it's good, but at the same time, we kind of hope that little bad thing happens.

That one took forever. It's funny you bring it up, because of all the scenes, that one took the longest. We went back and forth, back and forth. She hit it out of the ballpark. Again, to her credit, to Keanu's credit, the DP is phenomenal, and Chad's great, but they made that scene better than it should be. As a screenwriter, you're humbled by that. It's like, "Hey, I'm glad I got you there, but you went so far beyond my skill set."

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John Wick: Chapter Two opens in theaters February 10th.