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Screenwriter Derek Kolstad Talks ‘John Wick’

We check in with Derek Kolstad writer of  The Package (starring Dolph Lundgren and Steve Austin) and One in the Chamber (starring Dolph Lundgren and Cuba Gooding Jr.) to discuss his latest project, the upcoming Keanu Reeves film John Wick.

John Wick is your third foray into the action genre; this is more of a revenge piece. Were there any classic revenge movies you would consider an influence?

Far and away, Point Blank with Marvin, Death Wish with Bronson, and The Outlaw Josey Wales with Eastwood.


How long did it take to put the final script together?


I wrote the first draft in a month.  Once I addressed Sonja’s (my wife), my manager’s, and my agent’s notes, it was sent out maybe four months later.  Once Thunder Road optioned the script, I spent two months polishing it with them. From there on out, once the directors (Chad Stahelski and David Leitch) and Keanu climbed on board, I worked on the script from last January until shooting in September. It’s a relentless process, but it needs to be in order to get everyone’s vision in check. It’s an exhausting, frustrating, and yet exhilarating process. The writing is fun… the rewriting is a special kind of hell.


Does Keanu Reeves embody your vision of  John Wick and did you have him in mind when writing the story?


I didn’t, actually. Usually, when I write, I envision actors long-dead in the roles. In this case, I had Paul Newman in mind. Keanu, though, nailed it.


Based on the trailer, John Wick looks awesome; are you happy with the finished product and how close is it to the original screenplay?


Extremely happy. The tone, structure, and story remain the same. The big difference is that the script was written with a man in his mid-sixties in mind to play the role of John Wick. The dog was old, too, around thirteen, I believe. His wife had died years ago and the last connection he had to her was the dog. From there on out, though, we all stayed true to the original.


Were there any particular moments from the original script that you regret seeing cut?


Good question, man.  Let me think… yeah, there was one.  When Iosef drives Wick’s car into the chop shop, two older mechanics share a knowing look, lower their tools, and leave. Small scenes like those kill me. There were a number of action sequences that were larger in scope, but had to be rendered down due to budget constraints. In many ways, though, I think that made the overall story better.



Director Chad is well known for his stunt choreography with 87 Eleven; how is the process different working with a director with that kind of background?


It sucks because, in truth, the movie was co-directed by Chad and David. The DGA had an issue with that arrangement, though, and awarded only Chad with the credit. With that said, though, every director has their strengths. In this case, the focus of the creative process was on the story and the characters. Therein lay the work. Designing the action was the fun part. There are small things in the script that they included, and there are moves in the flick which I’d never thought of. Love those guys, man, and root for their continued success.


Can you talk us through the process of how you created the character of John Wick?


I have two dogs:  Loki and Isis. While Sonja is away at work, they sleep in the office on a large bean bag chair behind me. Oftentimes, they’re barking at the windows, begging for food, and yearning for a bit of love. Sometimes, when they are not here, I find myself a bit off and that’s where the story came from, and hell… who doesn’t love a good, old-fashioned, assassin flick!


Since the trailer debut, one of the major points of conversation has been the murder of John’s puppy. Did you anticipate that people would have such a visceral reaction?


Oh, yeah. A number of producers who read the script stopped reading at the murder of the dog. One actually recommended replacing the dog with John’s entire family which I found a bit skewed, and yet we’re all used to that. In fact, when we did the table read of the shooting script with all of the actors, when the dog died, a number of people -who have read the script a dozen times by then- began to softly cry. Look, people suck. We’re all -to some degree- selfish, cruel, and demeaning. A dog, though, is the embodiment of pure affection so it’s like killing the ultimate innocent. Sure, the value of a human’s life outweighs that of an animal, but in the movie world? A bad guy is a bad guy… and even more so when killing a dog.


Any plans for a sequel?


Not yet. Everyone’s waiting for that opening weekend number. In my head, though, I’ve got five in mind, but I doubt that would ever happen. We created a world here. When you see it, you’ll hear references to past events and be introduced to characters whose lives are ripe for exploration. I can’t wait to see where John came from and where he is heading.


Did you find there was more pressure working on a film of this scale compared to lower budget independent films?


Actually, this was -in many ways- an independent film. Thunder Road raised the money on their own which is impressive. Regardless of budget, I would argue that each production – no matter how big or small – deals with the same issues when it comes to the script. The more time you spend on the development of the script along with pre-production, the fewer headaches you contend with during the rest of the process.


We spoke to you before about One in the Chamber, where we discussed your writing process. Is your drink of choice still gin with ice, seltzer, and lime?

That it is. Although, from time to time, I enjoy a good bourbon or an ice cold IPA.


What are you working on next?


I’m out pitching a TV series based on the novel Kill Switch by James Rollins and Grant Blackwood. There are a number of specs on my manager’s desk as well as a new one being written in a window nearby. I’m at a strange point in my career. It’s kind of like being between gears, I suppose. Everyone’s waiting with baited breath to see how the flick does – including me – and once it drops, we’ll see where I go from here.


John Wick hits the big screen on October 24, 2014