By Dianne Bennett
isconsin-born screenwriter Derek Kolstad is the 40-something biz-school graduate responsible for creating the characters in the immensely popular John Wick franchise, now into its second installment and counting. His is a compelling, almost rags-to-riches tale. After studying business administration at Indiana's Taylor College, Kolstad moved to Chicago where he worked in sales. But the idea of writing movies still tugged at him. At 24, he loaded his possessions into a car and headed for Los Angeles.
Like most aspiring Hollywood writers, Kolstad spent most of his 20s and 30s working odd jobs while developing scripts and hoping for a break that for long stretches seemed improbable at best. Newly married, he was on verge of giving up on screenwriting when his wife Sonja encouraged him to give writing one last try. In 2012, he sold a script called "Acolyte." The sale generated enough attention to keep him going. He landed some rewriting jobs and later that year sold a new script, "Scorn," which generated a number of offers.
Kolstad says some of those offers were high enough to let him walk away from the movie business and head back to Wisconsin. But he also knew most Hollywood scripts never make it to the screen. Kolstad opted for lowest offer, from Thunder Road Pictures, above all because the Santa Monica-based company seemed intent not only on making the movie but making it fast.
In fact, "Scorn" became "John Wick," the name of the title character (and that of Kolstad's grandfather). It entered production in 2013 – an almost unheard-of time frame, with Keanu Reeves signing up to play Wick.
Released in 2014 and codirected by acclaimed stunt coordinators Chad Stahelski and David Leitch, the noir action movie starred Reeves, Willem Dafoe and Bridget Moynahan. It soon became a hit. "John Wick is the kind of fired-up, ferocious B-movie fun some of us can't get enough of," wrote Pete Travers in Rolling Stone. The movie grossed $18 million in its first month and later spawned a video game. The sequel," John Wick: Chapter 2 (often referred to as "John Wick 2," or just "Two"), debuted this February, with Reeves reprising his role as Wick, this time alongside Laurence Fishburne (the two hadn't been in a movie together since "The Matrix.")
Directed by Stahelski in his first solo effort, the sequel was also greeted with critical and box office success. Stahelski, a one-time stuntman and prominent stunt coordinator ("The Hunger Games"), ensured violent action remained at the film's core.
Substantial parts of the sequel were set in Rome, with the Baths of Caracalla featuring prominently. Also seen are Piazza dei Zingari in Monti (in front of Residenza Leonina), the Grand Hotel Plaza, and the lobby of Hotel Mediterraneo. Several Italian actors, including Riccardo Scamarcio, Claudia Gerini and Franco Nero, made it into the cast.
Between diaper changes for his two-month-old twins, Kolstad discussed screenwriting in a time that features often-violent blockbusters.
You seem comfortable with your partnership with Chad Stahelski. How do you two work together on the story?
On the second movie Chad sent me thousands of pictures in Dropbox. And when we were in his office, the walls were covered with pictures. I'll come up with a skeletal structure, and he'll say, "I want this…" and I'll say, "I want that…." It's a little bit of a dance. It's not the most efficient way, but it's how we get to a story. Chad tells you what he wants, more than anyone else. He'll say, "I don't like that scene." He'll have three to five scenes he really wants. I'll craft around it
The original "John Wick" was Stahelski's first directing job, after a long career in stunt work. How did that choice come about?
We talked with a variety of directors and also met with a ton. With Chad and David [Leitch] it was right. Yes, it was Chad's first directing job, but when you've been second unit director, you're ready to dive into another war.
Speaking of war, why do both films contain such an extreme level of violence?
I don't like "torture porn." The scene in the subway with the crotch slash [John Wick slashes a man's crotch with a blade]; I could have done without that. In the original script, 11 to 15 people were killed. In the final, it's 86 or 88. Chad's a little darker; I'm a little lighter. But we respect each other. I want to just ride the violence, for it to be "popcorn time."
The violence is a mix of gunplay and martial arts. Is that a signature style? Calling it "gun-fu" is an inside joke: car-fu begets knife-fu begets gun-fu begets kung-fu.
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