It’s bad news for his enemies but great news for action fans. John Wick is back in the action sequel John Wick: Chapter 2, which brings back the original crew of the first film while adding a new set of character in this world-expanding sequel. At a recent press conference in Los Angeles, director Chad Stahelski, writer Derek Kolstad, producer Basil Iwanyk, and stars Keanu Reeves, Laurence Fishburne, Common, and Ian McShane gathered to discuss the hard-boiled action sequel which raises the bar for cinematic mayhem.
“There were no animals hurt in the production of this film,” Keanu Reeves informs those concerned that the tragic event that sparked the first John Wick film would not be recurring in the sequel.
“You know, when we were asked to a sequel we were very flattered and very hopeful, but it’s always a challenge to do something original or to build on what you’ve already built,” Chad Stahelski said of the challenges in developing the sequel. “I think when Keanu, myself, Derek, and Basil all got together and said, ‘Okay, if we’re gonna do a sequel, how do we do this?’ I think what everyone felt affection for was the kind of world building we had done and the underworld of assassins and the Continental mythology and the world that we built, so we really wanted to expand upon that and we wanted to show a little bit more insight into that world and what John Wick did in that world and all the colorful characters that we could put into that world. I think that’s where we started from and how to build mythology and storytelling through it.”
The development process wasn’t easy for writer Derek Kolstad, but he found the end result rewarding nonetheless. “It was awesome but difficult because everyone loved the character and the world so much and we alluded to it being much bigger than it was. One of the movies we brought up all the time was Ronin, where the number of times a character would say ‘Do I know you by way of the German?’ and it would never come up again, but that allusion is just like it’s a bigger world,” the writer said. “John Wick 2 went through so many iterations but even though it was a trying development process, everyone loved the character, loved the world so much that we kept each other accountable to the point that is this true to the core. Come the end of the day when everyone’s exhausted but you see the footage of the pages, it was glorious. If I had to write John Wick once a year for the rest of my life, I would be blessed. Up to this point, I’ve been blessed still. I think one of the things we always loved about this is you allude to a world but you never show all of it, because as soon as you show the shark it’s not as cool. We always went by the guideline.”
A major part of the appeal of John Wick is the lived-in world of assassins that populate this universe. Characters have relationships and a history between them, but there’s a reluctance from the creative team to over explain these aspects of the world. “Like Derek said, we wanted to create a mythology that serviced the entire world,” Stahelski elaborated. “Hopefully after this you realize that there’s a Continental or a Continental-like facility in all of the major cities around the world.”
Before becoming one of the best action directors working today, director Chad Stahelski worked in stunts and built a relationship with Keanu Reeves working The Matrix. “There’s a lot of, say, Wachowski alumni here, and I think I spent ten years of our lives with them. Most of what I know from world building or world crafting comes for their tutelage,” the director said of the filmmaking duo’s influence. “Every frame in the original Matrix, from the color palate to the way they talk to the way they look to the way they dress means something, and I think that was a great learning experience. So when you start painting your world you have to start with not really the visuals or the lighting or the set pieces but with the characters. Pretty iconic looking mugs up here right now, so that was a good place to start.”
John Wick: Chapter 2 also features a Matrix reunion, reteaming Keanu Reeves and Laurence Fishburne. The friendship between Reeves and Fishburne is obvious as the two banter back and forth.
Keanu asks, “Where did I see you when I saw you –“
“You came up the house,” Fishburne cuts him off.
“I came up to the house and said, ‘How did you like John Wick? Did you see John Wick?’”
“You came up to the house,” Fishburne interjects with his version of the events. “You were training for this one and I said, ‘Dude, John Wick was sick! It was killer! You gotta put me down!’ And you were like, ‘Oh, yeah, I’ll talk to Chad and them.’”
Toning down the enthusiasm that Fishburne presented, Keanu deadpans with his version of events. ”It was more like, ‘You did?’ ‘Yeah.’ ‘Cool, well I’ll talk to Chad because I think there might be something there.’”
“And Chad jumped on it,” the director chimed in. “Chad wasted no time in getting back to Mr. Fishburne. Immediate response. I think when Derek and I first talked about this character it was always with the great hope, it was always designed around you. We couldn’t pray to the gods enough.”
Laurence Fishburne doesn’t see many similarities between the characters of John Wick and the Bowery King compared to the dynamic of Morpheus and Neo. “I feel these are two completely different guys than the guys we are in those movies,” the actor said. “The only similarity might be that I might know something that he doesn’t know.”
“Well you think that,” Keanu retorts. “But I actually know something that you don’t know.”
“I just loved the world of John Wick, the Continental, all of that when I saw the film,” Fishburne continued. “I thought, ‘Wow, I’d really like to go play with these guys.’ I’ve been a big fan of both Common and Mr. McShane for a long time and was, you know –“
“Can you give us a scene together next time?” McShane interjected to ask Stahelski.
“It’d be cool to stretch it out,” Fishburne replied.
“We’ve got big moments in number three coming up,” Chad Stahelski coyly teased.
The thrilling action that is front and center in John Wick: Chapter 2 took its physical toll on the actors. “I don’t know any real jujitsu or judo or anything. I do movie kung-fu,” Reeves said of the film’s physicality. “You can fake a punch but you can’t really fake a judo throw. You can get help from the person you’re throwing because they can kind of launch themselves. Thank you, Common. Also at the same time, you know, Common also got really good at throwing people – me. It’s really a collaboration.”
“As far as I’m concerned in the real world, I feel that he can kick-ass because he just has it,” the rapper turned movie star said of his co-star and on screen sparring partner. “I know we’re doing it for a film, but you could feel the strength and some it doesn’t feel like film work. It’s just like, this dude is throwing this blow. You better be ready to move or it’s going to connect. I know Keanu is saying that he might not want to be in any type of MMA competition or UFC, but I definitely know he’s the warrior that we see John Wick as.”
“You hope to do good work in good works and that they have a chance to be seen and hopefully responded to. For me, specifically to John Wick, it’s really cool since the opening of the first one to be here now and today to be a part of a film that has so much affection for it,” Keanu said of the film’s enthusiastic reception from action movie fans. “It’s very rare, but maybe not that rare for you guys, but for me I guess it’s pretty rare. It’s really cool.”
That enthusiasm for John Wick is what appealed to the newcomers in the sequel. ”When I saw the first John Wick it was very special to me. It was like what I enjoy about films and watching movies,” Common said. “As far as training goes, knowing that I was going to have an opportunity to join that world and knowing that I’d be able to work with Keanu and Chad. When you know you’re working at the highest level. When I first spoke to Chad, I said, ‘Man, I want to be a great action artist. You know, like really deliver.’ I felt like I wanted to be one of the greats on screen, as an actor and a fighter. From that start Chad took me through and watched what I could do and took me back to the basics at 87-11, which is the stunt company that they have, and I just learned so much and it was a lot of work. But I wanted him to know that I was committed, that I was going to give my heart and soul to this.”
“We gotta get the flavor!” Keanu Reeves proclaims, reciting the mantra that was said when an action scene required another exhausting take.
Don’t ever expect to get the backstory on these characters, especially Ian McShane’s Winson. “You’re never going to hear my backstory,” the actor dryly states. “I think that’s part of what Derek did great was the fact that he didn’t reveal any more about the characters. The backstories are not interesting at the moment. That’s not what this film is about.”
When it comes to the appeal of John Wick, McShane has his thoughts as to why people respond so much to the character. ”A puppy. A dead wife. He’s gorgeous looking. He’s got a million dollars in the basement and he can do any kind of martial arts you want. He should be on The Bachelor.”
“The thing of any great action hero or any great hero or any great character, you kind of transcend the character. You don’t just love the character, you love the guy,” director Chad Stahelski says of creating the beloved character. “Any of the great action stars, you see the guy doing work. We started with that. That was our process for developing John Wick. So we found somebody crazy enough to go through the training that could do all the gun work, the martial art work, the choreography, set up the shots we want to do so you build an honesty with the character. A big thing about John Wick is not only can he do long uncut takes of 50 guys at once doing jujitsu and judo and things, you believe him. It’s not some other character in some other scene going, ‘Hey, John Wick was a Navy SEAL he did this, this, and this.’ We don’t talk about it, we just showed it to you. So you believed in the character. You don’t have to be told what he can do, you’ve seen it. Not only did you see it, you saw the individual playing John Wick do it. That buys us credibility, buys honesty in the character. You also see somebody that cries over a puppy and fights female assassins in his boxer shorts. You can relate to that.”
“I think a lot of it comes from the fact that I’m not a cynic,” Kolstad said of the character’s emotional vulnerability and surprising sentimentality, “and I really do believe that come the end of the day even the worst of us can find salvation, and he found his salvation in his wife. I think that the unspoken in the first one was that he got what he didn’t deserve and he knew that, and I think that we recognize that in different levels of our own lives. So I think when the dogs comes in and when the dog is taken from him it’s this notion of ‘Did I change or is this an excuse?’ and the reality is both.
“Come the end of the day he did change,” Kolstad continued. “I love in the first one when comes up behind – who’s the big WWF guy? You know, ‘You’ve lost weight.’ He’s not going to kill him, because ‘I’m not going to kill you, like we’re friends.’”
“‘Take the night off, Francis,’” Fishburne injects by quoting a line from the first movie, a moment that sees the actor geeking out.
“So even though John works within these guidelines and these rules, it’s not a matter of him being good or bad – he has found his way and I think that’s why people automatically gravitate towards him,” the writer concluded.
There are a number of reasons that John Wick has resonated with audiences, and there will be many more reasons when audiences get a full glimpse of the action-packed sequel of John Wick: Chapter 2 when it opens this Friday.