[INTERVIEW] Screenwriter Derek Kolstad fuses character-driven motivation with meditation in ‘JOHN WICK: CHAPTER 3 – PARABELLUM’

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Keanu Reeves in JOHN WICK: CHAPTER 3 – PARABELLUM. Courtesy of Lionsgate.

Courtney Howard // Film Critic

We’re now three films deep into the “John Wick” mythology and series screenwriter Derek Kolstad isn’t showing any signs of slowing down. With JOHN WICK: CHAPTER 3 – PARABELLUM, our beloved haunted hitman grapples with the consequences of his actions, killing a member of the High Table on the hallowed grounds of The Continental – a no-no in their underground world. The kick-assery has tripled – as has the body count and the psychological toll it’s taken on our hero.

I spoke with the talented screenwriter over the phone about everything from crafting character-driven set pieces, to bettering the audience’s vocabulary, to if he’s ever been tempted to write a fight scene for Ian McShane.

I sat through the first twenty minutes with a big ol’ grin on my face, jumping up and down in my chair. I rarely do this.

The first time I saw the screening, I did so with Anjelica Huston and when John is hurling the blades, she was giggling and clapping in her seat. I was cackling in joy. And here we are both the wizards behind the curtain. I totally hear you, man. I was right there with ya.

Do you know you’ve written a good action sequence when it surprises you too? Or do you never really know until Chad does his thing, and the actors do theirs?

It’s a little bit of both. When you look at certain movies they’ll say, “Character A and Character B fight.” I find that boring to read, so, you go back to the first JOHN WICK and you’ll see a lot of those action scenes are written out. It’s always fun to see certain things you’d see in the script. I had in the script, where John shoots a guy in the foot and the guy leans forward with a groan and John shoots him in the head. It was so awesome to see that – and then John slams that guy’s head into the table and shoots the guy four times in the face. I didn’t write that! That was fuckin’ cool.

With the knives, a lot of these are back pocket ideas that Chad has been wanting to do for years and whatever I write on the page is for the actors, the studios and producers. But in Chad’s head, he already knows how it’s going to play out. Let’s be honest: the horse stuff was 100% Chad – and 100% fucking awesome.

Yes! When John smacks the horse on its ass and it kicks the guy in the face…. My god!

I yelled in my screening. I felt like the 12 year old who snuck into his first R-rated movie. That was phenomenal.

This franchise continually builds out the world without ever going overboard. Is it ever a challenge to restrain yourself from giving too much away because it’s so exciting?

Not really. At the beginning, maybe. But in the second one, there was talk of making a Bible of where this would go in the world and the rules. I think what Chad especially loves is challenging ourselves. At the end of the second one, John kills a man in the Continental. Where do you go from there, right? We all had to figure out how. The two things I saw all the time with my projects is let’s be unique, yet familiar and grow it up to 5%, or in the case of John, 15-20%. Yet, here’s the thing, Keanu, this is him. He’s such a cool dude and a gentleman. If there’s a notion of doing something that doesn’t fit in what Keanu doesn’t want to do, it doesn’t fit in our world.

You look at the Marvel movies, my favorite scenes are always intimate when it comes to action. In WINTER SOLDIER, when Captain America fights those guys in the elevator. What an ungodly awesome scene! Using those kinds of moments. The other one was the elevator scene in DIE HARD WITH A VENGEANCE with John McClane. It’s just making sure, no matter how large it gets, that the stakes feel real and more importantly, it’s an evolution of the character in intimacy itself.

There’s a lot of emotional character drive behind these action sequences, but I sense there are other serious themes layered in. Was that all baked into the script?

Yeah. A lot of this does have to do with the unspoken, that’s not in the script, where we’re talking about the world, it isn’t that John is a relic of the past. It’s very much so that he’s a remembrance of the past and a relic of the future. He’s an outlier. He’s a remainder. He’s the guy that doesn’t want to be the catalyst for change, but a lot of his decisions are. These movies aren’t vengeance movies. They are justice movies. Because of that, at a certain point, what is John doing and where is he heading? There’s also this notion of being lost and directionless that we all love, because the character, even when he’s incredibly dark and bleak, we’re still getting behind.

I think of Bryan Cranston in BREAKING BAD. At the end of that series, he’s the devil. But even then, when he’s dying, you feel, “Awwww. He was my hero.” It’s always focusing on that. We know that if you go too far dark, there’s no coming back. If you go dark enough, it makes sense. Just making sure that the logic tracks.

Halle Berry stars as ‘Sophia’ in JOHN WICK: CHAPTER 3 – PARABELLUM. Courtesy of Lionsgate.

Using the dogs as y’all do here, was that something you always wanted to do?

That’s 100% Chad. We talked about doing it in the second one, but it was too far along in the process. The joke is we go from kung-fu, to knife-fu, to gun-fu, to car-fu. Chad would always say, “How cool would it be to have dog-fu?” It is a shit ton of work and they pull it off to the degree it makes sense in the world of John Wick. These are really complicated sequences that Chad and his team pulled off something fierce. It was a massive process for Halle Berry to make those dogs an extension of her character.

Not only do you expand the world and the characters within the world, you expand our vocabularies. The $20 word, “fealty,” comes up a lot. Were you of the mindset to not dumb it down?

It’s like the Adjudicator. First of all, they did a great job in that role. I love them on BILLIONS. It’s almost a reptilian form, which is gorgeous. Teaching the word, “Adjudicate” is using the $20 word, as you said, and, as people respond to said word, we wanted that to emulate how people responded to the name “John Wick.” It becomes what the word means and entails and something a little bit different in our world so that even if you don’t understand or had never heard the word before, you’d see the world of Wick making it its own. We did that with the Sommelier, the Cartographer, the Tailor, where it’s hinted at one thing, but then you see that it’s not really what it’s to mean, but makes sense in the world of Wick.

The Adjudicator is an amazing character – one I’d like to have on my own payroll.

(laughs)

Someone breaks the rules? Send them in! Tell me about what inspired their role.

The role came from something akin to the MICHAEL CLAYTON line where George Clooney says, “You don’t kill a guy. You pay me off.” We also liked the notion – I just set something up at Sony with Gerard McMurray called BOOKER – and the idea that you have a consiglieri by way of the U.S. Marshalls of the underworld. That’s where it came from. They are the point of the ontological sphere of the High Table. The person that never carries a gun, is in no harm because of who they are and cuts quick with a word. And Asia [Kate Dillon] did it perfectly. We always went back and forth on who could pull off that role and they were amazing.

By now you know Keanu’s capabilities, but are there things the new actors like Mark and Halle bring to your words that you may not have realized when you wrote it?

Halle makes every writer better than they deserve to be because of her delivery. That scene she has with John is pretty damn amazing. Not only are you alluding to the past and what John did, it’s the weight of that and where she’s going. It’s always the unspoken is what gets us in our movies. I love Lance Reddick. In real life he’s a gentle, noble soul. It’s great that in this one, he finally gets a gun. And Ian McShane! How stoked are you for the DEADWOOD movie?! In real life, when he starts telling stories, everyone just shut the fuck up. This is a guy where you’re going to hear and he’s just as good, if not better… He is ageless and timeless and key.

Speaking to that, have you ever wanted to write a fight scene for Ian McShane?

It’s funny. There’s a part of that if he was in a different role, I could. There’s also a part of me where…you’ve seen SEXY BEAST, right?

Yes.

That role: Holy shit. You almost don’t want him to. His words are the greatest kung-fu battle of all time. Much like that scene in THE PRINCESS BRIDE where he’s lying there on the bed and talks the Prince down when he can’t move – that will always be Ian McShane to me. A guy where, he could have 15 killers with guns aimed on him, but whatever he says, no one is going to take that fucking shot. That is much cooler than any other fight scene I could hope to do. If I ever wrote a fight scene for him, it’s going to begin with a fight and then he pushes a switch. I just want to retain that nobility of character of self where that unblinking visage he has where his words cut through you like a blade, I don’t want to lose that.

Is there a sense of pressure to top the last film? How did you shake that? 

There’s always that pressure. The world of JOHN WICK became something much bigger than I, or Chad, ever thought would happen. It’s bigger than all of us. There’s always this unspoken rule that it’s grounded into itself and maintaining this is John’s journey. When it comes to the action, intimacy is key. I love action movies. I love Marvel movies. I love THE FAST AND FURIOUS movies. But those are their own universes. In JOHN WICK’s, you want to have a little bit of the gritty by way of sexy, but you don’t want to answer the question outright. You want to allude to it and hint at a larger world. Anytime you get too close to a lock down answer, it’s never satisfying to the audience as a whole. We have got to be aware as we can to the mystery of it all.  

I’m curious how you balance out an ending if, God forbid, this ever ends?

Dude, it’s something in everything we’re involved with especially in the JOHN WICK universe. The last thing you wanna do is find yourself in a capacity where you aren’t allowed to do the next one. If this is the last one, it has to be satisfying and yet, to Chad’s credit, it’s always taking those chances. We thought that ending the way we did in the second one was a risk, just as much as we did in the third. There’s always hope of the fourth and beyond. Keanu isn’t the biggest fan of sequels or franchises as a whole, but he has made this character his own and he fucking loves John. He keeps wanting to play in this role. When you have an actor in this capacity who wants to do that, you run with it. On top of that, when it comes to the day and age od social media and Reddit and secondary, tertiary and international markets, the love for this thing beyond the theatrical is what’s made it what it is.

JOHN WICK: CHAPTER 3 – PARABELLUM opens on May 17. Read our review here.

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Courtney Howard

Courtney Howard is a LAFCA, OFCS and AWFJ member, as well as a Rotten Tomatometer-approved film critic. Her work has been published on Variety, She Knows and Awards Circuit.