‘John Wick’ screenwriter Derek Kolstad’s long journey to success

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Just watched John Wick and loved it, which means I promptly Googled it to death. Now there’s a sentence.

Spoilers ahead.

From The Atlantic:

Marvel that such a strange film made it to the screen. John Wick is no ordinary Hollywood action claptrap, but it’s not exactly aiming for profundity either. It achieves an almost impossible goal—being a basically plotless action/revenge drama but seeming utterly distinct all the same.

This movie is about people who kill other people for money. The idea that they’d be remotely moralistic is ludicrous. And yet, that’s the point: Even in the darkest universe, you have to obey some agreed-on standards, or else everything will just go to hell. Iosef’s sin is not callous violence, it’s disrespect; same goes for Perkins, and eventually Viggo, who Wick hunts down to avenge the death of another assassin friend.

While I’m still firmly entrenched in the journalism world, all my life I’ve dreamed of writing thrilling fiction just like John Wick, and I’m always tinkering with some sort of fiction or another. And if this was a movie I’d written or based on some book I’d written, I’d be ecstatic at how it turned out.

So. I Googled the writer, Derek Kolstad. Turns out this is his first major success. He’s 40 now, I think, and he’s been at this game since he was 24.

Derek+Kolstad+John+Wick+Premieres+LA+avo4rXr6du_lAfter the movie came out in 2014, he said that he’s been writing since he was 13, “but having grown up in the Midwest, I never really saw it as a career.” (He’s from Madison, WI.) He studied business administration at Taylor University in Indiana and took a sales job in Chicago. The good, responsible route into adulthood, yes?

Kolstad broke down one night a couple years later, at 24, when his brother called and said he wanted to be writing movies, so he threw everything he owned into a small car and drove to L.A. He took random jobs here and there and wrote and wrote. He also got married and his wife, Sonja, saved his career before it ever started. A few years before selling John Wick, Kolstad was ready to quit screenwriting for good. Sonja read a script of his called Acolyte and told him it was good and he should keep going for it. So he did.

In June 2012, Variety ran a story about Acolyte getting purchased by Voltage Pictures, and the publicity led to re-writing jobs. Kolstad got a script credit on One in the Chamber (starring Dolph Lundgren and Cuba Gooding Jr.) and he wrote another Dolph Lundgren movie called The Package that went straight to On-Demand.

All along, Kolstad was working on a spec script called Scorn. In late 2012 his agent told him the script received three offers. They took the offer from Thunder Road Pictures because they wanted to make the movie right away, even though they’d offered the least money up front.

Then Keanu Reeves signed on in April 2013.

Kolstad was suddenly spending weeks at a time in Reeves’ home overlooking L.A. One of Kolstand’s most memorable moments came when “(Reeves) was strangling an invisible man and jumping up and down on my script,” Kolstad told his hometown newspaper. “I remember thinking, ‘I guess I’ve made it.'”

Reeves is also why the movie’s name was changed from Scorn to John Wick. When he started working on the movie, he just started telling everyone that was its name, and the change eventually became a real thing. “Keanu just liked the name so much,” Kolstad said.

And the rad thing about that was that John Wick was a character named after Kolstad’s very real grandfather, who is not, in fact, a vengeful mob assassin but rather a businessman in the Madison area, founder of Wick Building Systems in 1955. “My 15 minutes of fame,” the real Wick said.

Kolstad said the script underwent “a hundred” rewrites, par for the Hollywood screenplay course really, but he didn’t lose anything he deeply regrets, just a few scenes here and there. But there were two particularly remarkable notes studios asked for: One, they wanted the main character changed. John Wick, in the movie, was originally a man in his sixties whose wife had died years earlier and had an older dog, not a puppy, that had been with him since his wife died. They changed that two a young man in Reeves and a puppy.

The second note, after deciding on the puppy, was that maybe it shouldn’t be a puppy at all because (spoilers!) the puppy ends up dying in not-awesome fashion. It’s gotta be one of the more brutal emotional manipulations Hollywood has ever conjured up. But one producer wanted the puppy replaced with “John Wick’s whole family.”

“Which I found a bit skewed,” Kolstad said. “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.”

Kolstad is now working on John Wick 2, and says he has ideas for even more, if people will take them. “I’ve got five in mind, but I doubt that would ever happen,” he said. “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.”

And ditto for Kolstad.

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