Twenty-five minutes into the first John Wick, everything is going as you’d expect from a revenge-driven action flick. The recently widowed John loses the only thing he cares about — the puppy gifted by his dying wife — and decides to kill the thugs responsible.
At minute 26, things take a turn. John uses a sledgehammer to smash open the floor of his basement, revealing a case of guns (as expected) and a shitload of gold coins. Sorry, what?
The coins were the first hint that there was something more going on in John Wick than run-and-gun action. There was mythology, deep mythology, and according to the writer who first carved out the world under the surface, that it made any sense was a bonus.
Derek Kolstad wrote the first script for John Wick on spec. In an interview with Polygon, he admitted that he originally wrote John as much older.
“In the original version, you know, the John Wick character is in his seventies, the dog’s 18, and yet from there on out the elements were almost exactly the same. The story, the heartbeat, the structure,” he explained.
When writing, Kolstad pictured someone like Paul Newman in the role. The actor had been dead for a few years, but that was the type: weathered, piercing, but forever movie-star cool. The age of the protagonist (and the dog) was dropped to accommodate Keanu Reeves when the actor came on board, but the soul of the story remained.
“I loved those noir-ish movies where you had East Germany and West Germany, you had the two different agents, but as soon as they’re in Switzerland, it’s like, ‘Well, all right, let’s get a drink.’” And so a high-class, hotel for assassins was born.
The Continental was introduced half-way through John Wick, shortly after our hero recovers his gold coins. Located in lower Manhattan, the hotel is Switzerland for the assassin underworld. There’s just one rule in The Continental: No business can be conducted on the neutral premises. And in a world of assassins, “business” means one thing.
“It’s kind of like in those old vampire movies, you enter the church and you’re safe,” says Kolstad.
With the introduction of The Continental we’re tossed into a bizarre underworld that appears to be hiding in plain sight. This world has its own currency (the aforementioned coins) and its own code of “honor among thieves,” as Kolstad describes it.
We quickly learn that breaking the sole rule of The Continental has fatal consequences. This structure, these rules, imply far more world-building than you’d expect from vehicle for physical stunts and gun-fu choreography. John Wick raises more questions than delivers answers — a dicey proposition for a movie that wasn’t a surefire franchise starter. How much is a single gold coin worth in a world of assassins? How does the economy function? Kolstad is quick to tamp down my whizzing imagination.
“We often didn’t want to get too far into it because as soon as you start looking at the politics, the philosophy, and most importantly the economics of an illicit world … it makes absolutely no sense. But if you just hint at it, do a wink and and a nod towards aspects of the universe, it makes it feel more real.”
And yet, over three movies, the John Wick universe has become surprisingly fleshed out. It’s not because Kolstad is particularly controlling about the world he created. Now working with a team of writers and a fully-committed director and lead actor, all throwing ideas at the wall to see what sticks, the Wick franchise has one rule that trumps all others: Will it be cool?
John Wick: Chapter 2 introduced a sprawling world of functional assassin factions, the most interesting being an underground operation led by The Bowery King (Laurence Fishburne). The Bowery Boys disguised themselves as members of New York’s homeless population. Generally unseen or ignored, they found themselves perfectly positioned for espionage and assassinations.
“[The Bowery Boys represent] that world just outside of The Continental, the less glamorous part of the underworld,” explains Kolstad. “When we were thinking of doing John Wick 2, [director Chad Stahelski] wanted a homeless person in the background of every scene, just to make you understand that their eyes and ears are literally everywhere.”
While that proved logistically impossible, The Bowery Boys have since become a key thread in the John Wickmythos, pulling the strings on he most of the major events in the second and third movies.
Then there are The Operators. This room full of tattooed bureaucrats appears to be the beating heart that keeps the assassin world pumping. When John Wick murders someone at The Continental at the end of the second movie, it’s The Operators who inform the world of the bounty on his head by way of old timey switchboards.
“I liked that in a world of cell phones they use Telexes,” says Kolstad. “Physical operators boards and all that kind of stuff. It was Chad’s idea to make them more like the Suicide Girls look, all tatted up … When you see [them] for the first time and see the chalkboard and other names and other fees and rates, to them it’s a nine-to-five job.”
The Operators are making those calls at the behest of the most powerful organization in the John Wick universe: The High Table, a Supreme Court for assassins, who’ve been running the show for 2,000 years.
“Chad is the guy who kind of brought up the idea of the empire, you know, having The High Table and in fact the term itself, I believe he coined,” says Kolstad.
Kolstad explains that while John, The Bowery King, and even The Continental desire for certain levels of independence, it’s The High Table that’s desperately trying to keep everyone in check.
“It’s a feudal system, but [The High Table is] unaware or unwilling to accept the fact that times have changed, the structure has shifted. Now that they try to enforce something, but they’re blowing it all apart.”
In John Wick 3, The High Table goes to war with every major faction in New York City. And at the center of it? John himself. Outside of his wife, his love of dogs, and his reputation as a stone cold badass, we actually know surprisingly little about where he came from.
Some of the holes of John’s backstory are revealed in John Wick 3, including where he learned his particular set of skills. Where else but in a ballet school?
Kolstad admits that they didn’t really have any specific ideas in mind for John’s origins until the third movie. He says writer Shay Hattan came up with the idea of a ballet school filled with young adults training to be killers. The head of that school, known as The Director, (Anjelica Huston), hints of John as a young boy from Belarus, calling him Jardani.
But beyond that? There’s not much to go on in terms of specifics. And that’s the way the writers want it.
“Never at any point do I think we’re going to describe implicitly who John is or where John came from,” says Kolstad. “But it’ll be enough to satiate your curiosity.”
The creators of the John Wick franchise don’t seem like they’re holding back cards, waiting to deal them out in future sequels. Kolstad says there’s no story bible and no single George Lucas type lording over the franchise to make sure all the pieces fit. All of the decisions about this world and universe are driven by one thing: will it be cool?
“The last thing any of us want to do is lord over another creative,” says Kolstad. “We’d rather have people take the characters of this world and fucking sprint with it. You know, have fun. And I think that’s going to serve it well.”