Tova Laiter: Hi and welcome to the backlot. I’m Tova Laiter moderator and director of the New York Film Academy Guest Lecture series. In this episode, we will take an in-depth look at one of my great guests and hear about his experience in the entertainment industry. And now, Eric Conner, we’ll take you through the highlights of this Q&A.
Eric Conner: Hi, I’m Eric Conner senior instructor at New York Film Academy. And in this episode, we bring you the man who gave John Wick some of the coolest dialog we’ve heard since classic Schwarzenegger. Screenwriter Derek Kolstad.
Clip: They call him Baba Yaga.
Clip: I once saw him kill three men in a bar. With a pencil.
Clip: I’m retired.
Clip: Not if you’re drinking here you’re not.
Clip: They know you’re coming.
Clip: Of course. But it won’t matter.
Eric Conner: There’s more to Derek Kolstad’s story than snappy dialog. In fact, Mr. Kolstad first discovered his deep love of cinema thanks to one very specific trait: his height.
Derek Kolstad: Like all you guys, I mean, I grew up loving movies and grew up in a Christian household. And I was a s****y liar. I still am. And I was this height at the age of 12. And so I never got carded going into R rated movies. And I excitedly came home. My mom said, what did you see? And I was like, Robocop. And that was a horrifying movie at the time. And I excitedly told her the entire plot of the movie and I laughed. And she looked to my dad and said, we should probably encourage him in this. So thanks, mom and dad. Madison, Wisconsin is a world away from L.A., especially pre-Internet. And even though I started writing screenplays at the age of 13 before Microsoft Word, we had word perfect. And I programed the template for a screenplay and just started writing for myself. So I’d write two, three, four or five screenplays a year and put them on the shelf or save them and that file’d get f**king corrupted and all that kind of stuff. But I didn’t know how to do this, so I watched movies. I love movies.
Eric Conner: Mr. Kolstad did more than just watch movies. He wrote a lot of them, too. So we got his shot later in life. He was ready.
Derek Kolstad: Honestly, it came down to, you know, we always talk about the 10,000 hour rule. You guys have heard that a thousand times, I’m sure. And I think for me, it’s the 10,000 page rule. But you get to a point where you begin to hear voices in your head from various editors and readers in your life without hearing them. And also you realize that more often than not, in the movies that I love and the movies I want to write the city’s a character, the building’s a character. So spend a line or two. You love your hero, you love your hero. You love your hero. And you want to stay with the hero. And then you realize that when you deviate from the hero, what the people are talking about and what they’re trying to say and do affects your hero. I mean, that’s that’s genre to me. That’s what I love about it. But when you think of the efficiency of it, our favorite scenes in movies don’t have anything to do with plot. You know, I always think of Ronan is one of my favorite movies I bring it up all the time. And if you want to write. Watch that watch that weekly until you sell something.
Tova Laiter: Which one?
Derek Kolstad: Frankenheimer’s Ronan because there’s so many just lines in there, throwaway lines, you realize, oh, that’s character, you know. But I think the other thing, too, is don’t be afraid to write out the dialog. Write out the narrative. Write the conversation. Read it and render it out three pages into a look, a nod. We were talking in the green room about, you know, the old westerns. And you can you can say what you will about some of them. You can have a monologue. You can have a certain guy tip his hat. And the tip of the hat speaks more so in regards to efficiency. The other thing, too, is go way back. Watch Harold Lloyd. Watch Buster Keaton, watch the old silent movies and just see how they tell a story without any kind of dialog. And that was a godsend
Eric Conner:As many people in the entertainment industry can attest. Sometimes love just ain’t enough. Derek Kolstad even started a different career but he couldn’t turn his back on his true passion.
Derek Kolstad: The age of 26, I was a consultant in Chicago. I worked for Dale Carnegie and I taught sales managers how to build and staff their sales teams. Exciting. And my little brother called and he asked me how he’s doing. I just start crying and I’m not an emotional guy. And I realized I had to fail at this. And so it was about 2000. I drove out to L.A. in a Golf TI that had been shipped over from Germany without a governor switch. It was a diesel little thing. Half my backseat was taken up by a 19 inch CRT monitor and people just glaze over at the tech.
But anyway, I knew one guy who worked at Azuza Pacific University that I went to kindergarten with and I crashed on his couch out in San Dimas. That’s where I started. And this was before I mean, it was with email and stuff, but I was spending two hundred and 300 bucks a week printing out scripts, putting in the Brads, buying straight edge razors to actually run along the sides so that when people opened up, it just felt good. And I got noticed right away because I wrote a screenplay called The Wayfarer. And it was just a cool title. It was a sci fi horror, which a couple of years after event horizon. So it was kind of in that mix. And I had two black leads. So at the time, everyone, of course, thought that Derek Kolstad was a black man and I’m not. But I had a lot of very interesting meetings of walking into Spike Lee’s company and they’re like who are you? But it was a great experience. And I got to know a lot of people.
The problem was, is I had the corporate thick skin. I didn’t have the industry thick skin like I came from Midwest corporate where handshakes were does your bond. Hollywood is very different, you hear yes all the time. And you get to a stage where you want to hear go f**k yourself because you’re like, oh, thank God, you know. And so I walked away for a little bit, but kept writing and kept watching. And I would still write three to five screenplays a year, put them on a shelf. And I wrote this one called Acolyte and Sonia, my wife, who we lovingly refer to as a script bitch, because she’s the first line defense. She is my editor. And she better at this than me. She makes me a better writer. And she read it and she’s like, you should try again. I got a manager I did to direct to DVD movies that were an ungodly challenging. You’re still kind of, you know, proud of them because of what you went through. And I was like, I’m done. You know, I’ve lived a happy life. I like writing. It makes me happy. And so I was going to walk away.
Eric Conner: John Wick also claimed he was gonna walk away. And we know how that played out. Fortunately, one of the producers on Mr. Kolstad’s previous films wasn’t gonna let his talents go to waste.
Derek Kolstad: The one producer on that project that I liked named Mike Callahan introduced me to Mike Goldberg and Josh Adler who were managers at the time. And they’re currently still my reps. They saved me. The first one we went out with was Acolyte, got optioned for eighteen hundred bucks, which a man, you know, that was three months of rent. And then I wrote Scorn and Scorn is what John Wick became. And I wrote it after watching Faster with Dwayne Johnson and Harry Browne, both of which movies, I was just like, they were, OK, you know. And my thing about John Wick is it’s an homage to the movies I grew up with and loved. You know, you mentioned in The Green Room in the 70s and I always love in even the old Bond movies. They refer to a character and you won’t see that character for two or three movies down. But you didn’t know who he was at the time. And so when you think that I wrote that initial screenplay in three days, the second draft in two weeks, I sold it in February and we went into production that November. Yeah.
So when you think of overnight success, I know I’m blessed. I worked hard to get to the point where I get to work hard, but that’s kind of, you know, a little bit of the journey. And the interesting thing is we initially went out with that script with directors, and all the directors that we met with were like, don’t get the dog. It’s not enough. Let’s give him a whole family to slaughter. And, you know, instantly our whole thing is it’s not the dog, it’s the dog. And that’s not the point. Like we’ve seen that. And it made sense to this character. And suddenly on Friday, eleven o’clock in the morning, and Basil, the producer called me and he’s like just got a weird call Keanu Reeves called to ask to read the script. You cool with that? I’m like f**k yeah, you know. And so they they couriered it over to Keanu and I got a call hour and a half later. And he’s like, what are you doing? Like, I’m waiting for your call. And he’s like, can you go over to his house and I’m like f**k yeah, you know. And so I live in Pasadena. He’s right above I mean. He’s in Hollywood, a star. You know, super, super land and, you know, went up.
It’s just him in this really nice house. But it’s not overly ostentatious for a guy with half a billion dollars walk down. And usually, as you guys well know, you meet someone famous and they tend to be smaller. And he’s my height and he’s very congenial and I can’t do a Keanu. And he’s just like Derek Kolstad like Keanu Reeves, you know? And the thing that hit me is, as I’m walking past his office, I s**t you not he had 300 scripts on his desk because he loves what he does. He reads all the time. And I’m not pandering when I say when you get his notes, they’re not just for his character, it’s for the story. He loves it. But I just kind of it kind of hit me that this is the one we’re meeting on. You know? And so he and I worked on the screenplay for four or five, six long weekends in a row. And during that time, I got I got I tell this story way too much, but I love it. There was a knock on his door, but he’s got like one of those little two ways and he’s like, hello? This woman says, hi, my name’s Christina. I’m on a road trip from Chicago with my family. We’re just really huge fans. Can you ask him some questions? He’s like, okay, we go out to his driveway. There’s a minivan with a family of five from Chicago. Christina’s a sophomore High School. And Keanu Reeves walks out there like, holy s**t. It worked. And then they talk for a little while and they ask him questions. And he was the sweetest thing in the world. And of course, then being Midwesterner, we’re like, oh, don’t bother you. And then we went back and we sat down. I was just like, we’ve made it. You know, this is pretty cool. But Chad and Dave came about because Chad was Keanu’s stunt double on The Matrix. And once you get to know Chad and you watch The Matrix, I love that movie but now it takes you out of it because you’re like, okay. That’s Chad. That’s Chad. You know, but they’ve known each other for years and they’ve always been you know, Keanu was a huge tech guy. So he at any given time is over with the DIT and the lenses. And he loves that kind of stuff. So they just geeked out on that. And he was the biggest fan of them and they were the biggest fan of him. So that’s where it came about.
Eric Conner: It was the perfect marriage of material star and director, despite already having credits and attention. Derek Kolstad realized he needed to fully embrace his love of film in order to unleash John Wick.
Derek Kolstad: When I wrote John Wick, I was writing a love letter to the movies I loved. And I think a lot of times when it clicks for people, they dive back into the stream. Unintimidated by the movies that they wanted to be swimming with. You know, before that, I was writing smaller movies. I was writing monster movies. I love horror. But horror is a different beast. So is comedy, you know. But I think with John Wick, I suddenly can have people talking like Howard Hawks movies. I can have a guy like Winston Overtalking.
Clip: You stab the devil in the back and forced him back into the life that he had just left. You incinerated the priest’s temple. Burned to the ground. Now he’s free of the marker. What do you think he’ll do?
Derek Kolstad: No one talks like that. It’s like a stage play. I can refer and I can build out and I can peel back the onion and I don’t need to explain everything. And yet as the writer, be satisfied with it and want to do more. So, John Wick was me just kind of suddenly going, I’m going to stop trying to be who I’m not and just fully f**king embrace just what I love.
Eric Conner: At first glance, the seedy underworld of the continental might seem like something out of like a James Bond movie know with high tech gadgets. But he is unapologetically low tech. Heck, even the phones are analog.
Derek Kolstad: One of the things we’ve always joked about is if you throw a tech in a movie, it’s comical 18 months after the fact. And so we love the idea of throwing in like. Of course, they use 50s era equipment because in this world it just makes sense. It’s reliable. They own the lines. No one can tap them know that kind of thing. No one would think to tap them. And you know, when you think of the suicide girls and guys and the look and feel of the world, a lot of that has to do with all of our love of the warriors, you know, where you have these various gangs and I’m sure you’ve all seen the movie. And I was like, how do you bring that in? But more grounded. Right. And then the other thing, too, is I grew up with Alistair MacLean and Dashiell Hammett and Agatha Christie and all this mystery action thriller writers. And then the movies, the 70s you talk about I bring up Three Days the Condor all the time because I think one of the greatest characters ever made was Max von Sidow’s Joubert in that movie because he’s this really calm, kind killer who is also the oracle and is also the chorus and the choir.
Clip: It’s quite restful. It’s almost peaceful. No need to believe in either side or any side. There is no courage. There’s only yourself. The belief is in your own precision.
Derek Kolstad: And so that’s where it kind of came about. And, you know, when you go down the rabbit hole of seeing an actor you really like then going into their filmography, you stumble upon movies like the outfit, where you’re like, what is this? You know, and then you track down the writers of those books and then you track down Spencer and suddenly you just keep going closer and closer to what I grew up with, which James Cagney in White Heat and all those classic gangster movies.
Eric Conner: In creating John Wick, Derek Kolstad wrote a movie that he, as an action fanboy himself, could fully geek out about, provided the directors took the ball and ran with it.
Derek Kolstad: I like writing screenplays with prose so that, you know, a lot of times it’s for the actors we know full well the actions could be different by the time it goes to production. But like in the first one, when you have the classic Red Circle action sequence, there’s a scene where John shoots a guy’s foot. The guy leans forward, and he shoots his head, and I’m the guy in the audience going, because I wrote that, you know, and so I wrote all these action sequences. And then John grabs the guy’s head, puts it on the table. Shoots him three times. I was like, oh, I didn’t write that, you know, but that’s where we could geek out. Because Chad and Dave, you know, they’ve got what we always call it the back pocket black book of action sequences and kills and stunts they’ve always wanted to do. And they threw everything they could at it.
Eric Conner: What makes the action scenes all the more impressive is you can tell Keanu is doing a lot of the stunt work himself. In fact, in Derek Kolstad’s next film, Nobody, Bob Odenkirk – yes, that Bob Odenkirk from Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul – is also going full Wick and getting in on the action.
Derek Kolstad: The think about Keanu is like, you know, and this one with Bob Odenkirk as well these guys train their asses off. They’re in the best shape of their lives at the end of day. And when you see them, you won’t recognize them just because it’s like you guys remember being in sports in high school even now, like your face droops and you know, you walk alongside some of them, you hear their knees, you hear their shoulders, but they’re just in heaven. And yet the only way you can get those long takes is if they train and train and train and train. And when Keanu and when Odenkirk train, it’s judo, it’s jujitsu. It’s getting your ass handed to you so that the number of times that they’re thrown through a plate glass window and it’s them or the way that, you know, Keanu describes is like he walks out the car, hits the stunt double, but it’s him that goes rolling to his feet. He’s like that’s still like, you know, you go do it Kolstad. I’m like, no, I don’t own a piece of this, you know?
Eric Conner: Credit must also be given to the maestros of John Wick, David Leach, who co-directed the first one with former backlot guest Chad Stahelski who went on to direct both sequels. One particularly vivid and violent scene from John with three features knives being thrown around like they’re bullets from a machine gun.
Derek Kolstad: That’s all, Chad – that scene. And it’s my favorite scene in the movie. We had talked about it. And one things I loved about it is when they first start throwing the knives, they don’t have the gage. Right. So they’re hitting klunk klunk. And at the end, it’s like sink sink sink and you’re just like oh s**t, you know, but a lot of times the way. I’ll write an action scene is just make sure that the first couple of hits moves. I don’t use technical terms because everyone will glaze over. But if you take out a knee if you say the leg folds at an unnatural angle, if you say that they give as good as they get, you’ll come up with these phrases and you just kind of feel yourself. The last thing I want to do is read three pages of a fight. Just focus on the first couple of hits and those moves. Make sure that the environment is a character. Everyone likes it when a guy seems to be taking a hit and in reality is shifting so that the other guy can lose balance and his face on the table introduced the table earlier as a character in the scene and just make sure that it’s a dance and have fun. If you yourself get bored with the scene, you’re doing it wrong. And what I’ll say is then just cut it in half and see if it works. But a lot of the times just play like you’re playing in high school where it’s like. And then I flip you over and then I throw you and just have fun. You know, if you’re not enjoying that aspect, I mean, come on. Like most of my rewrite work is dialog at certain point. But when people are like, OK, we need a car chase scene I’m like f**k yeah, you know.
Eric Conner: All of this action might have even made Keanu Reeves a little bit bloodthirsty.
Derek Kolstad: He’s also those guys that like more like I remember after the first table read, I think in the first draft there was 13 kills. And then by the time we got to shooting, there’s 88 or something. And we had this table read. And it’s so funny because they hire a voice actor to read the script and he’s like nine pages of action. Certain point where I was laughing at the end, someone said, man that’s really, really violent and Keanu goes but it could have been so much more. And he got two and three. So, you know.
Eric Conner: Keanu Reeves is no stranger to massive franchises. But unlike the CGI fest, that was The Matrix, the success of John Wick rest firmly on his athletic shoulders after 30 plus years in the entertainment industry. This might be his finest work to date. Well, besides Bill and Ted, though Derek Kolstad had a much different voice in his head when he first wrote it.
Derek Kolstad: I grew up in an age when Beta and VHS was just coming out and my mom knew I loved movies. So whenever she got groceries, she’d pick one out of the bin. It was 50 cents because they were all off trademark, you know, at the time. And so I got to know old actors, very young. So when I write with actors in mind, they’re long dead. So that that’s Paul Newman, dude. You know, that was that was my Paul Newman in my head. But when we got to casting, the funny thing is there were four or five offers on John Wick. And we took the smallest one because they wanted to make it now. And as a writer who wanted a career, that’s what you go for one of the offers was, you know, they wanted to make a 60, 70 million dollar with Bruce Willis. But the reality with that is you’d make one and be done. And I think when Keanu came up, he wasn’t going to break the bank. We all knew full well that if we made a movie that was critically and financially OK, we had a franchise, but it had to be encapsulated in a good standing. So when Keanu Reeves came up, it was literally like me going, huh. Oh, yeah. You know, and honestly, the only reason he has a beard in that movie is he showed up and he had the beard. And when we were thinking of shaving him Chad and Dave were like, let’s do the beard. And we got all this s**t from all the various online communities. And then we saw the first trailer you like. Can you imagine a clean shaven John Wick? That’s is disturbing.
Eric Conner: Even if he didn’t have a beard. John Wick would have connected with his audience because we actually cared about him.
Derek Kolstad: It’s one of the reasons that those Korean thrillers that I love so much, like I wrote the remake for Man from Nowhere, which is one of my favorites, is you spend some time with the character, you love the character, you want the hero, you want the hero’s journey, you want to follow him. And at the end of your movie, right before credits you like, that was worth my time. I’m glad he got there. I want to see more, but also it’s like just the reality of like I love the hero. And I think a lot of the action movies we see, they focus on the action when. You go back to the movies that I grew up with and and love like die hard’s a great example you watch it as a kid. You know, there’s a great action movie. And at the end, you hear John McClane scream out his wife’s name as he’s literally bleeding out. You realize oh, this is a love story. You know, it’s a man who still loves his wife or even like I get s**t for this but I’m gonna say it, I love the first Kingsman. I think it’s a fun f**kin movie, but the best scene in that entire movie is when Eggsy is across from Michael Caine. He says the line. I’d rather be with Harry and I get goose bumps every time. Because in that moment you realize it’s a father son movie. And I think that’s why a good movie, regardless of genre, is a good movie is it comes down to character and the relationships and you wanting to be a part of that character’s life.
Eric Conner: John Wick is a character that, like the legend of Baba Yaga, only gets bigger with time and sequels with the promise of a fourth movie and a TV show focused on the Continental. We are just beginning to see how far the Wick-verse will expand.
Derek Kolstad: You know, it’s funny because like with the television show, which, you know, that’s Lionsgate’s baby not our I.P. and the video games and stuff. I do what I can. But I think with John Wick especially is created it. Nurtured it. I laid the foundation. But when you come to the various other splinters, I’m encouraging certain things. But I’m also off kind of focusing on building out other franchises and foundations that in a perfect world come the fourth iteration of that, those worlds combine because I hate the word canon. I don’t think anything should be canonical. You know, I know I’m in the Star Wars, MCU of it all, but I don’t want to see prequels, you know. In fact, the original iteration of John Wick 2, was a surprise prequel. The original script was the last act was the impossible task. And you realize, oh s**t, he was doing this all to get out. Right. And then we realized we were just being too witty. It just wouldn’t work, you know. But in regards to that, that universe, that kingdom, when you got a like a cornerstone, like, you know, Winston and Lance Reddick is just a Joy and Keanu and all that kind of stuff. I’ll be a part of that in a certain respect. And I wish the best man, because the whole thing, too, is, you know, I played Han Solo and Chewbacca and the sandbox. I didn’t want George Lucas to show up and go you’re doing it wrong, you know. So, like, I just want people to play, you know.
Eric Conner: The expansion of John Wick is all the more impressive when you consider that first one was basically a lavish and bloody indie film.
Derek Kolstad: So John Wick one, we were all in the trenches together. It was an independent. It was financed out of 15 different pools. And yet on the last day of shooting, once we’d wrapped the movie was in the black. And then they sold it to Lionsgate and it did what it did. And it was really the home video side of things that wanted a second one. Second one is the hardest, most difficult thing I’ve ever done. And I would never do it again, ever. Part of the reason was at that point, you’re part of a success. And suddenly the studio was more invested and they were invested in a time when they needed it. And suddenly the people, the core group of people that I was dealing with in the notes were backed up by 15, 20 execs and people where it got to the point, like, I don’t know who this is, you know. And then the third one was really me recognizing oh this is the devil I know. You know, John went to a crawl in the bottle a bit and I crawled out. Sounds very afterschool special. But to be honest, at a certain point, it goes back to why I wrote John Wick in the first place. One of the things that saved me is in the middle of John Wick 2 and this is a weird thing to say is the trailer for Mad Max Fury Road came out, and every night I would stand in front of my TV with that. That’s the best trailer I’ve ever seen with that music. I just stand in front of the TV and I feel like that 11 year old who snuck into an R-rated movie just going oh. And honestly, it was my love of movies that got me into it and my love of movies got me out of it. But, you know, married well, friends, well, family. Well, and I think the other thing, too, is regardless of who you are, what you want to do every day. I write one new page, no matter like I think I have right now. I have 21 projects in various states of play. I still spend at least one page a night spec. Or if you’ve had a terrible day, just f**kin write fading. It’s the greatest feel in the world. You know?
Eric Conner: That feels like pitch-perfect advice for all you artists out there. We want to thank Derek Kolstad for bringing John Wick into the world and continuing to get a new depths with the character. And of course, thanks to all of you for listening. This episode was based on the Q&A moderated by Tova Laiter to watch the full interview or to see our other Q&A’s.
Check out our YouTube channel at YouTube.com/NewYorkFilmAcademy. This episode was written by me, Eric Conner. Edited and mixed by Kristian Heydon. Our creative directors David Andrew Nelson who also produced this episode with Kristian Heydon and Myself. Executive produced by Tova Laiter, Jean Sherlock and Dan Mackler. To learn more about our programs. Check us out at NYFA.edu. Be sure to subscribe on Apple podcasts or wherever you listen. See you next time.