Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Trimming the Wick

with 2 comments

Over the weekend, my wife and I finally caught up with John Wick Chapter 2, which I liked even more than the original. It sent me down a rabbit hole of thinking about Keanu Reeves, a ridiculously beguiling leading man whose career has been about ten times more interesting than I might have guessed two decades ago, and directors Chad Stahelski and David Leitch. (Stahelski and writer Derek Kolstad returned for the sequel, while Leitch has moved on to Atomic Blonde and Deadpool 2.) The John Wick series has inspired an unusual amount of analysis, but the most interesting piece I’ve read is one from Vulture, which focuses on the first film’s tricky tone. As Kevin Lincoln writes:

In many ways, John Wick hinges on the puppy’s death. Obviously, it’s the story engine for the film that follows…But that left the filmmakers with the problem of tone. Editing the film, the directors had to decide whether they would commit to the puppy’s death or try to soften it. “I’m not going to lie to you: The first couple cuts of John Wick, the tone was a little like, ‘Whoa, did we go a little too dark here?’” Stahelski recalls. “And then we’re like, ‘Oh my god, we killed a puppy, what the fuck did we do, we killed a fucking puppy, people are going to eat us alive.’ And then we killed poor Alfie Allen! We killed a puppy, we killed a kid, and it’s really John Wick’s fault, we’re fucked. That was pretty much post—I just explained our emotional arc throughout post.”

I’ve spoken elsewhere of how tone can be the hardest test for any story, and in John Wick, the problem wasn’t one of managing wild variations within the narrative, as it is for a show like Fargo, as of finding one tone that worked and sticking with it. And the way in which it finally broke open for the filmmakers caught my eye:

“We always knew that if the tone was slightly off, the movie could’ve been laughable and, frankly, until we got the right running time for the movie, the movie did feel—laughable is the wrong word, but it felt like, what the fuck is this?” [producer Basil] Iwanyk says. “Then one day, we got the tone right. We got the running time right, all of sudden, and it’s weird—it informed the tone and informed everything. Everything fell into place, and we were like, Hey, this is a pretty cool movie.”

The italics are mine, because I’ve had this exact experience. In fact, I’ve had it just over the last few weeks, as I’ve continued to cut down my book. When you’re working on any long project, you often end up focusing on tone and length, which feel like they should be two separate—if subtly related—problems. Reducing its size seems like the more concrete objective, so you set targets and start pulling out material, condensing and tightening wherever you can. Tone remains at the back of your mind, but you figure that you can tackle it once you’ve gotten the sheer bulk of the first assembly under control. And one day, like magic, the length seems right and the tone works, as if the two things have happened simultaneously.

There are two possible explanations for this slightly counterintuitive phenomenon, depending on which way you believe the causal arrow runs. One possibility is that cutting down a draft, whether on paper or on film, is precisely what allows you to realize what it’s really about. In the act of editing, you’re removing extraneous material and bringing the remaining pieces closer together, and it’s in the places where they resonate and jostle against one another that the tone emerges. The more tightly you can wind the material, which has the side benefit of reducing the overall length, the more coherent the result will be. (In the original John Wick, much of this editing took place at the level of the screenplay, with critical input from its star. In the Vulture article, Lincoln writes: “Drawing from inspirations like Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West, they cut paragraphs and paragraphs of dialogue. Kolstad describes a scene in a church, where Wick encounters a priest. In his first draft, Wick and the priest went back and forth debating morality. By the time he and Reeves were done with it, that discussion had turned into one line of dialogue: ‘Uh-huh.’”) An alternative explanation is that it’s really the other way around, and that if the tone works, the length doesn’t matter—the reader or audience will suddenly be willing to follow you for as long as it takes. If tone is inconsistent or jarring, the movie will start and stop, until it seems longer than it actually is. Once you get the tone right, it just flows, and you think that you’ve miraculously stumbled across the “right” length, when, in reality, by cracking the tone, you’ve rendered the problem of length irrelevant.

But the most likely explanation of all, I think, is that the two aspects work together, in an ongoing process of feedback that wouldn’t be nearly as effective if either were left on its own. As you cut the story down to its essentials, you start to figure out the tone based on the information that the material is giving you, which guides you in turn on your next pass. This kind of iteration is particularly important for the genres of action and comedy, which depend on a sense of momentum. (As Ralph Rosenblum, Woody Allen’s longtime editor, wrote in his wonderful memoir When the Shooting Stops, you have to subordinate everything to the laugh: “If you lose the audience for a minute, you pay for it in that sequence and you pay for it again in the next—when you have to rev them up anew.”) And there’s a very subtle point to be made here about John Wick, which, by setting itself an impossible problem of tone, was forced to work harder on everything else. In the original script, Wick loses an aging dog, which is bad enough, but in the rewrite, it became a puppy, for reasons that weren’t particularly well-considered, as Stahelski admits: “We just thought a puppy was a more manipulative way to shock the audience.” In practice, it created a host of other issues, and when the time came to edit the movie, the plot point was too central to the story to be removed entirely. What happened, clearly, is that Stahelski, Leitch, and their collaborators—notably the veteran editor Elísabet Ronalds—had to cut around it, refining every other element of the movie apart from the one piece that struck everyone as problematic. The result was a model of clarity and efficiency that might not have emerged if the ultimate solution had been more obvious. Length and tone do tend to solve themselves together, but only if they’re being driven by an external source of artistic pressure. And in this case, it happened to be the dog.

Written by nevalalee

July 11, 2017 at 8:21 am

2 Responses

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  1. The puppy death is like a self-imposed constraint that motivates creative and disciplined solutions. Laziness is always the enemy; you see it in so many big budget movies.

    Darren

    July 12, 2017 at 6:58 pm

  2. @Darren: The most interesting kind of the constraint is the one where, if it doesn’t work, you don’t get a movie at all.

    nevalalee

    July 17, 2017 at 8:23 pm


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