Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Derek Kolstad

Trimming the Wick

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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

John Wick and the revenge of the underdog

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Keanu Reeves in John Wick

Over the weekend, my wife and I caught up on video with John Wick, the latest—and in some ways the most appealing—entry in a growing subgenre of modestly scaled thrillers designed to appeal to hardcore action fans. In era when even the latest installments in the Die Hard or Expendables franchises are cut to avoid an R rating, a cohort of smaller action movies, like The Raid: Redemption or Dredd, has emerged to fill the gap, using minuscule budgets and straightforward stories to deliver real bloodshed and gunplay. If John Wick is the most likable of the bunch, that’s due largely to casting: it’s as packed with welcome faces in supporting roles as a Michael Mann film, and it’s also a surprising showcase for the talents of Keanu Reeves. Reeves is often dismissed as an actor, but in the right part, in movies from Point Break to Speed, he has a precise, graceful physical presence, and it’s never been so capably used as it is here. Directors Chad Stahelski and David Leitch frame and cut the action to show us as much of their star as possible, and in scenes like the extended close-quarters gun battle scored to Kaleida’s “Think,” in which Reeves mows down scores of goons in a crowded nightclub, we’re close to the balletic ideal of gun fu. Even after an hour of nonstop action, we aren’t wearied by it, and much of this is thanks to the approach allowed by Reeves’s particular set of skills.

Yet there’s a touch of dissonance to the casting that undermines the premise ever so slightly. Wick himself was originally conceived as a character in his sixties—screenwriter Derek Kolstad envisioned him as Paul Newman—and while Reeves may be over fifty, he sure as heck doesn’t look it. As a result, Wick never comes off as vulnerable or outmatched, even when he’s up against a seemingly inexhaustible army of antagonists. The movie, to my relief, is clever about world-building and backstory, and elements like Wick’s late wife are introduced with a refreshing concision, but it miscalculates a little when it comes to setting up its hero as the ultimate killing machine. There’s an amusing monologue delivered by Michael Nyqvist, as a charming Russian mobster, explaining the origins of Wick’s nickname: “He’s not the boogeyman, he’s the guy you send to kill the boogeyman.” But the story comes before we’ve seen Wick in action, which spoils the surprise, such as it is, when he springs to life. The movie could have delayed that piece of exposition much longer, as Snowpiercer does, or even omitted it entirely. Reeves’s physicality, when activated, is more eloquent than any speech, as is Nyqvist’s initial muted response on the phone when told that Wick is coming after them: “Oh.”

Keanu Reeves in John Wick

And as much as I like John Wick, I can’t help but wonder how it might have played with a hero who seemed at genuine risk. I don’t think there’s a more exhilarating moment in all of movies than the scene in The Limey when Terence Stamp, beaten up by goons and dumped on the sidewalk, gets to his feet, pulls the gun from the back of his waistband, and totters back inside to wreak his unseen revenge. It’s a sequence that turns, crucially, on Stamp’s age: you can almost feel his bones creaking as he straightens up. Recast it with, say, Jason Statham, and it’s just another action beat, maybe a bit more inventive than most. Revenge narratives are inherently more satisfying when the protagonist’s resources are reduced to a minimum, but John Wick doesn’t have much interest in this: Wick is superbly trained, as well as possessed of all but limitless funds and access to weaponry, and his reputation precedes him. As a result, we’re deprived of one of the most satisfying conventions in any revenge story, as the villains slowly begin to realize what they’re really up against. Replace “John Wick” in every line of dialogue with “Batman,” as in “He stole Batman’s car and killed his dog,” and you get a sense of how foreordained the action becomes. It’s fun, in its own way, but it also denies itself a more delicious buildup, and for no particular reason.

Looking back, I feel like I’m being harder on this movie than I meant to be: in most respects, it’s a superb little exercise. But the script is written with such clarity and skill that we’re all the more aware of its acts of triangulation. John Wick begins with a nice, straightforward premise—Wick goes after the mob after they kill his dog—but it dilutes it toward the end, when Wick loses his mentor as well. I can understand the impulse to raise the stakes for the third act, but it would have been more effective to make the movie entirely about the dog: for most viewers, a dog’s death is more than enough reason to drive a revenge story forward. (About ten minutes into the movie, my wife, who clearly knew nothing about it going in, said in complete seriousness: “I really hope the dog doesn’t die.”) John Wick, at its best, is a reminder of the pleasures of economy, from the clean lines of its story to its striking, silent hero: Reeves probably has fewer words to speak here than any lead actor in years, and we don’t miss them. The fact that it works so well with its bones so exposed is a tribute to everyone involved. But it remains a slick, efficient toy, rather than a movie, like The Limey, that drills into something deeper about how we’d all like to carry ourselves with our backs against the wall. Perhaps that would have been too much to ask from a film content to linger luxuriantly on its surfaces. But in the sequel, I’m hoping that this young dog can show us a few new tricks.

Written by nevalalee

March 26, 2015 at 8:41 am

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