Keanu Reeves is back unleashing mayhem as the super assassin forced out of retirement in the action thriller sequel, “John Wick: Chapter 2,” opening in theaters on February 10th. When his plans to return to a quiet civilian life are upended by a gold marker that compels him to repay past favors, Wick squares off against some of the world’s deadliest killers and wreaks vengeance on those who have wronged him.
MoviesOnline sat down recently at a press conference with Keanu Reeves, Common, Laurence Fishburne, Ian McShane, director Chad Stahelski, producer Basil Iwanyk, and screenwriter Derek Kolstad to talk about their new film. They discussed how they expanded the world of John Wick for the sequel and took it internationally, the film’s complicated action training and choreography, the intense fight sequence between Common and Keanu in Rome, the fun payoffs of action design, what Common brought from the music world to the role of action star, why the character of John Wick is so appealing to audiences, the cinematic reunion between Neo and Morpheus, and plans for “John Wick 3.”
Here’s what they had to tell us:
For Keanu, what is it about this character and this story that appealed to you and how does it feel to see it executed so beautifully?
KEANU REEVES: I think I speak for everyone here in the sense that you hope to do good work in good works and that they have a chance to be seen and hopefully responded to. For me, specifically to John Wick, it’s really cool since the opening of the first one through the times to be here now and today to be a part of a film that has so much affection for it. It’s pretty rare.
Derek, you created this beautiful world of John Wick with the first film. What were your considerations for the sequel in terms of expanding the world, taking it overseas to Italy, and melding the past with the present?
DEREK KOLSTAD: It was awesome, but difficult, because everyone loved the character and the world so much. We alluded to it being much bigger than it really was. One of the movies we brought up all the time was “Ronin,” and the number of times a character would say, “Do I know you by way of the German?”, and it would never come up again. It was just that allusion that it’s a bigger world. “John Wick 2” went through so many iterations, but even though it was a trying development process, everyone loved the character and loved the world so much that we kept each other accountable to the point that, “Is this true to the core?” Come the end of the day, when everyone’s exhausted and you see the footage of the pages, it’s glorious, because even now, if I had to write “John Wick” once a year for the rest of my life, I would be blessed, and up to this point I’ve been blessed still. One of the things we always loved about this is you allude to a world, but you never show all of it, because as soon as you show the shark, it’s not as cool. We always went by that guideline.
For Chad and Keanu, what were some of the exciting new things that you wanted to bring to the sequel?
CHAD STAHELSKI: When we were asked to do a sequel, we were very flattered and we were very hopeful, but it’s always a challenge to do something original and to build on what you’ve already built. When Keanu, myself, Derek, and Basil all got together, we said, “If we’re going to do a sequel, how do we do this?” What everyone felt affection for after the first one was the world building we had done, and the kind of underworld of assassins, and The Continental mythology, and the world that we had built. We really wanted to expand on that, and we wanted to show a little bit more insight into that world, and what John Wick did in the world, and all the colorful characters that we could put into that world. That’s where we started from, and how to build our own mythology, and our own storytelling through it.
REEVES: And that’s why there’s the Bowery King, and Laurence, and with Common opening up the world of assassins, and then also with Ian, just where his purview opens up, and a little bit more about Winston.
Were there certain stunts that you had thought about on the first movie that you saved and put in your back pocket for the sequel?
BASIL IWANYK: (joking) There’s what we tell the studio we’re doing, and then, what we actually do. If they knew some of the stunts and some of the things that Chad made the actors do, maybe we would not have had approval, but we just did it anyway.
STAHELSKI: No. The cast is all very well trained.
REEVES: There were no animals hurt in the production of this film.
STAHELSKI: There are a couple things that we had held back from or didn’t get to put in the first “John Wick,” or things that we wanted to initially do and then expanded on in the second “John Wick,” which Mr. Reeves got to do, so that was great.
Keanu and Laurence, can you talk a little about the Neo and Morpheus reunion. I’m a big fan of you guys. What was it like collaborating together again?
REEVES: Where did I see you when I saw you?
LAURENCE FISHBURNE: You came up to the house.
REEVES: I came up to the house and I said, “How did you like ‘John Wick’? Did you see ‘John Wick’?”
FISHBURNE: You came up to the house. You were training for this one. I said, “Dude, ‘John Wick,’ it was sick! It was killer! You gotta put me down!” And you were like, “Oh yeah, I’ll talk to Chad and them.”
REEVES: Wait, wait! It was more like, “You did?” And I was like, “Cool! Well I’ll talk to Chad because I think there might be something there.”
STAHELSKI: And Chad jumped on it. Chad wasted no time in getting back to Mr. Fishburne. It was an immediate response begging him, “Please!” When Derek and I first talked about this character, it was always with the great hope that [you would do it]. It was designed around you.
FISHBURNE: Oh, that’s lovely.
KOLSTAD: Since Day 1.
STAHELSKI: We all talked about it. We couldn’t pray to the gods enough. So, it all worked out.
Keanu, you’ve done so many awesome action films including this one and you’re a great action actor. How good are you at jiu-jitsu and other martial arts in real life?
REEVES: Thank you. I don’t know any real jiu-jitsu or judo or anything. I do movie kung fu. With that, you can fake a punch, but you can’t really fake a judo throw. You can get help from the person who you’re throwing because they can kind of launch themselves. Thank you, Common. Then also, at the same time, Common got really good at throwing people, me, too. It’s really a cooperation. In the real world, I don’t do any of that.
COMMON: As far as I’m concerned, in the real world, I feel like he can kick ass. He just has it. I know we’re doing it for a film, but you can feel the strength, and some of that just doesn’t feel like film work. It’s just like, “Let’s do it.” It’s throwing, it’s blowing, and you’d better be ready to move or it’s going to connect. I know Keanu is saying he might not want to be in any type of MMA competition, but I definitely know he’s the warrior that we see John Wick as.
REEVES: That’s kind.
Keanu, when you and Laurence are talking in the movie, it reminded me a little bit of talking about choices. Was that a nod to “The Matrix”?
REEVES: I didn’t have that experience.
FISHBURNE: No. I feel like these are two completely different guys than the guys that we are in those movies. The only similarity may be that I might know something that he doesn’t know when we first encounter each other.
REEVES: Well, you think that, but I actually know something.
FISHBURNE: You know something that I don’t know. I just love the world of John Wick, The Continental, and all of that when I saw the film, and I thought, “Wow, I’d really like to go play with these guys.” I’ve been a big fan of both Common and Mr. McShane for a long time and then to be playing a part that well.
IAN MCSHANE: Can you give us a scene together next time?
COMMON: Yes, please. You know we love you.
STAHELSKI: We’re working on it. Notes, Derek, notes.
FISHBURNE: It’s really cool to stretch out a bit more.
STAHELSKI: You’ve got big moments in Number 3 coming up.
Speaking of Number 3, can you give us a hint if we’re going to see any more of Cassian?
COMMON: That might depend on how well I treat Chad and Basil if Cassian will be back. But honestly, it’s left up to the visionaries to know if Cassian will be back. What do you say, Chad?
STAHELSKI: We like being slightly ambiguous in the world. I think that a big part of the John Wick world is to let the audience take a guess at it. We replicated that scene twice if you go back in the movie. John does the same type of move twice with two different visual characters, and there’s a defining moment after what he says to Common. One character is left alive. One is not. That’s pretty much all we’ll say for now.
For Keanu and Common, how much training did you have to go through? What about the choreography? How many takes? Can you both delve into that a little?
COMMON: When I saw the first “John Wick,” it was very special to me. It was like what I enjoy about films and watching movies. As far as training goes, knowing I was going to have an opportunity to join that world, knowing that I would be able to work with Keanu and Chad, it’s when you know you’re working with the highest level. When I first spoke to Chad, I said, “Man, I want to be a great action artist and to be able to really deliver.” I felt like I want to be one of the greats on screen as an actor and as a fighter. From that start, Chad took me through. They watched what I could do and then took me back to the basics of 8711, which is the stunt company that they have. I just learned so much. It was a lot of work, but I wanted him to know that I was committed. I was going to give my heart and soul to this. Getting to work with Keanu and seeing how he would come in every day after doing all these different scenes, and having other work to do in other scenes and fight coordination, and just him coming in and bringing 110 per cent. He’s a perfectionist and it’s something I share with him. Every time we rehearsed, if we didn’t end it on the right note, it was like, “We gotta do one more. Where’s the flavor?”
REEVES: We gotta get the flavor!
COMMON: The best part and the most joyous part about this is we get the flavor and everything right, but once it gets to Chad on the day of, he’ll flip it on you and you’d better be ready. I loved the energy of that because you’ve just got to be present and be aware. That creativity and that energy, with all the training, it’s what you want as an actor. You train and you prepare, and when you get in there, you get present and be in the moment. It was a wonderful experience for me.
For everybody, as you’re expanding this world of assassins and going internationally, how important was it for you to showcase diversity properly throughout the world?
STAHELSKI: Pretty important. When you do world expansion, like Derek said, we wanted to create a mythology that services the entire world. Hopefully, after this, you’ll realize that there is a Continental or a Continental-like facility in all of the major cities around the world. In any culture, the underworld – we’ll call it our assassin underworld — has been prevalent since the beginning of mankind. Cultural diversity is a big part of what we did, but as far as casting went, we just tried to find the best, most iconic character actors, as you see before you, for each role to bring a little something else. There’s a lot of Wachowski alumni here, and I spent, as did some other people here, ten years of our lives with them. Most of what I know about world building or world crafting comes from their tutelage. Every frame in the original “Matrix” — from the color palette, to the way they talk, to the way they look, to the way they dress — means something, and that was a great learning experience. When you start painting your world, you have to first start with not really the visuals or the lighting or the set pieces, but with the characters. There are some pretty iconic-looking mugs up here right now, so I think that was a good place to start.
Ian, what it was like this time around opening Winston up a little bit more and seeing more of what he’s about? I’d love to know your backstory.
MCSHANE: You’re never going to hear my backstory, because I think that’s part of what Derek did great is the fact that he didn’t reveal any more about the characters. The backstory is uninteresting and that’s not what this film is about. I think affection is a great word which Keanu used before for this movie. There’s a lot of affection for this movie, both by him and the way that Derek wrote it and the way that Chad directed it, because you know from the first moment. I remember I was in Atlanta doing another movie and this came out and I thought I’ll just zip in to see it in the early afternoon. When I walked in, from the first frame, I thought I’m in good hands. I think you know that when you see any movie, whatever kind it is, if you’re in good hands or not. We were in very good hands. So, thank you both. I’ve worked with Basil before, so double good hands.
Ian and Common, both of you guys went from super collected and cool to intense. What was that experience like?
COMMON: First, I have to give thanks to Chad for the scene you’re talking about. I remember doing different takes and he said, “I want you to give us something else. Try this.” As Ian said, it was like I knew I was in great hands just from watching the first “John Wick.” One of the best things for actors to know is that a director can take you to that world. So, you’ll listen to anything he or she says. With Chad, I knew I could do that. That’s how we arrived at that little scene where it’s almost death, but we don’t know. Let’s leave it there right now. For me, my character went from I guess it was a coolness because things weren’t astray yet. Things were just I was doing my protection. I was doing my job. Once John Wick came on the scene, and I always look at our characters as rivals, we also have a reverence and respect for each other. Once he crossed the line, and made Cassian have to do what he has to do, because although he has a reverence and a respect for John, it’s like he just went past the line that he shouldn’t have. That’s when you see the intensity and that type of strength come out. But then, with that intensity, he’s going against the best and he feels like he’s the best. So, you get that real tension and friction in that, but that’s what took him from the cool place to that intensity.
MCSHANE: I think you are mistaking intensity for being fucking cold, but it was wonderful.
STAHELSKI: It was really, really cold the day Winston did this scene. In answer to your question, it was intentional. If you look at all the characters in the movie, they all abide mostly by a set of rules. The way we had designed our mythology, Winston, Ian McShane’s character, is the goalkeeper. The closer you get to the edges of the rules, the more stern and direct he’ll get. He becomes both prophet, oracle, and mom and dad to say, “Don’t do this. You shouldn’t do this. If you do this, this will happen. Don’t steal from the cookie jar.” Common and Keanu, when they get to that point of you’re coming close to breaking my rules, they turn it on. Again, I think the most important thing that gets across is rules and professional courtesy. That is what they both share, and that’s the difference between how John Wick deals with his opponents.
MCSHANE: You see, you’re in good hands.
When the first movie came out, clearly there was a resonance there. I’m curious through talking to fans or just your own personal opinion, what do you think it is about the character of John Wick that people love so much?
MCSHANE: He’s gorgeous looking. He’s got a million dollars in the basement. And he can do any kind of martial arts you want. He should be on “The Bachelor.”
STAHELSKI: Honestly, when you think of any great action hero or any great hero out there or great character actor, you kind of transcend the character. You just don’t love the character, you love the guy. In any of the great action stars, you see the guy doing the work. We started with that. That was our process for developing John Wick. We found somebody crazy enough to go through the training that can do all the gun work, the martial arts work, the choreography, and set up the shots we want to do, so you build an honesty with the character. The big thing about John Wick is, not only can he do long, uncut takes of 50 guys at once doing jiu-jitsu and judo, but you believe him. It’s not some other character in some other scene going, “Hey, you know, John Wick was a Navy Seal. He did this, this, and this.” We don’t talk about it. We just showed it to you. So, you believe in the character. You don’t have to be told what he can do. You’ve seen it. Not only did you see it, but you saw the individual playing John Wick do it. That buys us credibility and it buys honesty in the character. You also see somebody that cries over a puppy and fights female assassins in his boxer shorts. You can relate to that. Everybody fights in their boxer shorts. What we try to do is go outside the box a little bit with our heroes. We do have a hotel manager and you have a whole other underworld. We try to get characters that have that little bit of human nature to them that you buy, and then expand from there.
IWANYK: It’s also the magic of the process, because all these answers we say in retrospect. At the time, we didn’t think we were doing what we were doing. When you put a movie together, sometimes it just works. Sometimes, unfortunately, it doesn’t work. But this one, with all these disparate ideas and some crazy world building, the puppy, and all sorts of stuff, you just watched it and it worked. I always say it’s the movie gods. We deconstruct it after the fact, but at the time, we were just trying to make a movie that was emotional and had some great action and get out of life literally and figuratively. It was this great alchemy of everybody involved and always the cumulative effect of a lot of little decisions.
For Keanu, Chad and Common, this is such a wonderful action ballet. For each of you, what was your favorite scene and why? Was there one that was the most difficult in terms of action?
REEVES: There are some times when those intersect. The most difficult can become the most fun. All of the action is difficult and all of it is a lot of fun. I don’t know, Common, what do you think? What have we got? They all have a certain kind of charm to them.
COMMON: I can say fighting in Rome, on the streets of Rome, was really exciting and it was difficult too, because as I stated once before, Chad is really brilliant in creating these things, and he also has this spontaneity to him, which I really love, to be honest.
STAHELSKI: That just means I change my mind a lot.
COMMON: Basically, but I said it in a nice way, Chad. Anyway, it turns out some of the things that he presented were new, but it just brought an energy in us fighting on the streets of Rome. As Keanu said, it could be the most difficult, but when we strike it in the right places, we both could look at each other and be like, “Man, this is fun!”
REEVES: After you hit me with the car, we got that little, impromptu gunfight. We cooked that up there. I think the Cassian-John fight, before we crash into The Continental, was the most difficult fight technically, because we didn’t have all of the jiu-jitsu experience, and we had the guns, and we had to go through that process of just learning how to walk. Then, we were training after we were fighting other fights. I would say that one had the longest tail. But also, when you look at it, it’s got a real combustion and intensity to it. Like that Cassian-John fight in Philadelphia, that ain’t so bad, right? It’s got like, I don’t know, the intimacy of it. (to Stahelski) You also cut out the soundtrack in that, the music. It’s mano-a-mano and that was part of the development of that fight. But I would say that fight. Then you were like choking me and dragging me backwards, and I’m trying to do a reload. Also, you have to understand, these are cooperations, like you said, with a dance. It’s a partnership. You really can’t do it without the other person. You have to cooperate. I think that fight demanded the most cooperation and it was the most technical, but also it has a ferocity and a kind of rawness to it and a skill level. Remember the teacup? Like fuck, fuck, fuck! Okay, so I’m over you. I have a pistol. You have a knife. Then, I got to pull you and you got to do a 270 spin on your back, and there are like three transitions in that one move. You have to get your legs behind my knee, under my shoulder, then push off, and then come back around. And Chad was like, “Uh, that was great guys…NOT. I think we’re doing that again.”
STAHELSKI: I like all the action scenes obviously. No. For me, it’s more about the high and the low. It’s what each fight scene makes you feel right afterwards. A great moment for me is right after these guys get done fighting, they crash through the window, and they go, “Okay. I think it’s time to go have a drink at the bar.” That’s fun because they break through The Continental. That whole fight scene, all that ferocity while they’re trying to kill each other was meant for the payoff, for that one beat when Franklin goes, “Gentlemen!” That’s what it’s meant for. Then, the whole thing at the end of the first reel, when Keanu gets back from Rome and all New York is after him, he fights the violinist, and he fights all these guys, and he does some work with the pencil, and he does all this stuff, it all comes back to the payoff. That whole gauntlet pays off to meeting a new character, the Bowery King, the man, the myth, the legend. That’s what the payoff is for. “Hey man, you got a quarter?”, and a homeless man shoots him, and then it ends up being like we try to build you up with the action to take you down. The whole thing with the opera is, “Do you want to do a gunfight during a rock concert?” and Basil says, “Yeah. We want to do one during a rock concert.” So, we did that. And you do all of the catacombs. What’s the payoff for that? Getting hit by a car by this guy (Common) who you think disappeared. So, every action sequence was built with a payoff. That’s how we build you up and then let you go, “Oh, that was kind of fun even though you shot 37 guys in the face.” So, for me, it’s the payoff after the action sequence, like how much can I take you over here so I can slam you down over there. That’s at least the fun of action design.
John Wick is the ultimate badass and yet there’s this vulnerability to him emotionally and physically, and there’s also a sentimentality there. I was wondering if you could comment on that?
IWANYK: A lot of it comes from the fact that I’m not a cynic. I really do believe that, come the end of the day, the worst of us can find salvation. He found his salvation in his wife, and I think that the unspoken in that first one is he got what he didn’t deserve and knew that, and we all recognize that in different levels of our own lives. When the dog comes in and when the dog is taken from him, it’s this notion of, “Did I change or is this an excuse?,” and the reality is both. But come the end of the day, he did change. I love in the first one where he comes up behind the big WWF guy, Francis, and he puts the gun up and says, “You lost weight.” He’s not going to kill him. “I’m not going to kill you. We’re friends.” Even though John works within these guidelines and these rules, it’s not a matter of him being good or bad. He has found his way. I think that’s why people automatically gravitate towards him.
For Common, I love that while you’re winning Oscars and becoming the next action star, you’re still firmly rooted in music and hip hop. What did you take from your music world, your stage presence, and performing into becoming Cassian and an action star?
COMMON: I think some of the most beneficial things being an artist has brought to me in film is just you’re not afraid to do things. You’re used to being in front of people. That’s not the problem. The biggest thing is just getting into the character and really delivering. One of the things I remember Keanu and I both did was we just wanted to make Chad happy. If we made Chad happy, then we knew we were doing the right thing and the film could be great. Being a hip hop artist allows me to let all the other things that you would be embarrassed about trying, it’s like no, I’ve experienced that. Then also, I’ve been through the stages of where equipment goes out on you while you’re performing or people are throwing pennies at you or something. There’s not too much that can throw me off is what I’m saying. Those are some of the qualities that I really am grateful for and that I come from the hip hop culture and doing music. But all the rest, hey, you gotta be an actor, because everybody that makes the transition or tries to act, just because they’re a musician, they can’t do it. You gotta be true to the craft and really have a passion for it.
Has that always been your drive to become a movie star?
COMMON: I just love the acting. As a kid, I loved going to see theater. I loved movies. But I didn’t have the courage to do it until a certain point where I hit a ceiling with music, and I was like I just gotta study something that I’m really passionate about. That’s what it became. Now that’s my desire and dream. I’m still that kid that’s dreaming about that.
Keanu, the kill count in the first film is really remarkable, but it’s the dog that sticks in everybody’s mind. I’m wondering what kind of feedback you got dog-wise from dog lovers in the wake of the first film?
REEVES: “I love the movie and then I can’t watch. And then, I can watch, and I don’t care what you do after that, because you just do whatever you want.” That seemed to be the reaction of people that responded to the film. They were really affected by what happens to the dog and with John. And I get it. Then, in the second one, that’s one of the first things. “Can’t we just see the movie. You don’t kill another dog, do you?” And we don’t.
What’s the dog’s name?
REEVES: Well, there are a couple of them. In the movie, he doesn’t have a name.
STAHELSKI: We’re still working on that. Derek didn’t write one.
REEVES: But it is integral to the story, because it’s part of what’s going on in his life and that relationship, and part of it being symbolic of the thought and love that his wife gave him. He’s responsible for the beast. So, they have a little bit of a journey together, sort of like a man-dog road movie.
“John Wick: Chapter 2” opens in theaters on February 10th.