One of the bigger surprises from this year’s Fantastic Fest was just how enjoyable “John Wick,” the hit man thriller starring Keanu Reeves, really was. Chad Stahelski and David Leitch (two veterans of the stunt field) nimbly directed the screenplay by Derek Kolstad, and together they created a rich and vivid world for the various underworld characters to play in. (You can read our review here.) Of course, holding it all together is Reeves, a largely underrated screen presence who really gets a chance to shine here, playing a man who has lost everything (but still has enough pep left in his step to kill an untold number of bad guys). While in Austin, we got a chance to sit down and chat with Reeves about what drew him to the project, when he’s going to direct again and why he decided to make the move to television (with his upcoming series “Rain,” also overseen by Leitch and Stahleski).
Reeves is an unassuming presence, despite the amount of murdering that goes on in “John Wick” (and, indeed, many of the actor’s more action-packed roles, including everything from “Point Break” to “The Matrix“). He answers questions thoughtfully, contemplatively and even though he seemed somewhat frazzled (we caught him at the end of a very long jag of interviews), he was still alert and focused, only letting his guard down once, which was long enough for him to confuse “The Watcher,” a horrendous, contractually obligated piece of junky genre schlock, with “The Gift,” Sam Raimi‘s soulful Southern Gothic thriller. (It’s pretty funny.)
We discuss everything from the possibility of more “Matrix” movies to a potential follow-up to his terrific film world documentary “Side By Side” to the storied, all-Japanese version of “47 Ronin” and everything in between. Whoa.
What initially drew you to “John Wick?”
Basil Iwanyk from Thunder Road Pictures sent me a script called “John Wick” and I read it and really enjoyed it. Originally it was for an older character, so I met with Derek and spoke with Basil and talked to them about, if I wanted the role what we would have to do. And then I thought we got it to a good place and went out to Chad and Dave to direct it.
And what made you go to them with the script?
We had been speaking with them and watching them develop. They had been doing second unit stuff and we had spoken about working together and when I saw “John Wick” I originally went to them to do the action but I was hoping that they would like it enough that they would want to direct it.
What was that process like?
They’d done so much second unit directing, they know physical production, they always had to communicate a vision whether it was inherited or they got to put their own spin on it. And then when they pitched the movie, they knew what they wanted to do.
You’ve done so much stunt work…
I haven’t done any stunt work… I don’t do any stunts.
You’re flipping over people and firing guns.
But if I’m doing it, it’s not a stunt. Stunt men do stunts.
What do you do?
I get to do some physical acting. I get involved in some action but they’re not stunts. I flip over guys, I get flipped, I run, I jump, I play.
Is that any harder for you now?
I’m at that wonderful line of experience, which helps when you can’t quite do what you used to be able to do. With the experience, you get it right faster so you don’t have to do as many takes. I just made that up…
But you obviously love doing this stuff.
I love it!
What is the appeal though, of still doing it today?
I don’t know. I like it when it succeeds at making it emotional, or there’s a reason for the character that’s beyond escape. You know what I mean? Or survival. That it’s part of something. There’s character development and a character journey and it has an emotional component to it. It’s dramatic storytelling. Not just spectacle.
Well having gone on this journey once, this seems like a character that could pop up again. Would you be willing to do another “John Wick?”
No, I loved playing the guy. We haven’t really talked about that so I don’t know.
One of the more amazing components of this movie is the world that it sets up. Were you involved with creating that at all and what was your favorite aspect of this imaginary underworld?
It was in the script. Derek, the writer, really created this world. And it’s great. It’s part of what attracted everyone who was involved in the project, including me. It’s just cool. My favorite part is the gold coins. I like the honor of it, this code of thieves. They’re almost pure. Everyone up top is confused but down below…
And you’re working with these guys again for the TV show.
What’s the appeal there?
I’m a little ambivalent about it. But what I like about this character, John Rain, that was created in these Barry Eisler books, is that you could tell the story in a movie but when I read the novels I thought that it should really be serialized storytelling. It didn’t feel like it would be satisfying if we just came back and did a movie every couple of years. Because we could try and do that but it just didn’t feel like that was the way to go.
“Side by Side,” your documentary about digital versus film, was so terrific. Is there any chance of revisiting the topic in a few years just to check in on the state of things?
That’s a great idea, absolutely.
Are you planning on directing again soon?
I’m looking for a story. I hope by the end of next year I know what I’m doing with that. That’s my hope.
Every few months we hear these rumors about another “Matrix” movie or a new trilogy.
Really? Who is starting those? Who does that?
Have you heard anything?
I haven’t heard anything.
Do you keep up with the Wachowskis?
I speak to them every once in a while. I’ll run into them every once in a while.
Where do you run into them?
Well like for “Side by Side,” they said yes to being interviewed and when I was in China for “Man of Tai Chi” and they were doing press for “Cloud Atlas,” I ran into them there. I had some questions for Lana so I reached out.
But you never have reached out and said, “Hey, maybe he’s out of machine city?”
Is there any desire to return to that world?
No. I’d love to work with Andy and Lana. They’re so wonderful and so visionary and as writers and directors they’re great. So I’d love to work with them again.
But you’re not interested in putting on a leather duster again?
I’m dead. I died. I was even dead in “The Matrix.” I’m gone. I’m like a nameplate on a park bench. It’s not even as Neo. It’s Thomas Anderson. And there’s a plate on a fucking bench and he’s gone. He’s been consumed. By the cosmos.
The last time we had talked, it was before “47 Ronin” had come out. Then it did. Could you reflect on that whole scenario?
I like that movie. I had a really amazing time making the film and there were some challenges in terms of what film was ultimately released. But I felt like it didn’t sell itself out. For me and the hope of what we went into it with, with Carl Rinsch the director, was maybe a little edgier and had a little less of the fantastical elements. But there were fantastical elements in the original. So it was this dialogue. Where they ultimately ended up, I could have used it being a little edgier but I didn’t feel like it sold out that original vision. I liked it. I thought the visuals were successful and the actors were good.
Did you guys really film an all-Japanese version?
You’d have to work on my character’s section a little bit, because I don’t know Japanese, but I think we have about three quarters of an all-Japanese movie.
What can you say about your upcoming horror movie “Knock Knock?”
It’s Eli Roth, who is great. It’s a home invasion movie. So I am a cheating father and husband who gets punished.
Is it a found footage movie?
You haven’t done a horror movie since “The Gift.”
Yeah that was a horror of a different sort.
Oh, it was a disaster. I hate that movie. It’s terrible. It’s a disaster.
No, it’s great. Your scene with Giovanni Ribisi…
Oh, “The Gift!” I was thinking “The Watcher.” Oh, “The Gift” is fantastic. Sam Raimi! That’s great. You said “The Gift” and my brain went to “The Watcher.” Donny Barksdale. So fantastic!
“John Wick” opens on October 24th. Catch up with all our coverage from the 2014 Fantastic Fest here.