Keanu vehicle named after Madison man

How 'John Wick' became 'John Wick'
Keanu vehicle named after Madison man
Flickr photo courtesy of BagoGames
Keanu Reeves, playing the title character in "John Wick 2," bears little resemblance to the real John Wick.

A few years ago, I heard from a longtime Madison businessman who told me he was about to be in the movies.

John Wick founded Wick Building Systems in the Madison area in 1955.

Wick let me know that later that year–2014–a film starring Keanu Reeves was opening with the title, “John Wick.”

I think I laughed and said, “What a coincidence.”

As it turned out, it wasn’t a coincidence, and therein lies a story.

I relate it now because the Reeves movie, “John Wick,” was a big hit – grossing around $86 million at the box office–and last Friday a sequel, “John Wick: Chapter 2” opened nationwide.

Both movies were written by Derek Kolstad, the screenwriter who turns out to be the connection to the Madison-area John Wick. Kolstad is a Madison Edgewood High School graduate, and John Wick’s grandson.

I spoke to Kolstad in 2014. He was 39 at the time, living in Pasadena with his wife, and understandably excited about having a screenplay not just produced but with a movie star heading the cast.

Kolstad explained that he’d written a story about a bad guy–a professional killer–who goes straight but then goes bad again, after some other bad guys steal his car and kill his dog.

The script found its way to Keanu Reeves, who liked it. A lot. Kolstad was then summoned to a meeting at Reeves’ home in the Hollywood hills.

Kolstad told me Reeves got animated discussing the story.

“He was strangling an invisible man and jumping up and down on my script,” Kolstad said. “I remember thinking, ‘I guess I’ve made it.'”

Kolstad named his hit man protagonist “John Wick” in homage to his grandfather back in Madison. But he titled the movie “Scorn.”

Once Reeves got involved, the star began telling people he was going to do a movie called “John Wick.”
Kolstad recalled, “Keanu liked the name so much.”

If you know anything about Hollywood, you know that if Keanu Reeves thinks the movie should be called “John Wick,” it is going to be called “John Wick.”

There was some concern within the extended Wick family back in Wisconsin about whether the real John Wick would be pleased to have his name on a movie about a professional killer.

There needn’t have been.

“I was tickled by Derek using my name for a movie,” John Wick noted, “and the hit man character was frosting on the cake.”

Kolstad’s big score with “John Wick” was one of those overnight successes that in fact took 15 years. Kolstad was 24, and working in Chicago after studying business administration at Taylor University in Indiana, when he decided to roll the dice and write movies, a lifelong passion.

He moved to California, worked other jobs to pay the bills, and wrote. It was the longest of long shots, but Kolstad had some things going for him. One was that he wasn’t really interested in committing art. He loved Robert Mitchum-esque film noir and scenes that began with a tough guy saying, “I told you I’d find you.”

Kolstad also worked hard at his writing. And his wife, Sonja, proved a deft editor. In 2012, Kolstad sold a script called “Acolyte” and that got him a rewriting job and a script credit on the Dolph Lundgren-Cuba Gooding Jr. film “One in the Chamber.”

The success of the first “John Wick” put him squarely on the map as a screenwriter.

I had an email exchange with Kolstad last week, after seeing that he had indeed written the script for the sequel.

“I am ecstatic with the second film,” he wrote. “At the premiere, about 30 seconds in, the audience was hooked and the grin I had on my face hurt.”

The pre-opening Hollywood Reporter review of “Chapter 2” was positive.

But what really has Kolstad grinning these days are the twins that he and Sonja welcomed into the world on January 9: Harold John and Linnea Marie. “Both healthy and strong,” Derek noted.

He’s also hard at work on other projects, both for film and TV.

“I’m staying busy, man,” he noted, “and that makes me happy.”

Doug Moe is a Madison writer. See his monthly column, Person of Interest, in Madison Magazine.