One day last spring, Madison native Derek Kolstad found himself sitting in a room in a home in the hills above Los Angeles.
The view of the city out the window was spectacular, though it couldn’t really compare with what was happening inside.
The home’s owner, the actor Keanu Reeves, was making a point.
“He was strangling an invisible man and jumping up and down on my script,” Kolstad recalled last week. “I remember thinking, ‘I guess I’ve made it.’”
Reeves plays a hit man gone good gone bad again — after some thugs steal his car and kill his dog — in a revenge tale that wrapped filming in New York City last month, and should be released later this year.
Kolstad, 39, is the screenwriter, and for people back here in his hometown, part of the fun will come from the film’s title.
Kolstad, an Edgewood High School graduate, titled his script “Scorn.” But once Reeves became attached to the film last April, he began telling everyone he was making a movie called “John Wick,” the name of the character Reeves plays.
“Keanu liked the name so much,” Kolstad said.
Pretty soon the title of the film actually was changed to “John Wick,” a name Kolstad put in the script as a salute to his grandfather, Mazomanie businessman John Wick, who founded Wick Building Systems in 1955.
When Derek communicated the news to Jane Wick Kolstad, his mother in Madison, she suggested Derek write his grandfather. Derek was a little concerned how his grandpa might receive the idea of having his name on an ultra-violent movie about a contract killer. He needn’t have worried.
“My 15 minutes of fame,” John Wick said.
Last week, Wick sent me a note expanding on his stance. “I was tickled by Derek using my name for a movie, and the hit man character was frosting on the cake. Hey, this is fun. Let the good times roll.”
Kolstad has been writing screenplays since he was a teenager. The first were done in longhand. It was never going to be more than a hobby, but he was passionate about movies. Right away, he liked stories that moved. The first “Die Hard” blew him away. Later, Kolstad watched old film noirs on VHS tape, Bogart and Mitchum, and “The Third Man,” with a script by Graham Greene. He did not warm to art films. A great scene was one that began with someone saying, “I told you I’d find you.”
Kolstad studied business administration at Taylor University in Indiana, and began working in sales in Chicago. It was a familiar track, one that had led any number of business graduates to success. Kolstad was miserable. One night when his brother called, Derek broke down. He wanted to write movies. He stuffed his possessions into a small car, and drove to California. He was 24.
Kolstad worked various jobs to pay the bills while he wrote. He married, and Sonja — today they live in Pasadena — became his first, and best, reader. Drafts came back heavily marked in red pencil. Kolstad came to dread hearing laughter coming from the next room as she read. He didn’t write comedies. But he got better. It was at a low moment a few years ago, when Kolstad was thinking again of stepping away from screenwriting, that Sonja read his script titled “Acolyte” and encouraged him to re-double his efforts. He was onto something.
After that, things moved quickly. In June 2012, Variety ran a story about “Acolyte” being purchased by Voltage Pictures. The publicity helped Kolstad land some re-writing jobs. He got a script credit on “One in the Chamber,” starring Dolph Lundgren and Cuba Gooding Jr.
In late 2012, word arrived from Kolstad’s agent that his new script, then titled “Scorn,” had three offers. They took the one with the least money up front, because Thunder Road Pictures wanted to make it right away.
When Reeves signed on in April, that became possible. Kolstad spent several weeks with Reeves that spring, going over the actor’s notes on the script. Filming was scheduled to begin in late September in New York. Kolstad spent much of September there helping with pre-production. He felt welcome on the set in part because he was under no illusion that his screenplay wouldn’t be altered during filming. He was prepared for even favorite scenes to change. That’s how it works in the movies. For Kolstad’s part, he was already thinking about his next script.
There were some fun moments last month, when Kolstad and Sonja showed up in New York for the last few days of filming, and the wrap party. Reeves spotted him across the room, came over and gave him a hug. Kolstad banked the memory of watching one scene, Reeves jumping onto the hood of a car with a shotgun, the director yelling, “Cut!”
On the way back to California, they stopped in Madison to spend the holidays with the extended Wick family, including the grandfather who lent his name to a hit man. There was a gathering at Rookies in Mazomanie.
Later, home in Pasadena, Kolstad would regret not stopping at Culver’s.
“It reminds me of In-N-Out Burger out here,” Kolstad said.
Which is better?
“They’re both glorious,” he said.