When screenwriter Shay Hatten was handed the job of writing John Wick: Chapter 4, he says there was no specific plan for what the movie should look like. “It’s cool. It’s really thrilling,” he told Polygon in an interview ahead of the movie’s release. “Because there’s no blueprint, you’re just like, Oh, it really is a blank page where you get to ask the natural questions: Where would John have gone off after the last movie? And then you figure it out and put it together.
“It’s in some senses tiring, because you try 100 different versions, but it’s also really gratifying when you finally start to crack an idea that eventually makes its way into a movie.”
That also meant there weren’t specific guidelines for the new characters put in orbit around Keanu Reeves’ hero in John Wick 4, including blind swordsman Kaine, played by Donnie Yen, and the preening villain known as the Marquis, played by Bill Skarsgård. Hatten’s co-writer Michael Finch says the two writers “had our wishlist” of people they hoped would play the characters they were writing, which affected their script. But they weren’t told to write with specific actors in mind, so the people who did end up in the roles often reshaped their characters.
Finch, who met John Wick series director Chad Stahelski on the 2015 film Hitman: Agent 47, says he was brought in to assist on the script after “Shay got tired of working on John Wick 4, and threw up his hands a little bit!” Hatten previously worked in a similar role for John Wick: Chapter 3 - Parabellum: “I was kind of the guy who came in when it was already rolling,” he reminded Finch during the interview. Both men were surprised at the movie’s eventual casting, but excited at how it changed the story.
“It’s so grand and rewarding when you write a character, then you get an actor who actually understands it,” Finch said. “And I think that part of the system is that Keanu believes he is John Wick while he’s making John Wick [movies]. He has to, for all kinds of reasons, mostly for the physical beating he’s taking. He somehow manages to sell that to the other actors. These folks show up, and two days in, they believe they are the character, I think. That is what allows them to feel so seamless. They are owning those characters. And for us, that’s a huge win.”
Finch says that dynamic lets the actors inject more of themselves into the characters, and reshape them in the process — for instance, what Donnie Yen did with Caine. “The original character, as written, was a little bit rough around the edges,” he says. “Donnie is an incredibly polished guy, incredibly elegant. Not only that, he’s incredibly crisp. The fight moves he does are an extension of the way he carries himself. They’re incredibly precise, incredibly sharp. And he brought that to the character. He brought a certain level of laser-like intensity, shark-like intensity, that wasn’t necessarily written into the character.
“Keanu winds up all chewed up, beat to shit. And somehow, Caine manages to stay crisp, sharp, sunglasses always stay on. And that was something he brought to the character, this precision.”
Hatten says the chemistry between Yen and Reeves also “adds a tremendous amount to the movie.” Their performances imply more familiarity and comfort with each other than was necessarily in the script. “Just by the nature of the performances these two guys are giving, whenever they’re on screen together, you as an audience member get a real sense of a shared history they might have together,” he says. “You can imagine the adventures these guys might have been on 20 years ago, in a John Wick movie we never saw. So he brings a ton to the texture of the franchise.”
Hatten thinks the John Wick franchise cast frequently uses their performances to imply those kinds of rich, complicated connections, and that it’s a significant part of the series’ success.
“It just lets you create this whole mythology in your head for the thousands of adventures this guy probably went on,” he says. “It makes him seem that much more epic. If we ever defined exactly what John Wick’s specific backstory was, it would make him less of a myth, because you’d have all the answers. You don’t want the answers. I think it’s cooler that it’s a limitless thing, where we can just keep pulling out new, unspoken pieces of the past to explore in new movies.”