The Continental: From the World of John Wick director Albert Hughes first crossed paths with John Wick masterminds Chad Stahelski and David Leitch in 2008. At the time, Stahelski and Leitch had only recently decided to make the jump from stunt work to the director’s chair, beginning with second unit. So they interviewed for the second-unit gig on The Book of Eli, which Hughes co-directed alongside his twin brother, Allen. Stahelski and Leitch didn’t end up with the job, but it didn’t stop them from achieving their directorial dream a handful of years later when they co-directed the Keanu Reeves actioner John Wick.
Nearly a decade later, John Wick is now one of the preeminent action franchises, boasting four films that have each outgrossed their predecessors at the box office, with a fifth on the way. Stahelski reminded Hughes of their encounter 15 years earlier during a Zoom meeting for the Wick franchise’s first foray into television with The Continental. Hughes serves as executive producer and director, helming two of the miniseries’ three 90-minute episodes.
Hughes was well-suited for the project because his manner of shooting action has long aligned with the franchise’s style that consists of long and wide choreographed takes. And when the offer came in the midst of the pandemic, he mostly just wanted to enjoy himself again.
“I slept on [the offer] because I had this other offer. And then I said, ‘Man, I just want to have fun. I don’t want to do any generational trauma stuff. I don’t want to do any social issues. I just want to have fun,’” Hughes tells The Hollywood Reporter. “So once I got to this project, it was quite easy for me to adapt to the John Wick style because that’s something I would be into anyway. But I’m not Chad Stahelski. I don’t possess that particular set of skills.”
Developed by Greg Coolidge, Kirk Ward and Shawn Simmons, the Peacock miniseries is set in New York City during the 1970s, and it explores how the younger version of Ian McShane’s Winston Scott (Colin Woodell) first took possession of the assassin hotel known as The Continental. The prequel also tells the origin story behind Winston’s partnership with his future concierge, Charon. Newcomer Ayomide Adegun plays the younger version of Lance Reddick’s beloved character.
Hughes locked his cuts of the series before an early cut of John Wick: Chapter 4 was available for him to watch, so he didn’t know the devastating fate of Reddick’s character during filming and editing. Reddick himself then tragically passed away just a week before the theatrical release of John Wick: Chapter 4.
“None of the producers told us [about Charon’s death]. Chad didn’t tell me,” Hughes says. “And then the tragic real-life stuff is pretty heavy. The kid that’s playing young Charon, Ayo, we had to pull him out of a drama school in Wales. He’d never been on camera before. So his first moment on camera was during a scene with Mel Gibson, and he had all of this responsibility already. And then finding out about Wick 4, I’m just happy that we saw Wick 4 after we shot.”
John Wick: Chapter 4 also turned the miniseries’ title character into rubble, and that was another detail that Hughes wasn’t fully aware of until he watched the movie at the time of its release. The early cut he watched upon wrapping the series did not have VFX completed, so he didn’t quite know the extent of what happened to Winston’s storied hotel.
“I didn’t actually see [the Continental’s demolition] until it came out, and when it came out, I was like, ‘What the fuck?’” Hughes says with a laugh. “So I was quite shocked when I saw it. I was not expecting that, and it wasn’t talked about.”
Below, during a conversation with THR, Hughes also addresses the controversial casting of Gibson, before explaining how he’s evolved as a director since he and his brother went their separate ways, post-Book of Eli.
So The Continental has been in development for quite a while and it’s evolved quite a bit. What state was it in when you signed on to the series?
I read episode one, which was a little different than what we shot. Episode two was in flux, and episode three didn’t exist yet. I met with the producers via Zoom. They pitched me on it. I wasn’t quite sure I wanted to do it. We were at the height of COVID, and then I slept on it because I had this other offer. And then I said, “Man, I just want to have fun. I don’t want to do any generational trauma stuff. I don’t want to do any social issues. I just want to have fun.” So then I went and met the producers in Berlin and talked to them, and then I got in with Kirk Ward, the co-showrunner/co-writer, who’s a brother of mine now. We just geeked out on all our favorite childhood things. So we rejiggered the script just slightly, and then we were off to the races.
Your underpass fight in The Book of Eli is probably the closest you’ve come to this, but when you commit to a John Wick prequel, is it a foregone conclusion that you have to shoot the action in the style that’s synonymous with the franchise: long, wide, choreographed takes?
Well, that’s a great question. You made me flash to when I was talking to Chad Stahelski on Zoom. He was telling me, “I’ve met you before. Dave [Leitch] and I were at so-and-so’s house, and we were trying to pitch ourselves for The Book of Eli.” And I was like, “I don’t remember that. We’ve actually met?” And he was like, “Yeah, yeah, yeah.” I’m not going to mention whose house it was, but I should’ve remembered that because I’ve only been there twice and I don’t like the [owner of the house].
And then I caught Chad in an interview talking about what you’re saying. He had the same kind of feeling I had about certain movies that came out in the early aughts that were too handheld and close up. You’re not able to see the actor and the action. And what Chad was saying in this interview was exactly the thinking that went into Eli as well. I was like, “I want to see this. I’m tired of this handheld, herky-jerky stuff and sound effects.”
So once I got to this project, it was quite easy for me to adapt to the John Wick style because that’s something I would be into anyway. But I’m not Chad Stahelski. I don’t possess that particular set of skills. Like Liam Neeson, I have a particular set of skills, and those are not them. I like Sergio Leone’s buildup to quick violence and then it’s over. But because we’re in the Wick world, you do have to pay service to the hardcore John Wick fans and what people expect out of that world. And I had fun doing it, but if you look at all three episodes, what happened by the end of episode three is I got out of the handheld stuff and I tried to take it to a more classic style of framing. It’s still flamboyant; it’s just not so run and gun.
The staircase shootout in episode one is very much a handheld sequence, and that allows the stunt team to adjust things on the fly if an actor makes a mistake. They have that safety net, but that’s also what I don’t like about handheld. I don’t want that safety net. I want everybody to do their job and know where the camera’s going to be. And that Eli shot you mentioned was almost a stationary shot. It slowly moves in and it’s just silhouettes fighting. It had two elements, a background plate and stage work. So I’ve always compared film technique to boxing. You have to set up your jab. You can’t just come in throwing right hands all the time. And a lot of times, I think filmmakers make the mistake of just coming out using their right hand too much to create bombast.
Wick somehow makes ultra-violence fun, and as your early work shows, graphic violence can also be devastating and soul crushing. So was that Wick tone difficult to pull off?
Yeah, it’s an interesting question because I’ve never been able to use violence in a purely fun way. It’s always been a reflection of reality in my past movies, and there’s something fun in staging that and how real can you make it. And then there’s something fun about being free of that in the Wick world. You’re free to be silly. There’s irony in real-life violence. Scorsese does it well, and when I was young, that’s what I learned from Goodfellas or Taxi Driver or Mean Streets. There can be a realistic violent moment, but then there’s also a kind of levity there. It’s irony. It’s more life’s humor. And then John Wick has this other thing going on where he’s on a motorcycle and having a Samurai sword fight. Or he slaps the back of a horse to kick somebody in the face. Or the dog pees on the dead guy’s face in John Wick 4. Those are things that you get away with in the Wick world, and it was a freeing experience.
I always found it amusing how in the second and third John Wick movies, we’d see a new wing of The Continental that we didn’t know was there previously. So which version of the hotel was your production designer working off of for this series?
(Laughs.) Well, [Drew Boughton] was quoted at Comic Con saying that this was so wonderfully freeing. That little triangle building has these impossible spaces inside. It’s like those old Woody Woodpecker cartoons where you open the tent and it’s the Taj Mahal. So they don’t care, and that’s what’s great about the Wick world. They don’t give a fuck. Even windows don’t match, and Kirk Ward, the co-showrunner, said it best. It’s this very mysterious building, so you get away with that. It’s cloaked in mythology and mystery. So we were definitely leaning in towards the later films’ [philosophy] of, “Hey, if it looks cool, let’s use it.”
John Wick: Chapter 4 also blew up your series’ title character, The Continental. As a prequel, it wasn’t going to affect your story, but did a conversation still have to happen between all the parties involved?
I saw a cut before all the VFX were done, and this was probably seven months before it came out. And during that scene where the building goes down, the VFX weren’t done. I got the sense that it was messed up, and then when Winston [Ian McShane] and Larry Fishburne are talking about it in front of a smoldering building, that was all blue screen. So I didn’t actually see it until it came out, and when it came out, I was like, “What the fuck?” (Laughs.) It looked like the building just collapsed, and then the next thing you see is just burning embers. And I was like, “Well, at least the structure is still there.” So, no, I was quite shocked when I saw it. I was not expecting that, and it wasn’t talked about.
We lost the great Lance Reddick earlier this year, as well as his character Charon in John Wick: Chapter 4. Winston’s grief over Charon then became a key part of that film. Did you happen to get a heads-up about that since you were tasked with depicting the formation of Winston and Charon’s partnership?
I didn’t know until I saw it. I’d heard some murmur, I think, but I didn’t know. In the version I saw, he got killed quite early, and in the version that was released, I think they extended some stuff. It still happens early, but it definitely brought more weight. So our cuts were pretty much locked when I saw it. I think I had just turned in the third episode, so I didn’t know about it. None of the producers told us. Chad didn’t tell me. And I went, “Wow. Well, this is interesting. The onscreen death of this character definitely adds weight to this young actor [Ayomide Adegun] who’s portraying young Charon.” And then the tragic real-life stuff is pretty heavy. The kid that’s playing young Charon, Ayo, we had to pull him out of a drama school in Wales. He was in his last year, and he’d never been on camera before. So his first moment on camera was during a scene with Mel Gibson, and he had all of this responsibility already. And then finding out about Wick 4, I’m just happy that we saw Wick 4 after we shot.
Mel Gibson. Of course, I respect anyone who views him as a barrier, but in my case, it was a non-issue because he plays such a repulsive character. The show asks us to despise his character. As someone who runs a tight ship, how was your experience with Gibson?
Well, I call him an egalitarian. He treats everybody equally, and I’ve heard that for 40 years. He was cast because he fit what we needed. I can’t get into his personal stuff, but I had a great time with that character, let’s say. And as you’re alluding to, when people watch the show, they’ll understand.
What was the philosophy regarding fan service?
We definitely wanted Easter eggs because they’re fun. There’s also nods to 1970s movies. There’s a Starsky & Hutch car in there. The Warriors hearse is in there. Yen [Nhung Kate] is in the taxi from Taxi Driver, and it’s decaled exactly like the Taxi Driver one. Then you have the Wick Easter eggs that we’re laying in there, and some of them are really subtle, like the Adjudicator’s license plate. So that’s fun with any project though, whether you’re Easter-egging current events or a universe. When it comes to action, of course, you have to nod to all of the Wick diehards. We got you. But we also have a story and character arcs to tell in a much longer format, so we’re not going to be able to get away with just 30-minute-long action scenes. We have 90-minute episodes, and a lot of characters and a lot of New York to establish, too.
I know you shot this in Budapest, which is relatively close to your own backyard in Prague. But did you and a crew fly out to shoot the real Manhattan building’s exteriors?
Yeah, we had to send people there. I went there before I went to Budapest and shot pictures. So we had a unit out there shooting the exterior of that building kind of illegally, and then we would fancy it up because they didn’t give us the rights. The interesting thing about that building is that they didn’t give us the rights to its likeness. The Wick films had the likeness, but for some reason … Maybe it’s because we didn’t use the location and we didn’t rent it out. I don’t know. So we had to alter the appearance, which was an opportunity, creatively. We’re back in the ‘70s, and the Cormac [Gibson] character is a little shady and weird. So there’s some fascist kind of tones in there. But we definitely had a unit shooting that building and shooting New York, and then we would augment New York. We took away buildings, and then we had to add the Twin Towers. I don’t know if you noticed it, but there’s an omnipresence of the Twin Towers throughout the show.
You’ve been working on your own for quite some time now, and since you used to divide up the work with your brother [Allen Hughes], how have you taken to the full range of responsibilities?
My brother and I started out at 12 years old doing everything together, and then I went to film school solo and was directing by myself. And then we went into music videos and movies together. I was also an extreme introvert, so it suited me to talk to the camera crew and the designers. And it suited my brother’s more extroverted personality to talk to the actors. But what I’ve found in having to do everything is that actors actually wake me up and engage me fully in the excitement of the story. Before, I could show up to work and be moody and not talk to anybody. I didn’t have to deal with whomever I didn’t want to deal with. Now, I play an extrovert at work, but I’m not really an extrovert. So I started enjoying playing the extrovert because I started enjoying the camaraderie with the actors and the crew. I used to loathe prep, I used to loathe post but I’ve learned to love them all. The actors and the crew are the drug that I keep going back to; it’s the surprise.
As a ‘90s kid, I don’t think I’ll ever get used to the fact that the Hughes, the Coens, the Wachowskis and the Farrellys are all working separately now. Have you noticed that?
(Laughs.) I’ve never actually heard it put in context like that. I’ve never heard someone say that in print or verbally. Have you done your own diagnosis of what you think it is?
I have, but I wouldn’t dare speculate openly.
I’ll do it in a very vague way. So if you consider the partnership with these siblings a rock group, how many rock groups stay together? Very few of them. And what are the reasons those rock groups break up? There are probably five reasons, and I suspect those others went through the same things that went on with me and my brother. It’s people wanting to be their own person. It’s people wanting to be their own identity. It’s a psychological breakdown, and it can go on forever. Over the past 30-plus years, I know that this is my hobby. It’s what I do and love, even if I’m not being paid for it. I loved my partnership, but whether I had that partnership or not, [filmmaking] is still something that I do. It’s like asking a 5-year-old Michael Jackson the same question as a 45-year-old Michael Jackson. He doesn’t know any difference. He’s always been doing that one thing.
Hey, what happened to North Hollywood? The story behind that famous bank robbery and shootout in 1997 seemed like a perfect match for you and your sensibilities.
I just asked my agent about it two weeks ago, because, oh my God, what a movie, conceptually. When I read that script, it wasn’t a real-time script. It has a couple days before the event and then something after, but I was like, “Let’s just make this real time.” So I’m where you’re at. To go back to the point about handheld, I don’t like handheld, but when I look at that movie, I go, “How could I not do this movie handheld? This is a handheld movie.” So the answer is that I don’t know what’s happening with it. I keep checking in on it. Somebody had the rights at one point, and now that you’ve brought it up, I’m going to pester my agent again.
Well, from Cousin Harold in Menace II Society to Eli and now Yen, thanks for all the entertainment.
Cousin Harold! (Laughs.) I never would have expected that reference.
When my friends and I discovered Menace, we just thought he was so cool. “I ain’t going like a chump.”
You know your shit. Let me give you a little trivia. When Cousin Harold is dead on the ground, that’s me on the ground when they come and pick up Caine. I was the only one that matched the actor because the actor was a rapper [Saafir]. He was not too well known, but I told him that he had to come back and get on the wet ground. And he was like, “Oh man.” He was bitching and complaining. So I was like, “Fuck it, I’ll just do it.” So I had to body double Saafir.
The Continental: From the World of John Wick premieres Sept. 22 on Peacock. This interview was edited for length and clarity.