The John Wick movie franchise lands on the small screen with a three-part prequel that explores the origins of the iconic hotel-for-assassins at the centre of the story. Directors Albert Hughes and Charlotte Brändström welcome DQ to The Continental.
As feature films become part and parcel of television streaming services, and series become regular fixtures at film festivals, is three-part event The Continental the first true hybrid between the big and small screens?
A prequel to the John Wick cinematic franchise, which launched with the first of four movies in 2014, it comprises three feature-length ‘episodes’ that take viewers back to the 1970s to explore the origin of the titular hotel-for-assassins at the centre of the Wick universe.
But with prep times akin to those for a film, an episodic budget to match the first Wick film (reportedly US$20-30m) and all the action and stunt work fans have come to expect from the movies, the only difference between the films and this latest release is where you can watch it. The Continental launches tomorrow on Peacock in the US and on Prime Video around the world.
Making the series “was a hybrid between TV and features,” explains lead director and executive producer Albert Hughes. “The one thing [to me] that was really enticing was they didn’t schedule it like a TV schedule. There was a four-week prep between episodes two and three, and I had a 14-week prep leading up to episode one. In TV, they bring in directors week to week and don’t stop, so that ensures a different level of quality. Then the budget per episode was around the same range as the first John Wick, which is not a big budget but it was enough to make John Wick.”
Hughes, who directs parts one and three, says he was also convinced of The Continental’s cinematic ambitions when the film franchise’s producers Basil Iwanyk and Erica Lee told him they wanted the project to be “filmmaker-driven.”
“TV is usually showrunner-driven, but I connected with one of the showrunners, and once we connected, we were partners,” he says. “I have to lean on him to write, even if it’s so-called filmmaker-driven. But that was a breath of fresh air because I can’t be lorded over by a showrunner, I’m not that guy.
“The hidden code they said to everyone was that they wanted to make it like a film, and they knew what they were doing with the schedule and the style of director they wanted. Noah Hawley and Fargo, Tony Gilroy and Andor, Jon Favreau and The Mandolorian – those guys played in the sandbox [of existing feature films] and did their thing, and I thought this could be a cool thing to do.”
Starring Keanu Reeves in the title role, the John Wick films follow a former hitman who is drawn back into the criminal world he had abandoned. At the centre of the films is The Continental, a hotel in New York City that doubles as a neutral space for the underworld – one where criminal business is forbidden.
Produced by Lionsgate, the TV series explores how The Continental came to be, following the young Winston Scott – the hotel’s future owner – as he’s dragged into the hellscape of 1970s New York to face a past he thought he’d left behind, leading him to chart a deadly course through its mysterious criminal underbelly.
Colin Woodell steps into Ian McShane’s shoes to play young Winston, while newcomer Ayomide Adegun plays Charon, the character previously portrayed by the late Lance Reddick. The series also stars Mel Gibson, Mishel Prada, Jeremy Bobb, Ben Robson, Nhung Kate, Jessica Allain and Hubert Point-Du Jour.
Hughes (The Book of Eli) says the producers gave him the keys to the project, knowing he was a fan of the films and that there were certain elements he would honour while also bringing his own style to the project.
“But the blessing is I have the cover of the 70s,” he says. “If it was taking place in modern times alongside Chad [Stahelski, director of the John Wick films] and Keanu, I don’t think I would be interested in that because that’s what they do so well. There’s no one out there like Chad, he’s one of a kind, and I’m not an action director.”
Hughes has experience of recreating the 70s from his film work – his second film, Dead Presidents, was set at the dawn of the decade. “I also have another project set in the 70s and I was born in the 70s, so there’s something I love about the 70s,” he says. “It’s the last decade of real innocence, even though Nixon and Vietnam was there, a lot of worldwide conflict was going on, but it still was analogue. Digital hadn’t come into play yet.”
However, the fact the series takes place in the John Wick universe means the director gets to play in a world that doesn’t submit to reality, whatever time period it is set in. “I usually research things to put in the film, and Wick’s world kicks all reality out,” he says. “We have the sanitation strike because it looks cool, and some nods to Vietnam, but the film just kept going, ‘Nope.’ It doesn’t want any reality. It’s a parallel universe of escapism.
“Then I started breaking down the things I love about the films – it’s high style, it’s great production design, fantastic costume design, idiosyncratic characters, mystery, mythology and an enigmatic nature where it doesn’t answer all the questions for you. It’s not overly talky, which I really enjoyed, but the number-one rule is don’t bore the viewer.”
Eye-catching from the start, The Continental utilises long tracking shots following characters through crowded rooms, pushes the camera through walls and frequently uses wide shots to bring the scale of the sets and production design into full view.
“That was all set by Albert,” says episode two director Charlotte Brändström (The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power). “He wanted to have long shots. He wanted to be cinematic. He didn’t want too much coverage. He didn’t want to pan the camera too much – and close-ups had to be earned.
“There’s a tendency in TV sometimes just throw in close-ups everywhere. The first time I actually heard that was when I interviewed with Jason Bateman for [HBO’s Stephen King adaptation] The Outsider. I said to Jason, ‘Is there anything you want to tell me before I start?’ He said, ‘Don’t do too much coverage, we don’t care about coverage. And just make sure you direct the show. You don’t want to just collect shots.’ That was certainly Albert’s approach as well.”
Like Hughes, Brändström describes herself as a fan of the John Wick franchise and was keen to dig deeper into the world of films. Hughes then set the scene with a 70s playlist that established a mood for the series, featuring songs from Santana, Chicago and Donna Summer, among others, that are among the numerous needle drops in the show.
“Winston in this series has a very interesting character arc from where he starts to where he ends up,” the Swedish-French director says. “We all know what happens to Winston later on, but you need to get closer to the character.
“It’s very interesting because it’s a story that is very grounded in characters, even though it’s set in a fantasy world. There was a lot of worldbuilding, which is exciting to do but, for me, I always need to be able to identify with the characters. I like fantasy very much, but in this fantasy world it’s important that the characters are grounded because that’s the best thing for the audience to follow.”
Brändström also had a hand in creating some of the action set pieces, as she and Hughes partnered with action director Larnell Stovall to develop and execute the balletic fight scenes in each episode. One memorable scene takes place early in episode one when Frankie (Ben Robson) is involved in a deadly gun battle in a stairwell, with assailants emerging from above and below him.
“Larnell was hired by the producers early on to choreograph the scenes and to make sure the fans would get what they wanted, because it’s very important to give them those scenes,” Brändström says. But it was also important to her that those moments were rooted in a character and weren’t there for the sake of a few – or many – bullets.
“At the beginning of episode two, there’s a very short action scene with Yen [Kate] that is also an emotional scene. Because of the story we’re telling, we were showing her grief, showing what she felt. That was something I spoke to Larnell about because it was very important to me that the others [in the scene] didn’t try to fight her. They wanted to calm her down, but she was just like a crazy beast. I probably talked with Larnell just about mood, story and drama. And he’s so good that there’s nothing else for me to do.”
Brändström believes fans of John Wick will see everything they enjoy about the movies in The Continental, from its cinematic ambition and eye-catching settings to plenty of “kick-ass action.”
“Thanks to the fact it’s set in New York in the 70s, it has a very unique feel to it. It’s more gritty and it’s not as glossy as some of John Wick films, especially the last one shot in Paris among the beautiful museums. This is New York in the 70s, when New York was dangerous, it was dark, it was dirty. It’s more like a Taxi Driver New York,” she says, comparing it to Martin Scorsese’s seminal 1976 psychological thriller. “I don’t think it looks like anything that’s been made [on TV].”
Hughes jokes that he’s still in shock from making The Continental. “I just got lucky with the team because it doesn’t always happen. The gods just bless you,” he says.
But he admits the toughest part was recreating the time period on the purpose-built set in Budapest, even if the series has an “impressionist” take on what the 70s really looked like.
“It does feel like the 70s, it does feel like New York, but if you really pay close attention, it’s a combination of things that make you feel that way,” he says. “It’s not one thing. And you can’t identify a year. The John Wick films have mailroom attendants who are definitely borrowed from an analogue time period, but John Wick has an iPhone. That’s what’s so fascinating about the world.”