How to Get Hired For Keanu Reeves's TV Show (And What Keanu Smells Like)
by Liz Shannon Miller
The in-development series "Rain," based on the books by Barry Eisler, is backed by Slingshot Global Media but has yet to settle on where you'll actually be able to watch the show. That hasn't stopped Reeves, as both star and producer, and directors Chad Stahelski and David Leitch (who Reeves collaborated with on this weekend's hot puppy vengeance thriller "John Wick") from hiring some showrunners.
Writer Chris Collins got his start on "The Wire," then eventually headed up "Sons of Anarchy" for its sixth season. Indiewire spoke to Collins at the Vancouver International Film Festival the day after he and partner Marc Abrams were announced as the showrunners for "Rain"; below, Collins explains what he thinks got him the job of telling the story of an assassin whose murders are supposed to look like accidents, how you develop a TV show without knowing what network it might air on and what it's like to work with The One.
How has it been going? I imagine the last 24 hours have been just kind of crazy for you? In terms of the "Rain" news.
Oh God, it couldn't have hit at a better time. It's weird -- it's always a battle, you know, trying to land these things in terms of multiple meetings and making sure your vision comes across. At the end of the day, convincing someone like Keanu that they should put their trust in you is a big deal.
Was [Reeves] getting multiple pitches, from multiple potential show runners?
I don't know the exact details, they don't really tell you that stuff, but I'm sure that Mark and I were not the only [potential] showrunners that Keanu met with. Part of being a producer is doing diligent work, and making sure that you hear different takes and ultimately find the right fit.
I'm sure it's way too early to really get in the specifics about this, but what about your particular take on the material do you think the team responded to?
I think for one, and I can't speak for [Reeves], but the character that he's playing is half Japanese and half American. I personally responded to that. If you read the books there's a lot of dualities in the character in the world, and I certainly could respond to that -- being half-Japanese, being from Japan and being half American, and really, much like the character in the book, not feeling completely comfortable in either place.
That's even in the idea of the character, an assassin who kind of hides his work.
That's another duality, because at the end of the day someone like that leads a very solitary life. There's a human part of the character that really craves an intimacy. That all comes across -- Barry as an author really paints that picture very well, that conflict.
The gentlemen behind "John Wick" are executive producing the project -- are they also going to be involved with directing?
I believe so. I can't speak to that part of it because I don't know where the deals are, but the idea is that they are directors. I hope they do [direct], because I screened "John Wick" and they took that genre, and they put their own spin on it. They elevated the genre. It turned out to be a fantastic ride.
Internally, at Indiewire, we're all very excited about it right now. It's like "Taken," but it's got a whole different edge to it.
Right, and Keanu, it's his own. He just kills it. I know that Lionsgate is very excited about it, from what I hear, and I would say go see it because it's a fun run.
The timing of all this is really interesting, because while you have "John Wick" about to come out, what everyone's noticed about the “Rain” announcement is that there's no network attached. How are you approaching the project without knowing exactly where it's going to land?
That's the thing, we can only try and steer it in a direction -- there are no guarantees. But I think Keanu is a global brand. Just removing myself from the project, I would say he's a global brand, his international value is... He's probably one of the top actors you could ask for. So I think walking into any pitch meeting or any network, there's a lot of ammunition that we're walking in with. Mark and I will be collaborating with Keanu and the studio and Chad and Dave and really when we walk in, I think everybody will be on the same page creatively.
Do you think the show will end up somewhere you can drop the occasional F-bomb, or all the F-bombs?
I hope so!
Specifically to the latter.
My viewpoint on that is I started out in premium cable and you could really tell the story that you want to tell -- there's nothing holding you back. For me as a storyteller, that's very important: To tell an honest story, versus thinking what an advertiser thinks, because I've been in that situation as well. You want to be honest to the voice and to the story.
You're talking about coming in with Chad and Dave and your partner and Keanu — that's five people, only two of whom are holding the official title of showrunner. How does the actual power dynamic break down?
Where's only two people holding the title showrunner -- that's me and Marc Abrams. The showrunner is ultimately responsible for running the show, and that's what Marc and I were brought on for. We're in an interesting time, though, where people in the feature world and TV world are meeting and collaborating. I think it's going to be a learning process for all of us, and we have to navigate those things. Democratically, I think, is the best way to do it.
So, kind of law by consensus?
Yeah, it would be different if, let's say, I had a show idea and my vision for it was so personal and it had to be exactly the way I wanted -- I saw it and I put the team together. This isn't that case -- this is a pre-existing property with people that had a vision for it, and Marc and I happened to align with that vision. So from the jump it's a situation where no one is coming around and saying, "This is the show." We're all coming in and saying, "What can the show be?" Once we agree on that and think that's the best version of it -- let's do that.
The concept of an assassin lends itself kind of naturally, almost, to a procedural structure: He gets the assignment at the beginning of the episode to kill somebody; he does that at the end. Where are you in terms of figuring out if that's going to be the case, or if you're going to try and tell more of an overarching story?
We're still figuring that out -- it's very early in the process. We just got our deals down and now the hard work begins. But I think it will be serialized, there will be a bigger arc. There are eight books, so we're not going to tell the story of all eight books in one season. Hopefully, we'll chop those up and extrapolate from different books and see where it takes us.
So you're going to keep pretty true to the books then?
I would say that we are going to use what we can, because ultimately writing for a book is different from writing for the screen. In the book you're inside the character's head, and on screen it's very difficult to do that unless you're adding an enormous amount of exposition. It's a challenge, we have to figure out -- especially with a character like John Rain, who is a solitary character -- how we're going to be able to tell those stories in a visual way.
You can't just have him talk to his dog the whole time.
Yes, or we don't want to just hear a voiceover the entire time, explaining everything instead of seeing it.
In terms of approaching the books, is it going to be a "Game of Thrones" situation, where Season 1 is Book 1, Season 2 is Book 2, that sort of thing?
I don't know. We're figuring all that out soon, I think we have a pretty good sense of it but I don't want to give anything away yet because Barry has built a pretty big fan base and we want to honor that. But at the same time, much like "Game of Thrones" does, if there's an opportunity to tell a side story, or if we find moments within the characters that are a little different from the books, I don't think we'll be afraid of that.
From “The Wire," from “Sons of Anarchy," what are the things that you've learned from those shows that you plan to bring forward with you?
The craft. It's really about how do I, as a showrunner -- because there will be other writers on the show -- get their stories. How do I inspire them to add to the world of John Rain and build it out, bring it to light?
I've heard stories about writer's rooms where a regular part of their morning process was telling stories about their families and then saying, "Oh, we could use that for this or that…"
For "Rain," I think every Monday morning we'll start with "Who did you kill?" [Laughs] Part of this story about John Rain is his humanity. I'd think that from that point of view, I think that we will try and find those real, emotional moments, because I think all of us have had moments of loneliness, or sadness, or a tragedy in our lives or conflict. Ultimately, those are the areas that will underline the story.
When you're developing something like this for Keanu, who is of course such a clear icon -- you know they way he delivers a line, you know the way he approaches a character just from having lived in the world for the last 20 years... When you're writing for him, how much of that pre-existing knowledge do you feel comfortable bringing in, and how much of it is trying to discover the character on his own terms?
Well, I haven't written anything for him yet but Mark and I did spend some time studying his work and we'll put that in a toolbox and that will certainly influence maybe the way we write dialogue. Keanu has got a really likable spirit, and even though he is playing a hit man there's this innate humanity in him already and I think that's part of what makes him a movie star.
As we were reading the books, we could already picture the character as Keanu so that was very helpful. Oftentimes if you don't have an actor, you're just kind of imaging what this person will look like or you're just going off a description in the book. In this case, there's Keanu in every single page, and that was actually very helpful for me. Because then I could basically marry the book and the actor's face and ultimately have a good sense of who this guy is.
It's almost kind of shocking, that it's such a perfect match.
I think it is.
A good shock, I suppose.
I guess that's part of his success. Keanu, over the last three decades, has built a global brand. In the little time that I've spent with him, he has a desire to go deep into story and character, and he really has a strong point of view on things. At the same time, he wants your opinion, he wants to collaborate. He doesn't show up and say: "This is it. So, what do you think of this?"
One last bonus question -- how does Keanu smell?
Usually the answer is "really good." It's never bad.
These days he's smelling pretty fresh.
There we go. Perfect answer.