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On the Slow Productivity of John Wick

I found myself recently, as one does, watching the mini-documentary featurettes included on the DVD for the popular 2014 Keanu Reeves movie, John Wick — an enjoyably self-aware neon noir revenge-o-matic, filmed cinematically on anamorphic lenses.

At the core of John Wick‘s success are the action sequences. The movie’s director, Chad Stahelski, is a former stuntman who played Reeve’s double in The Matrix trilogy and subsequently made a name for himself as a second unit director specializing in filming fights. When Reeves asked Stahelski to helm Wick, he had exactly this experience in mind. Stahelski rose to the challenge, making the ambitious choice to feature a visually-arresting blend of judo, jiu-jitsu, and tactical 3-gun shooting. In contrast to the hand-held, chaotic, quick-cutting style that defines the Bourne and Taken franchises, Stahelski decided to capture his sequences in long takes that emphasized the balletic precision of the fighting.

The problem with this plan, of course, is that it required Keanu Reeves to become sufficiently good at judo, jiu-jitsu, and tactical 3-gun shooting so as not to look clumsy for Stahelski’s stable camera. Reeves was game. According to the featurette I watched, to prepare for production, he trained eight hours a day, four months in a row. The effort paid off. The action set pieces in the movie were show-stopping, and after initially struggling to find a distributor, the film, made on a modest budget, went on to earn $86 million, kicking off a franchise that has since brought in hundreds of millions more.

What struck me as I watched this behind-the-scenes feature is how differently creatives who work in the arts think about productivity as compared to creatives who work in office jobs. For Keanu Reeves, it was obvious that the most productive path was to focus all of his attention on a single goal: becoming really good at Stahelski’s innovative brand of gun fu. Doing this, and basically only this, month after month, materialized hundreds of millions of dollar of profit out of the entertainment ether.

In office jobs, by contrast, productivity remains rooted in notions of busyness and multi-faceted activity. The most productive knowledge workers are those who stay on top of their inboxes and somehow juggle the dozens of obligations, from the small tasks to major projects, hurled in their direction every week. Movie-making is of course different than, say, being a marketing executive, or professor, or project manager, but creating things that are too good to be ignored, regardless of the setting, is an activity that almost without exception requires undivided attention. Are we so sure that the definition of “productive” that defines knowledge work really is the most profitable use of our talents?

John Wick may be shallow entertainment, but the story of its success highlights some deep lessons about what the rest of us might be missing in our pursuit of a job well done.

10 thoughts on “On the Slow Productivity of John Wick”

  1. This is one of my favorite pieces by you, Cal. You packed a lot of insight into a relatively short story, so the writer in me is simply impressed. Beyond that, it not only illustrates your point about different versions of productivity (and the ROI), but I think it also highlights that investment in something new/original doesn’t only happen with dollars.

  2. “creating things that are too good to be ignored … requires undivided attention”

    Is the essence that is so often overlooked by work environments that are by their nature interrupt driven. For many working from home and/or at unsocial hours is the only way to create the hours compatible with the need for undivided attention.

  3. I come from more the gun culture side of things. Keanu Reeves is respected in the gun world because Reeves is genuinely a good guy as reflected by interviews with Keanu’s armourers. I heard one armourers state that Reeves bought all of his stuntmen motorcycles for keeping him safe during the shooting of one of his movies. I started taking martial arts when I was 5 years old and saw expert practitioners at near the same level as the movies by the time I got in my 20s. It may seem impossible to perform at such a high level, but I think it is just bringing wider public awareness to martial arts. A good friend of mine dropped out of martial arts because he felt so terrible after nearly killing his opponent by accident in a tournament. (My friend is doing fine working as an engineer for the Navy.)

  4. “how differently creatives who work in the arts think about productivity as compared to creatives who work in office jobs” … “In office jobs, by contrast, productivity remains rooted in notions of busyness and multi-faceted activity”

    Are these office workers you’re talking about actually “creatives”, or are they just bureaucrats? Based on this description, they don’t sound particularly creative to me.

  5. I think Keanu is multi-tasking, too. He’s got Judo lessons, Jiu-Jitsu lessons, Tactical shooting with each of the guns used onscreen, general workouts, memorizing lines, developing motivation and backstory. He’s got a motorcycle company. He’s promoting the previous movie. He probably did 4 days shooting “Always Be My Maybe” during that training period. This is not to say that singlemindedness doesn’t produce the best results, only that John Wick is a better example of why ongoing education is important.

    • Multitasking does not mean to have different projects in the same timelime. It means different tasks on the same time or interchanging short time frames. I doubt Keanu did Judo and tactical shooting at the same time. He did Judo for a few hours, had a nice shower, a lunch break, and then he had his gun shooting lessons. Memorizing lines he had only to do in the days of shooting the actual movie. A typical office worker has a lot going on at the same time and is constantly interrupted by incoming calls and appointments.

      I did both (creative projects at the theatre and office work) and agree that typical office work is much more multi tasking heavy and more top-down, less deep into the office than a scene study at the theatre for example. That is fine for management jobs, it becomes tragic when your office jobs is also a creative one at heart, but doesn’t get the environment like Keanu got. In software development for example often you need a creative environment to dig deep into the problem, but you are trapped in an environment where this gets disrupted all the time. It forced me to work at late hours to get in “Keanu mode”.

  6. Hey, Cal Newport, I’m Harsh from India.
    And this is my first blog.

    My sister gave me the DEEP WORK book, but for some reason I could not read it.
    After I read your John Wick blog, which is my favorite franchise, I will read your book, I promise. I was inspired by your YouTube channel. I’m sure DEEP WORK is useful for me.

    Currently, I am studying B.Tech. Computer Science.

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