Why ‘The Continental’ Director Albert Hughes Said Yes to ‘John Wick’ and No to Marvel: ‘I Could Never Fit’

The three-episode series’ final night is streaming now on Peacock

Albert Hughes
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In the first “John Wick,” Keanu Reeves’ titular character — a former assassin brought out of retirement after some goons kill his dog and steal his car — confirms his return with the often quoted line: “Yeah, I’m thinking I’m back.” And one of the many joys of “The Continental,” the new “John Wick” spin-off series that concludes Friday, is the fact that Albert Hughes is back.

He directed “Menace II Society” and “Dead Presidents” with his brother Allen. For “The Continental,” he helmed “Night 1” and Friday’s “Night 3” – essentially two feature-length movies set within the “John Wick” universe.

Not that he was totally sold on the idea, at least initially.

Before Hughes signed on, they wanted a single filmmaker to do all three nights. He described that idea as “daunting.” But then he started thinking about the Old Hollywood system, where directors would make multiple movies every year.

“Now it’s mind-boggling to think about that. But it’s possible if you don’t think about it,” Hughes said. When the discussions began, the team from production company Thunder Road floated the idea of Hughes doing all three nights.

“I almost gulped on my tongue,” said Hughes. “Because I heard horror stories about other filmmakers trying to attempt seven or six or eight episodes and losing their mind.”

They finally settled on the first and third nights, with the Thunder Road team telling him: “We don’t want you to be too stressed out.” He said that he was still stressed out, especially since he was an executive producer. Alongside showrunner Kirk Ward, they were responsible for post-production, editorial and music.

Hughes was already a fan of the franchise — he’d seen all of them in theaters. He was particularly in awe of the way that Chad Stahelski, who has directed every installment, synthesized various elements: Hong Kong movies, Bob Fosse musicals and everything in between. Hughes became even more impressed when he returned to the “John Wick” series while prepping “The Continental.”

“When we started this, I was able to study them again and kind of reverse-engineer the things that I loved about them,” Hughes said.

Since “The Continental” is set in New York in the 1970s, focused on Winston (played in the movies by Ian McShane and here by Colin Woodell) and his rise to power within the hotel for hitmen, it allowed Hughes to (along with Ward) indulge in all of the things that “titillated us from my childhood.” This includes everything from the era-appropriate commercials that flash on television screens to the series’ voluminous needle-drops, which were inspired by his upbringing.

“Part of growing up biracial was my mother listening to Pink Floyd and my father listening to James Brown,” Hughes said. Both sides of his lived experience made it into “The Continental.”

But the other aspect of the ’70s that found its way into the series was the look of those old movies. Hughes told the camera department, “I don’t want these sharp clean lenses from nowadays, I need something dirty and funky.” He said he was brought lenses that were made in the 1950s for MGM films that “DPs don’t use nowadays, because they don’t like them.”

He found out that films like “Doctor Zhivago,” “Cool Hand Luke” and “The Graduate” were shot with the same lenses. “I’m like, Oh, my God. OK. Let’s go. We use those,” Hughes said. Once he got the lenses, he “leaned into the anomalies of the imperfect lenses,” which you can see in the show with the beautiful lens flares and warping that goes on. Hughes said: “The audience is becoming really accustomed to this very plastic pristine look, which I don’t care for really.”

If there’s something that typifies that pristine look, it’s the movies that come out of Marvel Studios. And Hughes said that, yes, he has thought about doing a movie for the studio that made “Iron Man” a household name.

“I have great respect for what Kevin [Feige] does over there and how he’s the most successful producer in Hollywood history, period,” Hughes said. “But I just realized that I could never fit in that system, because you don’t have a voice. I’ll be the wrong guy to hire for that. I have to find my way through this business, and always maintain some semblance of control.”

Hughes said that Marvel came to him with three different projects — one was recent Disney+ series “Secret Invasion” and another was the Mahershala Ali-led “Blade” remake (which still hasn’t made its way out of development). Hughes wouldn’t say, but our guess was that the third project Marvel offered him was the upcoming “Captain America” movie starring Anthony Mackie.

The filmmaker said that he didn’t think he could ever “do a franchise.” Until, of course, “The Continental” came knocking. Hughes now understands why Stahelski keeps going back for more “John Wick” movies — because the series is so elastic.

“It’s so freeing. It’s so fun,” Hughes said. “You don’t have any rules. You don’t have any social stuff to deal with, there’s no ripped-from-the-front-page headlines-type drama. It’s a pure escapism.” Stahelski, Hughes guesses, gets that adrenaline rush “from making them.” “I’ve got to say, it’s addictive.”

Does that mean, should “The Continental” open its doors once again, that Hughes would book a room?

Ever the pragmatist, Hughes said: “There’s the business and then there’s the creative side of it. I had a wonderful crew and I would love the experience of that adrenaline rush again. But do the dollars make sense?” In other words: will there be more gold coins to fund the operation?

“The Continental” is on Peacock now.

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