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.

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