There can be only one. That quotable line clearly doesn’t refer to the amount of attempts there’s been to reboot Highlander, the classic film and TV series that saw a group of sword-wielding immortals playing the world’s longest and most elaborate game of Oranges & Lemons. John Wick co-director Chad Stahelski is the latest filmmaker to take a crack at it, and it seems that he’s definitely got some ambitious ideas.
While the early Highlander movies focused on Christopher Lambert’s Connor MacLeod (and was followed up by some terrible sequels whose story fans mostly just choose to ignore), the TV series was set around his kinsman Duncan MacLeod, played by Adrian Paul, and also elaborated extensively on the mythology of these immortal beings. So which version is Stahelski planning to adapt? Film or TV series?
Well, both of them in a trilogy of movies, as Stahelski explained in a recent interview with Collider:
“We’re currently doing a bit of work on the overall plot structure. When I came on board, they were trying to reinvent the single Highlander property. We’ve gone since back in and we would like to really expand the world, so we consider the same shortcomings don’t happen again that happened on the original project, meaning you have one great movie and four questionable follow-ups. We want to develop a property that can give us — and again it’s not about marketing, it’s not so much about the financials, it’s about how can we make a more mythological, chapter one, chapter two, whats a great way to tell this story?”
“I think the TV series hit on a lot of great stuff wasn’t in the feature, between the watchers and all the different types of immortals. How do we get this into a feature mode before we dribble it into the TV world? Well, let’s restructure it in parts, let’s look at it like it was a TV show, let’s look at it like it was a high-end trilogy. How to we tell the story of The Gathering, The Quickenings, The Immortals and how do we really build this world out even more so than the original project? That’s what we’re restructuring right now. It’s taking all the good stuff that we had before I was involved in the project from the script; redeveloping the script to give us really good chapters one, two and three; and expanding the world.”
One aspect of the original 1986 movie that is not lost on Stahelski is how much it was a standalone film. If there had never ever been any other Highlander stories after that, it wouldn’t have mattered, as the movie felt complete even though the potential to know more is there. It’s that tricky balance that Stahelski and co want to hit with this trilogy.
“The vision we’re trying to get across and what we’re trying to develop, I equate very close to Star Wars. The first one is a very satisfying ending but it does leave the door open and that’s kind of how I see this. I would really like to expand it over three. I see The Gathering happening over three. It’s tricky, don’t get me wrong, that’s why we’re still developing it. We want to be able to tell three complete stories that all kind of fit. I think the Star Wars trilogy, at least up to The Empire Strikes Back, is a good example of how we want to process it.”
Of course its standalone nature is not the most noteworthy aspect of that classic original movie. It boasted an incredible soundtrack from Queen and a lot of the visuals and symbology that would define the feel of everything that came after it. And while Stahelski will probably like to put his own spin on things, there are certain elements you just can’t ignore.
“If you go back and watch the original Highlander, whether the quality holds up or not or the filmmaking process holds up, there are things about that movie beneath just the shots and the lighting, there’s a mythology there, for some reason, it hooks us. We love that world. everybody loves the immortal realm. Everybody loves the code — There can be only one. There’s something about it that hooks you, hooks me, hooks all the fanboys about it. I went so far as I know every episode of all six seasons, plus the seventh season if you count Raven as a series, plus the novels, there’s something about the world that’s hooking.”
“The tone of the first one just hit at that weird music video edge in the 80s that had Queen and for some reason, Queen just fits. I don’t think you can do Highlander and bring about that kind of tone again with the mythological world and take it too seriously. Just as we did with Wick, you can’t kill 80 people over a puppy and take yourself seriously. We got to let the audience know that we’re having fun and that there is a world here.
“Point being I can’t see Highlander without Queen, without the queen center, without having Freddy Mercury, ‘Prince of the Universe,’ and all this stuff. I can’t picture the movie in my head without it.”
Unfortunately, Freddie Mercury is no longer with us. And while the Queen frontman is irreplaceable, Stahelski does have somebody who has the unenviable task of trying to follow in the legend’s footsteps.
“We had a great composer on John Wick 1 and 2, Tyler Bates, who we think is one of the best in the business especially for meta-reality — Guardians of the Galaxy, 300, John Wick. I’ve already talked extensively with him about how can we take the magic of what Freddie Mercury and Queen gave us and how can we transpose that to modern-day and give us that edge?”
And speaking of having an edge, the original Highlander movie was rated R, which clearly had something to with the fact that the movie was all about guys decapitating each other with huge freaking swords. Would this new take be the same, or will the studios go the PG-13 route to try and maximize profits instead?
“Thus far the people in charge of the pocket book and all that, they’ve asked [the rating question] and I said, ‘Look, the way I work, the way we did John Wick, we never set about making a hardcore rated-R action movie, we said we’re going to do this, this is the design we want to do, this is what we feel is fun. If heads coming apart is an R, great. If heads coming apart is a PG, great. Ratings are second to what we’re going to do. Highlander, I think the action is — at least what’s in my head — is going to fall on a line, for sure. We want to design it what we think is aesthetically cool, and so far I’ve met no resistance, they’re like, ‘Look, whatever you did with John Wick with the gun stuff, we want you to try and do with the sword stuff. We want you to make something cool and something unique, and something that’s going to make audiences say ‘Wow, I haven’t seen that before.’”
So I think that’s the road they’re letting me go down and what side of the line it falls on… I certainly don’t want to be gory for gory’s sake, and I don’t want to be clean for clean’s sake. We’re not trying to hit four corners, we want to make great urban myth that goes through time, and we’ll see where that lands.
John Wick but with swords? Where the hell do I sign up?