The Continental Director Learned a Crucial Lesson From Star Wars on How to Make a Spinoff

Albert Hughes is well-known as one half of the duo behind Menace II Society and The Book of Eli, two films that mix heady existential themes with blistering, breakneck fight sequences. While he and his twin brother, Allen, were inseparable creative partners for 30 years, the John Wick spinoff The Continental sees the elder Hughes striking off on his own — and trying his hand at some lighter fare.

That’s not to say The Continental is a walk in the park. Hughes was as much inspired by neo-noirs like Taxi Driver as he was by boogie-down musicals like Saturday Night Fever. The three-part prequel is a period piece, one that explores what the world of John Wick would have looked like in 1970s New York City. It’s a glorious melting pot of influences: Disco blends seamlessly with punk rock; vampy blaxploitation coexists with somber noir — and it all somehow manages to work, because that’s the very thing that we’ve come to expect from the John Wick franchise.

“I talked to Chad Stahelski, the director of the film series. And he gave me the key, which was, “Here are my influences: Bob Fosse movies, musicals, Hong Kong Cinema.” He takes that, and he pivots to a ballet of bullets. And then he questioned me: “What are your influences? What are you inspired by?”

For Hughes, his sweet spot was a combination of “disco with noir film.” It’s Hughes’ way of putting hisunique stamp on the John Wick universe. “If I was playing in the same timeline as Chad Stahelski, I probably wouldn’t want to do it — because he does it so well with Keanu,” Hughes says. “But I started thinking about Tony Gilroy in Andor, John Favreau in The Mandalorian, and Noah Hawley in Fargo. These guys played in an established sandbox, so this can be done if you handle it correctly.”

Inverse spoke to Hughes about remixing the world of Wick on his own terms (with a little inspiration from the Star Wars spinoffs), and fitting a unique cocktail of needledrops into The Continental.

This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

Ayomide Adegun stars as Charon in The Continental.

Katalin Vermes /Starz Entertainment

Continuing the world of John Wick has to be daunting. What made you say yes to The Continental?

We were in the height of Covid, I believe, when it came to me. I had two choices: one was The Continental, another one dealt with generational trauma, or race, gender, sexuality — some stuff I’ve dabbled with in the past. I was at that frustrating point during Covid where I was like, “I just want to check out and have fun, and I think the audience wants to check out and have fun,” and that’s what the John Wick movies provide.

I just started thinking about it more and more, then I talked to the producers, and to Chad Stahelski, the director of the film series. And he gave me the key, which was, “Here are my influences: Bob Fosse movies, musicals, Hong Kong Cinema.” He takes that, and he pivots to a ballet of bullets. And then he questioned me: “What are your influences? What are you inspired by? What films do you like?” I started thinking about the 1970s: Taxi Driver, French Connection, Midnight Cowboy, Saturday Night Fever, disco music… And then I was off to the races.

If I was playing in the same timeline as Chad Stahelski, I probably wouldn’t want to do it — because he does it so well with Keanu. You don’t want to imitate him; he does what he does so well. But I started thinking about Tony Gilroy in Andor, John Favreau in The Mandalorian, and Noah Hawley in Fargo. These guys played in an established sandbox, so this can be done if you handle it correctly.

Hughes was adamant about bringing the swag of ‘70s blaxploitation to The Continental.

Katalin Vermes/Starz Entertainment

Your early filmography is very much a reaction to, and in conversation with, hip-hop. How did the music of the ‘70s inspire the series?

I’m a biracial kid raised in a predominantly a Black city, Detroit, with a white mother and a Black father. He was playing James Brown and The Isley Brothers, and she was playing Pink Floyd, Credence Clearwater Revival, and Santana. With my earlier movies, my brother and I were only able to explore the Black music scene. With The Continental, I got a chance to explore the things that my mother brought to me.

Disco was also big in the ‘70s. It went through its period of people hating it and trying to get rid of it, and there’s a lot of op-eds and articles about what was really going on there: it’s Black, it’s Latin, it’s queer, and they didn’t like that. But there’s something about that word and that lifestyle of freedom, expression, exuberance, and celebration. If you combine disco with noir film, then you have my inspiration.

The Continental’s violent fight scenes made it hard to select its many needledrops, but Peacock never balked at the price tag for a song. “We had a small music budget,” Hughes admits, “and we probably went five times above that.”

Nelly Kiss/Starz Entertainment

Was it tough securing all the needle drops you wanted?

Sometimes it’s tough because, whether you have final say of the film, and whether you’re respected as a director, the studio always wants to question. “Do we need this song? It’s quite expensive, right?” To Lionsgate TV’s credit, and to Peacock’s, not one time did they question the cost of a song. We had a small music budget, and we probably went five times above that. But they understood it was a character in the show. They understood that it helps the audience see that we’re winking and nodding to our influences. You’re supposed to have a good time. This is not a serious social commentary thing; this is escapism. The heartbreak comes when there’s a few songs you want and some estates or artists like, “No, we don’t want to use that for violence.”

One song in particular, “Psycho Killer,” is a punk rock song that we wanted to use during a sniper scene. The Talking Heads rejected it for violence. The other song was “Let the Good Times Roll” by The Cars. I played it during violence, of course, because it’s such a cool song — but they rejected it. I’ve had these lessons in the past with other soundtracks in small ways. I have to say, for the most part, Black artists don’t take that shit seriously. Curtis Mayfield was very kind to us, before he passed. We had to show Barry White American Pimp, and he was very kind to us. Al Green gave us a lifetime pass after he saw Menace II Society and what we did with his song, so we started using Al Green in all our stuff after that.

The series focuses on familiar characters like Winston, but also introduces new, “idiosyncratic” characters, like Hansel and Gretel.

Katalin Vermes/Starz Entertainment

You’ve spoken a lot about making sure the series resonates with fans before even thinking about a potential sequel, but can you talk about the ways that the Continental will expand the world of John Wick, or anything fans should look forward to seeing?

I think The Continental expands the world because it has no choice in a way. You’re introducing new characters outside of Winston and Charon. You’re introducing a time period that they don’t know about yet in this world. And because of its structure — three parts, 90 minutes, feature-length — you’re going to explore more, whether you like it or not. You have to establish new and exciting things, new and exciting characters, and that’s what’s wonderful about the Wick world: it rejects anything boring. So all the characters have to be idiosyncratic and interesting, and have great wardrobe, great fashion, great locations.

There are some more mysteries revealed; more mythology. Also Easter eggs and nods to the film series that are fun. Some of them are deeply buried and some of them are more obvious. Hopefully the hardcore John Wick fans can pick up on those things — and the casual fans, who perhaps have never seen a John Wick film, can come to it without having to be informed too much. It’s going to get exciting, especially with the women that do some real damage in the show.

The Continental: From the World of John Wick is streaming now on Peacock.