About halfway through David Leitch’s new supercharged stunt showcase Bullet Train, two assassins find themselves duking it out while keeping quiet. The film is set on a high-speed Japanese train, where seven deranged killers punch and slash and shoot their way through neon-splashed cars on their way from Tokyo to Kyoto. But their fighting acumen is tested in the Quiet Car when Ladybug (Brad Pitt) and Lemon (Bryan Tyree Henry) wind up engaging in a muted scuffle, softly slamming body parts with makeshift weaponry like tray tables, laptops and water bottles. The only time they pause is to apologize, after a nearby passenger gives them a scolding “Shhhhh!”
The scene’s blend of winking humor and finely-tuned fight choreography is what we might call pure David Leitch, a tone he’s mastered throughout his diverse career—first as a stunt performer, then as a second-unit director, and now as one of Hollywood’s go-to action filmmakers. And there’s a lot more of it throughout Bullet Train, easily Leitch’s most exciting, creative and technically impressive movie yet. Shot throughout the pandemic on the Sony studio lot in Culver City, Bullet Train also marks Leitch’s reunion with Pitt, after serving as his stunt double in 1999’s Fight Club and a number of other projects.
In the two decades since, Leitch graduated from fight coordinator to trusted action franchise-helmer, starting with John Wick, which he co-directed with longtime friend and business partner Chad Stahelski, before expanding into big-budget fare with sequels (Deadpool 2) and spinoffs (Hobbs & Shaw). Still, Leitch has made time to direct more personal projects (consider 2017’s sleek and stylish Atomic Blonde), whip aging stars into grisly shape, and boost like-minded pursuits under the banner of 87North, the production company Leitch began with producer and wife Kelly McCormick (an offshoot of his action design company, 87Eleven, which he co-owns with Stahelski).
On a recent call from Sydney, Australia, where he’s prepping his next directorial endeavor (this one starring Ryan Gosling), Leitch couldn’t mask his unrelenting drive to keep creating and pushing the limits of a genre he knows inside-out. “It’s a thrill ride,” he said. “I think that’s why we don’t want to stop. Just keep the foot on the gas.”
Have you ever ridden the bullet train in Japan?
David Leitch: I have! But we decided to create a heightened world for Bullet Train in all aspects, even the journey from Tokyo to Kyoto. Ours is a wish-fulfillment version, a graphic novel version of Japan and the bullet train itself.
What is that experience like?
It’s life-changing, in some ways. It’s more spectacular from the outside than the inside. The physics and the engineering for those trains is truly a smooth ride—so much so that we didn’t even use a gimbal on set for Bullet Train. [Ed.: A gimbal helps stabilize a moving camera.] I think when they’re really impressive is when you’re standing next to them and they blow through a station and you just really feel the speed. It’s pretty amazing.
Bullet Train is based on Maria Beetle by Kōtarō Isaka, which has so many characters and subplots. What drew you to adapting a story like this? It seems daunting to tackle.
I was a little daunted. There’s a lot of twists and turns, there’s a lot of stories to tell. And then there’s this underlying theme of fate and luck at the center of it, and you want to land that. So it took me a little while to find my way in. One of the other things that was hard is that you have these seven assassins on a train and they’re ultimately sociopaths. It’s hard to relate to them. It was like, “How do we find a way to make them human and relatable?” I presented that challenge to everyone involved creatively and you can see in the performances—the brotherhood between Lemon and Tangerine (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), you can see the heartbeat with Andrew Koji and Hiroyuki Sanada and their father-son relationship, and then the great character that Brad brought to life in Ladybug and his instinct to humanize this assassin with sort of an existential crisis being cursed with bad luck. It took a while, but we found a way to add another layer.
Each movie you’ve made since Atomic Blonde has felt like a scaling up process. Bullet Train is a bit of a step back towards Earth, shooting primarily in one location and with a relatively smaller budget. What did that do for you creatively?
Kelly and I are always driven by the material, so we wanted to tell this story no matter what kind of box we were given. But the box in this particular movie was COVID-19. Ultimately, we were trying to make a movie that had scope and spectacle, but we had to do it on two sound stages on the Sony lot the entire time. So that drove us to use a lot of different production devices we may not have normally used—LED screens and virtual production to create imagery outside of the train. We built some Tokyo sets for the father-son story and [the villain] The White Death. We also went to some COVID-friendly locations in L.A. that allowed us to build downtown Tokyo. We also got the L.A. Convention Center, which we never would have been able to get if it wasn’t a pandemic, and we made that look like a futuristic train station. We leaned in and made the best version of the movie we could within that box.
You mentioned the word “box” a lot there. This movie takes place in a train, which can feel like riding in a box itself. Did making this give the impression of life imitating art?
The challenge was to make that interesting for the audience for two hours, and we really strived to get outside of the box—pun intended—for the movie itself, but also the environments. We spend a longer time in the flashbacks introducing the characters; we create those immersive worlds so you can go somewhere else for a second and then come back to the train and feel the stakes of the chase. That’s why it’s sort of a wish-fulfillment bullet train. The bar car and the Quiet Car have certain looks, and the Momomon car [themed around a Pokemon-style mascot] was completely inspired by the need to have fun environments. Shooting in a box for this entire movie actually challenged us to make something fun and think outside the box. There’s a lot of boxes in that answer.
How difficult is it choreographing fight sequences inside these train cars? I’d imagine there were more conversations than usual about camera placement and rigging.
It was fun. It was challenging. We worked closely with our camera and art department to make sure we had walls that could float, or small camera rigs that could do this certain move. It’s kind of what we always do with action. When we choose the style that’s right for the movie, then you sort of work closely with those departments to make sure the production of it all can go smoothly. Creating those diverse environments is really a challenge, and having a Quiet Car—now we get to do a fight that’s silent. Having a Momomon car—maybe we can use props in a gimmicky set piece. Fighting in a dining car, the bar. It just became fun to figure out how to make them fresh and interesting.
You started your career as Brad Pitt’s stunt double in Fight Club and went on to double him in several other projects. I’ve heard you say that directing him for the first time, initially, was “weird” and “surreal.” How so?
Well, it is surreal. You work within that capacity as their stunt double for five years and then you go away for a decade and a half and you’re both in different positions. We did fall right back into place. We’ve always considered each other friends and we do have a great rapport and it’s fun. I was humbled by the fact that he had followed my career and the respect he had for me in the director’s chair, and the knowledge he had of my work—Atomic Blonde in particular. That was really sort of, “Wow.” I have such respect for this artist and for him to see me as an artist in my own right—beyond being a stunt double and choreographer—was really special.
Do you have any specific memories of working with Brad early in your career?
I flew down to Mexico to stunt double for Brad on the set of The Mexican. It was one of my most embarrassing moments. It was our second movie together and he requested to have me back. He had been talking me up to the director and I was beyond fired up—so fired up that I happened to be doing a relatively straightforward stunt with the custom El Camino in the film and I over-amped and crashed it into the backup El Camino, of all things. First day there! No hero cars left, in the middle of Mexico. But Brad found it funny, possibly endearing, I guess. He ribbed me relentlessly for a bit, but we got on with the work at hand. Lots of great experiences, lots of laughs.
Did you always envision re-teaming for a project with him?
I had always hoped to work with Brad, but to be honest, approaching him is intimidating and this was the first time we gave it a try. The role is really unique—he’s a pacifist underdog who has an unconventional arc, which is that he thinks he’s evolving but he really doesn’t change much in the end. You need someone who gets that concept and who can play that with conviction and charisma.
What was the biggest difference you noticed in him between then and now?
I think he’s always been a really smart, intuitive actor. I know he’s at the top of his game right now, coming off the Oscar [for Once Upon a Time in Hollywood] and seeing his work in more refined and detailed ways. It was demonstrated in his insights to Ladybug, and knowing exactly what he wanted to bring that not only elevated his character, but was right on theme in the movie, and ultimately elevated the movie in its entirety. And that takes a real seasoned actor to do that.
You mentioned Ladybug having an existential crisis. Brad has so many great punch lines filled with lessons he’s learned from therapy. As a long-time stuntman and martial artist, has therapy played a role in your life, too? Has some of the terminology helped you at all?
I’m a proponent of therapy; I have not had it. Maybe I should experience some. But I do like some of the positivity and the platitudes. I’m generally a positive person and looking for the best in people, and looking for the best in the situation, and so in that respect, the platitudes that Ladybug follows aren’t far off from how I feel in general. But they haven’t come from a therapeutic source.
Has being around violence in action movies and working on fight sequences for close to three decades changed the way you perceive the world in any way?
I think it can. I do like to have morals to my stories. Deadpool has a bunch of bombastic action and crazy jokes, but in the end, the story is really about Deadpool showing compassion to Julian Dennison’s character, and by showing that compassion, he stops that kid from becoming a genocidal maniac. That’s a huge moral tale that we can tell in these commercial films. Hobbs and Shaw is all about family. Yeah, there’s a crazy world-ending virus, and Idris is a genocidal maniac, but at the end of the day, it’s about Hobbs and Shaw putting aside differences and coming together for a common cause to do something positive for the world.
With Bullet Train it was no different. Seven sociopaths that enter a train. They don’t feel anything. So how do I humanize them the right way? Not that they would ever be redeemable, but relatable enough that we could have a moral tale. I think you see the brotherhood between Lemon and Tangerine, and we can all understand why these guys love each other and relate to how they became the horrible people they became. When the violence is completely detached, it’s hard for me. I’m not a fan of that.
You’ve mentioned Jackie Chan as a hero of yours, and a lot of Bullet Train seems to have his signature blend of inventive comedy and martial arts. Who were some of your other muses as you made this?
Well, there are so many influences for me as a director, but for Bullet Train, as a director, the physicality of Ladybug’s character is really inspired by Jackie and Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd. And there are some direct homages [to them] in it. It was really fun to lean into that with Brad and have a clear vision of the physicality of the characters. In terms of tone, I just wanted it to be fun and wild. There are echoes of the Coen Brothers and some of my favorite directors that are always going to come out in ways I can’t explain because their work has become part of my DNA. I just love the bold take the Coens have on characters and dialogue and their fun choices.
We’re in this renaissance of aging actors—Tom Cruise, Keanu Reeves, Brad Pitt, even Bob Odenkirk, all around the age of 60—pulling off complex stunt work and extreme action sequences in movies. How much responsibility do you and Chad Stahelski feel for helping extend an actor’s lifespan when it comes to these kinds of movies?
I’d like to think we’ve had a huge impact on it. Keanu’s resurgence with John Wick, being prolific at his age, wasn’t commonly done. There was maybe just Liam Neeson before. John Wick was one of those moments in time where people saw that an action star from the past could have a resurgence if it’s the right vehicle, the right storytellers, and the right performance. It inspired other actors and artists to say, “Hey, maybe we could reinvent and reignite some of these action stars from the past.”
What has made that possible, do you think?
I think it’s probably different every time, but it comes down to the will of the performer and the vision and training method of the director. The way Chad and I have always approached our second-unit [director] life—and now our directorial pieces individually—is through training our casts. It’s a huge component of what we do. Finding and understanding that character physically and embodying it physically. Challenging the actors to go along with that process is a big piece of the puzzle. But they have to have the will to do it. With Keanu, with Charlize [Theron], it paid off huge, obviously.
On that note, you have such a diverse cast here and there’s a lot of differences in physicality. How do you go about the casting process and decide who is ready for an endeavor like this?
For Bullet Train, I leaned into the performances and characters first, and then we got the actor on board to do a physical evaluation. We find the character together with the stunt team and the actor. Obviously all actors will have different levels of aptitude in physical performance, like they do in any other aspect of their artistry. So you find those strengths and you build on them and choreograph to them, and you lean into them and make them the best version of the character you can be. You don’t put people into situations where they can’t succeed for you in the story and the character. Having the knowledge and ability is essential—we’ve had years of being the coordinators and second unit directors where we work with actors in that capacity, and so having that as a special sauce is invaluable. You know how to get the best from all different ability levels.
Specifically, what was working with Bad Bunny like? How much did you know about his music and celebrity at the time, and how did he handle the fight choreography?
Benito was amazing. He came in ready to work and gave it his all with regards to stunt rehearsals and carving out an iconic character. Kelly and I sort of knew he was an up-and-coming musician and we were familiar with a couple of his songs. As he read the script and we did our homework, we learned what a big deal he is. We’re huge fans of his work. He’s so now—modern, fluid, and cool. He’s an incredibly humble and hardworking artist and we just truly fell in love with him and feel so lucky to have him in the film.
Having been a longtime stunt double, stunt coordinator and second-unit director, do you feel there’s a stigma, or that you carry a chip on your shoulder, as you’ve taken off as a legitimate and successful filmmaker?
I don’t. I think there was when I entered. It was a long road for us to get John Wick off the ground and without the great support of Kelly and others that believed in us, it wasn’t going to happen anytime soon. But I think we’ve paved the way for stunt people to pursue being directors. You see them start to rise to the top and there’s less of a stigma about it. But I didn’t pay much attention to it—I was just too busy trying to work and make the things I wanted to make.