David Leitch has worked in Hollywood since the early ’90s as a stunt performer, fight choreographer, and actor. However, the 2014 action movie John Wick, co-directed by Leitch and his friend Chad Stahelski (Leitch was uncredited due to a Director’s Guild of America ruling), changed his life forever.
Wick was widely praised for its lively and brutal action scenes and its confident direction, putting Leitch and Stahelski on the studio’s radars. Now just a few years later, he’s worked on a few of the world’s biggest franchises and with some of Tinsel Town’s brightest stars, including Ryan, Reynolds, Dwayne Johnson, Keanu Reeves, as well as Celine Dione.
Of course, with a resume like Leitch’s, it’s perhaps unsurprising he’s become one of Hollywood’s go-to action directors, but his ambition to make films comes from a very humble place; he’s a fan. “I wanted to be in movies because I was in love with martial art movies, and I was a martial artist as a kid,” Leitch told The Digital Fix. “I came to LA to pursue martial arts, and I fell into the STEM community, working as a stuntman, doing fight scenes in movies, and that sort of just grew.”
While on set, however, Leitch realised he loved being “around the action”. Not the action of the fights or stunts but the whole process of making a movie. “I loved the carnival aspect of it all,” he explained. “Going on location, bonding with the crew and making this collaborative piece of art together. I just got sucked in.”
Let’s be honest, though, there’s a difference between choreographing an exciting fight sequence and making a whole movie; enthusiasm will only get you so far. This was the concern of Leitch’s long-term producer (and wife) Kelly McCormick when he first started trying to scratch his growing directing itch.
“Well, when I was his manager, it was before he actually got to direct, and for a little while there, I was like, ‘I hope this guy can direct because I’m putting a lot of time’,” McCormick laughed when we asked her about Leitch’s growth as a filmmaker. “You know? His second unit work is pretty cool. But are we sure this guy’s got what it takes? It turned out that he can do it in spades.”
McCormick believes that Leitch’s method of choreographing a fight, where he works out a beginning, middle, and end, approaching a stunt less as a set-piece and more as a piece of visual storytelling, has set him apart from his contemporaries working in the genre. Leitch himself admits his time spent in the trenches of stuntwork has served him well and given him a set of skills other directors just don’t have.
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“I have a really special skill set when it comes to shooting an action movie, obviously, because I have like worked for decades in designing action for other people,” he tells us. “I think now I get to express the action that I’ve wanted to express. I love collaborating with the director and supporting their vision, and giving them the scenes that they want. But now I can execute the scenes and the things that I want.”
“In terms of like making it a great skill set, I learned that telling the story in an action scene isn’t any different than telling the dramatic story in the dramatic scenes,” Leitch continues. “There’s a beginning and middle and end, the character arcs and sometimes more impactfully in an action scene than it would in a dramatic scene. So having that skill set for years of like telling great stories nonverbally, and I think that applies to the dramatic stuff that I do too.”
However, his latest movie, Bullet Train, might be his most ambitious yet and is a true test of his skills as a director. Bold, stylish, and violent Bullet Train sees trained killer Ladybug (Brad Pitt) assigned to retrieve a briefcase from the world’s fastest train. As more and more wacky assassins board the train to try and get the briefcase, Ladybug battles to keep the
job ‘on track’.
Leitch was drawn to the role after reading the Bullet Train script and seeing how well defined the characters were, although he admits to us that he does have a favourite. “I really do love them all,” he explains. But I have to say Ladybug is probably my favourite because he’s such an unconventional hero and a character that really does have an arc. He’s wandering through this movie in such a bold and irreverent way that we thought to do that in a big commercial movie is such a coup.”
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Kelly and Leitch admit they found subversive fun in making a movie about a world-weary assassin seemingly in the midst of an existential crisis who doesn’t have some world-changing epiphany at the end. “To get to be that subversive in a commercial movie,” Leitch laughs. “To have him go all the way through the movie and then realise he has not really changed a bit. He hasn’t really learned his lesson.”
Subverting typical Hollywood tropes may have amused the filmmaking duo. Still, once Leitch got filming, he realised shooting an action movie in a cramped train compartment would be a struggle for fight choreographers. “I think the choreography itself was difficult because we’re on the confines of a train,” Leitch said before McCormick added, “You know it’s very much about ingenuity and inventiveness than it is about like, actual , you know, pulling off the technicalities of stunts.”
Not that, Bullet Trains stunts aren’t impressive, and the sheer scale of them presented Leitch with some problems. Specifically, he and his stunt team had to make it look like his actors were travelling at blistering speeds, which led to one of the movie’s biggest set piece’s being very difficult to shoot.
“The hardest stunt technically was getting the guys to fly out the [train] door,” he told us. “It was pretty hard making the physics look right. We were on a soundstage. We had to have stunt men on a wire, three riggers and pullers, and then the choreography was changed at the last minute the night before. We were going to kick them out the door, but the set wasn’t really built for it.”
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Thankfully Leitch’s experience as a stunt coordinator meant he kept his cool, and he worked his way through the problem. “I’ve had so much experience in stunts, I knew we could do it,” Leitch said. “I made the stunt team stay late and put up the rigging and rehearse it in the extra hours. Then we got there and shot it in the morning, but it was not rehearsed. We just did it on the fly, and we leaned in, and we got it.”
Aside from the stunts, Leitch said striking the right tone is very important in making a film like Bullet Train, adding he sometimes goes a bit far. We always are making bold choices and pushing the boundaries, but there’s a lot on the editing room floor,” he said, admitting he went too far with the blood in the final fight scene.
“There are times when you are making these bold choices,” Leitch joked. “Then you’re like, this is the tone in the movie is here [motions hand to chest], and we’re here [motions hand to head]. I want to stay here [puts hand back to chest] in the sweet spot. This is where we need to regroup, and let’s take this down a notch.”
That said, Leitch tells us that where the “sweet spot” is depends on the movie. Killing Ryan Reynolds as he reads the Green Lantern script, for example? Well, as McCormick says, that’s fine because it suits the film’s tone, and the audience will come along with you when you do something wacky.
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Speaking of Deadpool, Leitch is no stranger to franchise work, but he admits working on Bullet Train away from the messy interconnected worlds of the MCU and Fast and Furious movies is a bit of a relief. “To be able to make something that is in the scale of like summer [blockbuster], that could compete with those big summer titles, we have to take our hats off to Sony,” he said.
“We want some diversity in the cinematic marketplace,” he continued. “You know, at that level, fingers crossed, people come out and see this, and they’re entertained, and that it delivers economically so we can make more of these.” Speaking of making more, Leitch and McCormick are keen to do more with the Bullet Train world.
We’d love to [do more],” Leitch said. “We love it. Like, I mean, it’s out there in the universe, and people want to see more, we’re up for building it. “I love all these characters. We will come back and do a prequel. We’ll do a spin-off. We’ll go to Mexico. We’ll go to Bolivia. We’ll go to Johannesburg.”
Bullet Train pulls into theatres on August 3.