David Leitch is a legend in the action business. He began his Hollywood career as a stuntman in the 1990s. In “Fight Club” he became the stunt double for Brad Pitt, with whom he continued to work in the following years on films such as “Spy Game” and “Troy”. With his company 87Eleven, he also became the go-to place for choreographing and designing especially hard close-combat scenes. But Leitch and his partner Chad Stahelski were often frustrated when their ideas didn’t actually end up on screen the way they envisioned. So they became directors themselves, made “John Wick“ and have been shaping modern action cinema ever since.
Leitch’s latest directorial work “Bullet Train’ brings him back together with Brad Pitt. He plays the hapless killer Ladybug, who is supposed to do a routine job. Just get a suitcase off an express train, his contact tells him. What he doesn’t know is that the train is full of sinister henchmen ready to kill, each with their own agenda. A slashing and stabbing quickly begins in a confined space in the raging through Japan Bullet Train…
In an interview, our editor Benjamin Hecht not only talks to David Leitch about his new film, but also about action cinema in general…
MOVIE STARTS: You’ve been in the action business for so long, so if there’s one person who knows the answer, it’s you: what makes a great action movie?
David Leitch: Characters make a great action film. Kelly [Anm.d.Red.: seine Frau und Produzentin Kelly McCormick] and I, with our company 87North, try to make all of our action films character-driven. And I think we’ve proven that with some of the iconic characters that we’ve created.
We made Atomic Blonde, creating Lorraine Broughton in the process. We did Hobbs & Shaw, an expansion of a franchise that they now want a lot of sequels to do. We made a movie called Nobody with Bob Odenkirk and we created a new franchise straight away.
What’s so good about what we do is our focus on the action around the characters. We always make sure the action serves the characters. Because then people will remember it. If the action is there just for the spectacle, then those movies go away. But if she supports a character, she lives on for a very long time…
DashFUN: And that’s what interested you the most in reading the novel “Bullet Train“ to film?
David Leitch: Yes, on the one hand it was the variety of characters and then above all the challenge of how many of these characters we can do justice to in such a short journey. In the past I have Deadpool or Lorraine Broughton or John Wick served. This is a character that you prepare and create a story arc for. But here you have so many, with conflicting agendas and worldviews. You have to explain all of this in a short amount of time while efficiently telling the big story. The puzzle of solving this interested me the most.
DashFUN: Have you been influenced by other films?
David Leitch: I won’t lie: Yes, there are a lot of influences. But in the end is “Bullet Train“ Above all, a calling card from me as a filmmaker, from the things I like. What was great about this project was that I wasn’t held back by the shackles of a franchise or the legacy of a big brand. “Bullet Train“ wasn’t a world-famous IP so far, so I was able to really put my own stamp on the project.
DashFUN: What are your personal favorite action films?
David Leitch: One is definitely Die Hard because you have a character that you can relate to intensely, right in the middle of the action. And that’s exactly what I’m trying to achieve with my characters. Number 2 is Jackie Chan’s “Police Story” with all the stunts and real danger. And he throws himself into it like Buster Keaton once did, but on a higher level. Jackie is the pinnacle of action cinema. And then there’s Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. Again, the way the action supports the characters and the father-son relationship is just brilliant.
MOVIE STARTS: You and Brad Pitt have known each other for so long. What was it like working together again in such different roles?
David Leitch: It was fun, it was beautiful, it was magical. We got back together as friends, but also as artists. When I was his stunt double in the past, I gave my art to support the character he created. Now it was his job to give his art to create a character to support a film I’m directing. So the roles were reversed. But behind that was the same mutual respect for each other.
MOVIE STARTS: Brad Pitt played the fictional stuntman Cliff Booth in Quentin Tarantino’s “Once Upon A Time… In Hollywood”. As his former stuntman, do you think you influenced his performance in any way?
David Leitch: Brad has always had great admiration for the stunt community. But the role he plays in Once Upon A Time… In Hollywood is a generation or even two before me. I think the stunts have evolved since then. My generation of stunt people didn’t drive their actors around anymore, didn’t go to the bars and drank Bloody Marys. It was all very different. But I’m glad he brought the story of a stuntman to the cinema. That means a lot to me.
And we’re also in the process of bringing another stunt story to the cinema: “Just in Case” with Ryan Gosling. It’s based on an 80’s TV series about a stuntman. It is the origin story of Colt Seavers. He’s a stuntman who realizes that he now has all these skills and there may be more he can do with them.
MOVIE STARTS: Speaking of stunts. The main task of stuntmen is to do dangerous things for the star. Which of the action scenes in “Bullet Train“ were they dangerous? And were there any particular challenges?
David Leitch: No, nothing was dangerous. Precisely because I have a background as a stunt coordinator, the safety of my actors is important to me. I try to put them in situations where it’s safe and they can use the best of their abilities. But then aggressively and with energy. That’s where my experience on film sets pays off.
The biggest challenge was shooting at the height of the corona pandemic, when there was no vaccination and the numbers were rising. We’re the first Hollywood film ever to be allowed to shoot again. The safety protocols for working in confined spaces were challenging because you’re not used to that as a filmmaker and so much on a film set is also resolved through the close connection between people – whether it’s me with my producer, a crew member or my actors *inside entertain.
You actually want to see the reaction on their faces: Do they feel what I’m saying? Finally, I must tell my vision through their work. It was a challenge, but we overcame it. After all, film crews are the most resourceful group of people on this planet. If I ever have to survive an apocalypse, I want to be in the middle of a film crew.
“Bullet Train“ has been in cinemas since August 4, 2022. You can also see our video interview with Brad Pitt and Joey King here: