Before he became the filmmaker behind the likes of John Wick, Atomic Blonde, and Deadpool 2, David Leitch was one of the most renowned stuntmen in the business.
With his latest film Bullet Train, David Leitch’s career has gone full circle, as his lead star this time around is one of his former clients.
“The first time I met Brad [Pitt] was on the set of Fight Club”, the director told Zavvi. “I was brought in to train the actors in basic fighting skills for some of those basement battles, and I became his stunt double.
“We hit it off and soon I kept getting called back to work with him again and again. It was always great to support him building a character.
“Since we’ve gone our separate ways and to different places in our careers, it’s great for him to come in and support a movie I’m directing. It’s gone full circle, it’s almost like fate.”
Pitt stars as Ladybug, a hitman who takes a job in Tokyo turned down by another assassin. Given the seemingly simple orders to obtain a briefcase on a bullet train running to Kyoto, things don’t go to plan when he discovers several other assassins on board have all been given the same objective.
Making an action-driven movie set almost entirely on a high-speed train – filmed at Sony’s Hollywood lot with just two carriage sets that had to be continually redesigned throughout shooting – is a tough task.
Extra care would have to be taken to pull off the fight choreography, with the actors having to do more of their own stunts due to how difficult it would be to hide stunt performers in the narrow carriageways.
As Leitch explains, this is why he was initially daunted by the project: “Kelly McCormick, my producing partner, read the screenplay first and said it was perfect for me – but it was all set inside a train.
“That was what I found most daunting: how can I keep the tension high while staying in one setting and keep that interesting for an audience? And on top of that, how can it possibly be cinematic? But through that challenge, that’s where you get creative.
“One of the things I fought really hard for were the character introductions you see throughout. Maybe my favourite scene is the introduction of The Wolf [the Mexican hitman played by rapper Bad Bunny], a four-minute piece of nonverbal storytelling that tracks his life up until the moment he meets Ladybug on the train.
“When a film is set entirely in one location, you want to give audiences some moments that stand apart from that, make them ask ‘where is this going?’”
When it came to getting the starry ensemble cast on board, Leitch explained that the fight sequences were effectively “reverse engineered” to play to their strengths as performers, which was crucial if they had to be actively participating in each extravagantly staged fight.
Aaron Taylor-Johnson, who plays hitman Tangerine, explained to Zavvi that this meant he was given far more freedom compared to any other action movie he’s worked on.
“When you’re working with David, you’re in the best of hands. Not every character in this film is a slick martial artist: they’re very sloppy and scrappy in their fighting styles.
“He was very encouraging in trying to help us find a style that would work for an action scene but is still really fun and refreshing to watch for an audience.
“It has this beautiful slapstick tone that’s somewhere between Jackie Chan and Buster Keaton, these relatable guys who have been thrown into completely unimaginable situations.
“I mean, our characters are sociopaths of course, so they’re not too relatable, but they do love each other – they’re lovable sociopaths!”
His character is partnered with hitman Lemon, played by Brian Tyree Henry, with the pair having a believable dynamic of lifelong best friends.
This is reflected in real life, where the pair remained close after filming, with Henry explaining that they hit it off right from the first meeting.
“David had set up this makeshift train car, with two rows of seats and a table, making us sit across from each other ready to rehearse the script. I just burst out laughing immediately, we threw the scripts away, and started improvising in character.
“It’s very rare that you get the opportunity to have a partnership with somebody on a movie that you actually like, which carries on after the director says cut.
“We wanted to make sure viewers felt like there was a true chemistry between us, so they can care about our characters as much as they care for each other – despite how difficult Aaron is, we made it work!”
Similarly to Pitt’s lead character, Lemon and Tangerine are lovable characters despite being cold blood killers. One actor who had more of a challenge was Joey King, who plays The Prince, the most openly villainous out of the passengers on board.
However, while it was a more conventionally evil role on the page, at the first script reading, Leitch was impressed by how much comedy the actress found within the character.
As King explained to Zavvi: “The only thing you ever want in life is to play a villain, but I have a brain that’s just like a little boy’s, where it tries to make jokes out of everything it sees.
“So, I think I was able to find some tucked away humour in there that wasn’t quite as obvious on the page. My character is an extreme villain, but as she’s so terrible, I thought I might as well have some fun with her.
“It’s not interesting if she’s just brutal and menacing the whole time, you want your psychos to have some layers to them!”
Although Bullet Train has a clean ending, it does set the scene for the return of Pitt’s Ladybug. Leitch is in the early stages of mapping out plans, but he’s already jumping at the possibility of making a sequel.
“If the universe wants Ladybug back, then I’d be back, 1000% – although I’m still figuring out what that would be.
“Sequels are hard: I’ve done them and got lucky, but I know with this crew it would be undeniable. We would have so much fun, so if people want more, we’re ready to go back to the soundstage at Sony and have a blast again…”
So if you take a ride on the Bullet Train this week, get ready – it might not be your last.