Bullet Train director David Leitch and producer Kelly McCormick talk action scenes, inspirations and Thomas The Tank Engine. 

David Leitch and Kelly McCormick have worked on films together for some time now. Leitch started his directing career when he co-helmed John Wick with Chad Stahelski, and since then he’s gone from strength to strength. Together, the husband and wife team have worked on Atomic Blonde, Deadpool 2, and Hobbs & Shaw. As producers, they were involved in the Bob Odenkirk-starring Nobody and Netflix thriller Kate.

With so many high-octane action movies under their belts and Leitch’s past career as a stunt performer, it’s no wonder they were approached by Sony to make Bullet Train. Centred on Brad Pitt’s newly-pacifist assassin, Ladybug, the story follows what should be a simple and peaceful mission as it devolves into chaos. There are other operatives on the train, and it turns out that their missions may just be connected.

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“The script was super modern,” McCormick says of the reason they took the job. “It was full of crazy characters, wacko ideas, and just this real flow that felt really different, and an opportunity for David to do something different than he had done.”

Leitch agrees, and also saw the challenges inherent in a script set entirely on a train. “As an action designer I’m like ‘how do I make this interesting for two hours?'” He’s got a point. Anyone who’s walked up an entire train trying to find a seat knows they’re pretty dull, really. His answer to that? “My thought was that we need to create a lot of different environments in these cars. There were a lot of inspirations when we were digging through real trains in Japan, and themed cars. We saw a Hello Kitty car, and a Pokemon car, and thought ‘this is great, we can create a mascot car.’” The train in the film also ended up with a carriage containing a cocktail bar and a quiet carriage – which Leitch reveals was the idea of Sony CEO Thomas Rothman. 

“We were creating different environments so you never feel like you’re in the same place. In reality every train, every car looks the same, and I think that can get really stale, so we worked really hard to make it different.”

 Stunt Work

With so many action scenes created with the help of CGI nowadays, is it important to the duo to use real stunt performers whenever they can? For both of them, it’s an unequivocal ‘yes’, and McCormick gives some interesting insights into the way she sees action sequences.

“I think one of the things that we care most about action-wise is that it’s character based,” she explains. “I see action as melodrama – punctuating highs and lows in a character’s arc, physically, allows for you to kind of go to higher highs and lower lows in the right movie, the right genre.” When you see action as a way to build character, it’s undoubtedly important to have real performers involved. “The best way to do it, I think, is to have things as practical as possible, because you need the actors to be there doing it and feeling it and going through those moments.”

Leitch feels much the same, although he also points out that in some scenarios (and franchises) you need a little bit of special effects.  “In Hobbs & Shaw, when we were being a part of that [Fast & Furious] franchise, you’re defying physics, and that’s part of that world, right? So we were playing into the vernacular of that. And there’s a little bit of that stuff in Bullet Train as well, but that was really because of the pandemic and we were having to make a movie in a box, in the constraints of the pandemic. But for the most part I love the feel and connectivity of practical stunts and actually putting the actors in the fights, too.” 

I ask how many of the stunts the actors really did. “All of them,” they say in almost perfect unison. “We really designed them with the actors in mind and leaning into their strengths, and defining their characters. And then we shot it in a way that meant that we could use them in the photography,” Leitch explains. 

Brad Pitt and Bad Bunny as Ladybug and The Wolf in Bullet Train

“You kind of had to because of the confinement of the train,” adds McCormick. “We didn’t have flying walls. You can tell when you watch it. So how do you work around a double?” She clarifies that there are very few moments where doubles were utilised. “There are some doubles in there, for sure, but it was a lot of hard work from the actors that allowed us to shoot them.

With the cast taking on so much of the fight choreography themselves, Leitch naturally stepped in to give them some guidance. “I give them advice all the time,” he says, then quickly rushes to add “not in a bad way!”

A lot of the fight scenes include improvised weapons, especially where Brad Pitt’s Ladybug is concerned. Often he’ll grab whatever he can find around him to defend himself. Leitch and McCormick found this especially fun to choreograph. “You can tell that he has the skills set,” Leitch says. “But choreographing him, every move he’s doing is defensive. It’s just a really fun experiment as a choreographer, what props he’s gonna pick up in what cars.”

“How does a pacifist fight, right?” McCormick muses. “It’s a really fun obstacle.”

They’re both very accomplished in the making of action movies, so what, to them, makes a perfect action sequence? After some thought, Leitch has a list of three things – “it needs a great character trajectory, it needs ingenuity and it needs an interesting set piece.”

“Ideally you have a shock and awe moment in the middle of it!” McCormick adds. 

Style

In terms of style, Bullet Train at times bears a lot of resemblance to Leitch and McCormick’s other gritty action films. Most notably John Wick, Atomic Blonde and Kate, with plenty of bright neon lighting.

When I ask what draws the pair to the aesthetic, McCormick turns to look at Leitch expectantly. “She’s like ‘this idiot,'” he laughs. “I love Japanese animation, and I love bold colours.” The director goes on to explain how he sees John Wick as a turning point for the aesthetic of action movies. 

“Action films, it was maybe a reaction to the Bourne films, they were sort of desat[urated], shaky camera. That was the style, and it was great. It was exciting when it came out, and then we created John Wick, and we put the camera on a dolly and had these really long shots watching the action unfold, and we had neon lights in the club, and we were doing colour washes and stuff,” he says. 

On Atomic Blonde I tried to take that to the next level, so it just became part of things that I like aesthetically. For me as an artist, I’ve been exploring colour and I love it, and we’ll go down different roads sometime soon, but it’s hard for me to let go of colour. I really do like it.” 

The mascot train car in Bullet Train

Shooting

The duo had mentioned previously that filming on Bullet Train had been affected by the pandemic. Unfortunately this turned out to be the biggest challenge on the production.

According to McCormick, the film started to ramp up production at the same time as a lot of other movies post-lockdown, and that presented a unique set of challenges. “It was the first movie that started as people got back to work, and we wanted to be that because we wanted to bring people back to work and we were in an industry that was somehow afforded the ability to do it when a lot of people weren’t able to get back to work,” she explains. 

However, there were a lot of things that had to be considered – the cast and crew’s safety being a priority. “Everyone was gung-ho for it until something might happen or there might be a little vulnerability, and then it’s like ‘woah, what are we doing? Why are we doing it?’ It just kind of dawned on us how dangerous it could be to get back to work.”

McCormick has nothing but good things to say about Sony’s Covid policies, and says that the difficult experience helped staff to really band together to get the film made. “It was really about trying to make sure that everybody felt safe in the policies, and wanted to be there. It almost created this bond among everybody who was ready to buy in and go for it, and I think you can feel that in our cast, and that allowed us to be really safe with each other and feel really lucky that we worked with them.”

There were of course other, more expected challenges too. Bullet Train deals with the storylines of five different groups of assassins, which initially seem unconnected but gradually come together. Leitch’s solution was to shoot each character’s initial scenes separately. “We had the original screenplay shot in chapters. So we introduced a character, then had them getting on the train for a certain beat and then you went back in time and introduced another character, and we actually filmed it that way,” he says. “And then in editorial, we took those four, five stories and we intercut them so you’re seeing them in real time.”  

“It worked so well because they are interconnected and it was in the DNA of the script, and we shot it in a way where the shots are really leading you to the next character’s idea and theme.” 

One of those characters is Lemon, a contract killer played by Brian Tyree Henry and who acts as the ‘brother’ of Aaron Taylor-Johnson’s Tangerine. He adds a bit more train-related fun to the movie by relaying life lessons that he’s learned from children’s TV show Thomas The Tank Engine. He even compares the character types on the train to the show’s own characters – with the bad guys being named ‘Diesels’.

So which characters do Leitch and McCormick think they’d be? “Probably Percy,” McCormick says, referring to the youngest and often happiest and most upbeat of the trains. “I’m not all there!” She jokes.

Leitch may not know which character he is, but he definitely knows which one he isn’t. “Not a Diesel,” he states, matter-of-factly. “No one wants to be a Diesel.”

Brian Tyree Henry and Brad Pitt in Bullet Train

With the pair being married as well as creative partners, do they think it’s important to have a close relationship between a director and producer? “I think it’s a really hard industry, and there’s a lot of pitfalls, and traps and crazy things that happen, and I think to be able to have one person that you trust implicitly right there, on every project, is a real gift,” McCormick explains. “It’s a bit of guidance and support and safety net that allows us to walk in more confident than if we didn’t have each other.”

“I love the collaboration that we have,” Leitch adds. “And I love having a trusted creative partner that we can bounce ideas off and be critical of our ideas. I’m a collaborator by nature in the whole spectrum of making a movie, but more importantly with a producer who’s got my back.” 

 Bullet Train will be released exclusively in cinemas from August 3rd

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