How Brad Pitt and ‘Bullet Train’ Director David Leitch Found the Laughs in Their Runaway Actioner

Leitch tells TheWrap how his creative partnership with Pitt helped refine the comedic thriller’s tone and teases his next film “The Fall Guy”

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“Bullet Train” is quite the wild ride.

The film focuses on a criminal, codenamed Lady Bug (Brad Pitt), who gets on a super-fast train in Japan and is soon confronted by a gaggle of trained killers (among them: Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Bad Bunny, Zazie Beetz, Brian Tyree Henry and Joey King). Why is everyone after the mysterious silver briefcase and what awaits them all when the train reaches its final destination are among the mysteries that unravel along the train’s high-speed track.

The question of who is orchestrating the very bloody mayhem is an easier one to answer. That would be director David Leitch, a former stunt performer and choreographer who has become one of Hollywood’s most sought-after filmmakers, thanks to hits like “Deadpool 2,” “Hobbs & Shaw,” “Atomic Blonde” and now “Bullet Train.” (He also co-directed the first “John Wick” and oversees the franchise with his creative partner, director Chad Stahelski.)

TheWrap chatted with Leitch about how he got involved with the project, leaning into the comedic tone, finding the right structure in editing and the unexpected train movie that inspired him. We also asked about his upcoming project, “The Fall Guy” with Ryan Gosling (which is set to start shooting in Australia any day now). Buckle up. 

How did you get involved with “Bullet Train?” It seemingly came together very quickly.

Well, Kelly McCormick, my partner and creative producer, was given the script by Sony. And she read it and saw the genius in it and was really excited about the bold characters and the irreverent tone and also the contained space. We were going to be doing this during COVID. And we kind of were looking for something to get our film family back up and running and this ticked a lot of boxes. I got excited about it, but I also was a little nervous because it’s like, how do you create all this interesting action on a train and keep people interested for an hour-and-a-half and compete with these big summer tentpoles? And it turns out, that challenge is just what I needed.

We had the fight team and the art department really firing on all cylinders to be creative and think inside that box. And we created the quiet car, we created the Momonga car. They came up with all these irreverent, crazy props to fight with and really helped bring the movie to life in a special way. And I think that ultimately sometimes you look at things that might be constraining, they’re actually avenues to make you as creative as possible.

I’d read somewhere that the tone of the movie had shifted at some point from a more “Die Hard”-like straightforward action movie to to the more irreverent tone that you’re speaking about. Was that before you came on or was that something that you brought to the project? 

When you read a script, you can attack it in a lot of different ways. And I think that there is a version of the movie that may have had more of a tone. It was never my intention. When I read it, I started to really lean into a heightened version of this. And after my initial conversations with Brad, you know, we’re at the height of the pandemic, he was like, “We should be leaning into laughs. We should be looking for laughs and broader is better. Let’s swing for the fences.” And we held hands and went forth that way.

As he’s coming on as a creative partner is one of the biggest roles in the movie. I’ve always wanted that tone. And then I think even on set, you saw just people come to life like Aaron Taylor-Johnson and Brian Tyree Henry’s characters, Lemon and Tangerine. They had such a palpable energy and chemistry that we leaned into. It took a couple of days before everyone was like, “Okay, we’re going this way, we can lean into some of these bigger, broader moments.” And that’s what leads brought.

I’m assuming there was some refinement, in editorial, of the tone you established on set. Editor Elísabet Ronaldsdóttir is one of your key collaborators.

The old analogy, and I think I said this last time we talked, is that you make the movie three times – you have a great script. Then we have great production crew with these creative people I work with all the time, we’re just like generating ideas, and then a great cast. And then you get in editorial. And the way we shot it was told in character chapters. You’re introduced to all these characters. And then you go back in time and you introduce another one, and you go back in time and you introduce another one.

And as beautiful as that version of the movie was, it did feel like we were starting and stopping and Elísabet really had a beautiful intercut version of discovering all the characters along the way. I mean, they are so intertwined. It really made sense. And I think she had that in her pocket even while we were shooting, she comes on fairly early in our films. And as she was bringing in the material I think she might have been seeing, knowing this could be cut a possible way. And that intercutting actually led to more of a fun style as we went down through the rest of the movie. I mean, you start a movie, and you set an editorial tone. You want to make sure you’re, you’re true to that. 

David Fincher has talked about about the first 20 minutes of the movie teaches you how to watch the rest of it.

100%. You know we had these flashbacks that you were talking about and they were all different sizes and shapes. Some are comedic, some are dramatic, some are setting up backstories. But to lean into those in the beginning and see that we’re introducing all these characters in rapid succession… Even Brad’s character has flashbacks of bad luck and Lemon and Tangerine have a flashback to how they got the son there. You’re right, the first 20 minutes, it’s really astute. The first 20 minutes teaches you how to watch the rest of the film. And there’s all this information that’s in those flashbacks, they’re never wasted. They’re really important to the whole narrative. And you’re just guiding the audience in that.

Did you design the film to reveal details on repeated viewings?

I hope so. I want it to be that second, third viewing sort of experience, because again, there are so many plants, payoffs, and so many little details that were really in Zac’s script, and then also discoveries of this twisted plot along the way that we just dived in. 

David Leitch on the set of “Bullet Train” (Sony Pictures)

Do you have fun putting these giant movie stars through the paces? You’ve worked with Ryan Reynolds and Charlize Theron and now Brad Pitt with “Bullet Train.”

We love it,. I really love working with great actors and watching them bring their work ethic and talent and their creative sensibilities to characters. As a stunt performer for so many years, you’re helping them build a character through physicality. And that’s really, really important.

Were you inspired by any other train movies?

Everyone’s like, “Did you watch ‘Train to Busan?’” And I love ‘Train to Busan.’ I think it was such a fun, irreverent, well-executed take on genre cinema like I love it. But what I really liked “Silver Streak” with Gene Wilder and Richard Pryor. The tone of that movie, the high jinks and how it was this madcap caper on a train, was also really inspiring.

You’ve got “The Fall Guy” coming up with Ryan Gosling. Is it hard balancing the authenticity of being a stunt professional with the bigger needs of a giant action movie?

That movie is going to be fun and big and full of great organic stunts. And that’s part of the goal. I think it’s sort of a love letter to the stunt performers in film and actually to the blue collar crews that make movies. And so that’s what I’m really excited about in the story of “Fall Guy.”

“Bullet Train” is now playing exclusively in theaters.