Director's Chair: <I>Bullet Train</I>'s David Leitch
Issue: July/August 2022

Director's Chair: Bullet Train's David Leitch

When it was announced that producer/director David Leitch would direct Brad Pitt in the new action-comedy summer blockbuster Bullet Train, it seemed like the perfect fit. After all, before becoming a director known for his hyper-kinetic, immersive, stunt-driven style in such hits as the irreverent, raunchy Deadpool 2; the punk-noir, take-no-prisoners Atomic Blonde; and the bantering buddy comedy Hobbs & Shaw, Leitch spent over a decade in the stunt business and doubled for Brad Pitt on such films as Fight Club and Mr. & Mrs. Smith.  

In Bullet Train, Pitt headlines an ensemble cast that includes Sandra Bullock, Zazie Beetz, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Joey King, Brian Tyree Henry and Bad Bunny in a wild ride of a story about eclectic, diverse assassins, all with connected-yet-conflicting objectives, and set against the backdrop of a non-stop ride through modern-day Japan.

Director David Leitch

Behind the scenes, Leitch assembled a top-notch creative team led by his producer partner and wife Kelly McCormick, his go-to cinematographer Jonathan Sela, usual production designer David Scheunemann, regular editor Elísabet Ronaldsdóttir and composer Dominic Lewis. (Post speaks with Elisabet Ronaldsdottir here)

Here, in an exclusive interview with Post, Leitch talks about making the film, the challenges involved and his love of post.

Did this feature feel like a natural fit for your skill set?

“Yes, it did, although it was originally conceived as a far more hard-core action film, and I think the title’s a bit misleading, along with the expectations people seem to have for me, which I don’t really get. My recent films all have a lot of comedic overtones, and I set out to make a fun action-thriller that has a dark comedic edge, something bold and original, and a lot of fun. When Kelly and I read the novel it’s based on, we thought all the characters were amazing, but it’s super-dark and genre-forward, and I felt I could take it to another level and make it more fun. When we began, it was in the heart of the pandemic and we all felt the need to have some fun.”

What did Brad bring to the party? And is it true he did all his own stunts?

(Laughs) “Brad brought his A game, like he always does. He really connected with the script and got very excited about his character, who is a bit of an existential crisis, and he brought more ideas to it, which we added along the way. Like all great actors, he takes care of his character, not only the emotional and intellectual side, but also the physical side. He comes up with very creative ideas about how the character looks and acts and moves, and adds stuff, and makes choices that you wouldn’t expect, but which lead to compelling moments in the film. And that includes the action sequences and stunts. I don’t think he’d even take on a project where he couldn’t do a majority of the action. Having worked with him on five films as his stunt double, I was not ever afraid that he wouldn’t do most of his own stunts on this, and he did.”

How early on did you start integrating post and all the VFX?

“There were really two stages to it. One was really early on, as we had to do a lot of prep in VFX for all the LED screens we used outside the windows of the train to create our version of traveling through Japan. So we did a lot of plate work and also created full digital environments, and all of that material had to be ready to be projected on the LED screens outside by the time we began shooting. So we did very little blue screen outside the train windows. Most of that is all LED screens and the sort of virtual production that everyone’s so excited about now.”

In terms of post, that must have given you a lot of flexibility?

“You’re right. It gave me incredible flexibility in editorial because I could choose any take I wanted, and I could change takes without having to back to the vendor and go, ‘OK, I’ve changed these four shots, so you’ve got to redo the comps outside.’ It’s all baked into the shot this way and you’re getting this great interactive light from the screens. That was so helpful.”

What were the main technical challenges in pulling it all together, considering all the VFX companies seem to be so busy these days. Did you run into any problems just in terms of getting all the VFX work done?

“It’s true, especially now with all the streaming and increased demand for content. Every vendor is in high demand and there’s this big boom in the VFX market, and it’s a real challenge meeting all the deadlines and keeping the quality at the high level you want. So, my advice to anyone thinking about going into the movie business today is, go into VFX.

"We shot it all in LA on stages at the Sony lot during the height of the pandemic, and we had all the crazy protocols in place and were testing every day. And there was a real virtual production style to what we did. We had four different train cars with modular pieces that made them feel like the 12 cars we needed on the train, all built on a stage. We had one platform that was also modular and we could re-dress that in different ways, and with LED monitors and blue screen, we were able to create nine different platforms with that single one. So dealing with all that was like a huge production puzzle, but it was also great to work in this style of filmmaking, and we were able to keep working during COVID, and we were one of the few who could.”

You reunited with director of photography Jonathan Sela, along with other core creatives. How important was that?

“It’s so important to me and on a complex film like this it really helps to work with a core team you know well and trust. Jonathan and I have shot a lot of these types of films now — huge logistical puzzles, and as usual, we shot on Arri Alexas, with a mix of lenses — both spherical and anamorphic, depending on environments. I think to the untrained eye you won’t even notice it, but we used it as a storytelling device, to give our platforms a bit more scope, and the smaller moments on the train a more intimate feel. And then I had my usual production designer David Scheunemann, editor Elísabet Ronaldsdóttir and Kelly. It’s a really-tight group that I totally rely on. They’re my creative collaborators.”

Where did you post?

“Because of COVID, this was so different from any other post I’ve done, and the director’s cut was all virtual. We used this great software program called Pac Post. It’s a lot like Evercast, and like Zoom on steroids. So Elísabet could run her Avid output and I’m on another screen, and we could talk to each other virtually while she’s live editing. She was in Iceland and I’d get up here in LA at 5am, and she’d been working all morning on the notes from the day before, and we’d meet for a couple of hours, and then for a few more later in the day, and it was this great cycle of cutting it all remotely. I think it’s going to be the future of how you cut and post a film, as you can do so much this way now. But we did meet up in-person a couple of weeks before we screened it for the studio, and you need that intimacy for some of the last-minute adjustments and changes, but you can now do the bulk of it remotely.”

All the VFX play a big role. Who did them?

“We had over 1,200 VFX shots in the end, and we had just one vendor — Double Negative, who I’ve worked with a lot before. Michael Brazelton was the VFX super, and he oversaw a lot of the Dneg work on Deadpool 2 and Hobbs & Shaw, and it was kind of the same stuff I needed on this. We had a lot of CG train work and exterior shots, as we couldn’t shoot in Japan because of COVID, along with a lot of CG enhancements.”

What was the most difficult VFX sequence to do?

“There are some very surreal moments with Brad, which fit tonally into the film very nicely, but to make sure they’re totally photoreal was very hard for the artists, especially as it’s not something that’s been done before. I wanted to break reality, but not so far that you’d leave the movie, so there was a lot of back and forth, and trying to find just the right balance for this sequence on the train, which is quite heightened.”

Talk about the importance of sound and music.

“It’s always crucial for me, and with all the visual information we had in this movie, it’s easy to forget just how key all the sound is to telling the story. We recorded the score and mixed it at Capitol, and then did a lot of work and the final mix at Sony with Frankie Montano and JT Roberts from Universal StudioPost. And I can’t over-stress how great our composer Dominic Lewis was. He did a lot of work before we even shot, and he created suites for me for all the different character scenes. We have a lot of different characters, and I was trying to get them all dialed in so by the third act they would all come together, sort of like 'Peter and the Wolf' style, and he was so bold and creative in his choices. I also wanted original songs that sounded like needle drops, and he did a great cover of ‘Staying Alive,’ along with a great original song for Bad Bunny’s character that he wrote.” 

Photo (L-R): Brian Tyree Henry and director David Leitch, on set

Where did you do the DI and how important is it to you?

“We’re doing it with my usual team at Company 3, with colorist Dave Hussey. I love the DI and as the pandemic is on the wane, we’ve been able to do the sessions in-person — me and Jonathan and Dave. And as we always do, we choose our LUT on-set, so we’re already working with a look we all really like, and we start with that and assemble it all. Then [we began] making bolder choices and trying things, as this movie allows us to do fun things. It’s a slightly heightened reality — a real pop piece with a lot of bold color, and I’m really happy with the way the film turned out.”