Strangers on a Train: David Leitch’s Bullet Train is Heading Directly to a Theater Near You

Image Courtesy of Sony Pictures Entertainment

A big-screen spectacle optimized for the theatrical experience, Sony’s Bullet Train arrives in theaters this August with a point to prove at the box office. Bullet Train is the rare studio tentpole that bets on capturing a moviegoing audience without the pre-built awareness of an established franchise. The film stars Brad Pitt as Ladybug, an assassin who can’t shake his bad luck, determined to take things easy after one too many jobs gone wrong. Ladybug’s latest mission seems simple enough: board a bullet train in Tokyo, complete his task, and disembark at a designated station. Little does he know that the train is carrying a group of competing assassins, all with connected yet conflicting objectives, unknowingly pitted against each other aboard the world’s fastest train.

Based on an international best seller by Japanese author Kotaro Isaka, this global adaptation from director David Leitch (Atomic Blonde, Deadpool 2) features a diverse ensemble cast that also includes Joey King, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Brian Tyree Henry, Andrew Koji, Hiroyuki Sanada, Michael Shannon, Benito A. Martínez Ocasio (better known under his recording name, Bad Bunny), and Sandra Bullock.

Boxoffice Pro spoke with Leitch about adapting the film’s source material, crafting its fight sequences, and tracing its action-comedy roots. These are edited excerpts from the conversation.

This is a type of film we don’t see very often: a multicultural cast in a big-budget action spectacle designed for theaters. No superheroes, no dinosaurs, no monsters. And it’s based on an international best seller, something that doesn’t always translate to a film of this scope.

It doesn’t always translate, no. I think Kotaro Isaka’s book was really fun, original, and compelling, and that’s why we were drawn to it. Zak Olkewicz did an incredible adaptation for the screenplay. From there, we put our own spin on it. The dark sensibility of the material was hard for me to get on board with right away, but I loved the original conceit: seven assassins on a train, contained environment, incredible setting. I felt I needed to add my own flavor as a storyteller to that. Isaka has been super gracious and supportive of the film and was excited that we set out to make a global version of his book with the international cast.

In the story you have assassins, who just by their nature are nihilistic characters, and it’s hard to make them relatable because they’re not redeemable. It was really my goal to take Zak’s draft and add the humanity inside of these characters, so you could root for them in the moments you needed to. That change allows the audience to go on this emotional roller coaster that I like to include in all my films. Ultimately, even if the characters are not redeemable, at least they’re still relatable and fully dimensional. That’s the sort of work I put in with Kelly McCormick, my producer, culminating on-screen with an incredible cast of actors that came on and contributed brilliant ideas.

I’m glad you bring up that this was a film that was always designed to be an international, multicultural adaptation, especially in the context of what I find to be unfair criticism leveled at the film over claims of whitewashing the original novel. There’s a very big difference, in my view, between whitewashing a work and loosely adapting it into something new, taking it in a different direction. The film is, by design, inspired by the novel but offers a different interpretation of the story and its characters. I’d love to see a more loyal, Japanese adaptation of Bullet Train that adheres to the novel—but that’s just not what you set out to make with this film adaptation.

Our adaptation, since the very early discussions with the studio—Sony, a Japanese company—was always meant to be a film that could reach a wide, global audience. It’s something the book’s author, Isaka, was also very excited about. We changed the backgrounds, nationalities, and genders of several characters in the film in a very diverse and inclusive way.

The novel is great, but this is a global-event film, with a cast and setting that reflects a lot of that multicultural fusion.

Making this type of film was our full intention from the beginning. We also wanted to keep a lot of the Japanese elements in the book, such as the characters played by Hiroyuki Sanada and Andrew Koji That’s where the real homage to the original work lies. We are servicing the elder’s arc in his quest for revenge: Is fate going to lead him to his ultimate revenge? Very similar to the original novel, but we set out to tell that story while including other characters from across the globe, in a way that expanded our opportunities to build a fun and inclusive world.

Talking about world-building, I have to bring up your involvement in the first John Wick film, which you co-directed with Chad Stahelski. There have been very few influential action movies in the past 15 years that serve as a counterpoint to the superhero movies that dominate the box office. I don’t want to knock superhero movies, they’re their own thing, but the action genre has somewhat stalled during their prominence. John Wick is an exception to that trend and so is another film you made, Atomic Blonde. There aren’t many others on that list—George Miller’s Mad Max: Fury Road and Gareth Evans’s The Raid: Redemption come to mind—action movies that bring a fresh take on the genres and are best experienced in a movie theater. How does Bullet Train fit into that conversation, in making a big-budget action spectacle optimized for the big screen?

My experience comes from choreographing so many fight scenes over my years as a fight choreographer, stunt coordinator, and unit director on big movies. You’re constantly curating things for other directors in those roles, and that’s fine, but you’re not always servicing your own creative itch. To speak quickly about John Wick, and we’ve said it in the past, it was cathartic for Chad and me at that moment in time, because we were responding to having done multiple superhero movies. As action directors, we wanted to do something that felt grounded. We didn’t move the camera in that movie because we were rebelling against the Jason Bourne shaky-cam style of that moment. We were reintroducing an aesthetic with our own brand of choreography, holding the camera still and watching the actors perform. That style served the characters in that movie. Action for spectacle’s sake never really becomes iconic. If you can service the character and the tone of the movie, it makes it fresh, original, and provocative. That’s my approach to action.

For Bullet Train, there is this expectation out there that it’s going to be John Wick on a train starring Brad Pitt, or that I’m going to be bringing in these long takes as I did in Atomic Blonde—but that isn’t this movie. The choreography we did is designed for the characters and the incredibly fun and irreverent tone in this movie. We leaned into influences like Jackie Chan and Buster Keaton, who are masters of physical comedy, and were heavily inspired by them. We played with the contained space of our setting, challenging the art department to create environments for us that would help us make interesting fight scenes. That comes from the wealth of experience of having done action movies for so many years. I like to challenge myself and reinvent things every time I go out, making a bold swing for something different. That’s what we’re bringing to Bullet Train.

The right setting for an action sequence can make all the difference in a scene. I think of a fight scene set inside a train, and I immediately think of From Russia with Love.

Choreography is always better when you’re working with constraints. For example, as a second-unit director, I worked on The Wolverine, directed by James Mangold. There is this fight scene set in the snow between Wolverine and ninjas. And I told James that we needed to give ourselves environmental constraints—how about putting it on ice? Once you’ve given yourself constraints, you throw that to the choreography team to create fresh ideas you haven’t seen before.

We approached Bullet Train with the challenge of keeping things creative in a movie that is set on a train in a tube with hand-to-hand combat scenes that never get repetitive. The film delivers on that challenge because we focused on talent, a fun tone, and defining character moments within those sequences—so you’re learning something about a character as the fight resolves, or you’re adding to the stakes of one of the characters as the fight develops. It keeps you falling forward in the story in a compelling way like an action movie should.

When you mention film’s fun, irreverent tone and that you took inspiration from someone like Jackie Chan, it brings to mind a lot of his iconic action sequences. Those environmental constraints are a big part of what makes Jackie Chan’s movies so fun: Something always goes wrong for the protagonist that leads him to improvise his way out of a situation. Striking those comic beats in an action scene is very difficult to pull off. How did you approach that challenge?

As stunt choreographers, we have the best job in the business: You go to the workshop and you play-fight. My team will shoot what we call “Stunt This,” where we choreograph, edit, and shoot a fight on video multiple times so we can look at different iterations of it and see what’s working and what isn’t. That’s something we do before we bring a scene to the actors to train them for it. It’s hard work but it’s also really fun and rewarding.

Talking about Jackie Chan, the thing about him in his movies is that he is incredibly relatable. Things are always going wrong for him in his movies, and the fight scenes are a result of that. In Bullet Train there’s a similarity in Ladybug’s character [played by Brad Pitt], this guy who believes he’s cursed with bad luck, and we leaned into that. There’s a lot of bad luck and things going wrong in his fight scenes. As competent as he is as an assassin, he is having a bad day. Once you throw that into the engine of fight choreography, we need to make sure that those narrative points are coming through and we’re actually building up the stakes for him in each scene.

It’s the type of movie that benefits from being seen in a theater with an audience.

That is 100 percent right. You want to see Bullet Train with an audience. We’ve done a lot of test screenings, as you do with comedies, something I like to do as a director because there’s an empirical nature to comedy. Just like a stand-up comedian, you know what it means when the audience laughs or doesn’t laugh in particular scenes. It gives us the chance to substitute a joke or find a better payoff for a scene during the editing process. It allows you to make choices informed by an audience responding to the film in real time. There are so many fun moments in this movie that work best when they’re shared in that communal experience.

You’ve been involved in a range of projects within the action genre: launching an original franchise with John Wick, a graphic-novel adaptation like Atomic Blonde, a superhero sequel in Deadpool 2, and even a spin-off of an established franchise with Hobbs & Shaw. What sort of freedom did you have in developing Bullet Train?

I love the freedom that Sony allotted us with this film, I applaud them for the bold choice of spending the money they did on something that isn’t really known in our market. It’s based on a successful novel, but it’s not a superhero franchise. I personally feel cinema needs some of these bigger, bolder swings beyond the superhero universe to keep things fresh. Original voices that give other artists a chance to show their skills in different worlds with different characters. I love the challenge of opening a summer movie with a lesser-known I.P., a film we had so much freedom in making, and proving that it can be successful and that we need to continue making this kind of movie.I had incredible experiences working with established franchises and doing sequels. It’s a whole other challenge to step into something that has a massive fan base, where you need to deliver but still find the space to have your voice stand out. Deadpool 2 was incredibly financially successful, as was Hobbs & Shaw. Those films had a built-in fan base, which acts as a security blanket. With Bullet Train, we have a chance to put it all on the line and take a big swing. It’s the sort of movie where we make it worth the effort of going to the cinema.

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