How a Former Stuntman Became the Greatest Action Director in Hollywood
On Friday, David Leitch debuts “Hobbs & Shaw,” a “Fast and Furious” spinoff starring The Rock and Jason Statham. Here’s how a stuntman became the top action filmmaker around.
There’s no better action director working today than David Leitch, the former stuntman and fight choreographer whose behind-the-camera résumé reads like a greatest hits of recent adrenalized cinema: John Wick, Atomic Blonde and Deadpool 2. This Friday (August 2), he’ll add to that impressive list with Hobbs & Shaw, the first spin-off from the Fast & Furious franchise, which finds him staging scenes of outsized insanity—including a race down the side of a skyscraper, and a London car chase involving a motorcycle that can pull off seemingly impossible feats—with his larger-than-life stars, Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson and Jason Statham, not to mention Idris Elba as a tech-enhanced villain who dubs himself “Black Superman.”
Summer blockbusters don’t get much more ferocious and funny than this.
An odd-couple saga that exploits its leads’ mismatched qualities—Johnson the gritty wrecking ball; Statham the debonair surgical striker—for bickering humor and diverse combat, Hobbs & Shaw proves that Leitch is in a class by himself, with his only competition in the action field coming via his John Wick co-helmer (and partner in 87Eleven Action Design, a production company/stuntman-choreography studio), Chad Stahelski.
Leitch’s gift for inventive hand-to-hand brawling and weapon skirmishes is once again on full display in his steroidal buddy comedy. Yet what distinguishes it from the genre pack is the director’s deft ability to meld his distinctive style with the over-the-top cartoonishness of its Fast & Furious predecessors. That marriage is one of the many things we discussed with the acclaimed filmmaker, although even more pressing than that topic of conversation—or his collaborative relationship (and rivalry?) with Stahelski, or his latest effort’s ‘80s roots—was the issue on everyone’s mind: who’s the most formidable badass in his slam-bang canon?
First, the most important question, who wins in a fight: Keanu, Charlize, Ryan, The Rock or Statham?
Wow, that’s a great question. And it’s a hard one. If I had to be really honest about it, you look at Lorraine Broughton [Charlize Theron’s character in Atomic Blonde], she did fights for 17 minutes straight. So she’s pretty tough. Deadpool’s indestructible—and if you kill him, he comes back to life. Hobbs and Shaw are obviously larger than life. And John Wick, they’re going to make a number four, so you can’t kill him [laughs]. Look, I love all these characters I’ve gotten to work with, and be a part of developing, so it’s hard for me to pick one.
You’ve directed a wide variety of actors/actresses. Does working with such a diverse group force you to be more inventive in your action design?
I think it totally does. The years of being a stunt coordinator and fight choreographer—you were challenged with making sequences for all types of characters and people, on television shows and on different movies and for different filmmakers. So you’re constantly being challenged to be creative and re-choreograph and re-choreograph. When you have a chance, as we did on John Wick, to strike out on your own, you have a real point of view, and you have some things to say in the choreography space, and we did. Then moving forward, that muscle is just something that’s really strong in me, obviously, and making the action sequences special, and fun, and define the characters very well. Which is hopefully part of the reason that the ones you named at the beginning of this conversation are so memorable. It’s pretty crazy that I have, under my belt, some of those iconic characters. It’s humbling.
I assume part of the appeal of Hobbs & Shaw is that you have two stars who are distinctive from each other in most ways—and that they’re both well-trained in action, and want to push their own boundaries.
I think it was. Obviously, the odd couple premise, not only of their personalities but of their styles, made it interesting. Plus, they’re both so proficient in action that it made it fun and easy. Having Dwayne be the powerhouse, be the hammer, be the smasher, was great. And then Jason, who I’d worked with in the past on so many other films [Ghosts of Mars, The Mechanic, Parker]—getting to reunite with him and do the things he’s great at: being more sophisticated, being a smooth operator, being the scalpel, as it were. It was fun.
In terms of sheer scale, Hobbs & Shaw is the biggest film of your career. Do you feel the need to constantly top yourself in terms of action choreography? Or do you have to fight that urge, and simply concentrate on the project at hand?
In this case, it was both, in the sense that we needed to up the scale of the set pieces to live within the world of the Fast & Furious universe. I think that 87Eleven and myself are known for more grounded action, and balls-to-the-walls fight sequences—they’re gritty, and more analog. But the Fast universe has that great synergy between practical action and CGI, and pushes the boundaries of physics, and embraces it. So as a director who designs action, I took that wholeheartedly as a challenge, and we had fun with it. We did a massive amount of practical stunts and effects that tie in seamlessly with the visual effects, which hopefully make the scenes come to life for Fast fans.
You took the reigns of the Deadpool series with Deadpool 2, and here you’re again jumping into a franchise—although this time, it’s via a spin-off. Did that give you greater leeway to inject the material with your own personality?
I think my time and experience on Deadpool 2 helped a lot. I took the same approach as Deadpool 2, which was, this franchise is beloved, but I want to put my stamp on this as a filmmaker. The visual style and fighting action [of Deadpool 2] were more distinctly mine, and I think the heart and soul of that movie was distinctly mine as well. It’s the same with this. The goal was to make this appeal to Fast fans, but it was also to strike a new tone that was a little more fun, and was a little bit more big summer popcorn rollercoaster. Everyone was on board with that.
Hobbs and Shaw, in the last three Fast films, had this great comedic sensibility, so we wanted to embrace the three things that would make this thing work. One was the comedy and their relationship. The other was the Fast theme of family, and to have a really grounded heart and soul that Fast is known for, and I think we got it in spades on this project with the actors that we brought aboard. And the last was this crazy action spectacle that people want to pay 10 bucks to see in a theater. Those are all exciting prospects to me as a filmmaker. I just did them with my own flair.
Like Deadpool 2, Hobbs & Shaw is not only violent but funny. Is that just a coincidence—two action-comedies in a row—or was that something you’d always wanted to work toward?
It’s not a coincidence. I think my sensibilities led me here for a reason. I love those movies from the ‘80s that are referential to this, like Lethal Weapon. I love pure comedy, and I love pure action, and those two genres make sense to me. I think I have a skill set that works in terms of delivering something great for the audience in that world. There’s nothing more exciting for me than being on set telling jokes, or being on set doing a fight scene. So if I can do them both in a movie, then I’m living the dream.
You mention Lethal Weapon, and the title Hobbs & Shaw has a Tango & Cash ring to it. Were there any particular buddy comedies you wanted to channel, in spirit if not in fact?
I think you just hit the two real main titles, in terms of the spirit of this movie. Again, we’re trying to do our own contemporized version of it. And they were already doing it in the Fast world—we just wanted to say, how do we extrapolate this now for two hours, and build out these two characters’ worlds, so we have somewhere to go in the future? I think we did a good job setting up Hobbs’ family and his world, and Shaw’s family and his world, and the potential for these guys to go on a journey together or apart. It’s a pretty rich world that we’ve built for Hobbs and Shaw on a first time out.
How do you design set pieces for a film like this? Do they come before or after the script is written—or is it more of a collaborative, back-and-forth process between you, the writers, and your action-choreography team?
It’s a combination of things. Sometimes the script is not even a template; sometimes a script is just a guideline. Other times, there’s a gem in the script, in a description, that you build the whole sequence around. So as an action designer for years, I’ve always used the script as inspiration, and then we go on with the stunt team and rehearse and design and shoot tests and come up with gags or ideas that we hope haven’t been seen before.
We also do this thing a lot now which we call stunt viz, where we shoot and edit the fight scenes, and sometimes some of the action, on video beforehand, and go back and forth loads of times, creating the sequence from beginning to end. So it’s not just a follow-the-script type of process. It’s a long development in preproduction, where those things get expanded and redesigned over and over.
You and Chad Stahelski have 87Eleven, you directed John Wick together, and you now both have summer movies that up the action ante. Do you have any sort of creative rivalry with Chad, in terms of trying to best each other’s set pieces?
Honestly, I don’t think we do. Maybe Chad has with me, and maybe he thinks I have it with him [laughs]. We don’t. Honestly, we’re really close; we’re like brothers. There’s a lot of support back and forth. There are plenty of times when we call each other and riff on ideas, and we’re like, “Hey, I’m doing this set piece, I’ve got a stumbling block here, what about this,” or “come look at this stunt viz I’m doing,” and “try this or that.” We go back and forth quite a bit on each other’s projects. We’ve just been together so long, I think we’re beyond the competition, and we just want to support each other. It’s pretty amazing that two stunt guys have risen to this spot in their careers where they’re directing the two biggest action franchises out in the summer. We’re kind of pinching each other in some ways. [laughs]
So that means you’re not currently designing a set piece for Hobbs & Shaw 2 in which Dwayne and Jason ride horses (à la John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum)?
When I saw John Wick 3, I was nothing but gleeful about the gags the team pulled off in that movie, and the set pieces they came up with. That opening first act in John Wick 3 is amazing. I love it. It’s awesome.
Even though you’ve started or joined various franchises, you haven’t stuck around for their sequels. Is that a conscious decision?
I’ll never say never. I really like making movies, and sometimes, the sequel game is about scheduling and other people’s availability. For me, if there’s a project that comes across my desk and I find a way in and I’m excited about it, I’m going to go make it. If that happens to be the sequel, then awesome. But I’ve never felt the need to wait around. There are a lot of stories I want to tell, and there are a lot of worlds I want to play in, and fortunately I’ve gotten to play in some really cool ones.
You next have The Division, which stars Jake Gyllenhaal and Jessica Chastain. Is that another project that’ll allow you to flex those creative choreography muscles with unique leads?
Definitely. There’s obviously a huge action component with it that will have the gun aspect of some of the other stuff I’ve done. But the thing I really like about The Division is the creative team involved, and having Jake and Jessica as producers, and the talent attached. The world of The Division is so compelling and the premise—that these everypeople, when called upon, can get together and start humanity over—is pretty cool. So I like the bigger themes and the world, and my creative team involved. That’s what’s exciting for me about The Division, and we’re getting a script soon, so who knows.